The Ferocious Morality of David Foster Wallace

My wonderful and loving lecture agent, Ellie Deegan, recently left me a voicemail message in which she told me how “grateful” she is to me for giving her David Foster Wallace. She read his brilliant, luminous, and heavy — according to philosophical and physical measurements — novel, Infinite Jest, and has just started Although, Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace after I emphatically encouraged her to do so.

Deegan told me how much Wallace’s insight that “reading is for lonely people” resonated with her. She particularly liked his point that when one opens a book, one opens a relationship with its creator.

Any relationship with Wallace is destined for generosity, spirituality, and given the honesty and vulnerability of the writer, intimacy. It’s also — despite Wallace’s amazing ability to maintain endearing ordinariness as a genius, despite his gut punch sense of humor, and despite his unique skill to write literary fiction that entertains — going to be a serious challenge. It will challenge the reader’s intellect, ideology, and most of all, conception of morality.

In This Is Water, the commencement address that Wallace gave at Kenyon College that is now available in book form, he shares two thematically connected points that possess such profundity that, in his view, to ignore their wisdom is to court catastrophe.

Before it even began, he cut through the charade of the new atheism generated debate when he told his audience of new college graduates that “in adult life there is no such thing as atheism”, explaining that “everyone worships something”. Similarly, a character in Infinite Jest lectures a naïve American that “all our free choices follow from this: what is our temple?” Wallace, in his speech, insists that the choice of worship is the ultimate choice of citizenship and humanity, and that if the choice doesn’t involve God, something spiritual, whatever you worship “will eat you alive”.

During the commencement, Wallace also gave a nearly perfect definition of the purpose of a liberal arts education. It shouldn’t teach people what to think — that would be totalitarian and tyrannical. It shouldn’t teach people how to think — to assume that people require such rigid training is condescending and elitist. It should teach people that it is important to think. It should assist in the formulation of intellectual awareness, sensitivity, and prioritization of attention.

It’s easy and common to create an avalanche of superlatives when releasing interpretation of Wallace’s work and value. It must be said, however, that his interest and near-obsession with what is worthy of attention, engagement, and investment is a further testament to his unique genius. Before the advent of cell ubiquity, cyber social networking, and the digitalization of everything, he was exploring boredom, stimuli starved reaction to it, and people’s lack of ability tolerate any environment or activity that doesn’t stimulate and plug a user into the culture of connectivity, in which users are constantly enmeshed within a portal of superficial communication, thought defeating noise, or virtual reality entertainment.

The culture of connectivity of Americans salivating for stimulus perfectly complements the ethic of entertainment that Wallace explored in Infinite Jest. Addiction to entertainment, and eschewal of anything less than optimally entertaining, devalues and degrades citizenship and deracinates and declaws spirituality. As the Rev. Gardner Taylor said, “Americans now want to reach a destination without taking a journey and triumph without being tested.” There is a game show mentality that expects instant gratification and reward without effort.

The essays of Wallace coalesce to create a travelogue of American checkpoints of communal, social, and spiritual destruction — disaster zones and craters in the earth made out of the entertainment ethic and game show mentality’s conquest of all enemies foreign and domestic.

In “Big Red Son” — perhaps the finest essay in “new journalism” since Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night — Wallace acts as correspondent in Las Vegas throughout the AVN awards (the pornographic industry’s Academy Awards) by attending the ceremony, visiting the pre-ceremony porn convention in which industry heavyweights and the high-price ticket buying public intermingle and interact, and interviewing several pornographers, porn stars, and porn writers.

Wallace also wrote intensely personal, reflective, and journalistic reports on a right-wing talk radio host in California and the premier lobster festival in Maine. In all three essays, Wallace examines how the entertainment ethic is corrosive and destructive to an important, and perhaps sacred, part of the human experience. He did it with subtlety, humor, and complex insight. He wasn’t a fire-and-brimstone preacher, but it’s impossible to read “Big Red Son”, Consider the Lobster”, and his talk radio examination without mourning the damage inflicted on sexuality, animal rights, and politics by the popular belief that nothing is intrinsically important, that nothing is sacred, and that everything is fair game for measurement according to the market-driven calculation of the lowest common denominator in the entertainment for entertainment’s sake world of decision-making.

While much of Wallace’s non-fiction identified the problem points of a country suffering under rapid cultural decay and spiritual decline, his fiction navigated the same terrain, but did so by harnessing the focus on the greatest inquiry of fiction — what makes the individual lonely, affectionate, and terrified? What makes the individual tick?

The humanity at the heart of Wallace’s fiction is empathetic to the point that the reader can almost feel and hear it beating beneath the page. His short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men features an endearing, heartbreaking, and soul-stirring account of the life of a bathroom attendant — a man who spent the majority of his days cleaning up after arrogant businessmen, while he inhaled the fumes they left behind. The collection begins with a portrayal of a multi-award winning, bestselling literary genius whose life has declined to a point of vast spiritual emptiness, emotional isolation, and moral uncertainty.

