Friday, September 26, 2008

David Foster Wallace on Worship

Several years ago, as I was adjusting to graduate school and life in Scotland, my buddy Brad Johnson first spoke the name David Foster Wallace to me. Unfortunately, with all the reading and research demands of my masters and then doctoral program, I never made time for Girl With Curious Hair or Infinite Jest - I confess I still haven't (in my defense, it's difficult to make time for the 1,100 pages of the latter novel). So I was actually surprised at my own sadness to learn of his recent suicide at age 46. Suicide is always a sad thing, of course, and as one who has in angst-ier, despairing moments considered ending my own life, I might be a smidge more empathetic toward the victims - because that is what they really are - of suicide, at least more so than your average evangelical Christian.

When news of Wallace's death reached me, I felt immediately compelled - like many, I suspect - to figure out just what, just how much, the world had lost. I watched his Charlie Rose Show interview on youtube, and observed this nervous, bespectacled guy who seems almost frustrated at his own mind's tendency to flit from philosophy to cinema to literature, allusion piled upon reference like an infinite version of the Kevin Bacon game, and I felt an immediate admiration toward him, and even perhaps a kinship, though limited by the fact that I do not possess a fraction of his brilliance as a thinker or as a writer. Wallace, at least in this interview, wears that whole "curse of genius" thing on his sleeve, not is a way that makes you think, "Man, what a jerk...doesn't even realize how gifted he is," but in a kind of postmodernist, self-reflexive way that really makes you feel almost sorry for him. Like, "Man, this guy is keenly aware of how alienated he is by his intellectual gift."

I moved on to some of his shorter prose essays, and marvelled at his style, his gift with language, and the prescience of his thinking. I liked him more when I discovered his fanaticism for film, especially the work of David Lynch. I felt a kind of sickening envy at the fact that, despite every potential and opportunity to become a great scholar in probably any number of fields, he ditched his in progress Harvard PhD and committed himself to writing novels, essays and journalistic pieces. I sometimes wonder how many aspiring academics feel a similar pull but finish their PhDs and enter an academic career out of sheer cowardice. (I sometimes wonder if I might be one of them.)

One of David Foster Wallace's most moving pieces of writing is a 2005 commencement address he delivered at Ohio's Kenyon College, which interestingly enough neighbors our own Mount Vernon Nazarene University (who, given the occasional profanity, would have never invited him to speak for such an occasion). The piece as a whole deserves the 15 or 20 minutes it might take you to read it, and then many more hours of contemplating it...such that I almost feel badly excerpting it. Wallace's self-awareness about the "commencement speech genre" is humorous. His passing comments about suicide are devastatingly sad in light of his own demise. His description of contemporary "adult life" is utterly dismal and yet his call to the graduates his filled with hope and the promise of a life of meaning and fulfilment even in the face of mind-numbing tedium. In a word (or two): read it.

But his reflections that immediately prompted me to compose this post were specifically on the subject of worship, which is of course the preoccupation of this weblog. His insights, though perhaps familiar to many of us who occasionally enter and dialogue in this ephemeral thinkspace, are expressed with the beauty of a wordsmith and the lucidity of a scholar, and yet, good postmodernist that he is, maintain the skeptical distance of one who stands outside all that might commonly be described as "worship." (In fact, I'm suspicious about whether N.T. Wright hasn't actually plagiarized Wallace in one passage of Surprised By Hope.) I'll leave you with his voice, now silenced, as any closing comment from me would be, by comparison, a paltry offering indeed.
"...if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.
Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship - be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles - is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.
They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom...The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don't just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death."

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