The Only Thing Worth Writing About

Pale King Cover

This year’s Big American Novel is the long-awaited, unfinished book that David Foster Wallace had been working on up to his death in 2008. The Pale King is about the dull lives of IRS bureaucrats, and, as DFW wrote in one of the notes appended to the manuscript (p.545), it has two “broad arcs”: the first arc has to do with boredom and paying attention and the differences between people and machines; the second has to do with with being an individual vs. being part of something larger, civics. Both of these arcs are closely related to the central theme of pretty much all of Wallace’s writing.

One of Wallace’s most explicit statements of that central theme was in the Q&A to a 2006 reading of his essay “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s.” Someone asks Wallace what the role of religion is in his life and work. He replies that he would need hours to talk about that. Someone else then asks why, that being the case, he doesn’t seem to write much about God. He replies that the more important or “circumambient” a subject is to us, the more difficult it is to talk about directly. The advantage of certain literary forms, he continues, is that they allow us to talk about things obliquely. And then he says this:

We could have a long argument about whether in fact I write about [religion] or not. Sometimes I feel like it’s sort of the only thing that’s interesting and it’s all I write about.

So, how do boredom/attention and individualism/community relate to this overarching religious concern?

I have claimed before that Wallace’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest is largely concerned with the problem of idolatry, of enslavement to false gods. In one of the few works in which Wallace abandoned his oblique approach and talked about The Big Question ‘straight out,’ his 2005 Kenyon College Commencement Address, he said:

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. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship […] is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. […] Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

Infinite Jest explores in terrifying detail just how the ‘default settings’ ‘eat you alive.’ The default settings belong to the human condition as such, but modern culture aggravates them. For, while pre-modern cultures were geared toward subordinating the individual to a higher order, modern culture is not:

The so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. 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. (Ibid.)

So how does one escape the lonely freedom of late capitalist modernity and find ‘the really important kind of freedom’? The Pale King’s answer has to do with boredom. One of the tax-bureaucrats – significantly named “David Wallace” – gives the following analysis of boredom:

Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us (whether or not we’re consciously aware of it) spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention. (p. 85)

Readers of the Pascal’s Pensées are immediately reminded of the ones on diversion. And the association is immediately driven home by the what follows, in which Wallace deliberately uses the word “diverting”:

Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly… but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down. (Ibid.)

The comparison to Pascal is worth exploring a bit. Recall the following Pensées:

Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.

If man were happy, he would be the more so, the less he was diverted, like the Saints and God.

The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this it the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves, and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves.

Like Wallace, Pascal thinks of this problem as both belonging to the condition of man as such and as aggravated by the particularities of the culture of his time.

Pascal wrote at the beginning of the modern period, to a generation captivated by Descartes. It is easy to see how the the Cartesian split between the res cogitans and the res extensa – between the subjective and the objective, between nature and man – aggravated the problem of diversion. Man became isolated and alone: a sole point of meaning surrounded by infinite emptiness. He can no-longer find meaning by subordinating himself to a cosmic whole which participates in the goodness of the creator, for he no-longer considers himself as part of the cosmos. The only thing he can do with the meaningless res extensa is dominate it, and that is exactly what the emerging order of industrial capitalism set out to do. No-wonder that Cartesian man flees his lonely self with ever greater urgency and seeks diversion in the bustle of the industrial age.

Jump ahead a few centuries to our “post-modern” age in which Wallace writes, and one can see that a rather predictable thing has happened. The reductionist view of the objective world leads ever more to a reductionist view of the subjective. If Cartesian man was alienated from the world, post-modern man is alienated from his self as well. In the age of neuroscience the self itself is reduced to a meaningless machine. And of course late-capitalism fragments and commodifies the subjective realm just as much as everything else (cf. the “industries” marketing “self-help” “relationships” etc.). Infinite Jest shows this disintegration of the subjective with consummate skill (analyzed quite well by Stephen Burn). And what it shows with particular clarity is how this alienation of the self aggravates the problem of the diversion to an extent never seen before. Late capitalist culture is obsessed with increasingly ubiquitous and addictive forms of “entertainment” which are designed to divert us from our inner emptiness, but end up eating us alive.

Wallace’s literary goal was to find a way out of this impasse. As he once said in an interview:

Fiction’s about what it is to be a f***ing human being. If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still “are” human beings, now. Or can be.

The problem that he sees with post-modern literature is that it only does the first half of the job; the post-moderns literary giants are great at deconstructing the idols of the age, but they don’t show any alternative:

We’ve all got this “literary” fiction that simply monotones that we’re all becoming less and less human, that presents characters without souls or love, characters who really are exhaustively describable in terms of what brands of stuff they wear, and we all buy the books and go like “Golly, what a mordantly effective commentary on contemporary materialism!” But we already “know” U.S. culture is materialistic. This diagnosis can be done in about two lines. It doesn’t engage anybody. What’s engaging and artistically real is, taking it as axiomatic that the present is grotesquely materialistic, how is it that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn’t have a price? And can these capacities be made to thrive? And if so, how, and if not why not? (Ibid.)

