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How post-modernism killed America’s morality

Credit: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

September 14, 2018   4 mins

David Foster Wallace. A writer for his generation, half-Springstein, half-Wittgenstein, throughout his life he struggled with mental health and he took his life 10 years ago this week. His novel Infinite Jest was included on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th century. He wrote like nobody else, without guile or pretense, from the heart, as if on every word hung the question of personal salvation.

Something of an obsessive, he had an unhealthy relationship with women, often fixating upon a particular romantic attachment. He tried to join the Roman Catholic church twice, but both times he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. He loved stray dogs. May he rest in Peace.

My own interest in Wallace was sparked by a brilliant graduation address he gave to students at Kenyon College in 2005, entitled “This is Water: Thoughts delivered on a Significant Occasion about Living a Compassionate Life.” Two fish meet an older fish swimming in the opposite direction. “Morning boys!” says the older fish, “How’s the water?” The two younger fish swim on, then one turns to the other and asks “What the hell is water?”

Water, for Wallace, is the ubiquitous cultural presumptions in which we are all immersed, so all-surrounding as to be invisible. They are the beliefs that we all take for granted, that shape and sustain us. But the purpose of a good liberal arts education, Wallace maintains, is that throughout the boring everydayness of queueing at the supermarket checkout or whatever dulling routine our jobs lead us into, whatever the water in which we swim, it gives us the intellectual tools to take a step back and choose what to make of our circumstances.

“You get to decide what you worship” is how he puts it. “Because … in the day-to-day trenches of adult life there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” And a good reason for worshipping some sort of god is that “pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive”.

What follows is like a preacher on fire:

“If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you… Worship power, you will end up weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, you will always end up feeling stupid, a fraud.”

I was rocked by this address. “The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

David Foster Wallace was himself a student during the high point of critical theory and post-modern philosophy, a cultural moment that emphasised the need for irony and a kind of self-referential knowingness that looked with suspicion, derision even, at all attempts at moral seriousness. Wallace, though, sought a return to what has come to be called ‘the new sincerity’, an attempt to recapture the sort of “passion, conviction and engagement with deep moral issues that we – here, today – cannot, or do not, permit ourselves”. The sort of moral seriousness that Wallace admired in a writer like Dostoyevsky.

Wallace saw his own culture as being trapped in a sort of feedback loop of knowing nods and winks, like one of those Ferris Bueller asides, when he breaks the fourth wall, looks straight into the camera and (apparently) wryly comments directly to those watching the film at home. In such a world, nothing is real, nothing is solid. Everything is exposed as sort of fiction, lacking true bottom. Those who pretend moral sincerity here become the butt of the joke, the rightly object of parody. Sincerity becomes the object of scorn. A laughable credulity.

In such a culture, we all have to pretend our utterances are tongue-in-cheek, even when we are trying to say something important, even when we are crying for help. For Wallace, “irony and ridicule … are agents of great despair and stasis in US culture.”

Irony, for Wallace, does have an important emergency function; it undermines the hypocrisy of authority. It is a shock tactic but it is not basis for culture as such. Because irony is “singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks”.

Here is the core of Wallace’s assessment of his cultural predicament:

“Even gifted ironists work best in sound-bites. I find them sort-of wickedly fun to listen to at parties, but … as for actually driving cross country with a gifted ironist or sitting through a 300-page novel full of nothing but trendy sardonic exhaustion, one ends up feeling not only empty, but also … oppressed.”

The ironist is an expert at destruction, at undermining authority, but offers nothing to replace it. We deliberately smirk at ourselves when why try and say something important or venture weighty things, pretending that we only half mean it. Like Ferris Bueller, we too feel we have to wink at the camera.

Two days after Wallace hanged himself, Lehman Brothers went into administration, an event that became emblematic of the global financial crisis that was to come. Wallace had spent his whole literary career trying to revive a form of moral sincerity that he believed had been hollowed out of American culture by the toxic irony of continual mockery. And he defiantly sought to revive the single entendre of moral seriousness from within a culture dominated by the double entendre of not really meaning it. Because, in such an environment, moral values had struggled to survive.

When some people dared to speak of right and wrong, cultural sophisticates smirked knowingly and chuckled at their naivety. Post-modernism had all but cleared the stage of moral sincerity. Looking back, it seems little surprise that the greedy and the powerful of Wall Street were able to fill their boots.

Our moral consciousness had been sabotaged, and, too busy laughing, we hadn’t really noticed. “This is Water” now reads like a warning. The change in our moral environment had been so thorough, deep and all-pervasive as to be invisible. And millions paid the price as houses were repossessed, savings wiped out, and wages flatlined. Governments bailed out the banks with billions and instituted programmes of austerity for the poor. The joke was well and truly over.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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