let’s have a conversation about david foster wallace

by s.

A human life, a human action, human history, at any moment is underdetermined and overdetermined. If things need not have worked out as they have, they have nevertheless forever so far worked out the way they have, including their immeasurable and specific ignorance of that way. If they are to work out well…I have to choose them.

…Nothing so out of the way has happened to me quite to explain my recurrent sense of intractable oddness. Without a measure of the oddness of the experience of my abilities, I have wavered between feeling exceptionally stupid and exceptionally bright. If this is normal, it should pass away. But what pases away? Is the sense of being dealt an exceptional hand itself exceptional?” [Stanley Cavell, Little Did I Know]

I don’t know how many people in this world set out to become professional academics, who fall into philosophy and become obsessed with Wittgenstein and his contemporaries, who take classes with some of today’s best thinkers on ordinary language, and assume they will at some point be referred to as same. Then, they stumble some and get sort of lost and sort of self-referential and when they come out of that cloud, they find themselves reformed as writers, and using ordinary language philosophy as the confused bed upon which their narratives lie.

I don’t know how many people this happens to, but I can say that this happened to someone and I could be talking about myself. I can also say that it happened to someone and I could be talking about David Foster Wallace.

(You get to choose your path, but you dont get to pick who you start out as.)

For various reasons, I appear to be spending mid-summer stuck in the DFW rabbit hole; reading the dialogue from the road trip book published by David Lipsky has proven particularly dangerous in this regard. One of the things that struck me most about the book was his mention, in passing, of taking Stanley Cavell’s philosophy of literature course at Harvard.

He can spend hours talking about Barthes and Stephen King and his best friend Jon Franzen, all for good reason, but he mentions Cavell only in passing. I read somewhere that DFW actually denied Cavell’s influence on his own work, but I can’t find verbal evidence thereof. It seems shocking to me.

It seems shocking for a number of reasons; people smarter than I have already pointed out the similarities between Cavell’s later critical work and DFW’s “Infinite Jest.” It’s not, though, that the two writers simply share a line of contemporary thought in deep dept to Wittgenstein, or that they are interested in the philosophical aspects of film, literature, amd art. It is also that when they speak about the difficulties of being a person, their views are alarmingly similar – and really quite beautiful in outlining their confusion.

Ultimately, both men also share an unfailing conviction that words matter, and that words in the form of literature are as close to a cure for this anxiety of the self as we are ever gonna get.

I don’t think writers are any smarter than other people. I think they may be more compelling in their stupidity, or in their confusion.” {DFW]