So what is the solution that The Pale King tries to obliquely indicate? In another one of the manuscript notes Wallace writes:

It turns out that bliss—a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom. (p. 546)

Where does this inner bliss come from? Like Pascal, Wallace sees facing one’s own inner emptiness and riding it out as leading to an encounter with the divine. To quote the Kenyon College Address again:

If you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

It is the bliss which comes from that experience which enables one to escape the prison of lonely alienation, and thus opens up the possibility of community. It is this experience which enables one to to be “able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” And this is where the second big theme of The Pale King comes in.

§19 of The Pale King is a long, brilliant reflection on individualism vs. the common good. A bunch of tax bureaucrats are talking about the changes in the IRS brought about by the Reagan administration – changes aimed at running the IRS like a capitalist corporation. The idea it is that it is useless to treat the US citizen as a citizen as a part of a larger community with responsibility for the common good of that community; instead he has to be treated as a customer who receives certain services from the government and is required to pay for them. The bureaucrats see this change as being made possible the way in which US citizens have in fact come to see themselves:

We’ve changed the way we think of ourselves as citizens. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. […] Something has happened where we’ve decided on a personal level that it’s all right to abdicate our individual responsibility to the common good. and let government worry about the common good while we all go about our individual self-interested business and struggle to gratify our various appetites. (p. 138)

The bureaucrats contrast this with what they see as the attitude of the American founding father’s:

The fact is that [the founding fathers] cared more about the nation and the citizens than about themselves. […] They assumed their descendents would be like them—rational, honorable, civic-minded. Men with at least as much concern for the common good as for personal advantage. (pp. 133-134)

Of course this is a rather starry-eyed view of the founding father’s, most of whom were Lockean individualists, and indeed, one of the bureaucrats recognizes that part of the problem has to do with social-contract democracy as such:

Here’s something worth throwing out there. It was in the 1830s and ‘40s that states started granting charters of incorporation to larger and regulated companies. And it was 1840 or ‘41 that Tocqueville published his book about Americans, and he says somewhere that one thing about democracies and their individualism is that they by their very nature corrode the citizen’s sense of true community, of having real true fellow citizens whose interests and concerns were the same as his. This is a kind of ghastly irony, if you think about it, since a form of government engineered to produce equality makes its citizens so individualistic and self-absorbed they end up as solipsists, navel-gazers. (p. 141)

There is some brilliant analysis of the way in which corporations (and corporate model politicians) use the very alienation and disgust they cause to market their products (somewhat similar to the TV paradox sketched out in his essay “E unibus pluram”), but finally the underlying problem that enables all this is the deeper one:

I’m talking about the individual US citizen’s deep fear, the same basic fear that you and I have and that everybody has except nobody ever talks about it except existentialists in convoluted French prose. Or Pascal. (p. 143)

If Wallace’s diagnosis bears similarities both to the existentialists’ and to Pascal’s, to which of them does his solution bear more resemblance? I suggested above that his solution is similar to Pascal’s in that it has to do with an encounter with the divine. But is it really so similar? Immediately after the Kenyon Address quote on the maker of the stars he says the following:

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

That sounds a lot more like some kind of existentialist trick than like the mysticism of the author of the Memorial. One could interpret what Wallace says here as typical post-modern nihilism: there is no meaning given in the world it is only imposed by an act of the will. That is adopted by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly in their strange new book, All Things Shining. Dreyfus and Kelly read Wallace as holding strictly that sacredness is not something given in reality, but something entirely constructed by force of the will. Wallace’s tragedy, they conclude, is that he realized that his will was too weak to construct such sacredness, whereas he ought to have realized that one must be content with the surface level, phenomenological “givenness” of the sacred in human life. All Things Shining has been called the silliest book of the year, and indeed it abounds in facile, simplistic, and just plain wrong interpretations of the many authors it discusses (cf. devastating NYRB critique), and so one would almost expect that there interpretation of Wallace is too neat and superficial. All Things Shining is an apologia for Homeric polytheism—the idea is that to escape the meaninglessness of modern life one must rest in the first superficial intimations of divinity that humanity is given without trying to go too deep. Now Dreyfus and Kelly are right to see that the first movements of the mind are the most certain, but they what they don’t see is that those without serious and careful deepening of those first intimations of divinity one will soon be enlsaved to absurd and demonic idols, as indeed Homer’s example shows (cf. the brilliant discussion of first and second thoughts at the beginning of Marcus Berquist’s paper on the common good). But that is something that Wallace had experienced quite deeply. He had tasted the bitterness of slavery to the “shining things” of this world, but he had seen glimmers of a power which can liberate us. Wallace’s friend Jonathan Franzen in an essay on his own attempt at coming to terms with Wallace’s death, which is more bitter and malicious than Dreyfuss and Kelley but at the same (paradoxically) more insightful, writes that Wallace was—

funnier, sillier, needier, more poignantly at war with his demons, more lost, more childishly transparent in his lies and inconsistencies—than the benignant and morally clairvoyant artist/saint that had been made of him (p.12).

