Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: David Foster Wallace (page 1 of 1)

Middle-Aged Moralists

When C. S. Lewis gave the Memorial Address at King’s College, London in 1944 — the occasion being very like an American university commencement — he began by commenting, “When you invite a middle-aged moralist to address you, I suppose I must conclude, however unlikely the conclusion seems, that you have a taste for middle-aged moralising. I shall do my best to gratify it.”

It was a shrewd move. Lewis himself always loathed the pompous didacticism he had found endemic to the English educational system, and expected that his audience would too. “Everyone knows what a middle-aged moralist of my type warns his juniors against. He warns them against the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.” But with a smile on his face, he declared that he would play to type: “I shall, in fact, give you advice about the world in which you are going to live.”

Let’s fast-forward about sixty years, to a commencement address at Stanford University. The speaker this time is not a professor but rather a businessman named Steve Jobs, and he makes it clear from the outset that he’ll not be doing any “middle-aged moralising.” Rather, he says, “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.”

And yet it’s not clear, when you think about it, that Jobs’s message is any less moralistic than Lewis’s. It just bears a different moral.

Lewis warns his listeners against the power of what he calls the “Inner Ring” — the desire to belong to a certain admirable group, to be allowed to sit at the cool kids’ table — because he believes that, among all our desires, that one is the most likely to make un-wicked people do wicked things.

Jobs also warns his listeners, but warns them not to allow Death, when he knocks on their door, to find them “living someone else’s life.” Lewis points to the dangers of letting the desire to belong make you a “scoundrel,” and while Jobs too thinks others can endanger us, he frames that danger very differently: “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

This is the permissible moralism of 2005: College graduates can be exhorted, but not to the old-fashioned virtues that Lewis implicitly appeals to, but rather to self-fulfillment: For Jobs, what is “most important” is this: “have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

This makes a neat story, once which can be read either as emancipation from constricting rules or as a decline into egotism. But the story gets slightly more complex if we look at one more middle-aged moralist: David Foster Wallace.

Wallace was, I’d say, barely middle-aged when he delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College just a few weeks before Jobs spoke at Stanford: he was 43. (Jobs was 50, and when Lewis gave his “Inner Ring” address he was 45.) If Lewis acknowledges that the genre invites moralism and cheerfully accepts the invitation, and Jobs disavows moralism but delivers it anyway, in a new form, Wallace seems almost desperate to avoid any such thing.

Having begun with a little story about fish, he continues, “If you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish.” Then: “But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called ‘virtues.’” And: “Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re ‘supposed to’ think this way.” Finally: “Obviously, you can think of [this talk] whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon.” Please.

Yet for all those disavowals, Wallace’s speech may be the most passionately moralistic of them all, though in a complex way. He tells us to be suspicious of that inner inner voice that Jobs wants us to listen to, because that voice always says the same thing: “There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of.” Consequently, our “natural, hard-wired default setting … is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”

And why should we want to think otherwise? Why should we turn outward? Not in order to avoid becoming scoundrels, Wallace says, but because such other-directedness can bring us freedom. “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.”

Substantively, it seems to me, Wallace’s ethic is far closer to that of Lewis than to that of Jobs, though he and Jobs were near-contemporaries and formed by much the same culture. (Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters was one of Wallace’s favorite books.) But he could not, and knew he could not, speak as Lewis spoke — even with an ironic nod towards the inevitable clichés of the commencement-speech genre.

Universities still invite middle-aged moralists (professors rarely, writers and business leaders more often) to give speeches to their graduating students, even though those students are generally inoculated against middle-aged moralism — the moralism of self-fulfillment always excepted. What’s remarkable about Wallace’s speech, which has become the great canonical example of the genre, is that he found a way to rescue the occasion; and that he rescued it by pretending to refuse it.

Wallace had his reasons for grammatical zealotry in the classroom, but it wasn’t about being Gradgrindian or prescriptive. I think Wallace is rightly understood as a moral writer – so much of his work explores what it means not just to be human, but to be a good human – but he was also an ethical one. He was always talking about a writer’s responsibilities: the responsibility to be clear, the responsibility to be interesting. Because Wallace’s work could be difficult, because he asked the reader to work, he wanted to be sure he was doing his work too, saying exactly what he intended, in a way that was compelling. Another entry from my notebook: ‘If you’re more interested in what you’re saying than the person listening to you is, you’re the definition of a boring person.’ I remember feeling like I’d been slapped with a stick.

