- Programming Literary Influence: David Foster Wallace’s “B.I. #59”
In the critics’ vocabulary, the word “precursor” is indispensible, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.—Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges’s essay “Kafka and His Precursors,” from which the above quotation is taken, sets forth a radical deconstruction of literary progression. Playfully revising the central argument of T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Borges claims that Kafka violently disrupts our notion of literary history: texts as diverse as Zeno’s paradox against movement, a parable from Kierkegaard, León Bloy’s Histoires désobligeantes, Robert Browning’s “Fears and Scruples,” and Lord Dunsany’s “Carcassonne” appear—despite the fact that they all predate his fiction—to be proleptically influenced by Kafka. Kafka’s work thus not only exerts an influence on subsequent authors, but also substantially “modifies our conception of the past.”1 Borges’s understanding of influence is a useful catalyst in considering the way artistic influence functions within Wallace’s fiction, particularly given the fact that the text in question, “B.I. #59,” from Wallace’s 1999 short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, engages so explicitly with a Borges story. Harold Bloom’s theory of influence is far less counterintuitive than Borges’s startling notion. Bloom’s (in)famous model of artistic production, as set forth in his 1973 dithyramb The Anxiety of Influence, claims that, in their quest for innovation and originality, writers wrestle and clamor with past literary spectres. Contra Borges, Bloom’s model is centered on both polemic and rivalry: thus, he reads Percy Bysshe Shelley as valiantly striving to reinvent poetic form by contending with the precedent set by Wordsworth and Milton; Wallace Stevens as updating T. S. Eliot’s elevated poetic diction; Hart Crane as attempting to usurp William Blake; and so on. This essay carries out a detailed comparative analysis of David Foster Wallace’s short story “B.I. #59” and Jorge Luis Borges’s “La escritura del Dios,” [End Page 113] using Wallace’s reimagining as a way of conceptualizing influence within his work more broadly.2 Taking Bloom’s theory as a point of departure, my argument is that a comparative reading of “B.I. #59” alongside “The Writing of the God” is productive in exploring some of the tensions and theoretical divergences between notions of artistic precedence in Bloom and Wallace. Ultimately, the essay proposes that Wallace implicitly advances an alternative theory of influence to both Bloom and Borges, a theory that positions the writer as the literary equivalent of a software engineer, rewriting and reassembling previous textual codes in the attempt to address a contemporary audience. Wallace’s intertextual method therefore offers a “third way” of understanding artistic influence: throughout his fiction, influence comes not only from the past (as in Bloom’s conception), or from an anticipated, future text (as in Borges’s model), but also from the cultural present. By positioning both literary and cultural products on the same textual plane, Wallace conceives of a diverse web of sources as endlessly manipulable data packets, capable of being retransmitted and recirculated in order to suit particular artistic needs. Deploying broad textual networks, his fiction is built upon a new, digital model of influence, in which disparate sources function within a software-programming model of textual interconnectivity.
On a surface level, “B.I. #59” seems a fairly straightforward retelling of Borges’s story; however, a close reading reveals the strong presence of several other fictional and philosophical antecedents, namely Franz Kafka, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Flannery O’Connor, as well as the more obvious appropriation of the ABC sitcom Bewitched. Though Bloom’s subcategory of tessera might appear to account for this kind of excavatory interpretation of Wallace’s short story, my claim is that Bloom’s model of artistic influence cannot account for the co-presence of multiple influences within “B.I. #59.”3 What I wish to propose, in its place, is a new paradigm with which to account...