Comments: The Tyranny of the Ironical Voice

That's an excellent quote, about a subject that I have thought a lot about, too. Can't wait for your discussion of it. The uber-cynical, ironic voice and the fear of appearing naive seem to me to be at plague levels and do make it very difficult to talk about anything important. Hope you post on the topic soon.

Posted by deang at September 15, 2008 09:19 PM

He gave Commencement Speech in 2005 at Kenyon University that is worth reading. His observations about the difficulty of living consciously were coming from that same "cool guy you'd like to be friends with".

He was a good Junior Tennis player, and his pieces on tennis (in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and in the NYT on Roger Federer) are beautiful.

Posted by Bruce F at September 15, 2008 09:27 PM

Most everything washes over me nowadays but this news pulled me up short. Just as Wall Street signals unambiguously a precipitate US decline, this best limner of the truth-averse culture that preceded and largely caused it decides to put his cue in the rack eternally.

Bernard, IJ still sits beside my bed taunting me (alongside The Corrections) but I have dipped into DFW's journalism, which is generally outstanding, and his stories, which are a bit all over the place but chock-full of the sort of singular insight evident in your quote.

There is also a wonderful essay on linguistics called 'Tense Present' which taught me a lot in a relatively short time and entertained me while doing so. He also did some serious math thing, but apparently real math mavens like yourself poured cold water all over it.

He was the same age as me and there is no author who ever made my head nod more in agreement or recognition than he did.


Posted by Glenn Condell at September 15, 2008 09:52 PM

I hate to say it, but that DFW quote is just pure insecurity. Like so much else of what he wrote, he elevated this deep insecurity into Grand Statements about America. I'm sorry about his death, but he was neither a great writer, nor a deep thinker, nor a particularly insightful person.

Posted by Don Lorenzo at September 15, 2008 10:09 PM

I remember enjoying Broom of the System so much that I refused to read Infinite Jest. Sometimes a good joke can run long.

Posted by buermann at September 15, 2008 10:34 PM

I looked quickly for the radio show you referred to but couldn't find it. Would you mind posting a link or letting us know where to look for it?

Posted by b at September 15, 2008 11:49 PM

w/r/t DFW's proclaimed genius or lack thereof: I think that it was not actually his intelligence or skillfulness with words that set him apart, although both of those are considerable in my opinion; rather, it was his deep self-awareness and courage to put in writing analysis of himself and his culture. Even though he may have made his points illusive by intricate, self-reflexive pose, I always believed that to be a part of the technique--by writing in this way he made the point that the process of self-examination complicated, there are many opportunities to get side tracked, etc. If you have to know the rules to break the rules, then to write about irony in the age of irony, you must simultaneously trick yourself and your critic with a veil of irony that fails to hide a thoughtful, sincere and brave evaluation underneath (to the attentive and open eye). [i think a mirror is a much better metaphor here, but i'm not a writer and I am tired]

Posted by David at September 16, 2008 02:04 AM

'I hate to say it, but that DFW quote is just pure insecurity.'

I agree, but that I think was the point, and at the core of Wallace's concerns. Brashness, or even just a phlegmatic demeanour have their place, but not inside his head, in these times.

I could only take him in small-ish doses, but I was more mentally alive reading him than anyone else. He could only take himself in small-ish doses too it seems, and by the other day, he'd obviously had enough.

Posted by Glenn Condell at September 16, 2008 03:26 AM

DFW wasn't a particularly skillful writer. His writing was conversational and inelegant. And, contrary to the claims of his fans, neither was he particular self-aware. He just made a big deal about the self-awareness that he did have. Most great writers -- and many ordinary people -- just take self-awareness for granted.

"I agree, but that I think was the point, and at the core of Wallace's concerns."

I just don't think he had anything to say that was all that interesting or insightful regarding these topics. Bernard's quote is a perfect example. Instead of just admitting that he was severely depressed and deeply insecure, he pompously ("The greatest sin today is to appear naive." Really? I don't think so) turned it into a cultural criticism (which, admittedly, has some truth to it).

I'm sure the fact that he was consistenly being told that he was a genius only made his self-loathing worse, which I find ironic given that I keep hearing his mourners reference him this way.

Posted by Don Lorenzo at September 16, 2008 05:14 AM

'DFW wasn't a particularly skillful writer. '

Well I guess that's a matter of taste as much as judgement.

