The same friend who introduced me to David Foster Wallace once mused that one way to appreciate an artistic work was to realize all the ways it could have been stupid but managed not to be. To my mind, DFW is an important example of how a writer, and specifically a writer from our own academic and cultural milieu, can avoid the particular pitfalls that we here are likely to face when we try to think and write and not be stupid.
Consider the author. Another friend, when I told him I’d been reading DFW, smiled and said, “Isn’t he so smart?” This is a common response, and it’s true, too; he was really smart. I think, however, that stopping there, as it’s easy for us to do, is to mistake him and to miss his real importance. Though his intelligence shapes his essays, their substance is always his struggle with questions — very hard questions, too, harder and more numerous as the essay goes on. Each piece starts small, perhaps as a review of a new usage guide or an account of a visit to the Maine Lobster Festival, but its body usually wrestles with very broad and ultimately philosophical questions. Where we at Yale usually stop and say, “Well, but that’s a philosophical question,” DFW pushes on and personally investigates the entire American descriptivist/prescriptivist language debate, say, or the ethics of eating, to make sense of the specific at hand. I’ve found these analyses relevant (I speak and eat), and it’s meant a lot to me to read someone dealing seriously in my language in my time period with issues I face, too.
Even those characteristics of his writing which are so often pointed to as gimmicks or clevernesses or signs of over-education — the remarkable vocabulary, the parentheses, the footnotes within footnotes — all of these, it seems to me, are more than the indulgences of a mind reveling in its own powers of complication. They’re the real results of his breadth of conceptual power and his need to examine things in all their complexity as applied to issues that fascinate him. In other words, he seems smart not because he’s trying to show off, but because his commitment to other things brings out his intelligence. It’s an approach we here may want to keep in mind. Moreover, to call his detailed knowledge of whatever he’s writing about just “being really smart” is to forget that he really researched each of these areas to reach the deeper understanding he felt called to. Nothing was off limits or outside his specialty.
I’ve been falling into the clever trap myself here, so I’ll close more simply. I’ve really enjoyed reading David Foster Wallace’s essays. I’ve laughed a lot reading them. I’ve shared them with my friends and my mom and that’s marked our relationships. I’ve come to them usually knowing nothing about their subject and finished them realizing that, whatever it is, it’s something that affects me too and that I need to think about. (This week it was Roger Federer and cruise ships.) It’s a gift I’m sorry he won’t be with us to give again.