Tag Archives: cynicism

On Hope and Cynicism

It seems important to recognize a few things about cynicism. Firstly, that cynicism needn’t necessarily be expressed humbly, or doubtfully. A good way to think about this distinction is to compare David Foster Wallace’s cynicism in Up Simba, to John Ziegler’s cynicism on his radio show. Ziegler is dogmatically cynical, self righteously cynical and what this dogmatism amounts to is the belief that there is no choice but to be cynical, that cynicism is reality. In fact of course we can choose, we can choose to believe OJ was innocent, and that McCain had only Chris Duren in mind during his phone call. In Up Simba, David Foster Wallace is at least partially pointing out that cynicism is interpretation, editorializing so to speak, and that what makes or breaks any Anti-candidate is whether he’s able to convince us to choose not to be cynical. But what exactly goes into this decision?

If John Ziegler’s case can be extrapolated, I think we can probably see cynicism as the product of a kind of embattled fatigue. Ziegler’s cyncism about the innerworkings of commercial talk radio seems totally justified by his experience there. You get the feeling from Ziegler’s professional narrative that those hosts who choose not to be cynical about the talk radio industry do not survive in it. Wallace seems to see Ziegler’s universal cynicism as an extension of his justified and pragmatic cynicism w/r/t talk radio. Wallace doesn’t see this extension as justified, and I think most of us would agree, I think most of us see the world and everybody in it as basically too big for any answer to the question ‘should I be cynical.’ Most of us figure that there’s at least a possibility that people are basically good, and that we just can never know enough not to doubt our cynicism w/r/t the world at large,

It is this doubt that must be capitalized on by the anti-candidate, and one of the things that made Obama so amazing earlier this year is that in the 2008 election we voters probably had less of this doubt than at any other point in US political history. Eight years of Bush has left most Americans feeling about Politics the way John Ziegler feels about the talk radio industry: totally, justifiably cynical. When people talk about Bush’s splitting america and intensifying partisanship, what they’re really saying Bush did is make Americans less doubtful of their cynicism, on both sides of the aisle. The Idea of the anti-candidate is to bypass people’s dogmatically ingrained political cynicism by appealing to their still hopeful belief in sincerity’s existence in the world at all, to present their candidate as a person before a politician because Americans feel they can still trust people even if they feel they can no longer trust politicians.

The danger of the anti-candidate is that by capitalizing on our doubt that we should be cynical about everything and everyone, it forces us, political cynics all, to be cynical about where such a feeling of doubt comes from. We become worried that this doubt is not justified by the vastness of the world but cultivated by strategists for political interests, and this worry is deeply, philosophically troubling. Cynicism about campaign slogans becomes a heavy heavy thing when the slogans in question are “hope” and “change.” What’s so problematic about the anti-candidate is that if we can’t believe in him, it seems like we can’t believe in anything, so we believe in him, fervently, even though we know we probably shouldn’t.

Shameful Irony

We didn’t get a chance to talk about it in class, but one of my favorite essays in Consider the Lobster is “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s.” Considering the subject matter, I didn’t quite know what to expect from Wallace. But, not to sound overly cheesy, I found the essay to be extremely moving and heart-warming.

The essay reminded me of how amazing Wallace is at using one backdrop or situation as an excuse to discuss or comment on about ten other things.   And that’s what I feel he does so beautifully in “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s.” Yes, September 11th is in the story; it’s there and looming in the background, but the essay is much more about the people, about Bloomington, Illinois, and about himself.

Through his experience on the day of and the day after September 11th, we get a glimpse into the lives of the community in Bloomington, the people who “aren’t unfriendly but do tend to be reserved” (128). We learn about the tendency of people in Bloomington to watch TV together: “what you do in Bloomington is all get together at somebody’s house and watch something” (134). TV, for the people of Bloomington, is the main venue with which they experience the rest of the world, the rest of reality. And because they desire to experience the world together as a community, watching TV becomes a social phenomenon. (An interesting point because it seems to be contrary to Wallace’s argument in E Unibus Pluram that TV fosters a cycle of utter loneliness…)

