Readers Anonymous: DFW’s Transformative Gifts and the Labor of Gratitude

What is it that compels thousands of strangers to organize themselves, both on the internet and in person, for the sole purpose of talking to each other about David Foster Wallace’s writing? With the exception of maybe Pynchon, I can’t think of another figure in contemporary American literature whose readers generate and engage in so much collaborative work.

By way of personal example, here’s a list of the Wallace projects I frequently consult for help with my writing or to clarify my thinking about DFW:

The few times I’ve been lucky enough to make some small contribution to projects like these, I’ve always come away from the experience feeling like I’m running on rocket fuel. Collaborative work has the unique ability to remind me why it was that I started writing about Wallace in the first place. Whatever my level of participation, I always get back far more than what I put in.

But none of the items on this list would exist without the dedicated folks who maintain them and whose involvement far exceeds anything that could reasonably be called “participation.” Given the amount of labor required, what drives those who devote their time and energy to the creation and maintenance of projects like these? My palms start to sweat just thinking about the 17+ years of aggregate effort required to keep the lights on over at, to say nothing of the anxiety inherent in hosting an international conference (writing and distributing a CFP, reading and jurying submissions, sending out approval- and rejection notices, negotiating hotel group-rates, enduring headaches from the university’s legal department, catering meals, printing programs, talking down maniac academics in mid-freakout because their presentations’ AV-setups don’t work, and who-knows-what-else).

The only plausible theory for this kind of dedication to an author’s work I’ve come across (other than sheer psychosis) is Lewis Hyde’s conception of “gift economies,” which he outlines in his book The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World. Before I get into that, I should probably say here that the connection between Hyde & Wallace is interesting to me for a couple of reasons:

1) In the obligatory “Praise for” section of The Gift’s opening pages is a blurb from Wallace:

The Gift actually deserves the hyperbolic praise that in most blurbs is so empty. It is the sort of book that you remember where you were and even what you were wearing when you first picked it up. The sort that you hector friends about until they read it too. This is not just formulaic blurbspeak; it is the truth. No one who is invested in any kind of art, in questions of what real art does and doesn’t have to do with money, spirituality, ego, love, ugliness, sales, politics, morality, marketing, and whatever you call “value,” can readThe Gift and remain unchanged.

2) DFW’s copy of The Gift, now housed at UT Austin’s Harry Ransom Center, has Wallace’s annotations in it.
DFW's Hyde Marginalia
Hyde, who worked for several years as a counselor to alcoholics in the detoxification ward of a city hospital, presents the recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous as a prime example of a “transformative gift,” one which must be offered without thought of return. In a footnote on page 74 (2006 ed.) Hyde reasons that for alcoholics, AA’s “gift” is a function of a the program’s (previouslymentioned) spiritual requirement, ”the belief in a higher power”:


Alcoholics who get sober in AA tend to become very attached to the group, at least to begin with. Their involvement seems, in part, a consequence of the fact that AA’s program is a gift. In the case of alcoholism, the attachment may be a necessary part of the healing process. Alcoholism is an affliction whose relief seems to require that the sufferer be bound up in something larger than the ego-of-one (in a “higher power,” be it only the power of the group). Hearings that call for differentiation, on the other hand, may be more aptly delivered through the market.(93 fn)

It’s a sort of hermeneutics of recovery: the only membership-requirement of Alcoholics Anonymous is “a desire to stop drinking,” which desire almost nobody truly has without hitting bottom. Time and again, AA’s official literature seems to go out of its way to remind newcomers that it’s only in the depths of such a low that most alcoholics are willing to submit to the rigors of the program. This receptiveness in the early days of AA’s program of recovery is doubly important because the next step after an honest and sincere desire to quit drinking is often the most difficult: the surrendering of will to a higher power. And here again, this may explain the pains taken by AA’s literature when it emphasizes over and over that this higher power can take whatever form a member chooses. In Infinite Jest, Wallace talks about this kind of hardcore receptiveness as the only real prerequisite for recovery:

The bitch of the thing is that you have to want to. If you don’t want to do as you’re told ”I mean as it’s suggested you do” it means that your own personal will is still in control[.] The will you call your own ceased to be yours as of who knows how many Substance-drenched years ago. […] This is why most people will Come In and Hang In only after their own entangled will has just about killed them. […] You have to want to take the suggestions, want to abide by the traditions of anonymity, humility, surrender to the Group conscience. If you don’t obey, nobody will kick you out. They won’t have to. You’ll end up kicking yourself out, if you steer by your own sick will. (357)

