David Foster Wallace preached the concepts of awareness and conscientious thinking, the importance of learning how to think: ‘the really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. […] The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.’ Not just This Is Water, the whole of his work is in constant exploration of the concepts of paying attention, what to pay attention to and how to do it. Choice is the direct exercise of free-will and free-will is what makes us human. You are your choices. You are the responsibilities you take.
How not to agree? It seems so obvious to me that my job in life is to think hard about how – and take all variables into consideration – to exercise my free will for the good. Choosing how and what to pay attention to is to choose what meaning to give to the word good, and it is this choice – your moral/ethical worldview – that defines who you are, your Self.
Where’s the sense in loving yourself for stuff that you have no direct influence on or right to have? Talent, beauty, intelligence, charisma, genius; do you think you deserve them? Do you think they are yours? Do you think you have a right to them?
The only thing you can be proud of, or beat yourself up about, is your choices. How else can you be proud of yourself unless you think you’re doing some good – and I don’t mean (just) stuff like working for Greenpeace, but stuff like making the girl you love smile, or tell your mom you love her, or choose one career over another for good reasons.
This is called, in philosophy, Existentialism. It is Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Sartre, and Wallace. Existentialism means that becoming a Self means to strive for it, and to do so by making choices, and if you put enough effort, and make the right ones, then you’ll have succeeded.
…Which is all sound, except then what about the fact that all of Wallace’s work is about how self-reflective thought becomes a never-ending solipsistic loop that divides you from other human beings and reality and makes you lonely, misanthropic, and sad? It would seem that to exercise this kind of conscious awareness one would have to really be in danger of being or becoming what Wallace calls a compulsive thinker, maybe one of those whose “99% of the head’s thinking activity consists of trying to scare the everliving shit out of itself.”
It was September 2012, I was sitting on my bathroom carpet and reading the second chapter of Infinite Jest, ten pages devoted to a marijuana addict waiting for his dealer to ring his doorbell, and I was blown away. Those ten pages alone justified going through the effort of the next thousand. No matter what. What the story of Ken Erdedy (the addict) made evident to me is how, in some deep, important way, we (me and Erdedy) are (pretty much) exactly the same. That we live by an underlining feeling of ever-present uncertainty, a separation between what we feel we are and what we ought to be, an indecisiveness about should we let ourselves be or should we aim for the goals we set for ourselves and define ourselves by those principles and achievements.
And the problem gets viral very fast, I mean are you sure you set those goals and desires for yourself or are those desires pressured onto you? Do you accept being shy and not the most socially gifted person or do you try to force yourself to face your fears for the achievement of a greater good? But is that good really what you want or are you actually displaying weakness by adhering to a concept that is forced onto you by your surroundings while in fact you’d have no problem with your shyness, and you’d build a few, meaningful relationships with time, and feel happy, and would freely love yourself if only the world would leave you alone and let you just be? Meaning would it not actually become counter-active to reach for those goals, and could it not turn out that by forcing yourself to face your fears you’re actually just self-destroying for no reason? What if you then reach your goals, after endless sacrifices, and realize you’re still empty? Worse than before now that you don’t even have that goal to look forward to? Self-acceptance or self-discipline, where to turn to? Or where’s the balance?
Wallace shows that there is a very fine line dividing constructive (the awareness of Existentialism) and destructive (Ken Erdedy’s) thinking, and but then his characters always fall. Loneliness, misanthropy, and sadness are their fate. His writings keep a constant emphasis on the utmost importance of awareness while continuously displaying characters who inevitably turn awareness into wasted time and rotten thinking. No character through his novels, and not even Wallace’s persona through any of his essays, seems to achieve any kind of happiness, or higher spirit, or deeper connection with others or to reality, through the conscious effort of exercising awareness.
Consciousness was both Wallace’s nightmare and his only hope. His oeuvre is a tornado of paradoxes. He got stuck in the loop, buried under the weight of his own rationalizations, unable to free his mind from the obsessions that haunted it, ever unsure whether he was running the good or bad side of self-consciousness. Trapped. Forever plagued by what he could not let go.
