For the Soul of David Foster Wallace II

Since posting about my favorite writer of fiction, the author of Infinite Jest, I myself have been wondering just what that was doing in a Catholic blog. I received warm validation from comments by the likes of Deacon Scott Dodge, but still. How religious was DFW? I think this will be a question that haunts me, even as I begin my fourth reading of IJ.

This short story published in The New Yorker over a year after DFW’s death bears a possible answer. It starts simply, with the childhood memory of a toy cement mixer. After winding through a page of typically complex ruminations, the story lands at this extraordinary statement:

“The toy cement mixer is the origin of the religious feeling that has informed most of my adult life.”

Is “All That” short story or memoir? I did not know that DFW ever attended a seminary, which the first-person narrator did; and the heading does read “FICTION.” But whether it is memoir, or story, or (like everything ever written) something in between—and whether or not someone without a religious bone in his body could have written this “fiction”—Wallace’s story of the toy truck is especially touching to me because it bears so closely on the whole question of childhood spirituality that has become something of an obsession for me. And because it confirms my sense that the author of my favorite work of fiction (with the possible exception of Kristin Lavransdatter) was driven by deep religious impulses that God grant may have carried him beyond death.

Read the story, please. Here it is again. It is short; Infinite Jest is over 1,000 pages; choose your poison. You will be touched as I have been by this remarkable man and suicide.

Footnote: Here’s a thoughtful reflection on Wallace that also makes the religion connection.

  • EPG

    Webster wrote (in part): “Since posting about my favorite writer of fiction, the author of Infinite Jest, I myself have been wondering just what that was doing in a Catholic blog. . . . How religious was DFW? I think this will be a question that haunts me, even as I begin my fourth reading of IJ.”The dictionary on the shelf behind my desk (American Heritage – 2d College Edition) includes the following: “catholic: . . . (1) of broad or general scope; universal; all inclusive [and] (3) Catholic a. Of or pertaining to the universal Christian Church . . . d. Of or concerning the Roman Catholic Church.”Meditations on faith and doubt, despair and hope, belief and unbelief most certainly belong in blog that (so far at least) has been both Catholic and catholic. The last thing you want to do is to become parochial, because if one is to take the propositions advanced by the Church seriously, Catholicism has something to say to and about “all sorts and conditions of men” (to quote a phrase from the old BCP – sorry about the non-gender inclusive language) (well, not that sorry). There are a lot of things that a Catholic blogger with catholic interests might have to say that those who express their Catholicism narrowly might find, well, beyond the scope of their interest. Pay them no mind.

  • Webster Bull

    Many thanks, EPG. A blogger needs feedback, especially when he's going out on a limb, no matter how small-c catholic. Your comments are valued as always.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06368195895421044006 Matthew

    Webster, I agree with EPG completely. In order to be Catholic we need to be catholic. This is a great forum for such thoughts.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    EPG says,"There are a lot of things that a Catholic blogger with catholic interests might have to say…"Golly, I hadn't noticed LOL! I think it was gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson (um, not Catholic…I think) who said,"When the going get's weird, the weird turn Pro." or somethin' like that. We'll keep wielding the torch of Catholicism with Chesterton's "map of the mind" wherever we go. ;^)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Case in point: today's Music for Mondays

  • Warren Jewell

    I, as well, concur with EPG. And, therein why I do not blog. Or, at least, my blog would be very different from the Web&Frank; Online Gabfest Show.I would be quite parochially Catholic. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01037555111680888247 Janet

    I requested Infinite Jest from Inter-Library Loan this evening. AMDG

  • Maria

    I read the New Yorker piece and the relection on DFW. The reflection on DFW quotes DFW:"They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.But the insidious thing about these forms of worship(money/power/sex for e.g.) is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings".He did not understand. The default setting IS sin. Original sin. We are wired for sin. Wired for idolatry: idolatry of the world and self- idolatry. Either refuses to admit of, or to, the will of God. God's will crosses MY will. Every time. Until we understand our own sin, and the need for Mercy,I do not think we can know the Love for which we were made. That is how it worked for me.Warren: I LOVE parochial Catholicism, you know, as in the Baltimiore Catechism. So rare, it is now exotica!!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09069018443486415173 Janet

    Mary, I'm not sure that the Baltimore Catechism is all that rare anymore. Almost every Catholic homeschooler that I know (and there are tons of them) has one or more. I think I have three. I use it as a supplement to my PRE (CCD) class.AMDG

