How to be Happy
The Ethics of David Foster Wallace
March 1, 2011
Mar 1, 2011
16 Min read time
The Ethics of David Foster Wallace.
David Foster Wallace, et al., Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will
Columbia University Press, $19.95 (paper)
David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life
Little, Brown $14.99 (cloth)
Ships as far as the eye can see. The rising sun glittering on the Aegean. Wind rippling the sails, water lapping the bows, fear, excitement, vengeance, glory, the favor of the gods, the order contemplated, the order given.
Or, expressed differently:
Since obviously under any analysis I have to do either O or O´ (since O´ is not-O), that is, since □(O v O´); and since by (I-4) it is either not possible that I do O or not possible that I do O´, (~◊O v ~◊O´), which is equivalent to (~◊~~O v ~◊~O), which is equivalent to (□~O v □O), we are left with □ (□O v □~O); so that it is necessary that whatever I do, O or O´, I do necessarily, and cannot do otherwise.
Both of these remarks are about fate and free will, necessity and contingency. The first is the scene Aristotle sets; the second is David Foster Wallace’s reformulation of it in his exceptionally promising, and sole, contribution to technical philosophy: his senior honors thesis, newly published in a volume entitled Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will.
In On Interpretation Aristotle defends a view about fate, free will, necessity, and contingency that is at once logical, metaphysical, and naval:
A sea battle must either take place tomorrow or not, but it is not necessary that it should take place tomorrow, neither is it necessary that it should not take place, yet it is necessary that it either should or should not take place tomorrow.
This seems clear enough, and is. Nothing in Aristotle’s example is necessary except that something take place or not take place; a sea battle, after all, cannot both happen and not happen. But what of the metaphysical implications of this logical necessity? How should we speak of contingency and potentiality, if such things truly exist? Is the general free to give the order for battle, or is all foreordained to happen, fixed in future place by natural law and supernatural will?
When Leibniz took up the same question two millennia later, he asked whether Aristotle’s pupil, Alexander the Great, was fated to command, live, and die as he did. “When we carefully consider the connection of things,” Leibniz wrote:
We see the possibility of saying that there was always in the soul of Alexander marks of all that had happened to him and evidences of all that would happen to him and traces even of everything which occurs in the universe, although God alone could recognize them all.
This leads Leibniz fitfully close to fatalism, the idea that free will is an illusion. He escapes, if escape he does, from this logic-locked world by means of a distinction between “necessary necessity” and “contingent necessity.” (Yes, this is suspiciously slippery, and is very much a story unto itself.) Given the metaphysical thickets encountered when we talk about fate and free will, contingency and necessity, it is no surprise that logicians have sought to clarify the question, or that, to that end, they have crafted specialized tools.
In the fullness of time, Aristotle’s sea battle gave rise to modal logic—the branch of formal logic concerned with possibility and necessity—and thereby to David Foster Wallace’s youthful attempt to use modal logic to refute arguments in favor of fatalism. Sea battles are full of accident and adventure, and thus the sort of thing that generally appeals to budding novelists. Modal logic, however, is a rarer taste, and requires some special explanation. Readers of academic philosophy may be interested in the modal logic, but what is there for Wallace’s literary fans in his thesis? A ready answer is nothing whatsoever. But a better, if hidden, one is that in it is the most important idea of all, the one that links together all his works, all his most passionate thinking: the idea of how truly to be free, or, as he more colorfully expressed it, of how to be “a fucking human being.”
• • •
Wallace’s thesis is a dense, formula-filled, 80-page examination, restatement, and refutation of the distinguished philosopher (and bee-keeper) Richard Taylor’s 1962 paper “Fatalism.” The thesis was submitted to Amherst College’s philosophy department in 1985 and was awarded the Gail Kennedy Memorial Prize in Philosophy (the same prize that Wallace’s father, James, had won 26 years earlier). As the passage cited above suggests, it is not an easy read—one of the reasons it is surrounded by so much ancillary material (the reader doesn’t reach the thesis itself until page 141 of the book) and why James Ryerson’s introduction is indispensable. But despite its technical language, the thesis is relatively easy to characterize: it aspires to refute the idea, advanced in Taylor’s paper, that free will is an illusion.
Wallace longed to give ‘CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow.’
Wallace responds specifically to Taylor’s
semantic argument out of six seemingly inoffensive presuppositions [that] appears to force upon us a strange and unhappy metaphysical doctrine that does violence to some of our most basic intuitions about human freedom.
The “strange and unhappy” doctrine in question is fatalism. Wallace focuses on Taylor’s “move from semantics to metaphysics,” from claims about language and meaning to claims about the world, and finds the necessary resolution in modal logic.
Early in his thesis, Wallace notes:
I am going to try to bend over backwards to accept Taylor’s premises, to grant him everything he seems to want in the argument, and then to show that the conclusion he desires still does not follow validly from that argument.
