The Theological Imagination of David Foster Wallace, Part Two

The Theological Imagination of David Foster Wallace, Part Two September 21, 2012

Continued from yesterday.

In his now infamous 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace tells a parable about two men, an atheist and a Christian, sitting in a bar in the Alaskan wilderness debating the existence of God. The two men interpret the world in two different ways, the believer thinking that his friend’s survival in a recent blizzard was the result of a half-hearted yet answered prayer, and the atheist believing that “all that was was two Eskimos that came along and showed me the way out.”

Wallace, raised by professors in university towns (Ithaca and then Champaign-Urbana) cautions the Kenyon students against applying too eagerly the relativistic liberal arts stance of simply allowing both men to be right because their beliefs are shaped by separate cultural forces and experiences.

Wallace says that it’s not that neither man is correct, it’s that both display “blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.”

In other words, education is about freedom through self-knowledge, an interrogation of what we unthinkingly take to be true. Through self-knowledge we temper our arrogance and gain a real freedom that Wallace says allows us to “truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

Wallace goes on to boldly claim, “That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

By framing Lane’s and Sheri’s predicament and Wallace’s Kenyon address in Christian terms, I’m not trying to claim Wallace for the Church, nor am I trying to jury-rig some causality between faith, or struggles with it, and literary excellence. But the facts are what they are.

Many of our finest, most enduring writers have written about spiritual struggle. Imagine the work of Hawthorne, Whitman, Twain, Flannery O’Connor, Updike, Cheever, etc. without theology (“reasoning or discussion concerning the Deity,” as Augustine put it) and without the arrogant American belief that we are the New Jerusalem, what Alfred Kazin calls that “high sense of himself so famous in the American character.”

Note that Wallace stood before the Kenyon class of 2005 and advised them to root out this paranoid arrogance brought on by the mere feeling of “having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

This fear and arrogance also echoes in the chambers of Lane’s heart, a heart that he feels is slowly freezing, hardening against Sheri and against God.

The thing Sheri wants is Lane to say that he loves her. Lane knows this, but is filled with fear and dread that he does not love her. Wallace writes at the conclusion of the story:

Why is he so sure he doesn’t love her? Why is one kind of love any different? What if he has no earthly idea what love is? What would even Jesus do? . . . What if he was just afraid, if the truth was no more than this, and if what to pray for was not even love but simple courage, to meet both her eyes as she says it and trust his heart.

To my mind, this is one of the most moving passages in DFW’s work. Of course, there is some question as to whether this ending bears any resemblance to Wallace’s own thoughts on the truth. So, without assigning them to him, I do feel confident in saying that Wallace believed that fear stands in the way of embracing truth. And while it is easy to diagnose, it is hard to cure.

I’d be willing to wager that a similar fear plagued David Foster Wallace throughout his life. Was it his undoing? No, that fear alone wouldn’t suffice, but fear of the truth, of coming down on one side or the other, “choosing what to think about,” what to commit oneself to is some days a scary impossible decision, especially if your mind is as filigreed as Wallace’s.

Wallace said that religion gives you something to focus on outside of yourself, an object, a cause; what Berrigan might call the constant object of our intellects, the thing that we are constantly struggling against. Berrigan suggests we are drawn to writers like Wallace by the “vitality of the struggle . . . the power and honesty with which its terms are illuminated.”

Berrigan sees this struggle as a “vocation to the world of reality,” a vocation modeled after Jesus’ relationship to mankind, as teacher who helps the unseeing disciples reconcile the real, earthly things of this world, with the promise of transcendence.

Those who come to embrace this vocation—artists, priests, and ministers, certain scientists, and philosophers—do so not because they feel certain that they know the correct balance between the earthly and the transcendent, nor necessarily because they doubt it’s possible, but because they have a sense that it is in the space between these two poles that we shuttle; it is where we spend the vast majority of our time, and so it must be there that the answers will be found.

Though Wallace lacked any certainty as to what is next, if anything, his work unequivocally asserts that pain and suffering (psychological as well as physical) is a constant amplifier of the theological imagination. We become like Job and so many other otherwise good people who find themselves asking “Lord, why me?”

Given accounts of just how acute Wallace’s illness was and how many pages he composed in his relatively short life, he labored heroically at his vocation, and though his suicide has left us unsettled, his work points in the direction of a culprit: A culture that values the virtual rather than the actual and appearance over substance. A culture so addicted to being entertained that it is claiming our ability to be alone with ourselves.

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  • Lindsey Crittenden

    Thank you for this, David. & for the excerpt from the Lane & Shari. I’m moved to find and re-read “Good People.” I’m also reminded of something a teacher (and priest) once said to me, after I admitted feeling fear at being loved and asked, “How can love scare me?” He said, “Oh, how can it not?”

