Errol Morris once researched a project about self-help in America (I wonder: should we consider self-help a distinctly American phenomenon? Nick Hornby’s publisher told him his novel How to Be Good would sell a lot of copies specifically here to buyers mistaking it for a book about literally that) but scrapped it, leaving it, to my mind, one of the most intriguing studies I’ll never see. Errol Morris and self-help: can you envision a starker clash of sensibilities? Then again, a decade ago I’d have said the same about David Foster Wallace and self-help. Morris and Wallace: smart! Artful! Intellectually satisfying! Tasteful! Seemingly cynical yet really empowering! Self-help: dumb! Artless! Intellectually impoverished! Tasteless! Seemingly hopeful yet really enervating!
In viewing it as a grotesque spectacle, I don’t know how much my enthusiasm for things self-help differed from, say, a Gen-Xer’s enthusiasm for late-night public-access television. But as with anything ostensibly pitched so far away from me, I worked up a curiosity about the nature of the minds to which it did appeal. This turns out to lay close to one of the coriest of Wallace’s core concerns: can we possibly act, always and everywhere, on the assumption that all the other people around us possess fully realized inner lives too? Can we ever consistently see them, in all their consciousness, as more than bit players in the grand drama starring us?
As at least a B- Wallace reader, I’ve recently come to think of this as the question of the man’s fiction, and perhaps most of his nonfiction. John Jeremiah Sullivan’s GQ review of Wallace’s posthumous The Pale King mentions “his frequent and uncharacteristically Pollyanna statements about the supposed power of fiction against solipsism, i.e., that only in literature do we know for sure we're having "a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness." Later, Sullivan gets Wallace’s abilities in this arena across with an imaginary scenario:
Imagine walking into a place, say a mega-chain copy shop in a strip mall. It's early morning, and you're the first customer. You stop under the bright fluorescents and let the doors glide closed behind you, look at the employees in their corporate-blue shirts, mouths open, shuffling around sleepily. You take them in as a unified image, with an impenetrable surface of vague boredom and dissatisfaction that you're content to be on the outside of, and you set to your task, to your copying or whatever. That's precisely the moment when Wallace hits pause, that first little turn into inattention, into self-absorption. He reverses back through it, presses play again. Now it's different. You're in a room with a bunch of human beings. Each of them, like you, is broken and has healed in some funny way. Each of them, even the shallowest, has a novel inside. Each is loved by God or deserves to be. They all have something to do with you: When you let the membrane of your consciousness become porous, permit osmosis, you know it to be true, we have something to do with one another, are part of a narrative — but what? Wallace needed very badly to know.
I, too, have started feeling the need to know, which makes me think that, to the extent Wallace developed the ability “to prove to us that everyone's complicated, that when people seem simple and dull, it's we who aren't paying attention enough, it's our stubborn inborn tendency to see other people as major or minor characters in our story,” or, as Bustillos writes, “to erase the distance between himself and others in order to understand them better, and trying visibly to make himself understood — always asking questions, demanding to know more details,” he had some kind of superpower, the one that busts apart what Paul Graham calls “the most difficult problem in human experience: how to see things from other people's point of view, instead of thinking only of yourself.” Bustillos quotes Wallace as saying, “I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer. Because that means I'm going to be performing for a faceless audience, instead of trying to have a conversation with a person.”
Wallace laid a good deal of this out with the utmost explicitness in his famous 2005 Kenyon commencement speech:
My natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.
[ … ]
If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.
I’ve got to tell you, part of me has come to long for this anti-solipsistic power to experience everyone’s complexity, to erase the distance between myself and others, to automatically pay serious attention and have a meaningful conversation. Hence, I think, my recent years’ mass jettison of opinions — I have, like, four left — and preference for the concrete over the abstract. But another part of me does not long for this, does in fact suspect that, when you absorb everyone else’s perspective into your own, you lose your direction. I think of the Sunday Calvin & Hobbes where Calvin, bombarded with information by neo-Cubistly seeing all perspectives at once, finds himself totally immobilized.
Perhaps I really shouldn’t think of myself as the protagonist. But aren’t I the protagonist? I understand that I could surely derive great happiness — probably some emotion transcending happiness — by cutting myself down to size and refusing to privilege my story over others’, but how can I ever do the kind of work I can respect — the kind, uh, David Foster Wallace did — if I burn all my energy empathizing with the rest of humanity? While I loathe the notion that I’ve ever considered another human being simply an obstacle to my ambitions, I can’t deny having those ambitions. But speaking of protagonists, see also Wallace’s assessment of the protagonist of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time: “It never once occurs to him that the reason he's so unhappy is that he's an asshole.”