Both Flesh and Not, by David Foster Wallace

Both Flesh and Not

Both Flesh and Not is the third collection of David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction essays that I’ve read. It was issued posthumously, so one’s suspicion is that its contents are not quite up to the quality of those of the first two—kind of like picking over the carcass of the Thanksgiving turkey looking for a few last morsels of meat after the big, warm, succulent pieces have long since been consumed.

The opening essay gives the book its title. Both Flesh and Not is a study of Roger Federer at Wimbledon at 2006. The title is a reference to my least favorite part of the essay.

Sometimes extraordinary claims are made about athletes that are fine as long as they’re understood as hyperbole or as non-literal. To say that a star athlete “defies gravity” or “has superhuman strength” would be examples of the former. To say that “the game slows down for” a star athlete isn’t true taken literally, but is normally really just a way of saying that the athlete’s superior neuronal activity or reflexes or whatever result in his being able to process sense data and respond appropriately faster than other people, as if he had the luxury of playing with balls and opponents and such moving in slow motion.

But sometimes claims like that are intended literally. For instance, some people think the greatest of athletes like Michael Jordan could literally pause in midair in a way that violated the laws of nature, that they are capable of a miraculous sort of levitation. Which of course is utterly silly.

Unfortunately Wallace seems to be among those who believe in such miracles. I certainly hope not, but he’s so insistent in describing Federer’s most impressive feats in such a manner (his body is evidently both flesh and light, which makes him exempt from certain laws of nature) that I find it hard to interpret it any other way.

Other than that, though, this is a fine essay. Wallace is at his best when either he is on a roll comedically scoring with dead-on witticisms, or when he’s totally engrossed in a subject of which he has significant knowledge. (He’s not so good when he seems more focused on showing off his own cleverness and extensive vocabulary.) This essay is an example of the latter. He played tennis himself at a high level, and he was a devoted student of the game.

He was fascinated by every little nuance of the physics, strategy, and psychology of tennis, and since at his best he’s an extraordinary writer, he is able here to explain even the most obscure points—e.g., how changes in racket design affect the ease with which a player can put topspin on the ball—in a clear and interesting manner.

I don’t even watch tennis—I was a fan as a kid for a few years, followed the sport minimally for a few years in early adulthood, and have followed it not at all since then—but his enthusiasm and articulacy (ooh, there’s a Wallacesque word; he may be rubbing off on me) captured me.

For example, I appreciated his discussion of how different tennis looks on TV from how it looks to a spectator who is physically present (let alone to the players themselves). For one thing (and he not only describes this difference, but explains why the perceptions differ), on TV you don’t get any sense of the incredible speed of the ball, and therefore of how amazing it is that players can react to it at all, let alone react to it in such a way as to make skillful return shots with just the right velocity, spin, and placement.

Certainly he has convinced me that tennis is among the hardest of sports to master. Someone who is a very good amateur athlete and gets a modest amount of experience at golf can, I think, occasionally get lucky and shoot a score at least reasonably close to what a top pro would on the same course. A very good amateur athlete who has played some baseball could probably stand in with a top major league pitcher and time his swing well enough to at least be in the general vicinity of the ball, and sometimes get lucky enough to make good contact and get a hit. But put a very good amateur athlete who has played tennis on a casual level up against a top pro, and I doubt he’d ever even return a serve, let alone win a point.

Both Flesh and Not is the only piece out of chronological order. The rest go from 1988 to 2007, in order. I guess they violated their organizing principle for the first piece because they wanted the title essay up front, though neither of the other Wallace compilations I’ve read have the title essay first.

Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young is a somewhat dense, semi-academic piece about the generation of young writers then coming to prominence.

He begins by noting that this “Brat Pack” of writers (of which he is one, though in the article he presents them as a “they” more often than as a “we”) were initially probably over-praised critically, as the literary community was eager to follow, and indeed to certify, the latest hot new thing, but after that were abruptly dropped as an overrated, flawed, self-indulgent bunch who weren’t anything special after all.

