The Trouble with Being Born

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David Foster Wallace and the Horror of Neuroscience

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Despite never writing about it directly, explicitly—the way he wrote about cruise ships or Roger Federer or the eating of lobsters—David Foster Wallace had a keen and lifelong interest in the brain. There was an obvious personal reason for this: on most of the days of his life, he consumed brain-altering chemicals as a way to stave off suicidal depression. His first published short story is essentially an extended musing on the connections between chemicals, the brain, and subjective wellbeing. These interests continue to animate his early works; both The Broom of the System (1987) and Girl with Curious Hair (1989) are peppered with offhand but learned references to neuroanatomy. Paul D. MacLean’s once-popular triune brain theory appears in Infinite Jest, and there are also quieter references to Gilbert Ryle and Julian Jaynes—two other well-known theorists of the relations between neurology and the mind. As Wallace scholar Stephen J. Burn has put it, analyzing The Pale King (2011), Wallace nurtured a “career-long fascination with consciousness.”

His 2004 short-story collection Oblivion has always been a somewhat confusing book: dense, obtuse, cold, fragmented, a little cruel. However, while penning a PhD thesis on the intersections between neuroscience, theories of consciousness, and modern Anglo-American literature—a Wallacian labyrinth of thought if ever there was one—I think I have come to understand Oblivion for what it really is: A work of horror fiction, whose unique brand of horror is rooted in Wallace’s reading about the brain.

In the eight years between Infinite Jest and Oblivion, Wallace’s reading in neuroscience and consciousness studies intensified. His essay “Consider the Lobster,” published almost in tandem with Oblivion, displays a sophistication of engagement with neuroscience that outstrips any of his previous work, referencing nociceptors and prostaglandins and endorphins and enkephalins. The more precise direction of Wallace’s reading is indicated by two books found in his personal library (preserved today at the Harry Ransom Centre at UT in Austin): the Danish popular science writer Tor Nørretranders’s The User Illusion, and Timothy D. Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves. Wallace read both of these works of popular consciousness studies closely, and what he took from them is revealed by his annotations. In Nørretranders’s The User Illusion, Wallace has heavily underlined a section where Nørretranders writes “Consciousness is a fraud.” On another page Nørretranders has written “Most of what we experience, we can never tell each other about—we can share the experience that through language we are unable to share most of what we experience.” In his copy, Wallace has underlined this paragraph, and written, at the top of the page, “Loneliness—Can’t Talk About It.” In Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves, alongside Wilson’s remark that “Freud’s vision of the unconscious was far too limited,” Wallace’s scribbled note reads “omniscient not on conscious thought but on unconscious drives” [sic]. Most of what we think of as self-directed behavior, explains Wilson, may well be actually “non-conscious intention.”

These quotes give you a sense of these two books, both of which build on what Alan Richardson calls “one of the great lessons of the cognitive revolution”: “just how much of mental life remains closed to introspection.” As a brief summation, the unified thesis of Nørretranders’s and Wilson’s works looks something like this: We are not really in control. Not only are we not in control, but we are not even aware of the things of which we are not in control. Our ability to judge anything with any accuracy is a lie, as is our ability to perceive these lies as lies. Consciousness masquerades as awareness and agency, but the sense of self it conjures is an illusion. We are stranded in the great opaque secret of our biology, and what we call subjectivity is a powerless epiphenomenon, sort of like a helpless rider on the back of a galloping horse—the view is great, but pulling on the reins does nothing.

If this description of reality feels familiar to you, it’s because such a neuroscientifically inspired pessimism is a quiet but powerful strain of modern thinking. It lurks in the shadows of the breezy materialism professed by science popularizers such as Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson—who tend to shroud the meaninglessness behind a smokescreen of excitable awe. Raymond Tallis calls the worldview conjured by works such as Nørretranders’s and Wilson’s “biologic pessimism.” In its broad strokes, the shadow of biologic pessimism is what dismayed a young William James. Today, it informs the work of the philosopher John Gray, and has found its most popular advocate in the character of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, in HBO’s True Detective. When Cohle explains to Woody Harrelson’s character that he thinks “human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,” and that “we are things that labor under the illusion of having a self,” what sounds like poseurish gloom is actually an entirely rational, reasonable interpretation of the modern scientific paradigm. As Wallace himself put it elsewhere, in his not-so-compact history of infinity, what science tells us is that “our love for our children is evolutionarily preprogrammed” and “our thoughts and feelings are really just chemical transfers in 2.8 pounds of electrified pâté.”

