Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Greatness of David Foster Wallace

on pop theology, philosophy, theology, culture, pop culture, christianity
by Jonathan Harrison

If you don't recognize the name David Foster Wallce, you should.  Wallace is a contemporary writer of absurd talent who is just now receiving the critical reception he deserves.  He is an essayist, writer and novelist whose comic voice and biting satire will endure for generations after we've all passed this life. Critics widely consider his masterpiece, Infinite Jest, to be the greatest novel of the nineties and possibly one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.  If you ever try to read the novel, which I highly recommend, you'll discover that Wallace is somehow twenty pages ahead of his readers at all times and that the book and its ideas are twenty, maybe fifty, years ahead of their time (Wallace foresaw a time when giant corporations ruled the world, and where everything, even the names of years, could be purchased as advertisements for products).  He was clearly, in the fullest since of the word, a literary genius.

Tragically, Wallace killed himself on September 12, 2008.  Tragedies involving artists of this magnitude don't tend to resonate with their true weight until years after they occur, but when the news broke about Wallace's suicide, everyone in the literary community knew that the world had lost a giant who was only just reaching his prime as a creator.  Wallace suffered from depression for years, and, after the suicide, it emerged that Wallace had stopped taking his medication based upon the advice of his doctor.  As a result, his depression intensified, and the world lost arguably the most promising American writer of our generation.
It's a morose thing to reflect on the suicide of such a great literary icon, but there is an extra level of complexity added when you realize that Wallace was a Christian.  DFW seldom wrote about his spirituality, but his beliefs became very evident in a commencement address given at Kenyon College in 2005 titled, “This is Water”.

I would love to cut and paste the entire address on this blog, but the speech is close to a half hour in length, and I don't want to scare away readers with a 2,000 word blog post.  However, I strongly suggest that you go over to this website to listen to the address in its entirety.  You will probably do a ton of mediocre, mundane things today within a half-hour time.  Listening to this speech will not be one of them. 

Wallace uses the speech to promulgate the logical need for a belief in something higher than ourselves.  To quote Wallace, “Here's something else that's weird but 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 worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”  This idea is nothing new (I can hear Bob Dylan croaking "You Gonna Have to SERRVEEE SOMEBODY"), but keep in mind that he is saying this to a very liberal, predominantly agnostic or atheistic crowd.  That takes a lot of cajones.

In light of discovering this speech and learning more about Wallace's life, I find it even more tragic that the world lost not only a great American writer, but possibly one of the premiere Christian thinkers of our time. Wallace seemingly had it all, and his death is a reminder that no amount of talent, success, or good looks can prevent the onset of depression in someone's life.

While this post won't have a nice tight conclusion to solve all of the worlds problems, I do suggest that you read further into the life of Wallace and his spirituality.  David Masciotra's essay on Wallace's morality is a much greater overview of Wallace's life than I could ever offer.  Brain Picking's has a link to the YouTube recording of Wallace's "This is Water Speech" and More Intelligent Life.com provides a transcript to the entire speech if you're in a rush.  Also, a few years ago there was a short book of essays published surrounding the text of the speech also titled This is Water.

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