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.

9 Feb 2016, 2:41pm
by Rob Short


So I just listened to Bissell’s interview in the most recent NYTBR podcast, and it’s clear that he “gets” Wallace’s spirituality with regard to addiction—at least an addiction to “chewing tobacco,” which where I come from is called either “dip” or “chaw,” depending on which variety you’re talking about / how old the speaker is—even if he doesn’t know the source of it chapter & verse. So I maybe owe him a tiny apology. But I still think he’s being rhetorically slick in that part of the intro to avoid having to talk about it. And I still bristle at his “religion of language” characterization. Yes: Wallace was an incredibly careful and skilled craftsman. But why characterize it as his religion? Bissell used a great phrasing for this ability in the interview, something like “Wallace had a way of putting English on his sentences,” that’s both clever and descriptive. And way better than “religion of language.”

I had the same reaction to that part of the Bissell piece, which I thought was otherwise great. Seems almost just like lazy usage of “religion,” as in “the new Beyonce video is my religion.”


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