- “getting to the core of things”: A Review of Robert K. Bolger & Scott Korb, eds. Gesturing Toward Reality: David Foster Wallace and Philosophy and Steven M. Cahn & Maureen Eckert, eds. Freedom and the Self: Essays on the Philosophy of David Foster Wallace.
In 1985, long before he had been hailed as “the voice of an era” for a novel about the way consumer choice precludes free will (Kirsch), and before he impressed upon fresh graduates of Kenyon College the importance of choosing how to think, David Foster Wallace defined “what exactly fatalism is” (Wallace, “Fatalism” 143). In his undergraduate thesis, “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality,” Wallace describes fatalism as “a metaphysical thesis characterizing the world as working in a certain sort of way, in which everything that did happen had to happen, everything that does and will happen must happen, and in which persons as agents can do nothing but go with the flow over which they enjoy absolutely no influence” (143). The recent publication of this thesis has prompted two essay collections that re-engage Wallace’s works by emphasizing his status as a philosopher, a facet James Ryerson considers “an overlooked aspect of his intellectual life ... that would play a lasting role in his work and thought, including his ideas about the purpose and possibilities of fiction” (“Introduction” 2).
Published eight months apart, Gesturing Toward Reality: David Foster Wallace and Philosophy and Freedom and the Self: Essays on the Philosophy of David Foster Wallace signal a drive in Wallace Studies to resituate the writer’s cultural value, acclaiming him as both a “rare philosophical talent” and exemplary storyteller (Ryerson, “Introduction” 3). In comparing these singular contributions to the expanding field of Wallace Studies we can assess the fecundity of such an approach and its impact on Wallace scholarship.
For Scott Korb, the essays in Gesturing Toward Reality aspire “to present Wallace’s work as one of the many places where philosophical ideas reside,” and the collection as a whole aims to “reveal Wallace’s work as a series of reminders of how life is and how it could be” (3). Readers hoping to engage in a rigorous appraisal of the aesthetic, ethical, and epistemological influences and effects of Wallace’s “big, brainy novels” and essays may object to being misled: the “Philosophy” of the collection’s subtitle is in the noun’s colloquial sense, that of a particular (purportedly Wallace’s) Weltanschauung (Ryerson, “Consider”). Thus, reiterated and taken for granted throughout the collection are the virtues of choosing adequate “temples of worship” and the consequences of submitting to less-nourishing “addictions” (Ryerson, “Consider”). It is perhaps the provocative ambiguity of “philosophy” that results in Gesturing Toward Reality’s 300-odd pages containing a less satisfactory philosophical appraisal than Ryerson’s excellent introduction to Wallace’s thesis in Fate, Time, and Language.
Much of the success of Ryerson’s essay can be attributed to his respect for both Wallace’s precocious talent as an analytic philosopher and his family background (as the son of philosopher James Donald Wallace). By contrast, the aim of Gesturing Toward Reality to “reveal” Wallace’s philosophical significance as merely “a series of reminders” or notions of “how life is and how it could be” is a rather reductive treatment of a writer who made a significant contribution to the debate surrounding Taylor’s “Fatalism.” Consequently, Bolger and Korb’s examination of the “banal platitudes” of Wallace’s graduate commencement speech at Kenyon College fails to illuminate fully his philosophical import (Wallace, This is Water 9). By relying to a greater or lesser extent on the speech, better known as This Is Water and arguably the least fertile piece in Wallace’s oeuvre and the least representative of his literary philosophy, the essays of Gesturing Toward Reality often depict the writer superficially and even sentimentally: an act of neglect that has become so prevalent in...