David Foster Wallace

There is a long chapter on David Foster Wallace in the book, who is a particular favorite of mine.  But even I have to admit he is a little bit of an outlier.  I suppose the jury is still out whether he will end up belonging in the same category as artists like Melville and Nietzsche, not to mention Homer, Aeschylus, Augustine, Dante, or Kant – all figures we spend a lot of time on in the book.  But I think there is something amazingly perceptive about his work, and I think he has the right idea about what an artist ought to be up to.   (See Contest Passage 5.)

Bert and I together are interested to know, though, what kind of reputation he has among our readers.  At the first session of Philosophy 6 last week Bert asked how many students knew DFW and only about 3 raised their hands.  But of course presumably the results would be even worse for Aeschylus or Dante.  So a question:  Where does DFW sit in your mind?  Never heard of him?  Think he’s the greatest?  And do you think he belongs among such exalted company?  Let us know!

About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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22 Responses to David Foster Wallace

  1. RDMullins says:

    Wallace’s work has received virtually no commentary from philosophers. In December, however, his undergraduate thesis will be published along with, in the same volume, two or three articles detailing the intricacies of Wallace’s argument and how to place the latter and the person of Wallace into the philosophical canon. Wallace, as you probably know, studied philosophy as an undergraduate (and was the son of philosopher James Wallace) and his professors viewed him as something of a philosophical prodigy, mostly in mathematical and philosophical logic (as his undergraduate thesis testifies). These interests can be seen in Wallace’s deft rhetorical and theoretical dexterity in dealing with philosophical logic in his Infinity book and in certain places in Infinite Jest. A collection of essays will be published today called Consider David Foster Wallace which features an essay detailing the philosophical issues (Wittgenstein) involved in his first novel Broom of the System. Other research exists that attempts to relate Wallace’s work to Wittgenstein (Understanding David Foster Wallace), and Wallace himself articulates his relationship to Wittgenstein in a short essay published in response to Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. We see philosophy scattered throughout much of Infinite Jest to the extent that an important narrative location is called Ryle’s.

    Now, in terms of Wallace’s placement alongside “exalted company” I’m confident most will dismiss this placement as much too early given Wallace died only two years ago. However, if we ignore historical importance, and stick to the texts of the writer and the issues with which he dealt and sought to overcome, then I would support this inclusion. And, from the brief bits that I’ve read about your book, there’s no better place to start, in my opinion, than by reading Wallace’s interview with Larry McCaffery. This will serve as an argument for his inclusion. He wasn’t the greatest by any stretch…but, for me, Wallace better than anyone articulated theoretical and ideological problems faced by children of the baby boomers, consequences of global capitalism, television, perscription drugs, low and high culture, postmodernity, cynicism, etc.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I’m not sure I think of Wallace as belonging in the philosophical canon – at least not in any traditional sense. The part of his work that interests me least is the explicitly philosophical and logical stuff. I know that he describes himself as having these interests, and suggests that he has strong abilities in these areas. But, as my friend Dmitri said recently, he probably wasn’t the best judge of his own talents. Certainly the book on Cantor received devastating reviews from the mathematical community. And the small bit I know about his undergraduate thesis suggests it won’t receive a strongly favorable response from philosophers either. (But then, that’s an awful lot to ask of an undergraduate thesis!)

      That said, I do think there is something extraordinary about his writing. He was very funny, of course, and on the sentence by sentence level he’s fascinating. But what interests me most is his sense of what kinds of problems people face in their day-to-day lives and what he thinks the right way out of them is. I don’t think he’s got all this right – and part of the point of the chapter is to identify where he goes wrong. But I admire the project a lot. There’s something very traditional about the way he approaches the project of writing – it’s not an accident that he cites Paul, Rousseau, and Dostoyevsky, as some of the writers he admires most. It’s in this light that it seems to me most interesting to read him.

      But perhaps others will disagree.

      • RDMullins says:

        I agree that Wallace doesn’t belong specifically to the philosophical canon in any traditional sense. He certainly thought of himself as philosophically inclined, exploring certain philosophical conundrums in a much different idiom than the traditional canon would allow. In the sense, I place him in the company of Nietzsche (much more prolix of course), Kierkegaard, etc…
        When I cited the McCaffery interview, I was thinking specifically of Wallace’s claim that fiction is concerned with “what it means to be a fucking human being.” He goes on to claim (or claims before this) that the world in which we find ourselves has become so exceedingly complex as to make it nearly impossible to be a human being. I often read Wallace as a Nietzsche-like cultural physician, diagnosing the ills of our world and alluding to directions to explore for possible remedies. Now that I think of it, I’m not sure whether I could articulate Wallace’s recommended direction…so, I very much look forward to your treatment of this in the forthcoming text. I recommend Zadie Smith’s essay on Wallace in her newest book…quite a good read.

