Everything is on Fire…Slow Fire

I'm reading The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, his unfinished novel. There are lots of dark passages. Here's an excerpt which addresses, as DFW often does, terrible truths:

I'm talking about the individual US citizen's deep fear, the same basic fear that you and I have and that everybody has except nobody ever talks about it except existentialists in convoluted French prose. Or Pascal. Our smallness, our insignificance and mortality, yours and mine, the thing that we all spend all our time not thinking about directly, that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we've lost one more day that will never come back and our childhoods are over and our adolescence and the vigor of youth and soon our adulthood, that everything we see around us all the time is decaying and passing, it's all passing away, and so are we, so am I, and given how fast the first forty-two years have shot by it's not going to be long before I too pass away, whoever imagined that there was a more truthful way to put it than "die," "pass away," the very sound of it makes me feel the way I feel at dusk on a wintry Sunday

And not only that, but everybody who knows me or even knows I exist will die, and then everybody who knows those people and might even conceivably have heven heard of me will die, and so on, and the gravestones and monuments we spend money toh ave put in to make sure we're remembered, these'll last what — a hundred years? two hundred? — and they'll crumble, and the grass and insects my decomposition will go to feed will die, and their offspring, or if I'm cremated the trees that are nourished by my windbown ash will die or get cut down and decay, and my urn will decay, and before maybe three or four generations it will be like I never existed, to only will I have passed away but it will be like I was never here, and people in 2104 or whatever will no more think of Stuart A. Nichols Jr. than you or I think of John T. Smith, 1790 to 1863, of Livingston, Virginia, or some such. That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we're all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to imagine, in fact, probably that's why the manic US obsession with production, produce, produce, impact the world, contribute, shape things, to help distract us from how little and totally insignificant and temporary we are.

Have a great day!

23 Responses to Everything is on Fire…Slow Fire

  1. Nathan says:

    You’ve certainly gotten funnier over the years!

  2. Mirabeau says:

    Reminds me of the psychology of Otto Rank.

  3. DaveJ says:

    Time is short indeed, but at least we get to have it. Is having an unremembered short time worse than not having had it at all?

  4. Chris Yeh says:

    Given my extreme fear of death, this wasn’t how I expected to start the day.

    If everything and everyone we know are doomed to burn, then burn brightly while you can.

    We may be tiny and insignificant, but we can be the best tiny and insignificant we can be.

  5. Only French existentialists talk about our deep fear– our smallness, our insignificance and our mortality because only they are as neurotically disposed to discuss these things so endlessly as David Foster Wallace.

    DFW’s undisciplined mind is like a wild raging river that crashes through the wilderness of time and space, then diverges into a thousand babbling streams when it encounters any obstruction to the flow of its energy.

    Is it any wonder he suffered from clinical depression?

    He makes bold to pit his puny, insignificant Man against the universe, as if he were some pawn of the gods who is helpless against impersonal “large forces” and must recoil in horror when he discovers the universe itself is a basilisk with fatal breath and glance.

    He makes us victims of Fate, rather than captains of our destinies.

    It is the attitude of a weakling.

    And how presumptuous it is to declare that ultimately the individual faces only annihilation. Wallace assumes the mantle of Lord of All and rules against humankind, finding it wanting in courage, it seems.

    I have no patience with atheists or dilettante philosophers who decree that only oblivion lies beyond death, and I do not accept that we are totally insignificant and temporary.

    Now I will go beat off and have a great day.;-)

  6. Jil Plummer says:

    Talk about depressing! Certainly such thoughts would be one way to encourage birth control!

  7. Rickfoe says:

    Actually, it sounds like you embody exactly who DFW is talking about.

  8. Rickfoe says:

    Perhaps contemplating our insignificance would do us some good. One of the most compelling arguments I’ve heard in favor of literature, is that it leads the reader into the mind of another person. You realize that consciousness like yours exists in another, that another feels similar feelings as you do. This leads us out of our myopia, our solipsism, that makes us think we are the center of the universe. But when we begin to embrace that we aren’t the only one, we also begin to embrace empathy, compassion, cooperation, humility.

    Similarly, embracing our smallness doesn’t have to be so bad. Yes, the despair can be downright debilitating, but it can help us rethink our priorities (it did it for me). There are good things that can come out of this.