Wallace seeks to explain why the young generation of fiction writers write the way they do, which he partly agrees is weak and partly defends.

He cites three main reasons: One, the ubiquity of television and how that has made pop culture, marketing, phoniness, self-consciousness and such unavoidable and a part of lived reality rather than something one can distance oneself from. One consequence of this is that modern writers reflexively include pop culture references in their work, not to be cute or unserious, but because pop culture is so deeply a part of reality for them and their readers.

Two, the vast majority of professional writers now have been trained in university creative writing programs. This tends to make their writing competent, but too often formulaic and safe.

Three, postmodernism and deconstructionism and all those academic isms have eliminated a lot of the foundation for writing that previous generations could take for granted. No longer can you assume that a writer writes something to transmit his or her ideas and then the reader consumes it. Everything’s fuzzier now.

The essay is mildly appealing to me here and there—the discussion of creative writing programs was the most understandable and interesting part—but it’s one of those academic things where you can get a lot more out of it if you’re really up on the overall dialogue of which it’s a part.

I’m not a big tennis buff, yet Wallace’s piece on Federer captivated me. I’m not a big contemporary fiction/literary theory/literary criticism buff, and this essay (from a younger, more academic Wallace) failed to captivate me.

Next up is The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a book review/philosophical essay.

I’m unfamiliar with the book. I have a little background in Wittgenstein’s philosophy, but it’s certainly not something I specialized in during my years studying philosophy. I know some of the basics of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations, but only the basics. Indeed, here I’ll comment on Wallace’s understanding of these more than my own vague memories.

Anyway, the book in question is a novel, one that sounds like kind of a postmodern, unconventional, obscure one. It’s about a woman who goes insane, imagining herself as the only person left in the world.

She experiences life in a hellishly solipsistic way. According to Wallace—and I assume he’s right—the mention of Wittgenstein in the title refers to the fact that her delusional reality is supposed to be what the world would be like if the early Wittgenstein (of the Tractatus) was right about language.

The idea is—and again this is Wallace’s take on the book and on Wittgenstein—the Tractatus posited that language consisted of the components of truth-functional logic: declarative sentences and logical connectors like “and” and “or,” where a sentence was true or not based on whether it succeeded in corresponding to the world, and compound sentences were true or not based on the truth-value of their parts and the rules regarding logical connectors.

The world, then, to make any sense had to have a corresponding structure—that of discrete facts with no connection to each other.

Such a world of no connection would be experienced as solipsistic—every person would feel alone and unattached to anyone or anything else. Furthermore, any kind of moral judgment or value claim would be nonsensical in this world of bare facts.

Wittgenstein, says Wallace, realized these implications, was depressed about them, and spent decades trying to find some other way of understanding language that would not have these implications. Ultimately he did, a kind of pragmatic theory of language laid out in the Investigations, where word meanings are a function of their social use. As such, language is inherently social; a private language that one person cooks up for just himself is literally impossible.

I’m oversimplifying of course, and I didn’t read and reread closely enough to be sure this is what Wallace is attributing to Wittgenstein, but I think it’s something like that.

As a philosopher, I generally start from a position of common sense and only move off it if an argument is especially compelling. Kind of like the principle that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I see nothing here that would convince me away from the default that language attempts to reflect reality, and that this is fully compatible with their being more than one thinking being, i.e., it doesn’t entail solipsism. If Wallace or someone like him could walk me through the arguments beyond what’s contained in this essay maybe I’d agree with him, but not now.

A few quick points to show why I don’t agree (or to show that I’m simply missing his, and/or Wittgenstein’s, points):

It makes no sense that all language would be intended to function like truth-functional logic, as truth-functional logic only applies to declarative sentences. So whatever supposedly nightmarish consequences follow from all language taking the form of truth-functional logic are irrelevant, since no one believes, or at least no one should believe, that such is the case.

