DFW Reading Question

One of the things that Wallace is very, very good at is what you might call cultural diagnosis.  He sees clearly what challenges people of our age face, and he creates the characters who exemplify them.  It is a common experience to find yourself reading about a character whom you feel you know, and to feel moreover that he has somehow nailed in detail the features of that person that are at their center but you never really managed to articulate for yourself.  His most interesting characters face challenges of one sort or another that are characteristic of the modern age.

The challenges I’m most interested in are the ones that revolve around what he once called the “stomach-level sadness” of Americans around the turn of the millennium.  I think that phrase, and the way it gets spelled out in his work, is recognizable to a lot of people.  I also admire his attempt to articulate a response to that sadness though, as we argue in the book, I think the response that he most often lights upon is ultimately not a livable one.  Still, I think his diagnosis of the problem is often very satisfying.

So here’s a question.  Suppose you had to assign one piece by DFW to a freshman Gen Ed class, and suppose you wanted the one that would leave them feeling, “Yes, I now really understand something about the world I live in, and the challenges I am faced with living in it, that I didn’t really understand before!”  It seems to me that Wallace is the person most likely to have written that piece.  But I can’t figure out exactly which one it is.

This is not an idle question.  The graduate seminar I am now running is devoted to putting together such a course, and I begin to think that it should start with Wallace.  That’s roughly what we do in the book as well, but in the book I had the luxury to skip back and forth among a lot of different pieces, since I could just fill in the background as needed.   Courses don’t really work that way, though.  They need to be focused mostly on a single reading that your typical Freshman can read the night before in one sitting.  Which piece by Wallace do you think will do the trick?  Or is there some other author you think I should look to?

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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19 Responses to DFW Reading Question

  1. JSE says:

    One problem is that “people our age” — for the purpose of this assignment — does not include first-year college students. For someone like me it was certainly reading “E Unibus Pluram” that did it. But I’m not sure the particular cultural diagnosis it makes is not really one of the “modern age,” if the modern age includes both 1970 and 2010. I think he really wants to talk about a very brief period, having something to do with David Letterman, in which self-consciousness as a critical practice swallows itself and then beaches. I’m truly not sure whether this moment and its consequences are of any import to someone who’s 18 now!

    (Relevant question: what is happening when somebody our age reads GWS Trow’s “Within The Context of No Context?”)

    But I guess all I’m saying is “E Unibus Pluram” isn’t it.

    My first instinct is State Fair. First because it’s very good, which of course is a relevant consideration. Another because the species of sadness it treats takes the yearning-to-escape-being-a-smarty that’s always there in DFW and turns it a little more in the direction of social class — which is to say I think it’s a good match for the undergraduate clientele where you work.

    • Speaking of the clientele, one of my students suggested “Good Old Neon”. We are lucky to have terrific students here, of course, but the selection process favors people who have sometimes spent so much time doing the things they ought to do that they find themselves wondering which are the ones they wanted to do. The sense of being a fraud, or an imposter, is easy to come by here.

      Still, I’m not sure that either yearning-to-escape-being-a-smarty or yearning-to-feel-your-actions-are-yours is the phenomenon I’m thinking of. It’s more something like yearning-to-feel-that-things-matter – really matter. The “lostness” that Wallace talks about is closer to this phenomenon; it’s the lack of things that matter. Boredom, I think, is the state in which everything is so equally irrelevant that nothing matters at all. Maybe one of the Pale King pieces?

      • j. says:

        i wonder if it would be important that the manner of exhibiting the phenomenon you have in mind include excessive over-determination of everything’s mattering. this would sit well with the idea that reflective consciousness of this fact is an important ingredient in wallace’s prose style / narratorial manner.

  2. Britt Z. says:

    I cannot say much on Wallace (Embarrassingly, I just started reading him). However, I do think the author to best articulate boredom is Beckett, though after finish reading Wallace I might think otherwise. The world in Endgame is “Gray. Gray! GRAAY!” It’s filled with meaningless repetition: “Why this farce, day after day?” The only answer Beckett gives is “routine,” in and of itself; “All life long the same inanities.” All actions are vapid, lacking true significance, as life takes its monotonous course like Kierkegaard’s grandfather clock; “It’s the end of the day like any other day….”
    In Beckett’s diagnosis, nothing shines; all light has literally receded and people die from “the darkness.” Nothing is on the horizon and “nothing stirs.” The wasteland grows.

