Ordinary Unhappiness

I got acquainted with the American author David Foster Wallace while I was in Rome looking for The Savage Detectives by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. The Chilean’s book was sold out, so the friendly girl working at the bookstore said I should try this one instead as she passed me Infinite Jest. I bought the book, and two others, and, perhaps three years later, I finished the book (and most of his other stuff). 

That event in Rome took place in 2008, a few months after Wallace’s suicide. I mentioned this story because, for several years, I have thought about writing about the philosophy of DFW, but now I don’t have to. Writer, journalist, and the founding editor of The Point, Jon Baskin, has written an admirable book called Ordinary Unhappiness: The Therapeutic Fiction of David Foster Wallace. In this book, he illustrates how Wallace’s fiction is an encounter with various ways of doing philosophy. 

Baskin is not the first to explore the universe of Wallace through a philosophical lens. For instance, of noteworthy mention is Marshall Boswell’s Understanding David Foster Wallace, published in 2003; however, due to the time of publication, this work didn’t cover all of Wallace’s fiction. Furthermore, Baskin deals solely with Wallace’s fiction, showing not only the philosophical quality of literary critics but also—and more importantly—how fiction at times can be regarded as philosophy. 

Philosophy for Baskin is not just a method “exposing logical fallacies”. “There is not,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein writes in Philosophical Investigations, “philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies.” (p. 5–6). 

To explain what he means by this crucial concept of “therapeutic”, Baskin relies on the two philosophers Stanley Cavell and Robert Pippin and their reading of Wittgenstein “… therapeutically, criticism—in both Cavell’s and Pippin’s hands—is concerned with what has kept us from seeing what is right on the text’s surface. It seeks to expose not something hidden in the work of art but something we have hidden from ourselves” (p. 35). 

The problem being addressed is not something to be found in the text but in ourselves, in our form of life, our approach, or relationship with the text. Therefore, the philosophical or literary therapy of Wallace is not concerned with answers but “aimed at helping us see the senselessness of our questions” (p. 78). The problems in life should not be treated like the questions at a quiz-show. Instead, by exploring our approach toward life (or a text), we might become aware or conscious about the fragile and temporary position we speak or see from, as if our position were closer to the truths. Another way of illustrating this is by stressing Wallace’s wish to overcome the stereotypical academic debate between solid positions: position A oppose position B and so forth; rather, Wallace brings the reader out into the open, naked or without his or her academic amour, in a kind of constantly emerging pre-position where the point is not to debate who is right; rather to recognize “problems as different, your world if different,” as Cavell is quoted as saying (p. 78). 

If I should have one critique of Baskin’s exemplary study, it would be to unfold the relationship between philosophical therapy and ethics even further. By seeing ethics not as a predefined normative program or as something transcendent or abstract but as an immanent way of living a lifestyle. Other interesting studies about Wittgenstein are James C. Edwards’ Ethics Without Philosophy (1982) and James F. Peterman’s Philosophy as Therapy (1992). For example, by linking thinking to living and vice versa, a philosophical therapy makes us see new possibilities or forms of life. The therapeutic—philosophical or literary—doesn’t, therefore, refer to a process of normalizing, that is to say, by telling or showing us what to think, feel, do, or live; rather, it aims at making everything more real, not by explaining but unfolding. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, I might say that philosophical work is transformative in the sense that the world of the person who has read Infinite Jest is different from that of one who has not. Hereby, I don’t make a moral judgement but a literary or philosophical one.

One of the problems of our time, according to Wallace, is related to how we think, i.e., how we relate to the world. The argument goes like this: the same kind of thinking that creates a problem can’t overcome it—the problem is part of our way of seeing, thinking. 

As Baskin writes, “For Wallace, the separation of philosophy from literature—and the crude dichotomies often correlated with the separation: mind/body, theoretical/practical, intellectual/emotional—are both a cause and a symptom of a ‘dis-ease,’ as he calls it in Infinite Jest, at the heart of modern and postmodern self-consciousness. Bringing philosophy and literature together becomes the precondition for even being able to see—much less to address or “treat”—the many symptoms of this dis-ease in our everyday lives and in ourselves.” (p. 4).

There is a quote from Infinite Jest that, in my opinion, might illustrate the goal of Wallace’s work and clarify this even further. “But what of the freedom-to? Not just freedom-from. Not all compulsion comes from without. You pretend you do not see this. What of freedom-to. How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?” 

Freedom does not refer to an irresponsible adolescent or immature “I can-do-want-I want- attitude; rather it is to be bound by the right strings—those that make sense. Baskin writes that Wallace want us—the readers—“to value verbal honesty over empty cleverness” (p. 72); Wallace wants “to help us see the connection between psychological suffering and our habits of thought,” (p. 38). What Wallace is asking for; however, is not for someone to tell us what to choose or think, rather how to choose and how to think. In his commencement speech, Wallace talks about paying attention to live consciously in order to take more beneficial decisions in life. Another way of saying this is the way in which the “love-filled” parent or guide could help the child see the world more clearly or, as Wittgenstein says, in “clarity”, to bring peace to mind. 

Henceforth, the disease of today—“our philosophical problem (p.131)—is related to adolescence, a philosophical immatureness as when we hide between clever identities or ideals, instead of trying to think ourselves. “That maturity requires wisdom,” writes Baskin, a wisdom we can see being outlined in Wallace’s last unfinished work The Pale King. In this last novel, Wallace reactivates some of that ideas that formed his Infinite Jest; for example, the philosophy of freedom, the AA-session, and how addiction infects our will—“addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thought,” writes Wallace in Infinite Jest

A part of maturing or becoming wise has to do with “being an uncomplaining adult, who suffers the indignities of life without making too much of them.” (p.129). Not as a kind of resentment or passive nihilism, rather as an acceptance or, as the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze defines ethics, as “not being unworthy to what happens to us”. It is also this understanding that makes the titles of Baskin’s book meaningful as well as beautiful. The goal is never to solve all the problems in life—how could we even live our life without encountering problems—but rather, to quote Freud through Baskin, “if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness” (p. 19).

