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METAMERICANA: What ‘Into the Woods’ Has to Do with David Foster Wallace

METAMERICANA: What 'Into the Woods' Has to Do with David Foster Wallace

Into the Woods, a film based on
the 1986 musical of the same name, offers its audience an interweaving
of well-worn material–select fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm–and
an original story by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim. The script
of the musical (and now its cinematic adaptation) mirrors its central
theme: throughout the story characters are heard to complain that the
life they want is one that combines a gritty realism of their own
authorship with a magic that’s beyond their understanding. As Anna
Kendrick’s Cinderella tells Chris Pine’s Prince Charming, “My father’s
house was a nightmare. Your house was a dream. Now I want something
in-between.” If modernism urged us to shoot for the moon, and
postmodernism compelled us to take our blinders off, the metamodernism
of Lapine and Sondheim proposes that we do both things simultaneously.
This sentiment carries even greater resonance today than it did in the
mid-1980s, given the “both/and” ethos of our contemporary, fully
digitized American culture.

David Foster Wallace, widely
considered the first and still most important metamodern novelist, began
writing his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, the same year Sondheim and Pine’s Into the Woods
saw its first live performance. While in 1986 Wallace was still
developing the metamodern rhetorical framework that would come to
fruition with the publication of Infinite Jest in 1996, the late
novelist had for years been explicit with friends and the media about
deeming postmodernism an artistic dead-end. His reasoning: the
“either/or” ethos of the postmodern novel dictated that it be entirely
one thing or another–for instance, entirely self-serious or entirely
ironic–and for this reason it was doomed to remain “hellaciously
unfun.” Wallace envisioned a literature in which novels could indulge
diametrically opposed principles simultaneously, and do so with an
earnestness of intent that would make of those opposed principles a
“single-entendre” ethos. In other words, Wallace-the-metamodernist
believed that one could simultaneously articulate opposing ideas with
such a studied sincerity that the usual tone taken by any artist setting
ideas against one another–irony–could be abolished entirely.
Wallace’s ideas were inspired by films and novels he’d been exposed to
in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It’s popular these days
to say that metamodernism was born of Internet culture, and that in
metamodern art the artist “oscillates” between opposing ideas rather
than stacking them atop one another the way Wallace proposed and then
performed in Infinite Jest. It’s popular, too, to reject the
notion that metamodernism flourished in the 1980s on the grounds that
irony also flourished during that same period–e.g., in Bret Easton
Ellis’ two late-80s novels. The problem with this reasoning is that when
one looks to historicize a movement or cultural paradigm, one really
looks first to the emergence of such ideas and commitments among the
geniuses of each generation. Wallace was a literary Great, whereas Ellis
was and is not; Wallace showed us the vitality of metamodernist
principles in the 1980s and 1990s, while Ellis merely aped an ironic
posture that was already the order of the day in mainstream American
culture by 1986.

The situation is much the same today in literature, and also in film. Writers whose work merely doubles down on the
apocalyptic cynicism of late postmodernism are received as cutting edge
not because they offer their readers anything new, but because they
crystallize things that have been in the water for many years now. In fact, what Generation Y is craving now is very much in line
with the vision Sondheim and Wallace offered us in the mid-1980s: a
world in which we can take things we find in our culture, combine them
seamlessly with materials or self-expressive instincts of our own, and
through this unholy alliance experience multiple realities at once. In Into the Woods,
the characters experience the magic of “the woods” alongside the
hardscrabble moral quandaries of their daily lives in “the village.” In
America, we now conjoin the magic of “the Internet”–a place where
fantasy and reality lose all distinction–with the workaday exhaustion
of post-industrial America.

Postmodern artists fear that if
young creatives begin intermixing concocted fantasy and received
reality, or self-expressive imagination and plagiarized material from
online, the result will be an inability to distinguish between fact and
fiction and therefore political ennui. It’s a red herring that’s
admirably dealt with by the Baker’s wife (Emily Blunt) in Into the Woods, who says the following after she sings “Any Moment” with a (quite suddenly) adulterously amorous Prince Charming:

it all be either less or more? Either plain or grand? Is it always
‘or’? Is it never ‘and’? That’s what woods are for: for those moments in
the woods….[but] just remembering you’ve had an ‘and’, when you’re
back to ‘or’, makes the ‘or’ mean more than it did before. Now I
understand–and it’s time to leave the woods!”

It’s a
useful commentary on the easy misogyny of the 1980s that only moments
after her epiphany–only moments after the unfaithful baker’s wife
realizes the passing but not insignificant utility of infidelity–she is
violently killed. But the epiphany remains, and will make sense to any
adulterous spouse who’s read the latest conventional wisdom on whether
affairs must always end marriages (the CW says no), or to anyone who has
quit the Internet after ingesting near-fatal doses of its toxins (the
CW now says that doing so makes you appreciate daily living all the
more).  We may
not yet have reached the point, in the political/social spheres, at which pollsters give us
three options rather than two for their infamous “right track/wrong
track” question–that is, permit us to say that the nation is
simultaneously on the right and wrong tracks–but films like Into the Woods
demonstrate that this hybrid view of the human situation is alive and
well in art and in our hearts if still not in our discourse or our

Watching Into the Woods reminds us that for every website like Salon
whose cynical click-bait articles are rife with bitterness at the
injustices of the world–and are therefore rigged to fill our throats
with bile–there’s an filled to the gills with videos of
small kindnesses and grand romantic gestures. For every use of
technology to harm or invade, there’s a simultaneous use that
saves many lives. For every Ferguson, there’s a type of dialogue on race
and policing in America that tragedy and only tragedy makes possible.
For every Mr. Wolf (Johnny Depp) in Into the Woods, there’s a wolf-skin cape waiting to be made. For every unfathomable philosophical intricacy in Infinite Jest,
there’s a moment of such pure comedy in the novel that cannot be missed
or misread. And most importantly, all this good and bad is happening to
each of us at all times and simultaneously, a fact the Internet has
made clearer to us than ever did the offline but nevertheless carnal
consumer culture that typified the eighties. For many decades now–not
just since the turn of the century–our most energetically inventive
artists and thinkers have been urging us to turn aside from zero-sum
games to find strength and vitality in contemporary juxtapositions; the
question is, are we listening? Or must we wander in the woods forever?

Seth Abramson is the author of five poetry collections, including two, Metamericana and DATA,
forthcoming in 2015 and 2016. Currently a doctoral candidate at
University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is also Series Co-Editor for
Best American Experimental Writing, whose next edition will be published by Wesleyan University Press in 2015.

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