Monday, February 22, 2010

David Foster Wallace on Worship...?

My father in law recently mentioned to Susanna that he had read David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement address at Kenyon.  I barely know anything about David Foster Wallace. Wiki says he's been compared to Thomas Pynchon, but if you aren't a Lit major or a writer yourself, generally these are not authors that make it into table talk. So, we thought it was pretty cool that Susanna's dad was familiar with Foster Wallace, so suprised in fact that we hunted down the speech and found it in the library in a collection edited by David Eggers. I read it to Sus night before last. It has been troubling me ever since.

First, and I'm not saying this to suggest that I'm anywhere close the rank and file of a writer like Foster Wallace, but what really strikes me as eerie about the speech is that I have written something kinda similar myself. Specifically, he beat me to the punch with a description of the grocery store as a kind of domestic hell of tedious drudgery. Here is a snippet from Foster Wallace:
You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store's crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough checkout lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can't take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.
In 2004 I was working on a set of essays that I had hoped to from into something publishable. Here is an excerpt of my attempt to describe the same kind of impatience in a grocery store (and yes, it does feel weird to quote myself):
If I am able, after becoming exhausted from gathering my items for purchase, after walking up so many long isles, after walking past so many strangers, after treating all these strangers like strangers, after standing in line next to these strangers, after glancing over the covers of several exhaustingly ridiculous magazines, after looking at chocolate, after convincing myself that the women on these magazine covers are really not real, after paying with a debit card, after grabbing my bags to leave, and if right at that moment when I don’t need anything else from him or her, if right then I make an awkward attempt at being human by forcing a smile with a really sincere “you have a nice day too” maybe I will somehow change the world.
I swear, I've never read David Foster Wallace before this. I've always wanted to. Thought I should, but his suicide in 2008 has kept me from following through. I have had my own history of depression, and--I'm not trying to be cute here--I don't need another Elliot Smith in my life right now.

I'm further spooked by Foster Wallace's commencement address because he seems to get so much right--to see so honestly and clearly--yet his ultimate conclusions are so flabby. He so appropriately speaks a sobering word about the reality of adult life, that much of life is not glamorous but is the challenge of enduring the daily grind, the monotony of our jobs and domestic chores, chores like grocery shopping. Our work is primarily a labor of perspective, of seeing properly. Either we can hate our trips to the grocery store or we can re-envision the encounter with a kind of humble, somewhat optimistic patience. Yet the life lesson he offers is offered sheepishly, almost on the sly. He is so keen to offer his insight, yet he is even more keen to not assert his perspective on the listener. He attempts to say so much, yet he's reluctant to say anything with more than a whimper of conviction.
Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you're "supposed to" think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it's hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you're like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat-out won't want to.
And I take it that he assumes that this kind of passive, sage voice is suppose to be admirable. This seems to be the voice of our age offering college graduates something that in sum goes like this: "here are some thoughts I've had about life and learning, but ultimately what I think doesn't matter dude...ultimately it's all up to you to figure it out for yourself."

Here is my final example of what spooks me about the Foster Wallace address: he stumbles upon some language that could come straight out of an evangelical sermon:
Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.
Foster Wallace's definition of truth is straight out of William James' pragmatism. He goes on to offer pluralistic disclaimers--that each of us can choose which spirituality or religion we prefer, but essentially he is saying that we become like the object of our worship whether it be money, our own bodies or our intellects. 

Christian wisdom teaches that the daily grind of our lives, the tedium and boredom of each day is fundamentally a result of the Fall. From the Genesis account, the strain and monotony of daily existence are a consequence of our rebellion. It is "by the sweat of your brow, you will earn your daily bread." Yes, we are called to re-envision each day, to redeem it from the grip of soul-sick repetition, but this isn't a task we have the power to accomplish on our own. The only God who can redeem the long hours of our days is the God who entered into time, lived under its curse and triumphed over time's greatest threat, death. It is the uniqueness of Christianity's incarnate, time bound, time redeeming God that gives me the courage to hold my convictions--with conviction.


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OKC Herbivore said...

you'll be proud that i'm responding while a mix is bouncing in realtime, a quick mix of some charlie rehearsals we tracked guerilla style the other day.

anyways-DFW has an essay in Consider The Lobster that a friend of mine sent to me about Dostoevsky (or about Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky bios) that floored me, and got me to writing a bunch. it too hints at specifically Christian truth (not just because of it's subject) in a very interesting veil.

and so i join the ranks of "well i know of him, never read him, now it's time to check him out."

Joshua Banner said...

Dirty D...I wrote this post last night after midnight waiting for my turn to take over at the mixing console and I've been frantically tweaking it for little breaks away from the speakers all through last night and this morning. Everything is going to treelady tonight. Almost got another hope CD in the can! I think I may just pick some DFW for my trip next week. PEACE