Wednesday, April 25, 2012

David Foster Wallace and the Incomprehensibility of Being Human

So to anybody interested, here's a much longer, much more fleshed out version of the David Foster Wallace essay. I still need to make some revisions and add some things, but criticisms are welcome, bearing in mind that I've already received plenty. I think this is one of the better things I've written. Enjoy. Or don't. It's essentially me rambling like a jackass for 10 pages.

- Geddy

Note: This displays in a slightly odd way since I copied and pasted it from an email I sent it to somebody in. Enjoy despite the weird white background.

David Foster Wallace and the Incomprehensibility of Being Human
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. One thousand plus pages long, and including hundreds of footnotes, Jest is, at its core, about addiction, and 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 television1 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. Upon receiving it, I went into the collection fairly skeptically. But as I read the essays, it hit me - I really cared about what this man had to say. I cared about his outlook on life. I cared about his essays, whether they were about Updike or Dostoevsky. Because ultimately, behind all of the confusing language used, the seemingly absurd concepts2, and despite my worries that no writer could cover such broad topic ranges in one piece of literary work,3 David Foster Wallace recognized the absurdity of the world around him, and really only wrote about two things, or rather, two specific questions: What makes us human? and What's wrong with America? Unfortunately, Wallace himself was never able to answer these questions, through writing, or in the physical world.
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 blasè 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 ridiculous4:
For a regular civilian male, hanging out in a hotel suite with porn starlets is a tense and emotionally convoluted affair. There is, first, the matter of having seen the various intimate activities and anatomical parts of these starlets in videos heretofore and thus (weirdly) feeling shy about meeting them. But there is also a complex erotic tension. Because porn films’ worlds are so sexualized, with everybody seemingly teetering right on the edge of coitus all the time and it taking only the slightest nudge or excuse – A stalled elevator, an unlocked door, a cocked eyebrow, a firm handshake – to send everyone tumbling into a tangled mass of limbs and orifices, there’s a bizarre unconscious expectation/dread/hope that this is what might happen in Max Hardcore’s hotel room. Yr. corresps. here find it impossible to overemphasize the fact that this is a delusion. In fact, of course, the unconscious expectation/dread/hope makes no more sense than it would make to be hanging out with doctors at a medical convention and to expect that at the slightest provocation everyone in the room would tumble into a frenzy of MRIs and epidurals. (24)
This bitingly dry wit permeates almost all of Wallace’s work; He responded to most absurdities with some kind of humor. Of course, this “everything is totally ridiculous” mentality wasn’t limited to porn stars and porn viewers - 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, and he was fascinated with observing humans and the activities that they engage in, often working these observations into his literature. Wallace was immersed in these studies. Whether writing fiction or not, 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 that other people feel the way you feel. Other people struggle with comprehending a culture that possesses so many negative facets. He sought to let you know that you are not alone. He sought to connect with this culture he so desperately wanted to understand. In fact, he once said "Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being." And indeed, you truly could 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 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 and his writing style, does in fact make them humorous in an ironic fashion:
It’s not that students don’t “get” Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get – The same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home. It’s hard to put into words, up at the blackboard, believe me. You can tell them that maybe it’s good they don’t “get” Kafka. You can ask them to imagine his stories as all about a kind of door. To envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission, but needing it; we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. That, finally, the door opens… and it opens outward – we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch. (65)
You don't have to agree with this line of thinking. But you must admit that there is always more to Wallace's work than meets the eye. He takes a concept as simple as “Kafka is funny,” and bends it to support his absurdist ideology, with the theme of the essay essentially amounting to “Kafka is funny because life is funny.” I could honestly write for pages upon pages5 about what I think this particular essay means, and Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness… is only six pages long! 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. Wallace’s mind worked in a decidedly analytical way. He would always make some sort of point that went beyond what you would expect based on the title of the piece.
