Another paradox (David Foster Wallace)

This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second’s flash of thoughts and connections, etc. — and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to find out what they’re thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade and they’re just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant. The internal head-speed or whatever of these ideas, memories, realizations, emotions and so on is even faster, by the way — exponentially faster, unimaginably faster — when you’re dying, meaning during that vanishingly tiny nanosecond between when you technically die and when the next thing happens, so that in reality the cliché about people’s whole life flashing before their eyes as they’re dying isn’t all that far off — although the whole life here isn’t really a sequential thing where first you’re born and then you’re in the crib and then you’re up at the plate in Legion ball, etc., which it turns out that that’s what people usually mean when they say ‘my whole life,’ meaning a discrete, chronological series of moments that they add up and call their lifetime. It’s not really like that. The best way I can think of to try to say it is that it all happens at once, but that at once doesn’t really mean a finite moment of sequential time the way we think of time while we’re alive, plus that what turns out to be the meaning of the term my life isn’t even close to what we think we’re talking about when we say ‘my life.’ Words and chronological time create all these total misunderstandings of what’s really going on at the most basic level. And yet at the same time English is all we have to try to understand it and try to form anything larger or more meaningful and true with anybody else, which is yet another paradox.

From David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon,” collected in Oblivion.

I read “Good Old Neon” first back when Oblivion came out in hardback. It was good then, but it seemed more poignant and deeper after Wallace’s suicide. I reread it again last night, and I’m convinced it’s his finest discrete piece, and rivals some of the strongest sections of Infinite Jest and The Pale King. Anyway, I encourage doubters to check it out if they haven’t read it.

I’ll close by suggesting that in some way I think the story works through an idea from Ludwig Wittgenstein:

Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4311).

17 thoughts on “Another paradox (David Foster Wallace)”

  1. Alot of thought went into this.Mind boggling Uh! Our Life as we know it ,Every minute that passes is gone for ever, knowing this LIFE is tooo Short Thank you for sharing,I had alot to think about


  2. Looks like I’m going to have to read David Foster Wallace now! Thank you for posting that. About the Wittgenstein quote though: “Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits” — I am not so sure I can comprehend the last part: “our visual field [having] no limits”? Is that a joke that I’m not getting or reading right?


    1. Hi, Cory. I don’t know if I can do a better good job explaining/interpreting the Wittgenstein quote than Slajoj Zizek:

      The subject is the frame/form/horizon of his world AND part of the enframed content (of the reality he observes), and the problem is that he cannot see/locate himself within his own frame: since all there is is already within the frame, the frame as such is invisible – or, as the early Wittgenstein put it: “Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.”(Tractatus 6.4311) Like the field of vision, life is finite, and, for that very reason, we cannot ever see its limit – in this precise sense, “eternal life belongs to those who live in the present” (ibid.): precisely because we are WITHIN our finitude, we cannot step out of it and perceive its limitation. The possibility to locate oneself within one’s reality has to remain a possibility – however, and therein resides the crucial point, this possibility itself has to actualize itself qua possibility, to be active, to exert influence, qua possibility.


      1. I think I was distracted by a fixation on the commonsensical notion of our visual field in deed having boundaries. Beyond commonsense though, any functioning campimeter will attest to this.

        But I think I might now understand what is meant to be grasped: within the confines of the subjective experience, we cannot see sight’s boundaries; similarly, we cannot, as living beings, attest to death because we would have to leave the confines of life to do so(?).


        1. I think that interpretation sounds spot on. This is also the problem Flannery O’Connor explores in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (and elsewhere), Auden in “Musee de beaux arts,” etc.


          1. It helps to see Breughel’s Icarus — — (William Carlos Williams wrote a poem on the same topic) — the idea that we might miss the miracle—that we would have to miss the miracle—that if transcendence was even possible we would not see it, we would miss it, we wouldn’t have the frame of reference to see/interpret it. I think WA is also onto the ethical problem this creates/addresses (which DFW is doing, which WCW is doing, which O’Connor is doing, which much of great literature does…).


            1. I never thought of that! But it makes sense. It reminds me of what I saw in Lech Majewski’s The Mill in the Cross. That movie doesn’t center in on the Icarus painting, but the one that it does concern itself with–The Procession to Calvary–has a similar motif and theme. I think Breughel (as a character in the movie) even gives a director’s commentary and attests to the significance of hiding the Passion.


    2. I can understand that it may seem confusing but your reading too limits simply means ican see as far as is possible with given light and lack of obstacles like buildings..not that there are NO LIMITS and that any thing is possible, just that there are no blinders or borders like in vision disorder you “see”?


  3. I just read “Musee de beaux arts.” Twice, in fact! Its a remarkable poem but I have no remark as to its relation to the problem we’ve touched on. So, how does this problem, or theme, factor into your interpretation of the poem?


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