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All That Glitters:
Rescuing David Foster Wallace from Sean Kelly’s Nietzschean Fangs
All Things Shining introduces David Foster Wallace as ―the greatest writer of his generation; perhaps the greatest mind altogether.‖1 By the second chapter, however, Wallace has become a caricature of voluntarism, the idea that you merely need to choose what meaning you want, changing your mind anytime it is advantageous for you to do so. Sean Kelly writes,* ―In Wallace’s Nietzschean view, we are the sole active agents in the universe, responsible for generating out of nothing whatever notion of the sacred and divine there can ever be.‖2 I argue that Kelly squanders an opportunity to have ―the greatest mind of his generation‖ as an advocate and instead obfuscates Wallace with a preposterous prosopopeia of an easily refutable worldview. Explaining how Kelly misrepresents Wallace’s project by ―proof verseing‖ his Kenyon address and misinterpreting the character of Shane, nee Mitchell, Drinion, I present a more comprehensive exegesis of Drinion to demonstrate that he is actually a foil for Wallace’s vision of how to find meaning in a secular age. Kelly claims that Wallace is one of his favorite writers in a blog that he created after the publication of Shining so that readers could share their own views. He writes:
Yes, the comment about ―what it means to be a fucking human being‖ is one of the indications to me that he’s asking interesting questions. These kinds of questions do put him more in the cultural
Hubert Dreyfuss gives Kelly all the credit for writing the sections on Wallace.
He must imagine the character’s personalities deeply and the novelist’s own personality inevitably informs his characters’ personalities. Witold Gombrowicz.‖ … is not what a novelist aims for. by the nature of his art. One of the primary reasons Kelly misinterprets Wallace is that he makes the seductive mistake of conflating Wallace with his characters. Kundera is in the line of philosophical novelists such as Thomas Mann. ―Never write about the author or the work. a problematic hermeneutical apparatus to infer a novelist’s beliefs from a fictional character. however. Milan Kundera. the writer whom I believe has most clearly articulated the role of the novelist says: The status of ―great man. ironical … and above all: concealed as he is behind his characters. ambiguous. Deciphering ―what it means to be a fucking human being.physician role that someone like Nietzsche occupies … That seems to me where his real contributions lie. David Markson and the omnipresent poets of modern philosophy present philosophical ideas implicitly without ever writing didactically. Robert Musil and others who take the license of interrupting their narrative in order to present a philosophical aside. Either way. Herman Broch. A novelist is all and none of his characters. it is difficult to reduce him to some particular conviction or attitude. only about yourself in 2 . 3 It is exactly for this reason that we must start with what a writer states unequivocally and then glean whether his fictional characters represent those beliefs. wrote. another philosophical author. we must not assume it is the author’s personal philosophy that is being presented unless it is unambiguously presented as such.‖ is Wallace’s own definition of what he was trying to accomplish in his fiction. It is. he is secretive. Special care must be taken with Wallace in this regard since he frequently uses hyperbole in his fiction and essays. Others such as Samuel Beckett.
they serve the vital and vanishing function of reminding us of fiction’s limitless possibilities for reach and grasp. but the ―big Other‖ itself. You are allowed to write about yourself.‖6 A restructuring or expansion of the listener’s palette of perception must first be accomplished and only then can the truth be communicated with empathy. 3 . on relatively safe middle ground. ―In Lacan’s terms.‖5 Relating Primo Levi’s nightmare of his family getting bored with remembrances of Auschwitz and also the story of the Bosnian girls who killed themselves when no one could grasp their horrific rapes. transcendent truth-seeking & daily schlepping. These novels carve out for themselves an interstice between flatout fiction and a sort of weird cerebral roman à clef. abstraction & lived life. the attentive listener. Jonathan Franzen writes: Dave loved details for their own sake. marriages that in our happy epoch of technical occlusion and entertainment-marketing seem increasingly consummatable only in the imagination. the space of the symbolic inscription or registration of my words. too. as I claim David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress does. with another human being. Frequently. …. Žižek writes. the novels that direct their own critical reading concern themselves thematically with what we might consider highbrow or intellectual issues — stuff proper to art … philosophy. etc. but details were also an outlet for the love bottled up in his heart: a way of connecting." Perhaps Shining’s exposition of Wallace tells us more about Kelly than about Wallace. Wallace also commented on interpreting philosophical fiction: Certain novels not only cry out for what we call ―critical interpretations‖ but actually try to help direct them. and for sanctifying the marriages of cerebration & emotion. When t hey fail they’re pretty dreadful. what is missing here is not only another human being. But when they succeed.confrontation with the work or the author. for making heads throb heartlike. 4 Slavoj Žižek offers a similar thought in Less Than Nothing concerning the incommunicability of the holocaust: ―What cannot be described should be inscribed into the artistic form as its uncanny distortion.
