Beware the Abyss

Beware the Abyss
Written for my Creative Nonfiction Class – Fall 2011
by Thomas Jay Rush

I am standing on the brink of an abyss. I am looking out over a cliff into a beautiful and terrifying landscape. I’m concerned that if I take an initial step into that country I may not return. I have a family who needs me. So, in this essay, I may appear tentative – as if I’m dipping my toe in the water – and I am. But I think it’s the safest way to proceed.
I’ve struggled for two weeks to come up with a topic for this paper. This is my fifth draft. In my first draft, I equated David Foster Wallace’s work to the beef in a stew that has been simmering in my mind for months. A podcast on literary criticism (Fry 2009) played the role of the onions in that stew.

In another draft, I claimed I was of two minds about Wallace – one mind, a twelve year old boy, intimidated by his intellect and the depth of his writing, and the other mind, a fifty-two year old man who has been liberated by the free abandon Wallace exhibits in his work. That fifty-two year old man thought: if David Foster Wallace can do it, I can do it. In that draft of my essay, there was an apocryphal battle between those two voices. The twelve-year-old won.

In another draft, using way too many footnotes, I tried to mimic the “second voice” Wallace refers to in a famous taped interview with Charlie Rose (Wallace, CharlieRose 1997). I’ve been taught that a writer should avoid cliché. It turns out, using footnotes in an essay about David Foster Wallace is an extreme example of the cliché. Trying to be original, I changed that draft to use an extended forward, which I noticed Wallace had not used. I discovered the reason why he hadn’t – because it’s a bad idea. That draft didn’t work either.

All of those previous drafts of my essay have fallen by the wayside (cliché). They now reside deep inside a folder called “~/Documents/Wayside/Incomplete David Foster Wallace Essays” (cliché defeating humorous aside).

The abyss I referred to earlier is the abyss of David Foster Wallace criticism. I found a website on the Internet called Howling Fantods (Maniatis n.d.). It was built and is maintained by Nick Maniatis, a high-school English teacher in Australia. The site is recognized as “the pre-eminent David Foster Wallace website.” (Crawford n.d.) The community of scholars concerned with David Foster Wallace uses the site as a centralized resource for scholarship on Wallace.

If the worldwide web can be said to be a fabric then this website is definitely a thread. And pulling this thread unravels not just an adult XL sized sweater (a beautiful sweater of many colors, to be sure) but an entire clothing factory of David Foster Wallace criticism. Not just a clothing factory – an entire landscape zoned for heavy industrial.

One particular essay linked from this site is called “David Foster Wallace: the Death of an Author, the Birth of a Discipline” by Adam Kelly (Kelly 2010). This article summarizes the state of David Foster Wallace criticism as of 2010. There were two particular passages in that essay that stuck me as particularly relevant.

The first passage I will discuss in detail below. This passage perfectly describes, I think, what David Foster Wallace was trying to do in his work. The passage is very “dense”, by which I mean that it is written with the supposition that the reader is familiar with the ideas of literary criticism. I am going to attempt to “unpack” that dense passage.
In the second passage, Kelly lists a series of writers and philosophers he believes would be helpful in understanding Wallace’s work: George Berkeley, Gilles Deleuze, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Martin Heidegger, William James, Fredric Jameson, Martha Nussbaum, Paul Ricoeur, Richard Rorty, Gilbert Ryle, and Ludwig Wittgenstein (Kelly 2010).

Twelve-year old boy: Whoa – I’ve never even heard of any of these writers.
Fifty-two-year old man: Whoa – I’ve never even heard of three-quarters of these writers.

I take Kelly’s suggestion seriously. I believe him when he says that to understand Wallace’s work one must first understand these writers. Also, I want to understand exactly what that dense passage means. For this reason, I am going to do two things with the remainder of this essay.
First, I will write a brief sketch on each of the writers mentioned in the above list. These are not intended to be authoritative sketches. I am only making this list as a sort of road map, for a time when I might revisit this place. Also, I think these sketches will serve as an exercise in summarizing the lives and work of these writers (as we did in class). As I enter into this landscape that so fascinates and frightens me I need a road map. These sketches will serve as the beginnings of that map.

