Blogger here. I received an email today telling me that my essay, “What the Hell is Water?” was not accepted for journal publication. I’m a bit disappointed, but not too surprised given the caliber of the other papers presented at the “Work in Process” conference last September. It was an incredible honor to have been selected to present my paper at the conference, and travelling to Belgium to do so was an experience that I’ll never forget. Seeing the beautiful city and meeting some wonderful scholars made the trip a truly once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
And so, I present for your consideration:
What the Hell is Water?
Priming, Epiphany, and David Foster Wallace’s Roadmap to Freedom from the Default Setting
Since their publication in 1993, David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram”, and his subsequent interview with Larry McCaffery have served as the interpretive lenses through which to read the rest of Wallace’s body of work. These pieces provide the artistic, aesthetic, and theoretical framework for fully understanding and engaging Wallace’s writing. In them, Wallace explains how he views his relationship with his readers, the influence television had on postmodern writers, and the current state of postmodern fiction. These topics, among the many others he writes about and discusses, give us a better understanding of what Wallace attempted to do as a writer. It was in the McCaffery Interview that Wallace proclaimed, “Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being”, which has been viewed as Wallace’s “mission statement” as a writer. He desired to capture in writing all of the virtues and vices, realities and absurdities of our humanity; he wanted to show us what our humanity looks like, what it means.
But missing from these two consummate pieces is a real tangible expression of what, according to Wallace, that “f***ing human”-ness looks like, exactly. He wrote two collections of short stories, two collections of essays, myriad uncollected works, and a 1000-page novel that illustrate and describe our humanity, but nothing that clearly and concretely articulates or explicates what our humanity means. That is, until a dry morning in May of 2005 when Wallace delivered the commencement speech at Kenyon College. This speech, later published under the title This is Water, completes our understanding of Wallace’s writing and deserves a place alongside his “E Unibus Pluram” essay and the McCaffery Interview as a third interpretive lens through which to read the rest of his works. This is Water provides a roadmap for better understanding “what [according to Wallace] it means to be a f***ing human being”, as well as understanding one of the greatest conflicts in the human experience: the battle for freedom from our “natural, hard-wired default setting”. It also provides a roadmap to guide us – his readers – to freedom from our own “default setting”. But most importantly, this speech also gives us an interpretive roadmap for better understanding a conflict that is central to much of Wallace’s narrative writing and that culminates at the thematic core of his posthumously published unfinished novel, The Pale King.
This essay will argue that This is Water provides “the clearest distillation Wallace ever gave of the themes that run through his fiction”, and thereby deserves equal standing with “E Unibus Pluram” and the McCaffery Interview as one of his most important nonfiction works. To make that argument, I will outline the characteristics of imprisonment by the default setting and ways in which people try to escape it; and then outline the roadmap to freedom from the default setting that Wallace describes in the Kenyon College speech, a freedom that comes from following a defined process of “priming”, epiphany, and the “day-in, day-out” choosing to find meaning in even the most mundane of circumstances. I will then demonstrate that this conflict is a recurring theme throughout Wallace’s narrative works and is central to The Pale King. Additionally, I will consider the role that religious faith and spirituality play in this process toward freedom from the default setting. And finally, I will explore some of the paradoxes that arise both in reading Wallace’s stories and narrative essays through the lens of This is Water, and in following this thematic thread in his writing in light in of Wallace’s own tragic suicide.
Wallace makes clear in the commencement address that one of the greatest antagonists in the human story is – in his own words – the “default setting”, which he characterizes as a “blind certainty, a closed-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he is locked up”. What makes the default setting such a formidable adversary is that so few of us are even aware of its existence. It is unconsciousness, going through the daily grind without truly paying attention to what is going on around us. The default setting keeps us locked up in prison of solipsism where the things that happen to us or around us only matter for how they affect our sense of well-being or homeostasis, causing us to respond to most circumstances in a simple, knee-jerk way that often results in annoyance and petty frustration. Although often miserable and unhappy, most people living at the mercy of their default settings are content to continue under its power because breaking free would require too much effort.
According to Wallace, the three jailors of our self-imposed prisons are narcissism, over-analysis of petty things, and mind-numbing boredom. Wallace describes this jailor of narcissism as a “deep belief that [a person is] the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence”. Similarly Marshall Boswell, in Understanding David Foster Wallace, describes it as a “cage [of] one’s own thinking, that is, one’s own self-reflexive, and therefore falsifying, belief in enlightened self-interest”. This egocentrism is hardwired into our psyche; it is our natural way of viewing the world. And the more inward a person’s thinking turns, the more he becomes ensnared in this prison and at the same time the less aware he is of his further imprisonment.
At a later point in the Kenyon speech, Wallace says, “The so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self”. Likewise, one of the gentlemen in the civics discussion in §19 of The Pale King explains how advertisers exploit this self-centeredness by “seduc[ing] the individual by flattering all the little psychic delusions with which we deflect the horror of personal smallness and transience, enabling the delusion that the individual is the center of the universe, the most important thing”. Nothing internal or external to us discourages us from living in this completely self-absorbed manner. In fact, most elements of society – not just the advertising and business worlds – feed our narcissism and lock us further into the prisons of our default settings.
