Some Reflections on David Foster Wallace's "Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky"
Recently, my partner Devon and I decided to have a little book club during quarantine and to read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. She's never read it and I've only read it from cover to cover once, many years ago when I was in high school. Nevertheless, the book made such a strong impression on me that I still consider it the greatest novel ever written--or, in any case, the greatest novel ever written that has been read by me.
On starting this time around I was reminded of David Foster Wallace's essay on the multi-volume biography of Dostoevsky by Joseph Frank. The essay is partially a review of the latest volume in the series, partially a reflection on what makes Dostoevsky worth reading in general, and partially an indictment of modern literature. With regards to the latter two, Wallace's central claim is that what makes Dostoevsky great is not only his genius, but also his courage--the courage to really grapple with ideological issues that matter to being a person. By contrast, our contemporary authors not only seem averse to taking such issues seriously, but are also rendered unable to do so by the intellectual milieu in which we find ourselves. After presenting a paradigmatically Dostoevskyan serious passage from The Idiot, he says:
Can you imagine any of our own major novelists allowing a character to say stuff like this (not, mind you, just as hypocritical bombast so that some ironic hero can stick a pin in it, but as part of a ten-page monologue by somebody trying to decide whether to commit suicide)? The reason you can’t is the reason he wouldn’t: such a novelist would be, by our lights, pretentious and overwrought and silly. The straight presentation of such a speech in a Serious Novel today would provoke not outrage or invective, but worse—one raised eyebrow and a very cool smile. Maybe, if the novelist was really major, a dry bit of mockery in The New Yorker. The novelist would be (and this is our own age’s
truest vision of hell) laughed out of town.
This "vision of hell" is one in which we, as producers of literature (and, I presume, insofar as we are also consumers of it, too) are so cynical, so trapped beneath layers of nihilism and irony, that any earnest attempt to tackle such serious topics are met with derision and condescension. This is a feature of the sociology of writing: our books cannot have characters that directly address the heady topics that matter to being a person because our authors cannot be people who produce such characters if they are to continue to be taken seriously as authors. As Wallace suggests, this is partly due to the legacy of Modernism which made it the case that "Serious Novels after Joyce tend to be valued and studied mainly for their formal ingenuity. Such is the modernist legacy that we now presume as a matter of course that “serious” literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life." To produce literature of Dostoevsky's kind post Modernity is to be a historical anachronism, to be seen as a less-than-fully developed as a writer, as out of fashion, and as quaint or naive as would be a person who attempted to seriously write a modern day Homeric Epic.
In light of this, "writers have to either make jokes of [the serious topics] or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit." Wallace, of course, himself does this shit fully self aware of what he's doing though it's hard to tell if he's also being ironic in doing so. If he is, it's a bitter kind of irony that laments the limitations that he himself has to face as a writer. He wants to address these topics, he recognizes their importance, but he is aware that if they are to be addressed it must be done indirectly, through, once again, formal tricks rather than genuine engagement.
I don't know enough about contemporary literature to know if Wallace is ultimately correct about this. However, there is something about the earnestness and eagerness of Dostoevsky's characters that seems to belong to a former era and which would appear too romantic, too blunt, too moralizing in a contemporary setting. It seems incredibly difficult to hold in mind both the contemporary moment and to imagine that in such a moment there could be people who really do take things seriously in the way the characters do. How could one both be concerned with what it means to truly have faith and at the same time live in a world in which we are told that the things that matter are what (until recently at least) the big wet president might tweet? The mind reels. And not because the latter didn't or doesn't matter--the effects of those tweets were very, very real--but because they seem so divorced from the former. The very notion of taking these concepts seriously seems silly and unattainable if seriousness itself has taken such a farcical form. How can one even attempt to face the eternal questions if the day-to-day ones seems profoundly puzzling? In that respect Wallace is right to point to the raised eyebrow and wry smile that is likely to accompany such an effort as a dismissive and condescending one which also signals a condemnation of hubris by the one giving it. There are no more Tolstoys or Dostoevskys--there are no Kants, Marxes, or Hegels--and you think you could be one? Stick to the minutia. Try to get at least something small right.
In that respect Wallace is also right to point to Dostoevsky's courage because it really would be a mark of courage to take on such a task today.
In another respect, however, and in light of what has been said already, I think Wallace is too one sided in his assessment here. Part of what prevents authors from being able to write about such things is not simply the sociology of writing, but the broader world of which it is a sociology. It's important to note that Dostoevsky's discussions of the heaviest topics are always put into the mouths of his characters and developed through their conversations with each other--they are not the kinds of direct exposition that Wallace himself puts in asterisks in the essay. It makes sense for the characters to say the kind of things that they say because it makes sense for there to be characters who take such things seriously. In other words, Dostoevsky as a writer is able to write about these things because we--and presumably his contemporary audience--can imagine such people really grappling with those issues. Wallace is right that Dostoevsky's books are ideological; they are such because his characters are ideological and because they represent people who grapple and struggle with their ideologies in order to make sense of their lives. It is in that context that they appear as truly captivating and full characters.
I'm not sure that in the present moment (and at the moment that Wallace was writing) we are, generally speaking, still such people. This is not to say that we are not ideological--our generation is no more immune to ideology than any previous one and the cogs and gears of our particular capitalist mode of ideology continue to spin at breakneck speed. But it is to suggest that we are not self-consciously ideological in the way that leads us to truly grapple with the questions that are presented before us. We believe things, but do not see ourselves as bound by such beliefs in any way that matters--not in a way that could cause significant prolonged suffering or strife because we have committed to believing in them. As such, if we were to encounter such characters in today's setting (rather than as a relic of the past) we would find them hard to understand and alienating. And this, I think, is as much a fact about us as it is about the vision of hell that contemporary writers have to live with.
Before I get too carried away, let me say, dear reader, that in passing general judgment on all of us as I have in the previous paragraph, I do not mean to suggest that there are no exceptions to this judgment, either in writing or in vivo. There are people who do take things seriously precisely in the way Dostoevsky's characters would and for whom the questions that they grapple with are very much pressing ones, and I'm sure there are writers who write of these people as well. Some may even be taken Seriously by others. But, on the whole, I do think that the majority of people are not like this and that perhaps this is to our detriment.
Let me also say that I do not count myself among the Serious people. This reflection serves as much as a confessional to and a condemnation of my own inability to grapple with the questions that truly matter. To say this is perhaps more embarrassing than it normally would be given my pretensions at being a philosopher, who by definition is supposed to be preoccupied with such matters. (Notice that I can't even bring myself to treat what I've spent the last decade of my life's work as anything other than a pretension! How silly it seems to take it as anything other than that! How could anyone working in the field do otherwise? What hubris!) But it's true and it doesn't do any good to pretend otherwise.
The questions that remain are whether it is possible to be otherwise--to live earnestly and authentically with a self-conscious ideology--and whether it would be good to do so. I don't know the answer to either question.