David Foster Wallace, Dante, and the Stars

At one point in his Kenyon College Commencement Speech (embedded above; transcript here) David Foster Wallace describes in brilliantly vivid detail the frustrations of standing in line in a supermarket. Our default setting, he says is to burn with impotent rage against the dreariness, misery, and stupidity of the situation. But this is not the only option:

If you really learn how to pay attention […] 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.

As others have noted Wallace is here evoking the last line of Dante’s Commedia, “The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.” Wallace ends up talking about love as well, but in the initial evocation it is not love but “force” which “made” the stars. The difference I think sums up a vital difference in the way we tend to naively envision the universe in our time as opposed to Dante’s.

The world of Dante’s Commedia is a world without force. In Dante agency is always ordered to an end, there is no “blind” agency that simply acts without purpose. There is a kind of inevitability in Dante’s world-view to the idea that the first mover of the universe is personal. The Love that moves all things by loving them is also the good who moves all things by being loved by them. Dante’s heart-rendingly beautiful description of this world is also a sophisticated intellectual account of how it works. It is perfectly possible to persuaded by Dante, but for us moderns this persuasion has to involve a rejection of the way we naively imagine things.

For as Charles Taylor (among others) has shown the history of the genesis of modernity is in part the history of the rise of a mechanistic “cosmic imaginary,” a way of imagining the universe in terms of an impersonal order of meaningless un-intentional agency. Sean Collins has argued that a vital key to understanding this great transformation is the modern concept of force, which begins by mistaking an instrumental cause for a principle cause and ends by denying the necessary correlation between agent and final causality. The culture in which we live is profoundly formed by this view of force, as Collins puts it,

We have now built an entire civilization on the separation of final causes from efficient causes. Many noble souls still hope that the good will still prevail, and they act accordingly. But if one assumes that the good is brought about as an epiphenomenon from agencies which are at bottom blind, tyranny and not freedom will inevitably be the result. We see this in many different ways, in places ranging from the psychological to the ethical to the political.

Wallace’s work gives a frighteningly accurate description of the tyranny of the world of blind forces. But he doesn’t rest there; he is always trying to find a way out. The Kenyon College Speech is his most explicit attempt at laying out a way of escaping the tyranny, but it shows the great difficulties in such an attempt. The view of the world as governed by blind forces is so deeply engraved into our cosmic imaginaries that it is very hard to escape.

Wallace first says that it is within our power to experience the crowded supermarket as meaningful, sacred and “on fire with the same force that lit the stars,” and then specifies that force as being love, fellowship, mystical oneness, but then he immediately draws back:

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. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.

It is so difficult in our culture to present “that mystical stuff” as true, because our automatic image of the world is of an interplay of blind forces, with no intrinsic meaning. If there is any meaning in the world it has to be consciously imposed by our will. This is the point at which Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly accuse Wallace of Nietzschean nihilism, but as I have argued before, theirs is a simplistic reading which gives up the deep tension in Wallace’s thought between his “mystical” insight and hold of the modern world-view that keeps him back from fully assenting to it.


15 thoughts on “David Foster Wallace, Dante, and the Stars

  1. Sean Collins writes : “We have now built an entire civilization on the separation of final causes from efficient causes.”

    Nonsense. People typically go about their daily lives well aware of final causes. That is where civilization actually exists and on which it has been built. Down on the streets.

    No one goes about their daily lives thinking about force in mechanistic terms except for academic types. Everyone else puts it in terms such as karma and the like.

    Modern civilization is build on consumerism and similar all of which are directed to a final cause of some type.

    For example. No thinks of color as existing in light waves or somesuch. They think of clolor as existing in the subject, i.e. the rose or whatever, just as we perceive it.

    Now if you ask them to explain it they’ll give some mechanistic explanation but that explanation has nothing to do with how they actually think breath and live.


    • Well, certainly it is impossible to entirely eradicate people’s knowledge of the dependency of agent on final causality, but, nevertheless, is amazing how even “the man on the street” is infected by mechanistic thinking. Take “consumerism” which you cite here. Wallace says of it, “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.” That’s typical of the way of thinking about “the way things work”: the only level at which they are really teleological is at the level of individual appetite – at the global level any good realized is an epiphenomenon from agencies which don’t intend that good.

      Or take the example of usury from my last post. People “on the street” think it’s OK, because they think the good is extrinsic to things. They think it obvious that agreement is all that is needed to make a contract just.

      Or take the example of contraception. Why do so many Catholics (even “on the street”) dissent from the Church’s teaching on that? Again it’s because they think that their is no good intrinsic to nature; “value” is extrinsically imposed by subjects. But of course this doesn’t prevent them from talking as though they knew that the conjugal act is “for” procreation (the still call generative organs “reproductive”).