It is not possible to come up with as neat an interpretation of Wallace as that proposed by All Things Shining since Wallace’s inner struggle remains hanging in the balance. The demons which tormented him continue to exert their pull, his authentic theological insights pull him in the other way, but his cynical post-modern Über-Ich in turn prevents him from ever entirely assenting to theological insights and plays back into the hands of the very demons it especially despises. It is precisely this struggle which makes Wallace so poignantly human. While Franzen hints at this, his own superficiality makes him miss the most interesting point:

At the level of content, he gave us the worst of himself: he laid out, with an intensity of self-scrutiny worthy of comparison to Kafka and Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, the extremes of his own narcissism, misogyny, compulsiveness, self-deception, dehumanizing moralism and theologizing, doubt in the possibility of love, and entrapment in footnotes-within-footnotes self-consciousness. At the level of form and intention, however, this very cataloguing of despair about his own authentic goodness is received by the reader as a gift of authentic goodness: we feel the love in the fact of his art, and we love him for it. (Ibid. pp. 12-13)

What Franzen calls Wallace’s “dehumanizing moralism and theologizing” are in fact the glimpses he offers of the depths which he had glimpsed, and the glimpse of which had enabled him to show such deep humanity. I think this what is behind something which Jamie Smith points out about the difference between Wallace and Franzen: namely that while Wallace’s characters are much more deeply “messed up” than Franzen’s, Wallace really loved his characters. This is because it sometimes precisely the depths of misery which allow one to catch a glimpse of that God who is not a shining idol intent on eating us alive, but a merciful Father intent on giving His heart to the miserable. It is because he glimpsed that that Wallace thought religion was “the only thing worth writing about”, and it is his struggle to write about that glimpse that makes him so worth reading.

9 thoughts on “The Only Thing Worth Writing About

  1. “If Wallace’s diagnosis bears similarities both to the existentialists’ and to Pascal’s, to which of them does his solution bear more resemblance? I suggested above that his solution is similar to Pascal’s in that it has to do with an encounter with the divine.”

    Does the term `existentialist’ here exclude, e.g., Kierkegaard, whose, one might even say, primary concern was an encounter with the divine? (That said, I’m not entirely convinced that Pascal shouldn’t be counted as an existentialist.)


    • Good question. “Existentialist” has a range of meanings. I take it that the Pale King quote was referring to 20th century French existentialists since it mentions “convoluted French prose” and distinguishes them from Pascal. Now, obviously 20th century French existentialism owes a lot to Pascal and Kierkegaard and other authors whose primary concern has to do with encountering the divine, but 20th century existentialism is quote-unquote “nihilist” in a way that Pascal et al. were not. Sartre and that crowd accept a radical critique of “metaphysics” which excludes the kind of encounter with the divine that Pascal experienced.


      • Thank you for your reply! One of the difficulties with what we might call nihilist existentialists is that they seem to try to salvage meaning from meaninglessness rather than letting meaninglessness have the final word. Perhaps this relates to Wallace’s suggestion that “there is actually no such thing as atheism.”

        Upon rereading the quotations from Wallace, I began wondering where I have heard all these things before. Of course, from Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O.:

        “We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studies.” (The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948)

        “Those who love their noise are impatient of everything else. They constantly defile the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea. They bore through silent nature in every direction with their machines, for fear that the calm would might accuse them of their own emptiness. …
        Those who do not know there is another life after this one, or who cannot bring themselves to live in time as if they were meant to spend their eternity in God, resist the fruitful silence of their own being by continual noise. Even when their own tongues are still, their minds chatter without end and without meaning, or they plunge themselves into the protective of machines, traffic, or radios. …
        How tragic it is that they who have nothing to express are continually expressing themselves, like nervous gunners, firing burst after burst of ammunition into the dark, where there is no enemy. The reason for their talk is: death. Death is the enemy who seems to confront them at every moment in the deep darkness and silence of their own being. So they keep shouting at death. They confound their lives with noise. They stun their own ears with meaningless words, never discovering that their hearts are rooted in a silence that is not death but life. They chatter themselves to death, fearing life as if it were death.” (No Man Is an Island, 1955)

        The similarity should not be particularly surprising. Merton and Wallace were two writers confronted, in many ways, by the same society.

        Finally, thank you for your discussion of Wallace’s inner struggle. For me personally, at this point in my life, it is difficult to relate to those people that do not grapple and struggle with reality, those who have all the answers or, at least, have convinced themselves that they do.


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