Why couldn’t things be connected if the early Wittgenstein’s theory of language, or something like it, were correct? “The glass hitting the floor caused it to shatter” and “Joanie loves Chachi” are declarative sentences that are true if they correspond to the world, and they not only are compatible with there being connections in the world but explicitly claim two such connections.

Why couldn’t moral claims be true or false? They’d just have to be in the form of declarative sentences. You can be skeptical that there’s anything for moral sentences to correspond to, but that just means you’re a moral skeptic, not that you’re somehow compelled to be a moral skeptic by the correspondence theory of truth.

I don’t see why the “problem of other minds” is somehow more of a problem for language-as-truth-functional-logic than for language-as-pragmatic-social-activity. Is the idea that once we realize language is inherently social and cannot be private, then we can construct the argument: Language exists, and language requires more than one person, therefore more than one person exists? Surely it can’t be that simple to solve the problem of other minds. If it were, then we wouldn’t need Wittgenstein’s supposed discovery about language; we could just use anything that takes two or more people. Such as: It takes two to tango, the tango exists, therefore at least two people exist.

I know these are all really, really simplistic objections, but that’s where I like to start. Probably what Wallace is trying to say wouldn’t be defeated by such simplistic objections, but in order for someone in his position to convince me they have to see what I’m misunderstanding about their claims so that they can then clarify them in a relevant way. Presenting simple, common sense objections is a way of facilitating that stage of the dialogue.

But enough about this essay. I could only sort of follow what Wallace was saying, and I only sort of cared. I’m very much out of the habit of doing philosophy, and this kind of philosophy was never my cup of tea even when I was most interested in philosophy.

OK, one last point. The very title is pretentiously obscure. A “plenum”—I had to look it up—is a filled space. An “empty plenum” is nonsensical. I know that’s sort of the point—Wallace is saying there’s something inherently nonsensical about language and/or reality, but come on. That’s about as philosophically profound as the dialogue in Woody Allen’s Love and Death, where Woody’s character is depressed and describes his condition as feeling like there’s a “void at the center of my being.” “What kind of ‘void’?” he is asked. “Well, an empty void.” “An ‘empty void’?” “I felt a full void a month ago, but it was something I ate.”

Next up is Mr. Cogito, which I can’t say very much about since it’s only a page long. It seems odd that they’d even bother including it. Mr. Cogito is the name of a book of poetry whose poems are mostly about a character named Mr. Cogito. It’s by Zbigniew Herbert, who Wallace informs us is “one of the two or three best living poets in the world.” I’ll have to take his word for it, since I know nothing about poetry and generally can’t make heads or tails out of it. He especially is impressed by Herbert’s ability to write postmodern poems of emotional seriousness, since postmodernism’s irony and attitude tend to undercut any such effort.

The second tennis piece in the book, written a decade before the Federer piece, is Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open. At first it appears it’s going to be similar to the Federer article, only about Pete Sampras instead of Federer, and the U.S. Open instead of Wimbledon. But before long Sampras and his match are largely forgotten, and the article turns out to be instead about the experience of a spectator at the U.S. Open—the traffic getting there, the extremely crowded atmosphere, the behavior of the employees, etc., etc., but especially about how incredibly commercial it all is.

There’s seemingly no place for your eyes to rest in the whole joint that isn’t some form of advertisement for one of the “sponsors.” The concession and souvenir stands are huge in number and wildly overpriced, yet all have Soviet-length lines of people eager to be separated from their money.

There are instances here of Wallace’s oddball observational wit that make many of his later pieces so wonderful, e.g., “A lady making her way in that sideways-processional way past seats in the row right beneath me wears a shirt advising all onlookers that they ought to Play Hard because Life is Short.” There are also incomprehensible bits, like “Sampras…seems…tired the way only democracies get tired.” Honestly, I couldn’t even hazard a guess what that could possibly mean.

It lacks the intensity and passion of the Federer article. As a lighter piece, it’s somewhat funny and interesting, but nowhere near the level of something like the classic A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. So it’s no better than OK.

