David Foster Wallace - worth a second look

Recently, I wrote a post here about the 13 books that everybody says they have read but haven't. I had actually read seven of the books on the list, but one of the remaining six was a book that I could not remember having heard of. In fact, I could not remember having heard of the author either. That writer was David Foster Wallace and the book was Infinite Jest. It had been published and evidently made a big splash back in the mid 1990s when I, apparently, wasn't paying attention.

I commented in my post that I had no intention of reading the book, but I felt guilty about that. How could I dismiss a book and a writer that I didn't even know? So, I decided to find out about the writer and his work.

Reading about Wallace, the man, gave me a lot of empathy for him. He was almost terminally shy and suffered from depression. He was also quite a prolific writer of both fiction and nonfiction, much of it highly praised and award-winning. He had a philosophical turn of mind and was very interested in philosophy and logic. In fact, he majored in English and philosophy at Amherst College. David Foster Wallace accomplished much in his too brief life. He was born in 1962 and died in 2008 by his own hand. The depression that had tormented his life had finally consumed it.

In researching Wallace, I found an essay that he had written about a year before he died. He wrote it for The Atlantic and I think it deserves a second look on this anniversary.

Just Asking

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

1. Given the strict Gramm-Rudmanesque space limit here, let’s just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes—an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency … the whole democratic roil.

2. (This phrase is Lincoln’s, more or less)

Are there some things worth dying for? Is an open and diverse society one of them? Will any of those draconian laws and events that Wallace mentioned in his essay actually make us any safer, or do they, in the end, only exacerbate the situation? Can we accept the fact that we will never be perfectly safe in this world and then go and live our lives joyfully, as if nobody hated us and wanted to destroy us? Is it possible for us to have an open and honest debate about this without resorting to political talking points that instantly shut down communication? These are some things that I think we should consider on September 11, 2010, as we remember the 2,973 who died that day, "democratic martyrs" and "sacrifices on the altar of freedom".

I think the proper response to all those deaths is not to say "Never again!" because, almost certainly, there will be an "again" some day. The proper response is to say that these martyrs to our open society shall not have died in vain - that we will continue to treasure our openness (And damn those, foreign or domestic, who would try to take it from us!) and make this society a shining light of diversity for all the world to see.

And, yes, I am putting Infinite Jest on my to be read list.


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