On David Foster Wallace’s Conservatism

In 2000, Rolling Stone sent David Foster Wallace to report on John McCain’s presidential campaign. The resulting essay operates on a simple premise: that to just about anyone who came of age in what Wallace calls the “post-Watergate-post-Iran-Contra-post-Whitewater-post-Lewinsky era,”[1] American politics is a kabuki of tired rhetoric and hollow promises. It is, Wallace writes, “an era in which politicians’ statements of principle or vision are understood as self-serving ad copy and judged not for their truth or ability to inspire but for their tactical shrewdness, their marketability,” one of the consequences being that young voters between 18 and 35 were voting in lower numbers than ever (of course, that would change in 2008). As if that weren’t enough, Wallace points out (following Joan Didion’s “Insider Baseball,” her classic essay on the 1988 national conventions) that it’s in the interest of the powers that be to preserve this status quo of indifference and cynicism, a task that proves easier than one might think, because politics is “complex, abstract, dry, the province of policy wonks and Rush Limbaugh and nerdy little guys on PBS, and basically who cares.” In other words: at the root of America’s political malaise lies a short attention span.

This is a central theme of The Pale King, the novel about IRS agents Wallace was working on at the time of his suicide in 2008. Part of the unfinished novel’s plot concerns an intra-agency struggle between old-guard employees who see their work as a public service and newcomers who are interested in maximizing revenue. The novel thus allegorizes the ascendancy of privatization and self-interest at the expense of the commonweal. As John Jeremiah Sullivan put it, “The agency would be a metaphor for America’s political soul.”[2] The public is ignorant of these changes, and, as in the McCain essay, the culprit is inattention: “The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes, and stakes is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull.”[3]

Wallace had long been preoccupied with the link between distraction and solipsism that he felt defined contemporary American life. As he saw it, individuals were increasingly prompted to fixate on their own desires by the unfettered free market and the echo chambers of television and the Internet. But it was only in the years after he published Infinite Jest—the years when he was working on the McCain essay and The Pale King—that Wallace began exploring the political costs of distraction. As Wallace understood them, they were high: for a society to function as a moral entity, its citizens must be invested in it—which is to say, they must be invested in one another. Consequently, Wallace’s writing began evincing what Elaine Blair, writing in the New York Review of Books, calls “a streak of small-c communism”[4] characterized by attentiveness, empathy, and selflessness. Along with his friend Jonathan Franzen, Wallace began arguing that the main purpose of literary fiction was to combat solipsism and cultivate attention. He bent his style to reflect this new, salvific creed, shedding many of the postmodern gimmicks that had marked his earlier works (though The Pale King certainly has its metafictional moments) and echoing with increasing frequency the rhetoric of Christian brotherhood and civic participation.

However, Wallace’s writing—including Both Flesh and Not,[5] the first posthumous collection of Wallace’s essays, which appeared in 2012—reminds us that another politically-tinged strain was present in Wallace’s work, running counter to the collective possibilities implied by The Pale King. Wallace’s writing did indeed frequently express the hope that human beings could transcend the limits of selfhood and language to reach one another in meaningful ways. But it was a hope severely curbed by his bedrock belief that true empathy is impossible, a belief most clearly expressed in his nonfiction, where it often took the form of a small-c conservatism, a deference to individual choice that arises from the inevitability of solipsism and isolation. What makes Wallace’s conservatism particularly disheartening is the extent to which it suggests he had difficulty placing his faith not only in other human beings, but also in the art form at which he was so obviously gifted, an art form in many ways predicated on sociability.

Though born to a liberal academic family, occupied in a traditionally liberal line of work, and outspokenly critical of the second Bush presidency, Wallace was drawn to conservatism. In his recent biography of Wallace,[6] D. T. Max reveals that Wallace voted for Ronald Reagan and supported Ross Perot in 1992. Max has suggested in interviews that these stances were motivated in part by contrarianism, but Wallace’s essays evince a real interest in some of conservatism’s central principles, particularly its valorization of individual choice. Consider, for instance, what is probably Wallace’s most widely-read piece of writing, the commencement address he gave at Kenyon College in 2005, published after Wallace’s death as an aphoristic life-advice book called This Is Water. “[T]he only thing that’s capital-T true is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see [reality],” Wallace said. “You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.”

