Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wallace Reread


Summer Wednesdays here at Brain Hammer will be dedicated to reflections on David Foster Wallace’s (DFW’s) Infinite Jest (IJ) and other works as I participate in the Infinite Summer project to plow through IJ at a pace of 75 pp a week til Sept 22. (Brag: I’ve already read IJ once. I’ve also read like a million other things by DFW, including Everything and More.) In doing so, I’ll be (somewhat) emulating a blogger who shall remain unnamed so that she doesn’t have to kill me when I come home tonight. I have a vague ambition to bring a professional philosopher’s point of view to the whole endeavor, but it occurs to me that this all might just veer toward the random. Like this:

Random thought #1. I was killing time in a B&N the other day and flipping through This Is Water, the bound version of that commencement speech DFW gave not long ago. The jacket flap calls him a philosopher, and though I get a bit cringe-y about who the popular media call a philosopher, in this case I don’t mind so much. I got to take a peek at DFW’s undergrad philosophy thesis a while ago and it was pretty damn impressive. He mastered way more modal logic mojo than I ever did as an undergrad. (Probably totally irrelevant autobiographical detail: DFW’s dad, James Wallace, was a philosophy prof at U of I Urbana while I was an undergrad in the early 90’s. I retrospectively regret not having taken a class from him. It somehow also seems relevant that I regret blowing an opportunity to take a class from William Gass when I was in grad school at Wash. U. in the late 90’s.) It’s well known that DFW gave some serious thought to pursuing a career in philosophy. It also seems clear that we’re all better off that he didn’t. (Dogmatic assertion: no piece of 20th/21st century analytic metaphysics could be possibly be more valuable to humanity than Infinite Jest.) But what remains unclear, though we’ll see as we go, is how much he contributed to philosophy anyway.

Random thought #2. One thing I’m very interested in about IJ and other DFW writings is this. In an interview I don’t have at hand just now, DFW described a buzz that he got when he wrote, a buzz, if I recall correctly, he admits feeling addicted to. Under the right conditions, the intellect can be a joy unto itself. This is a very seductive idea, especially to a consumer and producer of ideas. DFW was also aware, of course, of a dark side to this process. One thing I recall DFW saying (paraphrase from memory coming up) in This is Water, though I forget to whom he attributes it, is this: The mind makes a terrible master.

Random thought #3. I feel that I don’t fully grasp why, when republishing that story about the kid with the spiders in Oblivion, DFW re-titled it, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. People that want to drop by and school me on this one are more than welcome. Invoking Rorty seems appropriate to the "better novels than metaphysics" theme, but surely that can't be all there is to it.