The Pale King and the Importance of Paying Attention: PT 1

There are, obviously, many sad things to be said about David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel, published from manuscripts and notes collected and edited after his death - mostly things that are obvious re: unfinished novels in general; suicide and long term depression; genius and/or excellence and expectation.

But there is a smaller, less obvious thing - or perhaps, and at least for me, it is less obvious in that I have just thought of it (whilst reading Oblivion, a collection of short stories from 2004, which is extremely good [so good that in a weird moment of self-reflexive panic at the idea that I was some kind of DFW obsessive {which, I am aware, that by using the acronym DFW I am, obviously, a DFW obsessive to some degree, but then I haven't had a literary crush for some time so I feel like that is ok, ok?} I sort of forcibly criticised the idea of his genius by thinking 'Yeah, not every thing he has ever written is genius, some of it is only excellent'].).

And that thing is that I think I have just clocked what Wallace is describing, or getting at in almost every piece of fiction and non-fiction that he wrote. And also that isn't the thing, really. Really the thing is that The Pale King feels like the novel that could have addressed this thing (that he was getting at) directly, head on, with Wallace realising that he was addressing the thing, and really doing it in a purposeful way, and that the direct addressing of the thing would have been so wonderful to read (in its completed form - which is certainly not what The Pale King is.) and also would have made the next period of Wallace's writing so exciting to read.

And the thing that The Pale King addresses directly, and all his other writing addresses in some way or another is this: the importance of paying attention.

What's funny (for me, not for you, and even for me only funny in a sort of 'revelation of ignorance' way rather than 'enlightening and humorous' way) is that it was only half-way through a story in Oblivion called, Good Old Neon, that I realised the thing about The Pale King and paying attention, which means that I probably wasn't paying very much attention when I was reading The Pale King.

So in Oblivion there is a passage about a man who is going to kill himself and he keeps having these profound/banal thoughts about how this is the last time he will ever look at such and such a thing before he dies, and how this is the last time he will do such and such a thing before he dies etc. etc. And this passage, obviously, is about paying attention to things, but is also handled by Wallace in a way that belies the amount of attention paid by Wallace in the writing of the passage. And this confluence of subject matter and style made me think about The Pale King again and about how some of the more... dense sections of the book are about people whose job it is to concentrate on things for long periods of time and how this ability to concentrate on things is the product of/creates the conditions for, psychological states which are possibly the nearest thing to transcendence or a full expression of human consciousness or something equally spiritual sounding that probably no-one wants to talk about directly because of possible cringe worthy implications of talking about things like spirituality and transcendence and full expression of human consciousness.

There is a morally conservative nature to a lot of Wallace's writing, which before now I think I forgave him for because I enjoyed reading him so much, but, actually maybe it is this morally conservatism that is central to his writing, and maybe I only noticed it when I disagreed with it's conclusions, or perhaps when I thought he'd pitched it a little bit too sentimentally for my tastes or whatever.

And this attention he pays to paying attention is, I think, the core of that moral conservatism (we don't have to call it that, if you don't want to - discomfort with the idea of conservatism [rather than the detail of proposals that are properly defined as conservative] is understandable. I'm sticking with the phrase moral conservatism, but if you like you could call it a 'respect for traditional values', or a 'defence of political and societal proposals stemming from enlightenment thought'), because Wallace seemed to be writing towards a 1:1 authentic depiction of society, which is to say, an honest appraisal of what societies (such as America. I hope it goes without saying that Wallace would [hopefully] have never dreamt of believing he could write for that which he does not know) need in order to function, and need to be honest about needing, in order to progress (with all the caveats about the ideas of 'function' and 'progress' that obviously come along with these words).

As in, in The Pale King, he is trying to describe and depict the total denial of individualism that bureaucracies like the IRS have to impose on their workforce in order for their workforce to do the work the bureaucracy needs them (the workforce) to do. And how for some people this sort of work is a calling of some kind, as in, they feel themselves drawn to work which is totally necessary and incredibly boring. And but for some/most people it is not a calling, but it is still totally necessary (the job's existence is) and incredibly boring. But either way the work needs to be done for society to function and if we want to be 'good citizens' who can constructively criticise the society we live within, then we need to recognise that certain things that are necessary to society will always be anathema to Modern and Post-Modern ideas of the centrality of the individual. This is the idea of duty. Something that needs to be done, not for personal gratification or self actualisation, but for other reasons. Reasons you possibly don't understand, and are possibly questionable (and part of duty is to question the reasoning of the reasons the dutiful act needs to be enacted).

Now I'm finding it hard to reconcile these two ideas of duty and paying attention, which seem to be the core things I'm writing about. And maybe this is because this is what Wallace was struggling with in The Pale King or maybe I just haven't got the intellectual machinery to work it through.

And actually, I think I'm going to leave it there

a) because I want to think more about these two ideas of duty and paying attention before I write any more.

b) because part of thinking about these ideas is the recognition that perhaps they don't coincide with any sort of concluding, revelatory force and that drawing a conclusion right now, simply because this is the sort of time where I would normally draw a conclusion would be a classic case of not paying enough attention.

Read Part 2 of this post here.