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Everything and More

Sam Anderson
"Self-help isn’t necessarily an embarrassing, intellectually stupid thing."
05/12/10 at 17:25

I’m not sure it’s fair to speak of “St. Dave” as a product mainly of the media, or of book packaging, or of our sick culture. Because there sure is a lot of St. Dave in the pages of Lipsky’s book, not to mention in Infinite Jest itself. (As DFW tells Lipsky, in a line that would feel right at home on Oprah: “If the book’s about anything, it’s about the question of why am I watching so much shit? It’s not about the shit; it’s about me.”) A saint is, what—some kind of paragon of morality, right? And, as D.T. Max pointed out, Wallace was always aiming his giant brain at the problem of how to be moral, in a pretty idealistic sense, in spite of all the world’s (and the self’s) obstacles. He wasn’t, obviously, a literal saint—his biggest regret of the book tour, he tells Lipsky semi-jokingly, several times, is not getting “laid.” But I’d argue that thinking of him along those lines also isn’t totally arbitrary.

Because that’s part of the thrill of reading DFW: He managed to fuse high art with something that feels a lot like self-help—but self-help flying at a very high altitude, where it refuses to pander or deceive or take intellectual shortcuts. Infinite Jest operates on about 48 different levels, obviously, but I think one of them is pretty inarguably (however simplistic or unfashionable this will sound) as a kind of Chicken Soup for the Pomo Soul. The book makes you flex your brain’s Ulysses muscles but also stop, every few pages, to write “HOW TRUE!” in the margin—an unusual combination. That’s part of what made Wallace a once-in-a-generation writer: He was fluent in all these abstract languages (math, Continental philosophy) but kept forcing himself back to the most basic, everyday, touchy-feely questions about loneliness, contentment, kindness, etc. That’s why we don’t just admire him, like we do Barth or DeLillo, but actually kind of love him and want to hoard his relics and read 300-page interviews with him and give birth to his posthumous psychic babies.

DFW was skeptical enough about his St. Dave tendencies that he was always tacking on little disclaimers. It’s worth noting, for instance, that the Hallmark-ish quote on the back cover of Lipsky’s book (the one about how we should all love ourselves as much as we might love a little innocent baby, the one that made Garth get all curmudgeonly) ends with: “I know that sounds a little pious.” The net effect of which, I’d argue, is not to cancel out the wise speech that precedes it, but to make it more likely that we (a skeptical audience) will take the wise speech to heart. Which is kind of a saintly move to make. (Think of Augustine confessing about the pear tree before he hits us with the really heavy theological stuff.) I was struck by a moment, early in the book, when DFW tells Lipsky, “I’m not some Buddha.” Because if you have to come out and tell someone, explicitly, that you’re not some kind of Buddha, chances are you’re probably fairly deep into Buddha territory.

I don’t want to reduce DFW’s art to self-help or therapy—but we also can’t write off the power of that aspect of his mind and personality. Maybe the way to reconcile this is to admit that self-help isn’t necessarily an embarrassing, intellectually stupid thing, at least not if it's pursued with DFW-level rigor and energy and creativity. Wallace keeps talking in the book about “our job” as humans, and he says some extremely powerful things—e.g., “the job that 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.”

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