In This Is Water he explicitly stated that to close the doors of consciousness is to fall victim to one’s default setting, that by which we assume we’re the center of the universe, more important and real than anything else; that to not exercise awareness is to go through life unconscious, a slave to your own head. He has characters in both his fiction and non-fiction who have embraced ‘oblivion’ and have attained happiness in exchange, but it is a happiness that he represents as false, a lie. And yet, on the other hand, a whole lot of his characters embody what Nietzsche described as ‘active not wishing to be done with it’ by people who ‘can’t be done with anything’ and who, therefore, are doomed, destined to spend eternity longing for answers that their own Self denies them.
David Foster Wallace once said that literature that merely diagnoses the modern sickness is worthless, that truly great literature both shows the modern sickness and illuminates the way to happiness, to how human beings can still be human in our day and age. Value, he said, stands in providing a solution, in showing a way out of the darkness.
He did propose a solution, it was Existentialism, but he spent tremendous amounts of time, of pages, disrupting it. He could only create characters who’s conscious efforts would turn into, basically, self-destruction.
The only real potential for redemption ever shown in Wallace is in the main character of the (very) short story ‘Signifying Nothing.’ It is a short parable in which a sudden neurological event creates a dramatic tension that needs to be resolved; the protagonist suddenly remembers his father ‘waggling his dick in [his] face one time when [he] has a little kid.’ The memory shocks him, it freaks him out. He doesn’t talk to anyone about it for a while until he gets ‘the guts’ to ask his father, straight up: ‘what the fuck was up with that?’ The father’s answer is a look, a look of total disbelief and shame, shame of having a son capable of believing such thing ever happened. And the protagonist just cannot stand being made to feel ashamed about something he’s one hundred percent sure really happened and for which he should have the right to disbelief and shame.
He gets his stuff and is out of the house, for good.
But then, astonishingly, with a completely anti-‘Wallacian’ move, by just letting it go, he goes back to his family. Happily welcomed. Just like that.
And I just don’t get it. As simple as that. If Wallace really wanted to provide a solution, to show how men can reach for happiness, bonding, empathy; why show just one guy, in a story that’s like two pages long, who succeeds in doing so, among the thousands of pages he’s written? One guy, two pages, in a twenty-years long career as a writer. And the way that one single guy redeems himself is by just letting it go, with time, and he (Wallace) never let it go. He kept writing books until he died, he never stopped and looked at something else, and never a real chance at happiness up to the very last page. Oblivion, the last book of his he’d seen published, was the most nihilist of all. He preached companionship, self-forgetfulness, ‘truly sacrificing for others in a myriad petty little unsexy ways, over and over again,’ and yet he indulged in what he himself said was probably the loneliest and most narcissistic endeavor of all. Writing. And writing required huge amounts of time to be spent in solitude and, worse, time spent thinking about himself. He went against his own preaching, ignored it, threw it out the window. He became (or always was and had been) one of his characters.
If Wallace has me convinced of one thing, it is that the ethical choice might be to not ever open his books again, that this would be the proper way to follow the path he opened for us and that he himself could not follow.
He taught me, indelibly, that how happy you are is directly proportional to how little you think about yourself, and that being an intellectual is a risky – maybe deadly, business. That even literature has its own risks and that it has to be approached cautiously.
It’s just very sad to realize that he might not have believed his own teaching, or that he might have been too much of a narcissist to follow it himself. My choice is to leave him behind, but never forget him, and to believe that the path to happiness is still there in front of me, of us, and that it still leads to awareness and self-forgetfulness, and that there’s only one way to reach that goal. And that is love. To wake up in the morning and think about you, them, her.
Paolo Pitari obtained a Master’s Degree in English at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Both his Bachelor’s and Master’s theses discussed David Foster Wallace. He’s also crazy about music, guitar and John Frusciante.