Sep 21, 2012

Posted by in Literary Apologetics | 17 Comments

A Christian’s Introduction to David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) is an utterly unique author for an utterly unique generation. But he’s not nearly as well known as many who know him think he should be. He was once awarded the so-called “Genius Grant” by the MacArthur Foundation. Time magazine named Infinite Jest, his second novel, one of the 100 best novels in the English language since 1923. And Wallace’s unfinished, posthumous novel The Pale King was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize earlier this year. A nearly lifelong sufferer of clinical depression, he tragically took his own life in 2008. He was most well known for his novels and several books of short fiction (notably Brief Interview with Hideous Men and Oblivion), but his nonfiction often gets almost equal praise. Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again are two of his acclaimed works in that genre.

But what most people think of when they hear the name, if they have heard it, is that he’s the guy who writes doorstop novels littered with footnotes and endnotes. He’s the guy who churns out sixty-seven-line sentences and writes about everything from philosophy to math to drug addiction to tennis. He’s witty, ironic, pushes the envelope with both his characters and his prose, and if you have enough coffee on hand the verbal pyrotechnics will probably be worth your while if you’re that kind of reader. On the other hand, scores of others say this: His references are too obscure. He’s too difficult, too cerebral. A hundred pages of endnotes tacked on to a thousand-page novel are not necessary. And so on. It’s true that I once found myself with fingers in five different places while reading Infinite Jest, realizing I was reading a footnote within a footnote within an endnote within an endnote. But despite that, and despite the persistent word about him on the street, I see an incredibly different picture of Wallace and his work.

Aside from the prose barrier, not many orthodox or conservative Christians will have read Wallace. And those who have wouldn’t likely recommend him to their cohorts. Many Christians will find his work too worldly, too far removed from the kind of place they’d like to inhabit. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is partly a fictive compilation of “interviews” with scumbags of every possible shape and size outlining and justifying their sordid exploits with women. Infinite Jest takes readers into the dark dens of such circumstances as suicidal depressives addicted to pharmaceuticals, teenagers concocting elaborate methods for hiding narcotics, and casual promiscuity.

But, his work consistently displays a concern for getting people out of a self-focused paradigm and into an other-focused one. He argues for this change, especially in his fiction, by taking us inside the very culture and minds that resist it.

In his now famous commencement speech given at Kenyon College in 2005, posthumously titled, “This Is Water,” he beseeches young graduates to take at least one habit of mind away from their liberal arts education. He urges them to refrain from spending their adult lives looking at people and then urges them to instead look, imaginatively, along with them.

Says Wallace: “You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable.”

This habit of mind, this angle of vision, this way of seeing the world and oneself in relation to it is the distinct province of Christianity. Jesus instructs: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” And then he ties a cloak around his waist and washes his servants’ grimy feet. The Apostle Paul: “For the commandments . . . are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Moses: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And, through the prophet Jeremiah, God says of one king who was particularly mindful of the poor: “Is this not to know me?”

This emphasis on counting others as more significant than ourselves, on surrendering freedom and privilege, on granting others favors when they decidedly don’t deserve them, is quite literally embodied in the narrative of history—where God is protagonist—and reaches its pinnacle in the man Jesus of Nazareth. The God who emptied himself by taking on the form of a servant, leaving the throne room of heaven and the bosom of the Father for people he knew would spit on him, snub him, run away from him and yell up at his hanging form to avail himself of the very power he forewent for their sake. The one who did all this “for the joy set before him.” The one who exhibits true selflessness.

One of David Foster Wallace’s main projects is pointing out both the pervasiveness and hideousness of an orientation toward self that has reached its pitch during our time. This other-centered stance is an essentially Christian one. And I mean the word “essentially” in its full and deepest sense.

But Wallace’s usefulness to the Christian reader extends further in his considering himself part of the organism he’s dissecting. He seems to inveterately toss himself up on the chopping block along with everybody else.

In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Wallace seems to be, at least in many of the pieces, practicing a kind of self-critique, pointed at, on the one hand, a distinct variety of the overly-intellectualized person and, on the other hand, a distinct variety of the completely self-absorbed person.

