Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace

Top of my lists.  340 pages of a fluid questioning intelligence that can track on many levels at once, as best seen perhaps in his review of a Dostoevsky critic, Joseph Frank, who applies simultaneously a close textual/aesthetic approach and contextual criticism.  Wallace's review becomes a Dostoevskian parsing of existence at the synchronic and diachronic nexus as he peppers his text with Dostoevskian self-interrogations, e.g.: "What is 'an American'? Do we have something important in common....are there also special responsibilities that come with being an American? If so, responsibilities to whom? (p.269,Backbay Paperback 2007).

Another representative foray into S. Hunter Thompson territory is Wallace's essay on the Adult Video (Porn Film) industry, its economics, its audience, its workers and its sociological implications are plotted for the reader to interpret herself  or himself--each gender invited to arrive at separate conclusions.

Essay topics range from these two to a lobster-eating festival and what it means to eat living beings (reference made to the video "Meet your Meat"), cosmic comic twists in Kafka,  9/11 as experienced in the heart of the working-class Christian Bible Belt, a long graphic exquisition on "Talk Radio."

My "must-read" essay is Wallace's linguistically savvy article on rhetorical ploys in the highly political and contested field of American language, via a review of Bryan A. Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. This 62-page essay written in 1999 is subtitled "or, POLITICS AND THE ENGLISH LANGAGE IS REDUNDANT." I think it is a brilliant analysis (again, SOP) although I disagree with his condemnation of something I call "double-speak" or "institutional euphemism," and which he labels "Politically Correct English"  in a mostly subconscious resentment of feminism's opposition to male prejudice in language. Yes, DFW can, and occasionally does, have his own unexamined life.  However, for me to discuss the label Political Correctness as a reactionary and extremely clever label for efforts to expose politically prejudicial language would take an essay of my own, and would be to start a DFW-ish chain reaction here, an opportunity I respectfully decline.

Nevertheless and notwithstanding, I think the Language essay should be required reading for all teachers at every level who, whether or not teaching English language skills is their primary purpose, judge the English usage of their students, even and maybe especially in primary grades, but certainly in secondary and post-secondary education, on a continuum from "wrong" to "right."  Perhaps I say that because I hit upon a teaching strategy very much like the one Wallace himself arrived at:  i.e., to acknowledge that "Standard" or "Correct" English is a specific dialect and one among many.  

As Wallace argues persuasively, what many educated intellectuals believe is "correct usage" is misidentified.  There exists, certainly, a use of language which is accepted as correct, but it is thus accepted by a specific elite demographic segment of English speakers. The elite here includes especially  professionals who will judge you in your life which includes many employment agents including interviewers who allow you or not to become a teacher or professional, and others such as  judges, police, lawyers, teachers,  clients, etc.  For precisely that reason, it should be revealed to students as a code, one rhetorical ploy among others, a specific way to speak and write when you wish to be heard out by anyone "elite."

One pedagogical advantage is that teachers can then "correct" language usage without condemning it: saying for example, "this is a Standard English error" instead of saying "this is wrong." Like David Foster Wallace, I had hit upon a teaching strategy very much like the one he outlines here. A second advantage is that one hereby exposes to clear appraisal the class structure of our society and some of the arbitrary codings that signal one's class position.  "Standard Written English" is a passcode, the secret handshake for "advancing" up the ladder.  This method of teaching  acknowledges the ladder and may demystify social power and hierarchies.

Finally, Wallace takes on in the longest of the essays (79 pages,
while Talk Radio gets 69, American Usage 62, Big Red Son 47) John McCain's bid for the Presidency in 2000. I would hazard a guess that the length relates to Wallace's puzzlement in the end over how a person can be somehow heroic and enviable and yet must enter into a vast smarmy ideological cloud even to become a primary candidate for President of the US. 

All these essays are unified by Wallace's passionate appetites for tennis, physics, language, addiction, philosophy, entertainment, politics, rage and all the self-binds of ideology.  In the end we have traversed a restless almost limitless intelligence that sees everything as clues worth turning, testing, examining from every angle with elaborate self-reflexive curiosity, catching all the double-binds, noticing his own ploys and strategies, in quest of Dillard's Holy the Firm that could put in perspective the field of human existence.

Also a dry cut at the "Great Male Narcissists," Updike, Mailer, Roth, in "Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort Of Have to Think."

A curiosity driven, we see in sad retrospect, partly by the insatiable ravening need of the afflictions of depression.  Rest In Restless Peace, David Foster Wallace.  We loved you.

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