When I open my daily newspaper, I don’t usually expect shocks to my system. I expect to be mildly perturbed by the latest political posturing. I’m well beyond outrage at the way we’ve wasted billions in Iraq while Osama bin Laden continues on his merry way. Another day brings another Wall Street meltdown. So it came as a great surprise to see that David Foster Wallace, the most iconic novelist of his generation, hung himself in his Pomona, California home. The news of his suicide has haunted me.
What does it mean when the most insightful literary observer of our postmodern condition punches his ticket? If Kurt Cobain was the musical voice of Generation X, then David Foster Wallace was the novelist who brought the same punk rock energy to his scathing satires. But Cobain’s anger was counterbalanced by Wallace’s rapier wit. They railed against similar issues (consumerism, boredom, meaninglessness) but with markedly different styles. Two of our strongest voices proved incapable of finishing the race. Perhaps they suffered from the burden of genius.
In her book, Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey points out how George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World embody two responses to our previous century’s problems. Orwell warns us of totalitarianism that will wipe out dissent. As media consolidation continues, will Big Brother control what we see, hear and believe? Huxley suggests that taking the red or the blue pill leads to the same blissed out state of cluelessness. Our republic of entertainment allows politicians to tell us whatever they want. The only caveat—don’t take away our televisions.
With Infinite Jest, Foster Wallace pushed both Orwell and Huxley’s vision to its postmodern extreme. It is a sprawling, ambitious, footnoted masterpiece. Wallace understood that when every inch of our culture is for sale, we will eventually have a sponsor for each year. So the “Year of the Whopper” will be followed by the “Year of the Tuck Medicated Pad” and the “Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar.” How do we get around the commodity we’ve all become? Is humanity still possible in a world of endless distraction? Infinite Jest is about fathers and sons, high school tennis, and terrorism. “The Entertainment” literally vanquishes all it comes in contact with—a deadly, electronic high. Such totalizing jest threatens to undo us all.
My partner on the Purple State of Mind project, John Marks, is a far more astute observer of all things literary. But through one thousand pages and 388 arcane, digressive footnotes, Infinite Jest got to me. It reads the way I experience life in all its fragmentation. I became a fan. When DFW gave a reading at the Skirball Center in West LA, I was there amongst the literati, eager to hear from this recipient of a MacArthur genius grant. He read selections from A Supposedly Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Amidst his savage humor, I deeply appreciated his post-ironic approach. People could critique his writing as arch, but it was aspiring to get back to genuine human emotion. Wallace wanted to push past the punditry towards the lost art of sincerity. He made us laugh at ourselves as a way of waking us up. Perhaps we would rediscover how to think for ourselves, to do something other than what our cultural commentators demanded. We might even turn off the TV. Wallace outlined what such humanity might include in his 2005 commencement speech for Kenyon College. It covers the waterfront of ideas, mirroring many of the issues embodied in Purple State of Mind. Wallace told the graduates:
There are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up. The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant.
This is surely the heart of our intentions at Purple State. To get people to think, listen, and respond with more empathy, understanding, and purpose.
Wallace was also a big fan of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. And he seemed to understand that atheism had only major flaw—it was almost impossible to live out. It is a bit of an affront to my good friend, John Marks. Wallace told the Kenyon seniors:
Here’s something else that’s weird but true: 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 — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — 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. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
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.
They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
In the wake of Foster’s suicide, I went back through my notes on Infinite Jest. I wrote in the margins, “Our skepticism re: platitudes has made all rhetoric suspect. Skepticism leads to cynicism which is cowardice—a refusal to commit emotionally. Are we entering a post-ironic phase?” No one was more skeptical than Wallace. All satirists try to find the phony in us. But it appears the cynicism took over. His long bout of depression may have been more chemical than rational. I don’t want to consider his death as a form of cowardice. He tried to get beyond critical observer, but there has been so much to critique, so much material to satirize this election cycle. Surely, all rhetoric is suspect this election season. As fear rears its inescapable head, will voters grow more cynical? Can we push past the punditry that turns candidates into racehorses and the election into a popularity contest? Can we please, “Wake up”? The issues are so palpably real that we desperately need a post-ironic election. Maybe David Foster Wallace’s death can call his devoted fans towards action rather than cynicism.