A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part One: OBLIVION / David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer / OBLIVION by David Foster Wallace

A review of Oblivion (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia

When I was in graduate school, I was (mis)taught Literature by a man who had no ear for poetic language and who had absolutely no interest in eloquence.  I learned that he held an undergraduate degree in Physics and wondered, as he chattered on loudly and incessantly, why this strange man chose to study and teach Literature, a subject that obviously did not appeal to him very much.  I think the same thing of David Foster Wallace, a writer who probably would have been happier as a mathematician (Mathematics is a subject that Wallace studied at Amherst College).

A collection of fictions published in 2004, Oblivion reads very much as if a mathematician were trying his hand at literature after having surfeited himself with Thomas Pynchon and John Barth–-not the best models to imitate or simulate, if you ask me.

The first fiction, “Mr. Squishy,” is by far the strongest.  A consulting firm evaluates the responses of a focus group to a Ho-Hoesque chocolate confection.  Wallace comes up with some delightful phraseologies: The product is a “domed cylinder of flourless maltilol-flavored sponge cake covered entirely in 2.4mm of a high-lecithin chocolate frosting,” the center of which is “packed with what amounted to a sucrotic whipped lard” [6].  The external frosting’s “exposure to the air caused it to assume traditional icing’s hard-yet-deliquescent marzipan character” [Ibid.].  Written in a bureaucratized, mechanical language–this language, after all, is the dehumanized, anti-poetic language of corporate marketing firms, the object of Wallace’s satire–the text is a comparatively happy marriage of content and form.

Wallace gets himself into difficulty when he uses this same bureaucratic language in the next fiction, “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” which concerns a homicidal substitute teacher.  I could see how a sterile, impersonal narrative could, by way of counterpoint, humanize the teacher, but the writing just left me cold.  The title of the fiction simply reverses Stephen Dedalus’s statement in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Wallace never composed a sentence as beautiful as Joyce’s.  Indeed, Wallace never composed a beautiful sentence.

“Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” simply duplicates the title (!) of Richard Rorty’s misguided polemic against representationalism (the misconceived idea that language is capable of mirroring the essence of things).  It concerns a son who accompanies his mother to a cosmetic-surgery procedure.  The son, who is also the narrator, says: “[A]nyone observing the reality of life together since the second procedure would agree the reality is the other way around…” [183].  The narrator might or might not be one of the deluded representationalists against whom Rorty polemicized.  For Rorty, “the reality of life” is not something that we are capable of talking about with any degree of insight.  Unfortunately, this is the only point in the text at which the philosophical problem of representation arises.

The eponymous fiction “Oblivion” and the self-reflexive “The Suffering Channel” (which concerns a man whose excreta are considered works of art) are inelegantly and ineloquently written.

After laboring through such verbal dross, I can only conclude that David Foster Wallace was afraid of being read and thus attempted to bore his readers to a teary death.  His noli me legere also applies to himself.  It is impossible to escape the impression that he was afraid of reading and revising any of the festering sentences that he churned out.  Because he likely never read his own sentences, he likely never knew how awkward they sounded.  Infinite Jest was written hastily and unreflectively, without serious editing or revision, it appears.  It is merely because of the boggling bigness of Infinite Jest that the book has surfaced in the consciousness of mainstream America at all (hipsterism is a vicissitude of mainstream America).  We, the Americanized, are fascinated by bigness.  To quote Erich Fromm: “The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers…”

Speech is irreversible; writing is reversible.  If you accept this premise of my argument (and any intelligent person would), must it not be said that responsible writers ought ALWAYS to recite and revise their own sentences?  And does it EVER seem that Wallace did so?

The prose of Oblivion is blearily, drearily, eye-wateringly tedious.  The hipsters will, of course, claim in advance that the grueling, hellish tedium of Wallace’s prose was carefully choreographed, that every infelicity was intentional, and thus obviate any possible criticism of their deity, a deity who, like all deities, has grown more powerful in death.  That is, after all, precisely what they say of the Three Jonathans, the sacred triptych of hipsterdom: Foer, Franzen, and Lethem, the most lethal of them all.

One thing that even the hipsters cannot contest: David Foster Wallace did not write fictionally for his own pleasure.  Unlike Kafka, he certainly did not write books that he ever wanted to read.