As for depressive insecurity, I feel instinctively that this is something that has grown worse (both in intensity and the number of people it affects) in the time DFW and myself have been alive, and partly the blame for this lies in the way we live now, as opposed to then. It's not something you can measure, so no proof, just a conviction.

The expectations our culture has of us may in one sense be no more taxing than those that previous generations faced, but there are inputs to our lives, normally painted as wonderful adjuncts to them, which those previous generations did not have to deal with. And if they did, my guess is that many of them, certainly the more perceptive of them, would also have reacted with depressive insecurity.

Posted by Glenn Condell at September 16, 2008 06:41 AM

[sticks head in room, glances around with derisive half-smile] Losers!

Ah, but seriously, I found much of his writing hard to slog through, but he always seemed an amazing person to me - not so much "amazing" in a hero-worship context, but more in a "so skilled at exploring and dissecting his faults, and the faults he saw in modern culture" way that he always motivated an often unpleasant but ultimately rewarding examination of my own foibles kept blissfully submerged.

I don't share the passion of the many friends of mine truly stunned and distraught over this, but I am saddened, and think we are less without him.

Posted by jalexei at September 16, 2008 09:37 AM

Haven't read his stuff and won't -- simply put, I think that stories sans discernable endings are pretty much shite and think very little of the style that his critics love so much -- but I can jump all over that quote.

That quote only really makes sense if you narrow his "culture" down to "white, upper-class and/or academic," our technocracy (note the lower-case "t" -- this is not a White Wolf reference, you geeks out there). In other words, it covers a specific subculture. And white has to be in there: I think there are academic subcultures were mere novelty is not a sign of brilliance, and recapitulation of an old truth will not lead to derision. The quote does NOT apply to groups communicating about hard sciences, imo -- novelty can easily be stupidity, and physicists, biologists, etc. will call you on it.

The quote definitely applies to journalistic subcultures -- op-ed pages, for example.

In each case, though, where it applies, it is describing a symptom. Any field that does not have a touchstone of physical reality is will inevitably go spiraling off into the Realm of Complete Bullshit. Worse, there's usually a profit motive to this dimensional shift and the path into the Realm will be the one that best edifies the status quo.* Thus, I don't think the quote is overwhelmingly profound -- it's only describing the symptom and it only describes a small number of human worlds. But it is intelligent and it is accurate, if misapplied way too fucking generally, and, frankly, the world it applies to spends all of its time shitting on the rest of the world. Given that relevance, I find the quote useful.

*Some of you may have picked up a contradiction between maintaining the status quo and being novel. I'll explain:
Novelty can maintain a status quo by never addressing essential truths, especially if the entire system being addressed is based on a lie. In politics, for example, there are dozens of ways to sell the idea of murdering brown people in other countries, each more novel than the last. A skilled writer could make a claim of brilliance and cutting-edge thinking by saying the same old shit in newly-deceptive ways. Thus, he achieves his novelty requirement while maintaining the status quo.

Posted by No One of Consequence at September 16, 2008 10:05 AM

"Novelty can maintain a status quo by never addressing essential truths, especially if the entire system being addressed is based on a lie"

Yep. That's what "being a contrarian" in the style of Christopher Hitchens is all about. Heroically turning on one's former lefty allies (marginal figures outside the American political mainstream) is a sure career winner. And then there was the mass condemnation of "political correctness" back in the early 90's,when practically everyone with access to newsprint united in warning us about the dangers of leftwing conformism, and everyone who did it acted as though they were bravely standing up almost alone. Leftwing conformism was of course, the leading problem in American life at that time, under the Jacobin dictatorships of Bush and Clinton.

"In politics, for example, there are dozens of ways to sell the idea of murdering brown people in other countries, each more novel than the last."

The most popular method is to say one is doing it for their own good and to bemoan the fact that we don't do it more often.

Posted by Donald Johnson at September 16, 2008 10:48 AM

Ah, the irony of the tyrannical voice.

Posted by Mike Meyer at September 16, 2008 12:09 PM

Prof chazelle: Thank you for introducing Mr DFW to me. I heard a short segment of interview recorded in 1997 which you have mentioned. In addition to what you have mentioned, what affected me was his repeated mention of his being sad in spite of being better off than his parents in more than one way.

b: below is the link to the Fresh Air programme on NPR. It has a segment of the old interview.