crushing boredom. because he can give perfect attention to whatever he has in front of him. Wallace writes in The Pale King: Drinion is happy. Kelly makes much of this idea of happiness as being able to pay complete attention once you have passed through crushing boredom.But that ―neutral middle ground on which to make a deep connection with another human being ‖: this. Another scene referenced by Kelly near the end of Pale King has Drinion blissfully floating. Following Wallace’s own hermeneutic guidelines we must consider the novel’s omnipresent hyperbole as well as the full context when exegeting it. however. ―A way out of loneliness‖ was the formulation we agreed to agree on. since the best literature raises questions without didactically answering them as Kelly inveigles Wallace’s words to do. or else they become more voluble and conversationally dominant and begin to tell a great many jokes. ―Drinion is happy. They thus tend to become either nervous and uncomfortably quiet. as though they were involved in a game whose stakes have suddenly become terribly high. We find Drinion. Constant bliss in every atom. televised golf). and in general appear deliberately unself-conscious. and. Like wat er after days in the desert.‖ Wallace writes. It turns out that bliss —a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive. consider Shane Drinion. but the context is that of the IRS looking for people who are robotic and able to do audits quickly and accurately. and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. 4 . Ride these out. was what fiction was for. we decided. 8 A superficial reading seems to corroborate Kelly. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns. I do not dismiss the possibility of a purposeful antinomy.7 With this in mind. again. a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. in a bar talking to a preternaturally beautiful woman: Suffice it that Meredith Rand makes the Pod’s males self-conscious. in waves. Ability to pay attention. conscious —lies on the other side of crushing.
boredom.9 It is a common literary technique to exert pressure on a character and use his reactions to the pressure as a way of characterizing him. Drinion is a blatantly hyperbolic instantiation of Nietzschean self-optimization. All the other characters are affected by the pressure of the appearance of the stunning Meredith Rand.whereas before Meredith Rand had arrived and pulled up a chair and joined the group there was no real sense of deliberateness or even self-consciousness among them. being part of larger things—paying taxes. Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening. a foil to Wallace’s ―what it means to be a fucking human being. He is so technologized that he can pay complete attention to whatever. team player. 2. ADD. Sylvanshine is after the best human examiners he can find. Being individual vs. people at performing mindless jobs. is in front of him. monotony.‖ not the Wallacian Übermensch of voluntarism that Kelly portrays him as. 10 The character David Wallace disappears into the system. but Drinion is not affected at all. being ―lone gun‖ in IRS vs. Central Deal: Realism. but has lost the capacity for any true connection with another human being. Paying attention. David Wallace disappears—becomes creature of the system. David Wallace disappears 100 pp in. Machines vs. Wallace’s notes were placed after this scene in the published edition of Pale King: Big issue is human examiners or machines. Embryonic outline: 2 Broad arcs: 1. Once again we must consider Wallace’s hyperbole and context to see that what he means by ―happy‖ or ―blissful‖ is not pleasure but 5 . but nothing actually happens. or whomever. He is the completely technologized person in the sense that he is not affected by anything outside of him.
