Both Flesh and Not

“Both Flesh and Not,” by David Foster Wallace

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The ferocity with which scholars, writers, fans, and cultural critics explicate the legacy of David Foster Wallace, or even that a legacy is thought to already exist at all, strikes me as a bit absurd, if inevitable. (For a taste of this overload see this great article about the Year of DFW.) Intuitively, the true mark, nature, and worth of a legacy must be evident only in the hindsight of some critical distance. Many of the attempts at explaining the legacy of DFW (Himself would place a footnote here, noting that these attempts must simultaneously shape and create just that legacy; perhaps drawing a subtler, more elegant natural science analogy than the Heisenbergian one that comes to mind) do so without much of the appropriate grist for analysis, i.e., years, the plain ol’ test of time. Since DFW was a heavily prophetic writer, both purposefully and incidentally, we need distance and more experience to fully understand and grasp the import of his prophecies. (As of yet, I have not seen anyone discuss how the golden age of TV has subverted much of the argument of DFW’s seminal essay on TV and irony. Similarly, we rarely discuss how DFW’s obsession with sincerity and genuine emotionality allows many people to confuse sincerity with art or with intelligence. DFW never espoused an undiscerning sincerity, one more obsessed with its own ability to emote than the actual content of the emotions.)

I cannot think of any author in recent history who received such an onslaught of attention after their death. In the short five years since his suicide we have seen dizzying arrays of devotion in the form of eulogies, tributes, conferences, collections, academic analysis, more conferences and of course, the steady flow of “unpublished” material—interviews, essays, asides, letters, notes in the margins of self-help books, early poems and juvenilia, lists of his favorite books and authors; really just any scrap of his work has been pounced upon and collected for our edification. As a DFW obsessive, a proud fantod, a subscriber and infrequent contributor to the Wallace listserv, I feel ambivalent about this resurgence in ways that many others have eloquently described, but for me it’s this fierceness bordering on the religious that strikes me as salient, as indicative of something a bit outside of my intellectual reach.

In the immediate aftermath of the suicide, especially with the odd Zen koan like layout of the publication of This is Water, many commented on the nascent St. Dave phenomenon, whether in a descriptive or critical manner. They described the way much of the literary community now looked upon DFW as our moral voice and compass, an element of his work magnified and conflated into the driving and central element in his oeuvre. What few spoke about was the structural religiosity in the fandom of DFW extant many years before his suicide. Wallace, like many other begrudging voices of their generation, both fought against this, and yet fostered this through the style and content of his work. When I speak to people about their first encounter with DFW, many (if not most) use quasi-religious and spiritual jargon. We talk about a revelation, or a discovery of something sui generis, wholly new and hard to fathom, a singular voice that both captures the idiosyncrasies of a mind while encapsulating the tensions of a time. DFW rarely elicits tepid reactions and because of that, because of his ability to lower our defenses and dance into the innermost abysses of our personalities, it should come as no surprise that people always treated DFW as a saint, not only in the sense of his morality, but in the way we interact with his works. Fantods, or just plain fans, always looked upon his repertoire the way zealots look upon a the religious canon of a rabbi, priest, imam, or monk: even the smallest utterances in a non-formal context take on importance to the worldview of DFW. We not only knew all of his writings, sometimes by heart, but we knew the legends, the stories, the tradition growing around his personality, his personal life. We gobbled up his interviews as if the sayings of a a founder of a new religion. (Part of what makes The Howling Fantods the most lovable, important website and resource on Wallace is its obsessiveness for all things Wallace. I feel at home there.) Consequently, the ferocity with which many of us now pursue his legacy is but a concretization and enlargement of a more limited phenomenon.

Part of the urgency of the legacy pursuit apparently flows from our half-morbid/half-empathetic desire to explain the mystery of DFW’s suicide. We do so not only to mitigate the pain of its occurrence, in a sense to redeem that voice he implanted inside our head, but also because we see his demise as a symptom of our society, our generational illness. Yet, this desire often clouds our ability to think critically of DFW and his work, or at least to think with pretensions to objectivity.

