David Foster Wallace: Genius?

Samuel Liu on David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace had, in the best and worst sense of this word, a divine compulsion, a spiritual irritation. Many great figures of history had such a madness, an incapability of keeping themselves silent, from speaking, from researching, from driving every fiber of their body into gathering together energy and straining to release this impulse in a work of immortality.

History shows us people with such single-minded conviction that their actual ability (such as managing an economy) no longer matters, because they see one vision so clearly that this distorts the electric field of reality about them. And everyone else is changed, everyone has their eyesight reinvented and manipulated, their pasts and history fuse together to this one person’s purpose.

This person sees and we follow, sometimes pretending to see when we do not, pretending to understand the text when really what we want is to grasp, to hold onto, and to be astounded before true Genius. But, like a stock degrading over time, a net loss inevitably occurs. What has never been questioned is David Foster Wallace’s base-line intelligence. Many people despise him for many things; but all agree that he had all the aura of a genius, of a rapacious, devouring mind.

This is an illusion that must be shattered so that we can see Wallace clearly, and understand where his actual gift lies, and therefore what is the proper way to love him.


Ludwig Wittgenstein was the philosopher most important to Wallace. In his second career, Wittgenstein recoiled whenever someone said he had a theory; his Philosophical Investigations insists that he is treating his language examinations on a “case by case” basis.

Austen, like late-Wittgenstein—and unlike the theory-obsessed early-Wallace—had no theories. One of the subtlest, and most profound distinctions in Pride and Prejudice plays on the difference between natural mental quickness and the impressive possession of facts.

Elizabeth Bennet, our heroine, is actually not much of a reader. She engages only briefly, profoundly, in literary discussion. The “essential” characters of Wallace’s fiction, by contrast, are geniuses who know everything:

Let’s talk about anything. I believe the influence of Kierkegaard on Camus is underestimated. I believe Dennis Gabor may very well have been the Antichrist. I believe Hobbes is just Rousseau in a dark mirror. I believe, with Hegel, that transcendence is absorption.

It is Elizabeth’s sister, Mary, who is the literary nerd—the type of person who sits down and reads an Austen novel. Mary made “extracts.” That’s to say, she read books in search of morals and information, writing them down in a notebook so as to recite them later and impress people with her intelligence—all the more tragic because, ugly and devoting all her energies and desire for esteem into the possession of talent, she nevertheless lacks originality. Isn’t this recognizable? You aren’t able to keep up with the real, happy, athletic people of the world, and so you burrow into your intelligence, making it the only foundation of your esteem and your awry superiority. Thus, if someone actually gets underneath your intelligence, everything is lost.

Mary Bennet is just such a person, and Austen’s satire, in a very small dose, is brutal. If many don’t recognize the point Austen is making, it’s because she doesn’t elaborate it in fifty pages, keeping it within two or three sentences. Mary is no writer, obviously. But for the powerful writer who trawls the world to fill out Infinite Jest with random tidbits of infinite information, a similar impulse is at hand: to enhance one’s intelligence by way of the possession of many facts. If Elizabeth Bennet has a subtle, observing mind, then Mary Bennet’s mind is very abstract, theoretical:

“Pride,” observed Mary, who piqued herself upon the solidity of her reflections, “is a very common failing, I believe. By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed…Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously…”

Isn’t Austen so mean to us? The last bit, the differentiating between words, has a little Wallace-y touch in the showy flexing of vocabulary.

Perhaps you have had the experience, especially if you came from a non-literary family, where, upon meeting literary people for the first time, you meet a foreign tongue that claims to be the same language as yours (English) but from which issues a sense of mystery. You put all the power of intelligence in this person because they are able to speak quickly in a tongue you can’t understand. They speak in the language of theory that they were introduced to from early-on, where they claim to know every author in the world.

It took me many years to be able to have the smallest confidence that, yes, they, too, had no idea what they were saying. The constant search for information, the thickening of the vocabulary with multi-syllabic words, when done without precision and accuracy, suggest, or, actually, are the first and foremost symptom of intellectual insecurity, of feeling oneself a fraud and failing to live up to the “victorious nerd-ship” of the so-often awkward intellectual. There is an obvious aspect of “protesting too much,” in the sense that those who are insecure about their intelligence are liable to want to show it off at every moment.


I heard that Wallace’s book on mathematics, Everything and Nothing, was painfully bad to anyone who knew anything about mathematics—a fact not helped by the fact Wallace said that he had flunked a basic high school Calculus course. But there was no way for me to assess this as I was not well-read in math. It wasn’t until I realized that Wallace had a deep interest in Wittgenstein that I became excited.