Posted by Rupa Shah at September 16, 2008 01:39 PM

Thanks much for the link.

Posted by b at September 16, 2008 03:14 PM

Why are people so impressed by the notion that material things don't necessarily bring happiness? That's been a mainstay of spirituality for thousands of years. But when DFW says it, it somehow becomes deep and takes on new meaning. The same can be said for DFW's talk about alienation. Many people have made the same criticisms, but without all the pretense of depth and long-winded unnecessary footnotes, which stemmed from both the fear of being judged and the need to impress people with his intelligence.

I attribute his acclaim to the fact that he wrote a huge novel (if it's big, he must be a genius!), pretended to erudition that he didn't have (Oh my god, he talks about Game Theory in IJ! That means he's like really smart!), and talked about big issues like Alienation, Sadness, and Meaning, which seem to resonate with a large group of people, no matter how banal the insights. DFW's appeal was similar to the appeal of going to church, in the sense that people often feel a sense of connection when lofty ideas (no matter how foolish) are being thrown around. (One could find the same ideas in a self-help book, but then self-help books aren't written by geniuses, so what's the point?) Just listen to the religious fervor of many of his mourners (His writing saved my life!) for evidence of the religious, as opposed to the aesthetic appeal, of his writing.

Here's a takedown of his views on prescriptivism:

Posted by Don Lorenzo at September 16, 2008 03:15 PM

Although I found DF Wallace more persuasive and worthwhile in his essays (such as Tense Present) than his critics, and I am sorry to see his voice silent, I have read very little of his fiction and have another motive for posting.

Apparently the reviews of our Bernard's essay into Western tonality were negative. May I counter them with an expression of thanks ? I have long worried the problem of how to explain to someone exactly what goes wrong when a guitar is tuned to harmonics and then played in chords, or an open tuning is used for both slide and complex chord playing, and now I have appropriated a couple more basic approaches to integrate with the vibrating string sections approach and the addition not distributing over multiplication approach and the rest.

Thanks. Good luck with the irony piece.

Posted by hercomed at September 16, 2008 04:18 PM
Bernard, I enjoyed your series on music, and I very much look forward to your thoughts on humor and irony.

Bernard, while we're at it, let me say that I immensely enjoy your political rantings, particularly the longer ones on your site. And I enjoy your observations on jazz and music here (with the youtube clips), but your western music piece was like sandpaper against the forehead, and sorely cried out for a fold/jump.

We're adults here, so I'll say what may sound confrontational but isn't. 1) please don't repeat the western music as humor, and 2) that quote about naivete is particularly an affliction of the overinformed and the hypertechnical.

If we regret that view -- If the greatest sin in the past was obscenity, the greatest sin today is to appear naive, so somebody can give you that extra cool smile and devastate you with that one line that puts a hole in your sad balloon. -- then let's hold off on hypertechnical dissertations, and treat each other as individual voices of experience, rather than impatient holders of sole objective truth.

Posted by Labiche at September 16, 2008 11:27 PM

"...and treat each other as individual voices of experience, rather than impatient holders of sole objective truth."

I really like that, Labiche.

DFW did not connect with me, as he did with so many in my demo; I get impatient with him, and even more with his ilk. This could be a flaw in me, or at least an unearned consequence of my only using one eye at a time. (True. Imagine how daunting IJ looks THEN.) But I too feel a loss, and sympathy for those who feel their world is diminished, and a need to say "thanks" and "good luck."

Posted by Mike of Angle at September 17, 2008 08:54 PM

'DFW did not connect with me, as he did with so many in my demo; I get impatient with him, and even more with his ilk.'

Me too, and I finished Broom of the System with a species of contempt for the wastrel of such obvious talent. Worst ending in the last 30 years? It's a contender.

But I lost count of the number of times in his stories he took the breath away - literally. He was maddening, but had the ability to be thrilling too. I'd rather wade thru the considerable dross of a writer like him, to find the odd diamond, than read one more sentence by say, Dale Peck.

Posted by Glenn Condell at September 17, 2008 10:43 PM

Mike (Meyer): Ah, the irony of the tyrannical voice.

Bullseye. Nice one.

Posted by John Caruso at September 18, 2008 03:22 PM