Awed Shucks: 4 Views

David Foster Wallace endeavoring to explain the box of stars in his head.

David Foster Wallace endeavoring to explain the box of stars in his head.

Take I: In attempting to power through David Foster Wallace’s brilliant and dense Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, I was stunned into a literary-induced coma by the following sentence:

 

The positivist assumptions that underlie Methodological Descriptivism have been thoroughly confuted and displaced—in Lit by the rise of post-structuralism, Reader-Response Criticism, and Jaussian Reception Theory, in linguistics by the rise of Pragmatics—and it’s now pretty much universally accepted that (a) meaning is inseparable from some act of interpretation and (b) an act of interpretation is always somewhat biased, i.e., informed by the interpreter’s particular ideology.

By the time I came to, I had been knocked into the next chapter. Wallace’s arguments, which he conveys with the force of a firehose pressurized at 200 psi (enough to keep a Mini Cooper airborne for 6 minutes), are tossed-off with easy éclat – like he’s armed with a ready nose-dropper of concentrated insights and pinches a tiny tincture into each sentence. However stingy he may be with his pinches, they swamped me like a tsunami. When I finally surfaced I realized I didn’t understand much of what he was saying – at least at first. But when I thought about it some more I realized, I didn’t understand any of what he was saying.

Take II: David Foster Wallace’s virtuosic Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, is the opposite of an idea waiting to happen. It’s nothing but ideas happening. It’s like a fertilized human egg whose multiplicative properties begin with a single cell and end up with a complex human being demanding attention. So to with the fertile mind of Wallace. He takes a lone idea and impregnates it with charming arguments producing a complex essay demanding attention.

In fact so many superlative ideas were condensed into the following sentence that it collapsed in on itself and fused into a critical literary mass before it supernovaed. Get a load of this single weighty sentence Wallace drops like a bomb onto the topic of lexicographical inclusivity, i.e., criteria for whether or not a word should be included in a dictionary. Bear in mind this is just one mountainous sentence rising above a range of similarly imposing sentences:

The positivist assumptions that underlie Methodological Descriptivism have been thoroughly confuted and displaced—in Lit by the rise of post-structuralism, Reader-Response Criticism, and Jaussian Reception Theory, in linguistics by the rise of Pragmatics—and it’s now pretty much universally accepted that (a) meaning is inseparable from some act of interpretation and (b) an act of interpretation is always somewhat biased, i.e., informed by the interpreter’s particular ideology. 

KA-boom! His IED (Improvised Explanatory Declaration) has detonated and I’ll get back to you in about an hour once you’ve picked all the edifying shrapnel from your brain.

This sentence was not some one-off ejaculatory statement that was building up in him for years only to find its expression on page 23% of my Kindle. Rather the essay is infused with numerous mot justes until they become a dense thicket of suffocating bon mots (bear with me, I just got back from France). Some may say Wallace’s ideas on lexicographical inclusion are merely recombinative generalizations. That they’re nothing more than tired cut & paste ideas that have been floating about the literasphere for ages and were easy pickins’ for the astute philosopher-critic to harvest and present anew.  

They’d be wrong. The heft of his erudition cannot be measured in what other people think. It’s beyond most thought, and borders on the incomprehensible – and I mean that as a compliment.  

 

Take III: When matinee idols like Rudolph Valentino or Clark Gable shined their charismatic light on a woman, she often swooned and became irresistibly attracted to them. In a similar way DFW (not the airport, but the guy David Foster Wallace) possesses a magnetic temperament for attracting ideas when he shines his considerable intellectual light onto a topic. Ideas begin to flock to him like it’s a genetic instruction to migrate to DFW (the guy and not the airport).

With a gaggle of ideas (or is it a covey of ideas) surrounding him, he then assesses their worthiness for inclusion into the essay he’s writing: “OK, this idea is a 10 and will be included. Hmmm, that idea is only a 5 but it is nuanced and supplies a key supporting point. It’s in. Let’s see, that idea is simply deplorable and is better suited for a Trump rally.” Upon weighing the merit of each idea, all he has to do is reorganize them and decorate his essays with the chosen ones. And the bonus part is, with rejected ideas, unlike with people, there’s no awkward, “Of course, I’ll call you later this week.”

In his uncannily readable Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, DFW lands some particularly heavy concepts in one single sentence. To wit:

The positivist assumptions that underlie Methodological Descriptivism have been thoroughly confuted and displaced—in Lit by the rise of post-structuralism, Reader-Response Criticism, and Jaussian Reception Theory, in linguistics by the rise of Pragmatics—and it’s now pretty much universally accepted that (a) meaning is inseparable from some act of interpretation and (b) an act of interpretation is always somewhat biased, i.e., informed by the interpreter’s particular ideology.

I’ll now break down this sentence and peel away its layers one by one to reveal the meaning behind each concept. It will require a complete knowledge of Pre-Colombian Semantics and a good supply of Red Bull to power through it. Let’s begin by…

Readers Interrupt: No let’s not begin by… Please stop. This brainy stuff is fun to comment on, but will cause cerebral dyspepsia when swallowed whole – especially when it’s washed down with a deficient education. Better to focus one’s intellectual energy on lottery number strategies (there are none) or by planning a trip to see DFW (the airport and not the guy).

 

Take IV: Sadly, David Foster Wallace, who had a history of depression and drug addiction, committed suicide on September 12, 2008. He left a simple (for him) note which read:

The positivist assumptions that underlie Methodological Descriptivism have been thoroughly confuted and displaced—in Lit by the rise of post-structuralism, Reader-Response Criticism, and Jaussian Reception Theory, in linguistics by the rise of Pragmatics—and it’s now pretty much universally accepted that (a) meaning is inseparable from some act of interpretation and (b) an act of interpretation is always somewhat biased, i.e., informed by the interpreter’s particular ideology.

His work is memorialized in the film End of the Tour starring Jason Segel (as DFW – the guy) and Jessie Eisenberg (as DFW – the airport). Although the following sentence and its attendant list are bogus, part of me believes it could happen anyway:

As testament to the intellectual staying power of this literary dynamo, David Foster Wallace has managed to write 3 new books since his cremation:

  1. Enough Already: Stop Considering the Lobster
  2. And While People in Hell Still Want Ice Water, in Heaven Everybody gets Snapple
  3. Sylvia Plath and I are Really Happy Now.

 

Epilogue: In closing, I’d just like to add that being troubled is not a prerequisite for reaching into the ethers and retrieving beautiful ideas or wonderful philosophies. Christ did this and didn’t suffer from any complexes or demons. And to a lesser extent, so did the cast of Hogan’s Heroes. Not so with Wallace. His path was a troubled one and we were fortunate to have him for the 46 years we did.

I’d also like to add my appreciation to David Foster Wallace as someone who expanded my intellectual universe by allowing me to simply walk into the spacious room he created and make myself comfortable.

And finally I’d like to add one more thing: 3 + 7. OK. Let’s do it. 3 + 7 = 10.

Leave a Reply

*