David Foster Wallace
with 3 IRS employees and David Foster Wallace:
'There's something very interesting about civics and selfishness, and we get to ride the crest of it. Here in the US, we expect government and law to be our conscience. Our superego, you could say. It has something to do with liberal individualism, and something to do with capitalism, but I don't understand much of the theoretical aspect—what I see is what I live in. Americans are in a way crazy. We infantilize ourselves. We don't think of ourselves as citizens —parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities. We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities. We abdicate our civic responsibilities to the government and expect the government, in effect, to legislate morality. I'm talking mostly about economics and business, because that's my area.'
'What do we do to stop the decline?'
'I have no idea what we do. As citizens we cede more and more of our autonomy, but if we the government take away the citizens' freedom to cede their autonomy we're now taking away their autonomy. It's a paradox. Citizens are constitutionally empowered to choose default and leave the decisions to corporations and to a government we expect to control them. Corporations are getting better and better at seducing us into thinking the way they think—of profits as the telos and responsibility as something to be enshrined in symbol and evaded in reality. Cleverness as opposed to wisdom. Wanting and having instead of thinking and making. We cannot stop it. I suspect what'll happen is that there will be some sort of disaster—depression, hyperinflation—and then it'll be showtime: We'll either wake up and retake our freedom or we'll fall apart utterly. Like Rome — conqueror of its own people.'
§19 The Pale King, David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)
As maddening as DFW can be, so can he be prescient: the home/American-dream swindles, the credit default swaps where the hungry financial dragon feeds on its tail, the corporate hand outs called bailouts, the 'Occupy' movements in response to these legal crimes, here described as "civics and selfishness", or can be read as 'civics and corporate structure', in §19 which is an entertaining discourse on the intertwining powers of the corporation and the government as ceded to them by the citizen.
What can you say. Michiko Kakutani, a reviewer for the New York Times, picks his book as one of the ten best of the year and says:
The Pale King...Pieced together from pages and notes that the author left behind when he committed suicide in 2008, this sprawling novel, set largely at an Internal Revenue Service office in the Midwest, depicts a nation plagued by tedium and meaningless bureaucracy. By turns brilliant and stupefying, maddening and elegiac, it’s a book that sheds new, retrospective light on Wallace’s hallucinatory vision of America.
Dream: I saw rows of foreshortened faces over which faint emotions played like the light of distant fire. The placid hopelessness of adulthood. The complex regret. One or two, the most alive, looked better in an objectless way. Many others looked blank as the faces on coins. At the edges were office workers bustling at the endless small tasks involved in mailing, filing, sorting, their faces blankly avid, filled with the mindless energy you see in bugs, weeds, birds. The dream seemed to take hours, but when I'd come awake Superman's arms (the clock was a gift) would be in the same position as the last time I looked.
This dream was my psyche teaching me about boredom. I think I was very often bored as a child, but boredom is not what I knew it as—what I knew was that I worried a lot. I was a fretful, nervous, anxious, worried boy. These were my parents' words, and they became mine. Wet distended Sunday afternoons, while my mother and brother were at a recital and my father lay asleep on the couch in front of a Bengals game, with the libretto to Norma open on his chest, I felt the sort of soaring, ceilingless tedium that transcends tedium and becomes worry. I do not recall the things I worried about, but I remember the feeling, and it was an anxiety whose lack of a proper object is what made it horrible, free-floating. I'd look out the window and see the glass instead of anything past it. I'd think of the sorts of small games and toys and developmental projects my mother always suggested and within the boredom not only find them unappealing but be unable to imagine how anyone anywhere could possibly have the mindless energy to undertake any sort of child's amusements, or sit still in the silence long enough to read a picture book—the whole world was torpid, enervated, worry-logged. My parents' words and feelings became my own, as I took on the responsibilities of my role in the family drama, the nervous delicate son, object of my mother's concern, as my brother was the gifted, driven son whose piano filled the house after school and kept the twilight outside the windows where it belonged. In psychotherapy after the incident with my own son, I free-associated my way into recalling a Great Books presentation on Achilles and Hector in the eleventh grade, and I remembered realizing vividly that my family was Achilles, that my brother was Achilles' shield and I the family's heel, the part of the family my mother held tight to and made undivine, and that the recognition had come in the middle of my speech and left again so fast I'd not had time to grab it, though I did for much of my adolescence and early adulthood conceive of myself in terms of a heel or foot—my internal remonstrances often took the form of calling myself a 'heel,' for example, and it was true that people's feet, shoes, socks, and ankles were often the first things about them I noticed. Just as my father was the beaten but obdurate warrior—ground down every day in a campaign whose pointlessness was part of its corrosive power. My mother's role in the Achilles corpus remains unclear. I'm not sure, either, whether as a child my brother was conscious of the fact that his afternoon practice always coincided with my fathers return home; in some respects I think my brother's whole piano career was designed around this requirement that there be light and music at 5:42 for my father's reentry, that in a way his life depended on it—every evening he made the opposite transition from that ot the sun, death to life.
It is not surprising that I had trouble in grammar school, with its windows and a regimentation to primary education that still held on in the Midwest—memorization and regurgitation, tables, prescriptive grammar and diagrams of sentences, the only decorations the alphabet in construction paper on a cork guilloche that ran above the blackboard. Each classroom contained thirty student desks in five rows of six; each had flooring of white tile with insubstantial cloud-shapes of brown and gray that were discontinuous because whoever laid the tile didn't bother to match the patterns. Each room had a wall clock, manufactured by Benrus, with no second hand and a minute hand whose movements were discrete clicks instead of silent continuous clicks; the system of clocks was wired to the school's bell, which sounded at 55 past the hour, again at 00, and in a somehow more dire way at 02, signaling tardiness and interrupting each instructor's opening remarks. The school smelled of adhesive paste, rubber boots, sour cafeteria food, and a warm biotic odor of many bodies and the fixative of the tile floor as three hundred mammals slowly warmed the rooms throughout the day. Most of the teachers were sexless females, old (meaning older than my mother) and severe but not unkind, with a small dilution of younger males — one, in fourth-grade Mathematics, with the actual name Mr. Goodnature — drawn to teach children by the vague political idealism then just beginning to build (unknown to me) on college campuses far beyond my world. The young men were the worst, some actual martinets, depressed and bitter, because the idealism that had brought them to us was no match for the petrified bureaucracy of the Columbus School System or the listless passivity of children they'd dreamed of inspiring (read, indoctrinating) to a soft liberalism (peace was a big word with these men) that would replicate and flatter their own, children who were instead locked tight inside themselves and an institutional tedium they couldn't name but had already lost their hearts to.
The Pale King David Foster Wallace; Little, Brown and Company
It's difficult to find a small passage in the the writing of David Foster Wallace that points succinctly to how good a writer he is; it seems that his wit and its lead up that culminates in a belly chuckle began too many pages ago for me to copy.
But I love what he says about the corporation here and elsewhere. As a consolation, instead of style—with the exception of register play—we'll make do with content.
One of his characters says,
—in other words we'll have for a president a symbolic rebel against his own power whose election was underwritten by inhuman soulless profit-machines whose takeover of American civic and spiritual life will convince Americans that rebellion against the soulless inhumanity of corporate life will consist in buying products from corporations that do the best job of representing corporate life as empty and soulless. We'll have a tyranny of conformist nonconformity presided over by a symbolic outsider whose very election depended on our deep conviction that his persona is utter bullshit.
The Pale King David Foster Wallace, 2011