David Foster Wallace – “The only choice we get is what to worship”

I loved David Foster Wallace, and I’m so upset he killed himself. He was my favorite writer of my own generation. His suicide makes me truly sad. And a little scared.

Kakutani’s appreciation in the New York Times is as good as any, describing Wallace’s
“manic, exuberant prose, his ferocious powers of observation, his ability to fuse avant-garde techniques with old-fashioned moral seriousness — to create a series of strobe-lit portraits of a millennial America overdosing on the drugs of entertainment and self-gratification, and to capture, in the words of the musician Robert Plant, the myriad “deep and meaningless” facets of contemporary life.” Read it if you want; it’s very good. It neglects to mention his deep love of hip hop, whose dense layers of allusions were just another way of doing what he was doing. (see his work with Mark Costello, Signifing Rappers.

Wallace’s death got to me on a personal level. In my first job in publishing, at Scribner’s, his manuscript, The Broom of the System stayed on our submission list for months. It wound up being published by another house, but oddly enough, when one of the Scribners’ editors went to Little, Brown, Wallace went with him, and Michael Pietsch at Little, Brown went on to publish Wallace’s gargantuan masterwork, Infinite Jest. With its tales of personal addiction to drugs and a whole culture’s death-spiral addiction to entertainment, its dense layered prose, blackest of absurdist humor, and insanely great wordplay pushed all my buttons. I love that book, messy as it is.

I’m fond of layered allusions and reference, irony and word games, seeing patterns in widely scattered shards of culture — and believing, underneath it all, that there is something about being human that cannot be denied, or commercialized, or numbed. I think many of us are like that — maybe all of us 40-something, perhaps-too-well-read, despairing idealist/cynics raised with our mouths glued to the the biggest information pipelines humans have ever known. And he’s not the only writer my age who hanged himself, unfortunately; so did a very good friend of mine, also a writer, at an earlier age. All three of us shared certain addictive, depressive habits of thought with our peers – but their talent made them great creators, while my appreciation made me one of their fans.

I always felt like Wallace wrote the way I and many of my friends think–with a crazy-wide and deep range of references and allusions to both high and pop culture, playing games with words, sentence structure, punctuation — all the building blocks of written communication. But he had something to communicate beyond mere style points–just like the best hiphop, in fact. In his great 1987 piece on irony and TV — a sort of “Is Fiction Dead?/Why are we all writing piece?” he wrote about how irony and ridicule had become “agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture” and lamented that we can no longer talk about real moral issues – not without “air quotes,” as it were. Ha.

I kind of wonder if what’s happening in politics now, when we have an electorate animated by “American Idol”-like preferences for candidates based on their character’s entertainment factor, their likeablity . . . I kind of wonder if that wasn’t the last straw. Who knows. He was clinically depressed. Who knows. He wrote a great piece about McCain in 2000. Who knows.

I do know he wrote some true stuff.

from his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech:

“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, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

“Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

“They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.”

“Getting more and more selective about about what you see and how you measure value” – I saw a lot in him, and I measured that value pretty highly. And he did not.

I wonder what Wallace worshiped, in the end.


Paul Weller @ Highline Ballroom, New York, 09/11/08

the Modfather

the Modfather

Shown this photograph, 80-year-old Mrs. Lola C. of Queens remarked, “Bring him home and I don’t need to turn on the oven.”

Lola’s daughter Flora was informing Mrs. C of last night’s destination, the Paul Weller show at the Highline Ballroom. O yes, Weller is hot.

Last night he played a smokin’ 2-hour set, with a youthful Seth Rogen lookalike on drums; a tiny, manaically talented control freak on guitar; and a giant nicotine monkey on his back.  (Mr. Weller stopped several times to feverishly light a fag and inhale like his lungs were gonna fall out if he didn’t.) Ah, the Brits. . . .

the Wellerfellas

the Wellerfellas

He’s apparently been thru the Reanimator, as he barely resembles the self that formed the Jam, then Style Council. The reinvented Modfather now owns a rabid fan base and a successful solo career, as well as one of the Worst. Haircuts. Ever.

bad hair forever

[pics courtesy Brooklyn Vegan, Kyle Dean Reiford]

Paul went on about 9:35pm, after a delightful set by the Rifles – a peppy, indie-rock Brit band well worth checking out at the Mercury on Friday in NYC – and played til 11:30, w/two encores, the first of which included his massive hit, “That’s Entertainment,” but no “Town Called Malice,” alas. The cozy Highline which holds a few hundred, was packed, with a mainly 40-something crowd.

Most recognized the material from Weller’s post-1995 solo career, which started off, pretty much with Stanley Road, followed by, among others, As Is Now, Illuminations, and the current album, 22 Dreams.

I LOVED it. Flora C. and I were’t prepared for how heavy the guitars were – there were some searing long solos in there, really hardcore stuff. He hit the title track from the brand-new 22 Dreams, early on, sat down at the keyboards finally for bit from Stanley Road, but it was the jaw-dropping guitar rock on “All I Want to Do,” “Sea Spray,” and “Come on Let’s Go,” in particular that stood out.

Yes, Liam and Noel Gallagher, and Gem were there. Liam jumped on stage, mutter-shouted something somewhat unintelligable, Noel looked cool and furtive in the audience, and Gem deigned to join on one song for guitar. Minor diversions. Oasis are such professional a-holes, tho’ they boosted Weller’s career immeasurably in the late 90s.

Weller’s always interspersed his solo albums with live ones, and I own no live ones. The studio albums are so much more introspective –opposite energy to the live show, for which I was totally unprepared. He really rocked out on a lot of stuff – almost ’70s style hardrock solos and jams.

And oh, jeez, despite his sculpted cheekbones and still fine physique, his hair is SO bad. Still he’s so much fun to watch. (I kept mentally giving him new, better hairstyles in my mind as the night progressed – lol) Weller got ever more intense and twitchy as the night went on, lighting cig after cig, angrily gesturing to roadies constantly re: bringing his mic up, etc. doing funny little rocker head moves and dance flails– he’s a little kooky and cranky, I’d say, but brilliant.

And damn does he smoke! There was an odd “space”-like drum solo at one point, when Weller stepped to the side, lit and inhaled a HUGE nicotine drag, and nodded and bopped a bit as the drummer whaled about on the set. About three chain-smoked fags later, a roadie removed the fourth burning cigarette from a corner of the piano, and Weller turned around, looked for it, and then mock/seriously/angrily arced a cup of coke or beer across the stage into the audience. There’s some major scary energy there, but damn, did it work in concert.

And that incredible voice. Nope, don’t need to turn on the oven for the heat, Mrs. C. I’m with ya on that one.