Tom Views on damn near anything

February 20, 2010

My goal here is to capture the random thoughts that otherwise fall into the bit bucket. If you find anything iteresting, enjoy. But I'm doing this for my benefit, not yours, so if you don't like something you are free to go elsewhere. If you think you have something interesting to say in response to any of this, send me an email, although I won't answer unless you actually do say something interesting. Abuse is, of course, unwelcome.

I like David Foster Wallace, even though a year ago I hadn't even heard of him. I blame that on where I live, and the lack of intellectual opportunities here, although it may just be that I don't even try to take advantage of those that may exist. Either way, fixing this situation is on my list. I'll probably move because changing where you are is easier than changing what you are, even if it ends up that you changed the wrong thing.

Anyway, back to Wallace. From my perspective -- given that I probably would have only known him as a reader under any circumstances -- the best thing he could have done was die. I know that sounds cold, but it caused The New Yorker, which is about my only connection to the world of culture, to run an article about his life, interrupted, and to print a couple of excerpts from his work. Had that not happened, I might never have found him, as they say, better late than never. It turns out he was something of a kindred spirit, although it's always dangerous to try and make that kind of connection whether "connection" means interpersonal or semantic. It's probable that had we actually known each other, neither of us would have survived, but I may just be flattering myself.

Wallace was possessed of a monstrous intellect (which means that he wrote things that I appreciated and which I largely agreed with) and apparently was possessed by monstrous demons. Deeply suspicious of and alienated by American culture, he had enough wit in his writing to rise above mere Jeremiad, but apparently not enough humor to survive the depression that plagued him much of his life. It didn't stop him from being a keen observer of our culture in his essays (I suspect it helped.)

He shares some perspective with another writer I enjoy (if that's the word): Joe Queenan. Wallace's collection of essays A Supposedly Fun Think I'll Never Do Again is, on some level, akin to Queenan's Red Lobster, White Trash and Blue Lagoon although there's certainly a difference in density between the two. Queenan tries to be clever and often succeeds (although not always.) Wallace isn't so much interested in showing how smart he is as asking what it is about himself (and by extension, others) that makes him incapable of enjoying what everyone else seems to consider fun (or art or culture or whatever.) It's more in the vein of a scholarly exposition (albeit with humor) than as a winking isn't this stupid? He's not quite sure it is stupid. It sure is weird, though, and maybe that's what Wallace is best at conveying.

I had fully intended this first entry to be brief. I honestly doubted that anyone would read this far, actually, so I thought brevity would be best. What I really wanted to do was just to note Wallace's observation about television (in the context of voyuerism and why it, television, wasn't) and why it serves as a simulacrum for it for so many. His observation that television is not voyueristic precisely because what the Peeping Tom sees -- a person who has not put on their public persona -- is exactly what you don't get on television. It occurred to me that the kind of fiction, film, music, art that I enjoy was precisely what the Peeping Tom does see: a kind of anti-television peopled with characters (participants in the sense of people leading real, or at least realistic, lives), people who aren't prepared to be seen by others, people who feel exposed, raw and naked, and who aren't costumed, polished and rehearsed. Like Wallace I see life as not being pretty, people as not being what they want you to think they are and, ultimately, the game we play pretending to be something we are not being ultimately too hard to maintain. If I'm going to sit out the game, and sometimes that's precisely what I do, I don't want to do it by watching, reading about or listening to characters who know they are on display, both in the literal sense (they are actors playing a role) and in the sense that even the characters they are playing are actors playing a role in the game we call "social interaction." In the same way that we put on our public face, hiding to one extent or another who we really are and what we really want, the mask worn by characters on television -- the mask we wear -- is a simpler version of life, without the needs and desires and turmoil of real people living their real, messy lives. Because it's full of actors who live in that simpler reality, television helps us to pretend that what we know is real is the fiction, and what we ourselves live and feel is the sham. With that shining model of the world before us, we can pretend we live in a world of simpler lives, where everything is so clear to us (even if the character in it can't always figure things out). It's a world that simply works. Who doesn't want that?

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