Friday, 15 April 2011

And therefore must his choice be circumscrib'd: the wisdom of David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace is fast approaching the status of a "sage writer" (albeit a tragically posthumous one). As everyone knows, Wallace was the Guy Who Moved Things On From Postmodernism, so in a way it makes sense that he should be treated as a sort of modern-day Ruskin, a doler-out of soundbite ethical wisdom in an age trying to recapture sincerity and cohesiveness after the pomo-relativist flood. Middling rockist indie bands are wont to quote the bit in 1993 essay "E Unibus Pluram" where Wallace talks about the likelihood of the next generation of radicals being a "weird bunch of anti-rebels ... who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles". Zadie Smith and Foals are notable celebrity admirers. Meanwhile, Guardian hacks post links on their vanity websites* to Wallace's now very widely quoted 2005 Kenyon commencement speech, a dazzling 20 minute morality lesson (now better known in its transcribed form as "This is Water"), which has become a sort of "Everybody's Free To Wear Sunscreen" for the 2010s. Fuck's sake, when I was scratching around for something pithy to say as a goodbye bow to my middling indie band a couple of years ago (long story), I posted the whole of the Kenyon speech to our Myspace blog. It wasn't really all that relevant to that particular moment of personal crisis, I now realise, but hell, it was the most sagacious thing I was reading at the time, and it seemed to fit in some vague way with the bloody-minded, stand-taking gesture I was making.

Right now, as Wallace's final work - the unfinished novel The Pale King - is about to be published, the Saint DFW tendency is reaching a spectacular climax, accompanied by the sort of inordinate PR hysteria we're all familiar with. The media idolatry is unfortunate, but then again, it's bound to be short-lived. More importantly, you get the impression that, when the culture and publishing industries have moved onto their next five-minute hero/victim, Wallace's voice and legacy will still be just about audible underneath the debris of post-mortem exploitation and expropriation (or that's the hope, anyway).

So what is the legacy? If Wallace was - and still has the potential to be - a modern sage, then what kind of wisdom did he impart? Taking the Kenyon speech/"This is Water"** as a sort of condensed moral manifesto (and despite Wallace's protestations that he shouldn't be regarded as a didactic "wise old fish", he clearly was just this - a willingness to be so was perhaps his greatest contribution to contemporary letters), the most striking thing for me is how damnably conflicted his argument is. The rhetoric, for once, is lucid, cogent, and pomo-free. But the message remains infernally difficult to hammer out. Broadly speaking, Wallace seems to be caught between a visionary perspicuity about "what is to be done" on the one hand, and a self-lacerating, high-sceptical tendency that to a large extent nullifies the affirmative potential of his astonishingly powerful insights. This is not the place to speculate about parallels between this sort of mindset and Wallace's tragic biography. What is certain, though, is that this expression of the struggle between hope and fear, unselfishness and self-directed masochism, positive utterance and negative qualification of it, is the key testament of one of the most harrowingly representative figures of our times. Wallace's struggle was, and remains, an epochal one.    

I'm with Wallace on about 90% of the statements he makes. "In the day to day trenches of adult life, there's no such thing as atheism": so simple, so dead on the mark. "And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self": again, it would be churlish to try to gloss eloquence of this calibre. The speech concludes with the following brilliant penultimate paragraph, which seems to hit so many nails on the head it's not even funny:          
Our own present culture has harnessed these forces [of self/money/appearance/intellect worship] in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the "rat race" - the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
We're all used to the neoliberal malaise being explained in all kinds of complex theoretical ways, but where else will you find such an economical, profound, even mystical (in the best sense) critique of the radical selfishness and spiritual paucity of neoliberal culture?
Yet extraordinarily (and this is evident even in the above passage), the whole weight of Wallace's argument is ultimately predicated on a pronounced self-centredness that ends up merely replaying the victory of a worldview which imprisons us in "our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms". We do not have to look hard for the culprit, the snag that means Wallace cannot finally rise above the atomism that is his ostensible target. Where are we to look to try to get back in touch with real freedom? Ourselves. What is the only virtue, the antidote to self-worship, the "capital-T Truth" that remains after a "whole lot of rhetorical bullshit" has been "pared away", the secret to "making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head"? Choice, the word that is littered throughout the Kenyon speech like some blindingly obvious Freudian crux.

In the day to day trenches of adult life, Wallace argues, one must become a sort of heroic superman, dedicated to caring for others, but only achieving this civic awareness through preternatural self-discipline and the continual invocation of one's formidable moral-intellectual might. By simply straining hard enough, we will be able to transcend reality and inoculate pain:
But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: the only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.
No amount of undeniably beautiful phraseology can cover over the fact that Wallace's solution to surmounting a consumer-hell-type situation (and tellingly, he sets his parable in a supermarket) is a bizarre restatement of the terms of the market place: "you have other options", "you get to decide", "most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line". Isn't this sort of alchemical make-nice strategy exactly what the advertising executive is trying to promulgate on a daily basis? Contra Wallace, might not there be some value in acknowledging the awfulness of a consumer-hell-type situation for what it really is? Wouldn't this be the really true exercise of civic-minded consciousness: recognising that the solution does not lie with one's individual powers of imagination alone, that there might be a more social, less heroically isolated way of responding to the causes of depression and misery? Wallace appears to briefly identify the root cause of such suffering in "the world of men and money and power", but the focus of his solution is not on this matrix. It is turned bravely but violently back on a quite different target; that is, himself.
Crucially, in the actual Kenyon speech (as opposed to the transcribed version), Wallace is speaking to a class of graduating students, and the emphasis is on the value of a liberal arts education as a means of fostering the sort of consciousness that makes responsible choice possible. This makes the whole premise a lot saner and less like a proclamation of radical stoical individualism, and this establishing context should probably be reinstated in future published versions of "This is Water" to make it clear that Wallace was not in fact addressing the world with a parti pris, but merely trying to say something intelligent and constructive to a group of young people for whom a light reminder of the importance of responsibility to others cannot have been such a bad thing. Nevertheless, it seems that the "moral superman" motif was one that Wallace obsessed over and grappled with in his last years. I haven't read The Pale King yet, but the reviews suggest that it does in fact essentially reiterate the argument of the Kenyon speech. As one reviewer puts it (quoting Wallace), the "crucial conceit" of the novel is "that the soul-crushing boredom of tax work can lead to transcendent bliss, 'a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive'." To me, this seems to amount to something like philosophy-as-prozac.    

