We Must Worship
by D.T. Max
“There is no such thing as not worshipping.”
That was the climactic message of the famous commencement address David Foster Wallace delivered at Kenyon, where he warned the class of 2005 that “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism.” But the promise of deliberate education, he continued, was that through it, “You get to decide what to worship.”
No small number of the generation he addressed had already made their decision: they’d chosen him. It’s hard now to think back to the years before the messianic gospel of adorkability was preached by the apostles Michael Cera and Zoe Deschanel, but in a time when nerds were still persecuted for their beliefs, the name David Foster Wallace was a shibboleth among the oppressed. “You should know,” Wallace wrote in a job application to Illinois State University, “that I am really really smart.” It was the implied axiom of everything he wrote, and a whispered summons to readers who recognized their own isolating intelligences in his, and in hidden corners of the mid-1990s Internet they began to build his temple. By his suicide in 2008, the infrastructure of his perpetual adoration was waiting to receive him.
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections…
What Auden wrote about the death of Yeats seems even truer now, in the digital age, about Wallace: fans on the wallace-1 listserv and thehowlingfantods.com had been engaged in electronic exegesis of his work for well over a decade, and the initials DFW were already coming to signify, in addition to a specific person, a specific type of person: the young readers who found, in Wallace’s amphetaminic prose, their own cybernetic brains transcribed as art. For them, Wallace’s greatest achievement was not just to have captured their brains on the page, but to have gone on to point the way out from these “skull-sized kingdoms.” Infinite Jest (or part of it) is the story of a young prodigy who gradually learns to stop thinking and to simply feel. The Kenyon speech is all about escaping “the constant monologue inside your own head.” Like the twelve-step programs that fascinated him, the Wallace regimen begins by asking adherents to stand up and admit that they, too, are really really smart, and ends by sending them back out into the community of human sympathy.
D. T. Max is not one of these adherents. He is a journalist whose previous book was on the infectious proteins called prions, and with Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, he has written the least Wallace-like biography imaginable. It originated as a 2009 piece in the New Yorker, and still reads, despite its exuberant title, with the clipped sobriety of a 300-page New Yorker article; it’s a bit surprising to come upon the word “cooperate” without a diaeresis. There isn’t a flight of philosophico-linguistic fancy – or even a particularly long sentence – to be found within, just diligently researched information presented clearly and chronologically. It is absolutely free of worship, and exactly the biography Wallace needed.
Because despite his letter to ISU, nobody ever doubted that Wallace was really really smart. This is why Harper’s sending him to write about a cruise ship or the Illinois State Fair, places where people go for a break from thinking, seems so malicious: it was like sending Edward Scissorhands to give a back massage. The narrative about Wallace wrestling his own genius Jacob-like to the ground and forcing it, pinned, to bless him with normalcy is an irresistible one, but its repetition adds little to our understanding of his art. “Genius,” after all, is really just a way of throwing up one’s critical hands. By treating Wallace not as a genius, but as a writer, Max’s biography saves us from the closed circuit of so much popular discussion of Wallace.
While “geniuses,” for instance, are fabled to transcend their cultural contexts, Max fits Wallace squarely into the broad array of his influences – philosophical and literary, sure, but before all that, in his Illinois childhood, televisual:
Champaign-Urbana had only four stations – the three national networks and a public television one – but David would sit on the scratchy green couch in his bedroom for hours and watch and watch and watch: reruns of Hogan’s Heroes, Star Trek, Night Gallery, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The cartoons on Saturday mornings he loved too, and Saturday night’s Creature Features, which was so scary he’d take his little set into his closet. He even watched soap operas – Guiding Light was his favorite – and game shows, The Price is Right. His TV watching was intense and extensive enough to worry his parents, and in later years he would acknowledge that television was a major influence in his childhood, the key factor in ‘this schizogenic experience I had growing up,’ as he called it to an interviewer in his early thirties, ‘being bookish and reading a lot, on the one hand, watching grotesque amounts of TV, on the other.’
“Schizogenic” is disingenuous: given the postmodernist literary scene Wallace was to grow into, his prodigious boob tubing may have been ideal preparation, the late-twentieth-century equivalent of John Stuart Mill working his way through Greek and Latin before age ten. He liked Dune and P.G. Wodehouse, but remembered rushing through the novels he was assigned in high school, “mostly wondering when they were going to get done so I could go eat something sugary and then masturbate.” So the fact that he was raised by a philosophy professor and a strict grammarian, who substituted “3.14159” for “pie” in conversation, did nothing to prevent him from drinking deeply from the font of pop culture. When a friend tossed him a copy of The Crying of Lot 49 in college, it landed in the lap of its ideal reader. A friend likened the encounter to “Bob Dylan finding Woody Guthrie.”