On the day of Horror, Wallace himself partakes in such communal television viewing. And even while the Horror is going on around him, the most profound insights Wallace gathers that day have to do with the immediate people around him rather than what is happening on TV. He realizes that though the Bloomington women aren’t stupid or ignorant, they are decidedly “innocent” (139). And that in Mrs. Thompson’s living room around the TV, “there is what would strike many Americans as a marked, startling lack of cynicism…” (139). Wallace goes on to explain that it would occur to no one in the room in Bloomington, Illinois that “all three network anchors are in shirtsleeves” (139) or that there are any number of cynical and detached observations that could be made about the situation unfolding. He claims that “nobody’s near hip enough to lodge the sick and obvious po-mo complaint: We’ve Seen This Before” (140). In describing what the Bloomington women don’t do, Wallace essentially admits that he himself made these cynical and hip observations in his head. But, for the first time in a Wallace essay, I feel like there is a palpable sense of shame attached to such “po-mo” remarks: “part of the horror of the Horror was knowing, deep in my heart, that whatever America the men in those planes hated so much was far more my America, and F—‘s, and poor old loathsome Duane’s, than it was these ladies” (140)

In the rest of Wallace’s work, yes, cynicism and irony is bad and is a cage, but no one seems to be truly ashamed of being trapped in that cage. Some people may want out and try to get out, though I don’t think we’ve seen any succeed. And for those who can’t get out, there is not much guilt involved because it is pretty clear that being trapped in the cage of irony is the norm. But, when Wallace is surrounded by “truly decent, innocent people” (140), he acquires a sense of guilt from his cynicism. And it was that guilt that was, at the same time, so heart-wrenching to witness but also, so refreshing to see. It was really interesting to see Wallace confront his irony and cynicism in a way I don’t think he’s ever done before.

And this essay made me wonder if we have, in fact, encountered any characters who have harbored much shame because of their cynicism or irony. I’m feel like we haven’t (I’m not sure if Neal in Good Old Neon actually felt guilty or shameful as much as he felt frustrated and fed up), but I could be missing someone. Any ideas?

Pretty compelling truth in a page and a half

In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Wallace examines dozens of human tendencies or compulsions that produce emotional pain or confusion.   The one-sided interview format personifies these issues, making them not only easier to read but also more entertaining than otherwise. One of his short stories, however, “The Devil Is A Busy Man,” contains no explicit emotional or sexual dysfunction, yet exposes just as much about human nature as the longer interviews.   Here DFW riffs at once on human cynicism and on the nature of family relationships using the voice of a young child.    

On some level, we as readers already know that people are often, if not always, skeptical about anything that’s being given away without compensation.   Everyone loves free stuff, but everyone is also suspicious.   This suspicion and cynicism about giveaways, even with charitable intentions, has ingrained itself into modern capitalistic culture.   There is no free lunch.   That’s why potential customers would act curiously around the narrator.   “They’d shake their head and talk to their Mrs. and dither around and about drive Daddy nuts because all he wanted was to give an old tiller away for nothing and get it out of the drive and here it was taking him all this time jickjacking around with these folks to get them to take it” (BIWHM 70).   When the father changes his ads to include a price, even a dirt-cheap one, the general consumer response shifts.   “Where’d you get it at what’s the matter with it how come you want shed of it so bad” (70), becomes “Tickled to death to get an old harrow for next to nothing” (71).   Next to nothing is far more attractive than nothing.   Adding monetary value to something worth nothing makes it way easier to get rid of than instead relying on the charitable spirit of the seller.   The father only figured this out due to frustration, but that makes the principle no less true.   The logic is basic, as the consumer is always aware of the seller’s motivation, but Wallace calls to attention the cynicism necessary for this to become the dominant normative trend.   Using a child’s traditionally innocent point of view also helps to emphasize this contrast. This notion may influence the title, but likely there’s more to it than I can figure out.   Any ideas as to the title’s meaning?

The narrative also illustrates some of the dynamic of familial relationships.   It is immediately apparent that the father and child are close, even if their daily interactions are gritty and at times profanity laced.   The child has even adopted some of the nuances of his father’s speech, like the cursing and probably “jickjacking” and “some fool price” (70).   When people show up to buy the father’s junk, the child notices, “Their faces was different and their wife’s faces in the truck, fine and showing teeth and him with an arm around the Mrs. and a wave at Daddy as they back out” (71).   As opposed to faces “all closed up like at cards” (70), it could be that money and successfully negotiating markets tend to reinforce relationships.   That good feeling from beating the system (but not really because they could’ve gotten their item for free) is founded upon the idea that monetary value should be emphasized over basic charity.   This idea has taken such deep root that it affects even deep human interaction, like family interaction, which only institutionalizes this cynicism and drives it deeper.  

It’s pretty incredible to see DFW convey so many ideas (and there’s definitely way more to say about this piece than my little bit), so effectively in such a short space.   Perhaps it’s a testament to not only interesting perspective but also careful characterization.   Both of these qualities seem to mark many of these stories, especially the brief interviews.