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Rickfoe
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You did say "I've read enough of Wallace to know that his writing grates on my sensibility, and I find it depressing." You also talk of his "undisciplined mind," "clinical depression," and "suicide," which are outside elements, as being relevant to the passage. From that, is it too much for me to say that it seems like you had a strong bias against DFW going in? Note that I said "seems." I don't claim to know your thoughts, but I thought you advertised them relatively clearly. I may have misinterpreted them and will concede because it's beside the point. I'll agree with you that his "analysis of supposed manic obsession with productivity in the U.S." isn't a fully convincing argument here and needs to be expanded upon, which I try to below. That's why I said it was your best argument. Of the entire passage, it's his most ambitious claim, but I wouldn't say it's "nonsensical." The idea that the death subconsciously pervades our thinking and affects our outside behavior seems to have at least some warrant. Ernest Becker is the first to come to mind for me (although his ideas are controversial too). Here's what I think DFW is trying to say… We want to avoid nothingness. We perceive our nothingness in may ways, such as our death, our cosmic insignificance, our lack of control over our destiny (e.g. so much of my life depended upon my genes, where I was born, etc.). This isn't a pleasant thought - that I'm neither in control of my life nor does my life have any material impact. To avoid that nothingness, we strive to make impact on the world by creating a legacy. Our legacy, whether through our work, our children, or whatever is our hope that we "survive" our death, going beyond our mortality, temporality, and smallness. Our striving for impact may not materialize into any actual, meaningful impact, but it's better to tell ourselves otherwise, to distract ourselves from the ultimate fact that we are nothing. In other words, I don't seem to matter, but I want to think I matter. This doesn't just happen in the US, but perhaps it is most pronounced in the US - we have satisfied most survival needs yet still obsessively work, we reward impact especially hard work, etc (more than I can handle here). I'm no expert and don't claim to know this with any certainty. But I think the idea could be substantiated with further analysis. That's why I think this passage has warrant.
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*You probably disliked it as you read the words "Pale King" in BC's intro.
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Seems like you're arguing more against DFW than about the actual passage. You probably disliked it as you read "Pale King." It sounds as though you know DFW way more than me, so I don't claim to accurately understand his intentions or his ideas elsewhere. I can say, however, that this passage speaks to me, as I'm sure it does for other people (like Ben). In other words, I think there's truth to it, and it's truth has nothing to do with its author, or his mental state. To respond to what I think is your best argument against this, that his analysis of productivity is facile... In my experience, being productive, or busy, or distracted IS the best remedy for despair.
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Perhaps contemplating our insignificance would do us some good. One of the most compelling arguments I've heard in favor of literature, is that it leads the reader into the mind of another person. You realize that consciousness like yours exists in another, that another feels similar feelings as you do. This leads us out of our myopia, our solipsism, that makes us think we are the center of the universe. But when we begin to embrace that we aren't the only one, we also begin to embrace empathy, compassion, cooperation, humility. Similarly, embracing our smallness doesn't have to be so bad. Yes, the despair can be downright debilitating, but it can help us rethink our priorities (it did it for me). There are good things that can come out of this. People's aversion to existentialism seems to be more directly an aversion to nihilism, which isn't the same thing (although one can lead to the other). Religion has historically hijacked meaning for itself, and as religion loses its grasp, we can feel left without alternative options or guidance. At first, there doesn't seem like anything to fill the hole. To me, it's a worthy task to think more like DFW. And just as a teenager must go through a period of rebellion before actually becoming mature… the middle period of uncomfortableness is necessary to grow to the higher plane. I'm reminded of Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot, when he argues in favor of space exploration: "Spaceflight speaks to something deep inside us—many of us, if not all. An emerging cosmic perspective, an improved understanding of our place in the Universe, a highly visible program affecting our view of ourselves might clarify the fragility of our planetary environment and the common peril and responsibility of all the nations and peoples of Earth."
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Actually, it sounds like you embody exactly who DFW is talking about.
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Nov 1, 2011