This theme of narcissistic self-imprisonment is a common thread in many of Wallace’s earlier works. Many of Wallace’s characters – particularly Hal Incandenza and Don Gately from Infinite Jest – struggle with some form of drug addiction, which proves to be merely a thin veil for their self-constructed cages and prisons. Boswell explains:
Drugs and entertainment – in and of themselves innocent objects of desire in the Jamesian sense – offer a release from that insistently craving interior, a release from the cage of self-consciousness that often results, paradoxically, in the construction of an even more confining cage, such that ‘what looks like the cage’s exit is actually bars of the cage’ (Infinite Jest 222). As Joelle asks of the film Infinite Jest, ‘Was the fatally entertaining and scopophiliac thing… a cage or really a door?’ (230). The answer, unfortunately, is that it is a door to another cage.
As characters turn inward in search of escape, and turn to addictive substances to aid in their escape, they find themselves locked further and further into the prison of the “default setting”. As Boswell explains, what may appear to be an obvious way out ends up being only a doorway into an even deeper, darker cell.
Wallace explores this idea of self-centeredness further in the short piece “Datum Centurio” from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. In this faux futuristic dictionary entry for the word “date,” we read the historical (late 20th Century) definition of a “date” as an “intergender ‘social engagement’ [that] could connote… mutual exploration of possibilities for long-term neurogenetic compatibility”. Compare that with the 2096 “vulgar” definition of “the creation and/or use of a Virtual Female Sensory Array… for the purposes of Simulated Genital Interface”. Wallace predicts a future where social dating involves no real social interaction, but instead involves a device that merely simulates the physical sensations of sexual intercourse. Even earlier than this, Wallace envisioned a world in which virtual reality pornography is a very real possibility in the not so distant future. In his prescience, Wallace foresees sexual intercourse, which is intended to reinforce emotional and even spiritual intimacy between lovers, as becoming nothing more than an act of self-gratification that one day will require no actual human interaction. In these examples and elsewhere, he illustrates over how our narcissism keeps us locked away in a very lonely, unfulfilling place.
Locked inside our tiny little prisons, we – like Wallace himself – have a “tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in the abstract argument inside [our own] head”. Boswell explains it as “the ‘disease that makes its command headquarters in the head’ [Infinite Jest 272] is not just addiction to substances but also hyper-self-consciousness in general”. Self-awareness and self-consciousness are part of the eventual freedom from the default setting, however this particular form of introspection described by Wallace and elaborated upon by Boswell is illusory at best and detrimental at worst. This “hyper-self-consciousness” prevents us from breaking free from our solipsistic prison of the self by turning us inward and therefore further into the default setting, rather than outward where the real hope of escape lies.
Claude Sylvanshine, one of the first IRS wigglers introduced in The Pale King, embodies this “hyper-self-consciousness” in that “studying any one thing [for the upcoming CPA exam] would set off a storm in his head of all other things he hadn’t studied and felt he was still weak on, making it impossible to concentrate, causing him to fall ever further behind”. By the end of Chapter 2, this burdensome self-awareness coupled with his nervous anxiety and self-doubt render him virtually catatonic on the Peoria airport tarmac as he worries about his next move after disembarking the plane. Another IRS wiggler, David Cusk, suffers from uncontrollable sweating attacks brought on by the tiniest environmental stress or social anxiety. This creates a hyperawareness of himself and his surroundings; he is forever afraid of what might trigger his next attack, and that fear of an impending attack is often enough to trigger the attack he is trying to avoid. If an individual thinker is unable or unwilling to exercise any control over his own thoughts, this tendency to “over-intellectualize stuff” can be – as illustrated by these two wigglers – detrimental to one’s mental, emotional, and even physical well-being.
Lastly, the boredom that imprisons us is the result of the “dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines” of our “day-in, day-out” existence. The waiting in line, being stuck in traffic, or staring at a computer screen; all are dull and boring moments that we must endure and that writers avoid in their writing for fear of driving away readers. Wallace, however, was not only unafraid to raise the issue of boredom in his fiction, but he made it the central focus of the novel he was writing at the time of his death. In §22 of The Pale King, ‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle describes how he meandered from one “unbelievably boring and meaningless” job to another during his college days, living life as a “wastoid”. Fogle later says of his father, “Like many men of his generation, he may well have been one of those people who can just proceed on autopilot”; in other words, in the default setting. His father did what needed doing to support his family with little regard for any personal fulfillment. Additionally, §25 – all three pages of it – illustrates for us the absolute mind-numbing boredom and tedium of the daily work performed by IRS wigglers. The terse, repetitive sentences that make up this short chapter are a microcosm of the endless, repetitive duties of the examiners. We readers experience perhaps fifteen minutes of this routine; we are thereby invited to imagine forty hours of it per week, fifty weeks per year.
Prolonged imprisonment by the default setting leads to serious consequences, including loneliness and self-destruction. In This is Water, Wallace speaks of “going through… life being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out”. The great American Poet described in “Death is not the End” wastes away his later years with Newsweek articles and tall glasses of iced tea, but more important is his total isolation from the outside world without even the sound of a distant lawn mower or a jet overhead to disturb him. The Poet is able to enjoy his much-deserved retirement years, but has completely shut himself off from every other human being.
