David Foster Wallace Went to Church Constantly?

The next few months are shaping up to be eventful and exciting ones for devotees […]

David Zahl / 8.20.12

The next few months are shaping up to be eventful and exciting ones for devotees of David Foster Wallace. At the end of August the first major biography of Wallace, D.T. Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, hits the shelves. And then in November, a long-awaited volume of uncollected essays arrives, Both Flesh and Not. Can you say “pre-ordered”?! Well, last week blogger Daniel Silliman posted an eye-catching report on a recent panel given at the UT Austin Wallace archives that included the biographer in question, Mr. Max. According to Mr. Silliman, there is reason to believe that this initial wave of study has not done DFW’s religious beliefs justice. If it sounds a tad overly speculative (or sensitive), the panel itself unfortunately bears out his observations. While one doubts that there’s a conscious agenda behind the alleged glossing over, it’s certainly tempting to read into it. But what’s remarkable here isn’t the angle being taken on Wallace’s well-documented religious life, but how the topic doesn’t seem to have registered enough to warrant an angle, period. This is the man who once (non-ironically) listed The Screwtape Letters as his favorite novel after all. Sigh… Over at The Dish, Matthew Sitman (one of our speakers at the upcoming Fall Conference in Charlottesville, VA!) offered some thoughts on the perceived disinterest, wisely noting that it probably wouldn’t have surprised DFW himself. Needless to say, Sitman’s comments were too germane not to reprint here (plus, they linked to Mbird, which is always nice…). The first longer, italicized quote comes from Silliman, the rest is Sitman:

The question of Wallace’s relationship to Christianity came up again in a panel focused on the Wallace archives. Max was on the panel, as well as two other writer’s who know more than a little about Wallace’s life…:

Douglas Brinkley: “….And also, I always felt it a little odd, but not that odd, but [DFW] would always go to church constantly throughout his life. And I was wondering if that came from his childhood and kinda the routine of church? Was he going to church for lightness? Or was he looking for literary material?”

It is very interesting, from the stand point of biography, that Wallace’s writing struggles are so important to so many. I wish, though, that Max found Wallace’s struggles with and attempts at religion important too. What does that say? What does it say that Wallace dedicated some time trying to be a part of church communities? How did that work and how did it play out?

Max tacks around the question, as if he either doesn’t know the answer or doesn’t find it interesting. Asked directly, in another context, he went with “banal,” an assessment he attributes to Wallace.

Max: “Wallace once wrote to his friend Jonathan Franzen that his thoughts on religion were ‘banal.’ He did go to church, and my assumption is that this practice began after he stopped drinking and smoking pot as part of getting clean and may have continued either because he felt it centered him or merely out of habit, as part of his sense of himself as a middle-class Midwesterner.”

Maybe Wallace’s thoughts on religion were banal. I doubt it, though. Unfortunately, Max seems to assume that’s the case without investigating any deeper or even being interested. The rest of his answer is just speculation — and, really, even if his Illinois church attendance was best explained by those things, there’s still plenty there to explore. None of those answers specifically would be boring, though Max seems to take them that way.

It’s like a terminal disinterest in religion. David Lipsky’s extended interview with Wallace was the same way. Wallace talked about religion and God several times, but Lipsky let every statement pass, never following up, always pursuing other questions.

If Silliman’s assessment is right, I’ll be disappointed. My suspicion is that among DFW’s literary and academic peers, his church-going and attachment to Christianity (however complicated and complex) is not a feature of his life that intuitively is understood – and so the language and themes in his writing that point to this, whether overtly theological or not, tend to get downplayed.

In Wallace’s Rolling Stone article after 9-11, he mentions “belonging” to a Protestant church in Bloomington – probably not the type of place with which too many New York-based writers have an intimate familiarity. This fact about his life seems worthy of investigation, and I hope Max’s biography addresses it. A 1996 Details profile revealed, for instance, that Wallace twice pursued becoming a Roman Catholic, and eventually spent time going to a Mennonite house of worship. Beyond these details, though, DFW’s work itself points to an understanding of human nature brimming with religious insight. Or rather, he held that we were religious beings. In his famed Kenyon commencement address, Wallace said

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

Wallace understood our addictions – to fame, power, beauty, wealth – as petty idols, replacing a transcendent, ultimate source of devotion with the penultimate, taking good, if limited, things and making them everything. Which of course leads to misery – and worse. Any reader of Wallace’s knows the place of addiction in his work, and the lurking anthropology behind his assessment of it, by the end of his life, was religious. Examining the matter of what, or whom, Wallace worshiped, or tried to, is an essential task in understanding his literary and philosophical vision. That Wallace evinced some reticence about this, or refused to slip into the tired slogans of our culture’s publicly pious, doesn’t diminish its importance. He once admitted how difficult it was to discuss such questions, in an almost eery preview of the hesistancy we now find among those scrutinizing his life:

…it’s very hard to talk about people’s relationship with any kind of God, in any book later than like Dostoyevsky. I mean the culture, it’s all wrong for it now. You know? No, no. Plausibly realistic characters don’t sit around talking about this stuff. You know?

I always come back to this comment of Wallace’s during his interview with Lipsky:

It’s more like, if you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think it’s probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we’re here for is to learn how to do it. [Spits with mouthful voice into cup.] I know that sounds a little pious.

The term for what he’s describing, in Christian theology, is grace. Wallace’s life, it seems to me, was a search for it.

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


9 responses to “David Foster Wallace Went to Church Constantly?”

  1. Bill Bower says:

    ‏@james_ka_smith 17 Aug Zadie Smith said this was the most “impassioned” book recommendation David Foster Wallace ever gave her: http://www.loyolapress.com/catholics-by-brian-moore-loyola-classics.htm

  2. rebecca w says:

    This just makes me go “wow”. Thank you for sharing it!

  3. Cathlene Brady says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this.

  4. mariachong says:

    Great article, thanks. I can’t find the quote, but in Lipsky’s book he describes attending a black church for a while as an undergrad or grad student.

    On a sidenote, Mary Karr wrote two poems about DFW that are in this month’s Poetry magazine.


  5. Kelly Madden says:

    Just discovering DFW. But of this much I am pretty sure: “Banal” did not connote to DFW what it does to most people. He seems to believe that capital T Truth was, for the most part, banal. But still True. He thought that the cliches of recovery programs, for example, were banalities. But True. So that following them, yes, RELIGIOUSLY was essential to any hope for life after addiction to substances.

  6. Jim Snyder says:

    We — modern society, intellectual elite, etc. — are SO hostile to “religion,” the idea of belief, of restlessly and relentlessly searching for the transcendent, for God, in the creative pursuit, it is pathetic. “Religion” is different from “faith” or “belief.” They may be related, but are not interchangeable. Mary Karr converted to Catholicism. John McGahern was buried after requesting a funeral Mass. So was Seamus Heaney, same request. The list goes on and on of those for whom the soul’s search for meaning in something greater than oneself fired the greatest modern literature. I look forward to a full-blown analysis of Mr. Wallace’s faith.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *