Wednesday, September 17, 2008

In Memorium :: David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace -- novelist, essayist, cultural critic -- died on September 12, 2008 from an apparent suicide.  I've read his first novel, The Broom of the System, and some of his essays; I haven't yet read Infinite Jest but have had every intention of doing so for a while now, and that intention that has only been lent some urgency.  I can't say that I know much about him; I can't say that I'm an expert on his work; but I can say that he offered me some bright, shining insights into the nature of language and culture and so I thank him for that. The highest praise that I can give an author is that he's caused me to think more clearly about myself. Here, then, are two passages from his essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," from his collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again; I found these quotes to be especially illuminating and relevant to my own thought.  Enjoy. 

And make no mistake: irony tyrranizes us.  The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down.  All U.S. irony is based on the implicit "I don't really mean what I'm saying."  So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say?  That it's impossible to mean what you say?  That maybe it's too bad it's impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already?  Most likely, I think, today's irony ends up saying: "How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean."

So then how have irony, irreverence, and rebellion come to be not liberating but enfeebling in the culture today's avant-garde tried to write about?  One clue's to be found in the fact that irony is still around, bigger than ever after 30 long years of the dominant mode of hip expression.  It's not a rhetorical mode that wears well.  As [Lewis] Hyde puts it, "Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage."  This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exculsively negative funtion.  It's crtical and destructive, a ground-clearing.  Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it.  But irony's singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. This is why Hyde seems right about persistent irony being tiresome.  It is unmeaty.  Even gifted ironists work best in sound bites.  I find gifted ironists sort of wickedly funny to listen to at parties, but I always walk away feeling like I've had several radical surgical procedures.  And as for actually driving cross-country with a gifted ironist, ot sitting through a 300-page novel full of nothing but trendy sardonic exhaustion, one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow... opressed.


Life of Turner said...

And so it is with Burn After Reading - an exercise in irony trying to be ironic, all lost in its own oppressive need to be ironic. Thanks for sharing this passage.

dcornelius said...

I had much the same reaction to Burn After Reading. It almost felt... desperate, as if the Coens were labouring under some need to create a "Coen comedy." What they gave us instead is, I think, one of their weakest outings yet (it's better than The Ladykillers. But then, almost everything is.)

I tried to like it, and in the theatre I almost convinced myself I was liking it. But I wasn't laughing nearly as much as I should have been. It's no Lebowski.

The film has its moments, certainly, and I'd still take it over most of the other comedies that are polluting theatres these days. But overall, disappointing. Especially after No Country.