Narratives: The Self, Awareness, and “Worship” in David Foster Wallace and Plato [Part I]

Narratives: The Self, Awareness, and “Worship” in David Foster Wallace and Plato [Part I]

Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”

The American novelist, David Foster Wallace, gave this example story in his commencement speech Kenyon College’s graduating class of 2005 (titled afterward, This is Water )—what many have come to recognize as the summation of Wallace’s philosophy throughout his varying novels and writings. In his talk, as this story above kicks it off, Wallace tries to lay out his vision of what a true liberal education should aim at: a development of true awareness in modern American (and more generally Western) day-to-day living which reveals the narratives by which one/you and others live by, and how a lack of self-reflection and awareness is what bogs people down in meaninglessness and an imprisonment in the self—a major theme throughout Wallace’s works.

In this blog post I’m interested to look more at Wallace’s (as it were) Weltanschauung in his This is Water, particularly his conception of narratives as a religious- or ritual-like orientation of the self with the world and other selves in the world—and how easy it is for the postmodern American/Western self to miss the extent to which one’s life is determined by this. As I briefly propose near the end, Wallace’s themes parallel Plato’s own use of narratives in the possible ways that one can orient oneself towards reality.

To return to the atheist and religious drinker, above, at first glance one may think the moral of the proverb is that there is an equivalence between the two drinkers’ versions of events, devaluing the truth or falsehood between one or the other version. However Wallace hones in a deeper issue in this kind of example, namely what, for each man, internally motivates his respective version of the event involving prayer in the Alaskan wilderness:

It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.

Two important points stand out here. First, Wallace argues that the atheist’s and religious’ narratives should not be seen as automatic responses merely due to their circumstances and contexts—though this may be partially valid—but rather how the stories they construct may also result from “personal, intentional choice”. In other words, their whole raison d’etre, for instance the choice of what or whom they worship, can be the result of deliberation and choice. This directly leads to his second point: the danger of being dogmatically certain within the world of the narrative one constructs, however automatic or intentional, to the degree that one is locked away, an “imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up”.1

This dovetails with Wallace’s broader emphasis in the rest of his talk: the importance of awareness on a deeper level, not just in specific delimited domains such as religion, philosophy, psychology, and so on, but on a more pragmatic level—in the domain of day-to-day existence. One of the main impediments to this awareness is what Wallace calls our “natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”2 Among multiple examples of this default (and all too natural) setting, Wallace gives an example of a white-collar post-collegiate worker who, after a long day at work, goes home for dinner, only to find that his refrigerator is empty. Putting yourself in the shoes of this worker, you go to the grocery store, which ends up being clogged with other shoppers in that end-of-the-day rush, and you end up facing every possible element against in you: between the loads of shoppers, oblivious to the meaninglessness and boringness of their environment, who are in your way with their carts; the soul-deadening environment and music; the overwrought, boring checkout line employee wishing you “Have a nice day” (“in a voice that is the absolute voice of death”); the large-set SUVs cutting you off, in their own selfish, environmentally harmful way; and so on.

And yet as Wallace goes on to point out, “petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in”:3 because the other shoppers, despite initial appearance, may also be equally bored and aware of their context’s meaninglessness; the checkout line employee, despite apparently having the life of a dull, meaningful existence—”Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer” (among other possibilities);4 or the SUV or Hummer, rather than being driven by a purely insensitive driver, is “maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am”; and so on. Thus,

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

It is interesting here that Wallace is especially careful not to point out one, better “choice” for viewing reality over another—even though he might suggest it with the “mystical oneness of all things”. The greater emphasis instead is in being aware that one does have a choice beyond the immediately apparent “annoying and miserable” possibility, and this is consequent on becoming aware of the “default setting” that one lives by day-to-day. And this, in turn, also goes hand-in-hand with Wallace’s emphasis on transcending the self: if this is ever possible and to be genuine, it means a continual willingness to be able to accept other narratives beyond one’s own, however well-settled, and to be conscious that there is this choice.