  • allison smythe

    Interesting to contrast Wallace’s “unconsciousness” experienced in wakefulness vs. Borges’ consciousness uncovered in sleep. “having had, then lost, some infinite thing” echoes Borges Inferno, I,32, last stanza:
    Years later Dante lay dying in Ravenna, as unjustified and as alone as any other man. In a dream God declared to him the secret purpose of his life and his work; Dante, filled with wonder, knew at last who he was and what he was, and he blessed his bitter sufferings. Tradition has it that, on waking, he felt he had been given – and then had lost – something infinite, something he would not be able to recover, or even to glimpse, for the machinery of the world is far too complex for the simplicity of men.

  • Dennis Kinlaw

    Great parallel Allison Smythe and terrific meditation Mr. Griffith. Wallace was indeed closely allied w/ the work of Borges and I am sure Griffith noted in his research Wallace’s own review of the paradox and challenge within excavating an author’s intentions [“It often seems that the person we encounter in the literary biography could not possibly have written the works we admire”]. I too was baffled by the omission of the role of theology in Wallace’s work at the recent conference in Austin, and look forward to more thorough scholarship in this field. But I would err on the side of the close-reading as opposed to snooping for Wallace’s church attendance as evidence of this profound thread in his work. It behooves the Christian scholar to rebut the simplistic notions presented by Kelly and Dreyfus in “All Things Shining.” More to come on that front……

  • Dave

    Allison, wow….thanks for making that connection. I will try to track down that connection even further. I hope to visit the archives at UT Austin in the near future, so maybe there is more on this waiting to be found. I’m imagining a copy of The Inferno with Wallace’s marginalia. Again, thanks.

  • rvs

    I found the concluding paragraph of this piece to be especially moving, but I also find myself pondering your use of the term “culture.” Ricky from the Trailer Park Boys–in a beautiful scene at the end of season 2 (maybe?), assures us that the psychologists in prison have assured him that culture made him do it. I certainly think that culture is part of the piece. The Masters of the Lowerarchy, however, are also afoot, using culture and transcending it in interesting ways, as we all do.

    • Thanks, rvs. I always weigh the use of the word “culture” before I use it. It gets over-used/used uncritically all the time. I could spend a whole other post on DFW’s definition of culture, or his apparent view of it.

  • T.Martin Lesh.

    Though I can’t quite get my head around DFW being in any way religious I have to concur completely with your last line when you stated that DFW was in fact speaking out against a Virtual ” Entertaining Ourselves to Death ” ” NoBrow ” culture that we’re rapidly and willingly descending into .

    The one other aspect of DFW’s writings I’d bring to the forefront was his ability to go so deeply into the mindset of Addiction ( of any kind ) as well as the thought processes and motivations of the Addict exposing more of the realities of addiction than I suspect most addicts would care to admit to .

    Those were DFW’s two greatest contributions to literature IMHO . Not his style ( which overall I am not a fan of ) nor the life he led up and until his self inflicted demise , not even his stories : but rather his courage to buck the current Zeitgeist of “NoBrow” and ” Entertaining Ourselves to Death ” thru his stories as well as his even more daring ( and dangerous IMO ) willingness to fully expose the inner workings of an Addicts Mind .

  • I can’t explain it, but I am always struck by the degree of empathy DFW has for his subjects, both fiction and non, and how this more than anything convinced me of his spiritual bent. I don’t know what the particulars were, but his thoughts were constantly outside of himself, when he had every excuse to glory in his abilities. He cared about people, and seemingly wanted others to care as well.

  • jerry lynch

    I want to say that this great struggle turns out in the end, if the end is found, to be much ado about nothing, but such an ending may only be discovered with such foolishness. What finally breaks the battle grip and conflict, and only what can do so, is the realization that the so-called sacrifice, bravery, nobility, and suffering involved was just silliness, a made-up game we took as serious. What are the popular phrases? Oh, yes, a”sincere delusion” and nore to the point a “tragic grandeur.”

    • Jerry, I don’t think I said anything about DFW sacrificing or being noble. I do think that he probably tried to be brave in the face of his suffering, which is all anyone can do. In the end, the pain must have overwhelmed him. I don’t know. I didn’t know him personally. I take issue, though, with you characterizing Wallace’s life and work as a “made-up game we took as serious.” Your statement reminds me of a quote by the painter Francis Bacon–another troubled artist: “You see, painting has now become, or all art has now become completely a game, by which man distracts himself. What is fascinating actually is, that it’s going to become much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to become any good at all. ” I think Wallace deepened the game of literature in ways that called attention to its artifice while pointing us toward the need for substance and truth. The fact that he killed himself does not diminish his work for me any more than does Charlie Parker’s heroin addiction cause me to discount his.

  • David, This is absolutely fabulous. You have tremendous insight. I have difficulty expressing my love for DFW’s work, why it does so much for me, but you have touched upon key issues that make his writing so fulfilling for me, so artistic.

  • schmitty

    Very enjoyable read. Nice use of ‘filigreed’! What’s a good starting point for a DFW newbie? I tried to start Infinite Jest and had to place it on the shelf next to Ulysses.