It’s the 1860’s and the chess board sits within an annular crowd of the beer drinking and beer drunk. The Grand Master places his piece firmly forward, then the Automaton, this great machine that has been touring the South, creeks and whirls and clicks and takes the castle. The Grand Master moves his bishop. The Automaton takes a knight. The Grand Master shifts his queen. The Automaton advances his castle. A silence, and then, applause. Check mate.
As the crowd dissipates onto the dusty street the Master is unmoved, incredulous. Finally he starts, raising one finger towards the sky.
“By goodness,” he exclaims.
“There’s a human in there!”
“This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories.” – David Foster Wallace.
I have not, yet, had the minimum wage pleasure of working as a cinema attendant. I have never explained to an irate customer that choc-tops only come in vanilla or peppermint and that yes, it’s a little misleading. I have never flicked lights on a post movie theatre and waded across an inland sea of popcorn seeking five lost sets of keys. I have, however, spent enough time around cinemas to know that as the customers leave the theatre, the dominant facial tick is blinking. As they cross the threshold into the well-lit foyer scarcely a patron will fail to rub eyes, to open them wide as an owl and to blink rapid fire like the cinema itself was half chlorine, half caffeine.
They have been fixed upon a screen you see, so thoroughly fixated that the natural functions were improperly discharged. Then, in addition to that, they are also at a point of departure from an invented reality and back into this ancient one. They are crossing worlds, realigning five senses to this gravity, figuring out how to walk and talk again.
Films are immersive.
So much of experienced life is self-reflective. The internet, for instance,- reflects back to you those things that you already value. This is true on a political level; liberals see liberal news, liberal memes, liberal status updates and visa versa. It’s also true on other, less obvious levels. If you value career, status, intellectualism, the odds are that Facebook will build a world of the like-minded around you. If you mine for meaning in fashion, food, music, you will most often see friends who do too. Narcissus gazed into his reflection in the pond, and became obsessed with the beauty. Around him a world of stunning diversity went neglected.
So we might synthesise these points and say that the value of art is in its power to encompass your senses and then take you outside of yourself. That good art convinces you that it is not art, it’s real, and then, having captured you, it quietly wades your imagination out beyond the wash of daily life and inner obsession.
There’s some truth to that. But there’s another, paradoxical fact. There’s something that happens in a whole lot of great art. This thing where you and the characters notice an uninvited guest on your journey. Something, some fracture allows you to look past the characters in foreground and see an author himself, amidst the scene. He’s there, sitting in a study a world away, grappling in frustration with his ineffables, and trying to pass it all on, to give you his world. That vision, of seeing the author himself hunched beneath his existential burden, imbues a sensation akin to brotherhood. What was just fun, or impressive, or complete, becomes personal, when you see the shape of the author in the text. He wrote this for me.
You’ve never been anyone other than yourself. You never will be, you will ever be trapped inside your head. Inside your genetics, your cultural norms, your own loves, your own categories of value, you live out your life. Outside there are people just as real as you, but you only ever access them through language. Art, at its potent-best, magnetised, lethal with static, has the power to take you out of that encasement and put you inside someone else. And the person who you often do the most sympathising with, is the author himself. The process builds empathy, adds emotional octaves above and below, makes you less determined by incidentals of time and place. But I doubt that’s what you’re looking for.
It makes you less alone.
I like Hemingway, not as much as many do, but enough to keep reading. And when you read Hemingway you see, in the artistic choices made, a vision of the author’s world, his values, his struggles and glories. “Amid so much ruin, still the beauty.”
When Cormac McCarthy splinters his hero you see in those shards a reflection of an old, quiet man, a thoughtful man somewhere beside the prairie, staring out at his corn bobbing in the breeze. A man grown by the implacable, brutal, principled aimlessness of the wild.
David Eggers kills both his parents in the first chapter, leaving him and Toph and California. His mother and father, in the book and in real life, are ambushed by cancer and he is somehow anointed a teen parent of his brother. They laugh their way across America, find a place in the world, learn that grief can be overcome and then wander out onto a sunset beach. The frisbee goes back and forward as they run across the sand, leaping higher, yelling out against the wind. And then Dave Eggers the author turns away from Dave Eggers the character, he turns to you, the reader, and he starts swearing. And you remember that art is created, and hence it has a creator, that you were never alone in the room.
No author has engendered as much empathy (and that means pain and joy) in me, as David Foster Wallace. He saw what you were seeing, worried about your worries, laughed at the same things you thought funny. And he was lonely and afraid and heading toward the waterfall.
Things that you learn at the The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (sic).
