A Puritan’s Dilemma

Religion, politics and the agony of David Foster Wallace.

Theo Anderson

David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008. (Steve Liss/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Before his suicide in September 2008, David Foster Wallace published three short story collections, two novels, two essay collections, a book about rap music and another about infinity. His final, unfinished novel, The Pale King, was published early last year. His essay subjects ranged from Dostoevsky to the porn industry to tennis. But for all his output and range, Wallace rarely wrote about politics. The most notable exception was a long article about the 2000 primary campaign of John McCain. A prominent thread in that narrative is Wallace’s exaggerated innocence about all things political, set against the polished professionals of the mainstream press corps.

If rarely his explicit subjects, religion and politics were nearly always Wallace's subtexts.

Wallace had even less to say about religion. His masterpiece, the 1,000-page novel Infinite Jest, is shot through with the quasi-religious elements of Alcoholics Anonymous. It examines recovering addicts’ commitment to a higher power, but traditional religious organizations and formal theology are almost entirely absent. The same is true of his famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech, published as This Is Water, which posthumously brought him to the attention of a wider audience.

If rarely his explicit subjects, though, religion and politics were nearly always Wallace’s subtexts. He mostly ignored the hideous spectacle of electoral politics in the United States, and he had no time for the nonsense that pervades much of American religious life. But his work is obsessed with the roots of our religious and political poverty. It’s a sustained jeremiad aimed at America’s spiritual childishness, and it’s a plea for preserving what is most valuable in religious thought and practice. Wallace was a Puritan, not in theology, but in his sensitivity to a set of insoluble questions and tensions that are deeply rooted in the Calvinist tradition – most notably the tension between freedom and determinism. 

Though freedom is the foundation stone of America’s national identity, it was a foreign idea in the city upon a hill” that the Puritans left England to build. Calvinist theology taught that God had predestined some people to salvation and others to damnation. Only God knew one’s fate. As Edmund Morgan wrote in The Puritan Dilemma, a classic account of early colonial life, Calvinist theology created tensions that were at best painful and at worst unbearable. Puritanism required that a man devote his life to seeking salvation but told him that he was helpless to do anything but evil.” By the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, the hard determinism of the early Puritans had been fading for decades. The burning question within Puritanism became the issue of free will: What role does the individual play in her own salvation? By the early 1800s, strict Calvinism was only a minor thread within American religion, as evangelical denominations resolved the Puritan dilemma by denying the determinism that created it. God didn’t choose you. You chose God. 

The political equivalent of free will’s religious triumph was America’s messianic sense of its mission in the world. If the Puritan experiment was about creating a sacred space set apart from the world, America aimed for world-historical transformation. The new nation would be a new order of the ages,” liberated from the corruptions and determinisms that defined Europe. We have it in our power,” as Tom Paine wrote, to begin the world over again.”

Freedom and/​or slavery

Wallace’s body of work is a report, two centuries on, about the results of that bold project. He takes for granted the nation’s success in beginning the world over. But the victory has been primarily cultural, in the proliferation of consumer goods and in our ever-more sophisticated and engrossing forms of entertainment. Despite the presumed progress, something vital is missing. How is there freedom to choose,” asks a character in Infinite Jest, if one does not learn how to choose?” 

The perils of consumer culture and the vacuity of mass media are familiar themes, and though Wallace approached them with astonishing creativity, what gives his work its power is less the originality of his critique than the way he methodically erodes the opposition between freedom and slavery. Virtually all of the characters in Infinite Jest are technically free, yet at the same time enslaved to drugs, entertainment or sport. 

In a series of conversations with the writer David Lipsky after Infinite Jests publication, Wallace said, I wanted to do something that was very, very much about America. And the things that ended up for me being the most distinctively American right now, around the millennium, had to do with both entertainment and a weird … wanting to give yourself away to something.” 

For all the trillions of dollars spent in the name of freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan, the only freedom we really seem to want is the freedom to choose our own form of slavery. 

Is this really freedom? The range of options available to Wallace’s characters is so narrow, and the coercive forces pressing down on them so powerful, that freedom seems little more than an illusion. In Infinite Jest, a video is so magnificently seductive that anyone who begins watching it is sapped of the will to do anything else. Other kinds of determinism run through all of Wallace’s fiction. It’s a softer, sadder determinism that defines many of his characters’ lives: They’re slaves to consumerism and corporate culture, locked into routines of meaninglessness. The short story Mister Squishy,” collected in Oblivion, is in part about a focus group facilitator whose job is to gather consumer opinions about a new snack cake. The facilitator’s personal life is a procession of identical days: sitting at home with his satellite TV’s channel-changer in his left hand switching rapidly from channel to channel to channel out of fear that something better was going to come on suddenly on another of the cable provider’s 220 regular and premium channels.” 

