January 28, 2023

Thinking with Great Moral Purpose

David Foster Wallace and Magnus Carlsen

Chess is supposed to have more possible moves than atoms in the universe. Twenty-one year old Magnus Carlsen from Norway was on “60 Minutes” the other night, demonstrating his genius at chess. He competed against ten players at the same time,vanquishing all ten as he sat on a chair with his back turned. He has complete recall of all his moves in more than 10,000 matches. There’s concern his genius at the game is so deep, it will ultimately lead to madness. He’s the only Carlsen that I’ve heard of with a problem of possessing too much genius. Another brilliant mind was in the news. David Foster Wallace would be 50 years old this week had he not succumbed to depression and his own madness, committing suicide at the age of 46.

David Foster Wallace was specifically the novelist I was thinking of when lamenting the demise of the great novelists due to their being too detached from the great events of the day. I know many of his admirers disagree but I always thought his writing suffered from too much shtick. He chased the atoms in the universe and neglected the beauty of simplicity. When I heard of his suicide, I wondered if more than depression was the cause. He went deep into infinity and at the age of 46, found those two hundred word sentences didn’t provide any meaning but obscured his desire for moral fiction. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being, ” said Wallace, that helps us “become less alone inside.” Infinite Jest was useless to me. I tried to like it. I like the dark, weird, and comic irony as much as the realism. Lolita, One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest, Tom Wolfe’s novels and non-fiction, James Joyce. I remember picking up Infinite Jest, flipping through the pages, and thinking what the hell. He’s just the smart ass kid on the bike poppin’ wheelies down the street. There’s always a point in the story where hip and cool become trying too hard to be hip and cool and he crossed it multiple times. I always thought if you really believe a story has moral purpose, eliminate the abstract nonsense and get “concrete” as he said in his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech. But his editor and admirers loved it. This was the new literary style. David Letterman with adverbs, a thousand pages of ’em. Bandannas, Mary Karr, reality bites played to a sitcom laugh track, badass rebel in the English Department. In a New Yorker article, Wallace is said to doubt his writing style. The old tricks didn’t give him lasting satisfaction.So he looked for “new tricks” in attempts to change his writing style. He wrote an article for Rolling Stone in 2000, covering the John McCain campaign. He reveled in the nicknames of Bullshit 1 and Bullshit 2 for the press buses. On and on he went, displaying his linguistic feats for describing every mundane, banal detail. He pauses for a breath with the header Who Even Cares Who Cares and I think he must be as bored writing this as I am reading it. To the literary groupies, this was cool, badass hip, which it was for a few thousand words.

He couldn’t stop. He was addicted to the literary trick like it was his meds.

While interviewed on “60 Minutes,” Magnus Carlsen is so focused on chess, he doesn’t notice the story around him. His brain is constantly calculating chess moves. Wallace’s brilliant brain was constantly working the literary trick, to the detriment of the moral purpose of being alive.

Wallace writes this of a hotel room in Flint, Michigan while with the McCain campaign:

“Rolling Stone, who is in no way cut out to be a road journalist, invokes the soul-killing anonymity of chain hotels, the rooms’ terrible transient sameness: the ubiquitous floral design of the bedspreads, the multiple low-watt lamps, the pallid artwork bolted to the wall, the schizoid whisper of ventilation, the sad shag carpet, the smell of alien cleansers, the Kleenex dispensed from the wall, the automated wake-up call, the lightproof curtains, the windows that do not open—ever. The same TV with the same cable with the same voice saying “Welcome to ____________” on its menu channel’s eight-second loop. The sense that everything in the room’s been touched by a thousand hands before.”

He writes a quick, brief description of Flint as being unbelievably dreary and depressing, joking of the poor smokers forced to go outside for their smoke and look at the city. Wallace stays in, using his literary genius to do more tricks about the nonsensical. He’s Magnus Carlsen ignoring the sights, the real story out there, while his mind rehearses the game of chess with the possibilities as atoms in the universe. He chases infinity and ignores reality, depriving him of what he wanted- writing with great moral purpose.


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