Sunday, March 15, 2009

Filing Cabinet: David Foster Wallace

(A whole lot of commentary inspired by a New Yorker article about David Foster Wallace, RIP, a novelist and nonfiction writer whose work I have never read.)

Quotes from “The Unfinished: David
Foster Wallace’s struggle to surpass ‘Infinite Jest,’”
by D.T. Max, in The New Yorker, March 9, 2009.

During this time, he traced his breakdown to his not really wanting to be a philosopher [like his father]. “I had kind of a midlife crisis at twenty, which probably doesn’t augur well for my longevity,” he later told McCaffery.

He began to write fiction. Until then, Wallace had seen novels primarily as a pleasurable way to get information….But he realized that fiction could order experience as well as philosophy could, and also provide some of the same comfort. (51)

David Foster Wallace’s father was a philosopher and his mother an English teacher. Lately, as part of an effort to forge a truce with a legacy of writing, I’ve been wondering if there are any particular difficulties in growing up under the influence of a life of the mind. I wonder if Wallace’s existence was in part a struggle to break free of the particular burdens that come with being raised in an unexpectedly oppressive climate of writing and ideas.

I don’t actually know that his parents were writers, and I’m certainly not trying to blame them. What I suspect writing and philosophy have in common, however, is that they are often the tools of a mind trying to order, control, contain, or even trump experience. People with minds like this are often mesmerizing, even magical—but nonetheless, I’ve begun to wonder if many of their offspring don’t share an urgent, often unconscious, desire to escape.

I came up with this hypothesis very recently, and ever since I’ve been scouring my world for examples that may possibly support it. Here are two I’ve come up with in the last week:

Michael Gates Gill: I’ve just read his memoir How Starbucks Saved My Life. The son of New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, he grew up surrounded by books, but simply could not learn to read until age 10. Gill goes on to be the creative director of a top ad agency, but after a fall from the corporate ladder and some dubious personal choices, he winds up serving coffee. He’s 64, in new neighborhood, working with new people, and for the first time he’s happy.

The book blazes with a convert’s zeal. He loves mastering the challenges of the store, the fellowship of coworkers very different than he is, and the simple pleasures of casual exchanges with customers. The book’s a page-turner, and it feels distinctly unintellectual. But I think I know how he feels: I loved working in a store myself. None of the interactions were complicated. I was endlessly meeting people’s needs, feeling useful, and making them smile. Often it seemed there was nothing better than that.

Alice Sheldon, aka James Tiptree, Jr. I’ve just started reading Julie Phillips’ biography of Sheldon/Tiptree, a science fiction writer who famously wrote under a male pseudonym. Sheldon/Tiptree was the daughter of Mary Hastings Bradley. Bradley “is forgotten now, but in her daughter’s lifetime she was a famous writer,” Philips writes. (9)

“…Mary took up a great deal of emotional and creative space, writing her daughter’s story, literally, in two children’s books about the Bradley’s African travels. It took a radical subterfuge—taking on a new name, pretending to be a man, turning into a new person—for Alli to get that story back, to become something other than her mother’s daughter.” (5)

Philosophy seems to have been too crushing a burden for Wallace, so he shifted his attention to fiction, where he seems to have got caught up in the same concerns.

As Wallace noted in a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, true freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you can construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” (50)

It’s been a big breakthrough for me to arrive at a point where I agree with Wallace, about freedom at least. I used to think it was a form of brainwashing to look on the bright side. I’ve heard research suggests that pessimists are better about predicting events, but optimists, despite repeatedly being proved wrong, are happier. There’s also the argument that “optimism is a moral imperative,” and lately I find that notion more compelling than accuracy.

Last summer, reading for the umpteenth time some Buddhist dictum about changing your mind, I realized that they were talking about something you could actually do. I’d thought of my mind as something like a shower in which you couldn’t adjust the temperature. But in fact, I could turn up the hot water if I wanted to. This was a power I had—not to deny experience, but choose which aspects of it to emphasize. Instead of moaning about life’s having yet to begin, I could actually live.

Once you begin to understand that that this sort of thing is within your reach, you may get a lot more curious about your experience and whether or not you actually like it. You don’t have to be thinking all the time about keeping things out, because you’ve got some flexibility about how to approach the things that come before you.

