Every person, at every point in time, has lived in a divided world. We might feel sometimes like our generation’s been the most polarized or too-far-gone, the most set-against-itself, and we certainly have reason for that. Think about globalization, populism, the refugee crisis, ideological fighticuffs between supporters of diversity or free speech, the current administration in the White House or our culture’s inability to come to grips with religious traditions that continue to hold inexplicable (for some) resonance. But, as close attention to history reminds us, every generation goes through a deep crisis. The trick, then, might be less in hand-wringing or longing for a simpler age than in trying to diagnose the all-too-easy-to-miss faultlines of our present dividedness.
Luckily, we’ve been comforted in the task by the work of David Foster Wallace, one of North America’s truly luminous literary figures of recent years. And today, on the tenth anniversary of his death, it might be fitting to revisit the way his thoughts continue to vibrate today.
Born in 1962, David Foster Wallace careened into literary superstardom with the 1996 publication of the novel now seen as his magnum opus: Infinite Jest. A dense, sometimes maddeningly tangential novel coming in at over a thousand pages, it was immediately lauded as one of the great books of the past few decades. It’s certainly not an easy read, but anyone who makes it through has a difficult time expressing the precise, baffling way it runs a trench right through you. My own impression, on reading it, was like holding a living Rubik’s Cube. Finishing was like realizing it was holding me the whole time.
The book boasts a plot involving tennis progenies, halfway-house occupants, Quebecois separatist-terrorists and a home movie so entertaining people lose the will to live after watching. Its frenetic, encyclopaedic plot is enough to exact more than a few eye rolls from the casual reader, which makes the comparatively tame setting of his next novel (The Pale King, unfinished by the time of his death and published in 2011) a bit of a shock: a dead-end IRS office in Illinois where boredom’s the only thing separating a group of taxworkers from the demons frothing just barely under the surface. In both, as well as in numerous essays ranging from the horrors and triumphs of cruise liners and county fairs, the miracle is in how Foster Wallace finds, in even the most jagged side characters, a nugget of dignity that sears like stoked coal.
But the most direct and, thankfully, accessible piece of wisdom he’s published is a little booklet called This is Water. Originating as a commencement address given at Kenyon College in 2005 (beating out fellow candidates Hillary Clinton and astronaut-senator John Glenn), it’s been posted in full, condensed for light reading and stretched to fit a thin, posthumous volume you can find on Amazon.
It starts with a parable: two fish swim past an older fish who asks ‘how’s the water?’ They float on until one stops to ask what exactly this water thing is anyway. Foster Wallace is quick to clarify that he’s not claiming the role of some wiser fish so much as pointing out how “the most obvious, important realities are the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” In other words, we’re sometimes so absorbed in the fabric of our own lives that we can be blind to core things in the world that end up shaping our experiences, worldviews and selves.
This isn’t something to beat ourselves up for any more than for being weak, fallible creatures, and Foster Wallace offers advice on processing this part of our nature. More than anything else, he suggests a radical form of attention to things. Think the kind of attention that drove him to create swarming, pedantic, literary mosaics of people whose commonplace lives, under his microscope, teem with life and pain and hope and everything we’re nervous about find language to express. He challenges us to see the ‘water’ in our everyday lives and prompts us to resist the seemingly hard-wired tendency to turn off, to be distracted, to refuse to see. Learning to think, for Foster Wallace, amounts to learning to choose what we focus our attention on. Ultimately, it means learning to be aware of what it is we’re choosing to worship.
This leads to the most-quoted section of the whole piece:
“Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
Interestingly enough, especially in a world that’s more than likely to dismiss the spiritual as outdated, irrelevant, suspicious or a thick slice of cultish marketing, Foster Wallace says turning to some kind of higher power is the only thing that won’t eat us alive. Worshipping money leaves us feeling like we never have enough. Chasing beauty’s a great way to make us feel ugly. Worshipping intelligence might end up with us feeling constantly on the edge of being discovered a fraud.
He’s not necessarily telling anyone to grab their rosaries and head for confession. He’s quite broad in what he considers a spiritual target of potential worship (the list includes the Four Noble Truths, Jesus, mother-goddesses and inviolable moral principles). The point he’s making is that these are the kinds of worship that demand attention, that resist the easy, default-mode of ignoring the ‘water’ we’re all floating in together. Worshipping anything else leads to a distracted way of living that refuses to own up to the world as it is. And, while he doesn’t come out and say it, he hints that a recognition of some kind of mysterious, radical dependence on a transcendent reality might help restore that attention.
This means resisting easy distractions. This means resisting ways of doing spirituality that ending up deadening our attention to the dignity of the other. It means being present to those tedious, infuriating moments of road rage or being stuck in a grocery line (if we’re lucky to have cars or neighbourhood grocery stores) and somehow being aware that everything is, in his words, “not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars – love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
It means choosing a radical empathy instead of playing the polarization game. It means looking at whoever you see as your ‘ideological other’ and, if we focus long enough, unearthing a novel of extravagant length that makes social reasons for keeping each other at arm’s length superbly extraneous. It makes the fear of religion irrelevant because, in the end, we’re all worshippers. He creates space for us to encounter the other as supremely imperfect creatures that need each other if we want to do this life thing any justice.
And he himself is just as imperfect: in a post-#metoo world, we can’t ignore, for example, the time he harassed an important woman in his life. We can’t see a line in This Is Water about how living with attention is ultimately about “making it to thirty, or maybe fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head” without thinking about how, on September 12th, 2008, he was found in his room hanging from a rafter, the unfinished manuscript of The Pale King sitting neatly on the desk. We don’t know what demons hovered along the inner curves of his skull.
What we do know is that we’re all here together. That we’re called to be attentive to the other in ways we can never deserve or earn. That our attention will be imperfect. That we too, one day, will die. That we all, in the end, worship something, and that maybe this can be the brick that starts a bridge over our broken cultural and social divides. That maybe we can start all this today.
This article was cross-posted at Convivium Magazine.
Josh Nadeau lives on the road and, when not writing or jotting down notes, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.