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

I take this tangential excursion on the route to reviewing the newest of the posthumously published works of DFW, Both Flesh and Not, because it highlights the sort of absurdity in the idea of the review itself. Writing a review of this book (a book of previously uncollected essays) somewhat necessarily works within this premature structure of the legacy of DFW. Moreover, to see this as a previously uncollected collection of his essays is to give in to another curious and outmoded structure of thought, i.e., the idea that an existence and publication on the internet differs in form from the publication in one book. All of the essays in Both Flesh and Not are well-known and available on the internet, which makes the collection a bit more of a populist effort, but also a bit befuddling in its purpose. The juxtaposition of these essays accomplishes little, and there doesn’t appear to be any order to the essays themselves that illuminate the works. It’s hard to even know what to say about the work itself besides just talking about these essays that have been with us, some for decades.

Of course, on their own, they do contain and reveal much about the work and personality of DFW, even as they often come off as shadows of his greater essays. Yet some of them are true throwaways, or at best tantalizingly frustrating in their paucity of analysis. Even in such a staggeringly intelligent essay as “Deciderization 2007 – A special report” the context delimits this essay’s importance. As the introduction to a book of the best essays of 2007, it transcends its immediate purpose and provides a few brilliant scraps about the nature of information consumption in the internet world, but rarely goes deeply into the assertions, rightfully so in its initial context. But here, on it’s own, it feels a bit lacking, wanting. Some of the essays belong to the realm of diehard fans because of their density and esotericism, while others are just limited in scope and relative importance.

Federer Both Flesh and Not,” the opening essay of the book, needs little introduction. Immediately with its initial publication it was received as one of the best and most important sports essay of our generation. The next essay, “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young” (a more prohibitive essay), requires not only a strong literary background but feels time-bound. It also displays a younger DFW with a considerably greater tendency toward douchebaggery. He easily dismisses and belittles large swathes of writers and writing in a somewhat dense academese, a style of which he would later come to deplore.

What emerges after reading these essays in succession is an odd conclusion and perhaps redemption of this whole book: DFW emerges as a flawed and human writer. It’s hard to read Infinite Jest and not see as the work of unprecedented and unparallelled talent and genius. These essays not only show DFW as human, but truly as flawed, both as a thinker, writer, and as a person. This comes out acutely in the most challenging essay of the bunch, “The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress.” The essay initially appeared in an academic journal, hence the esotericism and denseness of the piece, but gained more traction because in DFW’s praise of Markson’s challenging book as some of the best experimental fiction in recent history. He spoke about numerous issues that do in fact contain relevance to a larger understanding of his legacy and though. In the essay, a real doozy that requires hours to mine, DFW gives his longest and largest treatment of the importance of Wittgenstein, an influence from the beginning of his career. For DFW, Wittgenstein fought the greatest intellectual battle of the last generation: the battle against intellectual solipsism. DFW then picked up this battle cry and sought in all of his work to display and expunge solipsism as the only or inevitable result of our thoughts. While a noble and admirable effort, the more I learned about Wittgenstein in school, his actual works and legacy, the more I came to realize how heavily idiosyncratic and even mistaken manner in which DFW conceived of Wittgenstein. In short, DFW creates an uncharacteristically neat narrative in the famously gnomic works of Wittgenstein. Additionally, to see Wittgenstein as fighting first and foremost against solipsism is not only a tenuous assertion, but one that is often undermined by the mountains of secondary analysis that claims something of the exact opposite. Many thinkers and contemporary philosophers see in the works of Wittgenstein the roots and beginnings of a reductive behaviorism, one that limits the complexity of our internal experiences. Regardless of the correctness of either assertion, in this academic essay DFW evinces a sort of academic laziness in discussing Wittgenstein in a vacuum.

Yet, these missteps in the larger context of DFW warm my heart and endear me more to this flawed giant of a mind. It’s nice to see that even DFW made literary snafus and developed as a person and a writer. His genius often overshadows his heroic work ethic, his birth pangs as a writer, his youthful arrogance and petulance, and his often myopic scope. Like all real geniuses their mistakes and flaws only put their accomplishments in greater light, and this scattered collection of essays does just that.


Joe Winkler is a freelance writer living in the Upper West Side. When not ingesting all things cultural, he attends classes for a Masters in English Literature at City College. To support this extravagant lifestyle, Joe teaches, tutors and babysits, unabashedly. He started writing with a personal blog - noconversationleftbehind.blogspot.com, which allows him to indulge the ramblings of his mind. He began his writing career after he quit a Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology because he realized that he likes people more in the abstract than in reality. More from this author →