A valediction: The early death of David Foster Wallace is terrible and should be mourned.  He was a coruscatingly intelligent man.  My intention here is not to defame the dead. I recommend that the reader spend time with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and leave his other writings alone.  As I suggested above, he probably didn’t want his prose to be read, anyway.

Joseph Suglia

WHY I CAN’T STAND GEORGES BATAILLE / BLEU DU CIEL / THE BLUE OF NOON by Georges Bataille

WHY I CAN’T STAND GEORGES BATAILLE
by Dr. Joseph Suglia

I first discovered Bataille at the age of eighteen.  Here was a French Nietzschean who wrote strident essays and excessively explicit novels.  What was there not to like?  Throughout my eighteenth and nineteenth years, I read the oeuvres of Bataille, alongside the works of Heidegger, Derrida, and many others.

Around the age of twenty, my relationship with Bataille underwent a change.  I could no longer stand to read his writings.

La Littérature et le Mal (1957) destroyed my love for Bataille.  The book is almost unreadably silly.  Bataille argues, with the most incredible casuistry, that literature and evil are the same.  Literature evades collective necessity.  Evil evades collective necessity.  Both literature and evil evade collective necessity.  Therefore, literature IS evil.  However, this does not seem to imply, according to Bataille, that evil is literature.

This is a bit like saying: A duck is not a zebra.  A chicken is not a zebra.  Therefore, a duck is a chicken.  However, a chicken is not a duck.  This is the logical fallacy known as affirmative conclusion from a negative premise or illicit negative.

“Hegel, la Mort et le Sacrifice” (1955) troubled me, as well.  I had read enough of Hegel to know that Bataille was making intellectual errors, was misinterpreting Hegel.

Bataille’s misinterpretation of Hegel may be summarized thus: Human beings sacrifice the animal parts of themselves in order to become fully human.  Nowhere does this statement appear in the Gesammelte Werke of Hegel. Hegel writes instead: [Der Geist] gewinnt seine Wahrheit nur, indem er in der absoluten Zerrissenheit sich selbst findet.  When he writes that the Spirit finds itself in a state of absolute shreddedness, Hegel means that the human mind exteriorizes itself as an object and restores itself from its self-exteriorization.  The human mind is both itself and outside-of-itself at the same time.  There is no sacrifice of the animal for the sake of the human.

In L’Érotisme (1957), Bataille’s thesis is that death and eroticism issue from the same source, and many of his arguments are unforgettably convincing.  But his opening argument is both banal and irrelevant: Bataille contends that the relation between sex and death is apprehensible at the microbiological level: When the ovum is fertilized, it is demolished.  The ovum “dies” in order to form the zygote.

This has absolutely nothing to do with the phenomenology of eroticism, nor does it have anything to do with the phenomenology of mortality.

Last month, I read as much as I could endure of the fragments collected in The Unfinished System of Non-Knowledge.  These are the incoherent screechings of a lunatic.

* * * * *

THE BLUE OF NOON: A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia

According to Georges Bataille’s autobiographical note, Le Bleu du ciel (“The Blue of the Sky”) was composed in the twilight before the occupation of Vichy France.

The descending night darkens these pages.

Dissolute journalist Henri Troppmann (“Too-Much-Man”) and his lover, Dirty give way to every impulse, to every surfacing urge, no matter how vulgar.  Careening from one sex-and-death spasm to the next, they deliver themselves over to infinite possibilities of debauchery.  A fly drowning in a puddle of whitish fluid (or is it the thought of his mother, a woman he must not desire?) prompts Troppmann to plunge a fork into a woman’s supple white thigh.  The threat of Nazi terror incites a coupling in a boneyard.

Their only desire is to begrime whatever is elevated, to vulgarize the holy, to pollute it, to corrupt it, to bring it down into the mud.

By muddying whatever is “sacred,” they maintain the force of “the sacred.”

As a historical document, Le Bleu du ciel is eminently interesting.  It offers unforgettably vivid portraits of Colette Peignot (as Dirty) and the “red nun” Simone Weil (as Lazare).

It is also the story of a man who is fascinated with fascism and the phallus, of someone who loves war, though not for teleological reasons.  It is the story of a man who celebrates war on its own terms, who nihilistically affirms its limitless power of destruction.

As the night spreads, the blue of the sky disappears.

Dr. Joseph Suglia