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?