And in what seems to me a ridiculously convenient coincidence (in terms of the present argument), Hyde actually chooses AA as his analogue for explaining the circular nature of transformational gifts:

[M]ost artists are converted to art by art itself. The future artist finds himself or herself moved by a work of art, and, through that experience, comes to labor in the service of art until he can profess his own gifts. Those of us who do not become artists nonetheless attend to art in a similar spirit. We come to painting, to poetry, to the stage, hoping to revive the soul. And any artist whose work touches us earns our gratitude. […] for it is when art acts as an agent of transformation that we may correctly speak of it as a gift. A lively culture will have transformative gifts as a general feature“ it will have groups like AA which address specific problems, it will have methods of passing knowledge from old to young, it will have spiritual teachings available at all levels of maturation and for the birth of the spiritual self. (48)

To restate this passage for our purposes here: The best art is transformative for author and reader alike. Whether one is the giver or receiver of transformational art is merely a function of one’s position in the cycle. The transformational gift is passed freely from giver to recipient, who, transformed by gratitude, feels a duty to pass the gift on to the next recipient. This last step is the same gratitude-inspired service that AA’s 5th tradition and 12th step refer to: the transformational gift of AA, received by those able to “hang in there and keep coming back,” is that (as yet another AA maxim goes) “it works if you work it.” And this is where recovery’s hermeneutic process cycles back into itself: working the 12th step is the point at which the recipient, no longer a newcomer “having been transformed by AA’s gift” can assume the role of the giver by sponsoring new members. Here’s Wallace’s take on this cyclical process:

Giving It Away is a cardinal Boston AA principle. The term’s derived from an epigrammatic description of recovery in Boston AA: “You give it up to get it back to give it away.” Sobriety in Boston is regarded as less a gift than a sort of cosmic loan. You can’t pay the loan back, but you can pay it forward, by spreading the message that despite all appearances AA works, spreading this message to the next new guy who’s tottered in to a meeting and is sitting in the back row unable to hold his cup of coffee. (344)

Comparing that last quotation to Hyde’s description of the reciprocal relationship between gifts and gratitude, several parallels become apparent:

In each example I have offered of a transformative gift, if the teaching begins to “take,” the recipient feels gratitude. I would like to speak of gratitude as a labor undertaken by the soul to effect the transformation after a gift has been received. Between the time a gift comes to us and the time we pass it along, we suffer gratitude. Moreover, with gifts that are agents of change, it is only when we have come up to its level, as it were, that we can give it away again. Passing the gift along is the act of gratitude that finished the labor. The transformation is not accomplished until we have the power to give the gift on our own terms. Therefore, the end of the labor of gratitude is similarity with the gift or with its donor. Once this similarity has been achieved we may feel a lingering and generalized gratitude, but we won’t feel it with the urgency of true indebtedness. (48)

I can’t think of a better illustration of this labor of gratitude, gratitude for a gift of such immensity and meaning that it inspires the recipient’s own selfless giving than what you can find written on the flyleaves of the UF library’s copy of The Big Book:

bb1 12s12t2 12s12t1

One last thing: Hyde describes the gift-recipient’s “transformation” as one that produces a similarity with the gift or with its donor. As I re-read the AA sections of Infinite Jest, I can’t help but understand Wallace’s use of the word “identification” to mean anything other than this process of achieving similarity.In these sections of the novel, Wallace manages to show us precisely the part of recovery that Boston AA’s newcomers can’t see ”even though the gift’s transformation is already underway.”

Big Books and “Meaning as Use”

You see by this what I meant when I called pragmatism a mediator and reconciler and said that she “unstiffens” our theories. She has in fact no prejudices whatsoever, no obstructive dogmas, no rigid canons of what shall count as proof. She is completely genial. She will entertain any hypothesis, she will consider any evidence.

In short, she widens the field of search for God.

William James, Pragmatism

Since my last post, I’ve read (at least) two things that merit further consideration in this conversation about A.A. and Infinite Jest.

One has to do with Tom Bissell’s recent piece in the Times, which is apparently an excerpt from his introduction to the forthcoming 20th-anniversary edition of Wallace’s own Big Book. This part in particular elicited a reaction from one of my eyebrows:

“While I have never been able to get a handle on Wallace’s notion of spirituality, I think it is a mistake to view him as anything other than a religious writer. His religion, like many, was a religion of language.

