Aug 11, 2012

Ignoring David Foster Wallace's religion

The forthcoming biography of David Foster Wallace, D.T. Max's Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, seems very unlikely to shed any light on Wallace's faith or spirituality.

Though it's known that, at one point, Wallace belonged to a church in Illinois -- maybe a Mennonite church -- and also he reportedly twice attempted to join the Catholic Church, there's not much more information about his religiousness. Beliefs, practices, problems or questions, affiliations -- it's all question marks. A lot is known about his life, but not about this. His life fascinates people, and moves people. His ethical-religious reflections especially.

But no one in the position to find out more about his religious beliefs or practices seems to have been interested in doing so.

Either that or the information just isn't out there.

The question of Wallace's relationship to Christianity came up again in a panel focused on the Wallace archives. Max was on the panel, as well as two other writer's who know more than a little about Wallace's life. But the question wasn't answered:
Douglas Brinkley: "....And also, I always felt it a little odd, but not that odd, but he would always go to church constantly throughout his life. And I was wondering if that came from his childhood and kinda the routine of church? Was he going to church for lightness? Or was he looking for literary material?

Seth Colter Walls: "There's not a great deal of that that I've seen in the archive, but maybe you can speak to that."

D.T. Max: "Well, I was actually think of again of the archive and the things archives don't or can't contain .... What the archive is really really good at (and you probably know this better than me), it has a lot of Infinite Jest gestations .... It's amazing to me, and wonderful and fascinating that there are people, many people who feel close enough to David's work, that they actually want sort of see what made this work. That's -- On one level that's an absolutely normal, typical. You read anyone's novel. But I don't think that that comes up a lot with most writers. I don't think -- I mean, as much interest as there is in, say, Don DeLillo, I don't know, I would be surprised, if there are people who are really, well, I don't know. Let's just say that the scope of people who care about this seems to me unprecedented. And says something. I think, as a biographer I'm always saying, well what does this say. Well it says something really interesting to me, that David touches people not just with his finished work, which he clearly does, but also with the sense of that struggle to create that work."
It is very interesting, from the stand point of biography, that Wallace's writing struggles are so important to so many. I wish, though, that Max found Wallace's struggles with and attempts at religion important too. What does that say? What does it say that Wallace dedicated some time trying to be a part of church communities? How did that work and how did it play out?

Max tacks around the question, as if he either doesn't know the answer or doesn't find it interesting.

Asked directly, in another context, he went with "banal," an assessment he attributes to Wallace.
"Wallace once wrote to his friend Jonathan Franzen that his thoughts on religion were 'banal.' He did go to church, and my assumption is that this practice began after he stopped drinking and smoking pot as part of getting clean and may have continued either because he felt it centered him or merely out of habit, as part of his sense of himself as a middle-class Midwesterner."
Maybe Wallace's thoughts on religion were banal. I doubt it, though. Unfortunately, Max seems to assume that's the case with out investigating any deeper or even being interested. The rest of his answer is just speculation -- and, really, even if his Illinois church attendance was best explained by those things, there's still plenty there to explore. None of those answers specifically would be boring, though Max seems to take them that way.

It's like a terminal disinterest in religion. David Lipsky's extended interview with Wallace was the same way. Wallace talked about religion and God several times, but Lipsky let every statement pass, never following up, always pursuing other questions.

I will read the upcoming bio. I expect it to be good, though for other things and other reasons, but I wish, with all the religious themes and threads in Wallace's work, that those writing about his life would take his religious efforts and endeavors seriously.


  1. Lightness. Literary material. Part of getting clean. Centering. Merely habit. Part of being Midwestern.

    Here's a curious narrowness in the view of religion and the view of a writer: ignorance and lack of information without any sense of there being any ignorance and lack of information, or any reason that one might want to correct the same.

  2. Not surprising that Wallace would use "banal"--some of the most powerful passages of IJ are about the banality of twelve-stepping, and how important it is to Cleve to the received wisdom of it, no matter how trite it feels.

  3. He at least believed in the inevitability of worship and the impossibility of atheism. From "This Is Water":

    "And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you."

  4. @Josh K-sky -- absolutely. It's where Wallace gets into "banal" that's so interesting, so it's frustrating Max takes it as a reason not to delve deeper.

  5. @belz -- an earlier version of that idea of the necessity of worship can be found in the '96 interview in Details, where Wallace talks about trying (and failing) to join the Catholic Church:

    “I’m a typical American,” says Wallace. “Half of me is dying to give myself away, and the other half is continually rebelling.”

  6. Anonymous5:40 PM

    I heard Wallace talk a little bit about religion at a reading, and wrote about it a little bit here:

    (I left my whole account of the talk in, just for flavor. Really really enjoyed yr. post btw)

  7. Thanks, Maria. That's really good and really helpful -- and not something I'd seen anywhere else.

    'Ditto' is such a Wallace answer.

  8. Thanks for this.

    I have dreamed of doing my PhD work specifically on Wallace's religious life. Problem is, I'm not even 1/8 finished with Master's work. I was hoping Max would touch on DFW's religious life some in the biography, but it doesn't look like it will be so.

    @Maria: I found your post particularly helpful as well. Thank you.

  9. Anonymous12:07 AM

    I highly doubt Wallace was a believer. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

  10. Depends entirely on what you mean by "believer."

  11. Anonymous10:54 PM

    One reason why, if he was subjectively a Christian, that he didn't talk a whole lot about it is because he didn't think it was really culturally possible to do it in a meaningful way. In the interviews with Lipsky, he says something along the lines of, "It's just not possible, after like Dostoevsky, to talk about your individual relationship to God. The culture just isn't right for it." On one level, he's making a claim about fiction-writing--that you just couldn't get away with writing The Brothers Karamazov anymore, e.g. But on another level, if you think about it in terms of his own life (and how he continually went to church, etc.), for political, or post-modern, or whatever other reasons, he didn't feel the need (or didn't want) to express himself in those terms. And even in the commencement speech you can sort of FEEL a desire for meaning as opposed to meaninglessness, and the same goes for the Lipsky interview when he's talking about his earlier time in a suicide ward. And his comments about the culture not being right for it are significant--it's unfortunate, but if everyone DID find out that he was this really strong, believing, church-going Christian, there would be some sort of obnoxious knee-jerk backlash against the whole guy and his work and everything else, which is really unfortunate.

  12. Wallace was far too interesting to have any semblance of a conventional belief toward a deity. Sometimes I wonder if he was perhaps a "member" of these churches because in some way he knew that there was no such thing as atheism and simply wanted to experience or observe the worshiping.

    We also know from his biography that he often did things or participated in things in order to understand different situations and write about them. Perhaps that is also why he was inclined to join a church? Whatever the case, I'm grateful for stumbling across your blog!