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.