67 Wisdom: On Books

The publication of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel “The Pale King” has ushered in another wave of sorrowful admiration for his writing and thinking. As someone who rooted for Wallace and eagerly awaited all of his writing while he was still alive, I’m torn by this literary fashion.

Without question, Wallace deserves the attention. He was a deeply serious writer at a time lacking in deeply serious people. He cared about things that I cared about — the future of the novel, the value of philosophy and how to find meaning in an age that seems committed to draining it away.

But reading the reviews of his final novel and scores of tributes to his career, I’m finding myself drifting away from the admirers of Wallace’s work and towards the more conflicted opinions he held of his own writing. Rather than seeing “Infinite Jest” as a generation defining novel about what it means to be alive in this time, I see it now as a big novel about very little — a morose story about sad, disconnected people floating around in the head of a very sad man.

In a letter to Jonathan Franzen shortly before his death, Wallace wrote that perhaps he’s not the person to write the kind of novel that he wants to create. “Maybe the answer is simply that to do what I want to do would take more effort than I’m willing to put in.” Wallace understood his weaknesses all too well.

What I admired most about Wallace wasn’t the style of his prose or the depth of his philosophical understanding, but rather his hunger for wisdom. Shortly after “Infinite Jest” came out, Wallace wrote:

I get the feeling that a lot of us, privileged Americans, as we enter our early 30s, have to find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values.

It’s interesting to me that Barack Obama, born six months before Wallace, also alluded to Corinthians in his inaugural address. But while Obama had reached his destination, Wallace spent the rest of his life mired in the difficult, early steps of his spiritual journey. He elaborated on the need for and goals of this quest in his famous 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

As I’ve written before, there’s something very beautiful but also just plain wrong in Wallace’s speech. While Wallace speaks about the importance of attention and awareness, it all remains on a highly esoteric, theoretical level. While stuck in a grocery store line behind an “overly-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line,” Wallace doesn’t advise talking to this woman and getting to know who she is, but rather constructing a mental fiction that forgives her act:

Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options.

Yes, David, creative fiction always opens up options for thinking of characters in different ways. But to real people in real checkout lines, we’re not dealing with literary characters, we’re dealing with actual human beings. And wouldn’t it be far more constructive for us to break out of our solipsistic hell for a moment and engage the humanity in front of us?

It may seem like a niggling point, but it actually goes to the heart of Wallace’s problem as a writer — the part that plays into his nagging feeling that he wasn’t capable of writing the kind of novel that he wanted to read. Whenever confronted with the difficulty of dealing with people in non-fiction projects or characters in his fiction, Wallace’s answer was to detach, to pay attention to the surface details of a situation or about the way a person acts. The result is often breathtaking — when you tune people out, it’s amazing what surface details you notice, some of them more profound than anything another human could tell you.

So, in my view of his career and life, Wallace was trapped inside his own head, forever creating fictions to make up for his inability to engage humanity or to let his characters breathe freely. But none of this bothered me while Wallace was alive because I saw it all as a part of his quest — part of his great appeal as a writer and thinker was his willingness to push ideas to the breaking point, then to regroup and try something else. Eventually, I thought, Wallace is going to figure this out.

Sadly, he didn’t. And so we never had the pleasure of reading the enlightened, wise David Foster Wallace, only the brilliant, striving Wallace. And so our culture yearns for other writers who can deliver this kind of wisdom — which I believe is the best argument for why Michel de Montaigne is having “his moment” right now.

Montaigne never attempted to write anything as big and ambitious as David Foster Wallace — but maybe that’s why his wisdom has stood the test of time. In his essay “On Books,” Montaigne writes about his literary influences and gave us a rare glimpse into his thought process. The text sets up some very interesting contrasts with Wallace’s style and method. One big difference between the two writers is that Montaigne, from the start, well understood his limitations:

Do not linger over the matter but over my fashioning of it. Where my borrowings are concerned, see whether I have been able to select something which improves my theme: I get others to say what I cannot put so well myself, sometimes because of the weakness of my language and sometimes because of the weakness of my intellect.

While Wallace felt obliged to plunge into his topics and attain a certain level of expertise before he could write, Montaigne just needed enough information to pique his interest and inspire him to assay the matter:

I often happen to talk of things which are treated better in the writings of master-craftsmen, and with more authenticity. What you have here is purely an assay of my natural, not at all of my acquired, abilities …. Perhaps I shall master that matter one day; or perhaps I did do so once when Fortune managed to bring me to places where light is thrown on it. But I no longer remember anything about that. I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.

One of Wallace’s last obsessions was the belief that we should not give in to boredom but should find something sacred in it. Montaigne believed the opposite:

If one book wearies me I take up another, applying myself to it only during those hours when I begin to be gripped by boredom at doing nothing. I do not have much to do with books by modern authors, since the Ancients seem to me to be more taut and ample; nor with books in Greek, since my judgement cannot do its job properly on the basis of a schoolboy, apprenticed understanding.

Another trait of David Foster Wallace is, not only to deeply immerse himself in detail, but to hedge his opinions on just about everything, with long, highly couched sentences and voluminous footnotes. As for Montaigne:

I freely say what I think about all things – even about those which doubtless exceed my competence and which I in no wise claim to be within my jurisdiction. When I express my opinions it is so as to reveal the measure of my sight not the measure of the thing.

As much as I admire Wallace’s intellect, I also think that he suffered from never breaking free of his parents’ erudition. The son of academics — his mother English Literature, his father Philosophy — Wallace was the all-too-dutiful son, born and raised in the church of Humanities. And so Wallace took his mother’s love of quality writing and married it to his father’s dedication to analytic philosophy. The result was the rare contemporary American capable of both understanding philosophy and knowing how to write about it.

But his knowledge also was a straightjacket, because couldn’t break free from the stupefying logic of analytic philosophy nor the conventions of late 20th century American literature. For all of his supposed experimentation, Wallace was a deeply conservative thinker and writer — his moral philosophy bore similarity to Schoppenhauer’s asceticism and no matter how imaginative his prose could be, he didn’t allow himself to be taken away in Pynchonian flights of fancy.

My personal preference is for the Montaigne form of thought — a bit anarchic and shot from the hip:

I want authors to begin with their conclusion: I know well enough what is meant by death or voluptuousness: let them not waste time dissecting them; from the outset I am looking for good solid reasons which teach me how to sustain their attacks …. I want arguments which drive home their first attack right into the strongest point of doubt …. I leave home fully prepared: I need no sauce or appetizers: I can eat my meat quite raw; and instead of whetting my appetite with those preliminaries and preparations they deaden it for me and dull it.

None of this is intended as a criticism of David Foster Wallace — I’m merely expressing views of his work that he expressed himself. Wallace was on the road to becoming a great writer, and perhaps an enlightened human being. His legacy remains impressive — and it includes not only his writing, but all of the students he taught so well and the people who remember his generous spirit.

People who try to inflate the value and meaning of Wallace’s work, however, do the culture a disservice. Instead of putting him on a pedestal and bemoaning our loss, perhaps these cultural mavens should be encouraging others to take up his mission and to give us the kind of writer and thinker we need right now.

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