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A Supposedly Fun Thread I'll Never Read Again [David Foster Wallace]

Tiger BurningTiger Burning Dig if you will, the pictureRegistered User, SolidSaints Tube regular
edited February 2012 in Debate and/or Discourse
In which we discuss David Foster Wallace, the formerly nationally-ranked amateur tennis player and math buff, who would have been 50 today (1). He also wrote some stuff, before he checked out early, in 2008 (2). He was semi-famous, rating an onion article but not a The Simpsons appearance.

Early work:


He only wrote two-and-a-half novels, but the novel comprising the third- and forth-fifths of this ouvre is pretty important, and would be certain to enter the canon so that it could be dismissed by near-future graduate students as naive and derivative and formulaic, if we did the canon thing anymore. Res:


It's a heartwarming story about junkies and tennis and how hard it is to find a good movie. It also inspired this Decemberists video, which depicts a scene from the book (3):

He also wrote a fair number of short fiction pieces, not a one of which has been optioned to be produced as a major summer action spectacle, to my knowledge (4). Most of them made into one of these compilations:

Girl with Curious Hair
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
Oblivion: Stories

For my money, though, his best stuff was his non-fiction. He published essays and longform journalist-type stuff on a wide, wide variety of subjects, including (5):

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.

The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.(1)

Of course, in men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their “love” of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s.

The adult industry is vulgar. Would anyone disagree? One of the AVN Awards’ categories is “Best Anal Themed Feature”; another is “Best Overall Marketing Campaign—Company Image.” Irresistible, a 1983 winner in several categories, has been spelled Irresistable in Adult Video News for fifteen straight years. The industry’s not only vulgar, it’s predictably vulgar. All the clichés are true. The typical porn producer really is the ugly little man with a bad toupee and a pinkie-ring the size of a Rolaids. The typical porn director really is the guy who uses the word class as a noun to mean refinement. The typical porn starlet really is the lady in Lycra eveningwear with tattoos all down her arms who’s both smoking and chewing gum while telling journalists how grateful she is to Wadcutter Productions Ltd. for footing her breast-enlargement bill. And meaning it. The whole AVN Awards weekend comprises what Mr. Dick Filth calls an Irony-Free Zone.

But of course we should keep in mind that vulgar has many dictionary definitions and that only a couple of these have to do w/ lewdness or bad taste. At root, vulgar just means popular on a mass scale. It is the semantic opposite of pretentious or snobby. It is humility with a comb-over. It is Nielsen ratings and Barnum’s axiom and the real bottom line. It is big, big business.

The Mathematical Conception of Infinity! (just the amazon page, sorry)

Television (and the impotence of irony)!

Dictionaries! (6)
Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a nearly hanging-chad scale? For instance, did you know that some modem dictionaries are notoriously liberal and others notoriously conservative, and that certain conservative dictionaries were actually conceived and designed as corrective responses to the "corruption"and "permissiveness" of certain liberal dictionaries? That the oligarchic device of having a special "Distinguished Usage Panel of outstanding professional speakers and writers" is an attempted compromise between the forces of egalitarianism and traditionalism in English, but that most linguistic liberals dismiss the Usage Panel as mere sham-populism?

Did you know that U.S. lexicography even had a seamy underbelly?

Conservative Talk Show Hosts!
For obvious reasons, critics of political talk radio concern themselves mainly with the programs' content. Talk station management, on the other hand, tends to think of content as a subset of personality, of how stimulating a given host is. As for the hosts—ask Mr. Ziegler off-air what makes him good at his job, and he'll shrug glumly and say, "I'm not really all that talented. I've got passion, and I work really hard." Taken so for granted that nobody in the business seems aware of it is something that an outsider, sitting in Airmix and watching John Ziegler at the microphone, will notice right away. Hosting talk radio is an exotic, high-pressure gig that not many people are fit for, and being truly good at it requires skills so specialized that many of them don't have names.

