David Foster Wallace as the Limit of Self-Interrogation

After the initial obits have gone, longer, more reflective pieces on David Foster Wallace’s bibliography and his person emerges. This piece in The New Statesman by Jonathan Derbyshire is the best one I’ve come across, although it is by no means perfect: like any reflective piece on a talented person who died before his time, this piece cannot resist the temptation to look for possible clues and explanations for DFW’s suicide within his published writings.

I personally do not think this kind of move is anything other than a depressing parlor game, kind of like how people looked for clues in Nirvana songs for why Kurt Cobain shot himself, or, to use an even earlier example, tidbits of “clues” that indicated that Paul McCartney is dead. Sadly enough, perhaps Paul should’ve died then, as he would have gone out at the top of his game instead of torturing Starbuck employees and patrons everywhere last summer as his last insipid solo album blasted throughout the franchise stores.

But I think Derbyshire fundamentally gets the fact that DFW was, first and foremost, concerned with a very contemporary phenomenon among people of a certain age and disposition: that is, people who grew up already taking the formal and substantive characteristics of post-modernism for granted and are asking: now what?

Incidentally, I count myself among this group of people. As Derbyshire writes:

“What the essay is really about, therefore, is the “interior war” inside Wallace’s own head between the need to believe in something larger than himself and his anxiety that the need to believe might be a sham or a fraud. And “fraud”, Mark Costello reminded the mourners at Amherst, “was one of the worst words in his personal vocabulary”.

In the end, Wallace took his own life. Perhaps the struggle to believe in something was too great; he had suffered too much. He was the ultimate victim of his own interior war.”

I think this conflict between the desire for something genuine and sincere and the realization that the world and most people are in it are frauds is particularly symptomatic of this group of people. And nowhere is this conflict more realized than in DFW’s two essay collections: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster.

For example, “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” two essays from his first collection, largely concern how events which are designed to create a certain feeling of authenticity (whether it’s a Midwestern communal gathering in the former or a truly, utterly relaxing experience in the latter) actually turn out to be fraudulent, in the sense that the “authentic” feelings they are designed to induce are themselves products of sophisticated marketing, crass commercialism, and emotional manipulation.

In “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” which I consider to be DFW’s best non-fiction work, he describes how TV has assimilated pretty much everything that was so shocking and unsettling about post-modernism as an artistic movement that the very things which shocked and upset a previous generation have now become common-place, self-congratulatory, and complacement. The taming of post-modernism meant for DFW cultivating an excess of mocking irony, the inability to take anything seriously, and in general just makes this generation unable to tell the difference between what is genuine and what is fake.

Which becomes problematic for DFW, as one can clearly see in his superb article on McCain’s 2000 campaign, anthologized as “Up, Simba!” in his second essay collection. DFW is surprised at his own admiration of McCain, despite his “uncoolness” and unironic straight talk. But because he is himself the product of the TV generation, DFW is unable to tell whether McCain is really being “real” or whether “acting real” is itself another form of political posturing.

This is a running theme throughout DFW’s work, this doubt about the truth of things, about the truth of one’s own thoughts and feelings. But what is clear is that DFW actually wants something authentic, something that seriously considers the “big questions” of life without the knowing, smirking, self-conscious irony. He really hammers this point home in “Joseph Frank’s Dostoeyvsky,” admiring the works of a man for whom dying for an idea is not something to be mocked about and whose work dealt with such questions as the meaning of life and the existence of God. In the very same essay, DFW criticizes his generation, and implicitly himself, that they have lost the ability to seriously engage with life; instead, the assimilation of post-modernism and its nihilistic tendencies have rendered them incapable of genuine engagement with existence.

It is this fundamentally anti-nihilistic attitude that made me admire DFW. But the bigger question about DFW’s work is this: can one resist a nihilistic conclusion about life if he is truly and completely honest to himself? That is to say, what would complete and total intellectual integrity require? Because if there is one thing DFW hates, it is fraud, dishonesty, especially with oneself. This is why he spends so much time examining his own thoughts, trying to find out if they really are what they seem. This is why he mocks himself so much, because he is aware, at some level, of the possibility that his thoughts and feelings have no good reason.

And maybe there is a limit to self-interrogation after all: perhaps being completely honest to oneself is either impossible or insane. Nietzsche certainly thought the latter, as he argues that the drive to truth is the expression of a sickly existence.

But what does he know: he had a mental breakdown and jumped in front of a horse that was being whipped and wept like a baby, and that pretty much ended his life.

So again, perhaps the limit of self-interrogation is impossibility or insanity.

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