Wallace’s exploration of loneliness and isolation goes back even further with his short story, “Little Expressionless Animals” in Girl with Curious Hair. This story features an ensemble cast who all live in a less tangible, but still very real state of loneliness. Faye and Julie are physically intimate with each other, but never move past the superficial relational phase of “exchanging anecdotes and inclinations”. Alex Trebek and his game-show-host buddies never discuss anything more personal than Bert Convey’s discolored tooth or a video tape of last year’s World Series games. Even with his psychiatrist, a person he pays to listen to his innermost thoughts and feelings, Trebek engages in nothing more than nonsensical free association exercises. All these characters keep each other at a proverbial arm’s distance, afraid to be real or vulnerable, and each one winds up all alone in the end.
In the second half of This is Water, Wallace explains the self-destructiveness that comes as a consequence of the default setting’s desire for money, possessions, power, intellect, and one’s own body and beauty. The default setting longs after these fleeting things, elevating them to the place of a deity or idol. But these things will never truly satisfy and will leave us only wanting more of the same. The worship of these ethereal things will, in Wallace’s words, “eat you alive”, leaving behind a hollow shell of the self. Wallace illustrates this in his journalistic essay, “Big Red Son”. He opens the narrative of his experience at the 1998 Annual Adult Video News Awards with the alarming statistic of how many men end up in the ER each year after attempting self-castration. These men’s attempts to feed their insatiable sexual appetites with pornography leave them empty and desperate. Like those spoken of in This is Water who desperately try to escape from their prisons of self-destruction by taking their own lives by shooting the “terrible master”, these men take drastic action to free themselves from another terrible master.
While some may take extreme measures to free themselves from their self-imposed prisons, others seek the illusion of freedom through distraction. They attempt to occupy themselves with things that may amuse or entertain for a few moments, but do not actually bring true freedom. David Wallace, the narrative “author” of The Pale King, gives some insight into why many seek distraction as an escape from the default setting when he says:
Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our fuller attention.
Similarly, the authors of All Things Shining, in writing about David Foster Wallace, pinpoint this “deeper type of pain” to be a “sadness and lostness [that is] a mood – an American mood – that results from the inability of our culture… to confront the deepest questions about who we are”. They argue that our inability to find meaning – one of the symptoms of imprisonment by the default setting – is a cultural ailment stemming back to Nietzschean nihilism. They then go on to cite Infinite Jest as “society’s increasing devotion to the perfection of distraction”. These writers emphasize the point already made by Wallace and give us a slightly different understanding of the cause of that “deeper type of pain” and how we desperately seek freedom through distraction.
Wallace’s exploration into our innate desire to seek relief through distraction is clearly evident in The Pale King. ‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle explains that for his father, “books and intellectual issues were one of his escapes from boredom”. What he lost in his divorce and could not find in his relationship with Chris, he sought in the pages of a book. He tried to fill that emptiness with intellectual distraction. Lane Dean, Jr. seeks distraction from his incredibly boring job of processing tax returns by fixating on the cyst on his coworker’s wrist, unable to think of anything else. He also “imagines [himself] running out into the field in an enormous circle, flapping his arms like Roddy McDowall”; anything to get his mind off the “unbelievable tedium of the exam job”. Later, Dean encounters one of the “phantoms” that haunt the exam rooms. He entertains the hallucination for what seems to him like a long time, “only to look up and [see] that no time [has] passed at all, again”. No distraction – not a benign cyst, a flight of fancy, or a full-blown hallucination – can provide the real freedom that Lane Dean, Jr. desperately needs. While these diversions may provide a short reprieve from the mind-numbing boredom of the default setting, they are no cure. Any sense of freedom is merely temporary because the real problem is not dealt with; the default setting is still in control.
Although the default setting is a fearsome foe, Wallace provides for us the roadmap to freedom – a means of escaping its control – in his Kenyon College speech. This roadmap involves a process of “priming”, epiphany, and the hard work of maintaining one’s freedom. There is no instant cure; no wave of a magic wand will win the battle. It is not an easy process and very few succeed in breaking free from the default setting’s grip. Additionally, following the roadmap outlined in his speech gives us greater insight into the conflict with the default setting faced by the characters in his stories, particularly those in The Pale King.
The first step in the process – in ‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle’s words – is to be “primed” for the experience of freedom; that is, a person must first come to the right place mentally and emotionally. This “priming” experience is a realization of the truth about one’s current condition; in Fogle’s case, that he is a nihilist, a wastoid, a prisoner of the default setting. This knowledge prepares him for the life-changing epiphany he is about to receive shortly thereafter. However, it is usually not until after the true epiphany that a person is able to recognize that they were being “primed” for this transformation.
For the 2005 Kenyon grads, their priming occurred on a warm May morning. Some years later, reporter Kevin Hartnett tracked down and interviewed some of those in the audience that day to hear their responses to Wallace’s speech. One graduate commented, “[Wallace] was clear, driving, and inwardly focused. He also didn’t say anything dismissively… he read the speech like he was passing on a message of importance”. Another said, “He also seemed like someone who had something to say that was worth hearing… He seemed earnest, like he really wanted to say something to us. Hoped he could say something meaningful or useful to us”. Many later recognized this to be a “priming” moment for them, a moment that hopefully led to their own freedom from the default setting.
