October reading: DT Max on David Foster Wallace, and the quandary of biography

I had a theory when I was younger that people read more novels when they’re younger, and non-fiction and biographies when they’re older. I think the idea was that the young are readier to read themselves into the character of the hero, to live vicariously, imaginatively and as it were subjunctively through them. They suspend their own life, their own reality, in order to try out, try on different ways of being in the world. A novel, to a young person forever stranded in the anteroom of ‘real life’, is nothing less than a magical skip button that allows them to leap ahead and experience life beyond their present situation – its dangers, its possibilities, its joys and desperations, its final ends.

Horribly shot under artificial interior November light.

Conversely, I thought, older people – proper old grown-ups – had somehow moved beyond this potentiality, were too far entrenched in the hard, unconditional realities of their own life to enjoy the dreamlike freedom that novels offer. Why should they? Escapism is only a pleasure so long as escape remains, however distantly, a possibility. When you’re trapped, or committed, playing at being someone else seems a foolish pastime, and so you turn to the objective, informative, bolstering pleasures of non-fiction, that allow you to observe, inside and outside of yourself, but don’t tempt you, as in Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf (a book I probably read a lot at this time), to step into the dance.

Do I still think this? I don’t know. But I do know that two biographies I’ve read this year have affected me more than any other I’ve read, I think, however much I might have admired them: Matthew Hollis’s Now All Roads Lead to France, a partial biography focusing on the last years and death of Edward Thomas (discussed here), and DT Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, his life (the first) of David Foster Wallace.

What struck me about these books as I read them is the huge importance of that most obvious of facts about the biography (not all, obviously, but it remains a condition of the form): that the character, at the end, dies.

Now, there are biographies of living people, but those are really just journalism, and there are novels in which the – or a – main character dies, but there is something about the way that biographies freight their narrative with a final extinction that gives the experience of reading them a definite texture. It’s a feeling of helplessness, of being dragged, as if you’re attached by a rope to this character who has already disappeared over a cliff edge ahead of you; and the further you get through the book, the stronger the pull. People often talk of novels having ‘narrative arcs’, and typing that I can’t help thinking of that arc as a physical line on a page, and it’s travelling essentially upwards; dipping, naturally, but somehow inevitably ending higher up the page than it started. That is the optimistic nature of the (realist? bourgeois? traditional?) novel. The narrative arc of the biography ends, always, off the bottom of the page, lower than it started, deep in the abyss.

This revealed itself to me, first in the Thomas, and then in the Wallace biography, as the strangely emotive thought – the strangely physical thought, very much linked to the book-as-object (book as avatar of the dead subject, who once took physical form in the world, like this book, but do no longer): that I didn’t want it to end. Because the book ending meant the life ending, and the fact is, as I was reading the books I found myself thinking that I didn’t want either of these people to die – in the way that, for instance, I wasn’t affected by the death of Wittgenstein in Ray Monks’ The Duty of Genius or Beckett in James Knowles’ biography – two other books I admired and found instructive, but which didn’t move me.

The fact is, we read biographies to trace lines between the life and the writing, or the thought, despite the fact that this, in a poststructural age, is an activity that is, at the very least, frowned upon. Only a rube would think that we can understand the writings better by ‘discovering’ their inspirations and antecedents. And yet no one who has ever written, seriously, would deny that the writing is an outpouring, an overflowing, from the life, an attempt to deal with it – where ‘it’ is far more than a mere list of salient biographical events. These arguments reappeared recently over a newly published biography of Derrida by Benoit Peters. Stephen Mitchelmore pointed to a short post by Mark Bowles in which he says:

The suggestion with biographies, and with their reviewers, is too often that the philosophical reflections help to somehow repair, prolong, compensate or ‘deal with’ the biographical fact. That is, the biographical approach tends towards psychologism. The intelligibility of the ideas resides outside the texts, outside the movement of words and concepts. These are attempts to ‘earth’ the philosophy, to bisect the line of thought with a biographical line.