The skilled rhetorician takes the opposing view and states it in its best, brightest, most seductive terms—and then roundly refutes it. In this respect Wallace’s thesis is masterly. He expends a good deal of time and energy distinguishing, in logical terms, something that seems to be in no need of distinguishing, and for which a special semantic device seems wildly superfluous: that “physical possibility is . . . properly understood in a significantly different way from logical possibility.” This is perfectly intuitive: a 60-foot man is logically possible, but not physically possible. It thus seems supremely strange that the author would go to such pains to argue it, and that it would need to be argued (with the aid of formulae!) at all.
Aristotle wanted to “save the phenomena”: he thought that philosophy should not stray too far from our considered opinions. Taylor seems to move in a different direction, presenting an argument for something that seems counterintuitive—that we are not free to think and act, that nothing can be done about future sea battles. The debate provoked by Taylor’s fatalism was more focused on saving logic than saving the phenomena. That is, the problem seems to be philosophy’s—how philosophy can coincide with its world, how it can express our basic intuitions, how it can pass the test of accurately reflecting the world in which it is written.
What Wallace did in his thesis—with the same understanding incisiveness of his later analyses of cruise ships, the porn industry, lobster biology, tennis, David Lynch, and a host of other matters—was show how to resist the seemingly compelling premises that led Taylor to that unhappy, fatalist conclusion. Wallace argues that Taylor has made a category mistake, presenting what is ultimately “a semantic argument for a metaphysical conclusion.” (Wallace is particularly good at unmasking the metaphysical arguments contained in or concealed by logical ones; years later, in his Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, he discussed how “implicit in all mathematical theories . . . is some sort of metaphysical position.”) Wallace can thus end on a lucid, heartening, and elegant note: “If Taylor and the fatalists want to force upon us a metaphysical conclusion, they must do metaphysics, not semantics. And this seems entirely appropriate.”
• • •
The first readers of “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality” knew that it was one of two honors theses its young author was writing. They thought the other—a 500-page novel entitled The Broom of the System—was a sideline, albeit a vast one, the hobby of a man clearly destined, as his father had been, for philosophy.
Wallace was to begin graduate work in philosophy at Harvard University a few years later, but he soon abandoned the undertaking, suffering an emotional breakdown. He then dedicated his intellectual energy to fiction and a series of incomparably brilliant, funny, compassionate, kind, strange, insightful, and moving essays (collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster). He wrote no further works of technical philosophy, but he did go on to write a novel, Infinite Jest, that made The Broom of the System seem brief.
Wallace’s commencement address was avuncular, but the voice was that of the uncle who gets high with you.
In the wake of the fame these works brought him, Wallace was asked in 2005 to give Kenyon College’s commencement address. He again focused on free will, but this time he took a radically different approach. The speech—also recently published, as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life—is a masterpiece. It is friendly, fond and very, very funny. In his 2004 essay on lobsters, Wallace had expressed his concern “not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is more like confused.” There, in his speech, and elsewhere his confusion is expressed with rare lucidity. He did not write with what George Steiner once called “the serene malice of age and work done.” He wrote, instead, with the feverish curiosity of youth and of work to be done.
The tone of the address is, as all such addresses must be, avuncular, but the voice is that of the uncle who gets high with you, the uncle who says that your father loves you but that when he was your age he made lots of mistakes and is still to this day a whole lot less sure about things than he lets on. Though Wallace was nearly twice as old as 2005’s graduates, he spoke on their level; he cares and communicates that care. The speech is jocular, disarming, and open; its attitude is you-might-think-I’m-just-a-ridiculous-old-loser-for-saying-this-but-I-actually-believe-it-so-here-goes.
Wallace’s argument—for he has one—is that the goal of undergraduate education, and of all education, is free will. He holds that education’s greatest benefit consists in “being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” The reason he gives is simple and absolutely typical: “Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”
Much of his address is thus advice on how not to get totally hosed, which is to say on how to be happy, which is to say, ethics. From Aristotle onward ethics has been about how not to get totally hosed—on the highest level. Learning this is the most desirable thing of all. It is what another great essayist of the twentieth century, Guy Davenport, called “the inviolable privacy” of the mind.
Whereas Wallace’s senior thesis aimed to explain the rightness of something that we knew was right from the outset, the commencement address aimed to explain the necessity of something we think either does not exist or we have long since acquired. He argues that if this ultimate goal of a liberal arts education has been reached, “if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention,” you will have unparalleled freedom. He then broaches the central topics of the novel he had been at work on for several years and was never to finish (The Pale King, to be published in fragmentary form in April): boredom, tedium, and alienation. “It will actually be within your power,” he continues in his Kenyon address:
to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things.
As we might expect, the goal of such freedom is not personal pleasure, not merely “the freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms,” but what Wallace calls “real freedom”:
the really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.
That is to say, freedom is not about having as few fetters as possible; it is about leading an examined life. Freedom is being a good person, choosing to be a good person, every day.
