Author David Foster Wallace. Wikimedia Commons

He Who Dares Write of the Heart

We start here a journey among authors who accompany us in our work on "The Religious Sense." The first article is dedicated to David Foster Wallace because he described "the elementary experience" as few others did...
Luca Doninelli

We start here a journey among authors who accompany us in our work on The Religious Sense. The first article is dedicated to David Foster Wallace because he described "the elementary experience" as few others did. Such an experience gives man one option: either living as a robot, or accepting the wound that "traverses him from head to toe."

"Lane Dean, Jr., sees all this, and is moved with pity, and also with something more, something without any name he knows, that is given to him in the form of a question that never once in all the long week's thinking and division had even so much as occurred–why is he so sure he doesn't love her? Why is one kind of love any different? What if he has no earthly idea what love is? What would even Jesus do? For it was just now he felt her two small strong soft hands on his, to turn him. What if he was just afraid, if the truth was no more than this, and if what to pray for was not even love but simple courage, to meet both her eyes as she says it and trust his heart?"

These might be the last words that the American writer David Foster Wallace wrote during his lifetime, which was abruptly interrupted on September 12, 2008, when his wife found that he had hanged himself in their home. In his death there is an obscurity–the obscurity typical of a very difficult existential condition–that the reading of his books can't dissipate, even though the landscapes in some of his works (as in his novel Infinite Jest, where a whole section of the United States is turned into a horrible dump) seem to be pointing to other deeper shadows–like a mortal sickness that strikes all mankind–but also to a surprising light, that doesn't arise from those shadows (death, desperation) but from something else. This is reminiscent of the painting The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio, where a shut window reveals to us that the light comes from something else.

From a certain point of view, Foster Wallace's whole body of work might be interpreted as a systematic, very difficult struggle against suicide, quite present in his works, both as the subject of his narrations, and as the topic of his essays and public speeches. Nonetheless, the last word that (probably) this great writer wrote is "heart," and the opening passage in Good People (a short story, part of the collection Girl with Curious Hair) tells us also how this word is to be interpreted.

But before drawing this great writer's portrait, I'd like to point out that he is not a "simple" writer. Some of the subjects in his work–which is very extensive and therefore touches several aspects of life of today–may offend people. For this reason and for the difficulty of many of his pages, even though he is a very good writer for young people (from 18 on), it is important that such young people aren't weak readers. Going through the work of a real writer is like crossing the sea: you need good, rough sailors.

David Foster Wallace's biography reveals a special person, touched since his teenage years by atrocious pain (in a very severe form of depression, for which he had to take high doses of antidepressant medications) and by an extraordinary talent, that allowed him to offer significant contributions both in fiction and in non-fiction, but also in specific fields such as linguistics and mathematical logic. Critics have always lauded his talent (as is evident reading the dust jackets of his books). But words like "talent" and "genius" are often used to mask the annoyance caused by something that we don't like or that we don't understand. That is, nobody says that Dostoevsky had a lot of talent; nobody says that Dante was very intelligent.

On the contrary, I notice that the young easily read David Foster Wallace (DFW), and that instinctively they recognize the elementary characteristics that are present throughout his complex and diversified work: great attention to detail; sharp irony that often becomes hilarious comedy; and, most of all, great generosity and piety, with which he looks at the person and his destiny.

It is true that all his characters are a little bit crazy and very flamboyant–most of all the main characters in Infinite Jest, a 1400-page novel–but the good reader, the reader who doesn't put forward his own interpretation and instead faces the text with openness and simplicity, knows that often the complexity that is depicted corresponds to the acceptance of a very true fact: reality is terribly difficult to comprehend. Talent and intelligence can reach this judgment but they can't give us the rudder to sail in the difficult sea of the world, nor the map that shows the safest harbor.

The young readers who love DFW know that exactly the search for this harbor–that is, for something beyond human strength–was the writer's main interest, and for this they love him, accepting all his eccentricities.

In the short story Good Old Neon, the protagonist starts by saying that he had always been a fraud; that he had always been worried only about the impression he was making on other people. He wanted others to like him (and also "to be loved"). He had always studied not in order to improve himself but to get the highest grades. In this way, he had devoured the beauty that life could offer him, always "scared I wouldn't do well enough."