DFW on “our literary culture”

It’s actually not true that our literary culture is nihilistic, at least not in the radical sense of Turgenev’s Bazarov. For there are certain tendencies we believe are bad, qualities we hate and fear. Among these are sentimentality, naïveté, archaism, fanaticism. It would probably be better to call our own art’s culture now one of congenital skepticism. Our intelligentsia distrust strong belief, open conviction. Material passion is one thing, but ideological passion disgusts us on some deep level. We believe that ideology is now the province of the rival SIGs and PACs all trying to get their slice of the big green pie … and, looking around us, we see that indeed it is so. But Frank’s Dostoevsky would point out (or more like hop up and down and shake his fist and fly at us and shout) that if this is so, it’s at least partly because we have abandoned the field.

— David Foster Wallace, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky”

on The End of the Tour

As part of my ongoing reckoning with David Foster Wallace, a writer whose work I have mixed responses to but whom I can’t put out of my mind, I watched The End of the Tour the other night. I have some thoughts.

1) Jesse Eisenberg’s David Lipsky comes off as a little bit of a jerk at times, but far less of one that Lipsky himself does in the book on which the film is based. The real Lipsky seems to want to present himself as someone to be reckoned with, someone who is a better chessplayer than DFW, both literally and metaphorically. He’s always claiming that he perceives DFW’s subtle rhetorical strategies. You don’t hear that kind of thing from Eisenberg’s Lipsky, which is good. You mainly see Lipsky trying to hold his own with DFW, determined not to be overawed, determined (and this is an important element of the movie) not to be physically intimidated on those rare occasions when DFW speaks forcefully. DFW was about 6’2″, but Jason Segel is taller than that, and bigger-framed, and the size differential between him and the petite Eisenberg is key to the way the story plays out. Lipsky tries to seize control of the situation by chutzpah and agility, to take advantage, in a not-especially-malicious way, of DFW’s neuroses, but sometimes he pushes a little too hard and DFW becomes testy and seems to increase in size and Lipsky flinches — but doesn’t back off. (And yes, chutzpah: we’re meant to be aware that DFW is a midwestern WASP and Lipsky is a New York Jew.)

2) Jason Segel is really fantastic, way better than I thought he would be, but he doesn’t quite play DFW as he was at that time. The real DFW, if things like the Charlie Rose interview from 1996 are anything to go by — and in his comments on preparing for the role Segel always mentions that interview — was a little bit more of a smartass then Seigel’s DFW, a faster talker, a guy who seemed wired all the time, a guy whose neurotic mania is right on the surface. Mary Karr, who dated Wallace in the pre-Infinite Jest years, once said (and in his book Lipsky quotes this): “Data went into his mind, and it would just shoot off sparks. Wildly funny, unbelievable wattage, such a massive interest in and curiosity about his place in the world. He had more frames per second than the rest of us, he just never stopped. He was just constantly devouring the universe.” That “more frames per second” image is brilliant, and watching him talk with Charlie Rose you see it.

You also see the nervous tics, the intense and nearly-disabling self-consciousness. When DFW says something less perfectly than he wants to, he grimaces and drinks more water. Throughout the show he sips and sips and sips. When Rose asks him to explain all the endnotes in Jest his hyperarticulacy falters, he stumbles, he mutters to himself, and then says:

DFW: Well, I’m just going to look pretentious talking about this.

ROSE: Why — quit worrying about how you’re going to look and just be!

DFW: I have got news for you. Coming on a television show stimulates your what-am-I-going-to-look-like gland like no other experience.

You don’t get so much of the high-speed processing with Segel, just the self-consciousness which verges at times on self-disgust. You don’t get the smartest-guy-in-the-room vibe, which was clearly very much a part of DFW at that point in his life. Ten years later that had got sanded down and he was far less manic, and in fact the pace and tone of Segel’s DFW is closer to the guy who gave the “This Is Water” speech in 2005 than to the Wallace of 1996. But nevertheless the performance works. It really works. It’s impossible not to be touched by this guy, so smart and so successful and yet so unsure about himself. (Though I do wonder how much of that comes across to people who haven’t read anything by or about DFW.)

3) There’s a really great scene at the end when Lipsky is going through DFW’s house and describing for his tape recorder whatever he sees. (It’s in the book that way too.) And I love how that Jesse Eisenberg plays the moment when he sees the prayer of Saint Ignatius, and just reads it to his tape recorder.

Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve You as You deserve;
to give and not to count the cost, […]
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do Your will.

