Sunday, September 14, 2008

So It Goes... R.I.P. DFW

"My vocabulary fails me, it's a sesquipedalian thing..." -- Jim's Big Ego

As I mentioned in my post about his death, I anticipated Vonnegut's end for quite some time. David Foster Wallace's suicide, not so much. I am not sure how to respond. He always presented slightly Not Right[1], but given his capacity for self-articulation and the borderline narcissism[2], his fully examined life (with apologies) seemed Worth Living.

Marisa introduced me to his fiction (for which I am thankful) but it was always his non-fiction that energized me the most. I remember with amusement and humility how appalled I was reading "Supposedly" on my way up to NYC for NYE to see Phish at MSG back in 1997. As someone who has the occasional propensity to succumb to sesquipedalian onanism[3], I found his profligate use of uncommon words clear evidence of Communicative Insouciance. I circle words I do not know when I read something and look them up when I have the opportunity. By the time I arrived at Penn Station, I had 30 or so words to investigate. As word after word revealed itself to be not le mot opaque but le mot juste, I began to realize that the fault was mine. Yes, proponents of effective communication would be appalled, but that does not mean he was wrong to marshall the full capacity of human expression; there was nuance to his writing.

Perhaps the greatest example of his ability to render interesting what he found interesting was the fascinating 100 page review of a dictionary found in "Lobster". If you think I am kidding, I am not. That was one of the most enjoyable essays I have read in years. Also of note in this volume is his detailed experiences following McCain's 2000 campaign as a passenger on the Straight Talk express.

I found it fascinating (not morbid or shameful) that one of my first reactions to the news today was to wonder about what a DFW suicide note would look like. I don't know if he left one, but I would sure like to read it. I imagine perhaps a highly-footnoted and impassive dissection of how he had come to his conclusion.

I will miss your work, DFW.

Kind thoughts to your friends and family.

1. Equal parts agoraphobia, an obsessive propensity for deliberate and detailed footnotial annotations and a hint of sadness at the loosening grip Man had on the full articulative [sic] nature of his language.

2. I do not mean to suggest for a moment that DFW was an actual narcissist, but it would be understandable for an outside observer to come to that conclusion given the attention he paid to his own life and experiences [cf. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster, etc. ]. The Myth of Νάρκισσος has many variants through the ages including Ovid, Pausanias, Oscar Wilde, Bob Dylan and Genesis (the band, not the first chapter of the Pentateuch). The common interpretation is a morality tale against self love, but several versions reject this notion as an implausible and unspectacular literary device. Instead, authors such as Pausanias prefer the idea that he had a twin sister whom he loved. When she died, he pretended that the reflection in that water was her given the similitude of their appearance. Still, DFW qua Narcissus was apparently indifferent to the affections and affectations of Contemporary Echoes. I believe he saw in his own (self) reflection an opportunity to focus his profound attention productively, nothing more. Proximate narcissism, perhaps, but not the Real Deal. [a]

3. It was recently advised that I excoriate the phrase "interstitial flux" from a report about the applicability of semantic technologies to a customer in the scientific publishing industry.

a. DFW the Professor would be disappointed if I didn't cite my source even if he might disapprove of its authoritative credentials. 

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A Moment for Moderation

As I have mentioned many times, I grew up overseas; a child of the World with my own nationality never far from my sense of self. In the Philippines, Germany and Japan, I made friends with people of all races, religions and nationalities. Even in my youth it seemed fairly clear that a single perspective did not Universalize easily. I saw poverty and wealth in the extreme. I learned to make friends quickly and take people for what they were. I witnessed the failures of unfettered self-interest and indulgence of the 60's, 70's and 80's varieties. I faced bomb threats and anger at an early age simply because of where I was born. I also saw unfettered appreciation for Post War magnanimity and a respect for the Narrative of Liberty and Freedom we wore on our sleeves.

I discovered evidence of chronosynclastic infundibula here on Earth. In "Sirens of Titan", Kurt Vonnegut defines these as "those places ... where all the different kinds of truths fit together". Spending as much time as I did overseas, this was the story that was sold about the United States. It is what I believed to be true.

This message of tolerance is not a recipe for complete lack of judgement or critical thinking. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that no matter how fervently one believes in one's own perspective, if you are honest, you cannot deny that there are other perspectives on the table. Nietzsche quips, "A casual stroll through a lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything." Does this devalue faith? Arguably, it does not. What it does is remove it from any kind of comparative analysis. You cannot use acceptance of Truth without Evidence as any kind of club. It remains a personal and shared expression of a world view. If we do not share that perspective, no matter how hard you try, you will not convince me and vice versa.

This collective dialogue of respect for competing views and lines drawn in the sand is what I always imagined the political process to be... until I looked on. Instead, we have a cacophony of Pro-Us chants emanating from the edges. Perhaps the adolescent name-calling and destructive venom have always been part of the process, but it's nice to imagine a dialogue of Ideas. The U.S. Constitution is a pretty high concept way of self-organizing. It is difficult to imagine it emerging from a culture distracted by the Colonial equivalents of Brangelina, Britney, Spitzer, the Hills, the OC, the View, etc. And yet people are people so it wouldn't surprise me that there was more of that going on than we care to imagine.

So, I am encouraged that it might still be possible to rise above the muck and have real conversations with real debate. We seek a balancing act between the roles of the Individual and the Group. We seek the shared efficiencies of many hands pulling in the same direction. How strongly you embrace the Way of Things is clearly directly proportional to how well you think S. Quo has worked for you. There is plenty of room for discussion with no need for the raw, polarizing anger of contemporary political discourse.

The World is a crazy, frightening, unstable place requiring more discipline, consideration and maturity than we have demonstrated in quite some time. It is easy to fall back on the faults of the last Eight Years, but it goes back further than that. We have not been led by Wisdom, Vision, Leadership or healthy perspectives for quite some time. Retreating into jingoistic chants won't cut it. Denying realities that the rest of the world sees clearly makes us look foolish. Taking control of our legislative bodies and accomplishing nothing is a waste of time, money and self-assigned High Ground. Embracing indefensible, equivocated positions of our own past make us look infantile. Ignoring the fact that we have ceded our moral, social, scientific, military and cultural leadership positions doesn't mean we haven't.

Here is to personal responsibility of both the individual and group kind. Here is to an administration that believes in the U.S. Constitution and doesn't mock it. Here is to an appreciation of the subtlety that defending ourselves does not mean reducing ourselves. Here is to hard work and strong reward and compassion and generosity. Here is to tolerance with a backbone both in terms of what we should reasonably accept and what we can defensibly reject. Here is to an educated populace capable of competing on a World Stage that is going to look very little like what we expect when we look backwards. Here is to a citizenry who understands their actual place in the world, not the one they imagine. Here is to having Big Visions for Hard Problems and the courage to do what it takes for success.

You may say I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one. -- J. Lennon