The Frontal Cortex

David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest was one of those books that changed my life as a geeky adolescent and then proved to be rather unreadable a few years later. Nevertheless, I’ve always made a point of reading everything DFW ever wrote. I think of him whenever I cram a digression into a footnote, or delight in the scholarly look of an endnote shyly interrupting text. There aren’t too many postmodernists who say things like this:

“We all suffer alone in the real world…True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.”

It was that tension between arch irony and old-fashioned empathy that made his prose so riveting, I think. If you’re not familiar with DFW, his commencement address at Kenyon is a good place to start:

Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.'” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”

It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.


  1. #1 Becca
    September 15, 2008

    The first quote… is just great. I can see why he might appeal to angsty adolescents (and young adults) just from that. I don’t fully see the geekyness connection (although I would wager most self-described geeks feel at some point like they don’t belong with most people).

    The quote from the commencement… is interesting too. I like the bits that aren’t what you quoted better. I may have to read more of this one.

  2. #2 John Sutton
    September 16, 2008

    Did anyone think to ask the Eskimos what happened. Did they exist before the man prayed? Did they decide to start on their journey before the man prayed? Did they worship the same god as the praying atheist?

    I think more research is needed before we can draw any conclusions.

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