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David Foster Wallace, ora pro nobis

My friend Robert Imbelli posted Garry Wills's NYRB review of Sean Kelly and Hubert Dreyfus's All Things Shining on the main Commonweal blog a few weeks ago. [Here's Commonweal's review--subscribers only.] While I generally agree with the thrust of Wills's review, the publication of David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel The Pale King offers the occasion to discuss anotheraspect of Kelly and Dreyfus's argument.Kelly and Dreyfus use Wallace's fiction at the beginning of All Things Shining as an example of the nihilism of our contemporary secular age, and Wallace's essay on Roger Federer appears near the end of their book as an example of finding meaning by getting "wooshed up" in what presents itself to us. The authors argue that Wallace's fiction, like Melville's and Homer's, allows the gods to return and allows us to find the sacred in moments of everyday life. For example, Dreyfus and Kelly point to the absence of God in Wallace's opus magnum Infinite Jest to show that Wallace did not think God, traditionally understood, could offer a sense of the sacred anymore. (No, God does not appear in Infinite Jest, but I think the authors miss that IJ is a deeply tragic piece of fiction. And so I dont think the novel helps them make the point they think it makes.)

I agree with Kelly and Dreyfus that Wallace is the most important writer of his generation, but I think they misread him. David Foster Wallaces view of the sacred does not align with Kellys and Dreyfus's. In fact, I think Wallace's notion of the sacred owes a lot more to some version of Christianity than most realize.While a full account of the role God plays in Wallace's writing would probably take a monograph to flesh out, I'd like to point to a few moments in his work that one should pursue if one were to write that monograph.1. In "The View from Mrs. Thompson's" in his essay collection Consider the Lobster, Wallace gives one of the most moving pictures of America after September 11, 2001 that I've ever read. Central to this picture is Mrs. Thompson, Wallace's neighbor in Illinois, whose Christianity clearly grounds her and the neighbors who come to her house from Sept. 11 through Sept. 13 to talk, to pray, and to watch television news.2. In The Pale King one character stumbles into an accounting class at DePaul University. The class is being taught by a Jesuit (okay, so DFW didn't know the difference between Vincentians and Jesuits) who talks about the value of honor and honesty in accounting and in the contemporary world. That a priest gives this lecture can't be an accident.3. And then there is the now justly famous commencement address he gave to the Kenyon College class of 2005. Wallace reminds the students that they don't get to choose whether or not to worship, but they do get to choose what to worship. You can listen to that here. (This is Water.)The most important paragraph for this discussion is:

Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, bet 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. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichs, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Granted, this is not Christian theology, but it is also not an account of getting wooshed up.As I said, these are just opening thoughts. A full consideration of David Foster Wallace on the sacred would tell us a lot about who we are.In an interview, Wallace said that he went through RCIA twice. Unfortunately, the interviewer did not pursue the line of questioning. In 2008, after a long battle with clinical depression and having been off his medication for some time, he killed himself. Perhaps he is an example of baptism by desire.The Pale King, although uneven because unfinished, is well worth a read. Everything David Foster Wallace wrote is worth reading.

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Thanks for this terrific post, you offer a great corrective to Kelly and Dreyfus's frustratingly shallow reading of The Pale King. Wallace was not a traditional believer, but he thought that religion, unlike many areas in modern culture, was at least asking the right questions (what is the meaning of suffering? Of sacrifice? Of love?). In fact, he once claimed that he "twice 'flunked out' of Catholic instruction." Also, I agree that "The View from Mrs. Thompson's" is an absolute gem, better in its own way than some of Wallace's more famous essays. It shows the fundamental kindness and decency that was at the heart of Wallace's writing.

Interesting post. I'm 62% through The Pale King, and I've read all Wallace's other works and as a Christian this is an interesting subject to me. One of my favorite living writers, David Bentley Hart's review of All Things Shining might be of some interest on this subject: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/02/whooshing-through-life (though unfortunately you need a subscription to read it).

Infinite Jest can be read very powerfully as a narrative about redemption and the possibilities of salvation in a 'fallen' world, both in secular and religious terms. It's more explicit in that commencement speech, but one of the central narratives of the novel is about attaining (or recovering) a spiritual kind of 'maturity' that has been covered over in today's narcissistic/nihilistic/spiritually empty culture.

Going back and re-reading your post Scott as I am 2/3 through Pale King. The take away message from the accounting professor at the end of the term is I think very central to and animates DFW's writing. There is virtue in the details and even the minutiae of the world that surrounds us. DFW's writing was "heroic" to borrow the priest's term because he boldy confronted the excrutiatingly mundane and made us laugh in spite of and at ourselves.