    • “People typically go about their daily lives well aware of final causes. That is where civilization actually exists and on which it has been built. Down on the streets.”

      Notice the democratic emphasis: “People… daily lives… civilization… Down on the street.” For lovethegirls, that “mystical oneness” is man himself: he (not God) is the source and determination of all things; of course, this exposes us to human fiat, with man being both the judge and measure of all things. It is hopelessly cyclical and subjective. Man, liberated (from God) to determine what constitutes civilisation by his own prejudices, can even call our modern West eminently “civilised”; whereas, with the butchering of language, the collapse of manners and etiquette, the loss of decency, chastity and self-respect, all indicators point to a headlong plunge into not only barbarism, but even savagery, where men are barely able to control their emotive impulses and are noted for their increasingly irrational behaviour or unreasonableness. In times past, it was indicative of barbarism when rude people ran around half-naked covered in tatoos dancing to wird music around a fire, but go to any major metropolitan area at night, and witness for yourself a bunch of rude, half-naked people covered in tatoos, waiting in line to dance mindlessly around a bunch of flashing lights to absurd and degenerate music. Add to that the fact they will all be drunk in a few hours, with many so drunk they cannot even comprehend what they are doing; others shamelessly fornicating (until it is finished, then comes the awkward and inexplicable (for them) sense of shame) or indulging in nonsensical acts of violence or vandalism. So tell me, what’s the difference between out “civilisation” and the “civilisation” of rude barbarians?

      It’s a mistake to confuse technological advancement with civilisation. Certainly the latter is more able to make use of the former: but don’t kid yourself, just because a savage knows how to use (or perhaps even even make) a gun, that doesn’t make him any more civilised; in fact, it just makes him alarmingly more dangerous.


      • thesonneteer writes : “Notice the democratic emphasis: “People… daily lives… civilization… Down on the street.” For lovethegirls, that “mystical oneness” is man himself: he (not God) is the source and determination of all things; . . . ”

        Please note I have no idea what “mystical oneness” even means let alone having attempted to discuss what it is.

        Second, ‘civilization’ was not my choice of words, but Sean Collins’. So if you want to complain to someone, complain to him. I simply took what he intended to mean by the word and used it as he meant it.

        As for a democratic emphasis, I assume you mean my presupposition that the formation of modern society is found in the common people who make up society.

        I don’t think Sean Collins was arguing otherwise.


        • Let me add. If Sean Collins had not brought in civilization I would not have a disagreement, because people don’t see final cause when looking at the stars, atoms or dirt. And it isn’t much of one at that.

          But the error he did make was further compounded by bringing it into this context where the lecture by Wallace specifically concerns society, and not our understanding of stars, dirt and so forth.


        • “the formation of modern society is found in the common people who make up society.”

          This is simply not so.

          Ultimately it is authority and the elites that foster or at least enable civilisation to exist, as civilisation absolutely requires laws that are enforced to protect the necessary foundations of any civilisation.

          Pope Pius IX, QUOD NUNQUAM – to the Church in Prussia,

          “The power of the law is stronger than the people, and they cannot avert it.”

          Indeed, laws protecting marriage (and patriarchal prerogatives in particular) are among the first to be found recorded and codified by civilisations.

          The people are not more powerful than the laws; therefore, the laws can only act to either destroy civilisation or to protect and foster it. It is a monstrous lie that attributes to “the people” some magical ability to overcome the laws of the State: they cannot and very rarely do. Collectively they neither have the time, knowledge or the resources to do so. Hence why once laws are passed they become most difficult to reverse (e.g., abortion or same sex “marriage”).


  2. Usury and contraception are not immediately knowable. Their remoteness is what makes them so easily accepted.

    The man on the street understands the shyster selling nothing for something is theft. But doesn’t understand usury is similar in nature because like all other accepted evils, it’s veiled what in is true.

    And as for contraception, good luck trying to explain how NFP, the way its promoted, is more in keeping with man’s nature, because it probably is not. The entire issue is an unfathomable mess.

    Besides if we desire to understand a subject we should look at what is most knowable, not at what is least. And what is most knowable is how men typically live their lives on a daily basis, from which it is clearly seen that men have been ‘infected by mechanistic thinking’.

    But infected is very different from fully corrupted as would be necessary for a civilization to be ‘built’ on some particular error.

    Further, mechanistic thinking is only a symptom of a deeper and more widespread error. The term I like to put to it is : the rejection of human scale, which is finally what Descartes did.

    If you look about at all the online sites and movements attempting to get back to a more human understand of man, what you find they all have in common is an attempt to retrieve a human scale. Now something along that line I would be willing to grant is endemic enough to say modern society is built upon, even though obviously men still do know as well as seek out human scale. Just as we can say modern economics is built upon usury even though men by nature recognize the evil of theft.

