Tedium & David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace is the writer of tedium. And this is why, perhaps, he has struck a chord in the modern imagination, gathering such a large cult following (one of whom is yours truly). He sees people engaging in diversions—through drugs, TV, unlimited consumption—and sees again the same people taking an ironic stance towards everything, afraid to be sincere, afraid to take things seriously. Needless to say, this has not changed in last 20 years, and the question that he asks—”What makes everything so tedious? What can we do?”—is as relevant as ever. He spent most of the time figuring out the first half of the question, and didn’t manage to answer the second by the time of his death. But, to develop his own thinking, I see two solutions.

  1. At the source of tedium is fear. A fear of thinking about the difficult and hard and perhaps-impossible-to-answer questions. This fear is reasonable enough, for it is not easy—in fact, always horrifying—to consider the human condition, and one’s place within it. For lying in the middle is an abyss: the guilt in all that might have been that was not actualized by me and the anxiety of all that could be which I have no control over. From this, we respond by fleeing away—through, as previously identified, entertainment and irony. Entertainment acts as an anaesthesia, blunting one’s perception of what is; irony acts as a prison, separating the world and me. They are mechanisms of protection from a perceived threat, but through their protection brings about the worst tedium that can only be called despair. A despair, in the Kierkegaardian sense, of not being and not giving back to Being. The antidote to such fear is to confront it head-on (as CBT therapists know), for the fear will not fade—the only thing one can do is to make oneself stronger through repeated exposure to what is fearful. This is a quixotic project. A project to take things seriously despite all the barriers and habits that get in the way. And this is perhaps what DFW likes about Dostoevsky and Kafka—they strived, again and again, to look into the abyss. The way to do so, then, is through reading (hard books), learning (difficult texts), and writing (about terrifying problems). It is the combination of the three that leads one out of tedium.
  2. At the source of tedium, also, is a lack of attention. The special quality of attention is that it discloses and reveals being in its truth (in the Heideggerian sense of A-letheia, un-covering). It is not without reason that the Eye of Horus/Providence captivates so much of our imagination. Attention is the ability to see from the world what is more than itself, to hear from a person what they can be, to discover within oneself the wealth of resources—what we may call divine—that do not so much wash away but sublates tedium. (In this, DFW is perhaps drawing on the transcendentalists.) He took the example of the IRS employee, having the well-nigh most boring task in the world of looking through tax returns for 10 hours a day, who, with his inhuman ability to concentrate (at his best, levitating), makes the entire process not only bearable but supremely enjoyable. The gambit that DFW proposes (or almost does, in his unfinished Pale King) is that attention enlightens the seemingly tedious into a play of fascination, transforming the monochromatic into a rainbow of experience.

It is the courage to confront and the attention that re-enchants which, for DFW, constitutes the path out of tedium. Though it is hard to think of what should be done, what is most difficult, in all human affairs, is to commit to the solution, and, simply, do it. Here lies, I think, the most pernicious part of tedium: it is a lock that cannot be open even with the right keys, for we don’t have the will and strength to turn it.

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