Clearly, this is not an apology for laissez-faire, nor is it a refutation of government’s ability to make a difference in people’s lives. Nevertheless, Wallace’s exhortation is unequivocal in its assignment of ultimate responsibility to individual agency. For someone interested in how Americans could foster civic empathy, it’s a strikingly anomic view. Part of what makes Wallace’s statement so jarring is that it follows an extended thought experiment about the possible ways of responding to a soul-deadening evening in a supermarket, in which the author encourages empathy as the only way to navigate “the day-to-day trenches of adult life.” It’s an account full of the small-c communism that Blair identifies, a call to regard other human beings not as adversaries in the Hobbesian churn of life but rather as parts of the same ineffable whole. Yet just as the utopia comes into view—“It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—“compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things”—it disappears: “Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it,” Wallace says.

This kind of reversal—a rigorously impassioned vindication of empathy, followed by a shirking, I’m-just-a-regular-Joe dodge that leaves everything up to the reader—can be found in many of Wallace’s essays, and it’s easy to mistake it as a kind of folksy Will Rogers affectation, an attempt to leaven broad moral pronouncements with Midwestern humility and skepticism. Later in the Kenyon address, for instance, Wallace cringes at the possibility that his audience might think he’s dispensing wisdom: “Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.” And his essay on American talk radio from the same year pithily condenses the same idea into a parenthetical: “(It goes without saying that this is just one person’s opinion.)”[7]

But Wallace’s unwillingness to offer conclusions sits uneasily alongside his evident desire to change his readers’ thinking, to raise the questions about contemporary life that almost no one else was willing or able to raise. Those questions were often political. Whether he was writing about the ethics of eating lobsters or the legacy of Dostoyevsky, Wallace was always implicitly asking what it means to be American and how we, as inheritors of the legacy of 1776 and 1787 living in the 2000s, want to interpret that legacy and organize ourselves. His unmatched skill at examining these questions made him, for a certain segment of the population, a kind of sage. But his inherent conservatism kept him from fully inhabiting that role.

Return for a moment to the example of the McCain essay. As already discussed, Wallace paints a convincing portrait of the dollar-driven malaise infecting American politics at the turn of the millennium. Against this bleak political backdrop enters John McCain. By the time of Wallace’s profile, McCain’s history as a Vietnam prisoner of war was well known: shot down, severely injured, and captured in 1967, McCain was offered release because his father was an admiral. In accordance with the military’s code of conduct, which required prisoners of war to be released in the order of capture, he refused. Consequentially, he was tortured and placed in solitary confinement before finally being freed in 1973. Wallace is fascinated with the story, lingering on it at length, inviting the reader to imagine what it would have been like to be in McCain’s position at each step of the way. Sensing an opportunity to demonstrate the possibilities of true, arduous empathy, Wallace all but pleads with his reader to resist hearing McCain’s story as just another tale of heroism, lacing his retelling of McCain’s ordeal with implorations to “Try for a moment to feel this” or to “Forget how many movies stuff like this happens in and try to imagine it as real.” McCain’s saga, Wallace writes, “is overexposed, true. Still, though, take a second or two to do some creative visualization and imagine the moment between John McCain’s first getting offered early release and his turning it down. Try to imagine it was you.”

Wallace insists upon this point because McCain’s Vietnam experience offers a chance to cut through the cynicism and salesmanship that contemporary American politics so readily breeds. McCain’s ordeal is “riveting and unspinnable and true.” Wallace devotes the bulk of his essay to persuading the reader that this is the case. He always returns to McCain’s ordeal. And the powerful thing is that if you’re the kind of young, disenchanted American Wallace alluded to earlier (and you’re likely to be, if you’re reading David Foster Wallace in Rolling Stone), you’ve felt somehow diagnosed by his description of America’s political somnolence. You know what it is to cast a ballot with a wink and a nod, because it’s all just rigged by super PACs. And so you pay attention when this author, who so clearly understands your dissatisfaction, insists that John McCain just might be the real deal, that when he speaks of “causes greater than self-interest,” it has “a deep sort of reverb that’s hard to ignore”; that he might just be able to return meaning to threadbare American pieties, a semblance of democracy to American politics, and a measure of hope to young American voters (all hopes, it should be noted, that would be pinned on Barack Obama seven years later, a campaign Wallace never had a chance to write about). In short, Wallace wants to persuade you that McCain’s story offers compelling reasons to regard his campaign as more than a sales pitch.