    When I read Endgame, I think of a Heidegger quote, from “The Principle of Reason,” about the “sending” being like a child shifting the pieces in a game, and, perhaps, now it feels like we’ve approached an endgame–too few pieces remain. In Beckett’s work, all that could matter has fled, withdrawn, leaving those left with the feeling, the sadness, that they have been forgotten by something refusing to rise or arrive. The characters have a past, a history, but there is no future…just a collapsed, vast, empty present–time has stretched and emptied.

  3. Daniel Grace says:

    Last quarter I taught an undergraduate creative writing course, comprised mostly of freshmen and sophomores, and assigned “The Depressed Person.” I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s one of my favorite stories, but there is no small amount of tediousness built into its style, and though it’s difficulty is thematically justified, I was concerned, precisely, with this issue of whether a typical freshman would be willing to read it through to the end the night before it was due.

    I was pleasantly surprised. The story sparked a lively discussion (no small deal for a class that met at 8 AM), in which more than one student who entered the classroom feeling either uncharitably toward the story’s narrator, or wholly sympathetic, had a 180-degree change of heart by session’s end. This speaks, I think, to something deep and paradigmatic in the “stomach-level sadness” Wallace referenced and explores in his writing. On one hand, the reader wants to sympathize with the depressed person because she is evidently in a great deal of pain, but on the other hand, the masks she wears, the extreme lengths of self-consciousness she goes to, are self-serving and manipulative, and moreover, there isn’t any easily identifiable, authentic reason for her sadness. Wallace leaves it to us to look toward the culture for answers.

    One thing the story is pointing to, I think, is the kind of narcissistic ugliness such “stomach-level” sadness can manifest itself as in our culture, ugliness that only isolates us more and reinforces the underlying sadness (it occurs to me that this sounds a lot like what happens to many a Dostoyevsky character, though Wallace does make it feel like something specific to “Americans around the turn of the millennium”). The depressed person of “The Depressed Person” is obviously an extreme example, but the students—or the majority of them, anyway—seemed to detect something of her in themselves, in their peers, and in the therapeutic discourses that have embedded themselves in the culture, no less so on college campuses.

    • Interesting to hear about the response to “The Depressed Person”, Daniel – thanks. I just re-read that myself recently, and I can imagine it does evoke a lively response. And I guess maybe you’re right that this is one way of exploring a kind of cultural sadness. At any rate, it’s hard to imagine a character like this existing in a culture that doesn’t already have, or isn’t already destined to invent, the resources for making such a character possible: the “Healthy Eating Lifestyle summer camps”, the “Inner-Child-Focused Experiential Therapy Retreat Weekends”, the “Small Group Drama Therapy sessions”, the “Holistic Stretching and Nutrition Centers”, the personal “Support Systems”, the $90 an hour (no doubt more now!) personal therapists, and so on. Presumably these are aspects of the culture that both respond to and help us to focus on and articulate the kind of sadness that Wallace is talking about. And one way of reading the story is as an indictment of these practices and institutions, the very practices (the story seems to say) that highlight and bring to a head the self-absorption that keeps us from connecting to the world in any meaningful way.

      But another way of thinking about the story is that its central character is already a response to the kind of lostness that Wallace finds in the culture. That the problem is behind her and even behind the institutions that bring out this aspect of her; that somehow there is something already gathering in the practices of the culture that drives it to “come to pass” (Heidegger’s sich ereignen) in the way it has. Perhaps this background whatever is what Heidegger calls Enframing, the tendency in the practices to gather in such a way as to challenge us to reveal everything as orderable resources. And perhaps the tension between the kind of being we truly are (???) and the kind of orderable resource we are challenged to reveal ourselves as can erupt into the self-absorption of the depressed person, and play itself out in a million other ways as well.


      Or maybe this is the wrong connection altogether.


