The philosophical underpinnings of David Foster Wallace's fiction.

The philosophical underpinnings of David Foster Wallace's fiction.

The philosophical underpinnings of David Foster Wallace's fiction.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Dec. 21 2010 10:42 AM

Philosophical Sweep

To understand the fiction of David Foster Wallace, it helps to have a little Wittgenstein.

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Perhaps the most authentically philosophical aspect of Wallace's nonfiction, however, is the sense he gives his reader, no matter how rarefied or lowly the topic, of getting to the core of things, of searching for the essence of a phenomenon or experience. His article on the tennis player Roger Federer delves into the central role of beauty in the appreciation of athletics. His antic recounting of a week-long Caribbean cruise penetrates beneath the surface of his own satirical portrait to plumb a set of near-existential issues—freedom of choice, the illusion of freedom, freedom from choice—that he saw lurking at the heart of modern American ideas of entertainment. "I saw philosophy all over the place," DeVries, his former professor, said of Wallace's writings. "It was even hard to figure out how to single it out. I think it infuses a great deal of his work."

As far as Wallace's fiction is concerned, the most philosophically intriguing text is the novel he wrote when his own philosophical efforts were most intense: The Broom of the System. In some way—though it's not obvious at first in what way—the book is clearly supposed to be "about" Wittgenstein's philosophy. The plot follows a young switchboard operator named Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman as she searches for her great-grandmother, a former student of Wittgenstein's at Cambridge University who has disappeared from her nursing home. Gramma Beadsman had been a dominant and intellectually bullying figure in Lenore's life, forever hinting that she would prove to Lenore "how a life is words and nothing else"—a haunting suggestion that seems to be the source of Lenore's persistent anxiety that she herself might be just a character in a novel. Gramma has left behind in her desk drawer several objects that are potential clues to her disappearance, including a copy of Philosophical Investigations.

The Broom of the System takes its title from a philosophical lesson that Gramma Beadsman once imparted to Lenore's younger brother, LaVache. While sweeping the kitchen floor with a broom, Gramma asked LaVache "which part of the broom was more elemental, more fundamental," the handle or the bristles? LaVache replied that the bristles are the essence of a broom. But Gramma corrected him, insisting that the answer depends on the use to which the broom is being put: if you want to sweep, the bristles are the essence—in effect, the meaning—of the broom; if you want, say, to break a window, its essence is the handle. "Meaning as use," Gramma intoned. "Meaning as use." The reader familiar with Wittgenstein will recognize in Gramma's words the governing slogan of his late philosophy: "the meaning of a word," he wrote in the Investigations, "is its use in the language."


In his letter to Lance Olsen, Wallace revealed that Gramma Beadsman was "based loosely" on Alice Ambrose, "a very old former Smith professor who lived near me"—Smith College is part of the Five Colleges consortium to which Amherst belongs—"and had been one of the students whose notes were comprised by Witt's Blue and Brown books." Though Wittgenstein's late philosophy was published posthumously, parts of it were available during his lifetime in the form of two sets of students' notes known as the "Blue Book" and the "Brown Book"; the "Brown Book" notes were dictated to Ambrose and another student, Francis Skinner, during classes at Cambridge in 1934–35. As the great-granddaughter of Alice Ambrose/Gramma Beadsman, Lenore, like Wallace himself, is the descendent of a philosopher with an amanuensis-like connection to Wittgenstein: James Wallace's mentor, Norman Malcolm, served as the sounding-board and assistant for the writing of Wittgenstein's final philosophical work, On Certainty.

By the time Wallace started writing Broom, he had developed a serious interest in Wittgenstein's late philosophy. As his relationship with technical philosophy cooled, he became increasingly curious about approaches to philosophy that, for all their differences with one another, were united in their opposition to the kind of work with which he previously self-identified. He was intrigued not only by Wittgenstein's late philosophy but also by J. L. Austin's "ordinary language" philosophy and even Jacques Derrida's radical conception of philosophy as a metaphysically arrogant form of literature.