There’s something very strange about working consciously to change the way you frame your experiences mentally. I’ve had the sense that I have disconnected completely from “reality,” which was something I’d previously believed in. As you make the decision “not to believe everything that you think,” to quote a bumper sticker, you may have the sensation that everything in your life is a fiction. You may feel untethered. In my case, I’ve come to see that the stories I used to live by were as much made up as the new ones I’m choosing to discover. I think, often quite happily, that there is no truth.

Something else goes on, however, and it is perversely grounding. I used to think that my interpretation of my experience was what I had experienced. Now I realize that there may be one experience, but multiple ways of experiencing it.

For some reason, this makes me pay more attention to the experience itself—so that I can see what my options will be. Because I want to feel better, I experiment with ways of framing that are positive—well, maybe it wasn’t what I wanted, but what good things can I see in this? There’s almost always something. It doesn’t mean that the bad feelings go away, but the good things are lurking, there for a taste if you want them. And if you go into the world in a sunnier mood, the interactions you have are more likely to be nice.

This is exceedingly trite, I’m sure, but the truth is, the more that I practice this effort, the more I am forced to confront the possibility that things like love and connection are real forces in the world after all. I can see how a person could move in the direction of god or some sense of an underlying oneness—you know, what all those religions might consider a universal truth. I don’t think I want to go there, but there you are.

No truth and universal truth, both at once. Everything is paradox. More and more, I think that’s where the real action is.

The halfway house also showed him that less intellectual people were often better at dealing with life. They found catchphrases such as “One day at a time” genuinely helpful. To his surprise, so did he. “The idea that something so simple, and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting—which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff—can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can’t, that seems to me to be important.”(54)

I’ve heard this idea about less intellectual people being better at dealing with life before. The way I internalized it went like this: “Only stupid people are happy.” But it’s possible that all the smart people have tripped themselves up.

It has often seemed to me as a nonfiction writer—and I thought this up many years ago while studying the New York Times columns of William Geist—that the really hard work lay in working with ideas or images until they seemed so simple that anyone could understand them, and all the work that went into arriving at this easy, colorful expression was invisible.

One of the famous dictums in the writing world is Strunk and White’s “Omit needless words.” Perhaps you could call this maxim “simple” and “aesthetically uninteresting” as well. On the other hand, as many writers know, putting it into practice can be brutally difficult.

I think it’s also a misconception to imagine that “paying attention” or taking "one day at a time” or anything that implies staying in the so-called “present moment” is simple. Years ago, one of my Zen books (I can’t find which one, unfortunately) made the point that our experiences and feelings change from minute to minute and second by second. This idea was new to me at the time.

The author suggested that we imagine our moods as colored beads, and string them together over the course of the day. In the end, he said, we’d have a long and brilliantly varied necklace. For me, this has been an invaluable image. It makes any given second bearable, and it makes the entire day potentially fascinating. As you can tell from these blog posts, I can take even the most minor experience and find all sorts of shadings in it. This can feel like a kind of playing.

For me, paying attention has made life much richer and more complex. It is physically, emotionally, and intellectually engaging. I live an extremely privileged life, and I have come, gradually, to feel genuinely thankful for that. For whatever random reason, I am one of the lucky ones. But I have read Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, too, and I can see that these same techniques can lead to salvation even in the most dire circumstances—in his case, the concentration camps. I doubt I’d have his fortitude. I don’t think these techniques come easy, but I do think they build strength.

A number of years ago I went to a series of lectures at Tibet House. I’m no longer sure who was speaking—possibly Mark Epstein, Michael Vincent Miller, and Robert Thurman. I think, although I am not sure, that it was Miller, but maybe it was Epstein, who talked about depression as a telescoping of experience.

In other words, as I understood it, depressed people actually blotted out their experience. They could look to the future and they could see that the end would be grim, and so they refused to experience anything in between. This statement really resonated with me. It reminded me of many things I’d experienced growing up. And indeed, I’d often wondered why we should bother to live at all, since we were only going to die.