is the premise of Pale King. Kelly claims this section.‖12 The point he wants to make is that we have a choice as to whether we want to continue in that default setting or do the hard work of discerning and transcending it. his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address may be the only situation where he tried to expound his overarching personal philosophy in a structured and direct manner. Drinion is the archetype of ―our happy epoch of technical occlusion and entertainment-marketing.unfeeling technologization. transformative cycle of self and world. he paints a broad stroke about human nature: ―Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe. None of his essays attempt to address the scope of the Kenyon address. Wallace continues: 6 .‖11 There is the obvious pun on the IRS examiners who deal with paper forms all day long but. Turning now to Wallace’s public statements. there is the discovery of personal identity via extant forms. more importantly. the realest. where Wallace speaks of turning boredom into bliss. In a Žižekian gesture of inscribing a distortion into the big Other. I would look to the epigraph for a less hyperbolic theme: ―We fill preexisting forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed. most vivid and important person in existence. Being aware of the ubiquitous Nietzschean forces allows us to make choices and transcend those forms in a selfperpetuating.‖ He is a bliss machine. we step into and expand the forms that others will subsequently fill and expand further. self-understanding and ways of seeing and being in the world. that is. After highlighting our blindness to our nihilism via a joke about a young fish who doesn’t know what water is. His theme on that day was very similar to the theme of Shining: recognize and overcome our cultural nihilism by finding meaning in the already meaningful things surrounding us.
‖ A much more nuanced comparison than is offered in Shining is necessary to explicate the differences in the worldviews and concomitant projects. in either case. Kelly is correct that choice is important to Wallace. Wallace insists that we are always worshipping something. but we can choose at which temple to worship.‖ other than Kelly’s carefully chosen and rather romantic reference to nature. It's the automatic. Kelly sets up his forced dialectic with Wallace about halfway through Shining: ―…the attempt to set up one’s own values and assign one’s own meaning to things rather than cultivate their latent meaning…‖13 Kelly cherry picked the Kenyon address in order to set up a straw man of nihilism. Setting the two projects side by side with our now deeper understanding of Wallace produces ―construct meaning from experience‖ versus ―cultivate latent meaning. which is to be deeply and literally self-centered. are too similar to spend much time on. He then urges the students to consider the clichéd aphorism that a liberal arts education is about learning how to think: It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience … it's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural. but choice is inherent in both projects since. ―Construct‖ and ―cultivate. By first discerning what is ―out there. unconscious way that I experience the boring.Look. unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities. lots of us do -. Thinking this way is my natural defaultsetting. fine. whether we realize it or not. crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic.except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. if I choose to think this way. and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.‖ we can then decide what has meaning and hold on to that. frustrating. hard-wired default-setting. you must first 7 .
These simple metrics. but to discover what it is about which one already cares. Professional athletes pursue money and winning. Shining asserts. to consider our experiences and to build meaning from what is at hand. make it possible to determine the Nietzschean winner. Live sports events are one way Shining proposes we can experience this latent meaning in things we already care about. ―The project. The crux of the tension between Kelly and Wallace lays not in choice. Wallace does not give any explicit evidence that he believed in ―latent‖ meaning as Kelly does. The difference is that Kelly believes that the things we innately care about are the shining things. ―The subsurface unity of all things. but whether meaning is waiting to be found or needing to be built from what is found. In both projects the need is the perceived absence of meaning. is not to decide what to care about. They spend a high percentage of their lives working toward both points and dollars. The communal experience of seeing an athletic play that seems to surpass human capabilities creates a ―whoosh‖ whereby all the walls and defenses we have built fall simultaneously and we feel a sense of oneness with each other and the world.be aware of some need and then decide how to satisfy it. then. but it is exactly the mandate of self-optimization that has created the environment for that display to occur. What he definitely does not say is to pragmatically choose meaning out of thin air. the overcoming of other self-optimizing athletes. He does not give any explicit evidence that he does not believe in latent meaning either. What he says is that we must be aware of the texture of our surroundings.‖ as Wallace puts it. Wallace believes we would choose self-serving things if we do not first get outside ourselves and discover what is important from this more objective view.‖14 This sounds very similar to what has already been said about Wallace’s project. Undoubtedly it is a thrill to witness some otherworldly display of athleticism. points and dollars. the important things. 8 . as Kelly claims he does.
