That was always my experience— a poor boy in a rich town; a poor boy in a rich boy’s school; a poor boy in a rich man’s club at Princeton … . However, I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored my entire life and works.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (via philphys)
Novels may be made up, but the emotions they evoke are real. These feelings grow out of our connection to the novel’s characters and the relationships between a protagonist and others in the context of the broader society. As we follow the ups and downs of a carefully crafted story, we build connections within the social and emotional regions of the brain. The result, according to recent research, is a better understanding of other human beings and a deeper empathy for others, leading to improved social skills. Historians have also claimed that great works of fiction have lent support to the concept of human rights. (For more on the psychology of fiction, see “In the Minds of Others,” by Keith Oatley, Scientific American Mind, November/December 2011.)
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“Basil, my dear boy, puts everything that is charming in him into his work. The consequence is that he has nothing left for life but his prejudices, his principles, and his common sense. The only artists I have ever known who are personally delightful are bad artists. Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are. A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realize.” — Oscar Wilde in “The Portrait of Dorian Gray”
“I have just now come from a party where I was its life and soul; witticisms streamed from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me, but I went away - yes, the dash should be as long as the radius of the earth’s orbit ————————— and wanted to shoot myself.” — Soren Kierkegaard (Journal Entry for March, 1836)
Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.
Remembering David Foster Wallace at 50: To commemorate the late writer’s birthday, we dug through our archives to find his Atlantic pieces — and the best of those written about him. (Apologies for the length, we couldn’t help ourselves!)
Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?
In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?
It is true that no one on either side of the studio’s thick window expresses or even alludes to any of these objections. But this is not because Mr. Z.’s support staff is stupid, or hateful, or even necessarily on board with sweeping jingoistic claims. It is because they understand the particular codes and imperatives of large-market talk radio. The fact of the matter is that it is not John Ziegler’s job to be responsible, or nuanced, or to think about whether his on-air comments are productive or dangerous, or cogent, or even defensible. That is not to say that the host would not defend his “we’re better” — strenuously — or that he does not believe it’s true. It is to say that he has exactly one on-air job, and that is to be stimulating. An obvious point, but it’s one that’s often overlooked by people who complain about propaganda, misinformation, and irresponsibility in commercial talk radio. Whatever else they are, the above-type objections to “We’re better than the Arab world” are calls to accountability. They are the sort of criticisms one might make of, say, a journalist, someone whose job description includes being responsible about what he says in public. And KFI’s John Ziegler is not a journalist — he is an entertainer. Or maybe it’s better to say that he is part of a peculiar, modern, and very popular type of news industry, one that manages to enjoy the authority and influence of journalism without the stodgy constraints of fairness, objectivity, and responsibility that make trying to tell the truth such a drag for everyone involved. It is a frightening industry, though not for any of the simple reasons most critics give.
Wallace is scrabbling along the high-terrain paths earlier explored by Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis. Indeed, not only does he share with both a mordantly black view of modern and late-modern experience, but he also has a penchant for weaving long braids from enticingly antiphonal plots, each of which is differently absorbing, if not for its characterizations or imaginative brio then for the sharp snap of its thought, the obsessiveness of its informational reference (hence the notes), or—and—the incandescence of the writing.
Whatever aesthetics we espouse, we are all closet traditionalists in our expectations—and these must be shelved. Wallace rebuts the prime-time formula. Think Beckett, think Pynchon, think Gaddis. Think.
Some personalities lend themselves well to biographies and profiles. These lives can be neatly packaged, edited, and bound. They can be organized into chapters, narratives, lists, and an index. And though these biographies might not make great literature, they can be thrilling to read (cf: Richard Burton). But some lives can’t be defined by the adventures therein; some possess an intellect so vast and frenetic that, consequently, it’s mostly inaccessible to the profiler and, in turn, the reader. See: Wallace, David Foster.
Wallace was the rare literary wunderkind to enjoy renown even outside the literary community. His gargantuan talent (the acclaimed Harper’s pieces, the dazzling Infinite Jest, the bestowment of the Genius Award), and to a lesser degree, his life story (Midwestern upbringing, junior tennis whiz, drug and alcohol use, electroconvulsive therapy) propelled him into literary superstardom. On two occasions the spotlight was especially acute: following the publication of his opus Infinite Jest in 1996, and when he took his own life in September 2008.
“He was his own man, and I always found him to be grateful for his own inventions, the books that made it financially possible for him to live as he wished. There was not a false note in what he said or did. It came unforgettably entwined with his original humor. He was incapable of duplicity. That strong character of his—unique in my experience—was significant and instructive to me. Its influence did not end with his death.”