When David Foster Wallace ended his life in 2008, the literary world mourned the loss not just of a great talent, but of someone who seemed to grapple with the human predicament in a deep way. At first glance it might seem incongruous that a man celebrated for sagacity (as so many of his obituaries and memorials did) would hang himself in despair at the age of 46, but it bears remembering that though wisdom is a product of deep grappling, despair is always another possible result. As Camus put it in The Myth of Sisyphus, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
People who take their own lives almost always leave more questions than answers in their wake, and that’s certainly the case for Wallace, but there’s one question I haven’t heard anyone ask. It’s hypothetical and unanswerable, but I think it’s important. Like many who suffer from depression, Wallace felt himself essentially alone, even when he wasn’t, and perhaps there’s nothing that might have been done about this. But consider: What if Wallace had lived in a culture that valued what he valued—that valued, say, insight into the nature of human experience over the unconscious satisfaction of instinctive and manufactured desires? It’s clear from his work that he felt at odds with American culture in that respect, and you might argue that Wallace was—or felt he was—aspiring to wisdom in a culture that was hostile to the very concept.
If this seems like ham-handed praise, look at Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College. There’s a reason it made the rounds online, and then was published as a book: very simply, its wisdom is rare, even if Wallace took pains to say he had no great wisdom to dispense, and even if Jonathan Franzen claims that it gave too many people who never knew him or read his work the false idea that Wallace was “Saint Dave.”* Putting aside the matter of Wallace’s personal virtue (is anyone ever as virtuous as their aspirations?), any number of his points would put the typical graduation speech to shame, and one stood out for me.[gn_pullquote align=”right”]“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life,” Wallace said, “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.” [/gn_pullquote]
“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life,” he said, “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 reason for choosing a religious or spiritual or ethical object of worship “is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”
It’s probably worth pausing here to consider the meaning of the word “worship.” The Old English word from which it derives, which I can’t spell for you here because of the weird alphabet and my luddite aversion to computer tricks, means “the condition of being worthy.” But worthy of what? That’s the question hiding within the word, and I think the best answer comes from Paul Tillich, the 20th-century theologian who radically redefined religious faith as “ultimate concern.” Tillich shared Wallace’s belief that we all worship something, we all take something as ultimate and invest our being in it, and he also shared Wallace’s conclusion that when we take as ultimate something that is not in fact ultimate—that is, when we worship and invest our being in things not worthy of that investment—we suffer for it.
So if you worship power, or money, or youth and beauty, or any of the other things that our culture excels at worshipping, Wallace said, you’re bound to run up against their inevitable limits—all the ways in which you can’t be powerful, and don’t have enough money, and won’t be able to hang onto your youth and beauty. And so “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,” while true freedom “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people.”
Religion is one way to cultivate those practices, but it is not the only way. Consider the original meaning of the word “philosophy.” Its Greek roots mean “love of wisdom,” but what does it mean to love something, especially something like wisdom? I’m not sure I can answer that, but it suggests to me the act of giving oneself to that thing; considering it important enough to put first—perhaps even before self-concern itself. Think of parents who would lay down their lives for their children, or soldiers willing to die for their country.
When you encounter people who truly love wisdom, who love truth more than circumstance, they display that quality of giving-to, of prioritization, of worship. I immediately think of Bertrand Russell. The British philosopher was famous for his atheism, but listen to him talk about philosophy and it’s hard to not sense a religious quality in his commitment to higher ideals. Philosophical contemplation “makes us citizens of the universe,” he wrote in his essay The Value of Philosophy. “In this citizenship of the universe consists man’s true freedom, and his liberation from the thralldom of narrow hopes and fears….Through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.”[gn_pullquote align=”right”]“Citizens of Athens, aren’t you ashamed to care so much about making all the money you can and advancing your reputation and prestige, while for truth and wisdom and the improvement of your souls you have no thought or care?” [/gn_pullquote]
Those are not the words of a man who worships trifles. They are the words of a man who knows what’s at stake—that we are not just consumers, or biological robots, or jealous social animals; that we have a unique ability to investigate and comprehend both our own experience and the experience of the world around us. Not coincidentally, those are the stakes Socrates articulated when he looked at his culture and said, much like Wallace did, What are you people thinking? “Citizens of Athens, aren’t you ashamed to care so much about making all the money you can and advancing your reputation and prestige, while for truth and wisdom and the improvement of your souls you have no thought or care?”
It’s hard to tell whether the citizens of Athens were ashamed when they executed Socrates, but this much seems clear: We have very little of that shame. We might care for “the improvement of our souls” at the margins, but the form it largely takes— “self-help” and other self-concerned tonics like psychotherapy and Oprah-esque spirituality—bears little resemblance to the kind of philosophical contemplation Russell spoke of. He was exhorting us to move beyond our self-concern, not further into its nooks and crannies.
What would it look like for us to have a culture that valued wisdom, and the kind of searching investigation that leads to it? I can scarcely imagine it; that’s how far it is from being a reality. But I do know this: it would be a culture in which people like Dave Wallace feel at home, instead of feeling like crashers at a party that doesn’t seem like all that much fun.
*I’ve recently read D.T. Max’s biography of Wallace, and it makes me sensitive to a clear hazard of this piece: oversimplification. Wallace was a complex human being, with complex gifts and complex problems, and I might easily be taken to task for unduly lionizing him here. Even so, I stand behind this piece, and here’s why:
All characterization is misrepresentation, in that people are unfathomably complex and to a large degree unknown to others—and even to themselves. My inner life is known only to me (and even then not fully, insomuch as I’m unconscious of much of what moves me), and my outer life is but a partial reflection of it. Other people get glimmers of “who I am” through my behavior and speech, but their perceptions are invariably distorted by their own conceptions and agendas, as well as roles we both play.
So for me to say anything non-trivial about someone is to speak at best a partial truth (and in high likelihood a partial untruth), and it will always contain the distorting bias of selection. If I say of someone I know, “he likes to drink, he’s prone to road rage, and he’s been in jail,” that’s going to give you an overall impression that might not be very accurate, even though all the facts are technically correct. (That’s me I’m describing, by the way: moderate drinker, making great strides on my temper, and arrested at age 19 for riding a motorcycle without a helmet.) The best we can do is try to be as faithful as possible to the totality of who we’re trying to characterize—which is why I’m writing this footnote.
Of course, this all begs the question of whether I should try to characterize someone I’ve never even met. And to that I would say: That is what we do with our public figures. We use them to try understand our common experience, and they become something in the public sphere that they are not in their inherent existence: material. All biography does this—as does journalism, history, and religion. The real question is whether we are arrogant or humble in our conclusions—whether we assume we know the truth of someone just because we’ve characterized them, or whether we recognize the inevitable limits of our characterization. I don’t pretend to know who David Foster Wallace really was. But I do think, based on what he has said and written, and what others have said and written about him, that my characterization here is not so grossly inaccurate that I would be better to say nothing. And that would be my alternative.
The Myth of Sisyphus: http://www.amazon.com/Myth-Sisyphus-Other-Essays/dp/0679733736/
Wallace’s speech at Kenyon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYGaXzJGVAQ
Paul Tillich: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Tillich
Bertrand Russell, “The Value of Philosophy”: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/5827/5827-h/5827-h.htm#link2HCH0015