DFW and All That

In December last year the New Yorker published a new story by David Foster Wallace.  It was called “All That”.  It’s quite possible that it figures somehow in the unfinished novel called The Pale King that will come out with Little, Brown in April, 2011.  I guess we’ll know for sure in half a year or so.

I find the story itself interesting, though, because the central figure in it is unlike many of the others we’re familiar with from Wallace’s writings.  Instead of a wheelchair bound assassin or a former Demerol addict or an aspiring tennis star with serious family issues, “All That” gives us a protagonist whose main feature is that he has had a yen for magic since his early childhood, a yen that expresses itself in religious feelings that “have informed most of [his] adult life”.

One question that I find interesting is to what extent this describes Wallace himself.  In the book we argue that the saving possibility for the culture that Wallace proposes is ultimately predicated on a kind of unlivable Nietzschean nihilism.  But it’s also clear that Wallace experiments with a lot of different possibilities, and the claim that this Nietzschean position ultimately wins out in his work is probably more carefully stated as the claim that it is a recognizable strain in the work that recurs relatively often.  The “All That” character is an interesting exploration of a very different possibility.

Furthermore, he looks to have at least certain aspects of DFW’s autobiography:  his parents are academics, his father received tenure at about the time in his childhood when DFW’s own father did.  The parents are committed atheists, as academics sometimes are.  (I don’t know for sure about James or Sally Wallace.)  One could imagine at least parts of this story as reminiscences rather than fiction.

Whether the story is autobiographical or not, though, its depiction of religion and religious feeling is interesting to me.  Mostly it’s interesting because I think it misses the center of the phenomenon.  It’s as if it is religious feeling described from the point of view of someone who doesn’t have any.  The center of religious feeling for this character is a kind of magic – the ability to believe that things one cannot verify empirically nevertheless are the case.  But somehow this seems to miss the phenomenon that’s interesting.  At least it misses the phenomenon that Homer describes, and that I see as in some sense or another running through various later expressions of the sacred.

As I see it, the center of Homer’s phenomenon is a kind of wonder, and occasionally gratitude, that things are as they are.  When a Homeric character is overwhelmed with this kind of wonder, and immediately feels gratitude for the events at hand, then Homer describes the situation in terms of the presence of a god.  This phenomenon seems to me to have literally nothing to do with the magic of believing that there’s a leprechaun behind the rock even though every time you look he’s not there.  And the question whether we should feel grateful when good things happen or whether we should feel indifferent – because we know it is simply a matter of luck – seems to me more of a question about what sense of ourselves we aspire to than a question about whether all truths are empirically verifiable or not.

Anyhow, that’s what “All That” makes me think.  You?

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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8 Responses to DFW and All That

  1. Dan says:

    I’ve enjoyed this series of posts on David Foster Wallace. I discovered DFW with Infinite Jest and A Supposedly Fun Thing in ’99, and they both resonated like nothing I’d read before, and since then I’ve devoured everything he’s published (and then some). What a writer; what a mind; what a loss.

    I agree that it’s difficult to say if DFW ever comes to a settled view about the possibility of saving the culture, or what the best way to combat the American Malaise might be. I’d actually guess he devoted as much effort even trying to pin down what it amounts to – the conversations between Marathe and Steeply; between Mario and Schtitt, who is sort of horrified by modern America; the Rolling Stone piece on McCain and what part of the collective psyche he appealed to (and maybe betrayed); the discussion of effects of so much television in E Unibus Pluram; the way corporate-speak can colonize our minds in Mr. Squishy – as he did exploring what to do about it. I’d have thought that a kind of Nietzschean nihilism at the dark, ironic heart of it all would have been the enemy, though – what he saw as latent in the culture already, and what has to recognized to be moved beyond. (A great piece of advice given by Lyle to a jr. tennis player: “You might consider how escape from a cage must surely require, foremost, awareness of the fact of the cage.”) Probably the most stripped down answer he gives is in This is Water; describing the view expressed there as nihilistic doesn’t sound quite right. But I’ll have to wait for the book so see how you guys are understanding DFW’s diagnosis and proposed solution. I’m definitely looking forward to reading it!

    Interesting question about the character in All That. There’s a brief exchange about religious impulses and how they get distorted and abused in modern American culture between DFW and David Lipsky in Lipsky’s book too – just found it again on page 81-83. I get the impression there that he sees that as a theme running through a lot of this own work. I wouldn’t be surprised if the All That character was partially autobiographical, or at least modeled on DFW himself – maybe in the way the narrator of Good Old Neon was.

    • Sean D. Kelly says:

      Thanks Dr. Kelly (no relation I assume!) I did read the Lipsky book, but didn’t remember the passage you’re referring to. I’ll take a look…

  2. Albert Borgmann says:

    This is the first piece by DFW I’ve read. I thought it was sloppy. Sometimes we allow ourselves to be intimidated or at least impressed by sheer intelligence.
    I agree with Sean’s point though as a Christian I would see the presence of grace where Homer sees the presence of a god.
    It’ll be interesting to see what Christians will make of All Things Shining. I very much hope the book will be read widely, and if so, demographics tells you more than a few of the readers will be Christian.
    For fundamentalists, magic is essential. Their faith is based on the assumption of physical rather than moral miracles. So they wouldn’t like the book. Textbook Protestants reject the appearance of divinity in the realm of the tangible and natural. So they wouldn’t like it either. That leaves broadly Catholic people (like me) who, with the qualification above, will gratefully embrace All Things Shining.

  3. Thanks for this comment, Albert. It’s so interesting that I’m putting a new post on it above.

  4. Pingback: Plurality and unity in the modes of wonder | All Things Shining

  5. Its mindboggling Sean that you come soooooooo close here to linking Homeric gods with Jestian wraiths, with such a link being the closest anyone (besides me) has come to recognizing just how pervasive and enormous the role of wraiths in Jest is, for the p says:

    BAH, entered text in wrong field.

  6. Paul Chandler says:

    …for the plot, for the narrative design, for character motivation, for the takeaway messages of the entire book. Sooooclose…and…yet…so…far. As for which philosophers are most related to him, I’ve been struck this week upon reading de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity by how similar in attitude it is to Wallace. There’s a real harmony there, with de Beauvoir and also Camus. SUPREME sincerity, an unshakable desire to be free, and to be that, the corollary of needing to explain the full unflattering truth of our realities in a way non-geniuses might understand.

  7. Paul Chandler says:

    And so, somebody explain to me how Wallace is NOT an existentialist. Prefix “postmodern” if you must, but I think that would capture Wallace (as much as labels can capture anything at all) in too narrow a context. Like Nietzsche who was at the same time the final and finest example of one type of man, and also the first of a new uncharted kind: WALLACE is probably the last great postmodern and the first of a kind called…? Then again maybe it’s folly to think of what surprise comes next after postmodernism, and the real shocker is finding out we might have to re-acquaint ourselves with the existentialists, who are still waiting to this day for satisfying answers to the dilemmas and paradoxes they identified, waiting to see (as Vonnegut’s joke goes — they’re all up in heaven now) if anyone would act on their most sensible suggestions for how to live life as free, just, and as unlonely as possible.

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