The Doctrine Of DFW

The works of David Foster Wallace inspired Joseph Winkler to return to the Talmud after falling away from Orthodoxy:

Through it all, from the religious passion to the expansive freedom of a secular life, I remained devoted to the works of Wallace. His voice—restless, wild, voracious, endlessly curious, reflective, and most important, unabashedly genuine—always made me feel less lonely, comforted in my self-doubts, and invigorated in my thoughts. He challenged readers to challenge themselves, assuming that the deepest questions belong to the province of everyone and that above all, past the religious, sexual, societal divides, we all desire deep intimacy despite the cynicism of our culture. He was also the smartest and funniest writer I ever read, and he expanded my intellectual tastes and desires. As I left the religious world, Wallace provided a sense of grounding in a world largely new to me, and his playful curiosity served as a guide through the secular culture I chose to embrace. When he hanged himself on Sept. 12, 2008, I instinctively went into shiva mode.

Wallace, in hindsight, besides his Talmudic nature, was always a rabbi to me, in a post-postmodern world where old values only meant anything if you so chose. In a new world in which I couldn’t believe in old dogma, his work still tackled morality, the nature of belief, obligations, responsibility, and the human spirit.

In an essay claiming Wallace was some manner of conservative, James Santel plumbs related themes:

What strikes me as absent from Wallace’s essays isn’t sincerity or even necessarily optimism; what’s missing is faith.

Wallace was narrowly correct in saying that we’re all marooned in our own skulls, and that we ultimately have to make up our own minds about things. But most of us draw a line where Wallace couldn’t in his interview, just before “true empathy’s impossible.” If by “true empathy” Wallace means total inhabitance of another’s inner workings, then yes, true empathy is impossible. But most of us don’t go there. In order to get along in life, we put our faith in the good will of people we love, or in higher beings, or in the rule of law, or in inspiring public figures like John McCain and Barack Obama. Some of us even put our faith in literature.

This is the real tragedy of Wallace’s conservatism. It entailed a curious blindness to the extent to which his writing, imbued as it was with the rare ability to dissect contemporary problems with humanity and humor, reached people, inspiring in his readers a rare devotion born of the sense that Wallace was speaking directly to them. (If you need evidence of this, look at the memorial to Wallace on the McSweeney’s website.) And yet Wallace, widely regarded as the premier literary talent of his generation, ultimately had little faith in his chosen medium. Heavily influenced by Wittgenstein, he saw language as at best the faded messages we seal into bottles and toss into uncertain waters from our little desert island, hoping they reach someone else’s. Wallace (“It goes without saying that this is just one person’s opinion”) could never totally buy into this project. “It might just be that easy,” he told his interviewer in 1993. But for Wallace, blessed and cursed with that endlessly perceptive mind, it was never that easy.

Previous Dish on DFW here, here, and here.