A Puritan’s Dilemma

Cult_anderson_615_320_s_c1Theo Anderson in In These Times:

Before his suicide in September 2008, David Foster Wallace published three short story collections, two novels, two essay collections, a book about rap music and another about infinity. His final, unfinished novel, The Pale King, was published early last year. His essay subjects ranged from Dostoevsky to the porn industry to tennis. But for all his output and range, Wallace rarely wrote about politics. The most notable exception was a long article about the 2000 primary campaign of John McCain. A prominent thread in that narrative is Wallace’s exaggerated innocence about all things political, set against the polished professionals of the mainstream press corps.

Wallace had even less to say about religion. His masterpiece, the 1,000-page novel Infinite Jest, is shot through with the quasi-religious elements of Alcoholics Anonymous. It examines recovering addicts’ commitment to a higher power, but traditional religious organizations and formal theology are almost entirely absent. The same is true of his famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech, published as This Is Water, which posthumously brought him to the attention of a wider audience.

If rarely his explicit subjects, though, religion and politics were nearly always Wallace’s subtexts. He mostly ignored the hideous spectacle of electoral politics in the United States, and he had no time for the nonsense that pervades much of American religious life. But his work is obsessed with the roots of our religious and political poverty. It’s a sustained jeremiad aimed at America’s spiritual childishness, and it’s a plea for preserving what is most valuable in religious thought and practice. Wallace was a Puritan, not in theology, but in his sensitivity to a set of insoluble questions and tensions that are deeply rooted in the Calvinist tradition – most notably the tension between freedom and determinism.