I am in love with David Foster Wallace. I’m not saying that I want to marry him. I am, after all, not worthy. But I am in love with his mind and his wit and his writing which follows every esoteric rule of grammar, but plays havoc with traditional formatting. All right, I know he is no longer with us and I am still talking in the present tense, but his mind is still with us; it is in the body of work he left behind. The books DFW (he would so get that) left us are full of offbeat humor and irreverence while still showing a love of the rules of writing that apply in professional literary criticism and rhetoric.
I have just finished reading DFW’s essay collection, Both Flesh and Not. I won’t pretend that I ever read some of the books that Wallace reviewed in the critiques he wrote for various publications. I never read any of the very literary books he mentions and I’m sure that almost no one who reads popular literature, (not necessarily mainstream literature, but only one step beyond) has read books like David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress or the prose poems he discusses later in this strangely engrossing collection. And, although I will never (I believe) read Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I was still able to find DFW’s critique of this book interesting and even amusing. I do get lost in all those e.e. cumming’s-style footnotes he likes to fill more than half the page with. The first article in the set is the source of the book’s title, and has as its title Federer Both Flesh and Not. This piece was written for a periodical publication which hired DFW to write an article at the U.S. Open in 2005. Who on earth uses long rambling footnotes in a sports article? How does DFW manage to entertain in a riff about tennis if you are not someone who usually enjoys reading about tennis? He gets a second article out of his attendance at the U.S. Open with the title Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open. DFW is one of a kind; unique, daring, entertaining, difficult.
I won’t list all of the offerings included in this book; you can read the table of contents on Amazon. I also don’t suggest that every reader will fall in love with David Foster Wallace. He is not easy to read, at all, but the rewards of sticking with it are great, at least for me they are.
In his final essay in this little book, entitled Just Asking, DFW talking in 2007, could very well be talking about 2013, about Obama and the NSA, and about privacy versus safety. If more of us had read his essay in 2007 we might have asked for a discussion then of all the things that we are now saying we need to discuss really soon. Here’s what David Foster Wallace had to say (p. 321-323):
Q: Are some things worth dying for? Is the American idea1 one such thing? Who’s ready for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as heroes and martyrs, ‘sacrifices on the altar of freedom’?2 That is, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorist attack is part of the price of the American idea? That ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our way of life—not just of our soldiers and money on foreign soil, but the sacrifice of our personal safety and comfort? Maybe even of more civilian lives?
What if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite everyone’s best efforts, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of terrible suicidal attack that a democratic republican cannot 100 percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?
Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are worth the price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned of more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some safety or (b) some portion of the rights and liberties that make the American idea so precious?
Q: In the absence of such a conversation, do we trust our current leaders to revere and safeguard the American idea as they seek to “secure the homeland”? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, PATRIOT Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for the moment that some of these really helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we become so selfish and frightened that we don’t even want to think about whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?
1Given the Gramm-Rudmanesque space limit here, let’s all just agree that we generally know what this term connotes—open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency…the whole messy democratic roil.
2 (The phrase is Lincoln’s more or less.)
DFW—maybe you felt you were done, but we didn’t. I did not know you said these things in 2007, but they are, sadly, even more appropriate in 2013. I want to read Infinite Jest next.