Wallace’s application and assignment of dignity was the polar opposite of big business, big government, and big media. The bathroom attendant’s life was boring, inglorious, and at times, humiliating, but it might benefit us to consider how his life may be more respectable that that of a brilliant millionaire. It’s a very Christ-like worldview that places someone that everyone walks by in a room built to hold and deposit human waste at the moral center and a contemporary superstar at the periphery. Vantage point becomes the ultimate concern, and good literature should always insist on shaking, disturbing, and altering the reader’s vantage point. Wallace’s obsession with prioritizing attention served his higher purpose of finding the correct angle, clearest sightline, and best vantage point to view the world.

The Pale King

Wallace was a member of a church at every place that he lived, but he rarely wrote about his faith or discussed it. It’s, therefore, difficult and would be presumptuous to speculate on the spiritual intentionality or motivation of much of his work. It is interesting, however, that his newest, his possibly best, and sadly, his last novel The Pale King looks deeply at the lives of the modern-day tax collector, employees of the most hated bureaucracy in America, the IRS.

The novel is driven by Wallace’s concerns over intellectual awareness and sensitivity, and prioritization of attention. There is a large section in the middle of the book in which one prominent character writes in the first person explaining why he chose to enlist in the service of the often maligned Internal Revenue Service.

He describes himself as “nihilistic wastoid” before beginning his training for the IRS. He drifted in and out of several colleges barely finishing a semester at a time, cynically eschewed all responsibility and rejected all commitment, and addictively took a drug designed for overweight women — a drug that enhanced his ability to pay attention to his surroundings and experiences. His father looked at him with a paternal blend of love, disappointment, and shame, the latter enhanced when he comes home early from a business trip and finds his 20-something son and his friends lying on the living room floor surrounded by trash, pizza boxes, beer bottles, and bongs.

Three events turn the young man’s life around. First, his father dies in a train accident that he witnesses. Then, as he is high on the dietary supplement and watching As the World Turns, he hears a network announcer say at each commercial break, “you’re watching As the World Turns.” He is awe-struck in an epiphanous moment by the sentence’s larger meaning, and how it precisely and poignantly applies directly to him.

Shortly after that he mistakenly walks into the wrong classroom at DePaul and, missing an exam for his American Political Theory course, watches with fascination a Jesuit priest gives a lecture on tax accounting. The structure of the mathematics, the discipline of the instructor, and the dedication of the students inspire him. He feels called into tax accounting. He knows what he must do with the rest of his life.

Only a writer with Wallace’s gifts could lend beauty to a seemingly mundane story about a young man making a commitment to work for the IRS. Regardless of how anyone feels about that bureaucratic law enforcement agency, or how anyone feels about the tax policies of the United States government, the character in The Pale King finds redemption and receives grace through his work for and dedication to it.

Irish poet Brendan Kennelly wrote that “the best way to serve the age is to betray it”. Every individual, idea, and institution needs a positive Judas. Everyone and everything needs someone willing to betray his party, alliance, and tribe in order to reveal its flaws, failure, and sins, and in the process, challenge it to better itself with greater accountability, love, and integrity. Only an insider can effectively begin the essential process of institutional and sociological self-criticism.

Wallace was a member of the educated elite. His Ivy League background and highly educated audience placed him squarely in the center of a group of Americans who are stratified from the rest of America. There is a sharp divide between the highly educated and the uneducated, but there is a softer separation that exists between those with elite educations, and graduates of state schools and small private colleges without the reputation of Wallace’s alma mater, Amherst.

It’s his behavior and the behavior of his peers within that group that he most often analyzed, scrutinized, and criticized as possessing something dark, empty, and defeating. He often made the point that the highly educated younger set of Americans live under the infection of corrosive cynicism and detached irony that parodies everything, takes nothing seriously, and while it may offer opportunities for clever amusement, doesn’t get very far in the direction of problem solving, community building, and useful citizenship. The Pale King reverses that personality, and places it in the loyal service to a despised governmental agency that, despite its obvious errors and evils, is meant to carry out work that is paramount to the functioning of the country.

In Wallace’s essay, “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”, which describes how he spent September 11, 2001 and the immediate days after the attacks, the writer reveals that not only is he capable of complexly delineating the nuanced moral failures, immunities, and victories of other people and practices, but he also has the rare, invaluable ability to examine himself, and through that examination consider where he succeeds and fails at attempting to be a serious human being who is not a liability on the planet.

