David Foster Wallace, three years after his suicide, continues to provoke comment and controversy. I suppose one reason is that few writers deal so openly with moral values, or the absence thereof, in the complex world of what is called postmodern fiction.
In a recent book, which promises more than it delivers, All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, offers some attempts to find meaning in a secular age by returning to the classics.
To my surprise, one of the best parts of this book is a study of Wallace in contrast to Dante, who is used as a model of having "a grand hierarchy of meaning." The medieval poet can easily assume that there is a God and therefore a source of order and meaning in the universe. Our age, says Wallace, fails to give us a coherent story about the meaning in our lives. "We have inherited no real moral values."
In an interview, Wallace said that Americans need to grow up, put away childish things "and comfortable stuff about spirituality and values." He finds a certain sadness in the lives of intelligent, successful Americans of his generation (he was 46 at his untimely death) because of a lack of morality and meaning. Too much comfortable stuff.
Whether Wallace's novels--huge and rambling, with footnotes and famously long sentences that show off his skills in grammar, if nothing else--present a coherent world view that can even be mentioned in the same breath as Dante remains to be seen. So far, I have yet to finish any of his self-consciously literary stream of consciousness works of fiction to know anything more than that Wallace was a prolific, observant, challenging writer with a cult-like following.
I also know that Kelly and Dreyfus have given me a helpful introduction to Wallace so that, in trying now to re-read him, I know what to look for: a search for the sacred, maybe even the selfless, in the welter of a diverse, ever-changing culture. In what sense can we call Wallace religious? I hope to find out.
In an essay that Wallace might have enjoyed if depression had not overcome him, Roger Scruton, the British academic, writing recently in Prospect magazine, talks about the power of the sacred image and how easy it is for what is consecrated to be desecrated. We often don't think of the sacred thing--the icon, for example--as potentially dangerous, until we think of iconoclasm, perhaps. The way fear and suspicion has influenced the development of religion may be one way writers today, whether they are call themselves postmodern or not, have been reluctant to entertain religion questions. That, and the sad reality that so many readers have given up on religion in the usual (comforting) sense.
Yet, unless writers and artists raise uncomfortable questions about God, meaning and ethical choices, readers like me will be endlessly dissatisfied.