  2. Sean D. Kelly says:

    Yes, the comment about “what it means to be a fucking human being” is one of the indications to me that he’s asking interesting questions. These kinds of questions do put him more in the cultural physician role that someone like Nietzsche occupies – at least as I understand the two. That seems to me where his real contributions lie.

    Thanks for the Zadie Smith recommendation. I’ll try to look it up…

  3. starres says:

    I only came across this blog the other day, but when I saw this I had to join in.

    My sense of David Foster Wallace (apart from his skill in handling a sentence): more than any other writer I’ve read, he really gets the difficulty of “being a fucking human being”, of seriously believing that things can matter, in our world. I find this kinda tough to articulate, but in his fiction especially he understands this loss of meaning, of the feeling that some things and some actions are definitely valuable and good, and that we can know this; of the ability to make art that believes in itself. He gets how hard it is not to feel like you’re selling out somehow.

    I think he’s even closer to Nietzsche than just as a fellow “cultural physician” – it seems to me they diagnose the same problem, in a way. Nietzsche’s “Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?” would be recognizable to many of DFW’s characters as a description of the world they find themselves in.

    I’m not sure what DFW’s solution to this problem is. I have the impression (though I haven’t read the book yet) that the role of Alcoholics Anonymous in Infinite Jest is a take on it, but I might be totally wrong there. And again, he’s hopeful in his essay on McCain, who he sees as the real deal, too. In any case I’m looking forward to your reading of him.

    (Like you said, Sean, as a philosopher he’s not that interesting. There’s a bit in his essay on language where he runs through the private language argument… it’s very simplified and quick. He clearly knew his stuff, but he’s much better as a writer, describing problems we all face.)

  4. j. says:

    1. re reputation, i read ‘infinite jest’ in college just after it had come out. lots of my friends, and friends of theirs, read it too. my feeling is that though wallace was slightly older than us, we rightly saw it as a novel that addressed us and included us among the people it imagined as particularly confronted by the present cultural moment. we also saw it as akin to, for example, the great russian novels or (as instructed by critics &c) the line stretching from joyce to gaddis to pynchon, and read on accordingly.

    a year or so ago some friends and a teacher in my graduate program chose ‘ij’ for their ongoing reading group, perhaps in coordination with ‘infinite summer’. i wasn’t involved, but from what i heard a variety of people with different intellectual and professional interests and backgrounds found the read rewarding despite the obvious obstacles. (they weren’t an especially literary group, and for some it was more leisure than work.)

    last year one of my students (~19 years old) at a small liberal arts college was a dfw enthusiast. he had incorporated his interest in dfw into a general concern for the intersection of philosophical and literary efforts at understanding human existence, life and death sorts of things.

    in my experience (admittedly not of berkeley or harvard students) it would be a pretty big deal to have three students who are familiar with any important post-salinger novelists.

    2. i think a question like ‘does he belong in such company?’ is extremely misleading. the range of authors suggests that you have an interest in tracking changing ways of addressing your core interests over the course of western culture. i assume there’s special interest in including one author who is as contemporary as possible, for natural reasons. so the question seems to be, if not wallace, who? (who after melville?)

    • Sean D. Kelly says:

      Thanks, J.

      Yes, I certainly meant to ask who after Melville, if anyone, plays the role for our culture that, say, Dante might have been said to have played for his. There are details here, of course, and the issues are complicated. If Heidegger is right, for example, then these roles will in some important sense be distinct. The “poet in a needy time” like ours must be calling back the gods, while Dante lived in a time in which focusing and articulating for the culture the understanding of being that was already there in the background was enough. But maybe the question is something like, Is it right to call Wallace a poet for our time, in the way Heidegger understood the term? I take it you think it is, which is interesting for me to hear.

  5. Alexander Richey says:

    I’ve read Wallace’s Broom of the System, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and the first 400 pages of Infinite Jest, plus some random short stories. I don’t think Wallace will ever be on the level of Dante or Melville for a few reasons. First, his writing is not poetical; it is obvious that he did not study english as an undergraduate. He pays no attention to the sounds of the words, their cadence, or what it’s like to read them aloud. This is something I don’t think DFW fully grasped in his opinions about grammar; the effect of good punctuation is a good recitation, as well as coherence. Second, his stories seem to appeal only to those who love to analyse. Joyce, Melville, and Dante, on the other hand, are enjoyable whether you love analysis or not. DFW’s short stories especially appear to have no plot until you dive deeper into the text. Greatness on the level of the names to which we are comparing Wallace, in my mind, requires some more mass appeal. Perhaps if, as a student 50 years from now, you choose to take a course on writing at the turn of the century, Wallace will be read — even then, however, I think his essays trump his fiction. But my feelings are ambivalent: Brief Interviews is a masterly work, my favorite of DFW’s. It seems to me that the work will have to be read for a long time. Still, somehow I think that there are better writers to come in the next ten or twenty years.