    People’s aversion to existentialism seems to be more directly an aversion to nihilism, which isn’t the same thing (although one can lead to the other). Religion has historically hijacked meaning for itself, and as religion loses its grasp, we can feel left without alternative options or guidance. At first, there doesn’t seem like anything to fill the hole.

    To me, it’s a worthy task to think more like DFW. And just as a teenager must go through a period of rebellion before actually becoming mature… the middle period of uncomfortableness is necessary to grow to the higher plane.

    I’m reminded of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, when he argues in favor of space exploration: “Spaceflight speaks to something deep inside us—many of us, if not all. An emerging cosmic perspective, an improved understanding of our place in the Universe, a highly visible program affecting our view of ourselves might clarify the fragility of our planetary environment and the common peril and responsibility of all the nations and peoples of Earth.”

  9. Scott Young says:

    It’s interesting to see his more nihilistic prose knowing his later suicide. I wonder whether the darker truths he discovered exacerbated his depression, or whether the darkness he saw looking out on the world was a by-product his depression.

  10. Jackie D says:

    Ben, I love your note at the end. Still smiling.

    Perhaps perversely, I found this passage very life-affirming. All I have is now and all I can do is matter now, in this moment, and make life meaningful as it is now. What a relief that I don’t have to worry about being remembered or anything.

    (I’ve been thinking a lot about my ancestors, and feeling so sad that I don’t know their stories, which were – from what I can gather – dark and twisted and full of doom, but also featured hugely wonderful things, like coming to America at Ellis Island and building a life in a new country. I wish they’d all been memoirists; even if no one else cared about their stories, I would. I’d give anything to know them.)

  11. I appreciate your comment below, but I think you are sadly mistaken here and there.

    I’ve read enough of Wallace to know that his writing grates on my sensibility, and I find it depressing.

    Most of his sentiments in this dark passage are expressed more poetically and more truthfully in, of all places, that monstrous document of human fallibility and despair-inducing lies, the Bible.

    DFW’s quickie analysis of the manic US obsession with productivity is his usual facile bullshit.

    Nietzsche was right to see nihilism as “the outcome of repeated frustration in the search for meaning”, but I wouldn’t embrace his philosophy.

    I would say that his lies are more “honest” ones than Wallace’s, whose lies were simply the natural outcome of substituting the doggedness of his neuroses for intellectual rigor.

    Besides, it’s not healthy to look to suicides for wisdom.

  12. PS

    David Foster Wallace is the last person on earth I would expect to lead us out of our solipsism.

  13. Rickfoe says:

    Seems like you’re arguing more against DFW than about the actual passage. You probably disliked it as you read “Pale King.”

    It sounds as though you know DFW way more than me, so I don’t claim to accurately understand his intentions or his ideas elsewhere. I can say, however, that this passage speaks to me, as I’m sure it does for other people (like Ben). In other words, I think there’s truth to it, and it’s truth has nothing to do with its author, or his mental state.

    To respond to what I think is your best argument against this, that his analysis of productivity is facile… In my experience, being productive, or busy, or distracted IS the best remedy for despair.

  14. Rickfoe says:

    *You probably disliked it as you read the words “Pale King” in BC’s intro.

  15. Man, you have some chutzpah. You concede that I might know Wallace’s writing better than you, but like Wallace you’re quick to try to usurp the autonomy of my own mind.

    Where did you acquire this preternatural knowledge of what I think? Are you psychic?

    You say you don’t claim to understand DFW’s intentions, yet you rush headlong into guessing why I have this strong antipathy, and even presume to have identified just what it was that set me off.

    Your wiretap on the synapses of my brain must have a faulty connection, because your transcription of my thoughts is garbled.

    Let’s be careful with our use of language here. I didn’t say Wallace made a facile analysis of productivity. I said he made a quickie analysis of a supposed manic obsession with productivity in the US.

    There is a difference, and precision in the use of words is what philosophy is really all about, anyway.

    You haven’t persuaded me, and I still think it’s nonsensical for DFW to assert that people here are super-productive to avoid facing the ultimate meaninglessness of their lives.

    That’s not a remedy, it’s a band-aid on a festering sore.

    If anyone in this pathetic scenario is manically trying to avoid facing the assumed meaninglessness of his life, it’s David Foster Wallace.

    I don’t know how anyone who’s read much of his work could be surprised that he killed himself.

    Of course he believed in the individual’s deep fear of oblivion– he had no faith, and he took the coward’s way out of solving the human dilemma.