The character of Rust Cohle in True Detective links nearly back to Wallace’s Oblivion by virtue of the fact that the character of Rust Cohle was based to an almost plagiaristic degree on the nonfictional musings of another American fiction author: Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti, probably the finest living American horror writer, has built a whole fictional style upon the same pessimistic interpretation of the brain sciences that Wallace himself appears to have arrived at independently. And though Wallace, unlike Ligotti, is not known first and foremost as a horror author, he was in fact a lifelong fan of the genre. His teaching syllabi included Stephen King, he adored the work of Thomas Harris (particularly Red Dragon), and he praised Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as “probably the most horrifying book of this century.” Wallace was also a “fanatical” David Lynch fan, and wrote a long piece praising his work for being “not about monsters…but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force.” For Lynch, Wallace wrote, “Darkness is in everything, all the time—not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now.”

As it turns out, Wallace’s assessment of the special atmosphere of Lynch’s horror (published in 1996) functions as an uncannily accurate description of his own Oblivion (published in 2004). Oblivion was a strange collection that quietly baffled many readers, both when it was first published and to this day. But when you understand that the whole collection is about the horror of consciousness, what first appears as a fragmented piece of work achieves cohesion. With Oblivion, these two deep-set interests—the brain, and dispiriting interpretations of its nature and relationship to our subjective lives; and horror—collide.

“Mr. Squishy,” Oblivion’s opening piece, is infused with an air of subjectivity as helpless, capricious, and buffeted by winds of influence over which it has no control. The pitiable protagonist, Terry Schmidt, is tortured by his lust for a co-worker, and is driven to masturbation “without feeling as if he could help himself.” In his imaginings he cuts a pathetic figure, and he is troubled by “his apparent inability to enforce his preferences even in fantasy.” The state of affairs, we learn, “made Schmidt wonder if he even had what convention called a Free Will, deep down.” (Readers may know of Benjamin Libet’s famous experiments, often taken as strong neuroscientific evidence of the non-existence of free will.) Schmidt has “had several years of psychotherapy,” but remains helpless. So total is his isolation of self, that Schmidt is on the verge of “making a dark difference with a hypo and eight cc’s of castor bean distillate”—that is, committing mass murder via mass-poisoned commercial confectionary.

In “The Soul Is Not a Smithy,” a ranging recollection of a day in the childhood of an unnamed adult narrator, filters through the claustrophobia of an anxious mind a pitch of ascending dread and doom, the presence of violent insanity, and a lethal culmination. Evoking directly Wallace’s neuroscientific reading, the narrator muses that “that the most vivid and enduring occurrences in our lives are often those that occur at the periphery of our awareness.” The big cruel joke of “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” is that the narrator’s consciousness is so capricious and fickle that it has missed absorbing “the most dramatic and exciting event I would ever be involved in in my life.” The entire story is the narrator’s attempt to learn about an event that he rather ludicrously has no real first hand knowledge of because of his inadequate brain.

The flash fictional “Incarnations of Burned Children” seems to darkly riff upon this chronic mind-scatteredness which blights so many of Oblivion’s cast, by having the awful events of the story render the father’s “mind empty of everything but purpose”—a state the narrators of the rest of the collection could never hope to achieve. Only under such awful extreme duress, it suggests, might consciousness reach something like an unfiltered, directional tone. “Another Pioneer” has at its heart the horror of (brain-based) self-consciousness: Within the nested story, doom for the jungle village follows the moment when the child messiah’s “cognitive powers [bent] back in on themselves and transformed him from messianic to monstrous,” powers “whose lethal involution resonates with malignant self-consciousness”—a self-consciousness that was a constant theme of Wallace’s work, and which the story declares can be found “in everything from Genesis 3:7 to the self-devouring Kirttimukha of the Skanda Purana to the Medousa’s reflective demise to Gödelian metalogic.”

This crushing weight of self-consciousness is at the heart of Oblivion’s most famous story, “Good Old Neon,” which n+1 called the collection’s “one indisputable masterpiece.” The pseudo-narrator of “Good Old Neon,” Neal, has spent his life tortured by “the fraudulence paradox”: “the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside—you were a fraud.” The pressure eventually becomes so great that Neal kills himself. The crucial point is that all of Neal’s extensive and extensively described suffering can be located in the makeup and character of the human brain, not society or culture. By the end of the story the strong impression is that Neal’s condition is but a particularly acute version of a basic human predicament. As he puts it, it’s “not as if this is an incredibly rare or obscure type of personality.” In the modern neuroscientific paradigm, Neal’s suspicion that “in reality I actually seemed to have no true inner self” is absolutely correct. There is really nothing outlandish about Neal’s fears; within Oblivion’s neuropessimism, they are simple truisms. We do experience time poorly; language is in many ways a weak tool. The same goes for his fear that he is “unable to love:” from a hard Darwinian viewpoint, we are all unable to love, really—or more accurately, what we think we are doing when we love is actually not loving at all as we understand that word. Neal recognizes this himself: “we are all basically just instruments or expressions of our evolutionary drives, which are themselves the expressions of forces that are infinitely larger and more important than we are.”

