The Literature of Contempt: Some Rambling About DFW and Dostoyevsky

The Literature of Contempt: Some Rambling About DFW and Dostoyevsky July 8, 2015

Over the holiday weekend I read through pretty much the entire Mockingbird archive of posts tagged “David Foster Wallace.” Meanwhile I’m reading The Idiot for the third time (and finally retaining something other than the “worst thing you ever did” party game, I hope…) and slowly gnawing through Игрок (The Gambler) in Russian class. If you ever want to notice how super-contemptuous (презрительнейший! чрезвычайно презрительнейший!) both of these writers can get about everybody in the entire world, I highly recommend reading them together. And yet so much of their work is an attempt to present the beauty of surrendering one’s contempt; so much of what they write is written in admiration of people whose habitual posture toward the world is humble and accepting rather than defensive and judgmental.

There’s that scurrilous article about the Prince in The Idiot, for example, this article that’s just dripping with entitlement and self-pity. You can’t imagine that voice so clearly without savoring the contempt you feel for the people you’re satirizing. It’s paralleled in Infinite Jest with the testimony of the abused girl from W.H.I.N.E.R.S.–there’s the same ferocious loathing of people who use their suffering as an excuse, the same contempt for entitlement and self-pity. And, I think, the same sinking feeling that this contempt is not actually a virtue. The Idiot lets everyone involved in the awful article continue to exist in the novel and show at least a few other facets of character (allowing nuance in later cameos is basically how a novelist shows mercy) whereas Infinite Jest tries to complicate the contempt by explaining it, and setting up a counterexample in the form of the woman who carried her dead baby around. Dostoyevsky’s method of undercutting his own contempt seems more complete and humble–though not very humble.

I mean there’s something disingenuous about it, right, this contempt followed by or alongside surrender of contempt?–you get all the pleasure of an accurate dig, and all the pleasure of Christian moralism.

We hear a lot about how reading fiction increases empathy (everything’s gotta be useful these days) and my position on that question is that it’s the wrong thing to ask literature to do. But I do wonder whether writing fiction can at times allow us to disable some of our self-defense mechanisms, giving us end-runs (sometimes disingenuous ones) around our most judgmental tendencies.

So for example, I don’t want to generalize, but I think I have seen people trapped in a certain kind of depression, sort of like the bit in “The Snow Queen” where the evil glass shard gets in your eye and you see only a loathsome and distorted view of the world. In this situation people are reflexively critical of everyone around them. They’re sometimes quite accurate in their criticism–not quite as accurate as they think they are, but the real distortion usually comes in how disproportionately large people’s flaws and failures loom in their view. They also turn that distorted vision on themselves. There’s a constant running flow of self-blame in their heads. In order to fight back against that self-destructive voice, they spend a lot of time mentally defending themselves. That instinct of self-defense is good–they’re fighting against discouragement, depression, despair, even the Devil–but it can also lead to really intense self-pity and an inability to distinguish justified guilt from self-hatred.

If you can’t honor your guilt you can’t repent. This makes personal change really hard.

Writing fiction can do a few things here. In a perverse way it can prompt you to imagine other people as more than props in your drama. It can push you to see them from a new angle.

It can also help you to see yourself a bit more “from the outside.” If you’re already working hard to be humble and gentle with others, that can be a huge help–allowing you to wriggle into the Golden Rule from the opposite end. Seeing yourself as a character (or seeing aspects of yourself in a character) can make self-exposure less threatening. You can be much harsher toward your own flaws, because it’s not really you, it’s a satirical character!–and simultaneously I think lots of authors do look on their characters with a surprising degree of fondness. The awful behavior can be accepted: It’s not good, but it’s part of the story of a character you love. So your characters can be places where you expose and even exaggerate your own flaws, while still feeling much more fondness for them than you can muster for yourself.

Exaggerating your flaws even allows you some vicarious enjoyment of them. You get to write what you’d say if you had no muzzle and no esprit d’escalier. You get to imagine how great it would be to let yourself off the chain–while still, again somewhat disingenuously but we’ve all gotta start somewhere, letting the reader see your flaws as flaws, your sins as sins, your cruelty as pathetic instead of impressive. You get to be an amoral actor in a moral world, and I think that might help you recover a moral vision.

My first spiritual director once gave me, as a penance, the assignment to try to view myself as a character in a story. I think he wanted me to get past both self-pity and despair; characters are boring if they can’t change, so you have an incentive to overcome your own fatalism. And in fact, as I say in the book, it was a similar act of the imagination that got me to go to spiritual direction in the first place.

I feel that we have now decisively left the territory of literary criticism for the Slow Children Zone of self-help; that’s appropriate for DFW but perhaps less so for Dostoyevsky, so let’s stop here.

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