All That

The New Yorker this week published online an excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King that has stirred quite a bit of discussion on the wallace-l mailing list, most of it centering, as the fragment does, on religious feeling. As an atheist myself, I have a tendency to think/wish/hope that smart people I admire are also atheists. It’s strange, I know, but why not hope for an extension of affinities into that area of thought and feeling? Although I don’t feel as if I really need (as in emotionally need) external validation of my position, it’s still neat to share a viewpoint with people you admire. It’s not really clear what Wallace’s beliefs with respect to religion were, though. We know from various sources that he went to church but wasn’t raised religious. He certainly seemed, in Infinite Jest, to acknowledge that there was value in recognizing a higher power. Yet he wasn’t the evangelical sort by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s pretty easy, from where I sit, to imagine that he valued the cultural and communal bits of religion while relying more on secular thought for his personal ethics. We’ll probably never know exactly where he stood in real life. In the new fragment, entitled “All That,” he seems to be pretty open to religion and to a sort of spiritualism.

Here I’ll begin to talk about the story, so if you haven’t read it yet and are anti-spoiler, you might want to mosey on along.

The narrator gives accounts of two events in his life that were instrumental in helping him form a religious sensibility. The first, in which his parents convinced him that a toy truck was endowed with a sort of magic, speaks (I think) to the idea of faith and how the not knowing via evidence that what you have faith in is true is a part of what makes it special. How sad it would be, he suggests, to actually trap the tooth fairy. And, by extension, how disappointing it would be, I suppose, to  finally find empirical evidence of God. A belief system constructed around the idea of faith becomes meaningless when faith is no longer a necessity. Magic tricks aren’t as fun to watch once you know how they’re done. Faith, which people like me see as a flaw of religion, may in fact be one of the points and joys of religion.

The second formative event centers on the narrator’s recollection of a movie’s plot and how it differs from his father’s recollection. The difference has less to do with faith than with actions. I guess it has something of love thy neighbor in it. More on that in a moment.

At the heart of both episodes is a sort of duality. The narrator says the following about differing perceptions:

Possibly, though, another cause for the sadness was that I realized, on some level, that my parents, when they watched me trying to devise schemes for observing the drum’s rotation, were wholly wrong about what they were seeing—that the world they saw and suffered over was wholly different from the childhood world in which I existed.

Later, we have the father and son’s vastly different recollections of the movie. And within the movie itself, we’re told of a prevailing sentiment and a sentiment (on the part of the narrator within the movie) at odds with it. In all cases, given the same objective inputs, opposite subjective conclusions are reached. There’s a failure to align perceptions.

Interestingly, our narrator hears voices as a child whose speakers do inhabit the same space he does. Their perceptions agree with his in a way that, he figures, biological adults’ perceptions can’t, and the voices are a source of real fits of ecstasy (as in rolling on the floor, capital-E Ecstasy) on the boy’s part. Of that ecstasy, we learn the following:

[M]y father (who clearly “enjoyed” me and my eccentricities) once laughingly told my mother that he thought I might suffer from a type of benign psychosis called “antiparanoia,” in which I seemed to believe that I was the object of an intricate universal conspiracy to make me so happy I could hardly stand it.

I suppose there are certain resonances of this fragment with parts of Infinite Jest. There’s the infantilization of rolling around on the floor, being stroked lovingly by his mother, being more or less cradled in the father’s lap, and of course this idea of being the center of a happiness conspiracy. But the first of Wallace’s works that sprang to mind when I read the fragment was “Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from it All” (the state fair essay), in which Wallace writes the following:

One of the few things I still miss from my Midwest childhood was this weird, deluded but unshakable conviction that everything around me existed all and only For Me. Am I the only one who had this queer deep sense as a kid? — that everything exterior to me existed only insofar as it affected me somehow? — that all things were somehow, via some occult adult activity, specially arranged for my benefit? Does anybody else identify with this memory? The child leaves a room, and now everything in that room, once he’s no longer there to see it, melts away into some void of potential or else (my personal childhood theory) is trundled away by occult adults and stored until the child’s reentry into the room recalls it all back into animate service. Was this nuts? It was radically self-centered, of course, this conviction, and more than a little paranoid. Plus the responsibility it conferred: if the whole of the world dissolved and resolved each time I blinked, what if my eyes didn’t open?

