Author Archives: ag1646

An Interesting Parallel

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been reading DFW for the last couple months, but when I was watching this lecture by Randy Pausch (professor at Carnegie Mellon) I was seeing Wallace-ian elements everywhere.  The way that Pausch unpacks cliches to reveal important truths made me think of AA in Infinite Jest, as well as Wallace’s Kenyon commencement speech.  This lecture is worth watching in its own right, but also interesting in some of the ways it parallels some of the ideas in Wallace’s works.

Freedom of Choice

After I read “Up Simba” I couldn’t help but think back on DFW’s thoughts on freedom in his Kenyon commencement speech.  

The crux of the commencement speech is that you have the freedom “to exercise some control over how and what you think.”    You can either rely on your brain’s hard-wired default setting: being “hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head,” or you can choose something else.  Something more empathetic, compassionate, mature.  To not revert to the automatic thoughts you have about a situation or a person, but actually take the time to think, to put yourself “in their shoes.”  It’s not easy, that’s for sure. But you have the choice between the two, and that’s for sure also.

In “Up Simba” there is a similar choice to be made.  Either we can dismiss McCain as another lying, conniving demagogue or we can believe that he is genuinely trying to inspire a nation to be the best it can be.  For the latter DFW makes a strong case, which primarily relies on McCain’s choice to follow POW code as testament to his selflessness.  It’s uncertain whether this fact is enough to push voters past their cynicism toward politics.  It’s certain, however, that you can choose whether it is enough.  

As DFW says in the closing lines of the essay, “whether [McCain’s] truly ‘for real’ now depends less on what is in his heart than on what might be in yours.”  


“A postmodern literary lion slobbers all over the former candidate in Rolling Stone”

Shortly after “Up Simba” was published,’s Bill Wyman wrote a pretty sardonic parody  of the essay: David Foster Wallace: Ain’t McCain Grand?

Wallace and Authority

In “Authority and American Usage,” Wallace applauds Bryan A. Garner’s ingenous appeal to ethos his A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.  Garner, according to Wallace, is able to transcend (and possibly solve) the descriptivist vs. prescriptivist issue by establishing himself as an authority figure – “a professional who realizes that he can give good advice but can’t make you take it” (123).  

I think that this ability to cultivate authority is also one of Wallace’s unique writerly trademarks.  I remember when I first read Wallace, one of the things that I was most taken with was his how he could get me to just trust him.  We’ve discussed in class to some extent how he does this –  sincerity, encyclopedic research, compassion, sheer intellect, sensitivity, and pyrotechnic skill all seem to contribute to this effect.  

These aren’t so different from Garner’s imputed qualities:

“It turns out that ADMAU’s preface quietly and steadily invests Garner with every single qualification of medern technocratic authority: passionate devition, reason and accountability…experience…exhaustive and tech-savvy research…an even and judicious temperament…and the sort of humble integrity that not only renders Garner likable but transmits the kind of reverence for English that good jurists have for the law, both of which are bigger and more important that any one person” (123-124).

I can’t help but feel that the same things apply for Wallace.  Even in this essay, Wallace abides by the same technocratic principles that make Garner so sucessful.  Wallace’s willingness to take on the issue of authority and american usage, explain to the reader why it’s a relevant issue, provide copious research and background to support his arguments, convey sincerity and humility, communicate an issue that’s bigger than himself (the democratic spirit),  all persuade me to submit to his, Wallace’s, authority.  

This happens for me in every Wallace essay, without fail.  

Similar feelings anyone?

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

It turns out that Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is also the title of a groundbreaking philosophical treatise written by Richard Rorty in 1979.  Rorty’s work was concerned with dissolving “the notion that epistemology is the arbiter of what is rational in Western cultures.”  A very basic encapsulation is that Rorty is trying to argue that philosophy should have a more practical use, opposed just attacking the “pseudo-problems that only exist in the language-game [Wittgenstein!] of Analytic philosophy.”  

I’m struggling in tying this to Wallace’s homonymous fiction piece.  I think that Wallace has slipped in what an aforementioned pseudo-problem might look like: “the first surgery’s bandages came off then one could at first not ascertain whether the face’s expression was a reaction to what she saw in the mirror or if itself was what she saw and this was the stimulus causing the noises” (185).  The way reality is represented (mirrored) the mind has been at the center of philosophical debate since Descartes.  This scene, although somewhat comically, seems to be addressing one aspect of this big question.  In P.A.T.M.O.N    Rorty seems to be arguing that this shouldn’t be the focus of what philosophers argue over.  