Those new curiosities about the relation of language to reality mark another point of connection between Wallace and his character Lenore, who worries that language suffuses reality to the point of constituting it. Indeed, at the simplest level, Lenore just is Wallace, and The Broom of the System is just a fictionalized retelling—a "little self-obsessed bildungsroman," Wallace called it—of the intellectual struggles he was then undergoing, struggles not only between philosophy and literature but also between technical philosophy and its philosophical alternatives. "Think of The Broom of the System," he told McCaffery, "as the sensitive tale of a sensitive young WASP who's just had this mid-life crisis that's moved him from coldly cerebral analytic math to a coldly cerebral take on fiction and Austin-Wittgenstein-Derridean literary theory." This transformation, he explained, had a disturbing side effect, shifting the young WASP's "existential dread from a fear that he was just a 98.6-degree calculating machine to a fear that he was nothing but a linguistic construct." Lenore, with her apprehension that she may be nothing more than a character in a novel, is giving voice to Wallace's own anxieties about crossing into a wholly new relationship with language.

Understanding The Broom of the System as an autobiographical roman à clef is a useful first step in grasping Wallace's literary-philosophical aims, but his engagement with Wittgenstein's philosophy was a more profound and lasting affair than that reading alone suggests. In both his early and his late work, Wittgenstein addressed the doctrine of solipsism, the philosophical position that holds (in its most radical form) that nothing exists apart from your own mind and mental states. Like fatalism, solipsism is an extreme and counterintuitive view that is nonetheless difficult to disprove. Also like fatalism, it was an idea that bewitched and bothered Wallace, absorbing his intellect and artistic imagination and becoming a lifelong fascination. In his interview with McCaffery, Wallace said that "one of the things that makes Wittgenstein a real artist to me" is the handling of solipsism in his work. In Broom, Wallace sought to do some measure of novelistic justice to this aspect of Wittgenstein's thought.

Broom, then, belongs to the genre of the novel of ideas—books like Voltaire's Candide and Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea, which all but instruct the reader to interpret them in light of certain schools of thought. (Candide is usually read as a parody of Leibnitz's metaphysics, Nausea as a vision of Sartre's existentialism.) In his essay "The Empty Plenum," published in 1990, Wallace called this genre of writing "INTERPRET-ME fiction" and argued that it had a special role to play in the life of the mind. As he knew from chasing the "click" in math and technical philosophy, there are areas of inquiry that might seem remote from the concerns of everyday life but that can, in fact, offer an array of intimate emotional and aesthetic experiences. Even for the reader with an appetite for it, however, a theoretical work can be so intellectually taxing, so draining of one's mental energies, that what Wallace called the "emotional implications" of the text are overlooked. The novel of ideas is at its most valuable, he contended, not when making abstruse ideas "accessible" or easy to digest for the reader, but rather when bringing these neglected undercurrents to the surface.

Wallace wrote "The Empty Plenum" in Boston in the summer of 1989, as he readied himself to begin the philosophy program at Harvard. The essay is an extended appreciation of David Markson's novel Wittgenstein's Mistress ("a work of genius," in Wallace's estimation), which came out in '88, a year after The Broom of the System, and which was also "about" Wittgenstein's philosophy. It was an emotional reckoning, as Wallace read it, with the discussion of solipsism in Wittgenstein's early work. Wallace felt that Markson's novel had succeeded in uniting literature and philosophy in a way that he, in Broom, had tried but failed to do. (Wallace pronounced Broom "pretty dreadful.") The circumstances in which Wallace was writing the essay only underscored for him the importance of Markson's accomplishment. As Wallace prepared to seek a renewed merger of philosophy and fiction in his own life, at Harvard, he celebrated Markson as a novelist who, with the utmost artistry, had already fused the two. In defiance of "the rabid anti-intellectualism of the contemporary fiction scene," Wallace wrote, Markson had demonstrated the still-vital role of the novel of ideas in joining together "cerebration & emotion, abstraction & lived life, transcendent truth-seeking & daily schlepping." Markson had delivered on Wallace's literary-philosophical ideal of "making heads throb heartlike."

David Markson's book "Wittgenstein's Mistress."

IV. "A kind of philosophical sci-fi"