Dullness, Freedom, Children and Fathers in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King

In honor of what would have been 50th birthday (2/21/12), we thought we’d rerun a […]

David Zahl / 6.10.11

In honor of what would have been 50th birthday (2/21/12), we thought we’d rerun a post of passages from David Foster Wallace’s unfinished opus The Pale King. If the first one sounds familiar, that’s because part of it was reproduced here. FYI, the second two come from the same character, the one who dropped this bomb this as well:

To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. 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 feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly… but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUV’s backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down. (pg. 85)

“When I think of [my father] now, I realize he was lonely, that it was very hard for him divorced and alone in that house in Libertyville. After the divorce, in some ways he probably felt free, which of course has its good sides – he could come and go as he pleased, and when he squeezed my shoes about something he didn’t have to worry about choosing his words carefully or arguing with someone who was going to stick up for me no matter what. But freedom of this kind is also very close, on the psychological continuum, to loneliness. The only people you’re really ultimately ‘free’ with in this way are strangers, and in this sense my father was right about money and capitalism being equal to freedom, as buying or selling something doesn’t obligate you to anything except what’s written in the contract – although there’s also a social contract, which is where the obligation to pay one’s fair share of taxes comes in, and I think my father would have agreed with Mr. Glendenning’s statement that ‘Real freedom is freedom to obey the law.’ (pgs. 192-193)

For what it’s worth, I accept the basic idea that parents instinctively do ‘love’ their offspring no matter what – the evolutionary reasoning behind this premise is too obvious to ignore. But actually ‘liking’ them, or enjoying them as people, seems like a totally different thing. It may be that psychologists are off-base in their preoccupation with children’s need to feel that their father or some other parent loves them. It also seems valid to consider the child’s desire to feel that a parent actually likes them, as love itself is so automatic and preprogrammed in a parent that it isn’t a very good test of whatever it is that the typical child feels so anxious to pass the test of. It’s not unlike the religious confidence that one is ‘loved unconditionally’ by God – as the God in question is defined as something that loves this way automatically and universally, it doesn’t seem to really have anything to do with you, so it’s hard to see why religious people claim to feel such reassurance in being loved this way by God. The point here is not that every last feeling and emotion must be taken personally as about you, but only that, for basic psychological reasons, it’s difficult not to feel this way when it comes to one’s father – it’s simply human nature. (pg. 209)