I don’t actually hate DFW. In fact if you just look at the big biographical generalities – son of philosophy professor, tennis player, professor in turn, smartass – and leave out the brilliance, the voice-of-a-generation fame and the suicidal depression (I’m not brilliant or famous enough to be suicidally depressed, so I just get mopey sometimes) we’re pretty much the same guy. Well, I also don’t use my middle name, which always strikes me as just a little desperate, if you know what I mean, although I am periodically aware that there are perfectly good reasons for doing so.
But anyhow, to keep circling around the point without quite getting to it as I gather DFW often did, until recently DFW was in that place in the dusty warehouses of my attention economy occupied by the things people have been a little too insistent I should check out, a place also occupied by Hemingway, Khalil Gibran, “E.T.,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and for reasons that would take a lot of tedious explaining, Cointreau. Things perhaps of substantial intrinsic merit, but already shown by the form of the recommendation, even in their absence, to lend themselves to conversations of awkward and unpleasant intensity, not to mention unearned intimacy. The sort of conversations I imagine a more-brilliant-and-famous-than-me and eventually-suicidally-depressed DFW being cornered into often by great needy masses of folks who thought he owed them a little piece of himself because he had gotten them all excited and they took it personally.
So, I reluctantly broke the seal on DFW because links to his writings on tennis turned up in the last post (thanks a bunch, Glasperlenspiel and Duncan). They are brilliant in analysis and arguably form; the form being arguable because even in short format he does all the meandering some people didn’t like about Dyke the Elder’s Deacon piece. And as far as I can tell for the same reason – because the simple thing he’s writing about turns out to be quite complex, and rather than try to linearize that complexity he walks around checking it out and remarking on it from various angles. Which means that although there are various things to be taken away from his pieces, ‘the point’ is not among them.
In his piece on Federer DFW says what I wanted to say in my Federer post, only more wittily, elegantly and comprehensively. It’s an exemplary case study of constraint causation, and if I’d known about his piece before I wrote mine I’d be a bad plagiarizer. In his piece on Michael Joyce he oddly enough says more wittily, elegantly and comprehensively what I wanted to say in my Anne-Marie Slaughter post. I’ll pause on this one for a second because DFW does something specifically interesting and encouraging to me here, which is talk about Joyce’s tennis game, and life, using the metaphor of ‘compression':
Whether or not he ends up in the top ten and a name anybody will know, Michael Joyce will remain a paradox. The restrictions on his life have been, in my opinion, grotesque; and in certain ways Joyce himself is a grotesque. But the radical compression of his attention and sense of himself have allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art — something few of us get to be.
The resonance for me is that this is exactly the metaphor I chose in my dissertation to talk about early 20thC Marxist revolutionary theories. And furthermore, DFW and I seem to be getting at a similar thing, which is that a kind of strategic narrowing focus at all sorts of good things’ expense seems to be necessary to get exceptional things done, whether that be winning tennis shots or smashing the state. Or running America’s foreign affairs, or growing good coffee. Marx’s theory itself is rich with analytical complexity, much too much in fact to get you cleanly to any particular practice – so folks like Lenin figured out soon enough that you had to cut some knots to make a revolution. And to get the theory sharp enough to do that job you had to compress the complexities out and then grind what was left to a hard edge; which of course is where your Stalins and Pol Pots and so on step in – not to say professional athletes are mass murderers, but just that the means of achieving that degree of efficacy seem to be analogous, and the worth-it-ness of it in human terms similarly questionable.
So anyway, I now personally see the appeal of DFW, who I officially give the CED-2 Seal of All-That Approval ™. But I must admit that by the end of the second piece I was finding some of his more personal digressions a little precious (what, you see an irony?), and then I made the mistake of reading his thing on the Maine Lobster Festival, which apart from a couple good one-liners is almost unbearably precious and obtuse, creating in my mind a concern that one might encounter more of this DFW-at-his-worst if one read further into the part of his oeuvre unanchored to non-fiction cases about which he knew and cared a whole bunch. So if a copy of Infinite Jest falls in my lap somehow I may well give it a try, but otherwise it’s back to the warehouse with him.