Early Thoughts on the Wallace Archive
David Foster Wallace seemed to see literary criticism, at its best, a labor of love, piecing together how things work, a sort-of-less-boring Formalism. He took a different sort of stand against symptomatic reading that completely took the writer out of the equation, who you know “in your gut” is there, trying to have a conversation. Perhaps no other writer I have read gets in your gut more than Wallace, which is perhaps why I am so enthralled. His characters feel so uniquely voiced, and yet always display a certain exhibitionism that is always Wallace’s: and but so. Thus far, in my short time at the Harry Ransom Center, I can see just how tornado-like Wallace was, a voracious and eclectic reader, a writer that I cannot find the right word for: ambitious is too weak, self-despising is too unproblematic from a distance, absorptive and thoughtful lack the punch of what seems true. Wallace wanted to be successful, wanted to have and nurture a readership, but always at arm’s length. We need to have a conversation, but not together, you, but not you, me, but not me.
I have always felt drawn to analyze Wallace’s work alongside Paul de Man’s theories on rhetoric and the individual. I hold on to ridiculous reservations about never becoming what Wallace called a “crank-turner” in his 1993 interview with Larry McCaffry, in which he subsequently cited recent PhD’s as “like de Man and Foucault in the mouth of a child.” My heart just about skipped seeing de Man’s Blindness and Insight in Wallace’s library, falling apart from too much love. The only chapter that seemed to be read, and re-read, and read again, with annotations in Wallace’s distinct style splayed on the pages in red and green and black, was “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” a dismantling of allegory, symbol, and irony. I cannot know (yet!) whether Wallace was reading this as a student, assigned it as an instructor, or sought it out personally, but de Man’s critique of “symbol,” in its indefiniteness and subjective nature, as favored in literary studies over “allegory,” exhaustive and limited to authorial intent, are decidedly concerns that Wallace held on to for the duration of his all-too-short career.
To this point, I will say the following. These few days spent reading and re-reading his notes, letters annotations have been my labor of love, I cannot help but include Wallace in my inquisition into my love of books and reading, and look the other way when that love is unrequited. But to what end does this intimacy go? I have argued that we ought to avoid reading Wallace’s texts teleologically, looking towards his personal depression or his biography as a way of finding meaning, but this was mainly because I want to keep his fiction for myself, a place of joy and sly smiles. Or, perhaps it is the opposite that I have always feared: searching for closure about his personal life in his fiction, particularly that fiction which has been narrativized as his demon, as that fulfillment of his most-cruel prophecy that at least this artist was “willing to die in order to move the reader.” What am I supposed to pay attention to? To let go? For how long should I pause at the scrawled heart with “Please God, help” penciled inside in a chapter draft of The Pale King? The marginalia with “Fuck IT” circled, bolded? For how long?