In the title story, “Oblivion,” the protagonist and his wife are so incapable of accurately telling perception from reality that one or both of them can’t tell when they are awake and when they are asleep. The narrator’s “seven months of severe sleep disturbance” have made for a “neural protest” of symptoms that underpin the story’s oppressive, nervous atmosphere. This atmosphere achieves full bloom in Oblivion’s closing novella, “The Suffering Channel,” which features the story’s eponymous production company and their “registered motto” “CONSCIOUSNESS IS NATURE’S NIGHTMARE.” (A quotation from the famous pessimist philosopher Emil Cioran, who wrote books with such cheery titles as The Trouble with Being Born.) “The Suffering Channel” features various lonely people failing to connect via their “tiny keyholes” of self. The story’s focus on defecating is really an extended metaphor for the interior, the private–that which is common to all, but which is very rarely (to contaminate the metaphor) pushed through the keyhole. Our inability or social aversion to share with one another the deepest workings of our large intestines mirrors our inability to share the deepest workings of our minds. What we have is scatological representation of what philosophers call the Hard Problem. All of the characters of “The Suffering Channel” labor under “the conflict between the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective insignificance”—in and of itself the overarching tragedy of the whole of Oblivion.

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Ultimately, just as Wallace wrote that David Lynch’s movies were about “not about monsters…but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force;” that for Lynch “Darkness is in everything, all the time—not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now”–Oblivion is a collection about horror as the basic state of existence. The darkness and dread and horror of Oblivion is not in monsters or evil people; it is in the environment, in all of us, in our neurology and fraught consciousness and ill-evolved minds. Ligotti has written that all real horror writing, from Ann Radcliffe through to H.P. Lovecraft, is motivated by the specter of “the universe itself as centerless and our species as only a smudge of organic materials at the mercy of forces that know us not.” By these standards, Wallace, driven by his voluminous reading in the brain sciences, joins the club. In my thesis—academia being a world where the coining of neologisms is a mark of one’s stunningly original thinking—I refer to this style of existential horror, rooted in an interpretation of modern neuroscience, as neurohorror.

If there is a chink of philosophical sunlight, it is that Wallace may not have totally believed in the worldview of biologic pessimism. Oblivion and Wallace’s final, tortuously produced, unfinished novel The Pale King were heavily intertwined. Wallace used the same notebooks for each, and funneled sections of one into the other as he went. Many critics think that the unrelenting misery of Oblivion was supposed to find its relief and counterpoint in its novelistic partner. As Wallace’s biographer D.T. Max puts it, “while Oblivion was descriptive, The Pale King was supposed to be prescriptive. It had to convince the reader that there was a way out of the bind. It had to have a commitment to a solution that Oblivion lacked.” The neurohorror of Oblivion may have represented a flexing of Wallace’s pessimist muscles, in advance of an attempt to overpower them. As Wallace himself said in an interview, “any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.”

I mentioned that the biologic pessimism that caught Wallace’s attention mirrored that which preoccupied William James a century prior. Wallace’s potential solution or counterargument also mirrored James’s. Indeed, in the very same books that inspired Wallace’s neuropessimism, we find him searching for a more sanguine and more Jamesian reading. On page 129 of Nørretranders, Wallace underlined “You can direct your attention where you like.” On 133, he has underlined “the headiness of attaining high, clear awareness,” and under a section explaining the cortex he wrote “change in attention cause activity change in cortex” (sic). The brain might be the problem, but it appears that within these books Wallace was searching for a way for the brain to also become part of the solution. Underneath a quoted passage from William James, he wrote “Able to Choose Focus of Attention.” This would become the backbone to the hard-won optimism of “This is Water.”As David H. Evans has written, James put “activity rather than passivity at the core of our relation to the world” by affirming the subjective power of “the possibility of choice”–choice in terms of, to quote “This is Water,” “some control over how and what you think” over “what you pay attention to…how you construct meaning from experience.” This basic stance can also be observed in other thought systems Wallace was drawn to during his life, notably Buddhism.