Back in New Fire is a thought-provoking little piece. To sort through everything I could in principle say about it would take far more space than I want to devote to it here. But it’s an essay I agree with in part, and where I disagree I’m not always sure if I really disagree or just that I think of it in different terms and have views that in the end are compatible with what he’s saying.

Wallace opens the article by noting that people have remarked to him that whatever good or bad you can say about the fact that people still pursue sex pretty eagerly in an era of heterosexual AIDS, it sure shows how powerful the sex drive is to overcome such a huge disincentive. His response is that sex becomes more alluring precisely in the presence of supposed disincentives (religious taboos, laws, social disgrace, etc.), and so really obstacles to sex typically turn out to be incentives.

One reaction I have is that the risk of heterosexual AIDS turned out to be wildly overblown. But really that’s not relevant to most of the points he’s making, so I tried to set aside that thought when assessing this article.

Certainly there’s a lot to the idea that sex can be a lot better when there are certain costs or alleged disincentives. But I’m not sure that’s true, or at least equally true, of all such obstacles. He maybe thinks it is. At least he notes wide ranging examples that he believes the rule applies to, including a knight having to slay a dragon to win a woman (illustrating that sex is better when you had to make a great effort to get it).

Examining my own attitudes, I’m going to say that if anything more such obstacles truly are disincentives rather than things that enhance the sexual experience.

In my life, let’s say as a wild guess that of all the women to whom I’ve communicated some interest in having sex with them (from the subtlest, mildest flirting to directly asking for it), maybe 1%-2% of them have expressed any degree of reciprocal interest and certainly far less than 1% of them have actually had sex with me.

Now if Wallace is right, that degree of difficulty and rejection should presumably have made the sex I did get even better, but I doubt that it has. It’s just meant that particular area of life has had plenty of unpleasantness and hurtfulness for me. If anything those negative associations with the pursuit of sex feel like things I’ve had to overcome in order to fully enjoy the rare exceptions when I get to have sex; I don’t think they’ve enhanced the experiences. Were I living in a world where my success rate wasn’t less than 1% but was instead 10%, or 40%, or 75%, I’m almost sure I’d like sex as much or more than I do in this world. (Or at least I’d like a chance to find out.)

As far as taboos, that cuts both ways. I’d make a distinction between taboos I agree with and taboos I disagree with. For taboos I disagree with, it probably does make sex a little better to violate them. (Like seeing a black dude screw a white chick wearing a shirt with a confederate flag on it, and whatever other accouterments symbolize that philosophy. I think the racism and such of those symbols is idiotic, so using sex to subvert them is kind of hot.)

But for taboos I agree with, I’d say the opposite. It’s a huge taboo nowadays to have sex with someone underage. But unlike interracial sex, it’s not a taboo I think is total baloney. (Key word being total. There are certainly elements to that taboo that I think are baloney.) Because I think almost all sexual activity between an adult and, say, a 13 year old girl is wrong (not because society says so but because of the damage that can be done to the minor), the idea of having sex with a 13 year old doesn’t hold some special attraction for me, but in fact feels distinctly unappealing. The moral obstacles feel like obstacles, not pseudo-obstacles that enhance the experience.

A really ugly, often fatal, disease feels like the bad kind of disincentive to me. I don’t think of the risk of AIDS as making sex more of an appealing guilty pleasure. I think it makes sex less appealing on the whole. So I’d be more in agreement with those who’ve remarked to Wallace that it’s noteworthy that sex is still pursued in spite of AIDS, rather than his response that, no, it’s more ardently pursued because of AIDS.

It’s interesting that by the end of the essay he has kind of circled back to affirm a position that in my mind I was vaguely associating with the other side of the debate, i.e., with those who don’t understand that totally sanitized, non-taboo, non-risky, maximally mutually respectful sex can be, um, kind of boring. (An idea Woody Allen nailed when he responded to a question about whether he thinks sex is dirty with something like “It is if you’re doing it right.”)

