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.


Lit Minds is cool! Literary Mixtapes – yeah.

The very excellent http://litminds.org/blog/2008/05/literary_mix_cd.html blog today is pimping Martha Pettit’s “My Awesome Literary Mix CD.”

and so am I!

Martha works at the San Fran indie bookstore The Booksmith. She created this list, as quoted in Lit Minds, because “I was inspired by the song Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush; [we] were discussing what a great song it is and I relayed the story of a friend who also loved the song but had no clue that it was a reference to Emile Bronte’s novel.”

So what Martha did was make a mixtape list of great songs and the books that inspired them or are referenced by/in them. Way cool.

I love it cuz I’ve always been fascinated by creative connections between different genres of art. A song, a movie, a painting, a book – what are the similarities and irreducible differences? A lot of artistic – hell, a lot of human – expression is based on riffing on previous human expression. That’s what culture IS. That’s why I named my blog Palimpsest – most of our culture is an accretion of layers of reference, whether we know it or not. And i LIKE to know it!

That’s my thing: That’s why I majored in Classics and art history – cuz I loved to tease out the references to the old in the new. It adds a little frisson of “A-ha!” when one realizes that the cult classic movie The Warriors is based on the plot of the ancient Greek historian Xenophon’s Anabasis.

As I recall, my college entrance essay was on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and its roots in and references to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the Doors’ The End. I’m damn glad I don’t still have that essay, but I would add the Doors (even tho’ I hate them!) and Heart of Darkness to this list!

Here is Martha Pettit’s full playlist for your listening and reading pleasure:


by Martha Pettit, The Booksmith

1.”Killing an Arab” –The Cure (The Stranger by Albert Camus)

2. “Tear in Your Hand”-Tori Amos (Sandman series by Neil Gaiman)

3.”Wuthering Heights”-Kate Bush (Wuthering Heights by Emile Bronte)

4.”Ghost of Tom Joad”-Bruce Springsteen (Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck)

5.”Paranoid Android”-Radiohead (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams)

6.”Mr.Tambourine Man”-Bob Dylan (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson)*

7.”Satellite of Love”-Lou Reed (Ghostwritten by David Mitchell)*

8.”The River”-P.J. Harvey (The River by Flannery O’Connor)

9.”Myla Goldberg”-The Decemberists (Bee Season by Myla Goldberg)

10.”Ground Beneath Her Feet”-U2 (Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie)

11.”Norwegian Wood”-The Beatles (Norwegian Wood by Hakuri Murakami)*

12.”Disorder”-Joy Division (Crash by J.G. Ballard)

13.”Girlfriend in a Coma”-The Smiths (Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland)*

14.”La Pastie de la Bourgeoisie”-Belle & Sebastian (Catcher in the Rye by J.G. Salinger)

15.”Holland 1945″-Neutral Milk Hotel (Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank)

16.”Alice”-Tom Waits (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll)

17.”Little Green”-Joni Mitchell (Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore)*

18.”My Vien Ilin”-Ted Leo & the Pharmacists (The Odyssey by Homer)

Exfoliation. A new york story.

Last Thursday night I’m at dinner w/a bunch of my college friends. We are NYC gals, we like spas, we’ve basically got very decent lives and no complaints.

This one girl, C.C., has a major banking job, major bucks, loves the good life, loves the fancy wine and all of that. She’s brilliant and funny – she appeared in and was one of the producers of Lewis Lapham’s movie, the excellent and overlooked American Ruling Class (Lapham is the former editor of Harper’s mag.) She’s also pretty wild.

So we’re talking w/CeeCee about spas and the conversation goes like this:

C.C.: “Oh, I can’t go to Janet Sartin [fancy nyc skincare spot] anymore. They won’t see me.”

us: “Why? what did you do there?” (unspoken: what did you do there this time?)

C.C.: “Well, I sent her a homeless guy to be exfoliated.”

us: “you did WHAT?!?”

