David Foster Wallace is much-beloved by enthusiasts of so-called postmodern literature, fiction dripping with irony, luxuriating in the annihilation of substance by form. His own fiction fits within the world of pomo-lit at least in its technical wizardry (Infinite Jest [IJ] is dizzyingly non-linear, and incomprehensible apart from its lengthy endnotes, including a five-or-so-page filmography). And yet, while Wallace certainly found his literary voice within the world of pomo-lit, his mature work is a series of groping attempts to transcend it. As Jamie Smith put in a wonderful essay on Wallace’s “postmodern conservatism,” “Far from being a nihilist, Wallace was a moralist of a particularly complicated sort. While certainly not artistically conservative, Wallace became convinced that the task of literature in late modernity is to counter the ironic nihilism with which he is mistakenly identified.”
Wallace throws down the gauntlet to postmodern irony in a (pre-IJ) essay titled, “E Unibus Plurum: Television and US Fiction, whose “two big premises are that, on the one hand, a certain sub-genre of pop-conscious postmodern fiction…has lately arisen and made a real attempt to transfigure a world or and for appearance, mass appeal, and television; and that, on the other hand, telesvisual culture has somehow evolved to a point where it seems invulnerable to any such transfiguring assault. TV, in other words, has become able to capture and neutralize any attempt to change or even protest the attitudes of passive unease and cynicism TV requires of Audience in order to be commercially and psychologically viable at doses of several hours per day” (171). The ironic distancing and self-referential involutions of pomo-lit are just pale imitations of ’90’s sitcoms.
DFW goes on to canvass possible responses “to television’s commercialization of the modes of literary protest” (E Unibus Plurum, 185). “One obvious option is for the fiction writer to become reactionary, fundamentalist. Declare contemporary television evil and contemporary culture evil and turn one’s back on the whole Spandexed mess and genuflect instead to good old pre-sixties Hugh Beaumontish virtues and literal readings of the Testaments and be pro-Life, anti-Fluoride, antediluvian” (Ibid.). This is a crude version of MacIntyre’s suggestion in After Virtue: if you discover that modernity dead-ends in Nietzschean nihilism, back up to Aristotle. “The problem with this is that Americans who’ve opted for this tack seem to have one eyebrow straight across their forehead and knuckles that drag on the ground and seem like an excellent crowd to want to transcend…Most of us,” Wallace insists, “will still take nihilism over neanderthalism” (185).
Another response is to “‘resolve’ the problem of being trapped in the televisual aura the same way French poststructuralists ‘resolve’ their being enmeshed in the logos. We can solve the problem by celebrating it. Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst by genuflecting to them. We can be reverently ironic” (190). This is the response of pomo-lit, and Wallace has as little patience for it as for reactionaries. James K. Smith quotes Wallace’s biographer D.T. Max: “When Steve Moore wrote him to recommend a novel he was publishing, praising its ‘sardonic worldview perfect for the irony-filled nineties,’ Wallace shot back that this was ‘like saying ‘a kerosen[e]-filled fire extinguisher perfect for the blazing housefire.’”
If we can neither go backwards nor forwards, what options are left to us? Wallace ends this essay on a note of hopeful anticipation; if MacIntyre is waiting for “a new, though doubtless very different, St. Benedict,” Wallace is waiting for a new literary sincerity. “The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of ‘anti-rebels,’ born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point, why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, so far as I can see, risk things. Risk disapproval…Accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Credulity” (192-3).
IJ was published after this essay, but I don’t think that Wallace would’ve recognized it as an “anti-rebellious” novel of the sort he forecast. It’s a profoundly moralizing work, but usually slantwise (by indirections seek directions out). IJ is a novel about the power of love, about our need for care in our choice of loves, and about the horrors we reap when our loves are disordered. It’s a novel, more than anything else, about addiction (we’re all slaves to some love, Wallace implies), and addiction’s power to bring us to nothing (drug addiction in many and colorful forms dramatizes this, as does The Entertainment), or to raise us to godlike self-transcendence (tennis, as theorized by Schtitt, and perhaps the cause of Quebec resistance), or in many cases, to do both in some measure. IJ is the most Augustinian novel I’ve read in a very long time.
Towards the end, though, rays of a truly moral world shine through the low-hanging clouds of narcotized despair. Consider this passage, describing a conversation between a father and son, when the former learned that the latter was planning to watch a porn video. “Himself said that if Orin wanted his personal, fatherly as opposed to headmasterly, take on it, then he, Orin’s father — though he wouldn’t forbid it — would rather Orin didn’t watch a hard-porn film yet. He said this with such reticent earnestness there was no way Orin couldn’t ask him how come. Himself felt his jaw and pushed his glasses up several times and shrugged and finally said he supposed he was afraid of the film giving Orin the wrong idea about having sex. He said he’d personally prefer that Orin wait until he’d found someone he loved enough to want to have sex with and had had sex with this person, that he’d wait until he’d experienced for himself what a profound and really quite moving thing sex could be, before he watched a film where sex was presented as nothing more than organs going in and out of other organs, emotionless, terribly lonely” (956).
Which brings me to the title of this post: doesn’t Wallace’s progression from ironic detachment to profound moral concern, which progression found expression in a style that remained recognizably rooted in — and indeed, at the cutting edge of — the literary avant garde, have deep resonances with the artistic development of T.S. Eliot? Perhaps The Waste Land stands to the Four Quartets roughly as The Broom of the System stands to Infinite Jest.