This parallels the narrator’s view in the story, which doesn’t seem to be about caring for his mother’s disfiguration, but more about taking care of her.  Ultimately, he seems to care for his spider husbandry more than anything, but regarding his mother the narrator is protecting her against “some young duo of punks or hostile organisms” (189).   This is reminiscent of the AA outlook in Infinite Jest: it doesn’t really matter what you believe, as long as the program achieves positive results.  In this case, the positive/pragmatic result seems to be making sure his mother isn’t harassed anymore than she already is.  

Still there are tons of unexplained things.  Why does the narrator grow black widows in his garage?  What’s the deal with the lawsuit over the child who fell through his garage roof and released all the spiders?  How does it relate to Rorty’s philosophy?


Wikipedia: Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

The Problem of Pain

David Foster Wallace has made it clear that the purpose of his fiction is to capture what it means to be human.   Since “an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering,”   naturally Wallace deals with this very subject in many of his stories (McCaffery Interview).

As I was reading Oblivion I was beginning to notice a pattern in the way Wallace’s characters deal with pain.   It seems that if one intellectually can separate oneself from pain itself, and examine it from an outside perspective, one may somehow come to terms with the pain in a way that’s not just simply denial or rationalization.

I’m specifically thinking of Brief Interviews, in B.I. #46 (the holocaust one), when the interviewee is talking about “how easy and powerful that was to do that, to think that, even while the violation’s going on, to just split yourself off and like float up to the ceiling and there you are looking down at this thing getting worse and worse things done to it and the thing is you and it doesn’t mean anything” (122).     The interviewee submits that for the rape victim, this de-personalization could have broadened “how she understood herself” (121).

Compare this with how the dying child “had learned to leave himself and watch the whole rest unfold from a point overhead” in Oblivion’s “Incarnations of Burned Children”   (116).   Eerily similar.   Clearly the scalded child won’t understand more about pain, but can the reader learn something from adopting an outside perspective?

Any other examples?   Thoughts?

Appreciating Infinity

In class there was a little bit of discussion regarding whether Everything and More even needed to include all the technical math terms, symbols,  and proofs.   Since DFW  seems to be trying to illuminate the historical/aesthetic aspect of infinity, why not just stick to descriptive writing, right?   For most of the people in class,  it seemed that  the math became a big  headache.    Some math majors felt that  the technical aspect of the book came off as reductive and serous.   For most of the humanities people, the math jargon was either ignored or dismissed as way too abstruse.   I’m going to submit, however, that the technical breakdowns are necessary for Wallace to communicate the beauty and profundity he sees in  the history of infinity.    

(Note: whether Wallace conveys this effectively isn’t what this post is addressing.   I’m just saying if  this is what the book is going for, technical explanations are necessary)

A key component of the aforementioned communication is our ability to appreciate the subject Wallace is dealing with.    Wallace needs to show us not just why, but how, to appreciate Cantor’s discovery.   Since appreciation, I think, derives from experience, we need to some how experience the buildup toward  infinity.

Analogy: We appreciate Michael Jordan’s jump shot because we know how difficult it is to make a basket over a defender.   We appreciate Wallace’s essays because we know how hard it is to write well, and we’ve read lots of mediocre writing.   In the case of Everything in More, we need to experience the abstractness and difficulty in thinking about infinity to truly appreciate the astounding discoveries of Cantor and company (another  subject of our appreciation is  the historical context:  mathemeticians being dismissed as heretics, their battle against the beliefs of time, etc., but that’s for another post).  

Hence Wallace’s opens the book by saying that “abstractions ha[ve] all kinds of problems and headaches built in, we all know” (11).   He’s already starting to get us to think about this stuff in a broad sense.   When we actually get to specifics like derivatives, integrals, and number lines, we accordingly need more specific explanations.   It’s arguable that broad definitions could get the job done, e.g., to just say that an integral is the “area bound by a curve” – and Wallace does this in the emergency glossary (p. 109)  – but it doesn’t do much in communicating serious meaning, I think.  

If one actually sits down and fights through one of these proofs, however,  one might actually gain deeper apprecation for the ingenious mind behind it.  For most non-math people, these concepts are not easy – that’s the point.   If we can feel the difficulty of these abstract ideas, we can begin to form  some sense  of the sheer brilliance of Cantor, Dedekind, et al.   It’s more than paying lip-service to their genius because they’ve been exalted by history; it’s more like feeling it.    To know, empirically, that they  have done something incredible.  And as far as I can tell, beauty and profundity always manifest as feelings.

