31 Mar 2013

David Foster Wallace and Coleridge

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge (21 October 1772 – 25 July 1834)

Helen Rittelmeyer, Class of ’08, was chairman of the same conservative political and fraternal society I belonged to at Yale.

She recently published an admirably perceptive essay on the curiously close similarities between the early Romantic Coleridge and the contemporary hipster ironist David Foster Wallace. This piece has definitely made me into a fan and intended regular reader of this young author.

The… most important similarity between DFW and STC is that they both became famous too early, before their thinking was fully formed. Early fame is always an invitation to drug addiction, but early literary fame more so than other kinds. On top of the basic child-star problem—which is essentially that you’ve satisfied your desire to be extraordinary and foreclosed the possibility of being ordinary, leaving nothing left but to kill time as efficiently as possible until you drop dead—early literary fame involves the added burden of guilt.

Young writers become celebrities because the public sees something appealing in their worldview, or, to use a less grand word, their opinions. But no amount of precocity can make up for the fact that the opinions of a twenty-four-year-old who hasn’t done much living yet are worthless. When the writer grows up he realizes this, and he feels like a pied piper. That’s something child actors don’t have to live with. Christian Bale may feel so embarrassed by Newsies that he pitches a fit when interviewers ask him about it, but he doesn’t actually believe that that film made the world a worse place to live in.

For Coleridge, the false gods of his youth were democracy and revolution. Before the Lyrical Ballads and long before “Kubla Khan,” he had made a name for himself as a radical lecturer whose political themes were democracy and the abolition of property and whose religious themes were Unitarian (in the words of a contemporary, “to shew that our Saviour was the real son of Joseph and that the Crucifixion was a matter of small importance”)—all in his mid-twenties. For Wallace, the false god was cleverness, the “manic patina over emotional catatonia” that comes with a certain type of avant-garde fiction.

In both cases these men later became convinced that the ideology they had embraced in their youth was not just misguided but at serious risk of bringing about a cultural apocalypse—England seeing a revolution like France’s, or American culture being completely cannibalized by irony. One way to deal with this was by embracing the opposite extreme, conservatism in Coleridge’s case and sincerity in Wallace’s. But that didn’t do anything to manage the guilt. Wallace tried to wear his burden lightly, with laughing comments like “Twenty-five-year-olds should be locked away and denied ink and paper,” but to an addict’s mind—which is already inclined to blame itself for all manner of things—the idea that he had done anything to hasten the cultural development he most dreaded must have been excruciating. Coleridge, too, became so concerned with making up for past sins that he wrote letters to the Tory prime minister outlining the best ways to make his administration more reactionary. All because the world made the mistake of paying attention to anything a twentysomething says.

Cyril Connolly wrote that those whom the gods would destroy, they first call promising. This of course was a take-off on the ancient proverb “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” Wallace and Coleridge were both called promising and both made mad, and then, in what must have seemed to them like the final cruelty, the universe declined to destroy them. That task, unfortunately, was left to them. Given that Coleridge died of complications from his addiction, the most we can claim for his way is that it was slower than Wallace’s.

Read the whole thing.


David Foster Wallace (February 21, 1962 – September 12, 2008)

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