Friday, January 21, 2011

Rethinking David Foster Wallace

For personal friends and followers of the blog, it comes as no surprise that I'm a rabid fan of David Foster Wallace. He's not only my favorite writer, but also my intellectual hero for his unbridled sincerity and his unmatched attention to detail. So when my friends at The Desert Lamp, a blog about U of A politics and other miscellaneous stuff, shared this link to an interview with DFW about his nonfiction work, I, of course, gobbled it up.

Normally I read DFW interview super attentively—hanging on to every word and dumbstruck in the the face of what I see to be true, unequivocal genius.

This time, though, when I read the interview I started to see him in a more complete and mortal-like light. I became aware, for example, of his habit of disparaging his own abilities ("I'm not being very articulate. I'll be honest."), which is annoying for its own sake and also because I think I've picked it up too. He comes off as frustratingly unconfident. And, in an all too sad way, his brilliant and perspicacious analyses keep on falling into pessimistic and depressive ruts.

I don't want to be too harsh, especially when DFW was already (as always and of course) aware of these flaws anyway. From the interview linked above:
I think another reason why I'm not doing any more of these [non-fiction pieces] for a while is...there really was kind of a shtick emerging. And the shtick was somewhat neurotic, hyper-conscious guy, like, showing you how weird this thing is that not everybody thinks is weird.
I think we face a constant temptation to turn off our critical mind, to latch on to some source of Truth (books that fit our ideology, religion, Glenn Beck, etc.) and accept it unthinkingly. It's a really hard temptation to fight because you can succumb to it without even knowing you did so. But that's precisely what I did w/r/t DFW, which is supremely ironic, because it happens to go against DFW's entire style and ethos and creed. In idolizing DFW I made the mistake of idolizing everything about him.

I'll close with a quote from his famous commencement address that reminds us to be constantly vigilant over our own minds and highlights one of his particularly good parts—his hallmark trait, perhaps—sincerity:
Given the triumphal academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default-setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what's going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what's going on inside me. As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about "teaching you how to think" is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: "Learning how to think" really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about "the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master." This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.

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