He’s obviously puzzled by it, doesn’t know what to make of it, but he has a very small window of time in which to record his impressions. He just stares at it a moment and then clicks off his recorder. It’s noteworthy that the prayer appears in the book too, in the same scene, but Lipsky quotes less of it and merely comments that it reminds him of “the AA prayer” (i.e. the Serenity Prayer). Donald Margulies, the writer of The End of the Tour, and James Ponsoldt, the director, seem to realize that it deserves more attention.

Yet there’s another similarly interesting moment from the book that the film treats more briefly. In the film, just before the tape-recorded survey of the house, DFW mentions that he likes going to dances at a local Baptist church. But in the book, he specifies that it’s a “black Baptist church,” and adds: “There’s a few of us who go to this, there’s this church up near campus, and that church is kind of good friends with this black Baptist church.” A slightly indirect confession that he is a churchgoer. (It was a Mennonite church, as it happens.)

There are a good many Christians for whom DFW has become a kind of saint, a secular saint maybe but nevertheless One of Us, but he really wasn’t. He was someone who clearly wanted the consolations of faith but equally clearly was not able to achieve them, at least not consistently. That his tenuous connection to faith would be represented in the movie in these two tiny things that emerge near the end, the Saint Ignatius prayer and the time he spends dancing at the Baptist Church, seems to me very appropriate. They are little mysteries which neither Lipsky nor we can see the full significance of. And I think that’s the way it was with DFW in general. So much going on on the surface, and yet so much more invisible, lurking deep below.

What classic voyeurism is is espial, i.e. watching people who don’t know you’re there as those people go about the mundane but erotically charged little businesses of private life. It’s interesting that so much classic voyeurism involves media of framed glass—windows, telescopes, etc. Maybe the framed glass is why the analogy to television is so tempting. But TV-watching is different from genuine Peeping-Tomism. Because the people we’re watching through TV’s framed-glass screen are not really ignorant of the fact that somebody is watching them. In fact a whole lot of somebodies. In fact the people on television know that it is by virtue of this truly huge crowd of ogling somebodies that they are on the screen engaging in broad non-mundane gestures at all. Television does not afford true espial because television is performance, spectacle, which by definition requires watchers. We’re not voyeurs here at all. We’re just viewers. We are the Audience, megametrically many, though most often we watch alone: E Unibus Pluram….

For Emerson, only a certain very rare species of person is fit to stand this gaze of millions. It is not your normal, hardworking, quietly desperate species of American. The man who can stand the megagaze is a walking imago, a certain type of transcendent semihuman who, in Emerson’s phrase, “carries the holiday in his eye.” The Emersonian holiday that television actors’ eyes carry is the promise of a vacation from human self-consciousness. Not worrying about how you come across. A total unallergy to gazes. It is contemporarily heroic. It is frightening and strong. It is also, of course, an act, for you have to be just abnormally self-conscious and self-controlled to appear unwatched before cameras and lenses and men with clipboards. This self-conscious appearance of unself-consciousness is the real door to TV’s whole mirror-hall of illusions, and for us, the Audience, it is both medicine and poison.

David Foster Wallace

DFW and belief

Since his death, there seems to be an emerging interest in Wallace’s religious views, and to cast him as more religious and spiritual than he was. What do you make of that?

Eric Been, speaking to David Foster Wallace’s biographer D. T. Max. Note the simple assumption that anyone who takes Wallace’s religious history more seriously than Max does is “cast[ing] him as more religious and spiritual than he was.” The possibility that Max might have underrated or misunderstood the place of religion in Walace’s life is not even considered. But it ought to be considered:

  • People who knew Wallace when he lived in Bloomington, Illinois say that he was a regular church-attender. Max does not mention this anywhere in his big book. He does quote at one time a memo Wallace wrote to himself in which he outlines the ideal structure for his week, concluding it with “Church,” but it apparently does not occur to Max even to ask whether that item is on the list for a serious reason.

  • Wallace frequently said that C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters was either one of his favorite books or his absolute favorite. Max does not mention this. One might think that a biography of a writer would note a book that that writer had made a point of announcing his affection for, but no.

  • Max tells us that one of Wallace’s early AA sponsors taught him the prayer of St. Francis “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” Much later in the book he mentions, quite in passing, that Wallace made a point of pinning a copy of that prayer to a wall of his house, along with certain other documents that were especially important to him. But Max sees no significance in this act.