C.C. “Well. . . there was this homeless guy, and no matter how many showers he took, I was just, you know . . . there was still that smell. It gets in the skin. So I called up Janet and told her I was sending someone for a full-body exfoliation.”

us: “So HOW do you know this guy!?”

Turns out he was a street artist she met who lived on Pier 63, and she liked his found object sculpture, and she wanted to help him out. He’d been on the streets for a coupla years and was pretty gritty. So she took him to get cleaned up.

At one of the most expensive European skincare salons in Manhattan.

C.C. “Well, she called me, and you know that accent she has, and Janet said, ‘It took three hours! and we had to use sandpaper, on the elbows! What are you doing to me?!?!’ and  after that I just can’t get an appt there.”

me: “Um, so how was the guy afterward?”

C.C.: “Oh he looked wonderful! Twenty years younger! He felt great and that smell was gone. He’s living in a store now.”

My pal Alice and I looked at each other and had a vision of going over to St. Peter’s Church, or St. Bart’s, or one of Manhattan’s soup kitchens, and handing out gift certificates for spas, to the homeless guys. Maybe we can get C.C. to produce a new reality series: “Wellesley Eye for the Homeless Guy.”

yeah, it’s kinda stupid. yes, the homeless need a lot more help than that, yes, it’s superficial. But seriously, a little human touch and kind physical care – there’s really not a lot wrong with that. everybody deserves to feel really good once in awhile. and that smell . . . would be gone!

Will You Sue Me in a Box? Dylan, Seuss, and Letting Us Play with Their Stuff

The fabulous so-called Bob Dylan versions of “Green Eggs & Ham” and “Cat in the Hat” that this blog (when it was on myspace exclusively) directed you to back on March 7 are gone.

Seuss sues swift and sure.

Per Dan Brekke in Salon.com, “When a musician recorded ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ in the voice of vintage Bob Dylan and posted it online, the Grinch estate promptly replied: One fish, two fish, cease and desist.”

Kevin Ryan, a music producer and author of Recording the Beatles (an amazing, slighly obsessive yet fascinating tome), created his brilliant pastiche of Theordore Geisel and Robert Zimmerman’s works just for the fun of it. But no fun in the new world for the little creators.

The heavy hand of copyright law is ready for a smackdown – more and more of the time.

A lot of people who work in publishing, esp children’s publishing, knows that the Geisel estate is somewhat insane over copyright.

NO one fucks with that Cat in the Hat. NO one mocks Fox in Sox. Seems a little contrary to kind old Teddy’s mild and wacky sense of humor, but that’s the way the will worked out.

So, what’s the point here? Another case of little guy getting squashed by those with corporate money and lawyerly muscle? Another case of how the Ecstasy of Influence – the wonderful mash-up sensibility that has informed so much of the current cultural landscape – is facing increasing opposition from the powers that be?

Well, yeah.

Look at what art and even advertising we see around us; EVERYTHING references everything else. Just about anybody born after 1960 who’s made anything has done this themselves in some way, even if they later abjure ironic reference or seek totally original nonselfconscious methods of expression.*

Culturally, the hip-hop sensibility of sampling and appropriation is arguably the biggest thing to happen since art entered the age of mechanical reproduction.

But it’s getting harder to cut up the pieces and play with them anymore.

Read the Salon article: Brekke talks about the 2LiveCrew case, and lots of other fascinating stuff. He doesn’t talk about how user-created or consumer-posted content, like YouTube, is causing conniptions among product owners like NBC and Viacom, who just don’t want us to play with their stuff! That’s the basic thing I see.

They just don’t want us to play w/their stuff. Even if it helps them sell more of it. . . .

btw: Ryan’s note-perfect “Dylan” versions of Seuss are still out there somewhere – find ’em for a smile. And to pay tribute to Ryan’s loving work – he just did it for the fun of it. He didn’t really deserve that big a smackdown.

Or did he? Weigh in your self.

*see David Foster Wallace’s seminal 1983 essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” for the starter argument AGAINST ironic reference. Oh wait, I just used a long footnote, a marker of Wallace’s style, to talk about Wallace – Help! Dave! Don’t sue me!