The publishing of David Foster Wallace’s last novel, The Pale King, unfinished at the time of his death, has brought on yet another torrent of writing about DFW. I can’t think of another writer whose legacy is shaped quite like his. His writing is brilliant and penetrating, and the cadence of his style is infectious and easily imitated. Many writers of his generation (who in my experience are mostly male, but that is a topic for another time) have an echo of DFWness in their work.
One admirer, John Jeremiah Sullivan, has written compellingly about DFW in a GQ piece, Too Much Information. Sullivan describes DFW this way:
When they say that he was a generational writer, that he “spoke for a generation,” there’s a sense in which it’s almost scientifically true. Everything we know about the way literature gets made suggests there’s some connection between the individual talent and the society that produces it, the social organism. Cultures extrude geniuses the way a beehive will make a new queen when its old one dies, and it’s possible now to see Wallace as one of those. I remember well enough to know it’s not a trick of hindsight, hearing about and reading Infinite Jest for the first time, as a 20-year-old, and the immediate sense of: This is it. One of us is going to try it. The “it” being all of it, to capture the sensation of being alive in a fractured superpower at the end of the twentieth century. Someone had come along with an intellect potentially strong enough to mirror the spectacle and a moral seriousness deep enough to want to in the first place. About none of his contemporaries—even those who in terms of ability could compete with him—can one say that they risked as great a failure as Wallace did.
The article is substantial and smart, well worth the full read. But what really struck me when reading this was the way Sullivan described DFW’s ability to pay attention in an extraordinarily attuned way, to people around him. In DFW’s world, everyone’s complexities and experiences are seen and accounted for, from the story’s protagonist to the guy behind the counter at Circle K.
After quoting an extremely insightful passage from the new novel, Sullivan puts that quality of deep attention into context:
Wallace paid a price for traveling so deep into himself, for keeping his eye unaverted as long as it takes to write passages like the one just quoted, for finding other people interesting enough to pay attention to them long enough to write scenes like that. It’s the reason most of us can’t write great or even good fiction. You have to let a lot of other consciousnesses into your own.
The gift of deep attention has parallels in other métiers as well. Mark Morris’ ability to listen to music and then find its perfect movement in the body comes to mind. Or my friend, a non-representational painter, whose gorgeous paintings are a direct result of her unwavering observation of the landscape around her remote studio. Her ability to move a deep experiential understanding of the earth into a non narrative form is rare and extraordinary.
Some of us do work that does not emerge from the direct observations of finely calibrated human interactions or the multi-layered cycles of the earth. There are some of us for whom deep attention is needed in the domain of the imaginal, the numinous. What that is, where it exists and how it plays into the making of visual art is elusive and a bit wily. It is something I think about a lot and yet still don’t feel that I have a bead on its dimensional sense.
This idea reminds of a quote by Lyotard about Barnett Newman’s search for the sublime:
He breaks with the eloquence of romantic art but does not reject its fundamental task, that bearing pictorial or otherwise expressive witness to the inexpressible. The inexpressible does not reside in an over there, in another world, or another time, but in this: in that something happens. In the determination of pictorial art, the indeterminate, the ‘it happens’ is the paint, the picture. The paint, the picture as occurrence or event, is not expressible, and it is to this that it has to witness.
“The inexpressible does not reside in an over there, in another world, or another time.” Oh yes.