Wallace once remarked that the most beautiful beginning in all of Western literature is that of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: “The world is everything that is the case.” With this in mind, our aim should be to see the world, to attend to everything that is the case around us. We should imagine our way into the lives those around us lead, to reflect on what wild contingencies led to our state and to theirs, to reason our way into their beliefs and imagine our way into their fears. To not get totally hosed is to see that the cashier in the consumer-hell-type situation has this soul-crushing job not because it is in the cashier’s character to have a crappy job, in the same way that Leibniz thought it was in Alexander’s character to conquer Darius and die by poison. It is not divine ordinance that has put things in these places. That this person has a dreadfully boring job while you might have an interesting one is not because that is the right and true order of things in this, the best of all possible worlds, but because of contingent, crooked reasons that no logic—formal, modal, or other—will straighten.
To not get totally hosed is to see contingent reasons rather than a true order of things.
Discussions of free will inevitably touch upon its limits, logical or otherwise—particularly on last refusals. Isaac Bashevis Singer once called suicide “the highest way a man can tell the Almighty, ‘I don’t agree with the way you are managing the world, and because I don’t agree, take back Your gift.’” In Infinite Jest Wallace’s tennis prodigy Hal appears to echo Singer, confiding to his brother, “God seems to have a kind of laid-back management style I’m not crazy about.” One form of final freedom might indeed be to find, to judge, the management of the world utterly unacceptable and to give back the gift.
Wallace committed suicide in September of 2008, for reasons or unreasons finally impossible to know. But the freedom that he writes about in his address is focused elsewhere. That is, entirely on the living—on life, on the sweet insistence of its fullness and its detail. To be free in the world, as opposed to being merely free in your skull-sized kingdom, you must wonder into the finer reasons for things—you must look, as Jules Verne said, “with all your eyes” at everything around you all the time.
Wallace’s remark about being totally hosed is a signature stylistic trait and at the same time an absolutely serious, an almost technical, term in his philosophy—and the motivation for his fiction. Because fiction concerns what it is to be “a fucking human being,” he aspired to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction.” He longed to give “CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.” To be totally hosed is not to come out with less of some concrete thing, such as money or recognition; it is to be riveted in place by your circumstances, to find yourself incapable of thinking beyond them. Our most human freedom is that of consciousness, of being able to turn our thoughts where we will, and a compassionate life involves learning that certain movements are difficult and yet right, and rewarding beyond all measure. Like that of his modal-logic thesis, the end of Wallace’s address is artful. “Your education really is the job of a lifetime,” he says, “and it commences—now. I wish you way more than luck.” In view of the fact that he found himself in inexpressible pain and took his own life three years later, these parting words carry a special sweetness, and sadness.
• • •
There is a final consideration to be noted in connection with Wallace’s early and late, technical and popular, reflections on free will. We care everywhere and always about freedom—except, perhaps, as concerns one thing: love.
It should come as no surprise to Wallace’s readers that he uses tennis as an example in his investigation of fate and freedom. His finest writing circles around the sport he called, in Infinite Jest, a “hybrid of chess and boxing.” When he watches a professional tennis player—as he does in a 1996 essay on Michael Joyce, a promising player who never broke into the top ranks—Wallace soon turns to questions of free will and choice. “Can you ‘choose’ something,” he asks, “when you are forcefully and enthusiastically immersed in it at an age when the resources and information necessary for choosing are not yet yours?” Although his reflection begins at that unknowable point, it ends elsewhere—in love. “When Michael Joyce speaks of tennis,” Wallace writes:
The eyes get round and the pupils dilate and the look in them is one of love. . . . It’s the sort of love you see in the eyes of really old people who’ve been happily married for an incredibly long time, or in religious people who are so religious they’ve devoted their lives to religious stuff.
Are we free to love? Doubtless. Are we free in love? We don’t know. Being in love is either freedom itself, or its opposite. Am I, for instance, free to love dogs? Because my first memories are of dogs, because I confided in them when I was confused and frightened, because mine licked away my earliest tears, am I free in my affection? The reason this sounds silly is that it is silly. The obvious point is that I don’t care. Stated philosophically, I have a marked preference for the belief that I actually love dogs. Stated more simply, conditional love is no love at all. And so I love what I love with all the fierceness I can, with every beat of my heart, or not at all.
Wallace’s conclusion is simple. “Whether there’s ‘choice’ involved is, at a certain point, of no interest . . . since it’s the very surrender of choice and self that informs the love in the first place.” This is radical and right and ultimately his last word on free will and choice. Whatever love is, we do not choose it. In the case of Michael Joyce, it means to “consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very serious and very small.” Whether Joyce chose the life he is leading cedes to another concern, whether it matters, and whether any of us really chooses.
Wallace doesn’t pose the latter question, and professional tennis is admittedly a world unto itself, a special activity, rapturously rich and joyous, as well as potentially limited and limiting on a scale difficult to imagine. Wallace ends his essay on Michael Joyce, “He will say he is happy and mean it. Wish him well.” Which is to say, we are free to speculate on the fates of others, about the degree to which others are conditioned by their circumstances and the degree to which they condition those circumstances, but where we should end, ethically, is simple and clear, and everyone has always known it. We should wish them well.
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March 01, 2011
16 Min read time