In the second part of this essay, I will excerpt an extended passage from Kelly’s article and try to explain what I think the passage means. I will “unpack” the text, as Wallace might say (Wallace, CharlieRose 1997). I think the passage perfectly summarizes what Wallace was trying to do. The passage refers implicitly to work of many of the writers mentioned in the sketches. This is another justification for creating these sketches.

One of the ingredients in the stew from the first draft of my essay, I called it onions, was a podcast I’ve been listening to by Dr. Paul Fry (Fry 2009) from Yale University called “Introduction to Theory of Literature”. The podcast is a series of 26 one-hour long lectures on the history of literary criticism: from the study of hermeneutics or literary interpretation, to gender and identity studies. I started listening to these lectures before having read David Foster Wallace. Each lecture is devoted to an important development in the history of literary criticism – this translates to a discussion on the work of one writer. Many of who, coincidentally, are on the above list. In these lectures I first heard of Derrida, and Gadamer and Wittenberg. I listened to these lectures closely – I grocked very little. Putting these sketches together will help to reinforce what I learned in those podcasts.
Finally, I truly believe that it is impossible, at this stage in my understanding of Wallace’s work, for me to say anything interesting or original about him as a writer. I quite simply do not feel qualified (twelve-year-old boy speaking).

In fine David Foster Wallace style, then, and drawing heavily from Dr. Paul Fry’s lectures, (please be aware that at this point I am now officially “in over my head” and the abyss that I thought I was looking over has suddenly morphed into the edge of a deep swimming pool, and I’m diving in without swimmies), I now present:


Note: Most of this information is from a combination of Wikipedia (Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia n.d.), Stanford Online Dictionary of Philosophy (Stanford n.d.), and Dr. Fry’s lectures (Fry 2009).

George Berkeley
b. 1685 d. 1753
Also called Bishop Berkley, George Berkley, was an Irish philosopher who lived and worked between 1685 and 1753. He was a proponent of a theory called immaterialism. Which very broadly contends that reality consists of no physical objects. That everything is either “spirit” or “idea,” and that spirit perceives idea and idea is perceived by spirit. His theory may be seen as a reaction to materialism, which was prevalent at the time.

William James
b. 1842 d. 1910
The brother of novelist Henry James, William James studied at the Lawrence Science School at Harvard and the Harvard Medical School. He wrote many influential works of philosophy and influenced many later generations of thinkers including Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Ludwig Wittgenstein
b. 1889 d. 1951
A professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1939 to 1947, Wittgenstein apparently published very few things while he was alive (a book review, a children’s dictionary, one article and a 75 page book). A book published two years after he died, Philosophical Investigations, was named in 1999 as the most important book in 20th century philosophy.

To poorly summarize my understanding (which is poorly understood to begin with) Wittgenstein believed that most philosophical questions could be made moot if one refused to allow the discussion to leave the “rough ground” of everyday language.

Quoting un-cited text from Wikipedia: He argues philosophical problems are bewitchments that arise from philosophers’ misguided attempts to consider the meaning of words independently of their context, usage, and grammar.

Martin Heidegger
b. 1889 d. 1976
Heidegger says: “In an interpretation, the way in which the entity we are interpreting is to be conceived can be drawn from the entity itself [“the text” in the words of Dr. Fry], or the interpretation can force the entity into concepts to which it is opposed in its manner of being [a challenge to the authority of the author as to interpretation].”

Gilbert Ryle
b. 1900 d. 1976
Born in Brighton, England, Ryle lived and worked his entire life in England. From 1935-1945 he taught and wrote at Cambridge. His theories were along the lines of Wittgenstein, in that he thought of philosophical ideas as something distinct from everyday experience.

A regular person knows experience in the same way a farmer might know the land, in the sense that he toils with it every day. A philosopher knows experience more in the way a mapmaker knows a landscape.

He is one of the “ordinary language philosophers” who believe that some of the difficulties of philosophical questions lie in the loss of being in touch with everyday language.

His most famous book, published in 1949, was called The Concept of Mind.

