David Foster Wallace and the Failure of Zen

David Foster Wallace, giving the commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, among many other things, said:

I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.


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. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.


The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us…

He expressed, in a painfully coherent way, a sharp dilemma that he saw: between his own strong drives, needs and desires, and an awareness and compassion of others that could detach him from the fact that he would never be able to satisfy those drives or desires. What he argues for is a recognizably Buddhist approach; compassion and awareness, but you hear the despair in how it’s described.

There’s a good deal of evidence from an excerpt from his unfinished book, The Pale King (about a man that works for the I.R.S.) that he was thinking along these lines:

Lane Dean, Jr., with his green rubber pinkie finger, sat at his Tingle table in his chalk’s row in the rotes group’s wiggle room and did two more returns, then another one, then flexed his buttocks and held to a count of ten and imagined a warm pretty beach with mellow surf, as instructed in orientation the previous month. Then he did two more returns, checked the clock real quick, then two more, then bore down and did three in a row, then flexed and visualized and bore way down and did four without looking up once, except to put the completed files and memos in the two Out trays side by side up in the top tier of trays, where the cart boys could get them when they came by.

What is this other than a painful attempt at meditative practice? And when he says the below in a manuscript note, it’s even more explicit:

Bliss — a second-by- second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.

Of course, Wallace calls such awareness and compassion ‘unimaginably difficult’ in his commencement address, and when he says he is not claiming any special knowledge or authority on how to do it, he’s not being modest. He is talking about his own struggle, a struggle that few are conscious or smart enough to try, and almost no one (especially not these smug Zen monks) would be able to express in such clear and heartbreaking terms.

Those who practice Zen, I think, would say they strive to achieve a “mind as the mind that faces life like a small child, full of curiosity and wonder and amazement. ‘I wonder what this is? I wonder what that is? I wonder what this means?’ Without approaching things with a fixed point of view or a prior judgement, just asking ‘what is it?'” Undoubtedly, this is a wonderful way to exist, and I would myself very much like to live that way.

But imagine Mr. Wallace, bristling with talent, supremely gifted with words, aching to wrestle with a good chunk of what people have done with literature. Could he actually do any of that while detaching himself in that way? It would be like cutting off an arm, or at least a finger. Buddhism seems to offer one track of fulfillment, but it doesn’t seem like it encompasses enough for someone like him. Maybe he needed two tracks, one for his life and one for writing, each with different rules. I wish he was still around, so I could see what he would undoubtedly have figured out.

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