But a compelling reason is not the same as proof, and after McCain begins leading in the polls, things get murky. McCain has to start playing politics, and Wallace starts wrestling with a fundamental paradox, that of whether “the two can coexist—human genuineness and political professionalism.” His logic becomes recursive, circling tighter and tighter until Wallace is asking questions like, “What’s the difference between hypocrisy and paradox?” Wallace veers towards concluding that the whole thing is a sham before returning at the end to the hope offered by McCain’s Vietnam experience. It’s in that story, Wallace says, where “one imagines ‘the real John McCain’ still lives.” But Wallace’s obsession with solipsism intervenes. We can’t really know what John McCain feels in there, Wallace says, and it’s here that he passes the baton to the reader and leaves the stage:

Salesman or leader or neither or both, the final paradox—the really tiny central one, way down deep inside all the other campaign puzzles’ spinning boxes and squares that layer McCain—is that 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.

As I’ve already said, the bulk of Wallace’s essay is devoted to the same project as The Pale King: if citizens could just pay a little more attention, get a little more involved, then perhaps they could sweep away some of the forces that make them so cynical. Perhaps they would have a richer communal life. John McCain, as Wallace tells it, might be the figure to lead this movement. And because Wallace is so clearly sympathetic to the plight of young voters and makes his case without extreme credulity or appeal to abstract notions of “civic duty” or “participatory democracy,” the essay possesses a power rare among contemporary political writing. It feels expansive and alive with possibility, inoculated with just the right amount of suspicion. But at the end, it suddenly becomes a cramped account of isolation and indifference. Because we don’t have direct access to the consciousness of others, we can’t really trust John McCain, and even to begin considering what motivates McCain is incredibly exhausting and tedious, hence the ringing irony of “Try to stay awake” that ends the essay. As a conclusion, it feels too much like an abdication.

Wallace’s essays often follow this pattern. His 1990 piece “E Unibus Pluram”[8] works very hard to earn the reader’s sympathy for the plight of young writers as they vied with television’s all-consuming irony. Again, the essay is passionate and often persuasive; and again, the ending disappoints: “I guess that means we all get to draw our own conclusions. Have to. Are you immensely pleased.” Likewise his piece on the dubious ethics of eating lobsters: “There are limits to what even interested persons can ask of each other.”[9] In each case, having led us through a maze of possibilities and subpossibilities and counterpossibilities—twists and turns that only his mind could identify—Wallace exits in a puff of irony, entrusting matters to an audience in which he seems to have little faith.

The source of Wallace’s conservatism was his insurmountable belief that we’re all ultimately alone. Critics might be correct in writing that Wallace was moving toward a more communal emphasis after Infinite Jest, but it seems to me more accurate to say that Wallace was always searching for, and failing to find, access to this path. In an extensive 1993 interview with The Review of Conotemporary Fiction, Wallace said:

I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.

In the wake of Wallace’s death, many people pointed to interviews like this one (they exist in abundance) as evidence that Wallace’s sole purpose was to make us all feel less alone, an understandable if uncritical conclusion. Writers like Jonathan Franzen and John Jeremiah Sullivan have challenged this notion, often in strong terms. In his essay on The Pale King, Sullivan dismissed these “Pollyanna statements,” asserting that Wallace knew they were feel-good bromides, but that his “native conscientiousness prevented him from shirking his role of sage altogether.” Sullivan’s essay, one of the finer ones to appear in the wake of Wallace’s death, is full of astute insights and moving conclusions, but this is one point where I feel he’s wrong. Wallace gestured toward the communal too often to support the idea that he was simply faking it all the way. Even if he never wholly believed his words about fiction’s redemptive possibilities, it seems he certainly yearned for them to be true.

What strikes me as absent from Wallace’s essays isn’t sincerity or even necessarily optimism; what’s missing is faith. Wallace was narrowly correct in saying that we’re all marooned in our own skulls, and that we ultimately have to make up our own minds about things. But most of us draw a line where Wallace couldn’t in his interview, just before “true empathy’s impossible.” If by “true empathy” Wallace means total inhabitance of another’s inner workings, then yes, true empathy is impossible. But most of us don’t go there. In order to get along in life, we put our faith in the good will of people we love, or in higher beings, or in the rule of law, or in inspiring public figures like John McCain and Barack Obama. Some of us even put our faith in literature.

This is the real tragedy of Wallace’s conservatism. It entailed a curious blindness to the extent to which his writing, imbued as it was with the rare ability to dissect contemporary problems with humanity and humor, reached people, inspiring in his readers a rare devotion born of the sense that Wallace was speaking directly to them. (If you need evidence of this, look at the memorial to Wallace on the McSweeney’s website.) And yet Wallace, widely regarded as the premier literary talent of his generation, ultimately had little faith in his chosen medium. Heavily influenced by Wittgenstein, he saw language as at best the faded messages we seal into bottles and toss into uncertain waters from our little desert island, hoping they reach someone else’s. Wallace (“It goes without saying that this is just one person’s opinion”) could never totally buy into this project. “It might just be that easy,” he told his interviewer in 1993. But for Wallace, blessed and cursed with that endlessly perceptive mind, it was never that easy.

