Repackaging the Archive (Part IV): Some Notes on Sincerity in David Foster Wallace’s Uncollected and Less-Well-Known Work

Where is your compassion?  Where is my compassion?

—Lullaby for the Working Class[1]

Wittgenstein Week is over, something I perhaps shouldn’t have been looking forward to as much as I was; cf. now working through David Foster Wallace’s[2] uncollected and less-well-known oeuvre[3] as quickly.  For my sensitive summer nerves, w/ nothing to do but sit around reading short story after short story for days, I must say I’m missing good-ole Wittgenstein Week.  For instance, I can now, w/ the exception of most book reviews, say confidently that I’ve read pretty much everything DFW has published, in whatever venue (say, even including letters to the editor in The New York Times and Harper’s, and a story in an obscure journal printed on dot-matrix paper [if you can believe it]).  (This is also to say that when I sat down to write just now I hadn’t even quite considered the archival implications of this last statement.)  I thought I’d be glad, that getting through all of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, The Blue and Brown Books, and Philosophical Investigations in a week would be the “hard,” “taxing,” “draining,” “etc.” work;—and believe me, it was—that I’d come out the other end primed and ready for the “fun” work of reading DFW.  Boy was I wrong.

I am currently quite eager to read one of the first collections of essays on DFW coming out next month, Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays, edited by David Hering, specifically an essay on what is being called the “new sincerity” by Adam Kelly.  I feel the DFW that gets read the most—his novel(s) and his journalism—continually hint at or give great meaningful gestures toward sincerity, but perhaps b/c of their form never really achieve what so many of his short stories do so devastatingly, howling-fantod-inspiringly well: they are un-dauntingly sincere.  Painful sincerity.  So sincere that reading the deep ironies of something like John Barth’s much anthologized “Lost in the Funhouse” acts like a kind of balm.  For the sensitive summer soul, the cold analysis of Wittgenstein is far preferable to the at times crushing-lack-of-irony in some of DFW’s short fiction.  Esp. when one reads story after story of people who simply cannot connect w/ one another, for every reason under the sun; or else people who are almost supernaturally connected[4] and subsequently get dramatically, heart-wrenchingly sundered from one another.[5] Basically, where’s Paul de Man when you need him?

His work is just so sad.  The humor found in Infinite Jest or his journalism is muted at best in his short work, and it becomes at times so dark that I’ve literally had to simply put down the book, copy-paper, or computer.  Many people have argued that this is DFW trying to transcend/go one step past postmodernism, and though there may be a distinctive ring-of-truth in that claim, his brutal sincerity—perhaps sincere b/c, like some dialectical parallax, his irony can be equally brutal—seems to simply come from a complete lack of belief in the possibility of real sincerity (; the only way to even begin to hope to construct something authentic is to be so brutal w/r/t emotion etc. b/c the “real” emotions he is trying to construct simply don’t exist in the real world).  His piece on The David Letterman Show, “My Appearance,”[6] demonstrates this quite nicely.  The ground of any sincerity being possible anywhere w/in the space of the story has been more-or-less annihilated, as the last sentence (among others) clearly implies: “And so I did ask my husband, . . . just what way he thought he and I really were, then did he think.  Which turned out to be a mistake.”[7] Or for instance, consider one of the character’s take on Mr. Letterman himself: “‘He’s making money ridiculing the exact things that have put him in a position to make money ridiculing things.”[8] To perhaps oversimplify, what DFW is so clearly criticizing throughout this story is the hipper-than-thou, against all clichés, ironic, detached, cool, postmodern, always-apt-to-ridicule stance (toward pretty much everything) par excellence.  (And furthermore, never celebrating anything, god forbid.)  Of course there’s really no foundation in anything true to back up this stance that perhaps most of us are more familiar w/ than we’d like to be.[9] The general malaise over truth(s of any kind) has been so infectious to simply create an entire simulacral culture w/ no authentic grounding in anything except its own irony.  (And of course) This is an old story (simulation, etc., esp. for the late 80s).

But that’s not the kicker.  DFW is trying so mightily to repair or at least construct the scaffolding for grounding something, anything, in sincerity.  And he never does.  The world is (almost) always more-or-less freaking bleak w/r/t sincerity, connection, compassion, warmth, mindfulness, love, etc. etc.; and not always b/c they simply don’t exist, but rather b/c they get absolutely crushed.  (This is also why perhaps his 2005 Kenyon Address was received so well.  It was so [frankly] crazily sincere; and, unlike his fiction, suggests an “answer” to this problem.)

Suffice it to say, the hyperarchivization of DFW is not an experience I would recommend in a(n overly-)short period of time.  It, combined w/ general summer-nervousness, is getting me quite down.  For at the end of the day, a writer I absolutely respect and enjoy often answers the questions in the epigraph that began these brief notes quite simply: nowhere.


[1] “Honey, Drop the Knife,” Blanket Warm (Omaha: Lumber Jack Records, 1996).

[2] DFW hereafter.*

*On a side-note: a brief perusal of The Hyperarchival Parallax will quickly reveal that I am quite footnote-happy, a clear indication of a gratuitous and acknowledged influence by one DFW, so it should probably come as no surprise whatsoever that I am heavily reading him right now for various projects.  This is an influence I’m clearly aware of, to the extent that I am more footnote-happy than DFW ever was, and he is an influence I’m not terribly concerned about having one way or the other.  As Tomaž Šalamun once told me in personal conversation, “It is important to have fathers.  DFW is clearly your father.  Do not shy away from this” (paraphrase; also of note: I was getting a poetry degree. . .).  I cannot quite recall who Tomaž said his father was (perhaps Pessoa or Milosz or Ashbery), but it really could have been any of the (dauntingly-)numerous poets he knew, loved, recommended, etc.  He was a sheer encyclopedia of generous appreciation and warmth re: pretty much anyone who scribbled poesy, so I suppose it could have been a mish-mash of people.  Not even to really mention what Harold Bloom said in The Anxiety of Influence—for surely pretty much any writing-like-undertaking is anxiety-producing—but influence is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact one to (perhaps) be embraced (at times).  (I’m like the early Cave-In: I wear my [one] influence on my sleeve.)

[3] I owe the easy acquiring of a complete set of bibliographic links to the quite fantastic The Howling Fantods, the site perhaps attending the most carefully and encyclopedically to anything re: DFW.

[4] For instance Lyndon Baines Johnson and “Lady Bird” Johnson in “Lyndon” (The Girl with Curious Hair [New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989], 75-118).

[5] See “Solomon Silverfish,” Sonora Review 16 (Fall 1987), 54-81.

[6] The Girl with Curious Hair, 173-201.

[7] ibid., 201, emphases mine.

[8] ibid., 188.

[9] You know, those certain people you’ve never heard get sincerely exited about, well, pretty much anything?

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