Maybe what I really miss now is the fact that a child’s radical delusive self-centeredness doesn’t cause him conflict or pain. His is the sort of regally innocent solipsism of like Bishop Berkeley’s God: all things are nothing until his sight calls them forth from the void: his stimulation is the world’s very being. And this is maybe why a little kid so fears the dark: it’s not the possible presence of unseen fanged things in the dark, but rather the actual absence of everything his blindness has now erased. For me, at least, pace my folks’ indulgent smiles, this was my true reason for needing a nightlight: it kept the world turning.

Back to the story at hand, we begin with the narrator making discoveries about faith and about his own agency. But there’s a sort of inversion from what Wallace writes about in the essay excerpted above: the world (or the cement mixer’s drum) revolves (he believes) only when the boy isn’t looking at it vs. the world existing only when Wallace, as a child, was looking at it.

In the essay, Wallace writes specifically of solipsism, of being trapped more or less within yourself. I am in here. In the fragment, I think he’s writing about getting outside yourself. It’s not that the world stops when you close your eyes to it but that no matter how hard you try, you can’t really see or understand certain forces external to your direct experience. So a certain amount or sort of faith becomes useful. Wallace first gives us something of a thought experiment with the toy cement mixer, but in the movie scenario, he gives us a more complex situation to ponder. The conflict in that scenario is whether it’s nobler to protect your own or to protect others from your own. It’s a very complex question within context, for you have to consider the broader war itself, the particular roles of the participants in question within that context, the particular moods of and recent influences on all participants, and so on. But if we’re a little more reductive about it, I think we can boil the scenario down a bit and understand it as a consideration of the other vs. the self (another duality), with Wallace suggesting that reaching out to protect the other — getting outside your self — may sometimes be the nobler path.

The narrator views the movie’s lieutenant’s last noble act (as the narrator remembers it, that is) with a sort of ecstasy that calls to mind the ecstasy he felt as a younger child when listening to the voices in his head. But this ecstasy is the result of external forces rather than of internal agreeable voices and so shows a sort of development outward from in here.

There’s a lot I’m still trying to unpack about this fragment, and I’m not at all satisfied with what I’ve written above as an interpretive essay. There’s some big connection I feel like I’m missing. But it’s a start.

A couple of other things have come up on the list. For example, why did the narrator’s parents screw with him with the whole magic thing, especially if they’re devout atheists who you wouldn’t think would want to promote superstition? I think the simple answer is that sometimes parents just say silly things because it’s fun to joke around. Every morning that I drive my daughter and a neighbor to kindergarten, I ask if I should speed up and jump the railroad tracks (it’s a big hump and would cause a lot of damage to my vehicle if I jumped it). When they scream gleefully that I should, I slap my thigh and lament that I thought of it too late, that there’s simply not enough runway to get adequate speed. Remind me tomorrow, I tell them. Ever since my children were old enough to understand and respond to language, I’ve presented them with goofy scenarios and waited for them to correct me. Parents just do this sort of thing. In the fragment, it does seem that the parents play an active role in perpetuating the magical thinking, but the germination of the thing doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary. And sometimes you just want your kids to work things out for themselves. We do the whole Santa thing, but when my kids start thinking critically about it and questioning the stories, we’ll encourage it obliquely so that they arrive at appropriate conclusions without being force fed the truth.I can’t help thinking that Wallace is saying something else about faith here. There’s plenty of magical thinking involved in faith. You can never really know for sure that God’s there behind the scenes making stuff happen, and maybe the harder you look, the more likely you are to determine that God’s not really there — that the drum isn’t spinning after all. If we think of it this way, then the parents almost become God surrogates, providing information about the truck (or about reality) but requiring that the child work out on his own whatever his beliefs about the truck are. The narrator doesn’t understand why his parents have made a puzzle of this for him any more than people understand why God isn’t more obvious about his existence and plan, and yet the fact that it’s a puzzle has turned out to be valuable to the narrator. Faith, as I suggested above, may be one of the joys of religion.

Another issue that came up on the list was the narrator’s statements that he wasn’t very articulate and the fact that he is actually pretty articulate. Whether it points to insecurity or to false modesty or to real modesty I’m not sure. It certainly seems like one of those framing or narrative tricks that Wallace has used before to remind us that what we’re reading is mediated.