There’s a particularly haunting example of his suspicion of language in the title essay of Both Flesh and Not, a much-lauded profile of Roger Federer that Wallace wrote in 2006 for the short-lived New York Times sports magazine Play. A few pages into the report, which centers on the 2006 Wimbledon final between Federer and Rafael Nadal, Wallace devotes a paragraph to the ceremonial pre-match coin toss, delivered that year by a seven-year-old cancer survivor named William Caines. The toss complete, Wallace describes the uneasy aftermath, in which “most of the crowd can’t quite tell what to do”:

It’s like once the ritual’s over, the reality of why this child was part of it sinks in. There’s a feeling of something important, something both uncomfortable and not, about a child with cancer tossing this dream-final’s coin. The feeling, what-all it might mean, has a tip-of-the-tongue-type quality that remains elusive for at least the first two sets.

It’s easy to infer part of what Wallace is up to here. One of the essay’s guiding preoccupations is the sheer aesthetic pleasure of sports, which arises from the spectacle of human bodies transcending their normal limitations. In such a context, the juxtaposition between a seven-year-old cancer survivor and the Michelangelesque forms of Federer and Nadal feels rich with significance. But Wallace is clearly getting at something beyond this easy conclusion (“what-all it might mean”), and he doesn’t immediately elaborate on the portion quoted above, offering only the silence of a page break.

When William Caines does return, ten pages later, it’s in a decontextualized, standalone paragraph that leaves Federer and Wimbledon far behind:

According to reliable sources, honorary coin-tosser William Caines’s backstory is that one day, when he was two and a half, his mother found a lump in his tummy, and took him to the doctor, and the lump was diagnosed as a malignant tumor. At which point one cannot, of course, imagine . . . a tiny child undergoing chemo, serious chemo, his mother having to watch, carry him home, nurse him, then bring him back to that place for more chemo. How did she answer her child’s question—the big one, the obvious one? And who could answer hers? What could any priest or pastor say that wouldn’t be grotesque?

That’s all Wallace has to say about William Caines. Wallace is once again right, in a sense: words often fall offensively short in the face of suffering. But I think he’s wrong about the priest and the pastor, whose job is in no small part to speak to a community about the unspeakable. Writers wield a similar authority, self-appointed and arbitrary though it may be, but Wallace here declines to exercise it. Language is indeed incommensurate to the suffering that William Caines embodies. But neither is it equal to the horrors of slavery, the Holocaust, or the Second World War, which doesn’t mean Beloved, Night, and Catch-22 aren’t powerful works of language; indeed, we cherish those books for endeavoring to express the inexpressible, for putting into words what the rest of us are too timid to say. We value writers—particularly writers as insightful as Wallace—in no small part for their willingness to risk the grotesque and the impious attempt to get at something like truth; to believe in literature’s fragile power to make some sense of the bewildering array of human lights; to acknowledge the tenuous nature of writing as a human endeavor, and to write anyway.

Wallace certainly wrote his share about the monstrous and the incomprehensible. He wrote eloquently about many troubling events and phenomena: 9/11, AIDS, suicide, narcissism, sexism, the modern emptiness that no amount of purchases can fill. And he wanted to write about these things in large part for other people. In another essay in the new collection, a review of David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Wallace offers this account of his relationship to writing: “I am someone who tries to write, who right now more and more seems to need to write, daily; and who hopes less that the products of that need are lucrative or even liked than simply received, read, seen.”

Seen by whom, or seen to what end: that’s where Wallace’s logic begins to curl back upon itself, and where the communal possibilities begin to evaporate. He couldn’t escape the reality that each of us has access to only one consciousness, and that even then, we remain a mystery to ourselves. No wonder he felt that individual choice was the ultimate arbiter of how we lead our lives.
[1] David Foster Wallace, “Up, Simba,” Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (New York, 2006), p. 161. This is an expanded version of the Rolling Stone piece.

[2] John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Too Much Information,” GQ, May 2011.

[3] David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (New York, 2012), p. 85.

[4] Elaine Blair, “A New Brilliant Start,” The New York Review of Books, December 6, 2012, p.16.

[5] David Foster Wallace, Both Flesh and Not (New York, 2012).

[6] D. T. Max, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story (New York, 2012).

[7] David Foster Wallace, “Host,” Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (New York, 2006), p. 343.

[8] David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram,” A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (New York, 1997), p. 82.

[9] David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster,” Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (New York, 2006), p. 254.