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.

Great post, Rob. Reminds me of H. Richard Niebuhr and Paul Tillich and their re-definitions of faith/worship. Both sought to rescue faith/worship from their modern definition as belief in something for which one has very little evidence.

Here’s Niebuhr on faith: “[Faith] is the attitude and action of confidence in, and fidelity to, certain realities as the sources of value and the objects of loyalty.” The “value-center” might be nation, or society, or money, or pleasure. But everyone has one or more value-centers around which they organize their lives and from which they derive meaning.

Tillich shared the idea that everyone worships or places faith in something: “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. The content matters infinitely for the life of the believer, but it does not matter for the formal definition of faith.”

Here’s a bit from Tillich’s book Dynamics of Faith, where he’s discussing the problem of worshipping things other than “some sort of god or spiritual-type thing”:

“Another example…is the ultimate concern with ‘success’ and with social standing and economic power. It is the god of many people in the highly competitive Western culture and it does what every ultimate concern must do: it demands unconditional surrender to its laws even if the price is the sacrifice of genuine human relations, personal conviction, and creative eros. Its threat is social and economic defeat, and its promise—indefinite as all such promises—the fulfillment of one’s being. It is the breakdown of this kind of faith which characterizes and makes religiously important most contemporary literature. Not false calculations but a misplaced faith is revealed in novels like Point of No Return. When fulfilled, the promise of this faith proves to be empty.”

(Btw H. Richard Niebuhr’s brother, Reinhold Niebuhr, is credited with writing the Serenity Prayer.)


Yes! Well said, Rob.

Step 2 is certainly the solipsism-breaker.

Just want to add a quote from an ol’ CBC talk:

“One of the obvious hazards of romantic genius is that it tends to become self-destructive. The poet who imagines a greatness, a creative energy which he then tries to realize in actual life, often destroys himself. It was the fate of Byron, of Shelley, of Rimbaud, of Hart Crane, of Dylan Thomas. Why is the frenzy of ego-centric genius so self-destructive? […] In the highest men, of course, it does not appear as a destructive disease at all but as a humane enlargement of the ego. […] The ego of these great men has absorbed itself into a noble and generous humanity, a moral principle that still keeps the ego a servant, never a master. They are great moralists, in fact, at the same time that they are egotists, and it is their extreme morality that saves them. This is, of course, an element of objectivity.”

— from “The First Person in Literature” (Six Talks for CBC Radio) by Louis Dudek.

Excellent, Rob, and I’m grateful that Adam referred me to your thoughts. You (and Jill and claude sylvanshine) have expanded my thinking on Wallace as well as an excerpt from McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain that I coincidentally have been pondering lately: “This life of yours is not a picture of the world. It is the world itself and it is composed not of bone or dream or time but of worship. Nothing else can contain it. Nothing else by it be contained.”

Thanks very much,
Vic Camp

Thanks to everybody for taking the time to respond—and for all the textual resonances/references! I’ll pile a couple more on in the next post here in the next day or so along with some more of DFW’s notes from the HRC archive that Matt was kind enough to share.

[…] recovery program at such a halfway house they will be required to at least go through the motions. Rob mentioned that many, many of the earliest AA members butted up against this “higher power” requirement […]

[…] ed.) Hyde reasons that for alcoholics, AA’s “gift” is a function of a the program’s (previously–mentioned) spiritual requirement—the belief in a […]


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