Hans-Georg Gadamer
b. 1900 d. 2002
Born in Germany in 1900, Hans Gadamer lived to the age of 102. He died in Heidelberg, Germany. He studied under and was influenced by Martin Heidegger. His most important book, published in 1960, was called Truth and Method, in which he argued that people approach the reading of a text with preconceived ideas. As soon as a reader reads one part of a text he forms conclusions on the remainder of the text. He carries this expectation forward as he encounters further parts of the text. Gadamer called this back and forth of expectation and encounter the hermeneutic circle. Gadamer argued that a reader is constantly trying to “merge” his understanding of what the writer is saying with his own prior knowledge. He claimed he was not trying to explain how people “aught to” read a text but how people actually do read a text.

From Gadamer: The reader projects before himself a meaning for the text as a whole as soon as some initial meaning emerges…because he is reading the text with particular expectations in regard to a certain meaning.

Paul Ricoeur
b. 1913 d. 2005
As an indication of just how deep this swimming pool is I searched on Google for this writer and found a link to a website called the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford n.d.). There are 2,500 articles listed in their table of contents about every possible philosophical question. I retreated fairly quickly from this website.

Paul Ricoeur was a prominent 20th century philosopher. For more information please see the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Paul de Man
b. 1919 d. 1983
Professor Fry, in his lecture on the work of Paul de Man, with whom he was apparently a contemporary and colleague, says, “…what we…write in our papers, is grounded in theoretical premises which, if we don’t come to terms with them, we will simply naively reproduce…so it is as crucial…to understand theory” (Fry 2009).

This sentiment, that if we don’t understand the ideas upon which we are basing what we write we are simply naively reproducing other people’s work, is exactly the reason why I didn’t feel qualified to allow myself to enter into the land of serious David Foster Wallace criticism and chose instead to write these simple sketches.

Gilles Deleuze
b. 1925 d. 1995
An interesting website, by an artist called Mark Ngui, shows drawings made to try to elucidate the ideas contained in the first two chapters of Deleuze’s book: A Thousand Plateaus. I reproduce one small image from that website here (Ngui n.d.), as another indication (as if it’s needed) of the depth of the DFW swimming pool:

Jacques Derrida
b. 1930 d. 2004
This important writer published over 40 books on diverse topics. He taught at the University of California, Irvine but also held positions at Yale University and Johns Hopkins University.

Speaking of a famous lecture Jacques Derrida gave at Johns Hopkins University in 1966, Professor Fry says “this extraordinary event in the imaginations of people thinking about theory…[brought]…about a…revolution from the preoccupation we had in the mid-sixties with structuralism to the subsequent preoccupation…with deconstruction. (Fry 2009)”

Derrida subsequently published another important essay called “Différance,” which played an important role in the history of literary criticism as well. A very simple description of the ideas in this paper is that all things are defined only in terms of being different from other things, that without being able to specify what a thing is in relation to other things it is not possible to say anything about that thing.

William Wimsatt
b. 1907 d. 1975
Wimsatt was a professor of English at Yale University from 1939 until his death in 1975, 36 years later. He published many papers on literary criticism. One important paper was called “The Intentional Fallacy” (Wimsatt Jr 1946) which was published in The Sewanee Review in 1946.

In that paper, Wimsatt argued, “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art!” [My exclamation point]

He also said, later in that article, in what I call his famous twelfth footnote : “the history of words after [his italics] a poem is written may contribute meanings which if relevant…should not be ruled out by a scruple about intention.”

Professor Fry spent a long time on this writer in his lecture. I found the idea of the Intention Fallacy interesting. Wallace mentions the intentional fallacy in his essay “Big Red Son.”

Richard Rorty
b. 1931 d. 2007
A philosopher and writer who taught at Princeton, the University of Virginia and Stanford University, Rorty developed ideas called neopragmatism. His work was based, in part, on the works of Derrida and Heidegger. William James was apparently a pragmatist, so Rorty’s ideas are an incorporation and expansion of some of the pragmatist ideas.

Wikipedia claims that the Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy calls Rorty’s work a “postmodern version of pragmatism.”