I agree with Bissell that to understand Wallace (at least post-Jest Wallace) as anything other than a religious writer is a mistake—but only with the caveat that “religious” here means something very specific and non-doctrinaire. However, I’m confused by Tom Bissell’s confession of difficulty re: getting a handle on Wallace’s spirituality. Maybe this is some sort of rhetorical strategy on Bissell’s part; perhaps the introduction to an 1,100-page novel isn’t the place to launch into a paean to Alcoholics Anonymous. Alright, fine: it’s definitely not.

But if he truly means what he says that he “can’t get a handle on” Wallace’s notion of spirituality he must not have looked very hard. Wallace mentions spirituality and religion all over the place, from interviews with Brian Garner and Larry McCaffery, to the Kenyon speech, to nonfiction essays like “The Nature of the Fun,” to Infinite Jest itself. What’s more, Wallace is pretty consistent about what he says. And I’d argue this consistency stems from Wallace’s fidelity to (what I understand as) the source of his first serious engagements with religion: his participation in A.A.

But in typical Wallace fashion, he couldn’t just take what A.A. said about spirituality on faith; he had to do his own research. At least one of the texts Wallace consulted for this research was Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions (which by the time Wallace read it had been re-issued and re-titled; it was originally published as The Religions of Man).

Here’s a picture of the cover of the 1991 ed. like the one owned and annotated by Wallace, which copy is available for viewing at UT’s Harry Ransom Center:
Smith, Huston. The World's Religions (Cover-Norman Rockwell's The Golden Rule)

The cover image is a reproduction of a Norman Rockwell’s “Golden Rule,” a piece that first appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1961. (A mosaic version of the piece still hangs in the United Nations building in New York.) The text that sits on top of the image, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is there in the original, as in Rockwell put it there.

I mention this here because I think it goes a long way toward helping us “get a handle on Wallace’s notion of spirituality.”

By way of evidence, here’s a photo of some of Wallace’s annotations in the Smith text, via (as ever!) Matt:
DFW's Annotations in Smith's The World's Religions

Here’s a transcription with Wallace’s underlining for clarity’s sake:

Might not becoming a part of a larger, more significant whole relieve life of its triviality? That question announces the birth of religion. For though in some watered-down sense there may be a religion of self-worship, true religion begins with the quest for meaning and value beyond self-centeredness. It renounces the ego’s claims to finality.

But what is this renunciation for? The question brings us to the two signposts on the Path of Renunciation. The first of these reads “the community,” as the obvious candidate for something greater than ourselves. In supporting at once our own life and the lives others, the community has an importance no single life can command. Let us, then, transfer our allegiance to it, giving its claims priority over our own.

This transfer marks the first great step in religion. It produces the religion of duty, after pleasure and success the third great aim of life in the Hindu outlook. Its power over the mature is tremendous. Myriads have transformed the will-to-get into the will-to-give, the will-to-win into the will-to-serve. Not to triumph but to do their best to acquit themselves responsibly, whatever the task at hand has become their prime objective

And in the margin next to this underlining is Wallace’s note: AA.

I do not mean here to equate the underscoring of a passage with its unequivocal or uncritical endorsement. But neither do I think it a stretch to say that Wallace had read the A.A. literature closely enough to see in this passage from Smith the core principles of spirituality as they’re presented by Alcoholics Anonymous: the twin necessities of self-renunciation via the relinquishment of the will to a power greater than oneself, and the consequent undertaking of work in service of others. As The Big Book (cribbing KJV’s James 2) cautions: faith without works is dead.

The second thing that warrants mentioning: Anyone who’s read The Broom of the System knows how ham-fistedly Wittgenstein’s “meaning as use” maxim gets deployed in Wallace’s first novel. And I think one of the things that allowed Wallace to suspend his disbelief about the A.A.-mandated belief in a power greater than himself was the way the Big Book conceptualizes the notions of “meaning” and “use” as intrinsically bound up with one another. In the A.A. model, Wittgenstein’s aphorism is applied not just to language, but to the rather more immediate case of the recovering alcoholic struggling to cope with life after alcohol. In this context, asking “What’s the meaning of life?” is to ask “What is the use of my life?” or “Am I useful to others?”

This notion of “usefulness” and its relation to the “default-mode” of self-centeredness Wallace talks about in the commencement is one that crops up again and again in A.A.’s Big Book:

Never was I to pray for myself, except as my requests bore on my usefulness to others. Then only might I expect to receive. […]Simple, but not easy; a price had to be paid. It meant the destruction of self-centeredness (13-14).