      • JSE says:

        I think this:

        “these are aspects of the culture that both respond to and help us to focus on and articulate the kind of sadness that Wallace is talking about”

        is right on, though I won’t go so far as to say the story indicts anything.

        I do think this is the right choice for your first-years. There will be a challenge in keeping the discussion out of the rut of “is depression ‘real’ or not” but I think you are up to that challenge.

  4. David Leech says:

    Well, I don’t know Wallace (yet), and my suggestion is perhaps too short for your purposes but I think it is related. I use it to introduce economics students to the banality of the market (which I think is somehow central to our age though I have not made the argument yet) and to help set a spark in them after they read Borgman’s discussion of the device paradigm. And, if I recall correctly, I found this through following up on Borgman’s notion of “the culture of the word and the culture of the table” (Chapter 8), in his, Power Failure, 2003. Now that I think about it, maybe that chapter would be useful.

    Anyway, what I was thinking of initially was The Super of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection, Robert Capon, Modern Library, 2002, pp. 110-112. It contains two vignettes (scenes) that talk about “de-substantiation” of “things” that results from, “abstractions, diagrams, and spiritualization” (its a microeconomics course after all!), on the one hand, and an instantiation of that in “counting calories.”

    I think both hit home for today’s students.

  5. RB says:

    I think that both “On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon” and “Suicide as a Sort of Present” concern themselves with these challenges, especially w/r/t the emotional expectations of our society and the trouble we can have living up to them. They definitely invoke the “stomach level sadness.” Also, these two stories read well together.

    Otherwise, I think maybe one of the entries that Rick Vigorous reduces and retells to Lenore in “The Broom of the System” could qualify. A story that is the “product of a nastily troubled little collegiate mind.” They tend to deal with these challenges in very entertaining ways (like neck-toads and babies that have seizures when they cry).

    • RB says:

      What I meant by emotional expectations was that these stories seem to hit on “what really matters,” and I think interfamilial connections will fit there, and those two stories, in my opinion, show some sort of yearning to feel that.

  6. Dan says:

    There are parts of “Up Simba!” that parse out “the yearning-to-feel-that-things-matter – really matter” part of American life – it’s hard to let yourself allow anything to matter when you’re also pretty sure you’re almost always being sold something. That discussion doesn’t, say express it or exemplify it in a character, but it does lay it all out there pretty well. It’s long, admittedly, but it was also written for the readership of Rolling Stone (as opposed to an avante garde fiction mag or an academic journal), and so might go down a little easier for undergrads.

  7. Laurence Holland says:

    Greetings, Professor Kelly, from a former student–what’s the blog-commenting equivalent of “long-time listener, first-time caller”?

    My recommendation is probably the cliche DFW-for-general-audiences choice, but going into the final weekend of the US Open, it’s also a topical one. How could you not go with “Roger Federer as Religious Experience”?

    Now that I’m skimming it again, it probably doesn’t have all that much to do with the challenges of our age. But besides being accessible and interesting to Gen Ed dabblers, it also has the advantage of actually being an exercise in phenomenology, a breathtakingly beautiful extended description of what it feels like to watch (even just on television) a gathering of the fourfold.

    The last couple of sentences of the piece are a pretty good indication of its resonance to the themes of your book, and course:

    “Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”

  8. Adam says:

    Have you considered the story of ETA head trainer Barry Loach which takes up maybe 8 pgs (if memory serves) and appears near the very end of Infinite Jest? It’s not technically a short story, but is relatively self-contained. (Something may be lost to the reader who doesn’t know who Mario is; but perhaps not much). Anyway, it’s a beautifully written parable that concisely sketches the difficulty of genuine communication in a modern world of detachment and irony (that is, irony in DFW’s sense). Incidentally, Loach’s story has also always struck me as fascinating illustration of one aspect of what Kierkegaard calls irony as well: among the panhandlers who are all asking to be touched, Loach is being ironic in meaning *precisely* what he says.