Woah, didn't know the late-nineties had been Penguin Classicked, already!
The side of Wallace that I love doesn't have anything to do with this inverted, masochistic narcissism. For me, Wallace's sagacity lies in his willingness to get squarely behind a moral or ethical precept and stay there, the "childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles", if you like. In the 1930s, T.S. Eliot said, "we await the great genius who shall triumphantly succeed in believing something", and by god, we're still waiting, which is just one reason why it's such a crying shame that Wallace had to go and top himself. Perhaps even more than this though, the message that I think should be his legacy, is the revival of a particular kind of novelistic tradition, one that runs through Dickens, The Brothers Karamazov, Ulysses, Mr Sammler's Planet, and a host of other works up to (and arguably ending with) the postmodern period, one that foregrounds as a sacred rite the utopian process of one human consciousness coming into contact and merging with another. This seems to me to be the grand underlying scheme in Wallace's masterpiece Infinite Jest (1996), nowhere so magically evident as in the scene towards the end of the novel in which Mario Incadenza poses as a homeless person, and waits for days until somebody comes up and touches his outstretched hand. The reawakening of this basic sentimental, moral commitment to socially-minded anti-individualism was Wallace's most profound gift to the culture. It's just that, as the Kenyon speech shows, he didn't seem to be able to equate this anti-individualism with the need to take the fight out of his own head.   

*Is there anything more pernicious than the aspiring journalist's personal website? Why not just get a blog? They're free, and more interesting.
** This is only an abbreviated version of the text, published in the Guardian after Wallace's death. See penultimate paragraph for a link to the full audio of the speech.


W. Kasper said...

OK - I'm speaking as a lazy philistine here (far more than I once was), but this very interesting post touched on something that's made me avoid Wallace outside shorter pieces, and what I (perhaps mistakenly) associate him with.

Those quotes point to a very (for want of a better term) 'bourgeois subjectivity'. A kind of push-and-pull between quasi-nostalgic moralism and mistaking 'truth' for the emotions inside one's head. He may be 'representative', but for all it's 'big themes' seems kind of insular and exclusive. A sense of someone speaking to the person over your shoulder. I get this feeling from a lot of 'sensitive' indie music and mumblecore-type films: It's straining for profundity, but often reads as homilies that would be dismissed as such if it wasn't so damn insular. Masking a lack of scope (or overrating its own subjectivity) with self-reflexivity and qualification (Eggers irritates the hell out of me for this). A clergyman's version of po-mo (also a common aspect of depression, where the push-pull falls into a spiral). This approach got very popular and acclaimed in the 00s, but it's a reason I don't read much award-ready fiction these days.

OK maybe I'm unjustly tarring Wallace with this, but what I've heard or read by him does seem to go in this direction. Like many of his contemporaries (in any artform), he may not be as at odds with cultural mores as he wishes to be.

Your post got me thinking about all this, so hope I'm making sense. Anyway, excellent stuff - looking forward to further lit posts from you.

carl said...

Great stuff..sense you're keen to have a chat about DFW so i'll respond on the impostume.. err..i said that about Mike Leigh didnt i?

Alex Niven said...

"Sense you're keen to have a chat about DFW" - you sound like my psychiatrist! (not that I actually have one). But yes, really looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

W.Kasper, I think your analysis is pretty much spot on. In Eggers/Zadie Smith this quest for "sincerity" and subjective emotivity often degenerates into indie tweeness. The Wallace speech is actually riddled with exactly the sorts of wry qualifications you refer to (eg. "But please don't dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death"). But with Wallace it's slightly more ambiguous I think because he is essentially talking about civic-minded morality and religion, or something like it. It's just that, as I say, he doesn't quite have the conviction or the wherewithal to externalise it, so it becomes this vicious cycle of affirmative anti-selfishness negated by self-loathing (which I suppose is ultimately a pretty good way of describing indie music/mumblecore - "affirmation undermined by navel-gazing"?!).

Of course the whole commercial narrative of Eggers and Smith making big money and becoming indie spokespeople out of this cult of misery and moralism is quite another matter. Wallace couldn't have been further from taking this sort of stance, ie. never gave interviews, concentrated on college teaching etc.

But yes, for me this is the struggle Wallace embodies: how to communicate wisdom and ethics and political critique without trotting out the "clergyman's version of pomo", as you put it.

All this aside, Wallace's stuff is definitely worth a read if you haven't done so already. Infinite Jest took me several months to plough through, but the essays and short stories are mint, and the prose is always pretty sensational.

W. Kasper said...

OK - I'm sold, now I've got past the anti-McSweeney's/mumblecore barrier!

carl said...

"crucial conceit" of the novel is "that the soul-crushing boredom of tax work can lead to transcendent bliss, 'a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive

also isn't this and the kenyon speech in general just thh closing monologue in American Beauty... and doesn't it tie in with a kind of pantheistic Whitmanian pressure to hymn mighty democratic America..


Always Be Praising...

actually i hated American Beauty at the time and i can't imagine i'll have changed my mind much.. the infamous plastic bag monlogue is very Wallace, innit...