the rigorous m

bits and bobs, quotes and catching up

quotes: baskin on dfw and authenticity

Posted by rigorousm on July 10, 2011

Wallace became the chronicler of a world where it was “tough” to be human, but not impossible. … Wallace did not shrink from depicting an inhuman world in his novels, but he returned to the problem of what it felt like to carry on a human life in such a world. This is why it is a mistake to connect his own textual experiments—jump cuts, essayistic digressions, endnotes—with the distancing techniques characteristic of his postmodern predecessors. They are more appropriately linked with Wittgenstein’s language games, deployed to help the author mimic, explore and ultimately expose the confusions of a demographically distinct reader.

Wallace’s second critique was stylistic; rhetorically, too, he believed the advanced writers of his time had fallen into obsolescence. … It was up to artists, Wallace believed, to offer counsel on questions of judgment, emotion and truth. Most troubling was the possibility that his contemporaries were failing at this task, instead contributing unwittingly to the ruling obsession with hip nihilism, “value-neutral” morality and an essentially ironic response to life’s challenges. The essay concluded with Wallace’s memorable vision of what would count as truly counter-cultural art. In contrast to “the old postmodern insurgents [who] risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship … the next real literary ‘rebels’… might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal’.”

The opposition between Jest’s form and its content speaks to our contemporary paranoia about earnestness. One of our great screenwriters, Charlie Kaufman, shares with Wallace an artistic commitment to complication in the service of sincerity. Both have been misunderstood as excessively cold or calculating. Both are engaged in the essentially modernist task of addressing what they perceive to be the current facts of subjective experience. Although both want to help their audience break out of the postmodern labyrinth, their art expresses the insight that, today, there is nothing simple about being sincere, open, or un-ironic. To be an adult in America means to be implicated in a convoluted network of attitudes and concerns. Naïveté is no escape. “Pure” emotion or grace lies on the far side of self-consciousness, not prior to it.

…Wallace brings his readers to what might be a depressing realization: “true authenticity” can always be forged. His writing has value, specifically for us, because it actualizes and confirms our suspicion that, across the categories of American culture—in social life, television, politics, art and criticism—our obsession with fraudulence and authenticity has acquired the configuration of neurosis. The more fervently we demand authentic expression, the less capable we are of identifying it. We can no longer agree on standards, or whether we should have standards. Postmodernism has not succeeded in eradicating the distinction between what is real and what is fake, but it may have deprived us of any vocabulary for speaking meaningfully about that distinction. Irony, satire and ridicule, masked as coping mechanisms, become the ongoing symptoms and restatements of our condition.

— “Death is Not the End: David Foster Wallace: His Legacy and His Critics,” Jon Baskin,


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