In most of his narrative works, Wallace seems to counter each instance of boredom and captivity to the default setting with an example of this “priming.” This is most prominent in his final work, The Pale King. For example, Chris Fogle describes how his life of drugs and laziness “primed” him for his experience of happening upon the wrong classroom on the DePaul University campus. Describing his experimentation with the drug Obetrol, he says:
The truth is that I think the Obetrol and doubling… had something to do with paying attention and the ability to choose what I paid attention to, and to be aware of that choice, the fact that it was a choice… That there were depths to me that were not bullsh*t or childish but profound, and were not abstract but actually much realer than my clothes or self-image, and that blazed in an almost sacred way… and that these realest, most profound parts of me involved not drives or appetites but simple attention, awareness, if only I could stay awake off speed.
The Obetrol gives Fogle a sort of hyper-metacognition. He not only feels things much more deeply, but is much more deeply aware of those feelings. But he realizes that this “doubling” is not the true consciousness that he is missing in life. In fact this heightened awareness becomes burdensome to him, as he describes:
This was consciousness without choice, meaning the loss of ability to focus in and concentrate on just one thing… I have to admit that I know that once or twice I got so lost in the halls or stacked layers of awareness of awareness that I went to the bathroom right there on the sofa.
The drug can only provide a shadow of the true freedom of consciousness that he longs for. If anything, the illusion of freedom and the hyper-awareness that he experiences bind the shackles of captivity even tighter around his wrists.
Fogle experiences a second “priming” moment while watching a daytime soap opera. Even though he had heard it a thousand times before, this one particular time when the CBS announcer says, “You’re watching As the World Turns,” he understands the “obvious double entendre” of the “almost terrifying pun about the passive waste of time… while [the] real things in the world were going on and people with direction and initiative were taking care of business in a brisk, no-nonsense way”. He says later, “I knew, sitting there, that I might be a real nihilist, that it wasn’t always just a hip pose”. Fogle finally realizes that his posing as a nihilist is actually a cover for his true, deep-seated nihilism. That he is a “wastoid” in the truest sense of the word. The television announcer’s words awaken him so that he is ready to receive the truly life-changing message awaiting him in the advanced accounting class he would stumble into a few days later.
Lane Dean, Jr. has his “priming” experience just as he is about to confront his feelings for Sheri Fisher and they are to decide what to do about their unborn child. For the past week he has been agonizing over what they have done, and over the guilt and shame of their sin, and over what she might say to him as they sit together on the picnic table in the park. Then in a “moment of grace,” he sees that “he was not a hypocrite, just broken and split off like all men… blind but groping, wanting to please God despite their inborn fallen nature”. Like Fogle, he realizes the truth of his condition and that there is something positive that can be done about it. He finally sees Sheri and himself accurately and is ready for the life-changing moment that awaits him after this epiphany, even though we readers are left to guess what his next step will be.
Wallace illustrates these “priming” moments elsewhere in his canon. For example, the “Granola Cruncher” from “Brief Interview #20” endures a horrific sexual assault, but is able to turn this incredible violation into a moment of intense spiritual awakening. She attributes not only her survival, but her newfound understanding, to her devotion to her “apostrophe-heavy near-Eastern religion”. She says later that she felt “her whole life had indeed led inexorably to that moment when the car stopped and she got in, that it was indeed a kind of death, but not at all in the way she had feared as they entered the secluded area”. The Granola Cruncher’s priming was not just one moment or one experience like those from The Pale King mentioned above, but rather took place through years of devotion to her faith. Nonetheless, it had all prepared her for that moment of truth when not only her faith would be tested, but her very life would be on the line.
After the “priming” experience, the next step toward freedom is the eye-opening, life-changing epiphany; a moment that awakens a person’s ability to choose to find meaning in his or her circumstances. These moments of epiphany can take place in a variety of forms, as exemplified throughout Wallace’s writing and specifically in The Pale King. Most often these are rapturous events, bringing the individual a moment of great joy, as if a void in the soul were suddenly filled. For Lane Dean, Jr., after the moment of understanding his “broken and split off” condition, Sheri places her “two small strong soft hands on his” and all that inner turmoil is gone. It is with clarity that he can now face the difficult questions he needs to ask himself, like “why is he so sure he doesn’t love her? Why is one kind of love any different? What if he has no earthly idea what love is? What would even Jesus do?”. He is free from the anxiety and self-doubt that have plagued him for the very long previous week, and he can now face his own feelings and make the tough choice with Sheri regarding their unborn child that needs to be made.
‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle inadvertently enters the wrong classroom in the wrong building on the DePaul campus and encounters the Jesuit father who changes his life. This substitute accounting professor, in the last lecture of the semester, speaks of the heroism and nobility of a life in the Internal Revenue Service. Despite the mind-numbing boredom that awaits the future wigglers, he says, “True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space. True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care – with no one there to see or cheer”. Likewise, in This is Water Wallace speaks of the importance of doing the hard work of finding meaning and purpose in even the most mundane and trivial activities. In §22 of The Pale King, the Jesuit father extends this thought even further to say that it is not only important but even heroic to find purpose in the ordinary and banal. Inspired by the professor’s words, Fogle accepts his new calling as an accountant. He gets his life in order to finish college and soon thereafter begins his work for the IRS. He is no longer lost; his life now has purpose and he is living it intentionally.
