“Everybody Worships”


by Matthew Sitman

Recently the Dish pointed to the forthcoming biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. After watching a panel on the Wallace archives at the Ransom Center that included the biography's author, D.T. Max, Daniel Silliman worries that Wallace's religious beliefs are being ignored:

It is very interesting, from the stand point of biography, that Wallace's writing struggles are so important to so many. I wish, though, that Max found Wallace's struggles with and attempts at religion important too. What does that say? What does it say that Wallace dedicated some time trying to be a part of church communities? How did that work and how did it play out…

Maybe Wallace's thoughts on religion were banal. I doubt it, though. Unfortunately, Max seems to assume that's the case without investigating any deeper or even being interested. The rest of his answer is just speculation — and, really, even if his Illinois church attendance was best explained by those things, there's still plenty there to explore. None of those answers specifically would be boring, though Max seems to take them that way.

It's like a terminal disinterest in religion. David Lipsky's extended interview with Wallace was the same way. Wallace talked about religion and God several times, but Lipsky let every statement pass, never following up, always pursuing other questions.

If Silliman's assessment is right, I'll be disappointed. My suspicion is that among DFW's literary and academic peers, his church-going and attachment to Christianity (however complicated and complex) is not a feature of his life that intuitively is understood – and so the language and themes in his writing that point to this, whether overtly theological or not, tend to get downplayed.

In Wallace's Rolling Stone article after 9-11, he mentions "belonging" to a Protestant church in Bloomington – probably not the type of place with which too many New York-based writers have an intimate familiarity. This fact about his life seems worthy of investigation, and I hope Max's biography addresses it. A 1996 Details profile revealed, for instance, that Wallace twice pursued becoming a Roman Catholic, and eventually spent time going to a Mennonite house of worship. Beyond these details, though, DFW's work itself points to an understanding of human nature brimming with religious insight. Or rather, he held that we were religious beings. In his famed Kenyon commencement address, Wallace said

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.

Wallace understood our addictions – to fame, power, beauty, wealth – as petty idols, replacing a transcendent, ultimate source of devotion with the penultimate, taking good, if limited, things and making them everything. Which of course leads to misery – and worse. Any reader of Wallace's knows the place of addiction in his work, and the lurking anthropology behind his assessment of it, by the end of his life, was religious. Examining the matter of what, or whom, Wallace worshipped, or tried to, is an essential task in understanding his literary and philosophical vision. That Wallace evinced some reticence about this, or refused to slip into the tired slogans of our culture's publicly pious, doesn't diminish its importance. He once admitted how difficult it was to discuss such questions, in an almost eery preview of the hesistancy we now find among those scrutinizing his life:

…it’s very hard to talk about people’s relationship with any kind of God, in any book later than like Dostoyevsky. I mean the culture, it’s all wrong for it now. You know? No, no. Plausibly realistic characters don’t sit around talking about this stuff. You know?

I always come back to this comment of Wallace's during his interview with Lipsky:

It's more like, if you can think of times in your life that you've treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think it's probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we're here for is to learn how to do it. [Spits with mouthful voice into cup.] I know that sounds a little pious.

The term for what he's describing, in Christian theology, is grace. Wallace's life, it seems to me, was a search for it.

(Photo: Author David Foster Wallace by Steve Liss/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)