The Thing of Important

600-wallaceAnd so on this morning, as Oscar Pistorius apologizes and Mickey Rooney dies, I am home sick on a rainy day. Too sick to teach, but not too sick to read and type. Lucky you.

Reminded of some rainy days in the spring of 1996 when I was home sick too. Right in the middle of my spring break at The Field School, and mad at the world to be spending my vacation hacking and puking on the couch.

My only comfort was a book called Infinite Jest, the mammoth and literally-unbelievably dense latest novel by David Foster Wallace, which I’d purchased at the urging of my best friend and, before the year was out, would finish, in part due to a couple more “sick days” I’d call in just to be able to keep reading. (Dale, I trust the statute of limitations that previously prohibited this confession has expired.)

I am remembering those days because I’m in the throes of conceptualizing a fall 2014 Honors class on Mr. Wallace’s work and how it informs an understanding of teaching and learning. So once again (and once again) I am knee deep in his stuff, experiencing the sort of sweeping-up and losing-of-oneself in words and reticulate arguments that his fans know well and, in some of his work, was the exact artistic aim he was working for.

That aim wasn’t merely aesthetic, though: it sought to embody something urgent and terrifying and sad about late twentieth-century life and our relationship to its entertainments and diversions. The insight – that we lose something crucial in remaining content with our cleverness – was the literary objective of his patricidal impulse toward his postmodern fathers, and led him to apply his staggering intellect toward short-circuiting the ironies and misdirections of postmodern fiction toward something more urgent and (yes) wholesome than cleverness. His oeuvre can thus be profitably read as an effort to use all the formidable language and structural powers at his disposal to the end of exploring and invoking an evolving understanding of what Wallace called, memorably, “single-entendre principles:” values that might constitute a more stable basis for engaging life than the emptier calories of infinite jest.

And so the class’s thesis is that the ways Mr Wallace’s take on this core theme evolves and changes over his writing career adumbrates something urgent and life-giving for those of us who spend our lives with younger people similarly seeking meaning in what they are doing. Intentional fallacy notwithstanding, I think the arc of Wallace’s personal life, combined with his intellectual rigor and commitment to living in a principled way, is a crucial factor in understanding the evolution of his art and, to some extent, the engine that drove it.

That, from this perspective, perhaps Wallace is a singular example of what it looks like when we accept Parker Palmer‘s invitation to bring “who we are to what we do” and seek to live “divided no more.” The tragic end of Wallace’s life at 46, by suicide, is an aspect of this argument that might seem incongruent with my scheme. How can we glean lessons on a life well-lived, and how to nurture such in our students, from one whose own life ends this way? Perhaps. But right now I feel even that part may invite a more compassionate understanding of our own natures and our need to reconcile ourselves to who we are, deeply. More directly, I think we can look hard at all of it, perhaps rescuing the argument (and its implications for our practice) from intentional overreach at the precise moment we’ll most need to.

It maybe goes without saying (1) that trying to find something beyond cynicism is the cold, hard bedrock of teaching: thus the affinity between Wallace’s literary project and my vocational one. I seek every place where we can get purchase for teachers against a common-sense view of our work that is increasingly cynical – one that views teachers as liabilities in the classroom to be “proofed” against with lockstep curriculum and ever-tightening accountability measures (the busy work that comes with these latter burning countless hours of a teacher’s professional life, thus keeping her too tired and distracted to do anything real). We need loud, smart voices that argue that what we do is life-giving, not in narrow careerist ways but in all the broadest “why-are-we-here” ways. This is my real work, and it rhymes so closely with Wallace’s that there has to be a way for the two to inform each other.

It’s also incredibly important to do this with Wallace as a teacher in the forefront of our minds. Because he was a teacher, for most of his life, and while he sometimes describes ambivalence about that work in interviews (interviews that are crafted, funhouse-mirror responses in many other ways, let’s note), I have found exactly zero evidence of that ambivalence in the online memories so many of his students began to post after his death. Whatever he was doing – whatever his personal discipline about what came into the classroom and what stayed out; whatever function the rigors of the schedule and the demands of his students served in helping him structure his written output – it worked a lot more than it didn’t. Teacher to teacher, I’ll have what he’s having. (2)

So this is what I am mostly working on right now. Other themes that Wallace lets us profitably consider, that will find place in the course:

  • the difficulty of knowing one’s own mind, let alone another’s;
  • the nature of expertise and how it is cultivated;
  • the ultimate value and purpose of living in community;
  • how, once beyond entertainment, we might access the deepest aspects of human experience (aspects that, for all their nutritive value, may be “boring”).

Maybe the most personal resonance for me is the one I tried to explain years ago, in a sloppy and painful piece that same friend and I wrote days after his death. I think the bit at the end still gets at the real relation, the underlying theme:

…that we are only as strong or rigid or resistant as that against or within which we have decided to buttress ourselves. That we make ourselves, in other words, in terms of the things against which we choose to strain—and, of course, that we pull to us weight that exceeds our own weight at our great peril.

What an interesting project this is shaping up to be. Like my dissertation, it sort of feels inevitable, the thing I would be working on if I didn’t have to be working on anything (say, because I was home sick). Insert “flow” experience reference, Malcolm Gladwell, etc etc, whatever. This work aligns with David Hansen’s wonderful definition of vocation: work that both has social value AND personal significance, that precious sense that one has somehow slotted into the work one is uniquely capable of doing. Sign me up.

(1) – Rarely the case, in this post. I know that when I am reading Wallace I begin to ape his mannerisms, which in my defense is surely more a generational tic than a personal one. Haters will appreciate that I have limited myself to one footnote.

(2) – Sorry, two. Assuming The Howling Fantods‘ very industrious web-bot picks up and re-posts this: Is anyone else out there interested in doing scholarly work on Wallace as teacher? I can find nothing in the emerging literature, and am eager to connect with others interested in exploring the area. Maybe I’ll edit an anthology. Please be in touch if so – osmond (at) appstate (dot) edu – wish I could be in Normal next month to meet some of you, but maybe next year.

Thanks to New York Times for image.

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