David Foster Wallace and the problem of being bored.

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April 12 2011 3:37 PM

Infinite Attention

David Foster Wallace and being bored out of your mind.

Also in Slate, Judith Shulevitz reviews The Pale King.

David Foster Wallace.
David Foster Wallace

It seems a telling sign of our technology-angst that we're getting nostalgic for, of all things, boredom. I have memories of youthful boredom that are as vivid and unpleasant as the memories I harbor of my more serious sports injuries, and yet, when I read of some new research saying the brain needs boredom, or kids today aren't bored enough, my first thought is: Ah, blessed boredom. (My second thought is: Check email.) And it's not just me. A trickle of pro-boredom research has inspired a flood of pro-boredom sentiment.

On one hand, defending boredom seems stern and unsympathetic, like a Depression-born mom impatient with her complaining children. (Hi, Mom.) But the depression-era parent urged a kind of stoicism, bearing-up against fake or minor suffering as a moral lesson of childhood. For today's middle-agers, relishing the image of a teenager thrown into fidgets by a dead cellphone, boredom is not merely fake suffering. It's important in its own right, a state of latent fertility. It leads to creativity. The contemporary defender of boredom is not a stoic. She's a graying humanist, the martinet as art teacher.

From this I would like to advance a claim that might come off as either loony or pedantic or just obvious: Our ready nostalgia for boredom shows how deeply our culture—both our actual cultural products and our default ideas about how they happen and what they're for—remains rooted in the Romantic movement that spanned the late 18th and mid-19th centuries. Today's technology-anxious and pro-boredom pathos grows from well-wrought Romantic conceptions of freedom, aesthetic experience, artistic creation, and, indeed, technology. The Romantics, seeing the encroaching haste of commerce and industrial production, and people living on a clock set by money and machines, envisioned modes of experience that might partake of a more humane slowness. From Kant's Critique of Judgment(sometimes called the founding text of German Romanticism), which describes aesthetic pleasure as a "purposeless play of the faculties," to Thoreau's solitary puttering around Walden Pond, Romanticism saw people finding moments of freedom through withdrawal and retreat. In this process, we slow ourselves down to experience beauty, and, through this beauty, we might experience a deeper part of ourselves. Or vice versa.

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And perhaps, spurred by some natural beauty we encounter in our retreat, we might create artistic beauty. The vague image in the back of the mind of our reflexive defender of boredom, whether or not this person has read a word of Wordsworth, is a guy sitting by himself in a field, surrounded by a host of golden daffodils, letting his mind wander lonely as a cloud, and then recollecting, in this moment of tranquility, the other host of golden daffodils he saw earlier that day, which he plans to write a poem about, or maybe paint a picture of. That, anyway, is the vague image in the back of my mind when I read about the neurological virtues of boredom. I'm something of a Romantic, by inclination and academic training. When I think of human flourishing, the freedom called "positive" by Isaiah Berlin, I tend to think of aesthetic experience and culture. I imagine people slowing down to enjoy high-quality television, turning inward to think, and maybe, depending on how noisy and hasty things have gotten in the real world, dropping out altogether, picking up and moving to, like, a pond.

I own up to my Romantic leanings, and I'm prepared to defend the decadence and blasé politics they suggest. But if there's anything that makes me regret or question this position, it's the mournful late work of David Foster Wallace, especially the posthumous fictional writing compiled as The Pale King, which is basically a 538-page monument against Romanticism. Dropping out and turning inward and dawdling in lovely otherness do not arise as alternatives in The Pale King. What Wallace offers instead is a humbling challenge for us to give the fallen world, and the fallen people who live in it, a heroic measure of simple attention.

The Pale King feels heroic and humbling because (besides the light cast upon it by the author's own life and death) Wallace actually shares the Romantics' pessimism about the fate of humans stuck within inhuman systems. Indeed, he paints an even grimmer picture of this predicament than they do. Technology and commerce are more soul-killing in his fictional universe. They were an advancing threat for the Romantics. In The Pale King they have simply won, on every level. Their predominance has rendered itself banal. The book's main setting is an IRS outpost in Peoria, Illinois, where humans process tax returns in the stunned and passive attitudes of feed-lot cattle, and where what counts as public art is a huge photorealist mosaic of a 1978 IRS Form 1040.

On top of this, Wallace retracts all the comforts and inspirations that helped the glum Romantic get out of bed in the morning, the promise of nourishing solitude and reflection, the idea of a pristine pastoral landscape. The Pale King begins in the farmland of central Illinois, where Wallace lived for most of his life, and for a moment, on its first page, you think you're going to read of some kind of pastoral alternative to the "skylines of canted rust" and "blacktop graphs," a truer nature further back, in that "place beyond the windbreak"—"the untilled fields." But the faintly poetic botanical list that follows ("goldenrod," "wild oats") is mainly just a catalogue of the grasses, brown for much of the year, that grow in the median of a Midwestern interstate, and the fields comprising these grasses "shimmer shrilly," and the poetic suggestions of that botanical list have departed well before it reaches its last item, which is "invaginate volunteer beans."

A foundation of the pastoral vision of the Romantics was the rural town or village, where, as against the grinding and insecure life of cities, real human fellowship could be found. Here's Wallace's version of that pillar of pastoral authenticity:

The IGA's lot abuts the downtown's main drag, which is the in-town extension of SR 130 and ingeniously named. Directly across this Main Street from the IGA were the bubbletop pumps and saurian logo of Clete's Sinclair, outside of which the best and brightest of Philo High used to gather on Friday nights to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon and search the adjacent lot's weeds for frogs and mice to throw at Clete's bug zapper, which he'd modified to hold 225 volts of charge.

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