“I know that character exists from the outside alone. I know that inside the body there’s just temperature. So how do you build your soul?” Sheila Heti
We all start from this premise I suspect; exactly how do we experience what it means to be human? As opposed to being merely a productive unit, or animal or more commonly simply maintaining a sustained presence on the planet without falling into penury, debt or criminal behaviour.
I shall make this easier for you, at least in defining how the battle may be fought. Read. Read more. Read widely. Read thoughtfully. Did I mention reading? Writers and artists have been mining their own characters and talents in attempting to illuminate the same question. Some have come up with diamonds, others with less dazzling results. Joseph Conrad wrote fabulous stories that were underpinned with a deep understanding of the human condition, and an observation of human activity that created classics. Here he is on his own art,
But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition — and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.-
–My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm — all you demand — and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.
‘ that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.’ That is a phrase that sends shudders down my spine.
David Foster Wallace is hailed as the writer of and for his generation,- his biographer D.T.Max writes ‘The only thing that seems clear from this novel ( ‘The Pale King) is that boredom is more than a harmless discomfort. The fight against it expresses a need to secure the vitality of the self at all costs.’
It is an irony that Wallace’s writing is widely requoted as though he was the purveyor of Truth and Wisdom, mainly since his speech in 2005,“This is Water”, which he delivered as the Kenyon College Commencement address . In the speech, Wallace advises the undergraduates that they can choose how to make meaning out of their lives. In the tides of boredom that wash over us in our daily lives, Wallace declares that anyone who harnesses the power of his own attention is king:
“You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.”
Wallace took to literature in an attempt to grasp hold of his own life, his depressive episodes. The current trend to read his novels as paths of truth is to simplify the man and the writer, but readers read, and writers write. I like this short passage by Wallace himself, on writing, Wallace tells Larry McCaffery in Conversations with David Foster Wallace. “In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.”
D. T. Max
EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY
A Life of David Foster Wallace
352pp. Granta Books. £20.