Whereas I was reading him as saying that, all else being equal, sex is even better when it’s of higher risk (of getting caught by her parents, thrown in jail, or—the topic of this article—getting AIDS), he closes by singing the praises of “safer sex”—condom sex, non-genital touching, phone sex, etc. (He even mentions sex by mail.)

So I guess it’s not so much that being at risk makes sex better in his view, as that having to make an extra effort and make adjustments to not be at risk makes sex better.

I, on the other hand, think of those countermeasures as a necessary evil. Safer sex lectures always sound to me like health lectures on how incredibly delicious and filling dietetic desserts are. The honest thing to say is that making eating less enjoyable may be less bad than the health consequences of not doing so. But that doesn’t sound very good, so people benevolently lie.

If you told me that all things considered it’s better to eat pussy with your tongue wrapped in Saran Wrap then I don’t rule out that I might come to agree with the cost-benefit analysis leading to that conclusion. But don’t tell me it’s sexually more enjoyable that way.

Next up is The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2, Wallace’s review of that movie, embedded in an essay about recent mega-budget, very-special-effects-heavy, science fiction movies.

I haven’t seen that movie, nor all but one or two of the numerous such movies he discusses in this piece, so in that sense I can’t comment in an informed way. It’s just not a genre that does anything for me. He’s more of a fan.

He’s very impressed by the special effects in Terminator 2 and its ilk, but usually not by much else in these movies. He suggests a rule that the more expensive such a movie is, the worse it will be (in all but the special effects). His reasoning—which makes sense—is that the special effects are so extraordinarily expensive that for such a movie to show a significant profit it has to be a major success at the box office, which means you can’t take any chances at all. Everything has to match whatever formula has been used by recent blockbuster movies—the hot stars, a plot that doesn’t take any work to understand (it has to either be very easy to understand, or you have to have enough stuff blowing up and such to distract viewers so they don’t care if they understand it or not), an ending that satisfies a mainstream audience, etc. It all must be mediocre enough to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

A common pattern, he says, is that directors who made one or more excellent movies in this genre are then given a much bigger budget and promptly make a far inferior movie.

The Nature of the Fun is a brief reflection on writing. Oversimplifying greatly, he contends that writing moves through stages, or at least should. First, you write for fun, for the exhilaration of expressing yourself, not really daring to dream that many if any people will choose to read it, and so not concentrating on that. Then you start to notice the attention your writing is getting, or not getting, and you are increasingly motivated by wanting to be popular and praised, which generally results in bad writing. Then you try to write for yourself again, to regain what you once had, and you realize that the most fulfilling thing you can do, and really the most fun in a sense, is to challenge yourself to be totally honest in your writing, to explore the parts of you that you instinctively prefer to keep hidden, sometimes even from yourself.

Overlooked: Five Direly Underappreciated U.S. Novels > 1960 is exactly what you’d expect from the title. His choices, if you’re interested, are Omensetter’s Luck by William H. Gass, Steps by Jerzy Kosinski, Angels by Denis Johnson, Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy, and Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markham. The last, of course, was the subject of an earlier essay in this collection.

As much as I admire Wallace and feel a connection with him, I don’t know that his tastes in fiction would overlap much with mine. He seems big into postmodern, experimental, incomprehensible sorts of things, which I can’t say I am. But I think I’ll add a couple of these titles to my list of books to read in the future. If I’m going to branch out from books that are similar to things I’ve already read and am confident I’ll like, and take an occasional risk on something new, I’ll trust Wallace’s judgment.

Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama is a review of two novels about mathematicians—The Wild Numbers by Philibert Schogt and Uncle Petros & Goldbach’s Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis—and the odd genre of mathematical thrillers in general.

We’re getting into the later Wallace now—this essay is from 2000—and as a rule I feel more in tune with the later Wallace. I didn’t love this piece, for instance, but it’s enjoyably written, makes plenty of interesting points, and perhaps most importantly isn’t too obscure for me, so I give it a clear thumbs up.

