To Live Unseduced by Media Sirens and the Gleam of Envy in Others’ Eyes

Algis Valiunas penned an essay about David Foster Wallace last month that, for its relative brevity, is remarkably comprehensive. Here’s an excerpt from the section on “Moral Beauty” that spoke to me:

We are a nation of addicts, Wallace insists, in a chronic state of denial, craving the wrong kinds of pleasure and undone by the wrong kinds of pain. Purification is called for. By no means, however, does Wallace condemn all activity that is not undertaken purely for its own sake; that would be to condemn almost everything people do. What he does condemn is gross self-seeking ambition that cares only for the prizes and the gleam of envy in others’ eyes. In the absence of a genuine calling, which does not exclude honest ambition, whether one happens to be a lawyer or a businessman or an athlete or a writer, success is a corrosive illusion. Wallace updates Tolstoy, who labored all his life against the insidious collusion of sensuality and amour-propre. To live unseduced by media sirens or the longing for celebrity or fatuous simulacra of love or the urge for simple obliteration is the aim Wallace sets for the reader; it is the aim he set for himself as a recovering addict and mental patient and as a writer serious as he had never been before. However the world might have damaged you or you have damaged yourself, however you might believe you need your substance or fantasy of choice to make it through the day, resistance and integrity and moral beauty remain possible.


The family-authorized biography of DFW comes out August 30. I contributed a personal anecdote about Wallace to D.T. Max, the biographer. We’ll see if it made the final book.

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