The beatification of David Foster Wallace

Joe Winkler wrote an excellent post for The Rumpus on David Foster Wallace’s posthumous essay collection, Both Flesh and Not.

The whole thing is great, but what caught my attention was this paragraph,

In the immediate aftermath of the suicide, especially with the odd Zen koan like layout of the publication of This is Water, many commented on the nascent St. Dave phenomenon, whether in a descriptive or critical manner. They described the way much of the literary community now looked upon DFW as our moral voice and compass, an element of his work magnified and conflated into the driving and central element in his oeuvre. What few spoke about was the structural religiosity in the fandom of DFW extant many years before his suicide. Wallace, like many other begrudging voices of their generation, both fought against this, and yet fostered this through the style and content of his work. When I speak to people about their first encounter with DFW, many (if not most) use quasi-religious and spiritual jargon. We talk about a revelation, or a discovery of something sui generis, wholly new and hard to fathom, a singular voice that both captures the idiosyncrasies of a mind while encapsulating the tensions of a time. DFW rarely elicits tepid reactions and because of that, because of his ability to lower our defenses and dance into the innermost abysses of our personalities, it should come as no surprise that people always treated DFW as a saint, not only in the sense of his morality, but in the way we interact with his works. Fantods, or just plain fans, always looked upon his repertoire the way zealots look upon a the religious canon of a rabbi, priest, imam, or monk: even the smallest utterances in a non-formal context take on importance to the worldview of DFW.

The way we treat the most talented artists in our society mirrors the way we might treat a figure of religious significance. This often has negative effects both on the artist and society. As Winkler notes, Wallace’s new essay collection is primarily interesting because it allows us to see Wallace’s warts – his early pretentious, academic language, his personal struggles, etc. This helps us see Wallace not as a saint/genius/tragically yet romantically depressed guy, but as a human with flaws, trying the best he could to live a good and full life.

As Dorothy Day once said, “Don’t call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

Incidentally, she’s up for sainthood as well.


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