  16. DFW was an amazing poet of the human condition, and I salute his willingness to gaze into the abyss. But let us look upon this in a different way.

    Recently a man died who spent his life striving to “put a dent in the universe”. We can laugh at him- an ant trying to drink the ocean. In the scheme of things, maybe all that he did was give us apes a few clever new tools.

    But he was part of something huge. He was part of a great acceleration that has been going on since humanity began. All this striving, production, business- maybe it has a purpose.

    Maybe us miserable little specks… are just part of a great seed called Earth- a seed that will grow into a cosmic deity?

    Perhaps this can be seen from a metaphysical point of view, like Sri Aurobindo or Teilhard de Chardin? Perhaps from a material point of view, like Ray Kurzweil or Frank Tipler?

    Maybe… we are going somewhere, and human life has a cosmic destiny?

    We don’t know. Nobody really knows. I don’t think that we’re big enough to understand what is really going on.

    But this… this is why every sage who has ever lived has said we need to grow beyond the ego, and into a greater existence. DFW recognized this himself, in his famous “This is Water” speech. If we worship the things of the ego, of cosmic isolation- then we worship the grave. We need a cosmic vision. It could be religious- it could be secular- but it must be cosmic.

    Otherwise, our life is meaningless.

    I don’t say this as speculation- while I can’t pretend to know our destiny, I do know one thing.

    I know there is a hell.

    It’s not a place of punishment for touching your naughty bits, or a place where Hitler and Stalin are being burned in an eternal fire while being prodded by a red guy with horns. It’s isolation. It’s being cut off from God, from fellowship, from a greater link with humanity- the true body of Christ. I’ve been there. You feel that you’re caught in a cycle you can never break, an eternal trap. The gnostics symbolized this as the ouroboros; you’re swallowing your own tail forever. You’re no longer part of life.

    Maybe we are born into a god-forsaken universe. Maybe humanity is only headed to the abyss… perhaps the gravitational constants of this universe are just *slightly* off, and we’re trapped to choke to death in our own wastes. Or our planet was simply ill-favored… not quite right, like a seed cast onto the rocks, rather than on fertile ground.

    Or maybe our cosmic loneliness is because we’re the first to emerge around these parts. Our universe is probably a young one. We’ve only had a few billion years in which the right elements have existed for life to emerge. Maybe we’re going to be the welcoming committee for everyone else!

    What a wonderful task!

    But that’s all speculation.

    But given that we don’t know… I don’t see what’s lost in having hope. In carrying on, as if there is a God-in-the-making. As if our life has meaning.

    “And when the hourglass has run out, the hourglass of temporality, when the noise of secular life has grown silent and its restless or ineffectual activism has come to an end, when everything around you
    is still, as it is in eternity, then eternity asks you and every individual in these millions and millions about only one thing: whether you have lived in despair or not.” – Soren Kierkegaard

  17. Rickfoe says:

    You did say “I’ve read enough of Wallace to know that his writing grates on my sensibility, and I find it depressing.” You also talk of his “undisciplined mind,” “clinical depression,” and “suicide,” which are outside elements, as being relevant to the passage. From that, is it too much for me to say that it seems like you had a strong bias against DFW going in? Note that I said “seems.” I don’t claim to know your thoughts, but I thought you advertised them relatively clearly. I may have misinterpreted them and will concede because it’s beside the point.

    I’ll agree with you that his “analysis of supposed manic obsession with productivity in the U.S.” isn’t a fully convincing argument here and needs to be expanded upon, which I try to below. That’s why I said it was your best argument. Of the entire passage, it’s his most ambitious claim, but I wouldn’t say it’s “nonsensical.”

    The idea that the death subconsciously pervades our thinking and affects our outside behavior seems to have at least some warrant. Ernest Becker is the first to come to mind for me (although his ideas are controversial too).

    Here’s what I think DFW is trying to say… We want to avoid nothingness. We perceive our nothingness in may ways, such as our death, our cosmic insignificance, our lack of control over our destiny (e.g. so much of my life depended upon my genes, where I was born, etc.). This isn’t a pleasant thought – that I’m neither in control of my life nor does my life have any material impact.

