The Legacy of DAVID FOSTER WALLACE
University of Iowa Press
Copyright © 2012 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One PAUL GILES
ALL SWALLOWED UP: DAVID FOSTER WALLACE AND AMERICAN LITERATURE
THE IDEA OF "American Literature" as an area of professional expertise has had a checkered history. When this academic field was first mooted in the late nineteenth century, as Gerald Graff has observed, it tended to be regarded condescendingly by the Ivy League establishment as something suitable only for more populist forms of education in women's colleges or remote state universities (211); indeed, it was not until the 1920s, in the work of Norman Foerster and others, that the subject began properly to take on nationalistic contours rather than being identified simply with local color and other sectional interests. Writing under the shadow of World War I, when patriotic sentiment had been heightened within the scholarly as well as the political community, Foerster argued that American literature should seek to identify key nationalist tropes—"the Puritan tradition" (27), "the frontier spirit" (27), "romanticism" (32), and "realism" (34)—in the same way that Harvard professor Frederick Jackson Turner had recently invoked the significance of the frontier as crucial to the constitution of American history. The scholarly journal American Literature, founded in 1929, helped consolidate this process of institutionalization, and it was not until the last twenty years of the twentieth century that the nomenclature "American" came to be understood as problematic, since the increasing visibility of transnational flows across national boundaries exposed the ambiguity whereby the term could refer to either a country or a continent; indeed, more recently the category "U.S. Literature" has enjoyed increasing prominence. My argument here, though, is that the work of David Foster Wallace meditates self-consciously on what it means to be an "American" writer at the turn of the twenty-first century. Wallace's writing, I will suggest, emerges out of an intellectual heritage invested in quite traditional Americanist values, as adumbrated by Foerster: Transcendentalism, community spirit, self-reliance, and so on. At the same time, Wallace's acute responsiveness to new digital environments, within which liberal individualism has become a shadow of its former self, creates in his narratives an inherently ironic framework, one that explores the mythic romance of America even while recognizing how such assumptions are coming to appear increasingly strange and unfamiliar. This ultimately coalesced with Wallace's more philosophical interests in the limits of subjectivity and in how electronic grids of shared experience operated in the age of mass media; his writing sought effectively to remodel the idea of a romantic subject across an extended communal domain, one bearing a residual attachment to traditional American values, even within a globalized world where such partitioned conceptions of identity had seemingly been rendered moot. In this sense, despite Wallace's own intense sense of self-protective privacy, he was paradoxically committed as an author to the idea of his work as expressing the concerns of a public intellectual.
Aware of Wallace's projection of himself as a public intellectual malgré lui, I myself had an exchange of e-mails with the author early in 2007, after I had invited him to Oxford University's Rothermere American Institute, of which I was then director, to deliver our annual Esmond Harmsworth Lecture in American Arts and Letters. He first responded on 5 May 2007, saying, "I've been thinking about the Harmsworth thing, with no small trepidation. I really do not know how to deliver a 'lecture.' The one thing remotely like this I've done has been a commencement address at a college here in the States, and that took me weeks to write." However, Wallace also asked if we possessed transcripts or recordings of previous lectures, suggesting that "if I agreed to try to give a lecture on 15 May 2008, would you be willing to supply me with two or three transcripts/videotapes of such previous H.L.s so that I could get a concrete idea of what a Harmsworth Lecture actually looks or sounds like?" I replied that we had a general policy at the RAI of not recording anything, since we found this gave speakers—politicians, as well as writers—more freedom to share their ideas openly, without the intrusion of any legal or copyright issues. But I also indicated that we would be interested in something less formal than a regular academic lecture, perhaps a discussion of the kinds of things that interested him as a writer. After thinking this over for a few days, Wallace came back to me on 15 May, saying that he had "finally, and after much noodling, decided to pass on your very flattering invitation. I simply do not know how to 'lecture,' and Oxford is (to me) too hallowed and frightening a place to try doing something like this for the first time. What I will say is: If you are still interested in four or five years, perhaps you will invite me again. By that time, I hope I'll have educated myself about public lecturing and perhaps even given a couple lectures at small venues, and will have some degree of confidence that I could do a decent job for you." My response this time was to thank him anyway for considering the offer and to suggest that sometime in the future he might like to consider doing a lecture series around a particular theme, which could subsequently be published as a short book, an arrangement that we had recently been discussing in general terms with Princeton University Press. My specific suggestions involved the aesthetics of television or of sport, thinking such a framework might interestingly extend the format of Wallace's history of infinity into another conceptual area. He replied in his last e-mail to me, on 18 May: "I think I would say 'maybe' about the interlinked talks—though it sounds more like just writing a short book and then reading it aloud in chunks. But maybe. I invite you to contact me in a couple years. Pomona College will always know how best to reach me."