In fact. power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting. What it seems to have to do with. is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body. and multiform— and even just to see. Wallace explicitly states the necessity of being there live to get the true experience. … Genius is not replicable. it might be called kinetic beauty. but it does make me want to share it and the sharing brings me deeper into the experience.Conversely. the idea that meaning is latent in live sports events is much more compellingly argued by Wallace. If we are to reach for lasting meaning it must be where everyone wins. The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. ―Do we practice to play or do we play to practice?‖ A sport. The relation is roughly that of courage to war. does not make me jump up and scream. including literature like Wallace’s. It stays with me. mortal way) reconciled. Wallace writes: Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports. but is still fun and exhilarating. close up. The quiet whoosh of art generally requires disciplined preparation. Shining references an essay on Roger Federer. As Dave Hickey has quipped. The loud whoosh of sports is easy. so to speak. though. Recently republished as Federer Both Flesh and Not. Its power and appeal are universal.15 9 . is contagious. Ironically. This is much more Nietzschean than anything Wallace proposes. is permanently transformative. creates a small other: someone who must lose. by definition. making me see and desire more moments of sharing and growth. discovering something resonant in a work of art. really. Inspiration. changes me. erroneously claiming that Wallace misses the importance of the live event because he describes a moving experience created by watching Federer on TV. fleeting and fun. and inscribes me.
into hopeless relinquishment. Calling himself a cretin for reading Beckett so superficially in his youth.‖ 10 . exactitude and courage. Kelly believes meaning can be found in community. a new polytheism as Shining also suggests. So does Wallace. learning from each other and leading humanity toward a new epoch of ―making heads throb heartlike [by] sanctifying the marriage [of] transcendent truth-seeking [and] daily schlepping. Kelly believes that meaning can be found in great literature. these projects should be aware of each other and work in concert.The whoosh of inspiration and reconciliation described by Wallace almost makes me believe that sports can be more than a temporary distraction or entertainment. what Beckett offers to thought through his art … is not this gloomy corporeal immersion into an abandoned existence.16 I would add compassion to ―measure. The only thing Wallace insisted on was kindness. So does Wallace. Perhaps Kelly will one day reconsider Wallace the way that Alain Badiou did with Samuel Beckett. Whether meaning is found in literature. Kelly believes we must cultivate meaning from extant culture. It is clear that both Kelly and Wallace desire a better world where meaning can be found in the things that shine. art. exactitude and courage‖ when describing Wallace. No. So does Wallace. That old-fashioned word as clichéd as the liberal arts mission of ―learning how to think‖ that Wallace breathed life back into. Part of his project was to reveal the many options there are for interpreting our world. or even sports. … The lesson of Beckett is a lesson in measure. Badiou wrote: It took me many years to rid myself of this stereotype and at last to take Beckett at his word.
p. 2011). (Kindle Locations 82-85). Slavoj Žižek. The Pale King. ―Five Dials. All Things Shining. Brown and Company. p. Encounter. (Location 8612) Ibid. (September 19. (Location 8596) Ibid. 2003). 40 16 11 . 2008). (Location 92) 9 10 11 David Foster Wallace. 57 Milan Kundera. p. (New York: Free Press. (Location 6806) Ibid. 8 7 David Foster Wallace. http://online. 45 2 3 David Foster Wallace. 126 Dreyfus. pgs. Trans. Kindle Edition. 2012). Both Flesh and Not: Essays (2012-11-06). 6 5 4 Ibid. Trans.Works Cited 1 Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly.‖ Wall Street Journal. (Manchester: Clinamen Press. p.wsj. 2010). Kindle Edition. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (New York: Norton. p. Flesh. 215-6 Wallace. Little. pgs. On Beckett. 74-76. 2011). 13 12 Dreyfus. by Nina Powers and Alberto Toscano. p.html (accessed December 2. p.29 Jonathan Franzen. (New York: Hamish Hamilton.com/article/SB122178211966454607. 14 15 Alain Badiou. 57 Dreyfus. 25. 2008). A Five Dials Special.‖ Celebrating the Life and Work of David Foster Wallace 1962–2008. (New York: Harper Collins. “David Foster Wallace on Life and Work: Adapted from a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College . Kindle Edition. Hachette Book Group. Linda Asher.
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