    To avoid that nothingness, we strive to make impact on the world by creating a legacy. Our legacy, whether through our work, our children, or whatever is our hope that we “survive” our death, going beyond our mortality, temporality, and smallness. Our striving for impact may not materialize into any actual, meaningful impact, but it’s better to tell ourselves otherwise, to distract ourselves from the ultimate fact that we are nothing. In other words, I don’t seem to matter, but I want to think I matter. This doesn’t just happen in the US, but perhaps it is most pronounced in the US – we have satisfied most survival needs yet still obsessively work, we reward impact especially hard work, etc (more than I can handle here).

    I’m no expert and don’t claim to know this with any certainty. But I think the idea could be substantiated with further analysis. That’s why I think this passage has warrant.

  18. Thanks for your considered reply.

    Most of the negative qualities I ascribe to Wallace can be deduced from this passage alone.

    It’s a mystery to me why so many ostensibly intelligent people like DFW’s writng, or admire him, just as I can’t imagine why so many otherwise intelligent people profess to believe in astrology.

    I confess that I don’t like the tenor of his writing, or his feeble pessimistic philosophy that couldn’t save him from murdering himself.

    I will say that I am willing to be converted if I could just find an example of his work that didn’t alienate me.

    It’s presumptuous of Wallace to assume that everyone else, like him, has this deep, abiding fear of an oblivion that terrifies his faint heart.

    And in true neurotic fashion he projects his fear onto everyone else.

    He discounts the possibility that most people may not share his fear, and completely ignores the role that faith, or a less pessimistic philosophy, has in defending them against the assaults by this concrete terrain on their personhood.

    I can respect the attitude of a man who finds, like Sartre, humankind’s true nobility in a courageous stand for the moral life in a godless universe, but here, a man “condemned to be free” chains himself to irrational fear of the unknown.

    Wallace says that as a philosophy student he was chasing the “special sort of buzz” of an imaginative experience like proof-completion, yet he seems fixated on a nihilistic interpretation of his experience of the universe.

    From the very outset of this scare piece he has dethroned reason, an unaesthetic way for a man who craved beauty to formulate a well-made argument.

    And so the man impressed with the “cold formal beauty” of Wittgenstein’s arguments about the nature and limits of language, cannot find his salvation within its confines, no matter how far he pushes to expand them.

    When David Foster Wallace was done his life, I did not hear the “click of a well-made box.”

  19. Here’s page 2 of a surprising article called The Ferocious Morality of David Foster Wallace by David Masciotra at PopMatters.

    Under the sub-heading The Pale King, it begins:

    “Wallace was a member of a church at every place that he lived, but he rarely wrote about his faith or discussed it.”

    I’ll have to digest this before I comment. I’m making a “good-faith” effort to understand what people see in his writing.;-)

  20. Each minute bursts in the burning room,
    The great globe reels in the solar fire,
    Spinning the trivial and unique away.
    (How all things flash! How all things flare!)
    What am I now that I was then?
    May memory restore again and again
    The smallest color of the smallest day:
    Time is the school in which we learn,
    Time is the fire in which we burn.

    Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day

  21. Adam says:

    Read Ecclesiastes.

  22. Krishna says:

    More I read about existentialists and nihilists trying hard to fill the vacuum left by their simple lack of faith ( when I say faith, I don’t mean any particular religion or God here, I just mean the simple consciousness of being a part of the Universe) and being grievously driven to despair because they don’t seem to get over the fact that they lead an insignificant life that will soon fade off into oblivion without making a meaningful impact during their lifetime, I am tempted to ask “why can’t they just have faith…?”

  23. Adam says:

    i believe dfw wasn’t depressed due to his philosophy, but rather his intelligence. his observations are sound, he just couldn’t ignore them. anything one says to glamorize life is a distraction–but that’s healthy, i’m not criticizing it. people love him because almost everything he says, they secretly understand, and that’s his literary accomplishment. the utter bravery to stand naked in front of the world’s readers, and help them. but that was also his downfall, he loved so hard everyone around him, that he didn’t have any love left for himself. i think it’s entirely therapeutic to read his work, and i don’t think the fact that he committed suicide should speak to anything about what can be taken from his intellect. he battled hard at a challenging time in the world, and his efforts were noble. people are entitled to their opinions of his writing, but to overly criticize him and speak negatively of him after his hard-fought life, is to completely ignore his message. if you’re still ranting about his idiocy and self-absorbedness in such a way designed purely to enhance some desired impression of yourself, you’re reading him wrong.

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