Thursday, September 15, 2011

David Foster Wallace, part II

Wallace (to follow up my earlier post) could apparently not live up to his own high ideals, especially in finding a way to a sense of the sacred and meaningful in a world filled with sadness and lostness, a world without the sense of God's presence.

His work, as Dreyfus and Kelly show in their new book, shows that to live in a secular age--even for a religious believer like myself--means that you face existential questions about how to live your life in ways that people in medieval times did not. You are often being tested to see if the moral and religious world view you grew up with is helpful in coping with a life full of pain, disappointment, anxiety, and distraction.

Wallace, in a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, had some important things to say about dealing with the frustrations and misery of daily living. He says we can choose how to respond to these problems and even experience these annoyances as meaningful and happy.

"If you really learn how to pay attention," he said, you can find the experience of life in a modern hell not only meaningful "but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of things deep down." I wonder if the graduates at Kenyon knew what he meant.

Wow, I thought when I read this paragraph: this is Dante for the modern age. The question is: did Wallace realize what was involved in Dante's vision--and did he share it? The authors of All Things Shining insist that the answer is No: the sacred in Wallace is something we impose from within ourselves upon what we experience, not a given part of tradition, as in Dante's Christianity. In other words, anything can be made sacred if I choose to make it so.

The sacred is the product, apparently, if Dreyfus and Kelly are right in their interpretation of Wallace, of the individual will--a far cry from Dante's mystical union with the divine at the end of Paradiso. We are closer here to Nietzsche than to Dante.

It was Nietzsche who proclaimed that "God is dead" in the modern world of thought (i.e, the idea of God); but he added that "there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown." Indeed.

Does God cast a shadow in the fiction of David Foster Wallace as He certainly did in his life of brilliant creativity? A question to return to. Maybe, as the authors contend in this intriguing book All Things Shining,
the sacred fire has not abandoned those of us who search for what is meaningful in our earthly existence; the problem is that too many of us have abandoned the sacred. That is the spiritual challenge of the postmodern age.

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