    But mechanism per se, or separation of causes. No, because they are too remote to how we actually live, and are more an error of the ivory tower types.


  3. btw, Sean Collins grants far too much. When I read his blog what immediately came to mind is that he was “infected by mechanistic thinking” with his granting of the atomic theory as concretely reflecting reality which is is in turn a rejection of human scale.

    What is at human scale is the mystical. the poetic, that the atoms are mere hypothesis because what they finally are is a sign which translates to human scale.


  4. One has to distinguish between people’s “gut feeling” about things, and their “second thoughts” about things that comes from them trying to view them in the light of their total world-view. I was thinking of this recently over hearing some Austrian teenagers talking with each other. They used “homosexual” as a term of abuse, so it seems their “gut feeling” was that unnatural vice is disgusting, but then one of them protested at being calling this and the other defended himself by saying that after all when one thinks about it there is nothing wrong with being homosexual. So their “second thoughts” on this contradicted their first thoughts.

    But then again “civilization” is not just the product of gut feelings and/or ‘second thoughts’ about them; civilization in Collins’s sense is also a matter of institutions. And it is precisely in our institutions – especially “social contract democracy” and industrial capitalism that the kind of separation of final and agent causality that Collins laments is most evident.


    • In what do the institutions exist?

      Industrial capitalism is codified into law which specifically intending a final end, i.e. the economic health of the state. It actually causes harm but that’s beside the point, what is intended is economic good. Or at least that is what is said. In reality it’s an intended and effective means for the elites to steal codified into law by means of war starting with the war of northern aggression.

      The first is a proper final end lacking the prudence to carry it out.

      The second is a final end where satisfaction of greed is the intent.

      Industrial capitalism also exists in the common populace, it may be harmful to them, but they clamor for it none the less. They clamor for it because they see it as their economic and over all social good. It may be harmful, the but not only is there an intended final end, but its a right ordered final end, social vices and all not with standing.

      In modern society a blacksmith will not see final cause in the iron, but he does see final cause in his own actions. The same with civilization as a whole.

      Second, social contract democracy is nothing more than a theory, no one, not even libertarians actually live as if it’s true. And society certainly doesn’t operate at any level as if it’s true.


      • But the point is that the ends here are not seen as intrinsic to the natures of things; they are seen as the mechanical result of blind forces which we have “harnessed” to produce the only kind of good we see: personal good. That is the point of “self-interest well understood” which is one of the basic principles of social organization in modern democratic society; each person seeks his own personal good, but their is a “mechanism” by which that ends up benefiting everyone. People don’t imagine political society as a natural community ordered to authentic common goods. And again, this is partly because they tend to see things in terms of non-teleological “forces”; any ends they see are the subjective ends of sovereign individuals who have chosen them.


  5. Obviously people and the government do not see the final end of society in terms of man’s final end. But that doesn’t mean that they see themselves as sovereign individuals. It’s not an either this or that. Like most of life there’s a rather broad middle ground of getting it partly correct.

    Sancrucensis writes : “People don’t imagine political society as a natural community ordered to authentic common goods.”

    Public schools, public airports, public roads, welfare and on and on are all ordered to a common good. It may be a poorly thought out understanding of subsidiarity, but the roots are there.

    If one desires to look into the cause of the corruption of modern society, there are far better, and far more mundane explanations than the rather exciting separation of agent from final cause.

    For instance, Urban planning and all that goes with it has been a far more powerful force. Most of which was directed to a common good, albeit in hindsight a poorly understanding of that good and what the consequences would be. No one in the field thinks in term of mechanistic blind forces, but to the contrary a desire to build a well ordered city by means of direct control.

    To a certain degree people do see themselves as sovereign, how could they not, society in a very really way no long exists because it requires an organic unity which does not exist. Frankly, what is remarkable is how fully subsidiarity does exist in spite of the lack of a real society to function in.


    • Or let me put it this way.

      When Bob hits on hot babe Betty Lou down at the pool hall no doubt he’s acting as a sovereign individual and very much ignoring any teleological end. But to explain what he is doing in such terms is to miss what is really driving ol Bob to act.

      the reason he wants to know miss Betty a bit more intimately is because bouncing her on a bed is an enjoyable way to spend the afternoon.

      If you’re going to look for causes, start with the obvious ones like Betty Lou’s twin assets staring at Bob. Mechanistic blind forces is abstract and far removed compared to the force of Bob’s lower appetite staring back at what Betty has to offer.

      And when Bob turns around and pays his property taxes that support the public school down the street he’s doing it because he considers it his duty to help out his neighbors.


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