While these two central figures in The Pale King have inspiring, joyous moments of freedom, not all in Wallace’s universe are so lucky. For a few, freedom comes at a great price. The above mentioned “Granola Cruncher” from Brief Interviews says that she “learned more about love that day with the sex offender than at any other stage in her spiritual journey”. In the midst of this incredible fear and violation she is able to transcend the experience to reach a higher spiritual plane. Additionally, Interviewee #46 experiences an existential awakening as a result of a violent gang-rape by four drunken strangers. Through this horror he sees that “it’s not impossible there are cases where [circumstance like this] can enlarge you. Make you more than you were before. More of a complete human being”. Later he says, “If you want you can choose to be more… you can choose to be a human being and have it mean something”. For him, learning to exercise this freedom of choosing to find meaning is not just a matter of enlightenment or personal fulfillment, it is a matter of life and death.
Several apparent paradoxes exist at this crucial step on the road to freedom. According to Wallace’s speech, true freedom comes when we exercise our ability to choose, but it would seem that the catalyst for this new understanding and freedom is often outside of our control. Chris Fogle is lost in thought and accidentally stumbles into an accounting class in the wrong building, and the Granola Cruncher and Interviewee #46 are victims of unprovoked acts of violence. But, as Wallace writes in Infinite Jest, “both destiny’s kisses and its dope-slaps illustrate an individual person’s basic personal powerlessness over the really meaningful events in his life: i.e. almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it”. While in some fictional worlds, these types of details get wrapped up with a pretty little bow, it typically doesn’t work that way in the real world. We live in a world of difficult complexities and contradictions; one that Wallace seeks to portray as is, rather than simply explain away or give easy answers to.
Additionally, this freedom is not always a permanent state; the default setting can seemingly regain control if one is not careful. For instance, even though Lane Dean, Jr. has his moment of epiphany in the park with Sheri and appears at that moment to be on his way to a better place, he is later imprisoned by the chains of boredom when working at the IRS, so imprisoned that he even contemplates escape through suicide. Wallace himself acknowledges how difficult it is to maintain our freedom; it takes constant attention and work. Everything inside of us and outside of us resists this freedom.
The final step to achieving and maintaining one’s freedom is the “day-in, day-out” work of filtering and focusing and choosing to find meaning in the boring, mundane events that fill our daily routines. While the initial experience may be inspiring and exhilarating, living in that freedom is difficult work. Wallace explains that “it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to”. Don Gately’s experience in detox provides an epitomic example. During his time in rehab, “he had to build a wall around each second just to take it… An endless Now stretching its gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat. And he’d never before or since felt so excruciatingly alive. Living in the Present between pulses”. Even though it is hard work, Wallace says that “the really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day” (120). Though difficult and “unsexy” work, the payoff of living a life of true freedom makes it infinitely worthwhile.
An essential component that cannot be ignored in this process toward reaching and living in freedom from the default setting is the acknowledgement of – and even a dependence upon – a higher power or greater truth. Wallace does not prescribe one particular faith or religion, but advocates the need for faith in something – anything – bigger than and outside of ourselves. He makes this point very strongly in the Kenyon speech and illustrates it all throughout his body of work, particularly in The Pale King.
The importance of this element, however, is not agreed upon by all, as evidenced in Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s book, All Things Shining. In their chapter on Wallace, they rightly contend that he attempted portray in his writing that victory over boredom and distraction (the default setting) comes through conscious choice and through an act of effort and will. They say that this struggle against boredom “was Wallace’s own struggle with writing, and it was the struggle he saw at the center of human existence as well”, and then later that “the central challenge of the contemporary world, Wallace seems to think, is not just that we don’t know how to live meaningful lives; it’s that we don’t even seem to be able to focus for very long on the question”. They recognize in Wallace’s writing his advocacy for our ability – and even the necessity – to find and create meaning in the ordinary, the boring, and the banal; and that we must choose to find meaning, and that finding meaning is difficult work.
However, they also assert that there is no place for transcendence in Wallace’s writing, a point I wish to dispute. In Dreyfus and Kelly’s estimation, Wallace recognizes that the only way to defeat boredom (the default setting) and to find anything sacred and meaningful in life is through pure human effort; it is an act of the will. That being the case, they argue that this goal was not only out of Wallace’s own personal reach, but perhaps outside the grasp of anyone. They say, “Wallace thought that he had discovered the capacities of spirit necessary [to find meaning] in the real world… But unfortunately, he realized once and for all that he did not have these capacities himself”. They go on to say:
Perhaps the saddest part of Wallace’s story is that the human qualities he aspired to, the capacities of spirit that he revered and coveted, are a mirage. Indeed the entire mode of existence that he castigated himself for not being strong enough to achieve… is in fact a human impossibility. Wallace’s inability to achieve is not a weakness, but the deep and abiding humanness in his spirit.
These authors assert that the prevailing darkness and even hopelessness in Wallace’s writing are due to his unattainable attempt to do what is essentially humanly impossible: create a sense of the sacred and meaningful out of the ordinary and banal through an act of pure willpower. We cannot do this on our own; and this realization cast a dark shadow over Wallace the writer, and in the estimation of these writers, contributed, at least in part, to his tragic suicide.
While Dreyfus and Kelly rightly identify the importance of human choice and effort in this pre-eminent struggle in Wallace’s fiction, they neglect to consider the importance of transcendence beyond human effort. This is Water speaks directly to the need for faith in a higher power in order to achieve victory over the default setting. Wallace explains that “in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship”. He then contrasts the previously mentioned destructiveness of the worship of self and fleeting material things with the freedom found in worshipping things outside ourselves, things greater than ourselves. He says, “an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spirit-type thing to worship… is that pretty much everything else you worship will eat you alive”. Similarly, Boswell, in quoting Wallace Stevens’s Adagia, explains, “It is the belief and not the god that counts… the final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly”. The actual god or object of worship or faith, in Wallace’s estimation, doesn’t really matter; what matters is the individual’s faith in something bigger than himself. The individual is weak and easily overcome by the default setting; but belief in something transcendent brings the individual an external source of strength to help in the battle.
