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.