Fredric Jameson
b. 1934 d. present
Born in 1934, Jameson was an American literary critic. His most famous work was titled Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism 1991.

Martha Nussbaum
b. 1947 d. present
A teacher at Harvard and Brown Universities, Martha Nussbaum now teaches philosophy, law, and divinity at the University of Chicago. Nussbaum has “a concern for nut-and-bolts utility” (Boynton n.d.). Which means she wants her philosophies to have a practical effect on the world. She has studied women’s poverty in India. Through her teaching of law she hopes to have a lasting effect on society. She was born and raised in the privileged world of Bryn Mawr, PA and attended the Baldwin School.

Nussbaum was the winner of many awards including being named one of the world’s top 100 intellectuals (how can they possibly tell?) by Foreign Policy Magazine in 2008, 2009, and 2010.

In the remainder of this essay I will discuss a passage taken from “David Foster Wallace: the Death of an Author, the Birth of a Discipline” by Adam Kelly (Kelly 2010). Hopefully, some of the ideas in this passage may be better understood given the above sketches.
The article is a summary of David Foster Wallace scholarship. Studies in David Foster Wallace have experienced a huge upsurge since his death, in 2008, by suicide. The article discusses the fact that Wallace was one of the early “internet age” writers. It discusses how Wallace’s fan base actually played an important role in the furtherance of studies about his work. One amateur fan actually went to Amherst College Library and discovered an important early draft of a Wallace short story from the time he was a student. The article then goes on to say:

What became known as “literary theory,” and eventually simply “theory” (see Culler), initially arose as a method of reading “against the grain,” with the aim of exploring a text’s unconscious (whether political, psychological, gendered etc.).

In other words literary critics, at the beginning of the discipline, were trying to understand what the writer was saying by focusing on the actual text. Trying to determine what was hidden in the text’s unconscious. The theories of Sigmund Freud came into play here and some literary critics hung their work on the ideas of Freud’s id, ego, and superego (Fry 2009). One critic, Wimsatt, claimed, in a paper called “The Intentional Fallacy” (Wimsatt Jr 1946) that it was not only not possible but not desirable to try to understand the original intention of the author of the piece. He claimed that once a literary artifact is “born” it is no longer the province of the author to determine what it means. He contended that everything a critic needs to make an interpretation is in the text (Fry 2009).

Kelly goes on to say:

But as theory has moved from a position of peripheral challenge to one of conventional centrality in academic discourse, its relation to texts has become newly problematic…

In other words, as literary theory has gained relevancy and become more broadly disseminated, it has encountered new problems, those problems arising…
…both because the epistemological claims of high theory have come under fire from a variety of sources…

…that fire coming from not only other literary critics but increasingly from the authors whose authority is being challenged. He continues…
…and because literary texts have begun to engage critically with their own relation to theoretical formulations [italics mine].

This, I think, is the crux of what David Foster Wallace was doing. He was “engaging critically…[with]…theoretical formulations.” Kelly goes on to say:
Literary critics…have explored this problem in general…but Wallace critics have found it easier to negotiate because of the assumption of genius and encyclopedic knowledge attached to their object of study.

In other words, it is assumed that Wallace was both familiar with and was incorporating in his writing the theories of the literary critics. He understood the game the critics were playing, and he wrote his work not only for the regular reader but also in response to what the critics and literary theorists were saying. And this causes new difficulties for the theorist. The theorist’s object of study is squirming under the microscope.

Further in the piece Kelly says:

Whereas the rise of theory was initially viewed as the conclusive destruction of intention [Kelly is referring to Wimsatt here (Wimsatt Jr 1946)], …here intention is birthed again to co-exist with theory, resulting in fresh forms of critical engagement.

This is why Wallace is an important writer; some have called him the most important writer of his generation. I don’t think Wallace initiated this “rebirth” of intention (based on my limited understanding, the early practitioners of post-modernism may have initiated these “fresh forms of critical engagement,” but Wallace certainly added to it).

