Letter to David Foster Wallace

Column
05.01.17

Letter to David Foster Wallace

Self-Therapy Attempt #2

by Ken Jenie

 

Disclaimer: This writer is a recent convert. She had only recently finished a book of essays called Consider the Lobster on which this essay is based.

WTF David Foster Wallace?! WTF?! I’m sorry, I know you’re dead and everything so I should be more respectful but the fact that I’m writing this letter to you is evidence that I admire, detest, love and hate you all at once. If you were alive and we happened to be in the same place, I would probably just walk up and gawk at you. After reading you, anything and everything I write sounds juvenile, ridiculous, provincial. I hate it! The best writing I’ll ever produce will probably be equivalent to your verbal flatulence. I had to read you out loud to keep up with you. Your acute observation of everything is inhuman but never authoritative. I liked that. I wasn’t even annoyed by the fact that I had to repeatedly refer to my Merriam-Webster app. Smart people (usually self-proclaimed) tend to have this haughty, self-righteous air about them. You know better than to refute them. But you, you are so anxious it’s endearing. It makes me feel like it’s okay for me to be so conflicted. That a level of self-doubt is not only permissible but imperative because it connotes a degree of compassion and humility.

Anyway, I’m writing to you because I’ve been feeling rather downtrodden. I don’t know if I’m even allowed to say that. I can imagine some people shaking their heads, saying, how could you, you’re already so privileged. Everyone seems to think that having access to economic stability automatically negates every other human concern you may have. But as a young, female, ethnic minority, 2016 has been shit. Brexit, Trump, and the recent demonstrations in Jakarta have led me to wonder if we have all forgotten how to be human. We read enough to know that we know nothing. We know this. Yet we keep failing to dig deeper. We have stopped asking questions when the facts become too uncomfortable for us. How lazy and self-absorbed we’ve all become.

“Men who aren’t enough like human beings even to hate—what one feels when they loom into view is just an overwhelming lack of interest, the sort of deep disengagement that is often a defense against pain. Against sadness.” (187)

I like that you relate big world problems to personal, emotional landscapes. Politicians are people too, aren’t they? Maybe it’s because we’re both trained to be indiscriminate when studying characters. I hate it when people flaunt data like it’s the Ten Commandments. Like it’s supposed to explain everything. Brexiters and Trump supporters are ALL racists, misogynists, fascists!!! What if they’re just sad people, like you and I? Perhaps they just lack the means to be eloquent. If the intellectual left is really intellectual, why the predisposition to further ostracize and marginalize? Why not ask and listen? Why not try to understand? Why not self introspect? Aren’t we the ones with the education and privilege to know that nothing is what it seems? Anyway, what good would come out from the knowledge that the majority of the world’s population is post-truth and alt-right? I hate labels. It denies you your individuality. Maybe that’s why things have taken a nasty turn.

**Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking? ** (257)

How you surprise me David Foster Wallace! In the middle of your review of Joseph Frank’s four-volume biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky, you went on a rather self-indulgent tangent. Those double asterisks allowed me to exhale. I ask myself these questions all the time too! I often wonder if others do the same. They seem so self-assured sometimes. How nice to be able to free yourself off of this conundrum. I envy them sometimes, don’t you?

** Is the real point of my life simply to undergo as little pain and as much pleasure as possible? My behavior sure seems to indicate that this is what I believe, at least a lot of the time. But isn’t this kind of a selfish way to live? Forget selfish—isn’t it awfully lonely? ** (261)

I’m not sure if it’s the real point but it’s real all right. It’s human to want to avoid pain. I’ve been the perpetrator and recipient of cowardly behavior. We make foolish decisions based on the looming threat of pain, before it even happens, without knowing if it would befall us at all. I wish I were more courageous, not because I don’t want to be selfish but because I fear loneliness more than I fear pain.

** Is it possible really to love other people? If I’m lonely and in pain, everyone outside me is potential relief—I need them. But can you really love what you need so badly? Isn’t a big part of love caring more about what the other person needs? How am I supposed to subordinate my own overwhelming need to someone else’s needs that I can’t even feel directly? And yet if I can’t do this, I’m damned to loneliness, which I definitely don’t want…so I’m back at trying to overcome my selfishness for self-interested reasons. Is there a way out of this bind? ** (266)

Remind me to ask you about what’s going on in your head, with all those books, someone told me once. We never got around to it but the thought warms me. I could benefit from being listened to than talked over once in a while. Maybe this is where we diverge. Men prize convenience over all else. A discussion is supposed to produce a solution or identify a culprit, at least. Otherwise it’s all a waste of time and effort. Sometimes I think loving is just about being there, even if it pains you to watch the ones you love compromise themselves over and over again. Selfish is you wanting your loved ones to listen to you so you won’t have to bear the burden of their mistakes. Too many people think about what they can gain as opposed to what they can give. The word “subordinate” implies a hierarchy. I think love should be egalitarian. But what do I know? I’m a woman. We’re used to enduring.

Such is the modernist legacy that we now presume as a matter of course that “serious” literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life…And, in academia and the arts, to the increasingly absurd and dogmatic Political Correctness movement, whose obsession with the mere forms of utterance and discourse show too well how effete and aestheticized our best liberal instincts have become, how removed from what’s really important—motive, feeling, belief. (272-273)

Right. The challenge is how we could get the liberal elites to digest this. They’re just going to throw stats and percentages and other fancy sounding shit at us. Because they don’t have the time to consider the personal, do they? It’s too frivolous and unrepresentative? Because the “I” is never greater than the “they.” I say they because the liberal elite likes to other the opposition. Because we (I suppose I consider myself a liberal) are never part of the problem. So what do we do? I don’t know. I don’t have the data but I’d like to think that I still have hope. New Year’s Resolution: be kinder and finish Infinite Jestwhiteboardjournal, logo