Freedom is Overrated: Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace

The characters in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom have lots of freedom, but their experience seems to teach them that freedom is overrated. Take Patty Berglund reflecting on her own misery:

By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. (p. 181)

In discussing this passage Ross Douthat argues that this sort of problem makes Franzen’s characters so contemptably bourgeois that they are not really worth writing about: “they never display enough redeeming qualities to justify the investment that Franzen convinces us to make in them.” Douthat raises the possibility that Franzen is in fact trying to satirize his characters, but in that case, Douthat argues, Franzen ought to have pinned them to the wall in a few paragraphs  - rather than 560 pages.

I think though, that Franzen does want his characters to eventually show redeeming qualities that justify our investment in them. In the end their surfeit of freedom is tempered by a kind of necessity. In a decisive scene near the end Patty is reconciled to her husband when she sits outside his door till she begins to freeze to death, and he sees the necessity of helping her. This scene reminded me of a brilliant essay by Annette Langley (available through the wayback machine).

Langley begins by describing the necessity imposed by life – one must do what sustains life, if a child is drowning one must attempt a rescue. But she then goes on to show how necessity extends beyond sustaining mere life, it extends to sustaining and bringing about human integrity more broadly understood, it is the human good that obligates:

The utility of necessity to mankind goes beyond the animal and somatic sustenance. Its value to the human being resides in the fact that “tribulation is a necessary element in redemption.” Redemption simply means freeing through the satisfaction of an encumbering obligation; only by accepting and meeting necessity do we free ourselves and restore our integrity every moment. First, in discharging it, we are released, liberated from the oppression that weighed on us, and second we are then freer and closer to self-actualization and the realization of human integrity. The core of human integrity is freedom.

Freedom here obviously has a different sense than the freedom of choice of which Patty Berglund complains. Freedom here is the result of necessity:

…. responding to need is obliged; an obedience, a responsibility, but duty to integrity. We are compelled. Therefore in answering necessity, in taking responsibility, we attain no merit, we exercise no virtue. The feelings we know of pride and of accomplishment when any of us do what we should is not virtue, but only the satisfaction of integrity, and the exhilaration of freedom.

Franzen’s Freedom is I think meant to show Patty’s journey from the first kind of freedom to the second. The problem is that Franzen’s account of necessity is insufficient. I think that this is a way of getting to the heart of his disagreements with his friend/rival David Foster Wallace.

In a New Yorker piece which was to become the title essay of Farther Away Franzen puts what I take to be his main criticism of Wallace thus:

Close loving relationships, which for most of us are a foundational source of meaning, have no standing in the Wallace fictional universe. What we get, instead, are characters keeping their heartless compulsions secret from those who love them; characters scheming to appear loving or to prove to themselves that what feels like love is really just disguised self-interest; or, at most, characters directing an abstract or spiritual love toward somebody profoundly repellent—the cranial-fluid-dripping wife in “Infinite Jest,” the psychopath in the last of the interviews with hideous men.

In a commencement speech (significantly delivered at Kenyon College) Franzen tries to formulate his own theory of love against what he sees as Wallace’s “abstract” idea of love:

Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.

This insight into the reality of the other is what makes the other’s good my necessity. But the problem with Franzen’s view here is this: how do I know what the good of the other is? It’s all very well for Patty’s husband, Walter, when Patty is sitting there freezing, but what about after she recovers, what then? If Patty and Walter’s problem is that their “animal and somatic sustenance” has been met, but they don’t know where the next level of their good is to be found, then their recognition of each other’s reality and need just shoves the problem back a bit.

St Thomas Aquinas says that love is a political virtue; it is based on the sharing of  those common goods in which human perfection primarily consists. The truest love rests in God Himself, the supreme common good. When love is not based on the recognition of any common good it remains a blind passion. This is something that Wallace saw very clearly. In bourgeois hypermodern society the basic necessitys of life are met, but there is no guidance on where the next stage of human perfection is to be found; one is supposed to decide ‘freely’ for oneself. This leads to the miserable freedom so well described by Patty. What Wallace shows is that this misery leads to a flight into a kind of false necessity that is really a slavery to passion. Recall one of the weird dialogues between the American agent Steeply and the Quebecois terrorist Marathe from  Infinite Jest:

[Steeply said,] ‘What if sometimes there is no choice about what to love? What if the temple comes to Mohammed? What if you just love? without deciding? You just do: you see her and in that instant are lost to sober account-keeping and cannot choose but to love?’