In fact, the concept of service work, “passing it on,” as it is codified in one A.A. maxims is directly and repeatedly correlated with the chances of a successful recovery:

For if an alcoholic failed to perfect and enlarge his spiritual life through work and self-sacrifice for others, he could not survive the certain trials and low spots ahead. If he did not work, he would surely drink again, and if he drank he would surely die. Then faith would be dead indeed. With us it is just like that. […] Faith has to work twenty-four hours a day in and through us, or we perish (14-16); Our very lives, as ex-problem drinkers, depend upon our constant thought of others and how we may help meet their needs (20); Whatever our protestations, are not most of us concerned with ourselves, our resentments, or our self-pity? Selfishness, self-centeredness! That, we think, is the door of our troubles. [¦] So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn’t think so. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us! (BB 62).

Ultimately, the mere cessation of drinking is presented as not finally the point; it is rather a means to another rehabilitation; it is a restoration of the capacity for service:

At the moment we are trying to put our lives in order. But this is not an end in itself. Our real purpose is to fit ourselves to be of maximum service to God and the people about us (77).

The more connections I see between A.A. and David Foster Wallace, the more inclined I am to read the process of writing Infinite Jest as a function of “working the steps.” And if Wallace was sincere about working them, which I believe he was, this sincerity has a certain bearing on questions that get asked over and over about the novel.

In that often-cited interview I mentioned earlier, Wallace and McCaffery get to talking about form and contemporary American fiction. Wallace has, a couple of paragraphs back, just finished  praising William Vollmann’s remarkable integrity because Vollmann doesn’t engage in formal extravagance or experimentation for its own sake. McCaffery follows up by asking about Wallace’s own experiments with form, to which Wallace gives his standard-issue response about the way Infinite Jest is structured–that certain formal choices in the novel (e.g. the endnotes) were made in order to solicit an amount of readerly work, and that this work is supposed to highlight the fact that IJ’s narrative is by its very nature a mediated thing. In other words, the formal features are there to encourage readers to understand themselves as participating in a conversation with the writer. McCaffery counters with a rather pointed question:

“LM: How is this insistence on mediation different from the kind of meta-strategies you yourself have attacked as preventing authors from being anything other than narcissistic or overly abstract or intellectual?

DFW: I guess I’d judge what I do by the same criterion I apply to the self-conscious elements you find in Vollmann’s fiction: do they serve a purpose beyond themselves?

I think that by Infinite Jest, Wallace has developed a writing ethic that is something like a pragmatic amalgam of Wittgenstein and A.A.’s notion of meaning-as-use. And I think it shows up in the writing, especially when comparing Wallace’s two novels. By Infinite Jest, the toll of Wallace’s personal experiences of addiction and recovery have changed what he lets himself get away with in his writing, theory- and form-wise.

And with regard to those changes, a final A.A. maxim seems apposite here, one that must have had a particularly dark inflection for Wallace: My best thinking got me here.

31 Jan 2016, 7:01pm


David Foster Wallace, Alcoholics Anonymous, and “Everybody Worships”

I should probably explain how this all started.

A couple months ago, I was listening to the November 5th episode of Matt & Dave Laird’s “The Great Concavity” podcast when, around the 22-minute mark, the conversation turned to Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address. At this point in the podcast, they’re discussing the section where Wallace talks specifically about which things it’s OK for us to worship and therefore derive our sense of meaning from. Drawing a distinction, Matt noted:

He [Wallace] says something about “If you worship money and things,” if that’s where you get, you know, your meaning out of life, you’ll never have enough. If you worship this other thing, if you worship beauty and sexual allure, you’ll always feel ugly, you’ll die a million deaths. All that stuff is him saying: “Don’t worship anything except a higher being.” And that’s really where I think me and Wallace personally, like as a philosophy, part ways in that I disagree with that. And I think that that’s not the definition of “atheism” because he says: “in the day-to-day trenches of adult life there’s no such thing as atheism,” and he says: “everyone worships.” And I say worshiping is different than a belief in a higher power. […] You can tap real meaning in life from something that is not centered out of a higher power. And he says: no, it has to be, and for me that’s a little bit different.

Matt’s distinction is interesting to me in a couple of ways. First, this part of the commencement speech had stuck in my craw for what sounds like the same reasons Matt cites. Though my grandfather was a Methodist minister and I grew up going to church, I don’t consider myself to be a religious person–at least not in the dogmatic or doctrinal senses that “religious” generally connotes. Second, I line up with Wallace’s opinion just about always, and so for Wallace to restrict the acceptable places for me to “tap real meaning” to a list of outmoded spiritual traditions had bothered me. Just so we’re on the same page, this is the relevant sentence from Wallace’s address:

The compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship, be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh, or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles, is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

I wondered, “What’s the commonality between the items on this list that keep them from eating us alive?” Do these traditions share some particular quality that keeps them from ultimately bending back inward, toward the self, that keeps them from cultivating in us the selfish desire to accumulate and display the things that Wallace names: money, beauty, power, intellectual mastery? Why this particular list?