    Also, on DFW’s popularity: he seems to be known by all serious students (i.e. those who go to college firstly to learn, and secondly to party, not the other way round). His name is a big one. What’s surprising, however, is that he is not super well liked. Many call his writing pretentious — but, then again, most who voice that criticism usually have not read much of his work. Personally, I feel odd about where he will end up. I really want to like him more than I do. I just don’t think he has got the stuff to represent “my generation,” or something like that. I don’t think we’ve met the shakers of the next movement yet — literary, aesthetic, or otherwise.

    • JSE says:

      “He pays no attention to the sounds of the words, their cadence, or what it’s like to read them aloud.”

      I don’t think this is quite true. What is true, or at least what I believe, is that his sentences are not crafted word-by-word in the way that e.g. Gary Lutz would mean. That way of thinking about “good sentences” is mine as well, which is why it’s surprising that somebody like me would think of Wallace as a great writer. In fact, I’ve never successfully articulated to myself why I think Wallace is a great writer. That keeps me interested.

      • Alex says:

        More than not quite true, it’s simply false. Wallace’s writing is absolutely poetical, but perhaps not in the sense most are used to. To me, his writing is poetical on some other level–it’s like he used clauses the way Joyce used words. Or something. That might be slightly hyperbolic, but it’s the only way I can think to describe it right now.

        The other thing is, he said specifically in various interviews that he wrote for the ‘brain voice,’ and that his stuff isn’t exactly meant to be read aloud (though it certainly can be, and beautifully at that; it’s just a little taxing sometimes). But the way the prose flows in the head once you’ve gained hold of his rhythm (particularly in Oblivion) is rather breathtaking.

      • Alexander Richey says:

        It seems to me that if you’re willing to say that DFW’s writing is poetical, then you are willing to change the very concept of poetical writing. Annie Dilliard is a famously poetical writer — that is, her prose is often described as “poetic.” Here are the first couple sentences from Teaching a Stone to Talk:

        It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into a fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering.

        Compare that to the first few sentences of Infinite Jest.

        I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, doubled windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received.

        Both of these are knock-out openers. There is no denying that. But listen to Dillard’s repeating vowel-sounds and the musical cadence of the words. You can practically sing it, or recite it like you would a poem. DFW’s writing does not have this component. If you are willing to say that it does, then my question is why isn’t all writing poetical? What use is the word “poetical” if it doesn’t describe any property about writing?

        Perhaps that DFW’s writing is not poetical is not a reason that his writing isn’t great. I’ll accept that point. Being poetical may not be a criterion for great writing going forward. However, I will not accept the notion that DFW’s writing is very poetical. Alex even seemed to prove my point when he wrote that DFW “wrote for the ‘brain voice,’ and that his stuff isn’t exactly meant to be read aloud (though it certainly can be, and beautifully at that; it’s just a little taxing sometimes)” — The whole point of poetry is recitation. If it’s not meant to be read aloud then how could we call it poetical? Alex went on to say that “the way the prose flows in the head once you’ve gained hold of his rhythm (particularly in Oblivion) is rather breathtaking.” This is an interesting point. But I think what is going on is that Alex is prescribing the property of “poetical” to what is not poetical, and calling it a new kind of poetical. But we may simply have different definitions of the word “poetical.” Who knows?

  6. Alex says:

    The problem with taking the opening of IJ and then comparing it to the opening of another commonly accepted piece of ‘poetic’ writing like you just did is that the opening of IJ is doing something very specific–that is, putting the reader inside the mind of a particular character, one who’s barely managing to keep from slipping into an animalistic, mechanistic, sub-human state of being at that. Of course the writing is cold and mechanical here, because the character’s thoughts are themselves cold and mechanical. IJ is 1000 pages long, contains a variety (understatement) of different styles, speeches, dialects, sounds, etc. Not all of them are going to be ‘poetical,’ but some of them absolutely are, some of them even ‘poetical’ in the traditional sense. But you read less than half of the book, so I suppose you wouldn’t be too familiar with them all.

