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A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part Two: A Supposedly Fun Thing That I Will Never Do Again / “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” / “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” / “David Lynch Keeps His Head”

An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia

I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts.  His métier was, perhaps, mathematics.  David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).

Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed.  I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997).  Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.

In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can.  He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38).  Perish the thought!

Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television.  Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television.  Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):

1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.

Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).

“Trust what is familiar!” in other words.  “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase.  Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television.  David Foster Wallace was wrong.  No, writers should NOT trust television.  No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see.  The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.

There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste.  That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s.  Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65).  He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time.  They did not, of course.  One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification.  To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television.  But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?

It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist.  Let me enlarge an earlier statement.  Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer.  It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32).  Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it.  Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them.  We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.).  Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  That is your false dilemma.  If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY.  Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.

Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection.  There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism.  There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.

Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).

To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance.  The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990).  Did Wallace never see this film?  How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart?  Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?

To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence.  No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political.  How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness?  How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets?  And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?

Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are.  Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book.  It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

THE YELLOW WALLPAPER by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

 

 

An Analysis of THE YELLOW WALLPAPER (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)

by Joseph Suglia

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE FACTS ON FILE COMPANION TO THE AMERICAN NOVEL.

In 1887, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was committed to a sanitarium in Pennsylvania run by one Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the popularizer of a cure for female hysteria. Every female hysteric, according to Mitchell, should be placed under the watchful supervision of a (male) physician.  He must oversee the strict regimentation of her body’s habits.  Such vigilant monitoring is a conditio sine qua non for any physician who wishes to cure the patient of her malady.  She must submit unquestioningly to the physician’s will and obey all of his prescriptions — one of which, invariably, is the injunction to do nothing. Bed rest is compulsory and should be vigorously enforced.  The patient is to be placed in a state of perpetual invalidism; all forms of activity to which she is accustomed must be invalidated.  Above all, she must not write.

Five years later, Gilman published the novella The Yellow Wallpaper, a slightly veiled polemic against Weir Mitchell (the physician is even mentioned explicitly in the text) and the “cure” to female depression and hysteria that he advocated.  The narrative is written from the perspective of a woman who undergoes a nervous breakdown.  What we are reading is her diary, which charts her gradual mental deterioration.  The narrator and her husband/physician, John, have rented an ancestral house for a summer.  John prescribes for the narrator a “rest cure” that is clearly indebted to the teachings of Weir Mitchell.  She is prohibited from writing; she writes nonetheless, perhaps to spite him.  Isolated in her room and completely inactive except for her writing, the narrator becomes transfixed by the sickeningly grotesque wallpaper that surrounds her.  She projects her self into the convoluted patterns of the paper and imagines a feminine figure-not necessarily a “woman,” but rather a “shape… like a woman” [39] — entangled in the radiating network of festooning fronds and vines.  The feminine shape escapes from the wallpaper’s intricate web and is seen “creeping up and down” in the “dark grape arbors” [45] of the courtyard.  In the final scene of the work, the narrator, who has seemingly lost her mind, tears off the wallpaper and crawls and “creeps” “smoothly” [50] across the floor and over John, who has collapsed lifelessly after seeing his wife wriggling and writhing on the ground.  Since all of this is composed in the present tense, apparently she is writing as she is creeping.

Two orders of writing are figured in the novella.  On the one hand, there is the language of the yellow wallpaper, which spreads its sprawling patterns, its fecundating, fungoid forms, all over the room in which the narrator is confined–this is clearly representative of the language of medicine and maleness.  On the other hand, there is the ideolect of the female narrator, who frees herself by writing in defiance of her husband’s orders.  Writing is here figured as a mode of activity–which, for Mitchell, is a quintessentially male practice (women who are active, according to Mitchell, ape men).

Little known in the century in which it was written, The Yellow Wallpaper was rediscovered in the late twentieth century and has become what is easily one of the most “over-interpreted” works of fiction in the last few decades.  Most interpreters have pointed to the novella as a figuration of female liberation in modernist fiction.  Despite its seeming simplicity, they invariably point to the text’s so-called “ambiguities” and “contradictions,” the most glaring of which is the manner in which the novella ends; most seem to believe that the novella ends complicatedly and equivocally.  Does the narrator, in fact, achieve liberation?  Or does she not?  John, it is often said, faints to the floor, and fainting, as everyone knows, is somehow “feminine.”  Therefore, the narrator has perhaps achieved a “victory” over John.  (One should also call attention to the fact that John is referred to, in the final scene, as “that man” [50], his proper name having been replaced by a demonstrative pronoun and a common noun.)  And yet the narrator is also reduced, at the close of the novella, to the status of a worm or a snake, crawling and creeping across the floor along a self-ordained path.  She certainly seems to have “precipitated” into what is usually described as “madness”–a “madness” that is attributed not to her “imaginative power and habit of story-making” [34], but rather to her husband’s profession.  Her progressive “improve[-ment]” [43] has resulted in a regressive deterioration.  Because of this central ambiguity between “positive” and “negative” meanings, the novella seems, at once, a celebratory and affirmative “portrayal” of female liberation from a constraining, male-dominated order and an elegiac, despairing cri de coeur that proclaims the seeming impossibility of liberation from tyrannical maleness.

The notion that this is an interesting “ambiguity” or “contradiction” escapes this reader.  Far richer literary works of art were produced by women during the same period in which The Yellow Wallpaper was written.  The writings of Daphne Du Maurier (born in 1907) are far richer and more complex than those of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  No one with a modicum of a scintilla of a shred of a mote of a jot of rationality would deny that The Yellow Wallpaper has a didactic character; and, with the exception of a few trite “ambiguities,” its meanings are almost completely self-explanatory.  The simplicity of the work may explain the multiplication of critical discourses that it has generated.

Dr. Joseph Suglia