Books

The Ferocious Morality of David Foster Wallace

David Masciotra

Any relationship with Wallace is destined for generosity, spirituality, and given the honesty and vulnerability of the writer, intimacy. It’s also going to be a serious challenge. It will challenge the reader’s intellect, ideology, and most of all, conception of morality.

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.

Next Page

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.