    That said, I was indeed suggesting that Wallace’s writing contains a new kind of poetics. Frankly, the Dilliard passage you quoted strikes me as pretty ‘whimpering’ itself. Trite. Cloying. Unconvincing. Here’s a passage of Wallace’s, taken almost at random (not from IJ):

    “And the two feral dogs (whose fur was matted, and their ribcages showed, and the piebald one had a large greenish sore near the base of its tail) were hard and cruel, and showed their teeth at Cuffie whenever he faltered, even when they went through the pools of half-frozen mud and sludge that plashed into the river out of the mouths of huge cement pipes with curse words written on them with spraypaint, and even though Cuffie was just a dog and didn’t have thought-bubbles as you or I do, the look in his soft brown eyes spoke volumes as the piebald dog suddenly leapt up into one of these huge pipes and its matted head and tail with the big sore disappeared, and the larger, black dog began growling at Cuffie to follow into the pipe, which was not gushing but had a trickle of something dark orange and terrible smelling (even to a dog) out of it, and in the next square Cuffie was forced to put his little forelegs up onto the lip of the cement pipe and try to pull his hindquarters up into it with the black dog growling and chewing at his rear tendons. The dog’s illustrated facial expression said it all.”

    Tell me there isn’t something in there that’s poetical: rhythm, cadence, phrases that follow each other out like logistical equations. In short: beauty. It’s not obvious, nor is it trying to sound poetic like the Dilliard, but it has its own kind of body, a weight to its phrases that begs for it to be read out loud, recited. It’s subtle. And that, to me, is poetics. Not just, “oh, prose that sounds like a poem–neat.”

  7. starres says:

    Alexander Richey: I’m also not sure about the conception of poetry you’re working with. You say:

    The whole point of poetry is recitation. If it’s not meant to be read aloud then how could we call it poetical?

    I’m pretty sure this is false. To be sure, poetry originated in recitation: in hymns, chants, prayers, epics and the like; and to be sure, this has had a lot of influence over its development. But the way most people come in contact with poetry nowadays is in print, not by listening to a public performance, and this of course changes the context poets write in. Reading out loud is not the only thing anymore, and I don’t see why it should be considered essential to poetry.

    Of course to call writing poetical doesn’t mean to say that it’s poetry; it’s a way of pointing out the power or beauty or freshness or weight to the language (among other things). To me, the rhythm of DFW’s prose – the way he can keep an extraordinarily long sentence under control – is one of its best, most poetic features. So I think it’s an exaggeration to say that this changes the very concept of poetical writing.

    An interesting question though. Is his work (apart from being skillfully written) poetic in Heidegger’s sense?

  8. Josh says:

    @Alexander – Wallace did major in English as an undergrad. In fact, his senior thesis became his first novel. He also earned an MFA in creative writing.

    • Alexander Richey says:

      My conception of poetry is influenced by an essay in the back of The Norton Anthology of Poetry, called “Versification.” The essay talks about how poems are performances, that poets use techniques to aid and affect recitation — repeating vowel sounds, rhythm, rhyme, meter etc. I remember reading this for the first time and having a kind of revelation about what writing could be. It changed the way I read poems. It gave me a completely different set of criteria for the assessment of poetry. I racked the tome and found that poetry is awesome, that, at least to me, it is a lot more than mere words on a page. So, when I say that DFW’s writing is not poetical, I mean to evoke perhaps an arcane notion of poetry and poetical writing (I’m thinking Chaucer, Byron, Tennyson, Dylan Thomas, Joyce, Eliot, etc. — I think you’ll agree that DFW’s writing is very different from these guys.). But I may have overstated my case. I do not mean to say that DFW is not an excellent writer. I just mean to say that his writing is not as poetical as some other writings out there. Perhaps if we had to write a term paper on this we could become much more clear about the specifics of what constitutes poetical writing, what constitutes the opposite, and where DFW falls in the spectrum.

      Starres write, “Reading out loud is not the only thing anymore, and I don’t see why it should be considered essential to poetry.” He may be right; the wind is blowing in that direction. But, if he is, I will sorry for it. To me, recitation is essential. I feel that if we no longer value that tradition, we will have really lost something. (This is only my opinion, of course.) Nevertheless, I hesitate to accept the notion that recitation doesn’t matter because we’ve got a few thousand years of literary history during which it did matter, right up through the modernist period. I think to disregard such a history would be careless; it would show a lack of understanding towards what is being disregarded. Obviously, contemporary poetry is different. It does not operate by the same rules. And I presume you could guess what I think about it.