His professional life is even more meaningless, because the snack cake will go forward regardless of the research findings. All that ever changed were the jargon and mechanisms and gilt rococo with which everyone in the whole huge blind grinding mechanism conspired to convince each other that they could figure out how to give the paying customer what they could prove he could be persuaded to believe he wanted, without anybody … ever even saying aloud … what the simple truth was. That it made no difference. None of it.”

The search for redemption

It isn’t just the determinism that gives Wallace’s work a Calvinist flavor. It’s also the pervasive depravity. No Puritan was ever more conscious of humanity’s capacity for evil and self-delusion – even among the redeemed” – than Wallace. Some of Infinite Jests most memorable passages are the stories of participants in recovery groups: how their lives spiraled into dysfunction so ghastly and complex that the details are equally chilling and hilarious. In his nonfiction, Wallace constantly questions his own motives and the foundations of his sense of morality. A recurring question in Wallace’s nonfiction is whether his desire to be a good person is really just a way of soothing his conscience. Like a good Puritan, Wallace was a master of intense self-scrutiny that edged frequently into self-abhorrence. 

Wallace’s work is very very much about America,” as he said, because his deepest quarrel goes back two centuries and more, to the religious transformations and political imperatives of the Revolutionary era, when Americans cut the Gordian knot of their colonial ancestors by embracing easy grace and claiming the power to begin the world over. Lost in our naïve ideas about freedom and our facile assertions of free will are a respect for limits and a sense of tragedy. It is the productive tension between fatalism and striving, despair and hope, that Wallace aims for. He deplores the notion that grace comes without cost – and that it’s guaranteed. 

In fact, the only guarantee is the struggle itself. As he wrote in an essay about the difficulty of helping college students understand Kafka’s black humor, It’s not that students don’t get’ Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get – the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.” 

Uncertainty about whether there is any transcendent point to the journey toward home” is what separates Wallace from his religious ancestors. The classic Puritan novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress, tells the story of a man named Christian and his journey toward the Celestial City. In Infinite Jest, the two protagonists are recovering addicts whose journeys lead toward dead ends. One ends up immobilized and seemingly insane. The other is hospitalized with a serious injury and is struggling to reject the morphine drip that would alleviate his enormous pain. We never learn what finally happens to either character, and Wallace’s refusal to give a satisfying conclusion to his stories is a well-known source of frustration for some of his readers. But there is a certain rationale in his resistance to tying up loose ends. 

The deep irony of modern life is that, looking around us, cynicism and despair are rational responses to the world’s problems. But, at the same time, they only serve to reinforce and deepen the status quo. As Wallace pointed out in his essay about the McCain 2000 primary campaign, cynicism was George W. Bush’s most potent weapon, because it kept voter turnout low. He pointed out, as well, the good reasons to be cynical about McCain’s own supposedly selfless motives. 

Yet his essay concludes with this observation: Whether he’s truly for real’ now depends less on what is in his heart than on what might be in yours. Try to stay awake.” The Celestial City may be nowhere in sight, and the odds of redemption may be long indeed. The end hasn’t been written, though, and there is still hope. The path of hope doesn’t necessarily lead toward paradise, but it beats the certainties of the alternative. The choice is ours. 

Wallace’s choice to end his own life at the age of 46 raises heartbreaking questions, particularly in the context of his preoccupations as a writer. Was it fate? He had suffered from depression since adolescence, and his downward spiral came during a period when he attempted to go off his medication. Was his suicide a final comment on the tension between hope and despair, freedom and determinism? All we can know with certainty is that his voice is gone, and terribly missed. 

In a conversation with Lipsky, Wallace said that it’s very hard to talk about people’s relationship with any kind of God, in any book later than like Dostoevsky. I mean the culture, it’s all wrong for it now.” In a culture in which so many gods are so cheaply and easily available, how do we learn to choose wisely among them? If we are determined to give ourselves away, who or what is worthy of our devotion?

Wallace desperately wanted to have that conversation and did everything in his power to encourage it. For all the experimental and avant-garde elements in his work, he constantly wrestled with the most enduring philosophical and religious problems. He brought to the struggle an awe-inspiring intelligence and humor – and an acute awareness of how fragile, yet vital, is the case for hope. It was his great dilemma, and remains our own.

Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.
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