Part of my motivation in inviting Wallace to give the Harmsworth Lecture sprang simply from my own sense that he was the most significant writer of his generation. I came to his work relatively late, but after reading Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in 2001 it seemed clear not only that Wallace could do things with literary language other writers could not, but, more important, that his stylistic contortions spoke in a bizarre but entirely compelling way to the overloaded situation of the information age. It was a traditional critical acknowledgment not only of how a particular writer had managed to update rhetorical conventions to represent an altered state of affairs but also of how he had consolidated this new vision by entering implicitly into intertextual dialogue with significant literary and cultural precursors. Edmund Wilson entitled his 1943 book on American literature The Shock of Recognition, drawing his epigraph from Herman Melville's observation, in his discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne's indebtedness to Shakespeare, of how "genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round" ("Hawthorne" 249); and it is arguable that Wallace's invocation of digital America similarly gains in aesthetic power from its self-conscious negotiations with earlier American narratives. But another rationale for this invitation to Oxford stemmed from my notion of Wallace as at some level a moralist and pedagogue, a propensity that can be inferred from the concern with ethical issues that runs through his fiction and journalism, as well as the author's own intense capacity for self-interrogation about what it means to be an "American" writer at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
The most overt expression of Wallace's hortatory idiom comes in the commencement address he gave at Kenyon College, Ohio, in 2005, which was subsequently published as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. There is, as is usual with Wallace, a persistently reflexive aspect to this address, with the lecturer remarking ironically upon the "standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories" (5), even as he proceeds to deliver them. He continues by acknowledging to the graduating class how "the main requirement of speeches like this is that I'm supposed to talk about your liberal arts education's meaning, to try to explain why the degree you're about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff" (11) before going on to suggest that the real value of higher education lies not so much in what is taught but in "how to think, how to pay attention" (92), a process that enables people "to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't" (95). In itself, of course, this message would appear unexceptionable: it stresses traditional American virtues of intellectual flexibility and pragmatism, while at the same time derogating "arrogance, bland certainty" and "closed-mindedness" (32). What is unusual about This Is Water, though, is how deliberately and systematically it critiques the idea of "natural, basic self-centeredness" (37), the assumption that "there is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute center of" (39). This becomes a more extended meditation on the problem of solipsism, the ways in which failure to connect with a wider community can take on pathological overtones. Commenting on the "natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out" (60), Wallace—somewhat oddly, within the bland, conventional context of a commencement address—raises the question of suicide as a response to the problem of isolation, proclaiming that the burden of his public wisdom is "about making it to thirty, or maybe even fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head" (130).
The resolution to this conundrum, in Wallace's eyes, lies in the intellectual adroitness that would grant college graduates the imaginative capacity throughout their lives to transform the most banal material routines into emblems of a more elusive transcendent "unity": "It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things" (93). This enables him to conclude that "the real value of a real education" is linked to "simple awareness—awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us" (131). Such alignment of the quotidian and the "sacred," along with the insistence that "real" and "essential" value is located immanently within proximate circumstances, is reminiscent of Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1844 essay "The Poet," which seeks similarly to metamorphose apparently "dull" situations into landscapes of "wonder":
We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the barbarism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose picture he so much admires in Homer; then in the middle age; then in Calvinism. Banks and tariffs, the newspaper and caucus, methodism and unitarianism, are flat and dull to dull people, but rest on the same foundations of wonder as the town of Troy, and the temple of Delphos, and are as swiftly passing away. (21–2)
Throughout Wallace's writings, indeed, there are several connections, both thematic and stylistic, to the legacy of Emerson. In his celebrated essay on television, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" (1993), Wallace cites Emerson directly to exemplify the skill that television actors embody through their ability to act apparently naturally even before "the gaze of millions" (25). Wallace's point is that to act on native instinct even amidst the refractive system of media mirrors is, in itself, a heroic enterprise:
The man who can stand the megagaze is a walking imago, a certain type of transcendent semihuman who, in Emerson's phrase, "carries the holiday in his eye." The Emersonian holiday that television actors' eyes carry is the promise of a vacation from human self-consciousness. Not worrying about how you come across. A total unallergy to gazes. It is contemporarily heroic. It is frightening and strong. It is also, of course, an act, for you have to be just abnormally self-conscious and self-controlled to appear unwatched before cameras and lenses and men with clipboards. (25)
Drawing explicitly on the work of Harvard philosopher of aesthetics Stanley Cavell, whose 1981 book Pursuits of Happiness similarly traced signs of Emersonian self-reliance on the faces of film actors in Hollywood screwball comedies, Wallace here works his way through the paradox whereby, within the digital world, inner independence and media masquerade can be seen as not necessarily antithetical: "This self-conscious appearance of unself-consciousness," says Wallace, "is the real door to TV's whole mirror-hall of illusions" (25–6).
Like Emerson, then, and indeed like Cavell, Wallace sought throughout his work forms of reconciliation between the transcendent and the simulacrum. To put this another way, his texts seek to locate inherent meaning and purpose even amidst the razzmatazz of contemporary popular culture, which is generally accepted in his work as a donne for the world within which any ethical impulse has to operate. Stephen Railton has suggested that the generic model for classic "American Renaissance" narratives—Emerson's "Nature," Henry David Thoreau's Walden, Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and others—is "unmistakably the Protestant sermon" (107), since they all embody a performative dimension that situates the author in, as it were, the pulpit. Railton points to how the specific legacy of revivalist preaching manifests itself in more secular forms in mid-nineteenth-century American culture, so that, for example, Melville's fictional representation of Father Mapple's sermon in Moby-Dick comes to epitomize that novel's strange blend of worldly description and metaphysical rumination.
Despite the obliquities of his style, Wallace shares with these famous writers the propensity for an implicitly proselytizing idiom, where questions of moral imperative carry as much weight as their fictional correlatives, and he also has in common with Emerson and Thoreau an ambivalence toward the ontological reality of other people. Thoreau's Walden is of course a notoriously self-centered text, where the existence of others is admitted only on sufferance, while Van Wyck Brooks accused Emerson of having no idea of the relationship between abstract and concrete, and of writing about figures such as Plutarch and Spinoza as if they had no human bodies and were merely manifestations of what Emerson called the "Over-Soul." Since the publication of Emerson's "The American Scholar," complained Brooks, "the whole of American literature has had the semblance of one vast, all-embracing baccalaureate sermon" (117). Wallace's narratives suffer from a similar kind of conundrum, whereby the combination of ethical interrogation and technical language tends to create a theoretical momentum that effectively deflects the social world into abstract terms. The defamiliarizing strain in Wallace, as in Emerson and Thoreau, similarly has the effect of deliberately alienating readers from social situations they can immediately identify with. This might be one reason that responses to Wallace's work, as to that of Emerson, have tended to divide along gender lines, with some women readers finding it difficult to empathize in particular with the more schematic and apparently dehumanizing aspects of Wallace's early style. Reading Infinite Jest within a theoretical framework of gender, for example, Catherine Toal relates the novel to a crisis of masculinity, turning upon the displacement of social formation by darker forces of recreational addiction: "the grip of narcotic or media stimulation; the collapse of fatherly authority; and the rise of a dislocated, disoriented adult selfhood" (306).
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