Jul 6, 2009

A reappraisal of David Foster Wallace

Postmodernism, as I understand it and in the most succinct explanation I know, has three parts. First, the idea that oppositions are inherently unstable. It's not just that binaries divide the world wrongly, but that they collapse, and the "bad term" has always infected the "good term" of the opposition, the judge is always guilty of the crimes he condemns, and before I can honestly speak to a speck in my brother's eye, I need to attend to the log in my own eye. For me, this very quickly connects to ethics, and it's probably the most important thing I learned in college. Second, postmodernism involves the idea that meaning comes out of relation. This is where conservatives and fundamentalists get upset, because the second point involves the lowercasing of the word "truth" and seems, in their understanding, to mean that everything is relative. But, then, the only explanation of the Trinity I have heard that wasn't madness or meaningless used exactly this idea, and it's actually a pretty harmless point about how language and meaning work. Third is hyperconsciousness. This is the idea that everything is constructed, interpreted, etc. This is Paul de Man's statement that resistance to theory is itself a theory, and the idea that there is no such thing as a literal reading, a plain and obvious meaning, or a non-liturgical liturgy.

The third part, I think, is where I start to dislike people and things that are "postmodernist." There is a pretty prevalent understanding or practice of that hyperconsciousness that is basically snark and sarcasm, posing and stunts to prove some sort of sophistication. One form of this is Seinfeld. Another is the tendency of McSweeney's, I think, and in the '90s and on you had this whole class of young male writers who took the dickishness of the Norman Mailer generation and made it their own. They had an array of tricks, all of which had this "look at me Ma, no hands!" quality.

Initially, this was my impression of David Foster Wallace. The footnotes, the language games, the huge novel, the comparison to Pynchon, the titles -- all of it added up trick writer. A smart guy doing stunts to prove how smart, how sophisticated and hyperconscious he was. I don't normally hate things just because they're popular, but even his tripartite name seemed like a trick, another demonstration of how cool he was.

OK, probably I don't like this idea of writing because it is cool, with a nerdish version of the trickishness that defines hip, and I am not cool, and I am not even not cool in the way that is cool. I am not and never will be as "pop" as these writers with this tendency, instead being inflicted with what my uncle once called the "Sillimans' tendency to terminal seriousness." But also, and I don't think this is just an excuse for my lameness, I think making yourself cool is the wrong reason to write. It wastes the only thing valuable about writing. Being cool is good reason to play the guitar or go out for track or dye your hair black, but it's a horrible reason to write. There's a whole category of these writers, including Mailer and James Frey, maybe Nick Hornby (but certainly his characters), some of the creative non-fictionists and all the McSweeney-esques. It's also, I think, the language of addicts of certain sorts of therapy, the language that compulsively reshuffles the world and reframes everything around the solipsistic self, justifying everything, making everything self-focused and showing absolutely no understanding of others and no empathy at all. These writers start writing as a way to reimagine themselves as cool, as not losers, but when they do this, they abandon honesty. If the point of writing is connection and literature gives us that sense that we are not alone, then this tendency, this practice of hyperconsciousness as a self-aggrandizing performance, aggressively misses the point. It's basically the equivalent of extended, repulsively repeated solos by the old guy in long hair and leather pants who still thinks he'll be a rock star and everyone wants to sleep with him.

The opposite idea is Lester Bangs as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman: "We are uncool ... women will always be a problem for guys like us ... but the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone when you're uncool."

So I avoided David Foster Wallace until, sometime around his death, I happened upon the commencement address he gave to Kenyon College. Right from the opening, "If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I'd advise you to go ahead, because I'm sure going to. In fact I'm gonna [mumbles while pulling up his gown and taking out a handkerchief from his pocket]," it was uncool. It was the opposite of the McSweeney-Mailer model. It was the opposite of my initial impression and of his reputation too, except that he would use this hyperconsciousness, but he used it against itself. He would use it, but not as a stunt, but as a strategy to break down the distance of the hyperconsciousness, being honest and sharing uncoolness. He takes recourse to the distance, acknowledging it, as we all were already there, if we'd admit it, and then he makes it vanish, connecting with us. In the second paragraph of the speech, right after the opening joke, he says:

"This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ['thing'] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning."