Baskin succeeds in making sense of why Wallace’s task mattered so urgently for him and why it might matter to us. Like all good art, it’s about life and death, about what it means to be a human being, about teaching us how to think. 

No user’s guide can help those who still haven’t read Infinite Jest and The Pale King. No one becomes a chef in the kitchen by reading cookbooks; they become one only by crying while cutting the onions and sweating while frying the mushroom. Baskin, I believe, would agree to this when it comes to understanding Wallace’s fiction; and even if by thinking with, through, or against him, there can be no substitute for reading his work in all its difficulty, and, at times, boredom. 

Wallace’s work is a diagnose and not a cure for our world; he helps us see that stress, burnout, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc., shouldn’t be regarded as individual diagnoses. Rather, it a diagnosis of a social structure or underlying governmental neoliberal ideology that is sick; “to live today is simply to be subject to such breakdowns.” Similarly, if we are just “doing our jobs” as in the great bureaucratical excuse (p.58), then perhaps our society is evil (Arendt). 

Baskin’s book is, of course, relevant and insightful to all readers of Wallace, both literary critics and laypeople, but the book is also relevant for students of philosophy with an interest in philosophical or literary therapy as something other than psychological therapy. 

I highly recommend this book.

First published in Metapsychology, Vol. 24, No. 27

This really is water

Moral psychology is the branch of ethics concerned with the psychology of what happens when a person acts morally. For example, moral psychology asks what kind of actions are possible, what motivates certain actions, what emotions and cognitive mechanism that leads to certain actions and so forth.

I thought of this when I was re-reading David Foster Wallace’s (DFW) commencement speech This Is Water, I thought whether it places itself within moral psychology.

In the speech, he claims that what he says is not moral, but the truth as he knows it so far. Perhaps, he is just being ironic, at least he seems moralistic, but in a less moralistic way.

First, DFW says that the really significant education that people are supposed to get in a college is not the capacity to think. Rather, the choice of what to think about. It is a fresh change.

Also, I treasure his little didactic story with the two fish (I quote):

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and say, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”

And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

The problem is that the two young fish are not paying attention to what’s going on right in front of them. So, how does one become aware?

The answer that DFW gives is: “Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.” He continues: “It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

It has something to do with exposing oneself to what happens. Basically, allowing oneself to be affected. Yet, I am bit skeptical whether one actually can choose. Based on what criteria’s does one choose? What motivates one to choose a positive versus a pessimistic approach? Rather than being free to choose, I think that one blends or mix with the world. One happens.

Nevertheless, I share his point about being attentive as an ethical practice even though I can’t control it.  If one chooses, then he or she becomes moralistic, because how does one choose beforehand?

A little text that made me think sitting on the bench while waiting for my kids to finish school.

I thought so

In the novel The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace writes: “Are you listening on the intercom, Foamwhistle? If you’re listening make no sign that you’re doing so. I thought so.”

This quote might serve as an example of how the communication has been, and still takes place, within sport – especially cycling. Just imagine how a journalist might asks: “Are you using performance-enhancing drugs, Froome? If you’re using doping make no sign that you are doing so. I thought so.”

Some might call it critical journalism. To me it looks more like qualms of conscience.

Bolaño salvaje

Den chilenske forfatter Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003) udråbes i en antologi til at være den p.t. mest indflydelsesrige Latinamerikanske forfatter.

Han indtager denne plads efter prominente navne som digteren Pablo Nerudo, forfatteren Jorge Luis Borges og forfatteren Gabriel Garcia Márquez. Nu er det Bolaños tur!

Om sit virke, siger Bolaño, at skrive er ikke en profession, men en måde at leve på. Og denne måde er farlig, fordi forfatteren må sætte noget på spil. Han er ikke karriere-forfatter, hvilket ellers er blevet ganske populært.

Bolaño salvaje (2008) hedder en nyere bog om hans forfatterskab. I en verden uden fremtid, står der, har Bolaño skabt et værk i erindringen. Der skabes et ekstra-territorium. Noget, som ikke hører sted, ét sted, men alle steder. En omvendt utopi måske. Et sted, hvor der er plads til alle os outsidere.

I en internationaliseret og globaliseret verden, er forfatteren altid i eksil, står der. Måske. Det passer i hvert fald på ham, Bolaño. Det poetiske hos Bolaño ligger blandt andet i hans evne til at skabe plads til livet uanset, hvordan det tager sig ud. Han er generøs.

Siden David Foster Wallaces Infinite Jest har der ikke været nogen, der har sat livet, ét liv, så markant på dagsordenen. Bolaño gør det bare … jeg ved det ikke: lettere, tror jeg. Han er nok den forfatter, som har ramt mig hårdest-med en kærlig kraft, vel og mærke.

Litteratur er mere end et spørgsmål om stil eller form. Det er som mesteren selv spørger og svarer: Hvad er en forfatter med kvalitet? Det har altid været, siger han, en fornemmelse af at vide, hvordan du stikker hovedet ud i mørket, vide hvordan du hopper ud i intet, vide at litteratur er et farligt arbejde.

Løb på kanten af klippen, siger han. På den ene side er afgrunden uden bund, og på den anden side er ansigterne på dem du elsker; de smilende ansigter på dem du elsker, bøgerne, vennerne og maden.

Det er smukt.