Belief vs. Understanding

As many posts have discussed, AA operates on cliches and mindless repetition.   Whether recovering addicts believe in these trite slogans is irrelevant as long as they, the addicts, keep coming, fighting the disease “one day at a time.”   Eventually, those recovering begin to realize that this seemingly mindless method actually works.   Understanding plays little to no part of the AA process, in the beginning.

I found it interesting that understanding almost seems in some way inferior to the faith that is required of a recovering addict.   The two (faith and understanding) are juxtaposed in the footnote 90 on p. 1000, the dialogue between Gately and Geoffrey Day.

Day, well-educated and articulate, makes a tenable argument against the fundmental beliefs of AA.   His skepticism is well justified, and his analysis for the most part logically sound.   Day questions the “obvious and idiotic fallacies and reductia ad absurdum” of the program in long sentences full of wit and sarcasm, and overall comes off as a pretty intellectual guy.   By contrast,   Gately speaks in sentences that are often under ten words long. He iterates cliches. Sometimes these short sentences are requests for clarification of Day’s part.   Other times, Gately is giving reassuring signs that he is listening, like “I hear you.”   In short, he does not come off as very bright.

Hence, it seems counter-intuitive to me that I somehow find Day’s cerebral breakdown of AA to be full of air, but Gately’s terse replies dense and full.   Day’s attempt to understand comes off as flailing and desperate, even though he makes valid points.   Yet there’s something moving about Gately’s humility and sincere attempt to keep up with Day.   The way Gately is trying to genuinely hear Day, and sympathize with him.   Gately’s reticence doesn’t come off dumb, but profound.

Did anyone else feel this way?

Circumvention as a Sort of Art

Brief Interview #28,   K- and E-‘s discussion about what women want (WWW hereafter), is fascinating in the solution it proposes.   Of greater significance, however, is the boldness inherent in proposing a solution to such a charged problem.   In today’s political climate, it’s incredibly difficult to address the WWW issue without being accused of apologizing for some ideological camp – feminism, chauvanism, sexism, etc.

DFW skillfully dodges this in two ways – 1) the piece is priveleged by a   “hear-me-out” quality by virtue of the fact that writing is a one-way medium, i.e., you can’t just interrupt and cut the argument short, and 2) by employing E- as a devil’s advocate of sorts – he’s not stupid, but he embodies the type of erroneous thinking that most people are prone to. In the mouth of E-, DFW puts the anticipated the counterarguments and logical fallacies we are inclined toward regarding the WWW issue/solution .   K- then amends E-‘s (our) misconceptions, explaining why they are inaccurate without ever simplifying or reducing the issue.

By obviating charges of bias, DFW can then comprehensively diagnose WWW, and propose a solution.   This circumvention of minor issues in order to focus on the relevant one at hand is similar to what Wallace says Joseph Frank does for Dostoevsky w.r.t the IF (Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky), and what Bryan Garner does in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage w.r.t. prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar rules (Authority and American Usage).   K-, Frank, and Garner don’t pretend that there isn’t controversy – they just tackle the issue from an angle that makes most of the controversy irrelevant.   For me, this is what makes DFW feel like such a monolithic authority.   He knows what the important issues are, and addresses them critically and sincerely.


In Brief Interviews I’ve noticed a theme: characters are scared of losing control over themselves.   As many people have pointed out, in DFW’s works there is almost always some emphasis on appearance, whether it’s how we see ourselves, or how we think others see ourselves.   Often, as illustrated in “A Radically Condensed History of Post Industrial Life,”   people focus all their energy on trying to make themselves seem a certain way to others.   The implication here is that there are characteristics or entire personalities hidden beneath the appearance, the “real” you, so to speak.

In B.I. #14 (Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!) we have an instance of one of these hidden characteristics coming out (haha).   The guy clearly has no control over it, and he doesn’t even understand it’s cause, which is partly why it scares him.   It’s ironic that this utterance which occurs during orgasm, one of the most intimate of human moments, when you are “outside” of yourself, completely in union with another. The very self-involuted fear of being judged as strange comes from the most un-self-involved of phenomena.

I see a similar themes in several other of the stories in Brief Interviews, such as the chicken-sexer guy (how he gets off on girls surrendering their will to him) and the great-lover (the trick is to convince the girl that she is blowing you head off, i.e, she has made you lose control of yourself).

Any thoughts?