A week after my last post about David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address, I fished a little book out of a pile of library donations, and started reading it while busing down to Minneapolis for the weekend. The book is called All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, and it has a cheery-looking whale gamboling across the cover. (A Moby Dick allusion, as I soon learned.) I figured I was in for a pleasant little read about the timeless wisdom of classics that would leave me nodding in agreement but without any lasting insights. To my pleasant surprise, once the authors (a pair of philosophy professors, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly) dispense with the necessary background information, they head into a chapter entitled “David Foster Wallace’s Nihilism,” in which the Kenyon College address figures prominently.
The authors then proceed to rip DFW’s argument to shreds.
Dreyfus and Kelly use a character in DFW’s The Pale King, Mitchell Drinion, to make their point. Drinion is DFW’s absurd hero: he has the most mind-numbing job imaginable, and he is not only at peace with it, but he is happy. Their critiques are threefold. First, it sets an incredibly high bar for happiness. It says humans need a very intense sense of awareness to be happy, but by adopting that awareness, people naturally become aware of how often they themselves fall short of the ideal. Second, the authors question the value of Drinion’s happiness. If he lives his entire life in a contented haze, can he even know that he is happy, with nothing to compare it to? Is the ideal state really one with no apparent variation in human emotion. Finally, DFW’s “ecstatic bliss” comes about through the careful harnessing of the human will, which is a rather dangerous place to expect to find it. Unless we’re talking to Nietzsche, the odds of success are near zero. The implied conclusion of the chapter is, ‘no wonder DFW killed himself!’
I’m not sure this is entirely fair to DFW. As with most all pop philosophy works (perhaps all philosophy?), the book needs a target; something for the authors to pit their argument against. While useful and often mostly true, this technique can lead the authors to over-simplify the views of their target, and set them up as something of a straw man. The Drinion character is an extreme example, probably deliberately set up to be ridiculous, and we need not accept all of DFW’s nihilistic premises, or go as far as Drinion does on the road to ecstatic bliss, to find something useful in his writing. My takeaway for “This Is Water” can stop at agreement with his views on worship and acknowledge an occasional need for greater awareness for my surroundings and leave it at that. It can still be a profound piece, even if I disagree with DFW’s over-emphasis on the will as opposed to other parts of the human psyche (soul?) and think we need to go through cycles of emotion to truly understand things.
At this point, a disclaimer is probably necessary: I’ve only ever read a few of DFW’s short stories. To be completely honest, I find his prose rather pedantic and filled with a lot of post-modern navel-gazing. It is possible that I am being very unfair to him in my judgments, and for a variety of reasons. He is brilliant, obviously, and if I were to take the effort to read Infinite Jest or The Pale King, I’m sure I’d wrestle with it and get something out of it.
At any rate, Dreyfus and Kelly’s book was a welcome addition to my thoughts on any number of themes, and did a very good job of putting words to the thoughts I’d often had when studying various strains of existential philosophy: “this is all very lovely, but something about this view of humanity just isn’t quite complete.” I can know throw their views into the cycle and see how they hold up under further scrutiny.
If the rest of the book proves as compelling as this chapter, I’ll have more on it, though I also promise I will have some less esoteric content on the way soon, too.