After some satirical musing on searching for a flag to place in his yard, and following a warm description of Bloomington, Illinois — the mainly rural town in the middle of the state where he lived at the time, he introduces the readers to Mrs. Thompson and several of her friends who are watching the “horror”, as Wallace calls it, unfold on the television set in Mrs. Thompson’s distinctly “working class living room”. Wallace knows Mrs. Thompson and all of her friends because he goes to the same church as them, which isn’t “one of those churches where people throw Jesus’ name around a lot or talk about the End Times, but it’s fairly serious, and people in the congregation get to know each other well and be pretty tight.”

The women are drinking coffee and repeatedly expressing, through speech, tears, or sighs, shock, sadness, and fear — as most Americans did on that catastrophic day. Wallace is close friends with Mrs. Thompson’s son, referred to in the article as F, who is a Vietnam veteran that doesn’t like to talk about the war and takes camping trips deep into the woods every Memorial Day weekend. F isn’t in the room, but his communal presence is important throughout the narrative, as is Duane’s — one of the woman’s sons who wears a Slipknot hat, camouflage pants, and a generally annoying demeanor, with his constant repetition of pop culture references, loud banter, and faux “cool” disposition, which leads Wallace to offer the brilliant insight, “It always seems to be important to have at least one person in the vicinity to hate.”

Mrs. Thompson, and her friends — Mrs. Bacero (Duane’s mom) and Mrs. R — are nothing like Duane to Wallace. If it’s important to have someone to hate, it’s equally important to have someone love, and it is clear that Wallace loves all of them very much… painfully so. None of them are “near hip enough to lodge the sick and obvious po-mo complaint: We’ve seen this before.” Rather than discussing the similarities of the horror to various action movie plots, the media’s transparent stagecraft, or how Bush sounds like a “right wing wacko”, they simply “sit together, feel really bad, and pray”. Mrs. Thompson and her friends would never be “so nauseous” to form a prayer circle or do it out loud, but it’s obvious to Wallace and everyone else in the room that that is what they are doing.

Wallace instructs readers that “this is mostly a good thing”, because “it forces you to think and do things you most likely wouldn’t alone, like for instance while watching the address to pray, silently and fervently, that you’re wrong about the president… he’s actually far smarter and more substantial than you believe, not just some soulless golem or nexus of corporate interests, but a statesman of courage and probity… and it’s good, this is good to pray this way. It’s just a bit lonely to have to.”

Wallace’s prayers about Bush, conveyed against the judgment of his intellect, may have never been answered, but that does not deplete the powerful truth contained in his reflection that “Truly decent, innocent people can be taxing to be around.” Wallace never gives the idea that all the people in Bloomington are like Mrs. Thompson — he even acknowledges that many are not, including F, who is an “outstanding person” in other ways — rather he is introspectively making a comparative meditation on his character compared to Mrs. Thompson and her friends, and what effect he has on his surrounding community and the larger world. The conclusion he reaches isn’t pretty, comforting, or delusional. It eschews the increasingly American temptation to rationalize, aggrandize, or intellectualize away the burdensome relationship between freedom and responsibility: “Part of the horror of the Horror was knowing, deep in my heart, that whatever America the men in those planes hated so much was far more my America, and F’s, and poor old loathsome Duane’s, than it was these ladies’.”

Of course, a much smaller tragedy than the attacks of September 11 2001, but a still significant one is that the world no longer has the brilliant, empathetic, and difficult voice of Wallace to consult in times of confusion, struggle, and worry. The Pale King — an intensely moving and frighteningly challenging novel — proves his worth as an artist and the catastrophe of his loss from its first page to last.

One of the oft-repeated pieces of dogma in the modern world is that people “should not be judgmental”. The demonization of judgment is well-intentioned, but shortsighted and misguided. Judgments are vital to the health of any society. The question is not whether or not judgments should be made, but how judgments should be made, and that is one of the hardest questions in the world. Wallace knew how hard it was. Even a cursory glance at the essay, “Consider the Lobster”, in which he goes through pages and pages of pains to determine the ethical acceptability of eating lobster after attending the Maine Lobster Festival reveals the ferocious moral sensibility of Wallace, and how it attacked everything he did, from a deeply political and spiritual reaction to the 9/11 attacks to a recreational stroll through a food festival.

The business of judgments is nearly impossible. But, Wallace wasn’t afraid — in the case of the porn industry and talk radio — to make them with sound reason and strong conviction, all while guided by empathy and balanced with self-criticism. Despite his brilliance, love, and curiosity, he — like the rest of us mere mortals — was unable to give readers a list of appropriate and inappropriate judgments that they could consult in every conflict and dilemma. Rather, he gave a glimpse into how a person can go about trying, whether in vain or not, to make that list, and in an imperfect world, that is all that can be asked of anyone.

That example of adult responsibility survives in the books he left behind, which as much as they are novels, short story collections, and essay collections, they are also invitations. They invite us to open them up, and in doing so, open up a relationship with David Foster Wallace.

David Masciotra is the author of Working on a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (Continuum Books). For more information visit