Whether or not Wallace was a “good” writer, however, is obviously up for debate. “Good,” of course, being a subjective term. Ultimately, I believe one’s literary opinion of Wallace should hinge on their level of tolerance for postmodern literature as a whole. If the frankly poetic style of a writer like Pynchon turns you off, you probably will not be fond of David Foster Wallace’s prose. As stated, his fiction can be intimidating. His nonfiction and essays are sometimes given a pseudo-postmodern spin, but they are inarguably easier to comprehend than a monster of a book likeInfinite Jest. If Pynchon’s writing can be described as poetic in the traditional sense, then I suppose Wallace’s style should be referred to as hyper realistic/manic6 poetry. There is no rhyme or meter to Wallace’s words; He allows them to freely flow. And flow they do. Wallace’s sentences tend to run on for lines at a time. He describes things with a kind of rapidity that often leaves this reader requiring a double take. But there is structure to his writing. Despite the postmodernism movement being about the defiance of conventions, Wallace was a writer who was tethered to them. He goes off on one of his infamous tangents, this one regarding his Literary Nazi7 sensibilities, in a footnote in the previously mentioned Authority and American Usage a surprisingly fascinating essay regarding hidden agendas in dictionary writing:
I teach college English part time. Mostly Lit, not Composition. But I am so pathologically obsessed with usage that every semester, the same thing happens: once I’ve had to read my students’ first set of papers. We immediately abandon the regular Lit syllabus and have a three-week Emergency Remedial Usage and Grammar Unit, during which my demeanor is basically that of somebody teaching HIV prevention to intravenous drug users. When it emerges (as it does, every term) that 95 percent of these intelligent upscale college have never been taught; e.g., what a clause is or why a misplaced only can make a sentence confusing or why you don’t just automatically stick in a comma after a long noun phrase, I all but pound my head on the blackboard; I get angry and self-righteous; I tell them they should sue their hometown school boards, and mean it. (70)
Perhaps it’s just me, but I honestly find that passage a little bit beautiful. So much of Wallace’s true character shone through in the footnotes of these essays. Of course, everything he wrote took on a bit of a comedic air, but for the most part he took writing extremely seriously. The footnotes gave him a chance to cut loose a little bit, and at one point he actually said something to the fact of just that. He loved the ability to essentially place a number, and say whatever he wanted. 8 Because Wallace was about fighting the expectations people had for him, while at the same time, in a somewhat warped way, adhering to them. His literary mother demanded that he and his siblings take literature and English extremely seriously. Wallace obliged, while at the same time, mocking the very idea of taking literature and English so seriously. Postmodern fiction was a way for him to both reject and accept literary constraints. His writing was him. I doubt the man himself expected so much magnificence, so much connection, to be found in a random footnote of some essay he wrote about dictionaries, but that was the true power of his words. He poured his soul into them.
Wallace was (almost uncannily) able to take his writing both extremely seriously and not seriously at all. To him, in what I believe to be the simplest possible terms, writing was something rigid and unflinching, but at the same time it was insanely free and basically open to any kind of interpretation or style brought to the proverbial table. That explanation is undoubtedly a tad confusing. It is in fact confusing, but that’s because that explanation is David Foster Wallace. The man was conflict incarnate. He was raised on proper literary technique, so he wrote in a style that defied proper literary technique, while at the same time teaching proper literary technique to college students. He failed to make any semblance of sense out of America and it’s obsession with television, movies, and all forms of entertainment, so he wrote extensively in his magnum opus. Wallace focused on whatever interested him, regardless of whether or not he necessarily enjoyed it. A staple of Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s postmodern masterpiece, is negation. Negation of course being the act of saying one thing, and acting in a way that completely defies what was previously stated, or vice versa. Wallace’s writing was negation. Wallace’s being was negation. These contradictions and his dedication to them give his writing a distinct feeling that I’ve never before experienced.