To appreciate these skills and some of the difficulties involved, you might wish to do an experiment. Try sitting alone in a room with a clock, turning on a tape recorder, and starting to speak into it. Speak about anything you want—with the proviso that your topic, and your opinions on it, must be of interest to some group of strangers who you imagine will be listening to the tape. Naturally, in order to be even minimally interesting, your remarks should be intelligible and their reasoning sequential—a listener will have to be able to follow the logic of what you're saying—which means that you will have to know enough about your topic to organize your statements in a coherent way. (But you cannot do much of this organizing beforehand; it has to occur at the same time you're speaking.) Plus, ideally, what you're saying should be not just comprehensible and interesting but compelling, stimulating, which means that your remarks have to provoke and sustain some kind of emotional reaction in the listeners, which in turn will require you to construct some kind of identifiable persona for yourself—your comments will need to strike the listener as coming from an actual human being, someone with a real personality and real feelings about whatever it is you're discussing. And it gets even trickier: You're trying to communicate in real time with someone you cannot see or hear responses from; and though you're communicating in speech, your remarks cannot have any of the fragmentary, repetitive, garbled qualities of real interhuman speech, or speech's ticcy unconscious "umm"s or "you know"s, or false starts or stutters or long pauses while you try to think of how to phrase what you want to say next. You're also, of course, denied the physical inflections that are so much a part of spoken English—the facial expressions, changes in posture, and symphony of little gestures that accompany and buttress real talking. Everything unspoken about you, your topic, and how you feel about it has to be conveyed through pitch, volume, tone, and pacing. The pacing is especially important: it can't be too slow, since that's low-energy and dull, but it can't be too rushed or it will sound like babbling. And so you have somehow to keep all these different imperatives and structures in mind at the same time, while also filling exactly, say, eleven minutes, with no dead air and no going over, such that at 10:46 you have wound things up neatly and are in a position to say, "KFI is the station with the most frequent traffic reports. Alan LaGreen is in the KFI Traffic Center" (which, to be honest, Mr. Z. sometimes leaves himself only three or even two seconds for and has to say extremely fast, which he can always do without a flub). So then, ready: go.

Lobsters! (7)
Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that the questions of whether and how different kinds of animals feel pain, and of whether and why it might be justifiable to inflict pain on them in order to eat them, turn out to be extremely complex and difficult. And comparative neuroanatomy is only part of the problem. Since pain is a totally subjective mental experience, we do not have direct access to anyone or anything’s pain but our own; and even just the principles by which we can infer that others experience pain and have a legitimate interest in not feeling pain involve hard-core philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, ethics. The fact that even the most highly evolved nonhuman mammals can’t use language to communicate with us about their subjective mental experience is only the first layer of additional complication in trying to extend our reasoning about pain and morality to animals. And everything gets progressively more abstract and convolved as we move farther and farther out from the higher-type mammals into cattle and swine and dogs and cats and rodents, and then birds and fish, and finally invertebrates like lobsters.

The more important point here, though, is that the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s also uncomfortable. It is, at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling. As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing. I should add that it appears to me unlikely that many readers of Gourmet wish to think hard about it, either, or to be queried about the morality of their eating habits in the pages of a culinary monthly. Since, however, the assigned subject of this article is what it was like to attend the 2003 Maine Lobster Festival, and thus to spend several days in the midst of a great mass of Americans all eating lobster, and thus to be more or less impelled to think hard about lobster and the experience of buying and eating lobster, it turns out that there is no honest way to avoid certain moral questions.

There are several reasons for this. For one thing, it’s not just that lobsters get boiled alive, it’s that you do it yourself—or at least it’s done specifically for you, on-site.13 As mentioned, the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, which is highlighted as an attraction in the Festival’s program, is right out there on the MLF’s north grounds for everyone to see. Try to imagine a Nebraska Beef Festival14 at which part of the festivities is watching trucks pull up and the live cattle get driven down the ramp and slaughtered right there on the World’s Largest Killing Floor or something—there’s no way.

The intimacy of the whole thing is maximized at home, which of course is where most lobster gets prepared and eaten (although note already the semiconscious euphemism “prepared,” which in the case of lobsters really means killing them right there in our kitchens). The basic scenario is that we come in from the store and make our little preparations like getting the kettle filled and boiling, and then we lift the lobsters out of the bag or whatever retail container they came home in …whereupon some uncomfortable things start to happen. However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming).15 A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it’s in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little lightweight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.

Luxury Cruises!

Rural America!
But now one butterscotch-colored swine is screaming a distressed swine scream. The sound is both human and inhuman enough to make your hair stand. The professional swinemen ignore the pig, but we fuss on over, Native Companion making concerned baby-talk sounds until I shush her. The distressed pig's sides are heaving; it is sitting up with its front legs quivering, screaming horribly. This pig's keeper is nowhere in sight. A small sign on its pen says it is a Hampshire. It is having respiratory trouble, clearly: I'm guessing it inhaled either saw-dust or excrement. Its front legs now buckle, so it is on its side, spasming . Whenever it can get enough breath it screams. It's unendurable, but none of the ag-professionals comes vaulting over the pens to administer aid. Native Companion and I wring our hands with sympathy. We both make plangent little noises at the pig. Native Companion tells me to go get somebody instead of standing there with my thumb up my butt. I feel enormous stress-the nauseous smell, impotent sympathy, plus we're behind schedule. We are currently missing the Junior Pygmy Goats, Philatelic Judging at the ExpoBuilding, a 4-H Dog Show at Club Mickey D's, the semifinals of the Midwest Arm-Wrestling Championships, a Ladies Camping Seminar, and the opening rounds of the Speed Casting Tournament. A swineherd kicks her Poland China sow awake so she can add more sawdust to its pen; Native Companion utters a pained sound. There are clearly only two animal-rights advocates in this Swine Barn. We both can observe a kind of sullen, callous expertise in the demeanor of the ag-pros. Prime example of spiritual-alienation-from-Iand-as-commodity, I posit. Except why take all the trouble to breed and care for and train a special animal and bring it to the Illinois State Fair if you don't care anything about it?