Wallace had been studying philosophy at Amherst with vague hopes for a career in politics, but when he found, in Pynchon, a writer who succeeded in making avant-garde fiction as much fun as Wallace had thought only television could be, the lure was irresistible. He began creating characters, yoking them to awful Pynchonesque names like “May Aculpa,” and sending them to sow some fun into the philosophical fields he was tilling. A description he wrote of his first novel, The Broom of the System, demonstrates the arid ground they had to work:
A dialogue between Hegel and Wittgenstein on one hand and Heidegger and a contemporary French thinker-duo named Paul DeMan and Jacques Derrida on the other, said debate having its roots in an essential self-other distinction that is perceived by both camps as less ontological/metaphysical than essentially (for Hegel and Witt) historical and cultural or (for Heidegger and DeMan and Derrida) linguistic, literary, aesthetic, and fundamentally super or metacultural.
Whether the fun ever succeeded in breaking through this seminar-room noodling in Wallace’s early fiction remains up for debate even among his worshippers. With philosophy and fun, Wallace was two-thirds of the way toward his artistic maturity. When the last third came, it came from watching more television: in his six daily hours before the set, Wallace found the postmodern irony he loved in fiction broadcast into a universally enervating atmosphere of spiritual flaccidity. Max describes the epiphany:
It was not TV as a medium that had rendered us addicts, powerful though it was. It was, far more dangerously, an attitude toward life that TV had learned from fiction, especially from postmodern fiction, and then had reinforced among its viewers, and that attitude was irony. Irony, as Wallace defined it, was not in and of itself bad. Indeed, irony was the traditional stance of the weak against the strong; there was power in implying what was too dangerous to say. Postmodern fiction’s original ironists – writers like Pynchon and sometimes Barth – were telling important truths that could only be told obliquely, he felt. But irony got dangerous when it became a habit… Irony was defeatist, timid, the telltale of a generation too afraid to say what it meant, and so in danger of forgetting it had anything to say.
Having done its part to create this atmosphere, Wallace decided that literature would have to do its part to fix it. Militant sincerity became the third element of Wallace’s mature style, and he concluded “E Unibus Pluram,” his essay on television, with a call to arms:
The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.
In his Kenyon address, he spoke of getting to choose what to worship as a great freedom. What he didn’t mention, though, was that in the post-Nietzschean, post-Sartrean, post-Barthian age of “Nieman-Marcus Nihilism,” he found the problem of deciding what, exactly, to treat with “reverence and conviction” a tortuously difficult one. If there’s anything like a unifying narrative to be found in Max’s laudably empirical biography, it is this one: the story of Wallace’s peripatetic search for what to worship.
Tennis, David Lynch, pornography, John McCain, the tax code: he treated whatever he wrote about as though it were the most interesting subject in the world, and omnivorous obsession became his signature as a writer. His only constant devotion was to language: as he wrote to Jonathan Franzen, “If words are all we have as world and god, we must treat them with care and rigor: we must worship.” But worship of language alone, he now knew, led only to the solipsistic games of the postmodernism he was determined to write past. Franzen became his partner in the search for an object of worship beyond language, suggesting “the humble, unpaid work an author does in the service of emotion and the human image.”
Wallace’s emotional life, in fact, was marked by the same ferocious dilettantism as his writing: Franzen remembers him wondering whether his purpose on earth was “to put [his] penis into as many vaginas as possible.” I don’t think Lothario is yet among the notions commonly held about Wallace, but this book leaves little doubt that it deserves to be. Not only for the multitude of his conquests, but for the fanaticism with which he was capable of pursuing them: the most sensational anecdotes here are about his relationship with the poet Mary Karr, whom he met while attending AA meetings in Harvard Square. She was married, but neither that, nor AA’s injunctions against romance between addicts, prevented him from buying a star to name after her and surprising her with her name and a heart tattooed onto his left shoulder. He even called an ex-con he knew, interested in buying a gun to shoot Karr’s husband. He failed to show up for the meet, and wrote to the ex-con that “I now know what obsession can make people capable of.”