The genius here, I think, is not just that David Foster Wallace manages to escape the hyperconsciousness, but that he treats it as a pre-existing condition and treats it, like it's this sort of contemporary mental disorder. He said at Kenyon, "It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now)." It's like someone saying, oh, you hear that voice, that sometimes-sarcastic and always-meta voice hyperconsciouslessly commenting on everything? Me too. And then he, at least sometimes, solves it through this recognition. I didn't really realize what was going on, at first, and i probably dismissed the fantasticness of the speech as one-of from an indisputably smart guy, but then had to radically reconsider Jon Baskin's piece in The Point. Baskin, thankfully, explained what was going on in terms I could understand:

"[Wallace] would borrow from [Ludwig Wittgenstein] not only themes—solipsism, language, meaning—but also the theoretical bulwark for a literature that was simultaneously challenging and therapeutic in the Wittgensteinian sense. The therapy was necessary and even urgent for a readership which, Wallace believed, had internalized not only postmodernism’s theoretical prejudices but also its involute habits of thought. The millennial subject was addicted to the same pathologies he was desperate to escape; nowhere was this more evident than in the difficulty literary critics had in responding meaningfully to Wallace’s books. What Wallace wanted to “share” most was a way out. But he would start with his readers, in the middle. The maze of contemporary thinking would have to be dismantled from within."

So, David Foster Wallace treats this hyperconsciousness -- this practice of the third part of postmodernism -- as the problem, a very basic problem and one we're all, now, born into. Instead of throwing a party in it or celebrating it, he tries to take it apart and treat it. I had to go back to the Kenyon speech to see, oh yeah, that is what he's doing. Baskin does a good job at showing how this move works in some of the short pieces, especially the ones where Wallace uses the themes and language of therapy. I picked up Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (the only Wallace I could find in English in the local German bookstore) and was convinced that Baskin's thesis holds up. Wallace does have this way where he uses a trick and the trick shows the reader how the reader has already been doing this, this stupid stunt, and then, at least sometimes, Wallace's trick dismantles itself. If it were a magic illusion, it would be one where the audience grew incredibly claustrophobic and felt trapped, but then realized this wasn't an illusion at all, but the reality all along, and then the claustrophobic illusion/reality would tear a hole in itself, offering a vision of the freedom that had been an illusion but is now a reality.

I'm especially impressed by this when Wallace writes in the "look at me, Ma, meta-meta!" style, but then the trick falls apart in his hands and the meta-meta-meta part is the author confessing to the reader that this isn't working and how worried he is that this isn't going to ever get to the reveal where suddenly you see and instead he's just going to be this writer who's stuck in his own sophistication. Wallace does this in the last part of "Octet," in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. The piece is a series of pop quizzes, which basically means they come off like they're written by Chuck Klosterman, which means they sound like they're meant as filler for a magazine that's not-quite-porn and is subscribed to entirely by boys who want to know what to buy and wear to be sophisticated, assured, confident and hip, which is to say college kids who are always going to be insufferable. But then, in the last part of the piece, Wallace starts out "You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer," and proceeds to wrap himself (and us) up in this bit of trick writing, until he's despairing, and he tries to add another layer of sophistication by using the meta to admit to meta, and then he and we arrive at this place where there's nothing left but honesty. "Even under the most charitable interpretation," Wallace writes, "it's going to look desperate. Possibly pathetic. At any rate it's not going to make you look wise or secure or accomplished or any of the things readers want to pretend they believe the literary artist who wrote what they're reading is when they sit down to try to escape the isoluble flux of themselves ... it's going to make you look fundamentally lost and confused and frightened and unsure ...."

This is actually exactly how Wallace appears all the time. At a reading, he interrupts a story from Consider the Lobster about how pathetic he is to tell the audience that, actually, there's another whole level of how really uncool he is. When he's interviewed by Charlie Rose, he gets nervous and stutters "I'm sorry that I'm essentially stuttering," and the effect isn't endearing or cute. It doesn't make him look like a, quote, normal guy. It is pathetic and overly self-conscious -- and also honest. This is especially so when you watch the interview alongside, say, Bob Dylan's worse interviews, where he's really mean-spirited, or alongside the the exercises in arrogance, ego and aggressiveness that are the Norman Mailer talking (Mailer is, obviously, shorthand for a whole set of things I aggressively don't like and, I think it should be clear, he is shorthand for a whole set of shitty things I'm afraid might really be true about me). Wallace, though, does this entirely other thing, which involves a sort of recognition, an admission, which marks it as a pre-existing problem, and I think it works to make a way out. He's not reveling in the snark, the sophisticated tricks and the "look at me, Ma, meta-meta!", but is, instead, at work on a major ethical project. Why, he wants to know, is it so hard to break out of our own heads and disgusting self-centeredness. And how do we do it?

One of his answers, obviously, was suicide. And that's his great failure, a really shitty personal end and a shitty acceptance of the idea it's just simply not possible to get out of our own self-centeredness. But David Foster Wallace has another answer -- I think a really amazing one, the right one and the correct ethical conclusion for postmodernism parts one, two and three. This answer pervades his work. It's all through there: In the footnotes and the language games, the hugeness of his novel and even the titles he chooses. There's an answer there, and it's made me do a reappraisal. Because it's an answer I need.

"It's a matter of my choosing," David Foster Wallace said, "to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self ... 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."