See, for example, the first page of the story “Death is not the End,” and note the list of accolades Wallace gives to his “Poet’s Poet” who’s depicted as existing, almost literally, inside a garden-walled universe. It is high-fenced, perfectly serene, utterly controlled, and entirely solitary. The only sounds come from the occasional “soft gurgle of the pool’s pump and drain” and the sound of the man’s own toe scratching the arch of his other foot. It’s completely devoid of outside chatter, except what’s allowed inside—by the Poet—in the form of a Poet-selected magazine. Then take note of how strikingly this Poet’s accolades resemble Wallace’s own.

In the act of gutting himself, exposing all his messiness and grotesqueness and imperfection, Wallace pulls us into the mind of another and allows us to see both the horror and the exquisitely sad groping for meaning that characterize our present age. He drops us inside C. S. Lewis’s toolshed-beam and turns our heads to make us “look along it,” to experience our freakish society for a moment from within it. This pouring out of himself for the sake of his generation is one way in which Wallace’s life’s work reflects that of our Creator’s. As incredulous as some of his devotees might be at this claim, I think it’s a fair way to describe his efforts; he lamented, quite often, how people only talked about the wit and the humor and the brainy acrobatics in his work rather than focusing on the heart of it, the incredibly sad situations it presents.

Wallace is a particular kind of prophet for a particular kind of crooked and twisted generation. Prophet? Yes. God can and does use an array of vehicles to deliver his indictments of particular societies to them. And we the faithful can learn a lot from this one.

One other point may be fairly important to make.

David Foster Wallace is not for everyone. Not simply because of the abstruse intellectual stuff. But because of the depths to which he delves (in an effort, truly, to expose a pandemic blindness) into the nastiness of contemporary amoral life. Content of this nature is so pervasive in his work that it might do more to distract some readers than to benefit them. As indeed, in a similar way, many of the faithful who were contemporaries of Flannery O’Connor found her use of violence and depravity in and between her characters simply more than was helpful.

We are right to rail against and recoil from gratuitous violence, sex, etc—for pietistic and artistic reasons alike. But David Foster Wallace’s use of such typically abused things is, I submit, anything at all but gratuitous, or glorifying as some might put it. Much to the contrary, Wallace could almost be described as a kind of generational Dad gripping a disobedient young pup by the scruff and rubbing its nose in the carpet where it really knows, deep down, it shouldn’t have messed itself.

Those familiar with, or perhaps even steeped in, the contemporary world that Wallace paints—and its dominant literary idiom—will find a brilliant, wise, intensely sophisticated portrayal of the plight of our media-saturated, information-overloaded, rampantly unreflective, commercially-driven society. And, hopefully, in looking at his work through the lens of Wallace-as-critic-par-excellence-of-post-modern-solipsism some readers who find themselves antagonistic to the faith may see, for the first time, a meeting ground where they and those they consider opponents can stand at the same angle and look along the beam together.

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  1. Very interesting article! I have not heard of this writer before, but am intrigued. I like the analogy you used about burying a pup’s nose in a mess to show them how gross it is!

  2. Garret Johnson says:

    Thanks, Jason! Discovering Wallace is definitely an experience you won’t forget. Wherever you begin with reading him, the best word I can give you is: brace yourself! You’re in for a ride (both grammatically and imaginatively, so to speak).

  3. Was Wallace consciously writing from a Christian worldview? I always find it fascinating when nonchristian writers point out Christian principles sometimes better than many theologians. Of course they draw different conclusions from their arguments…

  4. Garret Johnson says:

    I wouldn’t say he was writing from a consciously Christian worldview. It’s somewhat difficult to pin down exactly what his worldview was. In some lesser known nonfiction, he talks with great respect about some members of a church he was apparently attending at one point. But he tended to avoid spelling out his beliefs about religion and spirituality. He mentions things offhand (in his speech “This Is Water,” for example, and elsewhere) that sound essentially relativist. But, as you say, the amazing thing is that he’s able to bring into focus some of the most profound truths Christianity teaches about fallen creatures living in a fallen world. It brings to mind Augustine’s famous phrase: “All truth is God’s truth.” All humans, as image-bearers of God, respond to those deep truths when they encounter them (whether they acknowledge their source or not). It’s one reason I think great wisdom can be found in writers and artists of all kinds and backgrounds.