The answer has everything to do with Wallace’s phrasing. His wording here provides a clue, I think, to his source material.

As Matt mentioned in his last post, I’m finishing up a dissertation on Wallace. Specifically, I’m using a Recovery Studies framework to cast the differences between Wallace’s use of theory in his first and second novels as those of a “recovering theory-addict.” And back when I listened to this episode of TGC, I’d been working on a chapter that looked at the influence of 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous on Infinite Jest. Consequently, the language of AA’s central text (technically titled Alcoholics Anonymous but usually referred to in meetings as The Big Book to avoid confusion with the program itself) was still fresh in my mind. And so as I listened again to the commencement address, Wallace’s phrasing, “God or spiritual-type thing”and the plurality of choices in his list of religious traditions had a familiar ring to it.

The particular resonance I heard (and continue to hear) occurs in chapter 4 of The Big Book, titled “We Agnostics.” In the chapters that lead up to it, alcoholism is presented as a self-inflicted problem, with the self here understood as a tripartite construction comprised of the “mind, body, and crucially, the spirit of the alcoholic. This “spiritual” side of the self is basically the human capacity for numinous or spiritual experience—something like the feeling of being moved emotionally by the sublime. The Big Book presents it as an explanation for the preponderance of religions in so many disparate cultures, for the “persistence of the myth” whether it be true or not. But most importantly, they see this innate spiritual capacity as something that is exceptionally and singularly human. In the “We Agnostics” chapter, The Big Book elaborates on how this third component, the alcoholic’s spiritual or metaphysical aspect, must be reformed.

In it, we read that as agnostics, some of the first members of AA had difficulty following the second step. This amounts to a fairly big problem for someone in AA because the rest of the 12 steps hang on the acceptance of the first two: “1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable and 2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Now, writing as former agnostics who had been able to overcome their skepticism, the authors are at pains to tell why we think our present faith is reasonable, why we think it more sane and logical to believe than not to believe, why we say our former thinking was soft and mushy when we threw up our hands in doubt and said “We don’t know.” I’ll spare you the quotation of the entire argument, but it basically boils down to this: when the agnostics looked closely at what held them back from being “restored to sanity” through belief in a “Power greater than [them]selves,” they found it was another belief, a belief in their own ability to reason, or a faith in their reasonable faculties:

…let us think a little more closely. Without knowing it, had we not been brought to where we stood by a certain kind of faith? For did we not believe in our own reasoning? Did we not have confidence in our ability to think? What was that but a sort of faith? Yes, we had been faithful, abjectly faithful to the God of Reason. So, in one way or another, we discovered that faith had been involved all the time!

Now, with regard to the “particular resonance” I mentioned hearing above, this next bit is where the bells started going off:

We found, too, that we had been worshippers. […] Had we not variously worshipped people, sentiment, things, money, and ourselves? […] Who of us had not loved something or somebody? How much did these feelings, these loves, these worships, have to do with pure reason? Little or nothing, we saw at last. Were not these things the tissue out of which our lives were constructed? Did not these feelings, after all, determine the course of our existence? It was impossible to say we had no capacity for faith, or love, or worship. In one form or another we had been living by faith and little else.

What Balance Would Look Like

“What Balance Would Look Like”

The authors go on to explain that the matter of their conversion was no small thing; if they had not been primed to accept the necessity of handing over their wills to a higher power, they probably wouldn’t have been able to do it, save that they had recently experienced a particular event in the narrative common to all addicts: hitting bottom. And at the point in David Foster Wallace’s life when The Big Book crosses his path, hitting bottom is precisely where he found himself.

I think that ultimately, the items on Wallace’s approved worship-list are there because they’re traditions that direct us toward a love of something outside of ourselves as their primary principles Christianity’s first two commandments, for example, are to “Love God with the entirety of the heart, intellect, and will,” and that basically, if the first commandment is properly understood and followed, that you can’t help but follow the second: love others as yourself. The spiritual traditions that make up Wallace’s list are variations on that same theme (something like Augustine’s “Love, then do what thou wilt”).

The realization that Wallace drew on this passage (and many others) from The Big Book for his writing continues to affect my own thinking and writing in numerous ways. At the very least, it shapes the way I read Wallace’s usual obsessions—everything from sincerity and authenticity to formal concerns like the role of metafictional technique.


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