Don’t let the lame title fool you – James Ryerson’s Times Magazine essay on David Foster Wallace’s early philosophical writings is a valuable step toward understanding both the novelist and the intellectual situation in which he found himself. Most substantially, Ryerson’s reading of Wallace’s senior thesis reveals a writer concerned not with language qua language, but with the ostensibly discredited field of metaphysics – or rather, with the space between the two.
Wallace was the kind of writer who could do anything with language, but seemed to see native gifts, including his own, as pitfalls rather than accomplishments. (Spare a thought for poor Orin Incandenza, trapped under glass.) His pyrotechnic prose style made it easy for some critics to miss, but even as an undergrad, Wallace was aiming higher than mere felicity.
Characteristically (for anyone who made it through Everything and More), Wallace’s thesis defends the possibility of metaphysics through a kind of reductio proof. He shows the insufficiency of other philosophical premises, including those of the philosophy of language, for addressing the basic experience of being in the world. This phenomenological move seems to me be about as far as anyone has gotten in the modernist project of clearing the field of philosophy; it echoes the struggles of Wittgenstein, which in turn echo through Wallace’s two long novels. And it explains the sense of aesthetic aporia that hangs over discussions of contemporary fiction.
At the same time, Wallace’s ostensible shift from philosophy to fiction points toward an exit. Most of what philosophers have achieved since the modernist moment has come in some genre other than the propositional argument: manifesto, koan, literary criticism… and, yes, literary fiction. And so the end point of Wallace’s thesis seems to mark the beginning of his career as a philosopher – a career he pursued by writing fiction. In literature, he found a “conceptual tool with which [to pursue] life’s most desperate questions” that shortened the “distance from the connections he struggled to make.” It will be the work of future critics to elucidate those connections, without neglecting or negating the singularity of their expression.