“That you do not have to like a person in order to learn from him/her/it. That loneliness is not a function of solitude. That logical validity is not a guarantee of truth. That evil people never believe that they are evil, but rather that everyone else is evil. That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realise how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agenda-less kindness. That no single moment is in and of itself unendurable. That having a lot of money does not immunise people from suffering or fear. That everyone is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.” – Infinite Jest
People usually start by talking about the copiousness of DFW. They might call him eidetic, autodidactic, polymathic. They might suggest that reading Infinite Jest will impart to you as much general knowledge as a good arts degree. That your vocabulary may double. A former student called him a noticing machine.
To me, Wallace was less about information and more about distillation. Between this swirling mess of data – annular fusion, the vagaries of refraction, a thousand pharmaceutical brands, was a desire to tackle central human realities – boredom, loneliness, addiction, the task of finding meaning.
“If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story.” – This is Water
“These worst mornings with cold floors and hot windows and merciless light – the soul’s certainty that the day will have to be not traversed but sort of climbed, vertically, and then that going to sleep again at the end of it will be like falling, again, off something tall and sheer.” – Infinite Jest
His prose corkscrewed around itself, referred to itself, extended itself through a half dozen commas or more, it was true to life but it wasn’t always beautiful. But, when he wanted to, he could mist your eyes with imagery. I only included the above to show you how damn pretty he could write.
After publishing Infinite Jest, Wallace seemed consistently surprised that people found it humorous. He had set out to write a sad book. But the humour isn’t just a sideshow, some candy to incentivise the medicine. It’s the humour that makes it sad. It’s the way Robin Williams is always halfway between laughter and some darkness. It’s the way Jim Carrey moves between morose catatonic and manic catalytic. It’s Owen Wilson. It’s the crying clown. It’s the bipolar universe. It’s the way we have this thing that is so stunningly beautiful and yet so fecund for horror. It’s the bifurcated tone that makes it sad. Beneath our loves and laughs, our ambitions petty and profound, beneath the still ice there’s a torrent running chill. I think it was the position of DFW that everyone, no matter how ostensibly happy, had a substratum of sadness somewhere down deep. It’s the good with bad, bad with good, paradise + lost sort of thing.
And that brings us to loss.
“He was an A student through high school, he played football, he played tennis, he wrote a philosophy thesis and a novel before he graduated from Amherst, he went to writing school, published the novel, made a city of squalling, bruising, kneecapping editors and writers fall moony-eyed in love with him. He published a thousand-page novel, received the only award you get in the nation for being a genius, wrote essays providing the best feel anywhere of what it means to be alive now, accepted a special chair to teach writing at a college in California, married, published another book, and hanged himself at age forty-six.” – Although Of Course You End Becoming Yourself, A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace.
Troubled youth writes genius book, becomes best non-fiction writer in the land, meets soul mate, with dogs curled up beside them blur focus and roll credits.
That cruise ship essay. Kierkegaard goes to Disneyland. Amidst the greatest luxury on Earth, you have a suicide problem. Is that the theme we focus on?
Do we talk about the fact that Wallace doesn’t write happy endings?
Or do we just say that on this Earth every event has a great swarming mass of causes and effects and that they, like the swimming pool on a cruise liner, rocked right instead of left, that the medicine stopped working when he came back on, that he was out in the deep, Franzen throwing life rafts, that everything he ever wrote about depression was back leaning over his bed, that it was chemical, that shock treatment didn’t work, that Karen didn’t work, that nothing worked and nothing counted and one single moment was in and of itself unendurable.
The power of art is a power of empathy. And I connected with David, he wrote about my world, he fractured reality the way I fracture reality. And that’s why it hurt.
“He’d gone down into the well of infinite sadness, beyond the reach of story, and he didn’t make it out.
But he had a beautiful, yearning innocence, and he was trying.” – Jonathan Franzen, elegy for David Foster Wallace.
In Infinite Jest, when Hal finally speaks, finally introduces himself, it felt like it was David speaking. It felt like the author in the text. There’s a human in there!
“I read,” I say. “I study and read. I bet I’ve read everything you read. Don’t think I haven’t. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.” My instincts concerning syntax and mechanics are better than your own, I can tell, with all due respect. But it transcends the mechanics. I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting. I could, if you’d let me, talk and talk.
Aw man, he could, on any topic, for any length of time, and I’d happily listen.
In my opinion, for whatever cent, rouble, or baht it’s worth, he was the center. He was the landmass of American fiction. As Carraway said of Gatsby, he was “worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
“It was all sea and oceans now. The great continent had sunk like Atlantis.” – C.S Lewis.