Marathe’s sniff held disdain. ‘Then in such a case your temple is self and sentiment. Then in such an instance you are a fanatic of desire, a slave to your individual subjective narrow self’s sentiments; a citizen of nothing. You become a citizen of nothing. You are by yourself and alone, kneeling to yourself.’ (Infinite Jest, p. 108)

Franzen is right to be wary of an abstract love really focused on the self, but a love of the other that is not ordered to any higher good is in danger of being just as selfish. The urge to escape one’s own misery through overwhelming passion is really selfish. One of Wallace’s most brilliant and disturbing portrayal’s of this is in the Brief Interview #28, where two cynical postmodernist graduate students discuss “what women really want”:

They want you on one level to wholeheartedly agree and respect what they’re saying and on another, deeper level to recognize that it’s total horseshit and to gallop in on your white charger and overwhelm them with passion, just as males have been doing since time immemorial. (Brief Interviews With Hideous Men pp.233-234)

One can see the whole range of evils that Wallace describes people falling into – from addiction to nasty political ideology – as being ways of trying to find a necessity that frees. By that sort of necessity, Wallace suggests, ought to be sought somewhere else namely, in “some sort of god or spiritual-type thing.” Franzen dismisses this in Farther Away as “dehumanizing moralism and theologizing;” the love of such a thing could for Franzen only be an “abstract love.”

At this point it is worth noting that Franzen does not in fact portray “love” of another human person as the only component of the solution. In Freedom, as in his memoir The Discomfort Zonebirdwatching plays at least as important a role. In The Discomfort Zone Franzen speculates that he might have saved his marriage if he had discovered his love of birds earlier. But the “necessity” of the bird watcher leads to an interesting conflict that is one of the main themes of Freedom. The “necessity” of a certain kind of love leads people to want to have and raise children, and yet the “necessity” of a certain kind of bird-loving environmentalism leads to them wanting mankind to stop having children. Here is a video of Franzen discussing the paradox:

The paradox helps to show that without a sense of a greater good to the world neither the necessity of bird-watching nor erotic passion is able to carry the weight that Franzen wants them to carry. The character of Walter in Freedom loves birds a great deal, but when one reads his rants against the growth of the human population of the earth, it is hard not to think of his love as “de-humanizing.”

If one steps back a bit and considers Franzen in the context of the trajectory of secular humanism in our time, there is an obvious polemical point to be made from a theological point of view. In the good old days secular humanists wanted to get rid of God for the sake of man. Marx talks of human self-consciousness as highest divinity which will brook no rival. And yet, as Remi Brague never tires of pointing out, such a secular humanism very quickly runs into a problem: it “cannot possibly decide whether the very existence on this earth of the species homo sapiens is a good thing, or not.” In the wake of the failure of really existing socialism in Europe a pessimistic view becomes more and more plausible.

It is easy to see the form this pessimism takes in certain strains of environmentalism as an illustration of the oft made point that if one ceases to worship something greater than man, one will worship something less than him: “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.” (Rom 1:23)

When Franzen’s essay “Farther Away” came out, Maria Bustillos made the following point on Wallace-l (quoted with permission):

The part that struck me most was the contrast between Franzen’s love of nature in the form of birds, and Wallace’s love of dogs. Franzen sees beauty and hope in a reality from which human beings are excluded, where Wallace was the kind of guy who would take in the most difficult and unsociable dogs. Franzen’s is a worldview that essentially condemns humanity, and Wallace’s despite all the fear and horror is one that still embraces, despite everything.

Franzen is perhaps right that one cannot love “all humanity” absolutely considered, but surely one can avoid condemning it? Wallace’s deepest insights I think pointed him to the way in which this is possible — namely by loving a transcendant reality that is the true good of each human person. Even though Wallace remained vague on what that reality might be, he saw that it might be the source of a certain kind of freedom, as he writes in his Kenyon College speech:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

5 thoughts on “Freedom is Overrated: Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace

  1. Pingback: Jonathan Franzen on writing | My Mind Bursts

  2. Pingback: Martin Mosebach | Sancrucensis

  3. Pingback: Longreads Best of 2012: Maria Bustillos | Longreads

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