Then it occurs to me that I had bacon yesterday and am even now looking forward to my first corn dog of the fair. I'm standing here wringing my hands over a distressed swine and then I'm going to go pound down a corn dog. This is connected to my reluctance to charge over to a swine pro and demand emergency resuscitative care for this agonized Hampshire. I can sort of picture the look the farmer would give me. Not that it's profound, but I'm struck, amid the pig's screams and wheezes, by the fact that these agricultural pros do not see their stock as pets or friends. They are just in the agribusiness of weight and meat. They are unconnected, even at the fair's self-consciously special occasion of connection. And why not? - even at the fair their products continue to drool and smell and scream, and the work goes on. I can imagine what they think of us, cooing at the swine: we fairgoers don't have to deal with the business of breeding and feeding our meat; our meat simply materializes at the corn-dog stand, allowing us to separate our healthy appetites from fur and screams and rolling eyes. We tourists get to indulge our tender animal-rights feelings with our tummies full of bacon. I don't know how keen these sullen farmers' sense of irony is, but mine's been honed East Coast keen, and I feel like a bit of an ass in the Swine Barn.

A lot of his non-fiction stuff can be found in:

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again


Consider the Lobster

each of which I've purchased exactly twice.

I was bummed when I heard he died in a way that I have not been bummed for the deaths of any of my relatives save one. Felt a little cheated, too. So pour one out for David Foster Wallace.


Play us out, Dave!

1 Or yesterday, depending on whether I can cobble this together in the next 31 minutes.
2 Hanging, self-inflicted.
3 And while I wouldn't be so presumptuous as to say something like 'if you're the kind of person that likes the Decemberists then you'll probably like DFW' or some shit, I will hazard to guess that if you're the kind of person that doesn't like the kind of people that really like the Decemberists that then you're probably also the kind of person that wouldn't like the kind of people that really like DFW, which, as you've almost certainly surmised by now, I am one.
4 *fingers crossed*
5 Some of these are .pdf's, yo.
6 Seriously, if you only read one review of a dictionary this year, I can almost guarantee that this will be the one that you read.
7 And, tangentially, the ethics of eating animals.

Ain't no particular sign I'm more compatible with
Tiger Burning on


  • FeralFeral MEMETICHARIZARD along with you if I get drunk well I know I'm gonna be gonna be the man whoRegistered User regular
    I have not read Infinite Jest. I have only read selected essays from Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing, a couple of short stories from Curious Hair, and a few other essays that I've found online that were published in various periodicals.

    I say this partly as an apology, as the following opinion is necessarily based on lack of exposure. However, what I have read has not left me wanting more.

    I find his essays unpalatable. It's not because I think he was a poor writer; quite the opposite. He had an undeniable skill with the English language. There's a certain rhythm and cadence to his prose that is intimate, for lack of a better word. Reading his words leaves me with the feeling of being spoken to softly by an old friend, and he had unmatched insight and sensitivity.

    But it was the insight of somebody whose perceptions were robbed of color by depression. Sure, it's easy to say that in hindsight, knowing how he battled with it, employed unusually powerful medication in vain, and was eventually robbed of his life by it. Even after compensating for that bias, I find the taste of depression in his work to be unmistakeable. For a lesser intellect, it's a mood disorder; with Wallace's penetrating intelligence in control, it is magnified to existential levels.

    Many of his musings, particularly the title pieces of A Supposedly Fun Thing and Consider the Lobster, describe his difficulty finding pleasure in things that other people find pleasurable. His critical thoughts in the face of simple recreation strike me as particularly intense expressions of anhedonia and rumination. For a tennis player to say, "Midwest junior tennis was also my initiation into true adult sadness," in the context of his other essays, is almost like a cry for help.

    There's a tension in mental health between looking at disease (such as depression) as a fault with the sufferer, endogenously, as a neurochemical imbalance or personality maladjustment; vs looking at it simple incompatibility with a social environment ill-suited to meet the sufferer's emotional needs. Is it the person who is broken, or is the person unhappy because the environment sucks?