This is standard post-Derridean thought, and it does apply, fully, in many instances. I can’t imagine my understanding of any Beckett text would be significantly improved by the addition of a biographical/psychological motive, but the Wittgenstein book is different (and to a lesser extent the Wallace one). Monks’ book makes the case for this particular philosopher’s ideas residing very much ‘outside the texts’ and very much in the lived life. His philosophy was as much there in his biographical acts as in his textual acts, and the push and pull of them against each other – in both directions – is absolutely worth tracing. It’s as Geoff Dyer says of DH Lawrence in Out of Sheer Rage (and he says similar things about Cheever’s journals): it’s not that the letters and journals explain the fiction, but that the fiction explains the letters.

He is quite explicit about what he calls “the gravitational pull of [Lawrence’s] work, which is always – another reversal – away from the work, back towards the circumstances of its composition, towards the man and his sensations.”

Lawrence, Wallace, Wittgenstein. Would Wittgenstein have become the figure he did if all he was was his texts? If he didn’t have that messianic charisma that impelled people to give up philosophy to work in a factory at his behest? The same is true, to a far lesser extent, with Wallace. He was ‘a figure’. He had a ‘project’. The writings are written in full cognizance of this fact; they point towards the life. There is nothing outside the text, but sometimes the text contains, or points to, that which is outside it.

So, I’m not arguing that we should be trying to ‘know’ who a particular thinker or writer was, and what they did in their life, but rather that we can learn much from trying to measure the distance between the biographical act and the textual act, and the tension, the friction that exists between them – so that we get better at measuring that same distance, that same friction, on our side of the exchange, between the text as read by us, and our own subjectivity.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
[…]
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

(Elliot: ‘The Hollow Men’)

It’s that shadow, that distance, that is the work of art (as distinct from the ‘work of art’), and the work of understanding. What matters is not what happened to make someone write something, but how they transformed that act into words, into art. In coming to a better understanding of that, we might come to a better understanding of what we are doing with words when we translate them back into thought, ideas, concepts, within our own lived life – and, more generally, what we do when we translate our own impulses into actions, whether textual, otherwise artistic, or moral.

It’s a similar thought I had at a Francis Bacon retrospective at the Tate a few years ago, which included photographs and sketches from his studio. My first impulse was to ignore these, that everything we needed was in the finished paintings, but sitting there, I reconsidered. After all, it’s naïve to think of a painting, or a piece of writing as finished: it is always only ever a movement towards something out of sight, out of reach, and to understand a movement you must know where it began.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this – it’s a blog post, not a paper; a confused stumbling attempt to catch the oiled, squealing piglet of argument that may not, in the end, exist.

I was intending to write about the Wallace biography, which I read compulsively, dispiritedly – how could I not, considering that I haven’t even finished The Pale King, and here I am reading this… journalism.

(I wanted to write about Wallace’s new essay collection, Both Flesh and Not, about which I will post shortly. I read a far bit else, a lot of Sebald, but I’ve written about him plenty, and there’s more to come elsewhere.)

I was shocked (and embarrassed, for myself, at that shock) to discover that the great story ‘My Appearance’, from Girl With Curious Hair, which is brilliant hoisting, filleting and definitive disposal of the one-dimensional irony of David Letterman and his ilk… had much of its most pertinent dialogue lifted from an actual episode of the show. That stuff the character of the actress says, a real actress said.

I was intrigued to notice the similarities between Wallace and Wittgenstein in their self-flagellatory impulses – Wallace, as part of his AA routine, went round apologising to people for his trespasses against them, just as Wittgenstein did – only his decision was off his own bat.

What is outside the text? Morality is outside the text. This is something I touched on in a conference paper recently, and hope to find some cogent way to express at some point.

Sorry for this long letter…

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One comment

  1. Steve

    Thanks for the post – a lot for me to think about and unpack here. It was interesting to find just how close DFW’s work often was to his life, and made me think about what balance there is between making-stuff-up/relating-real-life-experience from any writer.

    “the strangely physical thought, very much linked to the book-as-object (book as avatar of the dead subject, who once took physical form in the world, like this book, but do no longer): that I didn’t want it to end.”

    I can completely relate to this with the Wallace bio. I had this sensation reading the book on a Kindle. It told me I was 65% through the book, and as there hadn’t been so much detail on DFW’s later life I thought I had quite a lot more ‘life’ to read. Then it became clear the book was nearing its end and I was only around the 65% mark because it was counting the index etc. So, DFW’s death in the book kind of oddly crept up on me.

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