David Foster Wallace and The Midnight Gospel: Choosing in the Time of Coronavirus

by Lou D. Malbe

If the rhythm of the ordinary is presto, then the coronavirus Crisis seems to tell us: rest.

But how to is anyone’s guess. As of this writing, 64,283 people have died from coronavirus nationally, with 1,097,000 cases reported. Our President has  suggested intravenous injections of disinfectant to treat the disease. Unemployment rests at 4.9% but could reach as high as 30%. For every percentage increase in unemployment, approximately 47,000 Americans die. Either the sky’s falling, or the ground’s rising up meet it.

With various states issuing shelter-in-place orders and a national call for social distancing, if now is a good time for anything, it’s bingeing streaming content. Among several new releases during the lock-down is The Midnight Gospel, a series of animated dialectics between a simulation-traveling humanoid and the beings they encounter. Released on 4/20 as a knowing nod for those that partake, The Midnight Gospel is animated the way you would imagine your mind would be after a weekend ayahuasca retreat in Manaus. Reviews of the show have traded in the same tired buzz-adjectives (e.g., psychedelic, trippy) and left its content largely unexplored, often dismissing it as an incoherent or insipid mess crafted for Substance-(ab)users. This writer wants to convince you that watching The Midnight Gospel can be a profoundly nourishing activity precisely because of this ‘incoherence’ (or better put, incongruity), and may just be a catalyst for deeper interactions with other art and lit throughout this Crisis.

Midnight Gospel

The simulated worlds of The Midnight Gospel are illustrated in the same way you would imagine a lysergic-acid-high is: fauvist color schema and entropic visions of shifting, fractally-constituted environments. The central character, a plum-skinned Gumby-analog named Clancy, swirls colloidal across the screen, their movement hypnotic like a lava lamp’s lava’s light. Notable scenes include: Clancy putting their head in a decidedly-labial-looking sci-fi-implement that shoots them, in a twin-tailed comet, to simulated worlds; a discussion of death-acceptance as two dog-deer chimeras are ground into anthropomorphic liquified meat product and forced through industrial piping; a magical fish-bowl-headed man entering a sleeping giant’s inner ear and sulci as he ponders intentionality and developing what he calls a solar consciousness. Seriously. The visual content is such that ekphrasis truly fails: you must see to believe.

What most interests this writer (and you, hopefully) about The Midnight Gospel is the incongruity between the visual content and the narrated experience(s) of Clancy. In every episode, the exterior world succumbs to conflict and disorder, (e.g., a cartoon Washington D.C. overrun by zombies) but Clancy and those they interview remain unphased. But neither do they express a kind of blank, pseudo-buddhist passivity, allowing phenomena to emerge and disappear, unengaged; Clancy and their subject(s) are well aware that the exterior is inscrutable and chaotic, and so instead devote their energies to interpreting qualia. Clancy and their guests (a cast that includes a medical doctor, a former prisoner, and students of Ram Dass) discuss a variety of topics as vexing as they are opaque: the legalization of marijuana (and other psychedelics), dealing with personal loss and the death of loved ones, and how one can prepare their soul to perform magic, among other things. And so you may rightly wonder: what the hell does this have to do with you? Well, it’s through this exterior-interior incongruity and an insistence in sifting through the intricacies of such rhizomatically-complex topics that the show clearly speaks to our national spirit, to Americans living in Crisis. The Midnight Gospel reminds us that despite our inability to control or subdue our exterior, we still have a crucial interior choice to make: how we think about this experience, and whether we allow it to overwhelm us with hysteria, fear, and irrational desire.

This writer only arrived at this notion of incongruity by recently revisiting David Foster Wallace’s body of work during the Crisis. In his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, Wallace noted “[that growing up] means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” This sentiment is the lithoid foundation for much of Wallace’s work, including his lapidary Infinite Jest.

Throughout Infinite Jest, the exterior world is rife with tumult and dread (e.g., deadly bureaucratic incompetence, an ‘experialist’ terrorist organization that murder and tortures innocents to recover a Weapon of Mass Destruction) that is largely inaccesible to (i.e. outside the control of) a majority of the cast; instead, central characters like Hal Incandenza, Don Gately, and Madame Psychosis focus their energies in cultivating the interior peace required to stay sober. Perhaps the most famous quote of Infinite Jest,“that no singular moment is in and of itself unendurable,” is a kind of axiom of sobriety and a titration of this dialectic.

Drawing vague “thematic” connections between works always seems, to this writer, to fail. You could make the claim that there are some deeper tonal entanglements between Infinite Jest and The Midnight Gospel; there are, certainly, but that sort of explication ruins those already tenuous connections between image and read-experience, in the same way American high-school literature classes ruin the mysterious joy and consciousness-transfer of reading by teaching students to identify and reduce elements of text into calculable, discrete rhetorical devices. This writer thinks those connections are best left experienced rather than discussed, to insulate and protect the phenomenal value of the reading experience. Instead, this writer finds that the most profound way in which either work enhances our sensibilities for consuming art and lit is in the phenomenological sense. All this writer means to say is that there’s an intimate, human value in engaging work like Infinite Jest or The Midnight Gospel amidst Crisis. Yours will of course be your own, but a phenomenological take on starting your day amidst Crisis might look something like the following:

“I wake up. I perform the daily interrogative checklist: yes, I am alive, yes I woke in the place I remember falling asleep. My thoughts’ liquid presence implies that I am not dead. I yawn and make mammalian sounds. I stretch, saluting the sun. I put on clothes, bit by bit. As I dress, already the day’s queue of demands seem to bubble up out of the liquid dark of my skull’s thinking: urinate then coffee then breakfast then check phone then email then Facebook then Reddit then. Then what? Then I seem to wake up, exiting my thoughts’ space and reemerging into my body. My shirt is on backwards. I have to put on my shirt right so I can put on my socks so I can put on my shoes so I can start my day so I can retrieve my computer so I can work from home so I can make money. So again my thoughts have forced me somewhere behind my eyes; I reemerge back into my body’s realness again. I check my phone. The headlines are all eschatonic. I forgot but am reminded that my father’s friend of a similar age died yesterday on a ventilator sucking at air until his chest moved down and not ever up again. I vaguely guess how many are dying Out There and if today I will get sick and turn into a digit on any number of screens. Still the day’s litany of inane objectives piling up like breathing deep and eating well and texting people to show them I like them and ignoring some to show them I don’t and practicing mindfulness by doing nothing and getting everything done and emailing my boss to ensure that I am being productive so that I don’t become dispossessed to die on the street so I have money to use when I eventually need to go Out There and what if I end up intubated and mewling like a child before it comes and nobody seems safe anymore and. And my shoes are still there, lying at the foot of the bed, laces undone. I have not gotten out of bed yet. Still wondering what there is to do.”

It’s here this writer could fall back into bed, turn and toss under the covers, their brain-stem’s anxiety’s sweat cold and also hot, thinking and thinking and doing nothing. Or get up, get out, and get on. Like what to read, what to watch, or what to think: there’s choosing to be done.


This essay is dedicated to S.I.M.



Lou D. Malbe is a writer from the American Northwest, and there’s nothing else to it.

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