      But anyway. I didn’t mean to start such a fight. I just meant to make an observation — one which I haven’t gotten this much push-back about before. I still hold to my original views, but I can understand where everyone else is coming from.

      And thanks Josh for the correction. I thought he majored in Philosophy and Math, when really it was Philosophy and English. My mistake.

      • j. says:

        i would also add that demanding what are essentially musical qualities from a novelist if he is to qualify as ‘poetic’ in whatever heidegger’s sense is (not crucially connected to many of the traditional virtues of poetry, i take it, but i don’t know), seems to constitute a substantial restriction on whether novelists could ever qualify as such. and just the sort of restriction many novelists and critics have chafed against over the history of attempts to assess the status of the novel among other literary genres. (it’s interesting that melville is on sean’s list among mostly poets, since the fact that ‘moby-dick’ is not a novel has long dogged its reception.)

        i don’t mean anything contentious here, just a remark.

  9. Charlie says:

    I think the question of whether or not Wallace’s stuff is “poetic” in the sense of “does it read kinda like a poem” is a red herring, and way less interesting than the actual matter at hand. That’s not what Heidegger meant when he used the word “poet” (or “Dichter,” I guess), and I don’t think it’s what Sean meant either. Heidegger used the term to draw on an old tradition stretching back to the times when important, culture-defining stories were told as poems. You don’t need to write poem-like prose in order to tell those stories anymore.

    A big part of what Heidegger thought poets were supposed to do is to help solve big existential problems (like the ones caused by the ‘death’ of God in the late 19th c.-early 20th c.). The only way to claim that Wallace’s alleged inattention to prosody disqualifies him from being a “poet” in the important sense here would be to argue that somehow you cannot help solve those problems without writing rhythmically. That claim sounds a little silly to me.

    In my opinion, Wallace’s campaign against unbounded irony and cynicism brings him awfully close to Heidegger’s poet. Whether or not he quite gets there is still up for debate, I suppose.

  10. deacon says:

    “Also, on DFW’s popularity: he seems to be known by all serious students (i.e. those who go to college firstly to learn, and secondly to party, not the other way round). His name is a big one. What’s surprising, however, is that he is not super well liked. Many call his writing pretentious — but, then again, most who voice that criticism usually have not read much of his work. Personally, I feel odd about where he will end up. I really want to like him more than I do. I just don’t think he has got the stuff to represent “my generation,” or something like that. I don’t think we’ve met the shakers of the next movement yet — literary, aesthetic, or otherwise.”

    So…could you, yourself, be more pretentious? “My generation”-isn’t represented! Too bad, seems like it would’ve been by now if there were to be such a figurehead. I’m just below “your generation” and you come off as frigid to show smarts, and obliquely pretentious.

    Ay-yi-yi you make me glad I did not go to a “serious” school, where people have heard of DFW but dislike him on grounds of artistic pretense.

  11. Paul Chandler says:

    I guess it’s early in the game still, and the impulse to classify and rank great talents with only a little more class and erudition than talentless sports fanatics on internet message boards is part of what keeps people 1. from paying enough attention to Wallace’s thinking and writing, since it’s harder to do that when wasting precious brain capital figuring out next to whom Wallace’s portrait should be hung in the Gallery of Abstracted Canonization – figure out what the man MEANT first, how about – and 2.from ever escaping the limits of inspiration-choking academia and becoming primary sources themselves. Sad, really. But if you really insist: Wallace is somewhere between Nietzsche and Shakespeare in terms of communicating the truth of what it means to be human in a way that makes it actually more fun to recognize even the harshest realities of life, more enjoyable to be the human we knew better already because of Wallace. And (duck for cover, lol!) if Wallace were even half as understood as…

  12. Paul Chandler says:

    …he is admired, then we might now be talking about him as maybe one of the GOAT as far as singlehandedly changing the collective consciousness of the entire civilized world. He’d then be in the rarest of company, buddy-buddy with Socrates, Jesus, Nietzsche again (but now in a broader sense) and…am I missing anyone? And if that all seems to you like hyperbole of the highest order, then either you totally misunderstand Wallace, or you understand very little, or you understand and place too much emphasis on the least relevant themes in his works, thereby neglecting the most relevant. Hmmm, looks like I forgot to include the possibility of myself being the one guilt of hamartia. So I did, lol. Yep.

  13. Mayray says:

    The philosophy department of the University of Nigeria http://unn.edu.ng is one of the leading schools in the field in the whole of West Africa. To access works by scholars in this field please visit the link.

  14. Judson Berdy says:

    Judging by the way you write, you seem like a professional writer.,–.-

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