  9. I think the piece to start with is Little Expressionless Animals from Girl With Curious Hair. The story is immediately engaging to most readers, but unlike Wallace’s journalism something about it remains obscure, encouraging you to think about it long after you’re done reading. It’s an incredibly moving story about contestants on Jeopardy, which is vintage Wallace. It’s got a lot of humor, but behind the laughs it introduces many of Wallace’s perennial concerns–about pop culture, television, loneliness, the simultaneous seduction and danger of high intelligence, etc. It’s also beautifully written, and far more accessible than the story that really evokes the “stomach-level sadness” most effectively of all, which is Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way. But Westward is long and complicated and bound to turn certain readers off.

  10. Charlie says:

    Like Jonathan, I’d have to say that Westward is a pretty strong contender, but it’s also maybe the densest piece of fiction Wallace ever wrote. Still, the payoff in those last couple of pages is so strong, and that story includes some of the most brilliant symbolism Wallace ever employed (I still get chills reading “Hold rapt for that impossible delay, that best interruption: that moment in all radial time when something unseen inside the blur of spokes seems to sputter, catch, and spin against the spin, inside.”). I don’t know…everything from the roses, to Miami Vice, to the parallels to Barth’s “In the Funhouse” (which is short enough that it could even be assigned as well), it seems to me that everyone would have *something* to say about it. Westward at least deserves consideration, given that it’s one of his major works taken all on its own.

  11. Paul Chandler says:

    The piece to commence understanding Wallace’s worldview (and since Wallace was not out to win acclaim for his supposedly unique brilliance as he was out to reach into our solipsistic trances and pull at what is left of us that is genuine and humane and yet so sadly submerged in a bath of deaf self-absorption, to help us resuscitate our own individual worldviews, to help us appreciate being alive for what it is and nothing more) is his commencement speech at Kenyon College, from May 21, 2005. http://web.archive.org/web/20080213082423/http://www.marginalia.org/dfw_kenyon_commencement.html

  12. Allen says:

    There are a lot of interesting comments here, and I’m coming along a bit late in the discussion, but I’d like to throw in my two cents: Personally, “This is Water” is what first got me intensely interested in Wallace (and close on its heels, the Dalkey Archive Press interview) but that might be a bit too “obvious” and at any rate doesn’t really involve characterization as such.
    After giving it some thought — though indeed “radically condensed” — I’d say “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life” might be a good contender for a freshman-handout-type introduction to his work and his articulation of contemporary sadness.

    P.S. I’d like generally to say that I’m very excited about this blog, the book, and the seminar audio recordings. You’ll probably see me flitting about, commenting on old posts.

  13. Lizzie Hutton says:

    Coming late to the conversation (I just discovered this blog), I’d suggest teaching ‘Authority and American Usage’ from Consider the Lobster. I’ve taught it many times in a upper level writing course for college students and it almost always gets a strong response. Reading such a passionate, funny, smart, obsessive and provocative piece about, of all things, grammar and usage is a weird shake-up to students whose ideas about grammar are more often corrected than challenged. How and why we talk and write the way we do is, of course, very important–but too often goes underexamined in the classroom; in this way, Wallace’s piece very much connects up to larger philosophical questions, in canny, unexpected and dangerous ways. Further, the fact that it is about something as stereotypically nerdy as grammar makes it disarmingly likeable (unlike some of Wallace’s more self-consciously high-minded pieces, which can be a turn off, to students and myself alike).

  14. Lisa says:

    This is a very belated response to Prof. Kelly’s “DFW Reading Question” (posted on Sept. 8), but I think that for an audience of smart-but-young undergrads, the most straightforward way in to the “stomach-level sadness” of DFW, especially insofar as that sadness arises from current cultural contexts (and what we’ve lost or at least misplaced in those contexts), is DFW’s essay on Dostoevsky (collected in Consider The Lobster). Most undergrads have probably encountered Dostoevsky, and even if they haven’t, they will probably be able, at a minimum, to make the short mental leap (more a hop, really) from his name to the general category of “great Russian author concerned with the meaning of life, death, and other profound/serious matters.” And that’s all that’s needed to follow the DFW essay, which ultimately is concerned more with the subject of Prof. Kelly’s 209 course than it is with any close reading(s) of Dostoevsky.

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