Not discussed as yet on wallace-l is the Catholicism present in the story. It’s minor, but the boy mentions going to Mass with neighbors. Given my last paragraph, I’m having trouble not saying something about the mediation inherent in that religion, though I don’t think Wallace is really doing anything with that here. But the ecstasy, in association with the presence of Catholicism, calls to mind the various references to The Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Infinite Jest, and I wonder if more couldn’t be mined out of this material. In the gruesome ecstasy scene in IJ, there’s actually quite a bit more Catholic subtext than is apparent to a recent or non-Catholic (do a little research on the titles of the magazines named in the scene, if you’re curious), and that makes me all the more curious about the reference to Catholicism in this fragment.

11 thoughts on “All That

  1. Alex December 11, 2009 / 4:35 pm

    This is really a phenomenal interpretation. I’m beginning to see how, thematically, The Pale King seems to be an effort at offering a solution to the dangers and problems posed in Infinite Jest.

  2. Tim December 11, 2009 / 9:16 pm


    Nice response to the new piece. I empathize with the atheist’s expectation for similar freedom from dogma in his/her intellectual peers and mentors that you invoke right up front. I have a lot more to say on the topic and I’ll send along some more developed thoughts in a later comment, but for now I’ll just point you to Zadie Smith’s essay on Wallace and Brief Interviews specifically in her newly released collection. She concludes with some notes on “Church Not Made with Hands”, a decidedly agnostic slice of the DFW oeuvre, and also calls Wallace’s tastes Catholic, citing Philip Larkin. Lastly, for now, I found it interesting to hear a list of Wallace favs (recorded in the D.T. Max New Yorker article as from an interview which I’ve been unable to locate elsewhere) include St. Paul and to see his affinity for Kierkegaard (it’d take me longer to cite where I got that one) and, finally, to note even the in-this-light slightly loaded set of sentences in a grammar quiz ( making its way around recently.

  3. Daryl L. L. Houston December 11, 2009 / 10:08 pm

    Thanks, Alex and Miker. 🙂 Alex, I can’t help thinking your suspicions regarding the solution to IJ’s dangers may be right.

    Tim, I haven’t read Smith’s new book yet, but it’s on my wish list. “Church Not Made with Hands” is a weird one, and I’ll look forward to reading her take on it. The connection you’ve made to the grammar quiz (which I believe I scored 100% on, though I haven’t been contacted yet for the award 🙂 ) is interesting. Thanks for speaking up.

  4. desario71 December 12, 2009 / 11:53 am

    My thought about the final reminiscence involving the war movie was that Wallace was giving an analogy for Jesus, for the dying for others’ sins. I don’t know if that helps, but if you buy that, it adds a tingle of depth to those final lines about the lieutenant’s act seeming intensely, unbearably beautiful as he lays across his father’s knees, which points to the Father and Son relationship.

  5. aengebretson December 14, 2009 / 3:55 pm

    I really liked your interpretation. I just had two little comments. I think you have to be seriously careful when moving from Wallace’s fiction to speculating on his private beliefs. I think, as a culture, we hate not knowing someones private beliefs (because we should know everything–there’s no such thing as privacy anymore). We want to know where they “stand” as you put it. But why can’t we accept the idea that private belief is complex, contradictory, and based highly on contingency, and any attempt to reduce someone as complex as Wallace to a single position is probably too limiting? I also think you should be careful moving too easily from the fiction to the non-fiction. These are radically different rhetorical modes–two very different uses of language–and just because they might share a motif doesn’t mean we can easily compare them.

  6. Daryl December 14, 2009 / 9:11 pm

    Aengebretson, I suppose that at the close of my first paragraph, I did say that this piece of fiction gestured toward a personal openness toward religion on Wallace’s part. It’s easy enough to form a similar opinion based on parts of Infinite Jest too. It’s dangerous ground, for sure, and not really ground I meant to tread on. I think I was trying to push back a little bit, almost out of a sense of fairness or honesty, against my tendency to want to think he’d believe what I do. Point well taken, in any case.

