Jan 23, 2013

Getting clearer on David Foster Wallace's religious experiments

The shroud around David Foster Wallace's engagements with religion has lifted a bit, thanks to the efforts of an emeritus English professor at Goshen College.

In August, I wrote that "no one in the position to find out more about [Wallace's] religious beliefs or practices seems to have been interested in doing so." Ervin Beck was in a position to find out more about Wallace's reported interaction with a Mennonite church during his time in Normal, Ill., and has now done so, in a piece called "David Foster Wallace Among the Mennonites."

Several articles on Wallace from that time say that he was attending a Mennonite church, marking that experience as a part of the important ethical turn in Wallace's writing, as he became increasingly interested in and focused on the ways in which fiction, and in particular experimental fiction, could serve the function of a kind of "technology of the self," which, as Michel Foucault wrote, "permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform I themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality." The extent of Wallace's connection to a church in Normal was somewhat cryptic, though. In one version he attended regularly as part of his acclimation to the Midwest. In another, he was there as research. In a third, he was seriously considering joining and becoming a Mennonite.

Most of this seems to have stemmed from a misrepresentation, which Wallace either perpetuated or allowed.

Wallace was an active part of an Alcoholics Anonymous group that included some Mennonites and involved him in a Mennonite family's life, but due to his own need for privacy and the group's strictures on publicity, Wallace either told several reporters or allowed several reporters to believe that he knew this family through "a Mennonite house of worship."

Frank Bruni of the New York Times and David Streitfeld of Details Magazine both reported this. Bruni wrote:
Back in Illinois he began to attend services at various churches around town—there is something about religious faith, which was missing from his rearing by two atheists, that entices and calms him—and he formed his closest social relationship with an older married couple, Doug and Erin Poag. They met at a Mennonite house of worship.
Streitfeld similarly reported that: "Recently he found a Mennonite house of worship, which he finds sympathetic even if the hymns are impossible to sing."

It turns out, though, that whether or not he had trouble with the hymns, Wallace only went to a Mennonite church a few times. Ervin Beck interviewed the various members of the Mennonite family, and has concluded that "during his years of friendship with the Poags, Wallace attended the Mennonite Church of Normal, with the Poags, only about four times."

One detail of those rare occurrences of church attendance captures both aspects of Wallace's struggle with what he considered the great moral potential and also moral danger of writing: his obsession with and respect for language and his fight to, as it is said, "get out of his own head."

A member of the Poag family says:
He was very distracted by a large sign that hung in the sanctuary that read, 'Other foundation can no one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.' He just couldn't believe that intelligent people could have such a grammatically incorrect sentence up on the wall, front and center. He was almost unable to concentrate because he kept trying to figure out what it really meant, and how he would re-write it.
Some of this information is conveyed in D.T. Max's biography. Max and Beck both make the case that, to whatever extent Wallace had a faith, it was grounded in AA, rather than any Christian tradition. Beck does a great service to those of us who are interested specifically in this aspect of Wallace's writing, by really going into the details of this period.

Some might conclude that since Wallace wasn't as religious in this period as had been thought, and wasn't religious in the sense of being affiliated with a church, that that should dispel any interest what might be called Wallace's ethical-moral investigations. Max -- referring to me, actually, albeit obliquely -- suggested people are wrong to try to "turn David into some kind of Thomas Merton figure." He shouldn't, it's been argued, be made to seem more spiritual or religious than he was. That's obviously true, but may be ultimately a misunderstanding of what it is that those of us who are interested in Wallace's religious history are actually interested in. It wouldn't make sense to try to claim him for one or another particular church, nor, really, would it be worthwhile for the project of understanding the ethical endeavors of Wallace's latter works.

Understanding how and to what extent Wallace engaged in a Mennonite church adds interesting and important context to the religious themes that develop in his work. For example, his unfinished novel, The Pale King, is nothing if not a kind of religious experiment. Characters, after all, undergo conversions and religious experiences at key moments, explicitly religious questions are central to the book, and the textual evidences of structure indicate that the novel was being constructed (like some of the short stories in Oblivion) as an interregnum moment of deferred parousia. In an addition to all that, the book, like a lot of Wallace's work, seems designed to affect the reader religiously, to provoke the reader in specifically ethical ways.

Which is a lot like Merton, I think.

"David Foster Wallace Among the Mennonites" was exactly what I was hoping for when I wrote about how Wallace's religion was being ignored. This is really helpful, adding important information to the sketchy facts that were publically available, and correcting some misinformation. Beck's work, along with a short but growing list of other articles, such as Maria Bustillos' excellent piece, "Inside David Foster Wallace's Self-Help Library," helps to clear away the fog that obscured Wallace's investigations into various "technologies of the self" and the various personal ethical experiments that were or weren't in the background when he wrote.