David Foster Wallace’s gospel according to Adam Miller

miller-dfw[The conclusion of my Adam Miller 2-part post extravaganza. Here’s part 1.]

I was surprised to meet the same epistlatory voice Miller used in Letters to a Young Mormon in his latest book, The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace. The books are very similar and very different. Both are made up of a series of short, topic-focused chapters written in a friendly style. But rather than excavating Mormon scripture and thought as in Letters, he’s identifying a “gospel” within the writings of David Foster Wallace, author of one of the best novels of our time, Infinite Jest.

Those who are familiar with Miller’s theology (and perhaps Latour’s too, as I outlined in a previous post) will understand why he’s comfortable using the word “gospel” in his Wallace book when there isn’t a trace of Jesus—except maybe for that one typo where he calls DFW’s character Chris Fogle “Christ Fogle” (page 79; just squeezing Adam’s shoes here). 

Whereas Letters refreshes shopworn religious language like “scripture” and “eternal life,” in Gospel Miller reads DFW and imports completely new items into our Topical Guide: Taxes. Distraction. Sewage. Deskwork. Boredom. These and other points of reflection are treated in concise and clearly written chapters which collectively encourage readers to find grace in our everyday mundane lives, to accept what it means to be “a f****** human being.” (Miller pointed out at the recent Mormon Scholars in the Humanities panel discussion on the book that DFW’s work merits an R rating.)

DFW’s writings contain multitudes, so pinning down any singular gospel there will depend largely on the views of the exegete. Miller identifies one particular “gospel” profile without engaging other profiles, without treating DFW systematically. You don’t need to be familiar with DFW in order to benefit from this book, while devout DFW readers will be able to come up with competing gospels or counterpoints to the one Miller lays out.

Miller’s interpretation is engaging, even inspiring. Example: Do you ever get bored? Turn it into a redemptive experience:

Wallace is not interested in defending our hunger for distraction. He’s interested in how crushing boredom can set our maps on fire and leave us exposed to the world. Boredom signals the world’s resistance to our intentions. It signals a tide of counter-intentionality that can save us from ourselves. Boredom marks the limit of what interests us and by…staying with a person or thing past the limit of our self-interest…life can open onto compassion and fellowship” (Gospel, 112).

Miller makes great use of DFW characters—the comical, the horrible, the intriguing—to show what this everyday gospel looks like in practice. Then he concludes the book with a convincing rebuttal of the claim some critics make that DFW’s work is hyper-individualist, nihilistic, even Nietzschean. Granted, Wallace never became a Catholic or joined any particular religious groups despite repeated and pressing temptations as reported in his biography. But Miller shows ways that Wallace’s work nevertheless reflects a deep awareness of the sacred.

As we might have expected having been pressed through the Millerean Rube Goldberg machine, Wallace’s gospel comes out sounding a lot like Miller’s. It’s worth your consideration. It probably won’t bore you, but if it does, it contains instructions for making your boredom worthwhile after all.

Comments

  1. Just started reading a few days ago. My favorite passage so far; “lonely and bored, we watch TV. This in turn makes our lives more boring and lonely. To protect ourselves from this irony, we become ironic.” (pg. 40)

    also – i love that he (and I guess DFW too) treats addiction as a kind of metaphor for even mundane things like distraction and TV. the popular tendency right now is to narrow addiction down to substance abuse which is actually not quite accurate either since we don’t use addiction as a clinical term.

    any human activity/experience that reproduces a perpetuates itself into a spiral of decreased freedom and increased bondage resembles what we talk about in addiction. it’s not the form of the thing but the function.

    i think the tendency to avoid using the term addiction for pornography or any other “process addiction” is that people are rightfully afraid of offending and shaming folks. i agree that shame is a particular emotion that is self-destructive and fuels these cycles. but i think, like sin, we should be looking to broaden our definition of the term addiction and use it more. loosen up our fear of using the terms and recognize the everyday reality of getting caught in these strange distancing whirlpools that take us away from communion.

  2. uh oh the pr0n debate…