He notes the difficulty of writing a book on mathematics that is understandable to the lay reader and yet doesn’t dumb down its subject so much that real mathematicians are turned off by all the blunders. It’s almost impossible to find the right balance to pull this off, he says, and not surprisingly, both of these authors fail. (On the other hand, one of the books, the second, he says is a fairly good book aside from that problem, while the other, the first, sucks as a novel as well as screwing up the math.)

It’s interesting that he himself wrote a mathematics book a few years later. It wasn’t a novel, but a nonfiction history of the concept of infinity. I gather it received mixed reviews, with some particularly negative ones coming from mathematicians who found it riddled with technical errors. So I guess it is indeed pretty hard to write a mathematics book that satisfies both lay readers and experts.

The Best of the Prose Poem is his review of the anthology The Best of the Prose Poem: An International Journal. Wallace playfully wrote the piece in an odd, experimental, list-of-facts form, kind of like the Harper’s Index, though not all the facts (or claims) are numerical.

Though I don’t even know what a prose poem is, beyond what one can guess from the term itself (no worries; he says any definition of the category is fuzzy and debatable anyway), this was one of my favorite pieces in the book. Still not anything that would rank with the best of the pieces in his first two compilations of essays, but quite interesting.

Some of the items on the list are goofy things and/or things that can be ascertained in a few seconds, e.g., the book weighs 419 grams, and 6 of the 144 contributors are named Johnson or Smith. Some are just funny, including a reference to the author of the Introduction’s phallic name Peter Johnson: “Probability that, if this reviewer were named Peter Johnson, he would publish under either ‘Pete’ or his first two initials: 100%,” and, taking another shot at the hapless Johnson, “Highest conceivable grade that anthology’s Introduction would receive in an average university Lit./Composition class: B-.”

There are plenty of items on the list, though, that indicate he read the anthology very closely and came to some pretty strong conclusions. He dismisses many of the contributions as mediocre or worse, and explains why with examples. He also explains why he likes, or in the case of the contributions of a writer named Jon Davis, loves, a minority of the pieces.

This is followed by another of the pieces I enjoyed most in this compilation: Twenty-Four Word Notes. Wallace was a total word geek, and loved thinking, talking, and writing about grammar, word usage, how to write effectively, etc. Of course he also taught writing at the university level for most of his adult life. This article consists of various helpful hints, or in a lot of cases pet peeves, that he apparently accumulated over the years.

I enjoy that kind of stuff too, though I’m a little self-conscious in that I’m not disciplined enough to work at learning and using it all to improve my own writing.

Actually—and you can make the case that this is true not only of my writing but of many other aspects of my life—I tend to take almost everything I write equally seriously, which means I concentrate too little on the arguably most important writing and thus don’t do nearly as well with it as I could, while I concentrate too much on the ephemeral writing and make it much better than it needs to be.

When I write these essays, for instance, I’m not completely casual about them, but I also don’t polish and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite them to make them the best I’m capable of. I try to think them through and do a reasonably good job on them, and then I read them all the way through at least twice and sometimes more, making little adjustments along the way to try to improve them, but I’m certainly not ultra-perfectionist about them.

But when in my life I’ve written something for school or work where the stakes are considerably higher, I usually haven’t put much more effort than that into them, while if I write the most insignificant of e-mails to a friend, I also go over it and polish it to about that same modest degree. So, again, by taking them all roughly equally seriously, I’m rushing the important stuff too much, while being too much of a perfectionist about the unimportant stuff.

But anyway, I found Wallace’s observations in this piece consistently interesting.

He explains when “if” is incorrect because it’s being used where the writer means “whether.” I’d have to go over my writing to make sure, but I’ll bet I make that mistake sometimes.

He correctly notes that the phrase “beg the question” is almost always used incorrectly to mean something like “invite the following obvious question” or “avoid or ignore the following obvious issue.” Thank you; I’ve been saying this for years. (Though that incorrect usage is so close to universal that maybe it’ll soon become correct, if it hasn’t already, through convention, which is how language changes.)