Wallace goes on to specify this “setting” as a kind of “worship”, from which no one—not even the atheist—is truly exempt:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC5 or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Wallace’s words here follow on what we have just seen: on the one hand he suggests that there may be—or perhaps just are—better things to “worship”, like the various entities of traditional religions, but the greater, more immediate point is the awareness that there is even a choice. As he goes on to say afterward, “the insidious thing about these forms of worship”—like worshiping one’s body, power, or intellect, and so on—”is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. … They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.”

Up to this point, one might be concerned that Wallace is speaking contradictorily: there seem to be better things/entities to “worship”, but this isn’t less important than the sheer “choice” of what to worship. Yet neither of these seems to be Wallace’s point. Instead what he suggests is that one needs to reflect in a way that appropriates both the possibility of choice of what to worship, as well as the object of that “worship”: it is this lack of self-reflection that results in the “insidious” nature of the “worship”, or “default setting”, or really the “imprisonment”, that one ends up in. And this is what leads to his conclusion:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

Hence, the freedom Wallace advocates here is not simply the sheer multiplicity of “choice” per se, as argued above, but rather the possibility for raising one outside the self in reaching truly other selves: and perhaps, as a corollary, the possibility to reach reality in itself outside one’s own narrative.

I have discussed David Foster Wallace’s views in his This is Water at length, because I think he aims very closely at a very Socratic (if Platonic) way of talking about different orientations to reality—albeit in a distinctively postmodern way. In the case of Socrates, one sees this famously in the metaphor of the Cave in Republic VII, where education makes manifest even the possibility that there is more than one narrative (i.e. that there is merely the world of shadows, or the cave, and that there also exists the world of the true light, i.e. the Forms—a more “true” or “likely” narrative)—and how this fact should lead one to be both (a) aware of these differing narratives, and (b) how it should motivate action towards one of these narratives. The notion of attention in relation to awareness of reality is taken up with much effort later in the Stoics and Neoplatonists—echoing very similar themes to Wallace’s discussion of attention (both in This is Water and his other works). Unfortunately I must postpone developing this thesis for a follow-up post (Part II), but for now I will note that this ties into a thesis I recently blogged about by Dominic O’Meara, who argues that Plato advocates an “open philosophy” approach through the dialogues’ written form: the paradeigmata or stories that Plato sketches are inherently meant to be developed in specific directions. This would not imply total relativism, but it does make clear that Plato did not intend a close-ended system of reality in his philosophical approach.

I think something like this is at work in Wallace as well, however in a vert distinct way. The object of Wallace’s narratives are more on the side of the individual self, with the self’s orientation to reality: by contrast,6 the prisoners of Socrates’ cave collectively maintain their (mistaken) beliefs about the world, hence the object of the prisoners’ and philosophers’ narrative is common to both camps, and hence beyond any individual self. For Wallace’s (and our) world, we do not have a common story or way of life or consensus, but rather each individual self decides for her-/hisself how to go about reality. What is distinctive of Wallace, amidst our individualist postmodern context, is the emphasis he places on transcending the individual self, albeit from the standpoint of the individual’s reflective awareness of differing narratives, and making the choice which can lead to a real transcendence and selflessness. This may also be a distant mirror-image of what Plato also aims out from the very different world of Ancient Greek collectivism, for one also sees the same emphasis on selflessness. But all this I hope to develop at length in the next one or few blog posts on this topic.

  1. The allusion here to the metaphor/story of the Cave in the Republic is too juicy to mention. I pick this up a bit later. 

  2. As he goes on to elaborate: “People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being ‘well-adjusted’, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.” And more insightfully, he adds: “Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education—least in my own case—is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.” 

  3. I.e., “choosing” the narrative through which one sees other people or the reality of one’s circumstances. 

  4. “Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible.” 

  5. I.e. Jesus Christ—probably self-evident. 

  6. At least so I would maintain here—but let’s see in the next post! 

Jonathan Greig
Jonathan Greig

Jonathan is a postdoctoral researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, Austria.


David Foster Wallace Plato Narrative Attention Religion

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