The importance of faith – whether it is in a specific deity or in a generic higher power – in defeating the default setting and living in freedom is exemplified all throughout Wallace’s canon. Don Gately must put his faith in the trite platitudes of the AA program and in a Higher Power of his own making in order to be successful in his addiction recovery. The previously mentioned “Granola Cruncher” trusts in her “apostrophe-heavy near-Eastern religion” to move her beyond the horrifying circumstances of the sexual assault to a truer sense of herself and her faith. While seen in both Infinite Jest and Brief Interviews, the importance of faith is most clearly illustrated in Wallace’s final novel, The Pale King. Lane Dean Jr.’s faith in the Christian God helps him see himself more clearly as he anticipates Sheri’s response to the unexpected pregnancy. But ‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle’s “conversion” story provides perhaps the most interesting example of this principle. Ironically it is a Jesuit priest who “proselytizes” Fogle to a life in the Service, but there is nothing else religious about the experience. Rather it is the heroism described by the substitute professor and the sense of belonging to something bigger and more important than himself that attracts Fogle to accounting and changes his life forever, furthering Wallace’s point that it need not even be a set of religious principles that a person believe in; it is merely the having the faith in something and acting upon it that is essential.
The freedom from the default setting that Wallace prescribes has many internal and external benefits, one of them being an increased awareness of the world around us. We see more clearly, understand more fully the world we inhabit. Wallace writes of a deeper sense of the “irony of the banal” after spending time with David Lynch, and demonstrates this increased awareness of life’s ironies and absurdities in several of his journalistic pieces. In the title essay of Consider the Lobster, he turns our attention from the fun and festivities of the Maine Lobster Festival to the philosophical and ethical implications of boiling alive “giant sea insects” in the name of cultural flavor and fine dining. As he recounts watching the “Horror” of the 9/11 attacks unfold with his fellow church members in “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”, he begins to recognize the stark contrast between the naiveté of the older women in the house and the cynicism of his own, younger generation. As he says, “whatever America the men in those planes hated so much was far more my America, and F—‘s, and poor old loathsome Duane’s than it is these ladies’”. The ironies of life are sometimes absurd and humorous and at other times painfully tragic, but this heightened awareness opens our eyes to them all.
This freedom not only opens one’s eyes to life’s ironies, but also to its beauties. In the title essay of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Wallace observes the incredible natural beauty of his surroundings contrasted against the artificial beauty of the cruise ship. He recalls “sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue” and “sunsets that looked computer-enhanced”. In spite of the distractions of the manufactured fun and pampering, he is able to see natural wonders that are beyond description. Wallace – a man who always had just the right words to describe anything – seems almost at a loss for words in attempting to describe these moments for his “really big experiential postcard”. He has no trouble describing the veneer and façade of the cruise ship, but sort of fumbles his way through descriptions of the natural seascape, giving us phrases like “a tropical moon that looked more like a sort of obscenely large and dangling lemon than like the good old stony U.S. moon I‘m used to” or “I have learned that there are actual intensities of blue beyond very, very bright blue”.
Along with this heightened awareness of the beauties and ironies around us come new meaning and purpose in our daily activities. A job can become a calling, as the Jesuit father tells Chris Fogle and the other students. One of the best examples of this in Wallace’s canon is the bathroom attendant described in “Interview #42.” Subject #42 tells of the humiliation his father faced as he attended to those using the men’s room of the “top-rated historic hotel in the state”. Although his son cannot understand or appreciate it, the attendant is up at six every morning for twenty-seven years to work this demeaning job to take care of his family. He is willing to endure the sights and smells and sounds of the men’s room in order to see that his family’s needs are met. He lives and works with a more important purpose than his own professional career or personal fulfillment in mind.
But perhaps the greatest benefit to the freedom Wallace describes is a deeper connection with those around us. After his going-to-the-supermarket-during-the-end-of-the-day-rush illustration toward the end of This is Water he says, “It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down”. These seemingly frustrating circumstances can instead become moments of intimate fellowship with our fellow man. We see this as wigglers and co-workers Meredith Rand and Shane Drinion connect on a nearly spiritual level while she tells the story of meeting her husband as they have drinks during happy hour. “The only way [Meredith] is able to describe it to [her friend] Beth Rath is that it was as if a sort of insulated container had formed around their table and sometimes hardly anything else had penetrated through it”. This “tete-a-tete” becomes so deep and personal and intense that it borders on the supernatural. The text says that “Drinion is actually levitating slightly, which is what happens when he is completely immersed”. While connections between souls may not result in such supernatural expressions outside of fictional worlds, this “mystical oneness” is certainly within our grasp. This freedom that Wallace commends to us allows us to break free from the solipsistic sphere of self and forge deep, intimate bonds with those around us, whether they are our coworkers with whom we enjoy a happy hour drink, or those waiting in the checkout line with us.