The most pessimistic reading of all, though, must draw attention to the biographical elephant in the room: Wallace’s suicide. In the end, it was his brain—suffering with terrible withdrawal after years of being awash in the chemical mix of Nardil—that killed him. He couldn’t think his way out, couldn’t “construct meaning from experience” in a way that made something other than suicide the best option. It’s possible to see this as a cruel and tragic vindication of the neuro-determinism which colors Oblivion. He completed Oblivion, but wasn’t able to finish its optimistic companion The Pale King, despite years of trying—there is a sort of horrible literary mirror of Wallace’s own inner life there. Unlike in fiction—where, despite it all, at the end of HBO’s True Detective, Rust Cohle is able to remark hopefully that “the light’s winning”—we don’t choose our endings. Wallace dug deeply and unflinchingly into the real challenges of modern existence; he made us “face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.” It remains with the rest of us to figure out how to live with it.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

A Year in Reading: Michael Robbins

As usual, my job as a book critic dictated much of my reading this year. My favorite book of the year — the best book of the year, I think — is Hilton Als’s White Girls, which I reviewed for the Chicago Tribune. The following are some of the best books — there were also sundry poems, comics, essays, and horror novels — I managed to read for free:

I first read Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes in my mid-twenties, sitting on the floor beside a bookshelf in Borders because I couldn’t afford to buy the book. I’d picked it up with the intention of leafing through it a bit, having heard it referred to here and there in reverential tones. I started reading and, astounded, didn’t get up again for two hours. This there-but-for-grace loser’s manifesto, this perfectly sane cry. Someone called it the best novel written in English since The Great Gatsby, but it seemed to me much better than that. Rereading it fifteen years later, without overlooking its flaws, I’d place it above every American novel except Moby-Dick, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!

Hobbes’s Leviathan is not nearly as funny as A Fan’s Notes, but I can now almost agree with William H. Gass that Hobbes was one of “the three greatest masters of English prose” (in case you were wondering where my obnoxious impulse to rank works of literature comes from). More arduous were Fredric Jameson’s Hegel Variations: On The Phenomenology of Spirit and Hubert Dreyfus’s Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division 1. And no matter what you believe or think you believe, Denys Turner’s Thomas Aquinas is well worth your time.

I reread some favorite books this year — Thoreau’s Walden, Freud and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria, Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading, Samuel Beckett’s Murphy — and added some new ones to the category: Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, Emil Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born, and Confucius’s Analects (in both the D.C. Lau and Burton Watson translations). It’s a pity Weil and Cioran never met.

Scary fun: David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic; Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer; Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory; George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle; Derek Raymond, He Died with His Eyes Open; Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels.

Finally, two books I’m reading at the moment: T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God and Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. As a sort of free-floating Kierkegaardian becoming-Christian on the Way or whatever, I’ve spent a lot of time loathing conservative American Protestants — people who believe in the Rapture, or that the earth is six thousand years old, or that homosexuals are going to hell, or, um, that there is a hell. People who take the Bible literally except for the part about selling your shit and giving the money to the poor. I grew up around such folk. But of course my condescension and hostility are beside the point, forms of cultural capital that — oh, you know the drill. Luhrmann’s and Worthen’s books cut through all that by attempting to understand evangelicalism from within, critically but sympathetically and without easy irony. Worthen’s is the more scholarly study, tracing the variety of evangelical movements, complicating received wisdom about their anti-intellectualism. Luhrmann reads like good journalism. Embedded in an evangelical church, she tells real people’s real stories. She occasionally betrays a lack of theological grounding, referring to God as “a powerful invisible being” and assuming a dualism of soul and body (Turner’s Aquinas would help her on both points). And she frames much of her discussion in terms of an opposition between science and religion that rather begs the question. But I’m learning things on almost every page (and, again, I’m still reading these books, so perhaps my concerns are addressed at some point in the text): the evangelical practice of speaking in tongues seems to have arisen, after lying almost completely dormant since the Acts of the Apostles, in my birthplace of Topeka, Kansas, in the late nineteenth century; the path of the religious right was blazed by the hippies. I still think conservative evangelicalism is wrong about almost everything — society, theology, politics, Christianity, people, love, God, sex, family, economics. And I still believe, with Reinhold Niebuhr, that the rabid intransigence of fundamentalism is a clear sign of its own doubt and insecurity (which makes it quite dangerous). But that’s precisely why I’m grateful for these books, which deepen our understanding and broaden our empathy.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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