A Tribute, Sort Of

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

Sometimes I think that David Foster Wallace was the type of writer I should have decided to dislike. Even though I have not ventured into his fiction masterpiece, Infinite Jest, I find myself so liking his essays and speeches that I am consciously rationing his work as if it were a delicacy that was doomed to disappear. Doomed like its author, who after years of depression and unhappiness hanged himself from one of the rafters of his house at the age of 46.

Just because much of his life was a horror story does not invalidated his brilliance or his humor, even though it could not save him.

I have just finished reading his book of essays entitled A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The title essay runs for about a hundred pages and contains some 137 footnotes which are priceless about 7NC (7 Night Caribbean) passenger cruises and the people who taken them, as well as the people who conduct them. Many of DFW’s pieces are footnoted, though I suspect the magazines in which the essays originally appeared probably excised them with editorial exasperation.

My favorites of the seven essays were about tennis, the films of David Lynch, the Illinois State Fair, and, of course, the Caribbean cruises. I have also read his later collection, Consider the Lobster, which I also loved.

Over the next several months, god willing, I will tackle his fiction.

 

 

Serendipity: That Professional Smile

Why I Could Never Become a Salesman

Watch TV and you will see them by the hundreds: Actors with that professional corporate smile. Everything is fine. There are no negatives. Well, that’s not me. Let me greet you with a suspicious scowl. I don’t know you and I have no reason to send a ray of sunshine up your ass. I was always good at what I did, but I was hopeless as a salesman. (That never bothered me as that was not my intention.) The following is a long footnote from David Foster Wallace’s long essay on taking a Caribbean cruise for the first time, entitled “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

This is related to the phenomenon of the Professional Smile, a national pandemic in the service industry; and no place in my experience have I been on the receiving end of as many Professional Smiles as I am on the [cruise ship]: maitre d’s, Chief Stewards, Hotel Managers minions’ , Cruise Director—their P.S.’s all come on like switches at my approach. But also back on land at banks, restaurants, airline ticket counters, on and on. You know this smile—the strenuous contraction of of circumoral fascia w/ incomplete zygomatic involvement—the smile that doesn’t quite reach the smiler’s eyes and that signified nothing more than a calculated attempt to advance the smiler’s own interests by pretending to like the smilee. Why do employers and supervisors force professional service people to broadcast the Professional Smile? Am I the only consumer in whom high doses of such a smile produce despair? Am I the only person who’s sure that the growing number of cases in which totally average-looking people suddenly open up with automatic weapons in shopping malls and insurance offices and medical complexes and McDonaldses is somehow causally related to the fact that these venues are well-known dissemination-loci of the Professional Smile?

 

 

Art and Courage

Opening Oneself Up to Create Art

Opening Oneself Up to Create Art

The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet. … Maybe it’s as simple as trying to make the writing more generous and less ego-driven.—David Foster Wallace, Conversations with David Foster Wallace

 

No Atheists in the Foxholes

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

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, be 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.—David Foster Wallace, “This Is Water”

 

On Being a Grown-Up

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

I am now 33 years old, and it feels like much time has passed and is passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful. But since it’s my own choices that’ll lock me in, it seems unavoidable—if I want to be any kind of grownup, I have to make choices and regret foreclosures and try to live with them.—David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

True Heroism

Superman

Superman

The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theatre. The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all–all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience. Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality–there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth–actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.

True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.—David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

 

“Fun With Substance”

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

At first, you have:

“fun with substance, then very gradually less fun, then significantly less fun because of like blackouts you suddenly come out of on the highway going 145 kph with companions you do not know, nights you awake from in unfamiliar bedding next to somebody who doesn’t even resemble any known sort of mammal, three-day blackouts you come out of and have to buy a newspaper to even know what town you’re in; yes, gradually less and less actual fun but with some physical need for the Substance, now, instead of the former voluntary fun; then at some point suddenly just very little fun at all, combined with terrible daily hand-trembling need, then dread, anxiety, irrational phobias, dim siren-like memories of fun, trouble with assorted authorities, knee-buckling headaches, mild seizures, and the litany of what Boston AA calls Losses … then more Losses, with the Substance seeming like the only consolation against the pain of mounting Losses, and of course you’re in Denial about it being the Substance that’s causing the very Losses it’s consoling you about—”—David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest