David Foster Wallace (II)
The other day I didn’t get at the thing I really wanted to write about Wallace, which is what an ethical writer he was. Strictly I ought to say “meta-ethical”; he was interested in the conditions of possibility for ethics, an interest that I tried to describe as “seriousness” the other day. A compact example is the short piece “The Devil Is a Busy Man,” which is just a little too long to quote in full but ought to work in snippets:
Three weeks ago, I did a nice thing for someone. I can not say more than this, or it will empty what I did of any of its true, ultimate value. I can only say: a nice thing. In a general context, it involved money. It was not a matter of out and out “giving money” to someone. But it was close. It was more classifiable as “diverting” money to someone in “need.” For me, this is as specific as I can be.
It was two weeks, six days, ago that the nice thing I did occurred. I can also meantion that I was out of townmeaning, in other words, I was not where I live. Explaining why I was out of town, or where I was, or what the overall situation that was going on was, however, unfortunately, would endanger the value of what I did further. Thus, I was explicit with the lady that the person who would receive the money was to in no way know what had diverted it to them. Steps were explicitly taken so that my namelessness was structured into the arrangement which led to the diversion of the money. (Although the money was, technically, not mine, the secretive arrangement by which I diverted it was properly legal. This may lead one to wonder in what way the money was not “mine,” but, unfortunately, I am unable to explain it in detail. It is, however, true.) This is the reason. A lack of namelessness on my part would destroy the ultimate value of the nice act. Meaning, it would infect the “motivation” for my nice gesturemeaning, in other words, that part of my motivation for it would be, not generosity, but desiring gratitude, affection, and approval towards me to result. Despairingly, this selfish motive would empty the nice gesture of any ultimate value, and cause me to once again fail in my efforts to be classifiable as a nice or “good” person.
To summarize a couple of already-summarized pages, the narrator’s authorship of the act nonetheless slips out by insinuation over the telephone, leading to precisely that gratitude and affection (perhaps mixed with resentment) which he or she had feared, leading to the agonized conclusion:
And I had, despairingly, in addition, given off these insinuations so “slyly,” that not even I, until afterwardmeaning, after the call was over, knew what I had done. Thus, I showed an unconscious and, seemingly, natural, automatic ability to both deceive myself and other people, which, on the “motivational level,” not only completely emptied the generous thing I tried to do of any true value, and caused me to fail, again, in my attempts to sincerely be what someone would classify as truly a “nice” or “good” person, but, despairingly, cast me in a light to myself which could only be classified as “dark,” “evil,” or “beyond hope of ever sincerely becoming good.”
The obvious technical features are the absence of particulars and the uncanny voice which Wallace tries out in several stories, weirdly phrased with adverbs in unexpected places, generally stiff but occasionally slipping into colloquialism, as if a moral philosophy textbook were trying to impersonate a human being. One might draw a comparison to some of Lydia Davis’s acerbic short pieces, which also work as dry anatomies of social cock-ups, but the key difference is that Wallace is writing without satiric intent. A story like “The Depressed Person,” true, gives a terribly pointed picture of emotional narcissism; but the narrator of “The Devil Is a Busy Man” is trying in the best of faith for the kind of openness that would never occur to the depressed person. And yet it doesn’t help. That’s the important thing; this android speaker, who sets stringent and impossible criteria for his or her own moral worth, who is so uncertain of his or her own insides that any remotely evaluative term appears inside scare quotes, is like a great many people whom we love and we wish could be happier, like ourselves when we’re unable to justify ourselves, and I don’t see the slightest condescension in the portrayal. Only sadness.
Now of course one can say that this skeptical moral philosophy is untenable or misdirected, just like one can say that the skeptical epistemology of Wallace Stevens’s poetry doesn’t amount to a serious philosophical problem. In either case that misses the point. These works dramatize an emotional state, a kind of pain which appears as a cruel inability to stop questioning oneself or the world, analogous to a philosophical problem without being susceptible to any kind of solution. (Wittgenstein’s biography, with his endless agonizing over pecadillos and blindness to real faults, is another example.) I always enjoyed Wallace’s virtuousity, but his understanding of this pain, and its many relatives, is what I’m likely to keep the longest.