This essay has argued that Wallace’s Kenyon College speech provides a third primary interpretive lens – alongside “E Unibus Pluram” and his interview with Larry McCaffery – through which to read the rest of his writing because it directly addresses the conflict with the default setting and the thematic thread that is central to his narrative writing; additionally The Pale King provides the fictional culmination of these same thematic threads. Together, This is Water and The Pale King gives us the clearest insight into Wallace’s understanding of “what it means to be a f***ing human being”.
Additionally, these two works serve as an invitation to his readers to experience a life of freedom from the default setting and to create a deeper connection with those around them. The Pale King’s opening and closing chapters both use second-person narratives to bring the reader into the story itself and remind us that the characters we will get to know are not merely creations of one man’s imagination but are actually an extension of ourselves, of our commonality as human beings. § 1 ends with two simple words: “Read these”. Take in the surroundings; observe the environment and those who fill it. Interact and connect and commune with them. These works provide not only an invitation to interact with the text itself, but to forge a connection between the real-life humans involved in that interchange: author and reader. Writer Maria Bustillos describes Wallace’s desire to connect with his readers when she writes, “He offered a lot of himself to his readers, in all his writing; this generosity seemed like his whole project, in a way”. Wallace invites us to join him in his exploration of all that our “f***ing human”-ness means.
While this all may be true, we cannot avoid the question of whether this freedom Wallace offers to us is truly attainable in light of the tragedy of Wallace’s death. Interestingly, just as the real David Foster Wallace left us far too early, so the fictional narrative “author”, David Wallace, also disappears part way through The Pale King. We, the readers, are invited onto this journey toward freedom through both the speech and the novel, but then find ourselves suddenly alone in much the same way that the hero of the quest narrative is left to fight the final battle on his own. It invites the questions of whether Wallace simply lost this battle, or whether perhaps the default setting is too impressive a foe. As grand and inspiring as his words are, is final victory over the default setting even possible? Is the battle winnable? And is it even worth the fight? If the “wise old fish” seemingly lost the battle, then where does that leave us?
Where it leaves us is knowing that while it is a difficult battle, and there will be casualties, it is still a fight worth fighting. There is too much at stake for us to give up fighting. We must continue fighting “day-in and day-out” because of the beauty in our surroundings that we will find when we open our eyes to see it and because of the “mystical oneness” we share with our fellow man. After all, as Wallace reminds us, “We are all of us brothers” (3).
 David Foster Wallace, interviewed by Larry McCaffery, Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1993.
 Wallace, This is Water, 44.
 Kevin Hartnett, ‘He was Water’, The Millions, May 9, 2011.
 Wallace, This is Water, 32.
 Ibid., 36.
 Boswell, Understanding David Foster Wallace, 136.
 Wallace, This is Water, 115.
 Wallace, The Pale King, 144.
 Boswell, Understanding David Foster Wallace, 137.
 Wallace, ‘Datum Centurio’, Brief Interviews, 127.
 Ibid., 126.
 David Foster Wallace, interviewed by Judith Strasser, ‘Unwholesome Entertainment’, YouTube, 1996.
 Wallace, This is Water, 48.
 Boswell, Understanding David Foster Wallace, 137.
 Wallace, The Pale King, 9.
 Ibid., 24.
 Ibid., 92.
 Wallace, This is Water, 74.
 Wallace, The Pale King, 155.
 Ibid., 191.
 Wallace, This is Water, 60.
 Wallace, ‘Death is not the End’, Brief Interviews, 2.
 Ibid., 3-4.
 Wallace, ‘Little Expressionless Animals’, Girl with Curious Hair, 10.
 Ibid., 14.
 Ibid., 19.
 Wallace, This is Water, 102.
 Wallace, ‘Big Red Son’, Consider the Lobster, 3.
 Wallace, This is Water, 56.
 Wallace, The Pale King, 85.
 Dreyfus, Hubert and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining, 25.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 168.
 Ibid., 122.
 Ibid., 125.
 Ibid., 123.
 Ibid., 385.
 Kevin Hartnett, ‘He was Water’, The Millions, May 9, 2011.
Wallace, The Pale King, 187.
 Ibid., 188.
 Ibid., 222.
 Ibid., 223.
 Ibid., 42.
 Wallace, ‘Brief Interview #20’, Brief Interviews, 292.
 Ibid., 317.
 Wallace, The Pale King, 42.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 230.
 Wallace, ‘Brief Interview #20’, Brief Interviews, 316.
 Wallace, ‘Brief Interview #46’, Brief Interviews, 117.
 Ibid., 123.
 Wallace, Infinite Jest, 291,
 Wallace, The Pale King, 378.
 Wallace, This is Water, 88.
 Wallace, Infinite Jest, 860.
 Wallace, This is Water, 120.
 Dreyfus and Kelly, All Things Shining, 40.
 Ibid., 29-30.
 Ibid., 40.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 50.
 Wallace, This is Water, 98-101.
 Ibid., 102.
 Boswell, Understanding David Foster Wallace, 147.
 Ibid., 146.
 Wallace, ‘Brief Interview #20’, Brief Interviews, 292.
 Wallace, ‘David Lynch Keeps His Head’, A Supposedly Fun Thing, 162.
 Wallace, ‘Consider the Lobster’, Consider the Lobster, 237.
 Wallace, ‘The View from Mrs. Thompson’s’, Consider the Lobster, 140.