I’ll take issue with him on at least one thing. Like so many language commentators, he objects to saying things like “very unique” or claiming that one thing is “more unique” than another, on the grounds that “unique” is one of those “uncomparable” adjectives that either applies or doesn’t—it can’t apply by greater or lesser degrees.

I’ve never agreed with this criticism. I think when people use “unique” in the way being objected to it is typically perfectly clear what they mean.

Why can’t there be degrees of uniqueness? If something is unique then it is the only one of its kind, but surely it can differ from other things by varying degrees.

Imagine Crispy and St. Peter are on an island cataloguing all the birds they see. So far they’ve seen dozens of birds of a certain shade of green, a similar number of birds of a subtly different shade of green, ten birds of yet another shade of green pretty close to the other two shades, etc.: A substantial number of birds of many, many shades of green that are distinguishable from each other, but barely.

Then one day Crispy returns to their camp to excitedly tell St. Peter that he’s spotted a uniquely colored bird, the first of its kind they’ve seen of a slightly different shade of green. But St. Peter reports that that’s nothing: he’s just spotted a very uniquely colored bright red bird.

Now, both birds are unique in color compared to the others observed on the island so far, but isn’t the bright red one more unique than the green one? I would think so, or at least if someone claimed it I would know what they meant. It wouldn’t be some kind of empty, nonsensical, or exaggerated claim.

Borges on the Couch is a book review of Borges: A Life by Edwin Williamson, about the Argentine writer of fantasy or magical fiction. Wallace’s take on the book is that the author errs in two respects. One, he presents Borges as a vain, petty, pompous ass when the evidence taken as a whole paints a much more favorable picture of him. Two, he assumes that the best way to analyze a writer’s work is to make connections between the work and the life and psychology of the writer, which is almost always not a good approach.

I know Borges is considered one of the most important writers of the 20th century, but I haven’t read anything by him, and I certainly haven’t read this biography, so I can’t really comment on the substance of this piece. It was not of great interest to me.

Deciderization 2007—A Special Report is Wallace’s introduction to The Best American Essays 2007. He uses the introduction to explain his criteria for deciding what pieces made the cut to be in the book. He chose 22 essays from the 100 finalists provided to him.

It’s a moderately interesting piece. He admits a form of political consideration was a factor in his decisions, explaining that given what a disaster the George W. Bush administration had been, he was interested in essays that maybe get us back on track of caring about and thinking about the most important issues in society, since we must have been quite distracted to have let things fall into the mess they have. (He’s not consistently a liberal or Democrat, by the way. Actually his politics in general seem not all that deep or sophisticated, and often more emotion-based than reason-based. See his man crush on John McCain, for instance.)

The book closes with Just Asking, a very short piece, but one that I think makes a very important, albeit not particularly original, point. And that is that even if the wars and the torture and the domestic spying and all the rest since 2001 have somehow decreased the risk of terrorist attacks on the United States—something he has his doubts about—we should at least consider the possibility that the cost of bringing about that benefit was too great. Perhaps, he says, we should think of having the courage to face risks up to and including death as not just something that applies to our soldiers sent far away to fight wars, but to all of us. And perhaps we should be willing to accept a certain amount of risk of dying in a terrorist attack instead of accepting a more inhumane and unfree society.

I’ll close with a couple of general thoughts, first about Wallace and second about this particular book.

In some ways Wallace is an unthreatening intellectual. He tends to be humble to the point of self-deprecation, though, one, I think sometimes that’s a pose—he’s consciously trying to be unthreatening—and, two, he’s not that way across the board. For instance he can sometimes come across as quite authoritative about language, literature, etc.

But even if he sometimes downplays it, and even if his intellect doesn’t seem equally able to conquer all issues, there is still something very impressive about how freaking smart he is, and perhaps especially by how wide-ranging are the things he knows about.

