David Foster Wallace and Imagining Moral Fiction
David Foster Wallace was never doing anything wrong. Even Wallace’s first published story, “The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing”–published in 1984 by the Amherst Review, written presumably at the age of 22–bears most of his stylistic earmarks circa Infinite Jest, and grapples with themes that would echo throughout much of his work to follow: infinity, fear, the risk of autobiography, fiction as an event, the struggle to empathize–the struggle to simply be in one’s own skin. All of this with a keen and self-aware sense of humor which dares you not to let Wallace’s cheeky, vigorous and, behind all that, ultimately hurt voice crawl into your head and stay there. But toward the end of his life, Wallace wasn’t sure, any longer, if his stylistic approach to the themes he felt to be most urgent–the themes that ran, almost doctrinairally, obsessively, through both his fiction and nonfiction–was truly effective in the big, big way he wanted it to be. He wanted to pare down the ecstasy of his prose, empty his sentences of self in a move toward mindfulness, toward sacrifice. Partly, I think Wallace’s stylistic shift (which we will see in full force soon when his final, unfinished novel, The Pale King, hits) was simply him doing good work; no artist as intelligent and unremittingly inventive as Wallace could stay working in the same mode for long. But and also (just kidding; I won’t do that here), I think Wallace, the whole time, imagined his work as a call-to-arms to the writer inside of every reader, the reader inside of every writer. In his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace points toward exactly the kind of shift in literary consciousness–and moral consciousness–away from what he saw as the destructive impulses of postmodernism, the shift which he could never, for whatever reason, fully effect in his own work:
The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of ‘anti-rebels,’ born oglers who dare to step back from ironic watching, who have the childish gall to actually endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point, why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things. Risk disapproval. […] Who knows. Today’s most engaged young fiction does seem like some kind of line’s end’s end.
I want to concentrate on Wallace’s understanding of the fictionist as, essentially and necessarily, an artist concerned with ethics, with how and why we do the things we do, with aesthetics as absolute freedom, with evil and with personal truth–truth concealed by a lie. And I want to ask why we are not more concerned with his vision. Why we do not, by and large, see aesthetics as ethics, as an ethical act, a metapolitics, for which we, as writers with the power and duty to transform, are deeply and inescapably responsible. And how we get from ethics to moral literature: literature with deep conviction and passion toward the event of truth.
Wallace is that rare figure who at once serves as a mogul for the experimentalist community, and makes bank as a bestseller. As such, it’s surprising to me that his call-to-arms has never really caught fire in any significant way. I’m sure there are exceptions, of course, but what concerns me most is the faultily posited distinction between language-based and ethical literature, particularly in terms of a critical disposition. That is, literature which, in one way or another, demands that the reader react to its law–a law which may or may not take the form of style and language. When we talk about style, language, form, we are already talking about ethics, about politics. There is no such thing as a work of art for-itself.
When Plato banished the poet in The Republic, he did the same to the politician of the real. It is only when they are both given space to speak that we can begin to imagine democracy–and whose fault is it that art has more or less left politics to blink through its dust? The politician heeds dissensus in the same way the artist creates it. Perhaps the artist confronts the viewer with a fragmented vision of the sublime, as in Beckett. Or perhaps the artist collapses the borders between the private and the public, the everyday and the gallery-mounted, as in Diane Williams. The artist transgresses his or her own law, transforms the spectator into an actor. The artist is politician within the bounds of art as metapolitics.
All of this to say: we are in bad faith, are we not, when we conceive of the work of art as functional only in an aesthetic space, as an object for-itself and nothing more? when we focus on the lie instead of the truth, something like God, the unconditioned condition for that lie: the infinite, the secret beyond revelation?
How do we define that work where a moral truth–a human verity, a choice, a decision and fidelity to that decision–hides behind a lie, a stylized surface? Well, we don’t. We cannot possibly. Because there are no accessible moral truths. There are no human verities, and decisions are never final. If I want to write morally passionate fiction, I’m going to have to sacrifice my truth to the democratic field of ethics, to the act of dissensus which is constantly questioning its own dissent. But let’s say I am a writer. I can craft my work such that it takes place as a moral event. I can conceive of my work as a gift. The moral conditionality of my work moves unto the infinite, the space of ethics. The Open, the absent, what allows for the present, the aesthetic, to do its work. However, if ethical space is open, infinite, and radically indeterminate, how do I know that the reader will receive my personal truth as absolute? Well, I don’t. I know nothing. Perhaps this is the moment, the gamble, which–writes Maurice Blanchot in The Space of Literature–“frees the sacred contained in the work, gives the sacred to itself, to the freedom of its essence, to its essence which is a freedom.” This moment is diametrically and dialectically opposed to the act of reading, which Blanchot describes as “the revelation of the unique work”: the revelation of the secret. The economizing of what is outside of any economy.
So, again, what does it matter if I’m a morally passionate writer, when it’s all resolved and sutured by reading anyway? Because, as much as Wallace cared for the reader, his aesthetic/ethical theory is a call for the writer, and not the reader, to answer. A call for infinite action, for the full-bodied giving of gifts, for hands clasped in prayer. “I” must inaugurate my work as an event, as a total and moral truth, and then send my work, constituted as such–as moral, as personal, as my own–into the infinite. “I” must know, before I do so, that my gift can never be returned. This kind of mindfulness, of self-sacrifice, results in the affection for the reader which, for Wallace, behooves all writers. By another name, one might call it love.
Now, let’s see Wallace’s love in motion. As a community concerned with overturning old strictures, it’s only natural we would privilege how something is said, style or form, over what precisely is said, content. Or that we would equate form with content, holding tight to the notion that content emerges from language and sound, and remains in play with form. But since content and form are deeply interlinked and in play, perhaps it matters just as much what you say as how you say it. That’s why, to me, a story like “Good Old Neon” is more effective and resonant than one like “The Suffering Channel,” both from Wallace’s 2004 collection, Oblivion. The sentences in both stories are finely cared for, though those of the latter are more complex and typical of Wallace. But when the sentences are basically bare, his work, his style, speaks for itself. Can you feel it? Do these sentences from “Good Old Neon” not slow your breathing?:
The truth is you’ve already heard this. That this is what it’s like. That it’s what makes room for the universes inside you, all the endless inbent fractals of connections and symphonies of different voices, the infinities you can never show another soul. And you think it makes you a fraud, the tiny fraction anyone else ever sees? Of course you’re a fraud, of course what people see is never you. And of course you know this, and of course you try to manage what part they see if you know it’s only a part. Who wouldn’t? It’s called free will, Sherlock. But at the same time it’s why it feels so good to break down and cry in front of others, or to laugh, or speak in tongues, or chant in Bengali–it’s not English anymore, it’s not getting squeezed through any hole.
Naturally, it’s more powerful in context; anyone who’s read the story will know what I’m talking about (and goddamn, the next sentence!). His style is all there: the rhythm, the breathless voice, the perfect syllabic stretches. But it’s not like you could listen to this voice talk about anything. Because, the point is, it wouldn’t talk about anything. The voice inscribes what is said with the urgency of its very saying. One gets the sense that this voice lives at all for the sake of these select sentences, that it has self-sacrificed for them. There is, in effect, an equalized play between form and content. Between aesthetics and ethics as aesthetics. Between the gift and the receipt. Possibly, perhaps this is a glimpse of what Wallace calls morally passionate fiction. Likely it’s just fiction. Who knows.