Most literary critics and Book Buffswere very fond of Wallace’s work. Words like “subversive” and “hip” were often thrown around in a decidedly non-ironic fashion in relation to Wallace’s work. These hyper-positive reviews that are plastered all over his work have a decidedly non-Wallace-ian feel to them. A glowing review for Infinite Jest by Sven Birkerts of Atlantic Monthly screamed, “The next step in fiction…. Edgy, accurate, and darkly witty…. Think Beckett, think Pynchon, think Gaddis. Think.” Another almost parodically positive review, this time forConsider The Lobster, by Robert McCrum of The Guardian, gushed, “Subversive and hip, with a mind tuned to a different frequency, Wallace is singing a song in a key we’ve not heard before.” Something tells me that while he would’ve been grateful for the adulation, Wallace would have swiftly rejected these assessments of his work. They paint him in an extremely generic light. They feature the kinds of stock phrases seen on every single book by every Post Modern writer of all time. David Foster Wallace was hardly every Post Modern writer. And he didn’t want to be every postmodern writer. The words of Pynchon10 come across to me as poetic, yet mechanical. Though writers such as Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut may be considered the quintessential “weird for the sake of being weird”11 writers, Wallace is on a different level, at least for this reader. I feel every word he typed. Truly, no words besides his own can do him justice.
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. David Foster Wallace hung himself on September 12, 2008.12 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, 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. There’s just something about the description that’s monumentally touching. He’s recounting the tale in a way that screams “My life was a little bit ridiculous, but the world’s a little ridiculous. That’s just how it is. Can’t change that.”13 From that perspective, it’s almost as if he was enjoying himself. Perhaps, sometimes, when his depression wasn’t quite as overbearing, he was capable of happiness. The fact that Wallace committed suicide is perhaps more notable than any of his writing. Because his death ultimately validates everything he ever wrote. “Can’t change that” would not be a suitable enough solution to life, at least not for David Foster Wallace. For him, the only solution to life was death. 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. The fact that a man so wise and impactful died so profoundly unhappy is unbelievably upsetting.
Wallace's worldview was similar to the one that I possess, and it is one that many other people undoubtedly possess. It's hardly “unique”; I’ll be the first one to tell you that 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 absurd, 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
1Not 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.
2The 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.
3To give an example, Infinite Jest is about, among other things: The history of film, tennis, and something called Quebec Separatism. Forgive me for being skeptical that ANY writer could tie things so seemingly random and disconnected together.
4Though 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.
5I’ll spare you the boredom of reading “pages upon pages” regarding my thoughts on the Kafka essay – I feel bad enough for the people who I’ve undoubtedly forced at gunpoint to read through this 10 page DFW love-fest.
6Hyper realistic poetry/manic poetry is a classification of my own invention.
7Literary Nazis could better be described as “SNOOTs.” I’ll let the man himself explain the basic principles of “SNOOTishness” with this footnote from Authority and American Usage:
SNOOT (n) (highly colloq) is this reviewer’s nuclear family’s nickname a clef for a really extreme usage fanatic, the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun is to hunt for mistakes in the very prose of Safire’s column. This reviewer’s family is roughly 70 percent SNOOT, which itself derives from an acronym, with the big historical family being that whether S.N.O.O.T. stood for “Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance” or “Syntax Nudniks Of Our Time” depended on whether or not you were one. (69)
8I can’t recall the exact quote; I’m opting instead for this rough paraphrase.
9A term I’ve just coined that is unbelievably stupid and irritating, but I can’t bring myself to omit from this piece because it’s too funny.
10Pynchon and Wallace are compared semi-frequently in this piece, as Pynchon is one of the only Post Modern writers I’m familiar with, other than DFW. I’m aware of writers such as Vonnegut and Kerouac. But Pynchon, Wallace and Joseph Heller are the only Post Modern authors I’ve actually read the work of.
11I can’t help but work the occasional Simpsons reference into anything and everything that I do, whenever they’re appropriate. When else am I going to get the chance to bring up Moe’s biting seven word assessment of the entire Post Modern genre?
12An 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.
13Not a real quote from Wallace himself, obviously. More what I believe to be his line of thinking in regards to the matter. The quotation marks simply serve to make it flow better with the rest of the paragraph.

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