In an excerpt from an introduction to a forthcoming collection of David Foster Wallace’s writings on tennis, John Jeremiah Sullivan, points out an analogy between Wallace’s own achievements as a writer and the achievements of Roger Federer as a tennis-player that Wallace described in his most famous tennis article, “Federer Both Flesh and Not” (originally published with the title “Federer as Religious Experience”). Just as Federer had the genius to overcome the apparently “final” form of tennis in the “power baseline” style, and recover “an all-court style” and “art,” so Wallace “working in a form that is also (perpetually?) said to be at the end of its evolution […] when at his best, showed new ways forward.”
I think that Sullivan is right about that analogy, but I think he misses another, seemingly more obvious analogy between Wallace’s art and tennis. In discussing Wallace’s argument in “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” that the inability of great athletes to describe what it feels like to have such greatness follows immediately from the essence of their greatness, which is a lack of self-consciousness allowing them to be entirely present in the moment, Sullivan writes “The writer, existing only in reflection, is of all beings most excluded from the highest realms.” This seems to me wrong. The writer’s gift is much more analogous to the athlete’s than Sullivan lets on. Wallace describes Tracy Austin’s “technē” as, “that state in which Austin’s mastery of craft facilitated a communion with the gods themselves.” But this could just as well serve as a description of the achievement of a great writer such as Wallace himself. At first glance it seems true that Wallace’s technē does not have the same element of lack of self-consciousness that is essential to Austin’s, but even Wallace often remarked that when the writing was going well he could not feel his rear end in his chair.
Of Austin Wallace writes that on the court she shares “the particular divinity she’s given her life for” and allows her spectators a kind of transcendence, a view of “transient instantiations of a grace that for most of us remains abstract and immanent.” But Wallace is to my mind doing the very same thing— even in the Austin piece itself.
Sullivan is probably right to call the Federer essay is “possibly Wallace’s finest tennis piece,” but“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” is my favorite. It is an astonishingly great piece of prose. While it lacks some of the maximalist descriptions of the other pieces, the Austin piece has a crystal clarity and a sort of concentrated overall unity: it is a single, relentless movement from the first to the last syllable. To be fully appreciated one ought to read it aloud, or listen to Wallace’s own (highly impressive) reading:
Listening to Wallace read that piece reminds me of something Maurice Baring says about Sarah Bernhardt’s performance of Racine’s Phédre: “her movements and her gestures, her explosions of fury and her outbursts of passion, were subservient to a commanding rhythm.” The beauty of Wallace’s prose rhythm, like all great artistic beauty, is full of sadness, and it is the very sadness that he finds in Tracy Austin’s achievements: the sadness of the transient, mortal character of an aesthetic transcendence that seems to demand eternity and immortality. I am reminded of a passage of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord:
In the experience of worldly beauty the moment is eternity. The form, containing eternity, of the beautiful object communicates something of its supratemporality to the condition of the person who experiences it in contemplation. Nevertheless, the ‘sorrow of the gods’ (Göttertrauer) wafts about the beautiful form, for it must die, and the state of being blissfully enraptured always includes a knowledge of its tragic contradiction: both the act and the object contain within themselves the death that contradicts their very content.
If Balthasar’s words can be applied to Wallace’s non-fiction, they apply even more to his fiction— especially in the darkest parts. Even the darkest and superficially ugliest parts of Oblivion or Brief Interviews with Hideous Men are beautiful, and it is a beauty that intentionally heightens the contradiction to which Balthasar alludes. To quote Balthasar again:
even worldly aesthetics cannot exclude the element of the ugly, of the tragically fragmented, of the demonic, but must come to terms with these. Every aesthetic which simply seeks to ignore these nocturnal sides of existence can itself from the outset be ignored as a sort of aestheticism. It is not only the limitation and precariousness of all beautiful form which intimately belongs to the phenomenon of beauty, but also fragmentation itself, because it is only through being fragmented that the beautiful really reveals the meaning of the eschatological promise it contains.
In Wallace the “eschatological promise” is only ever faintly and hesitatingly suggested, never unequivocally affirmed, but it is always there.