I should say, as an aside, that I have never been suicidal. And I would also say, as an aside, that I don’t think I’ve ever been clinically depressed. I was raised with a depressive outlook, and I have often felt extremely bleak, but I have never had the sense of being in the grip of a darkness or a chemistry that is beyond my control. I have known a number of people who have, however, and I don’t have any idea if any of this would resonate with them.

In my case, the act of being present is a way of defying this depressive outlook. It insists on the value of individual moments of life even though this sort of watching makes you even more acutely aware of change and your inevitable end. Here, again, is paradox.

The other memorable idea that I heard on one of those days at Tibet House was that our job as humans might be to arrive at a “second innocence.” I’m probably botching this concept, too, but I thought the idea that we were born in a state of openness and presence as children, and in the course of learning to survive we took on all sorts of ideas and defenses that gradually crowded our openness out. Along the way, we lost a lot of joy.

Our task, as I understood it, was to fight our way back to a state where we weren’t ruled by our defenses and other mental formulations, and to once again be able to live in the world of experience. As I say it, this “second innocence” was something it took a great deal of hard work and rigor to attain. We weren’t going to be children again; we were going to be adults who could regulate our behavior and make sophisticated choices and still soak up the world in child’s eager, unbiased, and expressive way.

Most of us wouldn’t simply be able to lie back and start gurgling again; it would take real discipline to get there. The discipline is what is involved in this endless task of working with our mind to reframe our experience.

I don’t know why I like the idea of discipline and rigor so much, but I do. Maybe these two words are simply the tricks I use to fool my mind into thinking the project I’m embarked upon is serious, intellectual, and worthwhile.

I do think these are important concepts, however. I think they have a great deal of relevance to our national politics. I think the problems of dealing with multiculturalism require discipline and rigor and, as attorney general Eric Holder might say, courage.

It isn’t easy to look at every person individually, to note your responses, to be honest, to have all the conversations that might be required to really work together. I haven’t done this myself. But I think the process is completely parallel to the process of paying attention, being in the moment, and going one day at a time, until, at long last, you can omit needless words.

We all crave the kind of simplicity that eliminates complexity. I think this is why multiculturalism was for so long such a hated word. We’d like to eliminate the whole mess of contradictions and just announce that we’re all on the same page. But I think this involves the same sort of telescoping mechanism that goes on with depression.

In his final major interview, given to Le Nouvel Observateur in August, 2007, he talked about various writers he admired—St. Paul, Rousseau, Dostoyevsky among them—and added “what are envied and coveted here seem to me to be qualities of human beings—capacities of spirit---rather than technical abilities or special talents.” He was no longer sure he was the kind of person who could write the novel he wanted to write. (60)

Here again, I think I know what Wallace is getting at. What is writing? It is many things—a way to share information or ideas, a tool for thinking, a means of entertainment. None of these seem to have been enough for Wallace. I’m guessing he’s like many people, including me—people who got confused by the idea of having to Write.

What is this Writing with a capital W? Apparently it’s a thing that lives through the ages. It’s never nonfiction, so it must therefore be fiction—something imagined, something that somehow transcends time and space.

I don’t know for sure, but I imagine what makes the Really Important Books live on is that they are communicating some feeling or experience or the essence of life to others. The writing probably isn't in itself the message, but rather the vehicle to convey it (although, admittedly, a really nice car is a really nice car).

I don’t think writing can force life into existence—it seems that the most affecting writing would have to have been spurred into existence by life. In the end, it’s not the typing that does the job—it must be living. Right? So probably in the end all we can do is hope to be as alive as we can—and we can’t really have any idea of what we will bring to others.

That’s today’s thought about it all, anyway.

Thanks for listening.


Gerry Gomez Pearlberg said...

A pleasure to read; beautifully done; much to think about from here...

Kelly Normand said...

I like it

Joan said...

Sorry it took me so long to read this one, but I really liked it. Great synthesis of the things Wallace/Phillips/et al discuss, and I can instantly see how the telescoping remark was so resonant for you. I have tried and failed to read Wallace many times -- I have had to conclude he's not for me. But I found the DT Max article in combination with the excerpt from the unfinished novel fascinating. I'm oversimplifying, but Wallace's mind seems to have been so attuned to analyzing detail, choice and intent that...well, he couldn't oversimplify, or find the kind of openness that might have saved him.