I was, In A Way, Too Free

I knew, sitting there, that I might be a real nihilist, that it wasn’t always just a hip pose. That I drifted and quit because nothing meant anything, no one choice was really better. That I was, in a way, too free, or that this kind of freedom wasn’t actually real — I was free to choose ‘whatever’ because it didn’t really matter. But that this, too, was because of something I chose — I had somehow chosen to have nothing matter. It all felt much less abstract than it sounds to try to explain it. All this was happening while I was just sitting there, spinning the ball. The point was that, through making this choice, I didn’t matter, either. I didn’t stand for anything. If I wanted to matter — even just to myself — I would have to be less free, by deciding to choose in some kind of definite way. Even if it was nothing more than an act of will.

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

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)

Feeling Directly Or With Our Full Attention

For me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like `deadly dull’ or `excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly . . . but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarket checkouts, airports’ gates, SUV’s backseats. Walkmen, iPods. BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called `information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.
The memoir-relevant point here is that I learned, in my time with the Service, something about dullness, information, and irrelevant complexity. About negotiating boredom as one would a terrain, its levels and forests and endless wastes. Learned about it extensively, exquisitely, in my interrupted year. And now ever since that time have noticed, at work and in recreation and time with friends and even the intimacies of family life, that living people do not speak much of the dull. Or those parts of life that are and must be dull. Why this silence? Maybe it’s because the subject is, in and of itself, dull . . . only then we’re again right back where we started, which is tedious and irksome. There may, though, I opine, be more to it . . . as in vastly more, right before us all, hidden by virtue of its size.
–David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (p. 85)



He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding. No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering. And the projected future fear of the A.D.A., whoever was out there in a hat eating Third World fast food; the fear of getting convicted of Nuckslaughter, of V.I.P. -suffocation; of a lifetime on the edge of his bunk in M.C.O. Walpole, remembering. It’s too much to think about. To Abide there. But none of it’s as of now real. What’s real is the tube and Noxema and pain. And this could be done just like the Old Cold Bird. He could just hunker down in the space between each heartbeat and make each heartbeat a wall and live in there. Not let his head look over. What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all. What his head could report to him, looking over and ahead and reporting. But he could choose not to listen; he could treat his head like G. Day or R. Lenz: clueless noise. He hadn’t quite gotten this before now, how it wasn’t just the matter of riding out the cravings for a Substance: everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing recon and then returning with unbearable news you then somehow believed.

–David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, p. 860

It’s a lifelong Disease: You can’t keep the thoughts from popping in there. The thing they try to teach you is just to Let Them Go, the thoughts. Let them come as they will, but do not Entertain them. No need to invite a substance thought or -memory in, offer it a tonic and your favorite chair, and chat with it about old times.

–David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, p. 890

Destiny Has No Beeper


…99.9% of what goes on in one’s life is actually none of one’s business, with the .1% under one’s control consisting mostly of the option to accept or deny one’s inevitable powerlessness over the other 99.9%…

–David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, page 1004


…both destiny’s kisses and its dope-slaps illustrate an individual person’s basic powerlessness over the really meaningful events in his life; i.e. almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it. Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trench-coated out of an alley with some sort of Psst that you usually can’t even hear because you’re in such a rush to or from something important you have tried to engineer.

–David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, page 291



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. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

— David Foster Wallace, from his commencement speech to Kenyon College in 2005. Rest of the speech here.