The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace: A Glossary

If you’re reading Adam Miller’s The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace: Boredom and Addiction in an Age of Distraction (review forthcoming!), you’ll see terms repeat themselves in the book. Remember that you’re reading Adam Miller on DFW, which is like reading Adam Miller on Paul: you’re looking at the original author through a lens, not necessarily an unfaithful lens but one that will magnify and bring things to your mind in new ways. That’s my way of saying that Miller’s DFW Gospel is better in some ways than reading DFW. It’s both much shorter (curse you, Infinite Jest!) and more direct. Miller uses some words — words that DFW uses — and he uses them ostensibly the same way DFW uses, but it’s worth looking at these words closely.

Body: A thing that exists that interacts with a real world. It gets hungry, it gets tired, it reacts to drugs and food and sex in ways that are programmed. The body is a tool, a way to take cruises and play tennis and file taxes, but it is more than this: it is you. It is unavoidably you. You cannot pretend to be anything other than the body, try as you might. But this is also good news: the body is the only way for you to really live and experience beauty and grace.

Head: The thing on the top of your body. It is full of thoughts. It is also where your feelings are coming from. The head can seem like it is separate and independent, a controller of the body. It can also be a prison, at times a literal one where your ‘self’ is trapped, unable to express itself through the body, unable to make the body work without effort, unable to speak. Your thoughts snake around each other. You check facebook and twitter constantly, looking for some sort of distraction that will pause your head and let you experience life, ironically without distraction. But the head is part of the body. It is the body, and is inseparable not just because you’d die without it, but inseparable because you cannot live without it: those thoughts and that self are bound in, fed by and part of the body.

Map: A drawing of a place, a schematic, a representation of some real world location. Maps are plans, designs for borders and territories. But maps are not the places themselves. Heads forget that maps are not the places themselves. When you get caught up in the problems in your head, you look at maps instead of places. You worship those idols of perception rather than real things. And the maps feed the closed loop in your head, causing you to prefer maps (because they are neat and easy and distracting) over the messy real world.

Substance: as in Substance abuse. DFW was an alcoholic, and frequently wrote of the dangers and lures of Substances. Note that Substance is the opposite of insubstance: as Miller writes, “when heads come unthreaded from bodies, when worlds are traded for maps, everything begins to feel insubstantial. And when life begins to feel insubstantial, you may be tempted to abuse substances.” You look for some Substance that will get you out of your head, that will push you to a transcendent state that trumps your head-trap and the weakness of your body. But this leads to addiction.

Boredom: As DFW said:

Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient, low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.

But Boredom is, in its way, real and to be focused on intently and cherished as a path to living. Boredom is what haunts us when we’re not being distracted with emails and texts and tv shows all going on at once. Boredom is existence that goes on. But it is not to be avoided or feared: we are to slow down, develop an ability to concentrate and pay attention with more focus than ever: Miller says, “…when you do, the head will click into the body, the wire will go live, and the feelings and sensations will start, in all their great variety, to pour through.”

Grace: DFW had an interesting relationship with religion, one that is still not fully understood. His relationship with grace is similarly difficult to grasp. Moments of grace are found in pure freedom of body, as found observing tennis perfection, but they are also found in quiet, focused examination of income tax filings and and in feeling the present and abiding in it. Grace can deliver you from needing a Substance to get out of your head because you’re no longer looking to a different time, you’re no longer pondering the length of your existence because you’re too busy doing the work required of you now.

There are many more words in Miller’s book. It’s a refreshing distillation of David Foster Wallace, at once refreshing and familiar. It challenges us to focus and look for quiet moments of transcendence in the present: the gospel of DFW, indeed.


  1. I think I would be much more interested in “The Gospel According to ‘Inside the NBA’ on TNT: Reflections on how Barkley, Smith, and Ernie relate to eternal truths.” But maybe that would not be high brow enough? Maybe not sublime enough? Why is it the Mormon impulse to look at every single situation as a gospel analogy? It’s the choice of the analogy that reflects on the author. Another example is the recent book where a Christian believer (Larry Taunton) purports to explain “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens”. Give me something in my own vernacular. Raw, vulgar, common. Don’t give me David Foster Wallace and Christopher Hitchens.

  2. Mike, if you think DFW is high brow, you haven’t read him.

  3. Thanks for this, an unusually apt commentary for my purposes. Because “That’s my way of saying that Miller’s DFW Gospel is better in some ways than reading DFW.” is an answer to my question. Now I’ll test you.
    Regarding high brow, I’m reminded that I grew up (in small part) on Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, and The Gospel According to Peanuts. Not Mormon. Not high brow. Not a waste of time.

  4. Jason K. says:

    Thanks for the glossary, Steve!