Then again, I routinely am struck by how many people—I’m thinking in print especially; not so much people I interact with in real life—seem to know vastly more than me in so many areas. So often when I read things where the author is seemingly taking for granted that of course any tolerably well-educated person will have all the necessary background knowledge to get all the references and such, I wonder if that’s really true. Am I the only one who hasn’t acquired a lot of the necessary knowledge to understand material aimed at an educated layman?

In some respects you wouldn’t think I’d be an exception. In raw intellectual ability, in terms of both measurables and intangibles, I’m almost certainly in the top 1% of the human population. (There are a lot of ways intellect can be parsed. In terms of something like just the ability to intuit logical structure, to know when something someone says hangs together properly and when they’ve blundered or are communicating in more of a stream-of-consciousness way, I’m probably in the top one-hundredth of 1%. There are other intellectual areas, though, where I’m decidedly not in the top 1% and maybe not even close to it.) I have a college education, and indeed several years of graduate school on top of it. I read a fair amount of magazines, online news, etc., and I average reading maybe 40 books a year—all in their entirety, and mostly serious books. I may well also be in the top 1% of the human population in terms of how much I read, especially if adjusted for difficulty level. Surely I’m at least in the top 5%.

Yet with all that, I feel like I’ve been exposed to a shockingly small percentage of what a reasonably educated, knowledgeable person should know. When you factor in that I certainly haven’t had a complete understanding of everything I’ve read, and that over time—as is true for everyone—the amount I retain of what I read and understand gradually dwindles (one of the main reasons I write these essays is precisely to increase that retention by hammering ideas from books and movies into my brain by having to write about them), what I’m left with is a shockingly small percentage of a shockingly small percentage.

With all my abilities, my education, the massive amount I read, the effort I make to stay informed, what I know is dwarfed by what I don’t know. If I read something that references major events from American or world history, it’s hit or miss if I’ll know enough about it to get the reference. Shakespeare would be way, way more miss than hit. Poetry pretty much a hundred percent miss. My knowledge of computers and technology is no better than intermediate for someone my age, and thus far behind that of the average kid. Of the novels considered most significant to have been published in my lifetime, I’m sure I’ve read fewer than 1% of them. In reference to most of pop culture I’m routinely in the “Oh my God, have you been living in a cave?” position of ignorance. Show me a list of the top 100 classic books that are most important to be familiar with if you want to be able to keep up with any culturally relevant discussion and I doubt I’ve read more than 10 of them, definitely no more than 20. I haven’t seen plenty of the absolute classic movies that “everybody” has seen. If you include some foreign phrases in your writing—Latin, French, whatever—and you don’t translate them in a footnote (presumably because you don’t want to insult your readers’ intelligence, since surely everyone, or at least everyone you’re interested in communicating with, speaks Latin and French after all), don’t expect me to get it.

Never mind the intellect, where do people find the time to learn as much as Wallace seems to know about contemporary literature, philosophy, poetry, history, language, mathematics, tennis, pop culture, and on and on and on?

Again, it’s not just Wallace, though he’s a prime example. Routinely when I read I get the impression that I’m listening in on a conversation among people who are really only addressing those, like themselves, who have a thorough enough knowledge of Euripides, the French Revolution, Tarantino, Don DeLillo, Orwell, the Bible, contemporary top 40 music, and feminist theory to appreciate all their references. I’m familiar with some of those things, to varying degrees, but not enough to avoid the feeling that I’m some kind of an outsider struggling to keep up.

OK, finally, as far as Both Flesh and Not itself, my assessment is that it is of value mostly for big David Foster Wallace fans. (Even though I disagree with him at times, don’t understand what he’s saying at times, and am not interested in the subject matter he writes about at times, I do feel a real connection with him on some intangible level, so I certainly count myself as such a fan.) For completeness sake, it’s worth having, like an anthology by your favorite band that includes the various singles that were never on an album, alternate versions, out-takes, etc.

But the fact is the best of his essays were anthologized long before this collection was put together. The two or three or four pieces in this book that I liked the best would still only rank around the middle at best if they were moved instead to A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again or Consider the Lobster.


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