They Know The Words For Everything, And The Meaning For Nothing

The popular view of Wallace was of a coolly cerebral writer who feared fiction’s emotional connection. But that’s not what he was afraid of. His stories have it the other way around: they are terrified of the possibility of no emotional connection. This is what his men truly have in common, far more than misogyny: they know the words for everything, and the meaning for nothing. Which is a strange idea for fiction to explore, given that fiction has a vocational commitment to the idea that language is where we find the truth. For Wallace, though, the most profound truth existed in a different realm: ‘I think that God has particular languages,’ he said once, ‘and one of them is music and one of them is mathematics.’ Certainly in Brief Interviews our everyday language always falls short, even in its apparent clarity, especially in its clarity. The curious thing about these men is how they use their verbosity as a kind of armour, an elaborate screen to placed between the world and the self.

–Zadie Smith on David Foster Wallace, from Changing My Mind (p. 272)


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