The Best Minds of Their Generations

The internet rots the intellect.’ It would fit nicely, in Latin perhaps, encircling the insignia of a cyber-terrorist cabal. It’s also, apparently, quite true. (‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?‘) Whatever attention span that humanity had accrued in the ages since its development of writing, it began to unravel with the advent of the internet. These days, not even the most professional reader can be arsed to digest more than a few paragraphs before he starts skimming.  We no longer (and I don’t think I ever did) read texts deliberately, sensually, wreathing ourselves in their ideas. We cherry-pick ostensibly informed ‘facts’ and opinions and quickly collate them to suit our needs. So, the intellect hasn’t decayed into nothingness; it’s merely reëmerged as, if you will, a ‘post-concentration‘ intellect.

If you don’t buy any of this, you’re probably right. I think those among us predisposed to involving reads will continue to be so and those us who never were, never will be. If anything, the internet has given less keen readers access to resources whose length or density would otherwise have made them inaccessible, and that’s surely a good thing.

If you do identify with any of these symptoms, however, then I doubt you’ll be persuaded to approach the epic high postmodernism of the late David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. But if you thought you could be swayed, A.O. Scott’s passionate article in the Times, ‘The Best Mind of His Generation,’ could hardly be more convincing, regardless of our deficiencies. (I haven’t read the novel.) Scott, one of today’s finest film critics, also moonlights, much like David Denby and Anthony Lane, as a member of the literati. (He wrote the outstanding companion piece to the Times 2006, ‘What is the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years?‘ poll.)

Of all the Wallace obituaries I read, Scott’s is the most ambitious in terms of the author’s projected legacy, and that’s often the most compelling reason to read such elegies. If the writer can manage to convince the reader to seek out his subject’s work and experience it himself (and Scott certainly succeeded with this reader – although, as Ben pointed out, it always feels a bit lame getting into an author following his death – enduring the condescending sighs of the book clerks and all), then what else, really, can the writer offer? Audacious claims, apparently. Scott champions Inifinite Jest as the biggest and hardest of the big and hard novels of our time. He positions Wallace as a latter-day non-latter-day Ezra Pound, where Wallace is to postmodernism what Pound was to modernism. And why not? ‘Wallace’ already looks great on the spine of Sebastian’s Wallace Stevens‘s Library of America collection.

Another recent, persuasive, grandiose ecomium, ‘Godard the Obscure,a quasi-review by J. Hoberman of Richard Brody’s new tome on Godard, Everything is Cinema, is not available on-line. (Well, it is if you have superhuman vision. Otherwise, you can find it this month’s issue of Harper’s.) Brody, who plays George Harrison to Denby and Lane’s Lennon and McCartney in The New Yorker’s film department (by which I mean that he’s secretly the best), has already been the subject of my appreciation. Hoberman makes equally ambitious (but probably accurate) claims: Breathless was the most influential debut film since Citizen Kane! and so on. I still don’t feel compelled to see much post-Weekend Godard (although his television work sounds intriguing), but I’m at least convinced by Pauline Kael’s assertion – which seems to apply equally to Wallace’s work: ‘It’s possible to hate half or two-thirds of what Godard does – or find it incomprehensible – and still be shattered by his brilliance.

When I do get around to Godard tardif, I’ll make sure to see it on the big screen; DVDs are so distraction-prone. In fact, maybe I’ll start with his shorts.

Internet dāt pessum intelligentiae.

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~ by ohkrapp on September 25, 2008.

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