Mar 4, 2014

David Foster Wallace and the search for grace in solipsism

The author David Foster Wallace seemed to seek after something religious in his work and in (parts of) his life. From a certain angle, his writings appear like theological explorations, the existential and epistemological themes opening into themselves to become deeply anxious ethical questions.

Wallace asks, How can you be a good person when you always feel like you're the smartest in the room?

His answers -- honesty and sincerity, awareness, paying attention, being humble -- have moved many. Certain sorts of precocious young men, in particular, who are also beset by the arrogance that's a half-functioning defense against an aloneness that finds justification in the post hoc explanation, "I'm smarter than them," find it moving. It can seem a way out. It can seem a way out, most of all, of one's own loathsome labyrinthine self.

Is it?

Is it enough?

James Santel, writing in the Hudson Review, says no:
What strikes me as absent from Wallace's essays isn't sincerity or even necessarily optimism; what's missing is faith. Wallace was narrowly correct in saying that we're all marooned in our own skulls, and that we ultimately have to make up our own minds about things. But most of us draw a line where Wallace couldn't in his interview, just before 'true empathy's impossible.' If by 'true empathy' Wallace means total inhabitance of another's inner workings, then yes, true empathy is impossible. But most of us don't go there. In order to get along in life, we put our faith in the good will of people we love, or in higher beings, or in the rule of law, or in inspiring public figures like John McCain and Barack Obama. Some of us even put our faith in literature.

This is the real tragedy of Wallace's conservatism.
That conclusion may depend on mistaking the beginning for the end. To be trapped in one's own skull is not meant to be the final state, but the starting point. That's the point from which, for Wallace, one can overcome narcissism, solipsism, the prison cell of self.

The trick -- if that's not too cavalier -- is to note that one is marooned, and then that everyone else is too. The isolation of the mind is a shared condition. Thus, in isolation, one isn't isolated.

This is the trick at work in the line Santel quotes, where Wallace is speaking of literature's power, and says, "the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull." When he says, further, that true empathy is impossible, it's because "we all suffer alone in the real world." Yet, the very fact that declaration is in the plural provides for its own undoing. It's possible to share suffering, because it's possible to share the experience of being marooned.

Maria Bustillos, going through the marginalia in the self-help books in Wallace's library, points out that for Wallace, a key lesson of Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery was that he wasn't special. He had to learn the ordinariness of his plight. In that, there was hope for a common grace.

Bustillos writes:
All his life Wallace was praised and admired for being exceptional, but in order to accept treatment he had to first accept and then embrace the idea that he was a regular person who could be helped by 'ordinary' means. Then he went to rehab and learned a ton of valuable things from 'ordinary' people whom he would never have imagined would be in a position to teach him anything. Furthermore, these people obviously had inner lives and problems and ideas that were every bit as complex and vital as those of the most 'sophisticated' and 'exceptional.'
That "way out," as Wallace works it out, is exactly through the experience of isolation that can then be honestly shared, prompting awareness, attention, humility, etc. It's a moment of grace that emerges exactly where grace is needed most, in that moment when empathy seems most impossible.

If it works like it's supposed to, then when one thinks, "I'm the smartest person in this room," and then hates the thought and the thinking of that thought and that "I" thinking it, that can be followed by a line other than circular loathing. Why the arrogance? one can ask. Because I feel isolated and alone. "This is how it is," one can say to oneself, "we are all marooned in our skulls," and then, from that universalization of the individual condition, we find empathy. And grace. And hopefully love and outward direction, overcoming self-obsession.

The argument is somewhat similar to Adam Kotsko's in Awkwardness, where he finds a radical potential in social discomfort. The problem is not that we're too awkward, it's that we're not awkward enough!

Wallace, likewise, tries to seize the problem of solipsism, turn it into hyper-solipsism (sort of) and thus overcome with Hegelian jujutsu.

The utility of that theology that Wallace is developing may be questioned. There are reasons to think that self-help ideology is flawed, perhaps especially on its own terms. Bustillos suggests as much when she writes, "Sometimes I think that principal difference between those who are in general cheerfully-inclined and those who are not is that the former know better than to even countenance their own bullshit for one instant."

The question still persists about whether this Wallacian way out of the labyrinth is, in fact a way out, or only always back in again. That's something different than a lack of faith, though. The concern about solipsism is not the end or limit of faith, but the site where Wallace and those moved by his work are searching for grace.