 Wallace, ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing’, A Supposedly Fun Thing, 256.
 Ibid., 257.
 Ibid., 256-257.
 Wallace, The Pale King, 233.
 Wallace, ‘Brief Interview #42’, Brief Interviews, 86.
 Ibid., 90.
 Wallace, The Pale King, 473.
 Ibid., 473.
 Ibid., 485.
 Wallace, The Pale King, 4.
 Maria Bustillos, ‘Inside Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library’, The Awl, April 5, 2011.
 Wallace, The Pale King, 3.
Boswell, Marshall. Understanding David Foster Wallace. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2003.
Bustillos, Maria. ‘Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library’. The Awl. http://www.theawl.com/2011/04/inside-david-foster-wallaces-private-self-help-library>.
David Foster Wallace. ‘David Foster Wallace on Infinite Jest’. Interview by Judith Strasser. ‘Unwholesome Entertainment’, TTBooks, YouTube, 1996.
Dreyfus, Hubert, and Sean Dorrance Kelly. All Things Shining. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2011.
Hartnett, Kevin. “He Was Water: Kenyon Grads Remember David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech”. The Millions. http://www.themillions.com/2011/05/he-was-water-kenyon-grads-remember-david-foster-wallaces-commencement-speech.html.
“An Interview with David Foster Wallace,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol, 13, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 127-50.
Wallace, David Foster. ‘Big Red Son’. In Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, 3-50. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005.
—. ‘Brief Interview #20’. In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, 287-318. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1999.
—. ‘Brief Interview #42’. In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, 86-91. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1999.
—. ‘Brief Interview #46’. In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, 116-124. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1999.
—. ‘Consider the Lobster’. In Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, 235-254. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006.
—. ‘Datum Centurio’. In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, 125-130. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1999.
—. ‘David Lynch Keeps His Head’. In A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, 146-212. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1997.
—. ‘Death is not the End’. In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, 1-4. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1999.
—. Infinite Jest. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1996.
—. ‘Little Expressionless Animals’. In Girl with Curious Hair, 3-42. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989.
—. The Pale King. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011.
—. ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’. In A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, 256-353. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1997.
—. ‘The View from Mrs. Thompson’s’. In Consider the Lobster and other essays, 128-140. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006.
—. This Is Water. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.
Wow. So many insights. I really enjoyed this, and I have to admit I like Wallace even more after reading this analysis, so thanks for that. Everyone needs hope and faith, belief of some sort to step away from the “default setting” because let’s face it, it’s a long and sometimes lonely road.
Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the paper.
I think that THIS IS WATER can be read as an ethical treatise in a non-creedal sense, a sort of primer of individuation in the sense of living one’s life to the full outside the constraints of egoic perception and feeling. I like your response to Dreyfus and Kelly, whose book ALL THINGS SHINING is quite interesting and useful, despite the fact that they get DFW so wrong. I talk about this a little here: http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2012/10/20/david-foster-wallace-1-individuation-beyond-the-individual/
Reblogged this on AGENT SWARM and commented:
Very interesting reflection on David Foster Wallace’s THIS IS WATER, and useful corrective to Dreyfus and Kelly’s one-sided reading.
Thank you for the “reblog”. I’m glad you enjoyed the paper.
For Wallace, the only way out of the trap of embodied consciousness—of being a rat pulling its pleasure lever—is to reassert the existence of transcendent value not as a matter of proven epistemic certainty but as a radical and rational choice against basic human frailty. The speech goes on: Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
I would argue that in This is Water, David Wallace, in a somewhat ironic keeping of his theme, completely overlooks a blindingly obvious and critically important reality. In the address, he discusses making the choice to turn off the default setting in terms of thinking – not acting. For example “the really significant education in thinking… isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.” More importantly, his reason for changing the way you think is to realize personal happiness – not the happiness of those around you; “because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop.”
This flawed thinking leaves you square in the center of the universe; it simply lets you substitute a different, less repulsive view of your self-centeredness, and this leads to the obvious reality that he missed: the mistaken belief that choosing to think this way can bring you lasting happiness when in fact what it really does is lead you to warship personal happiness, and like money, power, and beauty, if this is where you tap your strength, you will never have enough.
It’s clear that at some level, he knows that worshiping God is the only way to take yourself out of the center of the universe. He recognizes that if you worship anything else it will ultimately “eat you alive.” God is also the only thing you can worship that you don’t have to fear losing, the only substance that can give you all you will ever need from day one. Instead of changing your thinking to make yourself happier, to get out of your skull-sized kingdom, you must change the way you act.
Perhaps the greatest irony of the address, in what seems almost an afterthought and disjoined for everything else he discusses, he gets it right near the end when he says “really important kind of freedom” is “being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” This goes far beyond changing how you think.
“CONSTRUCTING meaning from experience” does not turn off your default mode. Quite the contrary, it firmly establishes that you are so deeply entrenched in the center of the universe that you have sole dominion over what is and is not deemed to be meaningful. As Wallace notes, it is your experience that leads you to the center of the universe in the first place. Truly turning off your default setting is about DRAWING meaning from changing other people’s lives solely for their good. This is selfless. This can’t be done from the center of the universe. This is Capital T True love – not the often selfish concept most people call love that Wallace made reference to earlier in his speech.
Yes, what is real and essential is hidden in plain sight all around us, and we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.” “This is water.” But it does us no good if we don’t know what water is.
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