  • Webster Bull

    OK, a couple of things, folks–@Warren: "Web&Frank; Online Gabfest Show"?? Ouch! I think now you're obliged to start a truly parochial Catholic blog, and we'll see how you do! :-)@Janet: IJ is an acquired taste, but let me give you a tip. On page 223 of the first American edition, you'll find "Chronology…by Year," from (1) Year of the Whopper to (9) Year of Glad. To sort out the story on the first reading, it is imperative to know this chronology in advance. It shows you, for example, that the first scene in the book is actually the last to happen. Kind of like "Pulp Fiction," to cite another non-Catholic source and outrage Warren even more. One more thing @Janet. The main characters are the Incandenza family: Father James (dead during most of the action), mother Avril (watch out for her), Orrin (punter for the Arizona Cardinals), Mario (terribly deformed and the most Christ-like figure in the book, except maybe Don Gately), and Hal (dope-smoking protagonist). Everyone else, except Gately, is secondary. There, now I feel better recommending the book. You're on your own!@Maria: With all due respect, you can say that DFW got it wrong, but only if you expect everyone in the world to speak in the tongues of dogma and doctrine. DFW was no Catholic and maybe no Christian, but he could have been, perhaps if he had lived long enough; maybe he would have found YIMC and been converted. The child with the cement mixer (which may be the author) was motivated by a religious impulse and heeded it at least enough to ignore his parents' atheism. I find the story very moving, whether or not the author "understood."

  • Anonymous

    Hi Webster, I'm with you-hang tough. There's room for all kinds and we're all on the journey. I like the example JP2 set as Pope. He invited all sorts of people outside traditional churchy types to the Vatican. He was expansive. I think there are people of good will and some without good will. Their response to God's call is their own mission. Again, I think JP2 would have said to us-Be not afraid! Like when St. Peter has the dream in which Christ shows him the food on the blanket-He lets him know"look I'll tell you what's unclean". I think if we look for Christ everywhere we'd be surprised at some of the places we'd find Him! God Bless-Regina

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks, Regina. JP2 is the great Catholic exemplar of our times, isn't he? Good reminder.

  • Maria

    Janet:"Mary, I'm not sure that the Baltimore Catechism is all that rare anymore"…That was tongue in cheek, dear. Warren: "you can say that DFW got it wrong, but only if you expect everyone in the world to speak in the tongues of dogma and doctrine".I wasn't passing judgement on him. I used to be enamored of these sorts of " wounded by the world and wiser than the world" types. I don't know his work. You do. So take these comments within that framework.These comments are as much to remind myself, ie, sin in driving the engine, whatever else we might think.I LOVED the story in the New Yorker. It was a dear story. Yes, it was marked fiction; however, I could not help wonder if it was was autobiographical. As someone who has worked with children who suffered from trauma, I could not help wondering if perhaps he was dissocaitive or suffered from a form of childhood schizophrenia. In either case, it would certainly explain the suicide. Cretainly, the voices.I am always on your side, Webster.

  • Maria

    Warren: "you can say that DFW got it wrong, but only if you expect everyone in the world to speak in the tongues of dogma and doctrine".WEBSTER–this was meant for you,not Warren. Sorry!!

  • Webster Bull

    Maria, Not even the slightest offense taken! I just like mixing it it up with you and especially with your pal Warren, because the two of you know everything, and really should start a parochial Catholic blog together. You could call it "Why We Are Not Frank and Webster"!! And I promise I would HAUNT your comment boxes! LOL/ROFLMAO

  • Maria

    Webster:Now I am ROFLMAO!! No we are not. No we are not.Ha. One of the benefits of unemployment are the endless hours I get to spend incoparating John Hardon SJ into my mind, heart and soul. John Hardon SJ on Sin and ConversionCertainly the devil had not planned for Paul, Augustine and Ignatius to become giants of zeal for the conversion of sinners. But the devil is part of the providence of God. Those seduced by Satan to become leading sinners, once converted, become leading converters of those estranged from God’s love.If I err in zeal, it is only in my love for Godand neighbor.Respectfully submitted,Sinner Most Expert

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01037555111680888247 Janet

    I'm smiling a bit over the fact that a book called Infinite Jest has 1,000 pages.AMDG


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