    Regarding comparison of the fiction to the nonfiction, I agree that they’re different modes, but the sort of nonfiction Wallace gives us in the essay I mentioned isn’t so far from fiction as I think you suggest. Wallace writes about the fuzzy line between the genres in his preface to the Best American Essays collection of a couple of years back. I don’t mean to say that the two sorts of work can be put right side by side, but I don’t think they’re necessarily quite so segregated, either. At any rate, what I’m trying to do here is not to come up with a tidy synthesis of his position re religion as explained by his cross-genre work. I’m just pointing out things I noticed and sort of thinking aloud. The essay did spring instantly to mind as I read the story. I’m happy enough to allow that that may (probably does) say more about what I bring to the table than about Wallace’s project.

    Thanks for chiming in. 🙂

    • matt December 24, 2009 / 6:02 pm

      This regards both Aengebretson’s comment and your response to it. You’re right to point out that in the ABE2008 forward, Wallace spoke of the blend of these genres. But beyond coming right out and saying it, Wallace seems to draw heavily from his own life in both his fiction and non-fiction. I think, at least for this author, we can begin to speculate on his private beliefs. In fact, one of the most endearing things about Wallace was how open he made himself in print, so that one could have a conversation with the author, albeit all further responses would be in the readers imagination. I believe you are missing some evidence though, in your essay. DFW spoke quite openly about spirituality and belief in his 2005 Kenyon commencement speech. He posits that there are no such things as atheists, and that worship is as human as language. So we are certain of his belief in that. He also mentions going to church in the essay The View from Mrs. Thompson’s. But thats not germane to what I think is somewhat bothersome about your post. It’s the fact that the whole magic and subsequent reverence of the truck comes from NOT observing it. I followed a link to this post thinking I may have found a discussion about adult faith vs. childlike credulity and how that’s relevant to our species (and country) as a whole. But instead you’ve spent most of your time responding to small textual tricks and remaining on the surface of things. I would love to see a deeper discussion of the ends and not the means.

      • Daryl L. L. Houston December 27, 2009 / 11:29 pm

        I think the most we can say about what Wallace draws on is that he gives the impression of drawing much from his own life. I’m just not in a position to say whether or not he in fact does or what liberties he takes even in the essays (it seems pretty likely that he takes some liberties when writing about his stalking of Petra in the cruise essay, for example).

        Re the Kenyon piece, there’s actually been a lot of (often heated) discussion of that one on wallace-l lately. Even those of us among his most ardent devotees can’t seem to agree on where he stood exactly and what the speech says in relation to where he stood and in what register he was writing that speech. For example, he knew he was giving a speech to a school with some sort of religious tradition or background (someone asserted; I didn’t confirm), so it might have made sense to use words like worship and to say that there’s no such thing as atheism out of a sort of deference to the tradition the audience was steeped in. (He writes in the usage essay about using different language in different settings, one of my favorite contrasts ever being that between “that ursine juggernaut bethought himself to sup upon my person” in one context vs. “goddamn bear!” in another. Different audiences/circumstances are better suited to different types of speech, and Wallace was well aware of it. So I’m not convinced that it’s satisfactory to take a whole lot from the Kenyon speech about Wallace’s own particular beliefs, though the speech would seem to suggest, as I own up early in my blog post, that he’s at least open-minded about and probably even receptive to or in some way dependent upon some sort of religious feeling, as supported by pieces like IJ and the 911 essay.

        Regarding your closing point, I do harbor a completely unsubstantiated suspicion that there’s some sort of evolutionary benefit to belief in the supernatural (else why would so many people believe in it?). I don’t know that I can say I think there’s a similarity between childlike credulity and adult faith without coming off as a sneering jerk of an atheist, though maybe there’s something to it. In any case, in writing about a literary author, I guess I am more about the means than the ends; it’s what analysis is all about (or one sort of analysis, at least). I often care less about what somebody’s saying (surely, as an atheist, I can’t get behind Wallace’s statement that there’s no such thing as an atheist, for example) than about how he’s saying it and whether or not I think it’s well-said.

        Sincere thanks for your feedback.

  7. Sarah December 20, 2009 / 10:46 am

    I’m not in a position to comment at this level, but I enjoyed your essay nonetheless. I particularly liked your example of parental goofiness contrasted with God-like behaviour. Which is, I suspect, quite pertinent to the origins of religion.

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