Mythologies (macro-scale meaning-maps) are a byproduct of religion in the same way that stories are a byproduct of life. This is fine. But our stories are not alive and our maps are not the way. It’s a mistake, I think, to think that religions are in the business of making meaning. Religions make meaning the way donut shops make donut holes: as leftovers.
The trouble with these leftovers is that they court nihilism. Mythologies are often a tool too-ready-to-hand. The problem here is not the world. Nor is the problem that meaning-maps inevitably get made. The problem is our tendency to believe that the world must be baptized in maps in order to be saved.
We tie ourselves up in knots when we think that the business of making meaning is the work of redemption. In fact, it’s probably closer to the opposite.
Practicing religion boils down to practicing charity (agape) and the work of charity boils down, first and foremost, to the work of paying attention. The work of paying attention is, ironically, not the work of your map or your mind or your soul. It is not the work of your head. It is more like the work of losing it.
It’s on exactly this point that Dreyfus/Kelly’s All Things Shining gets David Foster Wallace so egregiously wrong. Shining thinks that meaning saves and that Wallace fails (both as a writer and as a human being) because he sees the work of making such redeeming maps as the Gen-X super-individual’s solitary task. Shining is demonstrably wrong on the second point and I think it’s also wrong on the first.
Shining reads Wallace’s idea of the sacred as “something we impose upon experience; there is nothing given about it at all” (47). According to Shining, Wallace’s vision of the sacred is so “deeply impoverished” that “there is no sense whatsoever in Wallace that the ‘sacred’ moments of existence are gifts, so there is no place for gratitude. The bliss that Wallace seeks is not only ecstatic and unworldly – extreme in a sense known only to Dante’s medieval Christian monotheism – it is in addition generated solely by the individual’s will” (48).
This is strong language. As a reading of Infinite Jest and fragments of the Pale King, it’s hard to justify. Especially if you’ve read the books. Infinite Jest is supposed to be impoverished, unworldly, devoid of gratitude, and bent on valorizing the generation of salvific meaning solely by way of an individual’s ubermenschian strength?
Shining’s case rests on two things: an ad hominem hit job that takes Wallace’s medical condition and eventual suicide as a metaphysical ace-in-the-hole that trumps his own texts and a pretty elementary phenomenological confusion about the difference between paying attention vs. baptizing stuff with meaning-maps. I’m not going to address the hit job, but I want to press the phenomenological point.
Shining’s smoking gun with respect to Wallace’s alleged low-as-you-can-go twenty-first century nihilism is his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, This is Water. The speech claims that even the ordinary frictions of daily life can spark a holy conflagration – if we pay attention. The damning passage reads like this:
If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Shining thinks this passage means that, for Wallace, the sacred arises when I, the rugged individual, choose to willfully and imaginatively impose on the bare, nihilistic facts of the world a new, special, redemptive meaning. Wallace is a kind of tragic hero for trying but, on their account, his failure is symptomatic, “an indication of our metaphysical makeup, of the way our age fails to allow us to tell a coherent story about the meaning of our lives” (25).
This reading runs against the grain of both the passage in question and Wallace’s general project. On Wallace’s own account, paying attention requires the suspension of my “automatic” assumption that my maps fit the world. Paying attention is not the work of more and more successfully imposing by fiat the meaning-maps we intentionally bring to bear on a mute world. Paying attention is the work of more and more successfully laying those pasty maps aside in favor of the terrain at our feet. Paying attention isn’t laser-like intentionality, it’s surrendering to the tractor-beam of a counter-intentionality. It’s not the saturation of intuition with maps, it’s the swamping of my maps with a saturating intuition.
As Wallace puts it in this same address: “It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head.” The aim here is not to successfully hypnotize the world with our maps and thus imbue that wasteland with meaning; the aim is to be alert enough to be susceptible to a counter-seduction by what is actually given, no matter how ordinary or clichéd.
Wallace is up front about this. I’m not offering some secret, clever, deconstructive reading of his address.
I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.
Where Shining sees Wallace valorizing a super-individual’s attempted invagination of emptiness with meaning, Wallace is just trying to be awake enough to recognize that he’s not alone and that there is more to the world than his maps. Attention, as the grip of a counter-intentionality, is not the creation of meaning so much as its suspension. The liberation it offers hinges on this suspension.
Shining tries to tie its argument about Wallace’s nihilism back to the (then) available fragments of The Pale King, Wallace’s unfinished and (recently) posthumously published novel about a group of people doing mindbendingly boring work for the IRS. Wallace is interested here in how boredom (a la Marion’s analysis in God Without Being) can be a door to charity. One novice tax examiner, Lane Dean, Jr. is described by Wallace as struggling with the daily grind of checking tax returns:
[Lane] did two more returns, then another one, then flexed his buttocks and held to a count of ten and imagined a warm and pretty beach with mellow surf, as instructed in orientation the previous month. Then he did two more returns, checked the clock real quick, then two more, then bore down and did three in a row, then flexed and visualized and bore way down and did four without looking up once . . . After just an hour the beach was a winter beach, cold and gray and the dead kelp like the hair of the drowned, and it stayed that way despite all attempts. (The Pale King, 376)
Shining sees Lane Dean, Jr. as a clear example of how Wallace’s approach fails. No matter how hard Lane tries to “visualize” something meaningful, the counterweight of boredom breaks his best efforts. In some respects, this analysis is actually not bad – except that Shining entirely misses the fact that they’ve just stolen Wallace’s own point.
Wallace is not interested in our attempts to intentionally invest something boring and ordinary with meaning. He’s interested in how “crushing, crushing boredom” can set my maps on fire and leave me exposed to what is not me. Boredom marks the limit of what interests me and by passing through its ascesis, by staying with a person or thing beyond the limit of my self-interest, life opens onto charity, onto the “sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
Boredom signals the world’s resistance to intention. It signals a tide of counter-intentionality that can save me from myself. When the tide recedes, it inevitably leaves a map of its passing etched in the sand – but this map is not the surge and it’s meaning is not what saves.
Maps and meanings and mythologies aren’t magic. I can’t use them as redemptive incantations. They’re just donut holes, byproducts of processes that swamp my maps even as they leave maps of their passing.
As Don Gately learns in Infinite Jest, himself swamped with the suffering attendant to serious drug-related traumas:
What is unendurable is what his own head could make of it all. What his head could report to him, looking over and ahead and reporting. But he could choose not to listen. . . . he hadn’t quite gotten this before now, how it wasn’t just the matter of riding out the craving for a Substance: everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and returning with unendurable news you then somehow believed. (860-861)
Neither the present nor the map are unendurable. It’s belief that’s unendurable. It’s believing the head, it’s investing my own maps with the power to save me (or damn me), that ruins me.
It’s my job – bored in a pew, sporting a head irremediably stuffed with maps – to attend and abide nonetheless. This isn’t tragic or heroic or Nietzschean. It’s just called going to church.