Sunday, March 25, 2012

David Foster Wallace and The Incomprehensibility of Humanity

          Every so often, a writer comes along that you just sort of feel... Connected with. For my cousin, that writer is the Transcendentalist poet/intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson. While perusing Barnes & Noble the other night, I realized that for me, that special writer is the tragic, Post Modern essayist David Foster Wallace. Today I decided that I would just write a little essay (For fun of course. Because as the name of this site indicates, I'm a nerd) about what I believe to be his ideologies. My respect for this man and his aforementioned ideals will obviously be very apparent in this essay, to the point of what may seem like bias. Know that this isn't a criticism or a review of any of his work - Just me trying to make sense of a belief system and man that I truly identify with. Hit the jump if you'd like to check the essay out.


Note: As a tribute to DFW, I will be employing the use of footnotes in this piece. They're much less obtrusive than using parenthesis every time I want to make a separate point or clarify something. Scroll to the bottom whenever you see * or ^ or some variation thereof to read an expanded point.

Note 2: This is only really a small sample of what eventually evolved into a 10 page essay, so if it feels at all lacking or short, it's because it is a bit of a dry run.

David Foster Wallace and The Incomprehensibility of Humanity
By Geddy Cahoon

        Cynical. Verbose. Intellectual to the point of incomprehensibility. Ashamedly American. These phrases and others spring to mind when thinking of the late, great Post Modern auteur David Foster Wallace. Verbose is probably what most people would view him as. Brevity was not the man's strong suit. He was perhaps most well-known for his monstrous masterpiece Infinite Jest. It's over 1000 pages long, including hundreds of footnotes. At its core, Jest is about how entertainment and popular culture affect our minds. One of Wallace's favorite things in writing was to take something seemingly insignificant to the world as a whole, like movies or television* and place it in a larger context, one that reveals a truth of some sort about humanity or America. Infinite Jest is not the novel that made me realize how much David Foster Wallace means to me, however. I'm still working on finishing Wallace's frankly intimidating opus. Rather, I find that his nonfiction work has a profound effect on me. A book of his essays was published in 2005, and the topics cover a fairly broad spectrum. He didn't write about one specific thing. On the surface I went into the collection fairly skeptically. But as I read the essays, it began to dawn on me... I really, truly cared about what this man had to say. Because ultimately, behind all of the confusing language used, and seemingly absurd concepts^, and despite my assumptions that the range of topics covered was almost ridiculous, David Foster Wallace really only wrote about two things. Or rather, two specific questions: What makes us human? and What's wrong with America?
       Wallace's work almost always amounts to one of these questions, or some variation of them. "Big Red Son," one of his essays, recounts the time he attended a pornography awards gala in 1998. The essay serves to show how we as a culture can be so immersed in something, yet so disgusted by it. Wallace talks about fans meeting their favorite porn stars for the first time, and being reduced to weak-kneed schoolchildren. He notes that there is an air of childlike wonder about the patrons who are not porn stars or pornographers. Wallace also notes the blase demeanors of the performers themselves. This is who they are, and they are comfortable with that. Wallace respects neither of them, though. He thinks the people who become so "starstruck" so to speak, when meeting people who fuck for a living, are ridiculous, and he also thinks that the people who fuck for a living are ridiculous**. David Foster Wallace pretty much found America as a whole ridiculous. Anyone who is even slightly familiar with his work should be quite capable of gleaning from it that he constantly struggled to understand America and humanity in general. He was unable to comprehend why people behave the way they do, or believe what they believe.Nonetheless, Wallace immersed himself in them. He devoted most of his literary career to trying to figure out some sort of explanation behind the behavior of the people in our fair country, as well as humans in general.
       Despite his obvious unhappiness and angst, the tone of Wallace's writing is lighthearted, and not nearly as dark as you would expect it to be. His depression shone through at times, sure, but there was typically an air of comedy to his work. But that comedy never distracts from the central point he is making. Writing for him was his way of working things out, and he did have some demons. But he tried to sort them out in a way that was potentially beneficial to anyone else who though the same way. If you were angry or cynical or upset or depressed or just wanted to make some sense of the people and culture around you, Wallace sought to let you know "Other people feel this way too. It's not easy. I'm trying to work it out, maybe you can too." In fact, he once said "Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being." You could really feel connected to him. Because behind his intimidating intellectualism and seemingly unyielding cynicism, Wallace was lost and scared, in a world that he didn't understand and wasn't content to just sit by and observe.
       It is due to this ideology he possessed that, regardless of what the piece is about, his writing is always captivating. At the core, I could not care less about the humor contained in Franz Kafka's work. However, in the essay "Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness From Which Probably not Enough has Been Removed" Wallace posits that the human condition is true comedy. Pain, suffering, despair. Though not "funny" in the conventional sense, he argues that our own relatability to these things, coupled with the way Kafka presents them, does in fact make them humorous. You don't have to agree with this line of thinking. But there is always more to Wallace's work than meets the eye. Wallace is even able to take what was supposed to be a review of a newly published dictionary, and turn it into a commentary on how politics and the internal battles of those above us govern the way we speak, act, and ultimately think. His nonfiction collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is simply a diary of his time on a cruise ship at first glance, but truly regards the fact that the hospitality and manufactured "fun" of the trip are actually boring and more draining that continuing his routine by not going on the cruise at all would have been. His mind worked in a way that always had to analyze something. He always had to make some sort of point that went beyond what you would expect based on the title of the piece.
    I'll admit that reading his work upsets me on a level that I'm not sure I can convey; For someone that was so brilliant to take his own life is immensely saddening.^^ His writing was incredibly real and poignant. Of course, sometimes little shreds of happiness could be seen in his work. In his aforementioned dictionary review, "Authority and American Usage," he pseudo-fondly recalls memories of his grammar Nazi mother forcing him to adapt proper writing and speaking techniques. It's extremely sweet, in a way that is a bit difficult to describe. Recounting it here is bringing me close to tears, to be blatantly honest. The fact that Wallace committed suicide is perhaps more notable to me than any of his writing. Because his death ultimately validates everything he every wrote. He couldn't find a reason that the world is the way it is. And a combination of that and severe depression led to him deciding he couldn't deal with life anymore.
It's unbelievably upsetting.
   Wallace's worldview was similar to the one that I possess, and probably a lot of other people. It's nothing unique; There's nothing special about idolizing/identifying with dead, white intellectuals. But if you can avoid the hopeless final verse of Wallace's life, his work is all about discovery and understanding. It is possible to be happy after taking Wallace's beliefs into account. Acceptance of the absurdity of life doesn't have to end in untimely death. David Foster Wallace's journey ended tragically, but the power of his teachings lives on. They can be an extremely useful tool for anyone who has every questioned the culture and world around them, to find their way. To attempt to make some sort of sense out of this kind of wild, jumbled mess we call "life." David couldn't do it. But that doesn't mean he didn't want you to. Or at the very least, you can use his work to decide whether or not you should eat lobster anymore.

~ March 25, 2012

*Not that I'm referring to those things as insignificant; But the general consensus of the much of the world is that the facets of entertainment and things of that nature are ultimately just that in the grand scheme of things.

^The title of the collection, Consider The Lobster, is named for one of the contained essays regarding the moral implications of boiling a live creature to eat.

**Though to be fair, the piece is written in a way that is slightly sympathetic to the degradation of the women who do pornography, but that's about as far as Wallace's sympathy goes.

^^An air of intrigue apparently surrounds his death; He took his life on September 12, 2008. September 12 was apparently a date Wallace had written about before. His fascination with the date is, far as I can tell, unexplained, but it is something I plan to educate myself on.

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