This is another thing that makes DFW so important: his consciousness of a wound that traverses man from head to toe and imposes upon him one fundamental option: to either become some kind of robot driven only by a spirit of adaptability, perfectly integrated in this world and without questions; or to accept that wound and, together with it, the questions we have and which we don't know how to answer with our own strength, because "the more we discover our needs, the more we become aware that we cannot resolve them on our own. Nor can others, people like us" (L. Giussani, Tracce d'esperienza cristiana [Traces of Christian Experience]).

This is the reason why we start this–hopefully useful–journey to help us in reading The Religious Sense by presenting not a well-established classic of our culture, but a writer born in 1962, who died tragically and who is still very controversial. Only a few writers have ever described what we call "elementary experience"–or "heart," according to this word's meaning in the Bible–with his same accuracy, with his same certainty that the "heart" isn't an interpretation or a sentiment, but something objective, that exists within us, has its own laws, and, almost certainly (this is the direction that more and more is noticed in him, with the passing of the years), has been placed within us by somebody Else.

In the marvelous speech of 2005, This Is Water, at one point he says it clearly: in reality there is no such thing as atheism; everyone must worship something or someone (the "unconditional devotion" Fr. Giussani talks about)–it is inevitable. But, if this something is not God, if it is not an exceptional Presence bearing an exceptional claim ("What art Thou to me?" asks St. Augustine; and the answer is: "I am your God"), any other "god" chosen among the details of human experience (wealth, physical beauty, success, cultural prestige) will eat us alive, making us walking corpses. In This Is Water, DFW speaks about truth, and after saying that the problem of truth doesn't concern the future or life after death, he bursts out: "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." In other words, it is about life, here and now."

The most amazing characteristic of his writing has always been his ability to penetrate the mental mechanisms of his characters. He wasn't so much interested in psychology or psychoanalysis. He was interested in the mental process through which people–who, looked at from this perspective, don't appear "normal"–establish, lose, regain, destroy, rebuild their relationship with this mysterious thing that is reality.

Some have written that his characters are unlikely; that they are not human; that his world is odd. But these detractors should explain why the young people find him so readable, so close to their way of looking at the world, so close to their real problems, which often are not the codified ones, those that can be sociologically defined and repeated, but others that are more difficult to define. In the short story quoted at the beginning of this article–where DFW demonstrates great courage when he puts at the core of his story a word, "heart," that the purists of literature (who used to worship him) consider unpronounceable for its rhetoric–is about a good boy who tries to convince his good pregnant girlfriend to have an abortion (they are both church goers). This short story recalls a famous one by Hemingway that describes the same dynamics. But while in Hemingway's story (Hills Like White Elephants) at the end her reasons yield to his strength, to his psychological violence, here things are different. A character appears who wasn't in Hemingway's story: the human heart, a character who very rarely appears in contemporary literature, if ever.


David Foster Wallace had this courage, the only one of his generation, the only one in the past few decades. This fight is the core of the drama that upsets his whole world. Therefore, even though sometimes his writings might be annoying, eccentric, incomprehensible, and even disgusting, it is worth following him, accepting him even when he disturbs us.

Of course, everyone may follow the path that they prefer in reading DFW. However, I would suggest that there are two fundamental books to start with: The Girl with Curious Hair and A Supposedly Funny Thing I'll Never Do Again, where the dynamics I described show themselves in the simplest way. In the first one, thanks to the light that Good People sheds on the other short stories, he explains that a large part of the invocation, of the questioning hides under the oddity of some situations. In the second, the extraordinary self-portrait of a writer who tackles his subject with the intention of keeping himself out of it, eventually finds out that, no matter how ridiculous a situation may be, those who observe it, if they are honest with themselves, can't feel extraneous. In addition to these texts there are Oblivion and, most of all, the text of the speech This Is Water. After these, the reader might be ready to tackle the short stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and the essay collections Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes, and Consider the Lobster. The Broom of the System and his masterpiece Infinite Jest should be saved for last, because otherwise one might run the risk of discarding them right away–unless you are like I was at sixteen, when, on principle, I loved starting from the hardest things...