Alas, Poor Yorick!

“The epistemological problem is produced by the radical difference that holds between our access to our own experience and our access to the experience of all other human beings. We often know directly that we are in a certain mental state. Typical cases would be where we are in serious pain, are itching, are smelling a rose, seeing (as it seems) a sunflower, are depressed, believe that today is Tuesday, and so forth. We do not always know directly that we are in the mental state we are in but what is striking is that we never have direct knowledge that other human beings are in whatever mental state they are in. It is this stark asymmetry, that generates the epistemological problem of other minds.”

-from “Other Minds” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

To me, David Foster Wallace’s works have always been concerned with the problem of other minds: that is, how can we truly communicate, and more importantly, understand each other, if we can never be sure that other people understand the same phenomenon and use the same words in the same way? This, I think, is what Joel Stein meant when he writes in his Times obit, that Infinite Jest is “a circular 1,079-page book about the impossibility of communication.”

Witness this sentence: “We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.”

But if you are a sceptic about other minds, which I think David Foster Wallace definitely was, the logical extreme of that scepticism is solipsism, which some have accused Wallace of being, as his writings are full of self-analytical statements, footnotes, layers of irony, a concern with the meta, narratively discontinuity and obliqueness–in other words, all the flags of a supposed “post-modern” novel.

Yet I don’t think all these things were just Wallace’s jerking off to his own technique, although he does have technique in abundance. Rather, I think these are genuine expressions of the real phenomenon of trying to communicate to and understand other people: full of ambiguities, layers of meaning, non-linearity, introspection. And Wallace himself surely understood this, as he has argued that the excessive use of irony makes it impossible to communicate something sincere and genuine, makes it impossible to pierce the veil of language to reach fundamental truths.

And this is probably my predominant reasons for liking David Foster Wallace: I can very much empathsize with his dilemma, but of course he is a much smarter man than I am, and he manages to convey this dilemma much more eloquently. I find it ironic that Wallace was able to convey and make transparent the very oblique nature of trying to communicate–surely this is no small accomplishment.

So yes, I’m sad that we have lost someone who could do this and do it well and do it in a hilarious, laugh-out-loud fashion. But then again, really trying to make other people understand just exactly what you mean is a Quixotic quest. To quote J. Alfred Prufrock, the most common reaction to other people’s understanding of you is this: “That is not what I meant at all./That is not it, at all.


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