Last week I noticed via Kottke that the publisher Little, Brown has just published a David Foster Wallace Reader. This makes me happy, as I’ve thought that since his death the two Wallace books that “needed” to exist were a) a collection of his nonfiction and interviews and b) a reader, so that he would be more easily teachable in college courses. This last idea came from my own teaching days, when I occasionally longed to include a kind of DFW Swiss Army knife on a syllabus.
Now that it’s out there and I can inspect the table of contents, I, of course, have opinions. Harumph, harumph. Why have they decided to include syllabi and teaching materials from the college courses Wallace himself taught? I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I’ve often thought that one of the aspects that made Wallace so interesting and compelling a writer was that he was always himself, his sensibility burned through whatever genre he was working in, so that his fiction and nonfiction and even his interviews had the same grain of energy. And yes, even his syllabi. The ones that I’ve read online have the same level of wit and attention to language. It sounds weird — it sound kind of creepy, given his cultish status — but the syllabi are interesting in and of themselves as written artifacts.
As pieces of art? I dunno. That takes more interpretive energy than I’m willing to muster currently. But I’m not sure they really belong in a reader. It feels a little funny to re-contextualize them in this way, which is a kind of Whitman sampler of the Great Man’s Work. Reading his syllabi and class correspondence feels like it should be the next level of Wallace interest, for intrigued autodidacts to seek it out. Like the re-publishing of his graduation speech in book form, the class materials seem to sanctify the person, to burnish the icon. Though without the book in front of me and not having read the syllabi in question, I am merely blowing out thought bubbles here. I’m just being opinionated.
Which reminds me: is it possible to write online without falling back on opinion bubbles? The writer Paul Ford has said that the engine of all internet activity comes down to the self-righteous question “why wasn’t I consulted?” And you don’t have to do much exploring to see how online writing has degenerated into a series of “takes” on the subjects of the day. So how does one (or perhaps more accurately, why does one) write on the internet without devolving into an editorial writer hepped up on speed? Because quickly formed opinions on complex matters do not typically lead to graceful prose, or even just interesting prose, much less well-built ideas. It leads to a kind of performative morality, a kind of keyword call and response, rather than actual debate or searing sentence construction.
Reading and writing online, I’ve started to realize how tired I am of everyone’s opinions on everything. And I don’t exclude my own opinions from this. My own little thought bubbles are tired, slightly shriveled — like grocery balloons four days after the party, huddling in the corner of the dining room. They only float when kicked.
And yet here I am contributing to the very problem by having and now articulating my own personal bubble re: the arrival of this new collection of Wallace’s writing. I often wonder: if Buddhism is based in part on removing desire from oneself, then might a corresponding Buddhistic internet mode be something like removing one’s opinions from oneself. What if having an opinion were basically a manifestation of a desire? A desire to be consulted on a topic, and that internet writing was the rage made manifest of that thwarted desire? What if one could write on the internet without recourse to expressing an opinion about everything?
I’m not sure I’m strong enough.