Friday night, the rest of the world winced and muttered over cyclones on radar, bridges to nowhere, teetering money houses (which festooned its CEO, only last March, with $22 million as a bonus), Russia in Georgia and Israel maybe visiting Iran.
That night David Foster Wallace hung himself at home.
Wallace had been a celebrated postmodern writer, who mixed up multi-syllabic and sometimes arcane words with off-the-cuff blue-collar speech. The resulting syntax fit the bill for 21st Century America (at least for her cognoscenti – I really doubt that the McDonalds’ crowd read much of Wallace).
His famous book, Infinite Jest, still sits forlorn on my to-be-read shelf. It’s slow going. There are a lot of allusions that I, who am not so urbane and aware, just do not get. There are over 100 pages of footnotes with real and entertainly-made-up information. Wallace throws off cultural criticism like a shedding cat on black velvet. He sets his story not far into the future but jarringly near – so near that some of the jokes actually play rather well.
My favorite joke is that each calendar year is auctioned off to various corporations for naming rights. In past years, there was the Year of the Whopper, the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, the Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken. The year of the story line itself is the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.
Wallace helped me recognize that there are some postmodern customs I actually enjoy, despite my numerous misgivings about the whole project. Postmoderns like Wallace can do the work of Diogenes very well. Their sarcasm can rip off the veils of entertainment and inertia, and show off the corpulent oligarchous (multi-headed) tyrant rather indisposed under his tattered yellow rags: naked, in a lipid prurience … “satyr-ical” without the literary haunches and tail.
This is what Wallace did, and honestly and well. He paid attention, but he did so outside the omophor of Christ, and thus he saw what he saw. He saw what Denethor and all the postmodern literati saw. To wit, a rather darksome “seeing-stone” after all.
The content of Wallace’s consciousness ended up wringing his neck.
His mind was overthrown, without (as Wilde might point out) benefit of absinthe. Wormwood is needed when wormwood is noted … noted, “conscious and aware” again, but outside the House, outside of Time.
In keeping with another fine postmodern tradition, Wallace inserted his own self-fulfilling prophecy in the meta-narrative of the Jest. Hal Incandenza was precocious. He loved language and the self-consciousness of diction. As with the rest of the postChristian crowd, Hal/Wallace’s relations with his parents were sore with awkwardness and conundrum (the term “parents,” in this sense, is redolent of the Church and the grown-up society of Wisdom, and ultimately God).
For some unwritten reason (obviously we are bidden to figure this out), Hal/Wallace lurches down a steep path of mental degradation. Perhaps he was set on this decline by the mould he breathed into his lungs in childhood. Perhaps it was his DMZ-laced toothbrush. Perhaps he watched the ultimately damning but perfectly entertaining video made by his now-dead father -- a video known charmingly in the novel as “the Entertainment.” Perhaps it was his darkly-suggested maternal trysts.
However it came about, the degradation proceeded down a well-mapped and familiar bohemian script. His thoughts began to scatter from the force of dark attention. His broken mind poisoned his actions toward others, and his fellowship failed. Finally, all attempts to communicate his soul into speech were heard by others only as uncontrolled screaming.
It is haunting and odd that Wallace marked the bodiless realm so scrupulously. But without Christ, he saw only the Terror. There is that, certainly, and there is more of that than any human nature can abide on its own.
Wallace and the postmodern stream (i.e., of consciousness), I think, reveal a deficiency in Augustine’s contour of the ages. Evil is not only the perversion of the good: that perversion turns out to be only the effect of evil but not its presence. There is – in the evil actually witnessed by the much-mourned Wallace – not a bit of good that is perverted. Evil does not have essence, sure, but it is a turning, an aspect, an attention turned away from the light, beholding only the Terror, that makes the house dark indeed.
What good is there at all in the turning away of the nous from the triune uncreated co-inherent grace of the infinitude of names? Huh?
And so, Wallace/Hal went howling down the avenue of a jest that claimed to be infinite, while eschewing the Infinity of Names. “Meaning” was all around, writ large in the sky, but he only looked down, frowned, into his ground.
In 2005, David Foster Wallace presented the commencement address at Kenyon College. "Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”
Yes, yes and yes, David. But meaning is not constructed, and Wisdom never came because you did not pay attention to the Word.
He lost, in the end. "Choose what you pay attention to," he told the Kenyon graduates, and why? “Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed."
He said this. He actually said this. He must have known.