I could go on. There are many such examples. Nota bene: I do not think that Wallace would have described himself as a Christian; I do not think it likely that he was a Christian. But it is possible that he was, and engagement with Christianity (and with religion more generally) obviously played a far larger role in Wallace’s life than Max is prepared to admit. The parts of his work where he does so directly — for instance, the asterisked passages in his long essay on Dostoevsky — go unmentioned by Max. There is no doubt that in these matters Christians see what they want to see; there is equally no doubt that D. T. Max manages to avoid seeing what he doesn’t want to see.

The marvelous part is the way [Michael] Joyce’s face looks when he talks about what tennis means to him. He loves it; you can see this in his face when he talks about it: his eyes normally have a kind of Asiatic cast because of the slight epicanthic fold common to ethnic Irishmen, but when he speaks of tennis and his career the eyes get round and the pupils dilate and the look in them is one of love. The love is not the love one feels for a job or a lover or any of the loci of intensity that most of us choose to say we love. It’s the sort of love you see in the eyes of really old people who’ve been happily married for an incredibly long time, or in religious people who are so religious they’ve devoted their lives to religious stuff: it’s the sort of love whose measure is what it has cost, what one’s given up for it. Whether there’s “choice” involved is, at a certain point, of no interest… since it’s the very surrender of choice and self that informs the love in the first place. 

— David Foster Wallace, from “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness,” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

For some writers, reading the copy-edits is like going to the dentist. You know you have to, and you’ll be happy, long-term, that you did, but the actual process involves a certain amount of drooling discomfort and incoherent mumbling. Other writers think of copy-editing as massage: someone works you over, and then you stumble out feeling good — kind of dazed, and a bit greasy, but good.

David Foster Wallace’s reaction to the copyedit was more like someone invited him to an all-day grammar seminar (with celebrity photo signings and vendor’s expo hall), combined with a debating society picnic, where the topic was “RESOLVED: This Comma Should Be Removed.”

— From a now-disappeared site called Dictionary Evangelist

While readers familiar with Wallace’s Kenyon speech will find that most of the content has maintained intact, This is Water does include a single, but very substantial, revision that has raised some criticism. Following Wallace’s point about the mind being a “good servant and a terrible master,” Wallace states in the original speech: “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master.” In This is Water, the final sentence from the quote above was taken out. This line was, in fact, a go-to line for the authors of many of Wallace’s obituaries, who see in this moment an ominous foreshadowing of his eventual suicide. For Tom Bissell, the textual excision is understandable because “Any mention of self-annihilation in Wallace’s work…now has a blast radius that obscures everything around it.” Thus, Bissell suggest that the oft-cited line might distract readers from the core elements of the speech.

Reception of the posthumously-published edition of Wallace’s speech has been divided in ways that point to, on one hand, the lasting power of the content of his speech, but also a concern about its place and meaning of a society that has had to “commence” going on without him. While reviews of the content of the speech have been almost uniformly positive, there has been criticism of the format of This is Water. After all, one may ask, does the omission of the line “they shoot the terrible master” and the stretching out of Wallace’s prose into sentence units refigure and protect an image of Wallace as the “Wise old fish?” Zach Baron of the Village Voice points out that lines like “I am not the wise old fish,” take on the feeling of zen mantras, certainly gaining emphasis, but perhaps doing so in the wrong way. Ultimately, he cannot shake the feeling that the format goes against the principles of the speech: “The net effect is to imply an entirely different kind of wisdom–of the Tuesdays With Morrie variety–than whatever actual wisdom is contained therein. ” Fans of the book, on the other hand, including the most “liked” Amazon review of the text, argue that the book format finally gives the speech the “stature it deserves,” and argue that the knee-jerk resistance tot he speech is evidence of the kind of cynicism that Wallace speaks out against in the speech. These debates also inevitably intersect with the question of whether Wallace’s speech was mostly to be taken as a survival guide to life within modern capitalism or an affirmation of it.


The Wallace archive at the Harry Ransom Center efficiently dispels the ‘genius’ status awarded to the writer, not because his writing isn’t singularly and bewilderingly excellent (it is, even in draft form), but because it presents him as a human being, one of us. Declarations that Wallace is in some other ‘time-space continuum’ are unhelpful because he worked so hard to depict what it means to be a human being in this world, in an age lacking sincerity, but saturated with ironic posturing. With The Pale King, Wallace’s long awaited posthumous novel approaching its release date, we should perhaps brace ourselves for another storm of this type of commentary. But thinking of Wallace as ‘Dave’, the writer who slogged through research (the archive reveals he even took tedious classes in tax law to help with The Pale King), sweated each sentence to achieve perfect prose, and strove to depict our own world with unflinching emotional honesty, perhaps makes the work all the more astonishing.