David Foster Wallace and Sentimentality

What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

I’ve been reading a lot of David Foster Wallace’s works lately and came across an interview (which of course I can’t find right now) where he mentions he’s afraid of sentimentality. I recall the interviewer trying to get him to be more specific about what he meant and the question still kind of hanging in the air. He talks about how in postmodern society—an ironic society—being overtly sweet or sentimental is thought of as cheesy and something to be scoffed at; that the sentimentality has to be veiled in a sort of cynical gauze.

I remember hearing this and wondering why. I immediately thought of my favorite “sentimental” works: Anna Karenina, Brothers Karamazov, East of Eden, Journey to the End of the Night, all of which are pre-postmodern, yet are still classics and don’t shy away from a bit of cheese.

I wonder if it’s Wallace’s own personal hang-up. I believe that he believes it’s America’s hangup given the rise of television being soaked in irony starting with the good ol’ Late Show with Johnny Carson who laughed at himself when the jokes were bad and got the audience laughing at him laughing, too. He seems to believe that America is so conditioned to this postmodern, ironic consciousness that blatant sentiment is hand-waved away.

(For more of this, see his essay E Unibus Pluram which is truly eye-opening)

And maybe I have a different opinion than he on what passes as “sentimental.” Maybe he wouldn’t classify those above works as such, maybe he would, but still I’d say all of them have heartbreaking, tearjerking moments that get your spirit imbibed with the beauty of humanity.

Keeping these opinions in mind as I read his writings, I find it thought provoking to come across a story in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men where a man is on the phone with a friend of his and he recounts a story of getting off a plane to find a woman who is so tear-streamingly heartbroken with grief because the man who promised to be there for her and love her forever was not actually there. Tragic, beautiful, human—sentimental.

But then the man recounting the story mentions how he comforts the woman and then, in her time of vulnerability, takes advantage of her emotional state and has sex with her. All the while the other man on the line is basically saying “Yeah, yeah, get on with the story, yeah yeah…Was she sexy? Did you…You know?” and I have to wonder: What is the necessity of the cynicism?

If the story was just about a man getting off the plane—and maybe he still recounts the story via a phone call to a friend of his, it’s a nice little mechanic, I think—and discovering a heartbroken woman waiting for him, and learning her story, what then would the story have been? Would it have been…Worse? Would it have been cheesy? Would it have been too sentimental?

I think I like what Wallace did. It’s different. At least I can give him that—it’s different. Maybe that’s the biggest thing because why do something that’s already been done before? Chekhov could be sentimental, but that was back then. Why make a jazz record that sounds like bebop when you could try to make a jazz record with EDM (or something)?

David Foster Wallace desperately wanted the beauty of humanity in his work, he was just afraid to let it exist for what it is. Not to say he was wrong in doing so—I like his results—they’re interesting. He pushed the medium forward, and maybe if he hadn’t clothed heartbreak and marital issues and loneliness and inadequacy in the contexts of masturbation and sexual fantasy, maybe his works wouldn’t be as important.

I think about Mario Incandenza—ironically my favorite character in all of Infinite Jest. I say ironically because he’s the only sentimental lad in the whole cast. He genuinely cares about people’s feelings and he empathizes deeply and broadly; he’s a tender, Christ-like soul the likes of which you’d find in a Dostoevsky work.

Mario’d fallen in love with the first Madam Psychosis [radio] programs because he felt like he was listening to someone sad read out loud from yellow letters she’d taken out of a shoebox on a rainy P.M., stuff about heartbreak and people you love dying and U.S. woe, stuff that was real. The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that is really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy. (p. 592).” (italics mine)

Yet, in a book where nearly every character is deformed in some way—big head here, white-hair there, veil-over-face here, freakishly tall there, helicopter accident, etc—he is by far the most deformed. I tried to find a description of him from the book, but was having difficulty, came across this picture and honestly it’s not totally inaccurate:


So then I have to wonder: How necessary is it? Would I love Mario just as much if he was a regular looking boy? Would everything he feels be as meaningful—not just to the work itself, but to the whole idea that DFW is harping on? For me, personally, I wouldn’t find him “gooey” as the author puts it, though I may find him out of place…Now I’m starting to think that Infinite Jest as a whole, with all its (post)postmodernism, irony, comically deformed characters, is really just “the world” as DFW sees it in our TV-locked, couch ridden society, and that Mario is what we have left of sentiment if we choose to listen hard enough. That gets into a whole literary analytical, metaphorical mumbo jumbo territory that I’m not usually too keen on…Though I suppose it’s worth a thought.

David Foster Wallace was afraid of pure sentiment because sentimentality was abandoned by the postmodern writers and once an old art form is abandoned, you can’t really come back. This is why “classical” composers a.k.a. “art” composers who continually try to push the envelope forward are stuck dealing with what Shoenberg, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Britten, Berg, Cage, etc. all gave them, and to move forward from there. They couldn’t think of writing symphonies or piano sonatas the way the other greats did—it would just be gooey sentiment.*

I imagine that’s why DFW was afraid. He knew what came before him—he knew what the postmoderns had done. Judging from interviews, he doesn’t seem to necessarily like it that much—what they did—but he knows that it was done and he has to work within those ideas going forward if he wants to make a name for himself. I’d also like to stress that this could possibly be my own interpretation of what I’ve heard him say from interviews, and it’s likely that others may have their own interpretation, and that’s fine.

This is the part where I admit that I haven’t actually read any postmodern works (Does Bukowski count? DFW sort of counts?) so I’m really just going off what I’ve heard him say about irony and what happened to literature in the middle 20th century. I get the impression that irony and cynicism came into vogue and that humanity and gooeyness fell out of vogue—at least that’s the general impression I get.

This is the part where I admit I’m torn for a conclusion: I do believe that D.F.W. greatly underestimated the American people’s desire for genuine human stories—otherwise how would Anna Karenina be made into a movie? Or Jane Austen? What about all of the lovely Pixar films that have come out in the past two decades? Or were they ironic because they had talking toys, bugs, fish, etc?—but I also believe that how he handled tenderness and being a human really did a great thing for literature and pushed it forward because…who wants to hear another Beethoven piano sonata? Then again, at the same time, who wants to hear a 12-tone row of randomized dynamics and articulations played by a string quartet slowed down to half speed on the Varispeed tape deck?

Also this all makes me rethink my own writing because it made me realize that as a writer I am, by default, sickeningly sentimental—sweet as peach tea. It’s made me rethink the context in which my characters can be human and what sort of interesting predicaments I can put them in to get them to be less “gooey” (to use a DFWism) and more…well…ironic, I guess. Which in the 21st century seems to mean the same as “believable.”

*This is a different set of rules for film/video game composers who do draw heavily on “the greats” and who are more concerned with catchy melodies and pretty harmonies than the new school has been for over three quarters of a century—more concerned with intellectualism.


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