    This tension isn't simply academic, though. It's not just a topic for theorists and scientists. It's something that people with severe intractable depression have to deal with on a very personal level. For any activity, the basic question is, "Is this a thing worth doing?" which involves weighing the bad, painful, saddening, effortful aspects of an activity against the joy and happiness and benefit to mankind and long-term good. If you are habitually incapable of feeling pleasure, and - perhaps more importantly - incapable of feeling empathy for those who do feel pleasure, then your calculus is going to be dramatically imbalanced. The job of the therapist, and ultimately the job of the sufferer, is to dismantle the habitual focus on the negative and develop an ability to see the positive.

    To a sufferer of depression, this sounds like willful ignorance. Why should I look away from the abyss? The abyss is real. Don't delude yourself! (Wallace's inability or refusal to ignore certain perceptions and cognitions is a recurring staple of his writing - it is the motivation behind the title and major themes of Consider the Lobster, for instance.) But this is an oversimplification - it's not about ignoring the bad entirely, but practicing mindfulness towards your the distortions of your own perceptions, how they can distract you from pleasures that are no less real, no less deserved.

    Wallace was so eloquent that it is easy to forget that his descriptions of recreational activities were simply the interpretations of one man. His unhappiness with lobster eating, or cruises, or junior tennis each appear to reflect deep corruption bubbling under the surface of those respective activities. The sheer bleakness of his worldview is alluring. It's like a siren song, calling me to see the world of humanity as a wasteland. He was a man staring into the proverbial abyss every day of his life. Eventually that abyss swallowed him. I don't want to follow him there.

    every person who doesn't like an acquired taste always seems to think everyone who likes it is faking it. it should be an official fallacy.
    the "no true scotch man" fallacy.
  • AldoAldo Hippo Hooray the swamp, always the swampRegistered User regular
    Like Feral, I have not read much of Wallace's work, mostly because I am afraid his pessimism will have a negative impact on my mental health. I have read an article about him in The New Yorker over the course of a week of two. It is a fantastic essay even for someone like me who doesn't know the first thing about English literature (or as we refer to it over here: foreign literature).

    I'm in no position to argue in favor or against the importance of his work, but there you go. Great article.

    Elendil wrote: »
    said Aldo hazily, before clop-clop-clopping out of the room
  • Evil MultifariousEvil Multifarious Registered User regular
    edited February 2012
    Feral, your position is interesting, especially because his depression and his religious faith - both magnified by his obviously towering intellect - are such a huge part of both the content and the texture of his work. But I think that you're missing something vitally important about his writing, maybe because haven't read his magnum opus or maybe because you were so absorbed by the issues you describe. The more you know about depression, the more you see the way it pervades his work and his thought, yes, and the more you can detect the profound struggle he is constantly engaged in (I'll have to find the article later, but there is a great piece by one of his students about how DFW's anxiety and depression shaped his work).

    DFW is ultimately an optimistic, profoundly humanistic writer. Part of the appeal he has is in the way he clearly grasps and articulates the yawning abysses of postmodern philosophy, criticism and fiction, and then chucks it all out and grabs you by the lapels and says "Listen to me, I am here." It's the way that, even as you see him attempting to pull back and grasp the mechanics of his own neuroses, even if he ultimately can't move beyond them, the attempt is made more noble by the very fact that he is struggling against such crushing obstacles.

    We all deal with depression, mundane or otherwise. We all deal with existential angst, with ethical questions that are simultaneously banal and profound. Infinite Jest spends hundreds of pages talking about how the more powerful an intellect is, the more easily it is trapped in its own workings and rationalizations and spirals (whether it's through addiction, or anxiety, or depression, etc.). DFW has it bad, and his intellect definitely makes it more intense. But when he reaches a moment of clarity, when he comes to a conclusion (or even asks the right question), when he can overcome or work through or just engage those issues successfully - even temporarily - it is profoundly beautiful, because of the obvious overbearing power of what he goes through every day. The fact that one day, he couldn't keep doing that, and the black wing he talks about in Infinite Jest folded over him and took him under, can never invalidate what he accomplishes in those moments in his writing.

    Beyond that, I think it's important not to conflate insight and thoughtfulness with neurosis and depressive fixation. Certainly they occupy the same space a lot of the time, but you can't read something like "Consider the Lobster" and say that it's a symptom of the inability to look away from the abyss. We spend a lot of time working really hard to forget there even is an abyss, or even the small chasms around it. It's unhealthy to sit at the edge and stare into it every waking moment, but it's equally unhealthy (and possibly worse, as a collective) to studiously ignore it instead of engaging it and dealing with it. Wallace strikes a precarious balance between the two, but he also cups his hands and shouts across the chasm to you and wants to tell you some of his ideas about maybe building a bridge.

    Evil Multifarious on
    Inquisitor wrote: »
    I fucking hate you Canadians.
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