Further in the article, Kelly says:

When theory was at its zenith in the academy, what a writer thought he or she was doing in their fiction was not a decisive factor for critics; but when major writers become willing to engage the discourses of theory itself [my italics] – to speak the language of the critic, and challenge that language on its own turf – it is impossible not to take notice.

Wallace was “engaging in the discourse of theory itself.” He was “challenging” the critics on their own terms. The article quotes Wallace as saying:
The contemporary artist can simply no longer afford to regard the work of [literary critics]…as divorced from his own concerns.”

I think Wallace had read all of the theory. I think he had understood all of the theory. I think he incorporated it into his work.
In short, I think he grocked it (see fn 1).

During the last few months I’ve been reading the work of a man named John Barth. (He was the “celery” in the stew.) John Barth had a long career teaching writing at Penn State University, Boston College, and Johns Hopkins University. He wrote an important collection of post-modern short stories called “Lost in the Funhouse.” In one essay called “It’s a Short Story” (Barth 1992), Barth says that early in his career, while he was being taught writing at Johns Hopkins, he was having difficulty trying to meet the expectations of his teachers. He describes a time when he finally realized that he could just go off on his own. That he could go off in his own direction. That he could dive into the swimming pool without his swimmies (my words not his). I really loved this idea, this sense of freedom. The writing of David Foster Wallace gives me that same feeling.

This sense of freedom is what has allowed this fifty-two year old man to finally come to the end if this convoluted and probably confusing essay. 


From: Thomas Jay Rush
Subject: End of Year Paper
Date: December 12, 2011 9:50PM EST
To: Anne Kaier

This email is officially part of the paper I handed in earlier this evening. I believe one of the things that David Foster Wallace was trying to do with his many footnotes and asides was to make certain that he was fully communicating everything he needed to say. This is why he goes into such excruciating detail (Wallace, CharlieRose 1997). I totally understand this. I always feel that I’ve left a million things unsaid in my writing.
I started writing one version of my paper wherein I included tons of footnotes but I quickly realized that writing a paper on David Foster Wallace and using footnotes was pure cliché, so I abandoned that paper. I then tried to invent a new method to do the same thing, something that Wallace hadn’t already done. I struck upon the idea of using a “foreword” but after a short time I discovered why David Foster Wallace had not used a foreword in any of his essays – because it’s a stupid idea. So I abandoned that draft as well.

I’m sending this email because this is the method I’ve hit upon to speak with what Wallace called a “second voice.” But now that I’ve come to actually write the email I find I don’t have very much further to say.

So I’ll just say this: Thanks for the fine class. I really enjoyed it, I learned a lot, and I look forward to taking further classes with you in the future. Have a nice holiday. 

Works Cited

Barth, John. “It’s a Short Story.” The Second International Conference on the Short Story – Proceedings (University of Iowa), June 1992.
Crawford, Ashley. “David Foster Wallace: Pale Kingdoms.” 21C Magazine. (accessed December 8, 2011).
Fry, Dr. Paul H. Introduction to Theory of Literature. Podcast. Yale University. New Haven, CT, Spring 2009.
Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land. Ace Trade, 1961.
Kelly, Adam. “David Foster Wallace: the Death of the Author and the Birth of a Discipline.” Issue 2. Irish Journal of American Studies. Summer 2010. (accessed December 6, 2011).
Maniatis, Nick. Edited by Nick Maniatis. (accessed December 6, 2011).
Ngui, Mark. Drawings of Thousand Plateaus. /plateaus/index.shtml (accessed December 12, 2012).
Wallace, David Foster, interview by Charlie Rose. An Interview with David Foster Wallace. New York, New York, (March 27, 1997).
—. Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays. New York, NY: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Co., 2007.
—. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, no. 2 (Summer 1993).
Who Needs Philosophy?: A profile of Martha Nussbaum. articleDisplay.php?article_id=55 (accessed December 10, 2011).
Wimsatt Jr, M. C. Beardsley and W. K. “The Intentional Fallacy.” The Sewanee Review (Johns Hopkins University Press) 54, no. 3 (July 1946).
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Zalta, Edward N., ed. The Metaphysics Research Lab , Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University. (accessed 12 5, 2011).

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