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David Foster Wallace and the Problem of Reentry

In his biography of David Foster Wallace, D. T. Max quotes a telling passage from a letter that Wallace wrote to his sometime flame Elizabeth Wuertzel in which the novelist gives an account of his psychological condition:

I go through a loop in which I notice all the ways I am — for just an example — self-centered and careerist and not true to standards and values that transcend my own petty interests, and feel like I’m not one of the good ones; but then I countenance the fact that here at least here I am worrying about it, noticing all the ways I fall short of integrity, and I imagine that maybe people without any integrity at all don’t notice or worry about it; so then I feel better about myself (I mean, at least this stuff is on my mind, at least I’m dissatisfied with my level of integrity and commitment); but this soon becomes a vehicle for feeling superior to (imagined) Others…. It has to do with God and gods and a basic sense of trust in the universe v. fear that the universe must be held at bay and micromanaged into giving me some smidgeon of some gratification I feel I simply can’t live without. It’s all very confusing. I think I’m very honest and candid, but I’m also proud of how honest and candid I am — so where does that put me.

When I read this I immediately thought of a letter that C. S. Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greaves when he (Lewis) was in the first stages of becoming a religious believer:

During my afternoon ‘meditations’, – which I at least attempt quite regularly now – I have found out ludicrous and terrible things about my own character. Sitting by, watching the rising thoughts to break their necks as they pop up, one learns to know the sort of thoughts that do come. And, will you believe it, one out of every three is a thought of self-admiration: when everything else fails, having had its neck broken, up comes the thought ‘What an admirable fellow I am to have broken their necks!’ I catch myself posturing before the mirror, so to speak, all day long. I pretend I am carefully thinking out what to say to the next pupil (for his good, of course) and then suddenly realise I am really thinking how frightfully clever I’m going to be and how he will admire me. . . . And then when you force yourself to stop it, you admire yourself for doing that. It is like fighting the hydra. . . . There seems to be no end to it. Depth under depth of self-love and self-admiration.

In the end, Lewis more-or-less turned his back on self-scrutiny. He ceased to find himself interesting as a subject for reflection — something his friends often noted about him.

Lewis thought of this loss of interest in the Self as a gift that emerged from his religious conversion: in his autobiography Surprised by Joy he wrote, “If Theism had done nothing else for me, I should still be thankful that it cured me of the time-wasting and foolish practice of keeping a diary.” The connection between Theism and the abandonment of a diary may not seem obvious, but apparently Lewis thought that once one believes in God, then God becomes the chief proper object of one’s contemplation; and if one believes in the Christian God, then one’s neighbor becomes the second proper object. People occupied in the hard task of loving God and neighbor don’t have much time left over for constant self-scrutiny. (So Lewis believed; many committed journal-keepers will no doubt disagree.)

All of which leads me to think: how sad it was for Wallace, trapped in those endless “loops” of self-consciousness, and struggling most of his life between faith and unbelief. There’s a chicken-egg question here: Did he get caught in the loops because he couldn’t find his way to secure faith? Or was he unable to achieve such faith because he was caught in the loops? Presumably each experience fed and strengthened the other — it is one of the more vicious of all vicious circles.

Walker Percy believed that artists (and to a lesser extent receivers of art) had a particular tendency to get detached from the frame of their own lives, and called this the problem of reentry; his Lost in the Cosmos is a masterful treatment of it. Lord have mercy on all of us who get caught in looping orbit and can’t find the right angle of reentry, and who must be bounced back out into space or, like poor Dave Wallace, try a more perpendicular angle and burn themselves up.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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