If it didn’t quite make him capable of murder, it did make him capable of Infinite Jest, which replaced the voracious ennui of the postmodernism he had inherited with equally voracious enthusiasm. Subjects that would have been employed for a throwaway joke in Pynchon or Barth (Quebecois separatism, avant-garde cinema, best practices for clandestine dog murder) became the center of loving disquisitions, and the raving marionettes of those writers were swapped for the throbbing hearts of an earlier time. The novel has been accused of sentimentality, but in a letter Max quotes, Wallace worried he hadn’t made those hearts throb hard enough: “I wanted to make a kind of contemporary Jamesian melodrama, real edge-of-sentimentality stuff, and instead I find it buried… in Po-Mo formalities, the sort of manic patina over emotional catatonia that seems to inflict the very culture the novel’s supposed to be about.” Doubts like these may have been responsible for Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, which discarded that patina entirely and left only the emotional catatonia of its neurotic subjects for Wallace’s full obsession.
This is where the popular account of Wallace’s trajectory ends: with his acceptance of fiction as a bridge of sympathy between lonely consciousnesses. As Max puts it, “His mental life had run a huge circuit through the most astonishing complexities to arrive at what many six-year-olds and nearly all churchgoers already understood.” But the biography is particularly strong on what came next, as it attempts to explain Wallace’s drift away from “single-entendre principles” toward “the paradoxical approach that would come to dominate Wallace’s later fiction: a passionate need for encounter telegraphed by sentences that seem ostentatiously to prohibit it, as if only by passing through all the stages of bureaucratic deformation can we touch each other as human beings.”
This is a perfect description of the style that dominates Wallace’s final story collection, Oblivion, and unfinished novel The Pale King, where the naked self-consciousness of Brief Interviews seems to retreat behind the polyester panels of tax offices and corporate boardrooms. For many of the fans Wallace had won with Infinite Jest, this new style was a betrayal, and Max reminds us of their complaints:
Why, for instance, did all the protagonists sound the same? Where had the Dickensian scope of Infinite Jest gone? What had happened to its comic genius? Reviewers remembered that Wallace had promised readers something different: a single-entendre writing that felt redemptive. That hardly seemed the achievement, let alone the aim, of Oblivion.
It’s easy to interpret Wallace’s late style as an exhausted retraction from the wild pantheism of Infinite Jest, but the evidence Max presents suggests, instead, that Wallace’s devotion to devotion had led him to ever more challenging idols, until he finally settled on boredom itself. In a notebook entry, Wallace wrote that
Bliss – a second-by-second joy and 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 after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.
A second entry quoted by Max suggests that this faith in the power of active boredom, and by extension Wallace’s entire long practice of devotion, was motivated by a constant fear of passive 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 spend nearly all our time trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.
In his remarks at Wallace’s memorial service, George Saunders said that “I don’t know much about Dave’s spiritual life but I see him as a great American Buddhist writer, in the lineage of Whitman and Ginsberg. He was a wake-up artist.” But while Buddhists preach detachment from pain, Wallace practiced the manic distraction of a thousand serial devotions, hooking his brain up to whatever would receive it. One of these devotions actually was Zen Buddhism, which an adherent introduced to Wallace after reading his Kenyon speech. Wallace was desperate to know what books he should read, how long meditation sessions should last, and what sort of chair or bench was optimal. Max writes that “It was still hard for Wallace to understand that Buddhism wasn’t a course you tried to ace,” and in “Good Old Neon,” Wallace wrote about a character desperately eager to please his meditation instructor.
Over the course of this biography, then, Wallace comes to look like something much less exotic than Saunders’s great Buddhist writer: a great Protestant writer. Not because he ever really embraced any religion (although Max details several instances of him trying) but because his vagabond imperative to worship places him squarely in the line of Kierkegaard and Emerson, writers oppressed by the ethical freedom their intellects opened up within faith. His Kenyon speech – “there is no such thing as not worshipping” – was a baccalaureate sermon in the most classical Emersonian mold.
There is something undeniably ironic about David Foster Wallace’s first full biographical portrait being done in good New Yorker style; just last year, David Remnick hinted that Wallace had tried to publish there but hadn’t been up to the magazine’s editorial standards. And with its universally mordant urbanity, that magazine has perhaps found as sure a method as possible for eschewing all worship. By isolating Wallace from all he has become, though, D. T. Max offers a moving reminder of what he was: a really really smart Midwestern kid with a capacity for piety rivaling any old lady in Dubuque.
Nicholas Nardini is a building superintendent in Cambridge, MA, where he is also pursuing a PhD in English Literature at Harvard University.