  5. I really enjoyed this posting, as well as the Q’s & A’s.

  6. Garret Johnson says:

    Thanks, Shala!

  7. Thank you for this interesting and perceptive introduction to an author about whom I also have never heard. I appreciate how your comments held my attention and got me to think about the transition from a self- to an other- focus.
    Although I unfortunately have poor reading skills and will probably not attempt such challenging works a sthose you mention, I am thankful for the effective reminder about my self-centeredness (oh that it were only as weak as those reading skills!).
    Thank you again. I really enjoyed your work.

  8. Garret Johnson says:

    Thanks for the comment, Jim! I’m glad you enjoyed it. And yes. Yes, indeed. If only it weren’t so intensely easy to spiral down into self-absorption. I’m right there with you, brother. I’m thankful we have authors (and the Author) who keep sounding the same tuning-fork to remind us of that. What’s great (and encouraging) to me about the Great Author is that he doesn’t just sound it with his words but also with his life, death, resurrection, Spirit (though particularly, I think, with his death). Also, that unique way of teaching us, through experience, who he really is (and thus who we’re meant to be) seems to echo one of the great strengths of creative literature: teaching by showing, teaching by giving an experience.

  9. I pleasure to read. Thank you.

  10. Garret Johnson says:

    Thank you for reading (and for the kind comment). It’s certainly my pleasure.

  11. Hey Garret, enjoyed the article. I met you a long time ago at UH and went over some bible studies together. I believe Architecture was a tentative major at that point, so this is an interesting career path. Good to see you still writing about the “Great Author”. Have a good week.

    • Garret Johnson says:

      Hey Chris. Thanks for the comment. Good to hear from you. Yes, I remember those days. (It was Engineering, in fact; right next to the Architecture building; good memory!) Cheers to the Great Author.

  12. Really good essay, and one that I clicked to immediately when I saw it — though I was then reading about Flannery O’Connor. Quite a feat, that. I’ve considered DFW ‘good stuff’ on that exact element, namely, of thinking of others, and stopping thinking of myself so damn much.

    I think if you go anywhere else with this essay, though, or simply the thoughts in it, you should not quote the Golden Rule as so precisely Christian, since it’s not and since that’s not DFW’s point. Also wouldn’t do the “love others as yourself” as the illustration or extension of the point he makes on a woman in line at the grocery store.

    It’s not the Golden Rule (which pre-dates Jesus) nor is it the “as yourself” because it’s the “lay down your life” and “consider others GREATER than you.”

    The foot-washing IS a good illustration, because what he means is we should do MORE than just all we do for our own bad selves. He’s saying forget yourself completely for a minute, and think of the other person.

    So your point about what he wants is — both that DFW says to go that far AND that Christianity is unique in calling for it. But several of your illustrations don’t show that; they only go for parity.

    • Garret Johnson says:

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks so much for the comments. I’m glad the piece resonated with you. (Sorry for the slow response here.)

      You make a good point about some of my examples really showing various degrees of parity more than some kind of essential dependence (at least the way I phrased them). Helpful insight. And I like your reading of the foot-washing illustration. Exactly my angle on it.

      You’re also quite right about the Golden Rule not being DFW’s explicit point. I hadn’t really intended to communicate that. I should have probably clarified a bit that he’s not directly or consciously drawing on the precise Christian teaching I referenced (by which I don’t mean he’s ACCIDENTALLY drawing on it either).

      My real point (about the nature of his idea, and about the nature of where people get such ideas in general) was that out of the eternal truths of Christianity flow the multiply recognizable admonitions of wise people from all kinds of backgrounds.

      In this case, that eternal truth was: It is Good and Beautiful for one person to treat another as more significant than himself. And the recognizable echo of it was DFW’s intellectualized manifestation of the concept, a concept also, I think, at the heart of the Golden Rule.

