In the 1970s, a rumor went around among my elementary school friends that there were satanic messages hidden in the Beatles’ song “I am the Walrus.” In order to hear them, though, you had to play the record backward (these were the days of vinyl albums, played on record players). My friends and I couldn’t figure out how to play the record backward, but we listened intently, hoping to decode it. I don’t think we had any idea what we’d do with the messages if we heard them—we were just intrigued by the idea. Sometimes a song is just a song about a walrus, of course, but it can be more interesting to think of it as something else. Sometimes I think that David Foster Wallace was just writing funny and entertaining stories and mimicking other writers. But it’s also interesting to read him as offering something more. This volume, David Foster Wallace and Religion, reads Wallace as a religious writer.
It collects work by a wide variety of Wallace readers, and these contributors open up enticing interpretive possibilities for readers. The editors have included not just literature scholars, but also a podcast host, graduate students, and others who are deeply invested in reading and thinking about David Foster Wallace’s work. Since Wallace’s readers are not exclusively, or even primarily, literature scholars, the variety of contributors reflects and supports the ways in which Wallace’s readership reaches beyond the academy and beyond traditional disciplinary foci.
Some of the contributors to this volume justify reading Wallace as a religious writer by drawing on evidence about what the real, living and breathing Wallace believed. This might be troublesome for those who are suspicious of appeals to the author’s biography to justify reading an author in a particular way. Whether Wallace was himself religious might not be relevant to whether we ought to read his writings and the Kenyon Commencement speech as offering religious insight, these suspicious readers might say. That question, they might argue, is answered best pragmatically; by thinking about what kinds of insights a reader can gain by thinking of Wallace’s writings as offering religious or spiritual insights.
Several contributors (Matt Bucher and Martin Brick, Michael McGowan) cite the Kenyon Commencement speech, published as This is Water (Little, Brown, 2009), as a reliable source of the author’s genuine and sincere thoughts; some use archival and biographical evidence to support claims about the religious nature of this work. The evidence from the archives provided by some of the contributors is interesting in its own right, even if one is not inclined to think of this as relevant to questions about how to read Wallace’s written work. And the evidence provided by the archives and Wallace’s biography is not unambiguous—some of it seems to point to a sincere pursuit of and interest in religious and spiritual issues, while some of it seems to confirm Wallace’s own judgment about his religious views: that they are banal.
The strength of this volume, along with the thoughtful approaches it offers to thinking about how religion and faith might figure in Wallace’s work, is that it offers readings that draw on both reader-centric interpretations and author-centric interpretations—as the editors say, some of the contributors look at biographical evidence and “the man behind the words” while other contributors are more interested in pursuing questions about how readers might experience Wallace’s works. These are not, of course, mutually exclusive approaches, but they do raise questions about what counts as a “good reading” of a work. Anyone interested in questions about interpretive strategies and what might count as evidence for a particular interpretation of a written work (fictional or nonfictional) will appreciate this collection.
There are some very pointed and obvious allusions to religious thought in Wallace’s fiction: “Federer: Both Flesh and Not,” (originally published as “Watching Roger Federer as Religious Experience”) seems to try to draw the reader’s attention to William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. Varieties also appears in Infinite Jest (IJ), this time paired with James’ Principles of Psychology (Henry Holt, 1890): a hollowed-out, large print version of these books serves as a cocaine stash. A parrot in Broom of the System (Viking, 1987) is taken to be a prophet by a televangelist and his followers. And the human-made desert in the same book is the Great Ohio Desert (the G.O.D). These allusions seem to demand that the reader read religion into the works. But whether one sees sincere attempts to engage readers in spiritual questions or criticisms of religiosity (or both) is a matter for debate. It can be difficult to distinguish Wallace’s use of farce from his sincere attempts to communicate truths. The contributors and the editors recognize this interpretive challenge, and use it to frame the essays included in the collection.
In addition to these rather explicit references to religion and religious phenomena, Wallace concerns himself with themes that might be thought of as shared territory for philosophy and religion. Wallace’s criticism of popular culture, his uses and criticism of irony, his
engagement with ideas about freedom, and his reflections on and dialogues about love are some of the larger themes that invite religious and philosophical interpretation. These themes connect him to James, Plato, and Søren Kierkegaard, and while we might not think of these themes as explicitly religious, Wallace’s reflections on them seem to call into question the line between the philosophical and the religious. The essays in this volume address several of these topics, suggesting that the line between philosophical writing and religious writing might not be particularly sharp.
Several contributors to this volume (Martin Brick, Matt Bucher and Martin Brick, Ryan Lackey, Dave Laird, Krzysztof Piekarski, Rob Short, and Peter Spaulding, for instance) discuss the complicated relationships Wallace’s characters have with the practices they learn as part of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): its parables and clichés inspire both suspicion and faith; the discipline involved in not thinking too much invites comparisons to Zen practice; the difficulty of conversion and the idea of worship all connect Wallace to traditions of religious writing while also applying that tradition to contemporary life and problems.
Should we read Wallace as a religious writer? This volume makes a case for the fruitfulness of that interpretive approach and also suggests that the category of “religious writer” may be less clearly defined than we might assume.
Marianne Janack is the John Stewart Kennedy Professor of Philosophy at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY.
Date Of Review:
May 31, 2021
Michael McGowan is professor of philosophy and religion at Florida Southwestern State College, USA. He is the author of The Bridge: Revelation and its Implications (2015).
Martin Brick is associate professor of English at Ohio Dominican University, USA.
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