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Just finished reading Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a book-length conversation between David Foster Wallace and David Lipsky, a journalist who profiled Wallace for Rolling Stone during his Infinite Jest tour back in 1996. Wallace committed suicide in 2008, at the age of 46. The transcript of Lipsky’s five-day reporting trip is a beautiful and ultimately tragic portrait of an artist quite literally too brilliant for this world. I won’t pretend to have anything new to add to the already substantial scholarship on DFW’s work. (See the links if you’re interested in a deep – dive). But I will say that if you’re a fan of his writing (or just passionate about the work of writing in general) it’s well worth the read.
On the pathological cynicism of American society:
I think this generation has it worse or better than any other. Because I think we’re going to have to make it up. I think we’re going to have to make up a lot of our own morality, and a lot of our own values. I mean, the old ones – the 60s and early 70s, did a marvelous job of just showing how ridiculous and hypocritical, you know, the old authoritarian father’s-always-right, don’t question authority stuff was. But nobody’s ever really come along and given us anything to replace it with. Reagan gave us a kind – I mean, the Reagan spasm I think was very much a story about a desperate desire to get back to that. But Reagan sold the past. Reagan enabled a fantasy that the last forty years hadn’t taken place.
… I’m talking about the number of privileged, highly intelligent, motivated career-track people that I know, from my high school or college, who are, if you look into their eyes, empty and miserable. You know? And who don’t believe in politics and don’t believe in religion. And believe that civic movements or political activism are either a farce or some way to get power for the people who are in control of it. Or who just… who don’t believe in anything. Who know fantastic reasons not to believe in stuff, and are terrific ironists and pokers of holes. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just, it doesn’t seem to me that there’s just a whole lot else. …
I don’t know what’s going to come after it, but I think something’s gonna have to…. My guess is that what it will be is, it’s going to be the function of some people who are heroes. Who evince a real type of passion that’s going to look very banal and very retrograde, and very… You know, for instance, people who will get on television and earnestly say, “It’s extraordinarily important that we the most under taxed nation on earth, be willing to pay higher taxes, so that we don’t allow the lower strata of our society to starve to death and freeze to death.” That it’s vitally important that we do that. Not for them, but for us. … That our survival depends on our ability to look past ourselves and our own self-interest. And these people are going to look, in the particular climate of our generation… they’re going to look absurd.
On the profundity of popular culture:
… there’s so much beauty and profundity in all kinds of shitty pop culture all around us. Like living in Bloomington: one of the things that I do, I mean, you have to listen to a lot of shitty country music. ‘Cause that’s like pretty much all there is on the radio… And these country musics that are just so – you know, “Baby since you’ve left I can’t live, I’m drinking all the time” and stuff. And I remember just being real inpatient with it. Until I’d been living here about a year. And all of a sudden, I realized that, what if you just imagined that this absent lover they’re singing to is just a metaphor? And what they’re really singing is to themselves, or to God, you know? “Since you’ve left I’m so empty I can’t live. My life has no meaning.” That in a weird way, I mean they’re incredibly existential songs. That have the patina of the absent, of the romantic shit on it just to make it salable. But that all the pathos and heart that comes out of them, is they’re singing about something much more elemental being missing, and their being incomplete without it….
And it’s so weird. It’s like you live immersed in this stuff, it’s very Flannery O’Connorish. And then every once in a while you realize that it’s all the same, and it’s all about the really profound shit. And that it’s adjusted in various ways to talk to various demographic groups for commercial reasons. But that if you cock your ear and listen real close, it’s — that it’s deep, you know?
I mean even – we were making jokes about Love Boat and Baywatch . These really really commercial, really reductive shows that we so love to sneer at. Are also tremendously compelling. Because the predictability in popular art, the really formulaic stuff, the stuff that makes no attempt to surprise or do anything artistic, is so profoundly soothing. And it even, even the densest or most tired viewer can see what’s coming. And it gives you a sense or order, that everything’s going to be alright, that this is a narrative that will take care of you, and won’t in any way challenge you. It’s like being wrapped in a chamois blanket and nestled against a big, generous tit, you know? And that, OK, art wise maybe not the greatest art. But the function it provides is deep in a certain way.
On the terror of being alive:
I think the reason why people behave in an ugly manner is that it’s really scary to be alive and to be human, and people are really really afraid…. That the fear is the basic condition, and there are all kinds of reasons for why we’re so afraid. but the fact of the matter is, is that, is that the job we’re here to do is to learn how to live in a way that we’re not terrified all the time. And not in a position of using all kinds of different things, and using people to keep that kind of terror at bay. That is my personal opinion. Well for me, as an American male, the face I’d put on terror is the dawning realization that nothing’s enough, you know? That no pleasure is enough, that no achievement is enough. That there’s a kind of queer dissatisfaction or emptiness at the core of the self that is unassuageable by outside stuff. And my guess is that that’s been what’s going on ever since people were hitting each other over the head with clubs. Though describable in a number of different words and cultural argots. And that our particular challenge is that there’s never been more and better stuff com in from the outside that seems temporarily to sort of fill the hole or drown out the hole…
Personally I believe that if it’s assuageable in any way its by internal means. I think it’s fine in some way. I think it’s probably assuageable by internal means. I think those internal means have to be earned and developed and it has something to do with, um, um, the pop-psych phrase is loving yourself.
It’s more like, if you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think it’s probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we’re here for is to learn how to do it. I know that sounds a little pious.”