      Your point about the Golden Rule’s history is fair, too. Numerous versions of it certainly predated Jesus. But, as far as my reading has revealed thus far, prior to Jesus’ articulation of it, the Rule was mostly phrased (and it seems nearly always THOUGHT of) in the negative: e.g. Confucius’: “Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you,” which results in a slightly different (although certainly consistent), passive conception of the idea: refraining from harming others.

      The thing about Jesus’ version (and I do think DFW’s approach, as well) is that it radicalizes the ancient rule for relational beings and turns it into this extreme, active generosity of both body and mind (as well as heart…if you can really separate that from mind). Jesus says a number of apparently unprecedented things, at least in terms of the form in which he puts them (and, supremely, in the way he teaches them, the emphases he attaches to them). Ideas like ‘go the extra mile,’ ‘give your tunic ALONG WITH your cloak if someone asks for the cloak,’ ‘go and do likewise [wash each other’s feet, like I just did],’ and in general, actively ‘do to others what you’d want them to do to you’ in any given situation.

      Of course, there’s also Jesus’ other way of teaching the idea: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay his life down for his friends.” One reason I think Jesus so often comes to mind, first, when the Golden Rule crops up is because of the radical way he embodied it, and urged everyone else to embody it. Looking at this whole thing from a Christian theological perspective, the incarnation itself is arguably the most radical, active, emptying of self for the sake of another conceivable (because it took the most emptying—was the most profoundly total).

      So to me, Jesus’ version, more than any other version, resembles Wallace’s radical suggestion of intellectual and emotional generosity. Which he describes in that anecdote about the woman in the checkout line. In a sense, forgoing something even as subtle as internal irritation at the behavior of some stranger, and, more importantly, putting forth an active EFFORT to think charitably about her, is a kind of “death to self” (as some would phrase it), which, it would seem, is really the Golden Rule in its most extreme form (or even in its essence).

      You make an excellent point about the grocery-line anecdote being distinct from the “as yourself” idea, being rather an example of “lay down your life.” I should adjust/rephrase that.

      Certainly it’s important to maintain distinctions in all this (so I’m thankful for those careful insights), but part of the idea I was interested in exploring—though I probably wasn’t clear enough on this—was where apparently distinct things reveal their common underpinning.

      In any case, your points are definitely helpful—pushing me to clarification, giving me ideas for how I might reframe things. And I’m always happy to hear further response on this angle.

      Thanks again for the suggestions. There’s still tons more to say about Wallace (I’m fascinated by the effect of his prose itself, and what I think is an interesting connection between that and the apparent aims of much of his content…form and content really working together), but other things in the pipeline will probably busy me before I’m able to get back to him.

      Enjoyed the dialogue!


  13. Bravo,

    I’m currently reading Infinite Jest – I think he is the most important male american writer in the past 20 years. (problem with this genre, and why the nobel committees rightfully detest them – Wallace, Franzen, Eggars, Chabon, Eugenidies etc – is the affluent self absorption that comes with this group)

    Having said that, I completely agree with you about the deeper sense of search for both meaning and cosmic empathy that he questions and creates unease/tension in him yet oblivious to many of his characters. I never really read much before because I’m in the sciences but I really appreciate what you say and offer.

    Is it just me or do you ever get discouraged how narrow the literary canon is for us christians?
    I’ve actually had greater insight into this world God created by my last 5 books that are non Christian. (2666, Underworld, Brief Life of Oscar Wao, Blood Meridian and Alice Munroe)

    please continue your great insights

    • Holly Ordway says:

      Jumping in here…Samuel, that’s a great point. The literary canon is too often made artificially narrow by Christians — but as you rightly note, there’s a lot of insight and truth to be gained from the works of non-Christians as well (and by Christian writers who are more subtle in their writing, like Evelyn Waugh or Jane Austen). Often the difference in perspective can provide insight, just by looking at life from a different point of view. When fledgling writers ask me for advice on how to be a good “Christian writer” I tell them to be a good writer first, period, and to read widely. I really appreciate Garret’s work here in bringing to light authors who might otherwise be overlooked, like DFW.

    • Garret Johnson says:

      Thanks Samuel,

      I’m glad the post resonated with you somehow!

      I love the tension DFW creates (and the energy it generates when reading him) between what his characters’ understand of themselves and their world and what the larger narrative he’s spinning seems to be SUGGESTING about those characters’ attitudes. There’s a nice, narratively pleasing, dissonance between the two. It’s a really effective way, I think, of getting a reader to think and feel deeply about a subject, or a way of being. Of course, if the reader misses that dissonance, then the very understandable reaction may well ensue: Why on earth am I reading this story about these AWFUL people who have no clue how awful they are?

      Thankfully, for us, Wallace’s skill (and his larger-than-life style) tend to keep that from happening.

      I hear you, brother, on the discouragement about MANY ways in which Christian literature is both viewed and undertaken in our culture and time. As my wonderful colleague, Dr. Ordway, pointed out in her comment as well, so many great Christian writers of the past didn’t even think to separate themselves from the rest of the literary world, in their efforts to render the universe as they saw it through a Christian lens. (By the way, Dr. Ordway’s advice to her students is precisely what I would give mine. How to write good Christian fiction? Write good fiction…)

      In one sense, this has become a matter of “genre.” By which I mean, that the size of the population that reads and buys books in the GENRE of Christian Literature is so huge and influential that many publishers have carved out a separate niche for a certain kind of story that they know will sell. They make sure to include certain elements in a certain formula (as any publisher, for any kind of genre, would) to satisfy the demand. I’m not saying this is automatically a bad thing. But I think one side-effect is that it has created a cultural vision of what “Christian” literature is. It’s limited what both readers and writers often think a “Christian” story either CAN be or SHOULD be.

      That’s the sad thing.

      BUT, it definitely doesn’t have to be that way. For one thing, I think there are numerous writers out there who are devoted Christians, trying to describe the world as they see it through a Christian lens, and who don’t feel obliged to adhere to the restrictions of Christian genre fiction.

      One such contemporary writer is Bret Lott.

      A WONDERFUL nonfiction book of his (on the art and the life of creative writing) is called: BEFORE WE GET STARTED. He doesn’t exactly tackle this problem we’re talking about, directly, in that book. But he does demonstrate, indirectly, how a devoted Christian can partake in the same literary community, and talk about the same literary phenomena, as everyone else, without 1) feeling the need to separate himself entirely from all the rest of them, or 2) sacrificing anything of who he is as a Christian.

      I haven’t actually read any full works of his fiction, just snippets of it from that same book. But he appears to be a wonderful writer, and he’s actually garnered a great deal of success (one of his novels was actually chosen by Oprah for her Book of the Month Club).

      As far as other writers: Flannery O’Connor is a great one in this regard (I see her has sharing many things with David Foster Wallace… In fact, in a brief lecture of Wallace’s about Franz Kafka, I heard him refer to O’Connor, humorously, as “our dark mother”). She, like Wallace, examines the dark side of the human soul as it operates in society and also, like Wallace, wrote stories that carried a sense of heightened reality. But she was very ardently Christian. Actually, now that I think about it, you might enjoy a post I did about O’Connor (and Tolkien) in which I talk about this very idea at greater length. Here’s the link:

      About non-Christian writers whose works nevertheless exhibit real Christian wisdom (which, in the end, is just WISDOM), there are SO many. This is one of the wonderful things about seeing the world from a Christian perspective in the first place: We recognize that ALL people are made in the image of God, and so they posses a true sense of Godly morality, whether they acknowledge its source as being in God or not.

      I too have really gotten a lot out of BLOOD MERIDIAN. McCarthy’s THE ROAD is also a great one in this regard (won the Pulitzer in 2007, too). I haven’t read UNDERWORLD (though it’s been on my list), but I actually know that David Foster Wallace was a huge fan of DeLillo and even corresponded with him (by letter, I believe) for some years.

      One very recent and memorable example of this type of book (i.e. filled with true insight and wisdom but not technically “Christian” in the genre sense) is Justin Cronin’s THE PASSAGE.

      It’s the first book in a trilogy by a writer who has had great success as a literary author but turned his pen to writing a post-apocalyptic-vampire series. It’s superbly written, very entertaining, and in the end, has some deep insights into what it is to be created in the image of the divine.

      Thanks again for the great comment!


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