December 01, 2010

Did David Foster Wallace Meditate?


Sometimes I like to imagine David Foster Wallace meditating. It seems like maybe Zen or Vipassana might have been the perfect venue for the writer to explore, if not release, the pressure that clearly built up in his head. In his fiction, the protagonists are always thinking, thinking about thinking, and it’s footnotes all the way down. I would like to believe that he tried sitting. Anybody who has read his commencement address at Kenyon College, in 2005, knows that he was a Buddha ancestor. From that speech:


The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.


Awareness. Compassion. Freedom. While this speech is probably considered the most “Buddhist” of Wallace’s work (his “This is water” bit at its conclusion might as well have come straight from Dogen’s mouth), I recently came across one of his short stories where the Buddhist connection is more explicit. In "Good Old Neon" (which won an O. Henry Award in 2002), from his short story collection Oblivion, the protagonist—a successful, tortured, self-proclaimed fraud narrating from beyond the grave about his suicide and his obsession with how he looks in others’ eyes—gives meditation a shot in one of his many efforts to quit his fraudulent ways. 


… through sheer force of will I’d always force myself to remain totally still with my legs crossed and back perfectly straight long after the other students had all given up and fallen back on their mats shuddering and holding their heads. Right from the first class meeting, even though the small, brown instructor had told us to shoot for only ten minutes of stillness at the outset because most Westerners’ minds could not maintain more than a few minutes of stillness and mindful concentration without feeling so restless and ill at ease that they couldn’t stand it, I always remained absolutely still and focused on breathing my prana with the lower diaphragm longer than any of them, sometimes for up to thirty minutes, even though my knees and lower back were on fire and I had what felt like swarms of insects crawling all over my arms and shooting out of the top of my head—and Master Gurpreet, although he kept his facial expression inscrutable, gave me a deep and seemingly respectful bow and said that I sat almost like a living statue of mindful repose, and that he was impressed. … I could only sit and appear quiet and mindful and withstand the unbelievably restless and horrible feelings when all of us were doing it together in the class—meaning only when there were other people to make an impression on.




Wallace must have meditated. Those physical descriptions—insects crawling over the body and shooting out of the head—are just too real for him to not have. Indeed, many of Wallace’s characters seem aware—hyper-aware—of the samsaric nature of their minds. Their mission is figuring out what to do them. When I imagine David Foster Wallace sitting, I imagine his brilliant mind carrying him away.

Image: Eric Chu (from the Los Angeles Times)

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