But I have read his essay on Wittgenstein at least six or seven times, each time with this same hope. It gives me intense pain, like I were being brain-washed against my will, or gaslighted, told things about a text that I knew were obviously false but told by a person of Genius, an authority. Here is what Wallace has to say about Wittgenstein:

The fact that the metaphysics of the Tractatus not only couldn’t take account of but pretty much denied the coherent possibility of things like ethics, values, spirituality & responsibility…

Here is what Wittgenstein has to say about Wittgenstein:

It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed.
Ethics are transcendental.
Ethics and æsthetics are one.

There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.

Wittgenstein says that ethics and aesthetics cannot be expressed, or talked about, in the sense that any propositions about them are as unproductive as any proposition of logic, whose validity can’t be determined outside of logic itself. Such a tautology indicates the spuriousness of the project, in that logic is trying, and failing, to discover its nature by way of its own method. Wittgenstein places aesthetics and ethics outside the realm of things that can be talked about, which is to say, he passes them over in silence, like questions posed incorrectly and which can’t be answered due to the question’s malformed conception.

But by no means does he ever deny the “coherent possibility” of these things. They are possible—where does Wallace get the idea that for Wittgenstein these things certainly don’t exist? As to whether they are coherent on their own, or in what way they are coherent, or any basic theory on aesthetics and ethics, Wittgenstein just doesn’t think this is something that we’re able to talk about.

Actually, Wittgenstein can be seen—speaking crudely—as wanting to protect the mystical, the spiritual, the ethical, by way of the move of his hero, Kierkegaard, preventing them from being subjected to intellectual analysis. Aesthetics and ethics “show themselves,” which is to say that they appear ineffably in our experience, and their nature cannot be described. “There is indeed the inexpressible.” That is to say, though we cannot talk about aesthetics and ethics, they nevertheless exist, and this is “proven,” so to speak, this is certain, because these things show themselves in our experience. And Wallace says that Wittgenstein “pretty much denied the coherent possibility” of these things?

Of course, the question should be asked: Why does it matter that Wallace, a novelist, does not understand Wittgenstein, who many people say is very difficult? The answer to this would be: many people consider Wallace to be a thinker.

But the problem is that he’s getting away with intellectual larceny, flashing heavy texts that people haven’t read, like how he uses difficult academic language, supposedly to parody it, but really to make his language original and intelligent-sounding. With the great bursts of speed of Infinite Jest, he manages to out-talk us, out-think us with such rapidity that we are so afraid of him that we don’t feel confident enough to question him.

He is smart by intimidation.

Wherein, then, lies Wallace’s power? For he absolutely is a powerful writer. Many people my age immediately recognized Wallace’s voice as their own. He has made people feel less lonely, he has been a hero.


Writers who are tied to their culture, who want to show the world “how it is right now,” are also tied down to the world “how it is right now.” That is to say, I have the suspicion that as soon as Wallace’s pop-culture references cease to make sense, he may simply be incomprehensible.

Is it possible that we love Wallace only because we have the same illnesses? – And in what way does a future people for whom depression has become as anachronistic as tuberculosis understand “The Depressed Person”? Realism has this disadvantage in that many of its details have to be experienced, by the same culture, in order to be understood.

Meanwhile, Proust, that most cultured of writers, felt very natural to me, because, firstly, Proust’s ideas translated to me regardless of cultural differences. But more importantly, Proust was always reacting like a child to his cultural obsessions—he was trying to understand them. His details, too, tend to be strung along a series of metaphors and similes, so that I can understand what underlying shape is being described, even if I don’t know the object in particular. He also supplies the adjective, telling us his attitude, how to feel about it, “sweet and past-haunted furniture,” for example. Flaubert makes fun of a doctor for having a bust of Hippocrates in his room, since how stupid and cliché it would be for a doctor to do this! But when I read this in high school, never having been to an art museum, and with no understanding of the classics, I always wondered: But who is Hippocrates, and what is a bust?

I have always felt that Proust was the best teacher I ever had. Proust’s philosophical motor is “trying to figure it out.” Everything relies on nuance. He generalizes extremely carefully. If Wallace merely refers to culture as if we already share that culture and understand it, Proust comes, in short, like an immigrant in his own mind, trying to figure out his own world. And when we follow that track, we feel like we are learning while Proust is learning.

My feeling is that every reader discovers, or loses their linguistic virginity, only once, to a powerful stylist who shows them that the whole world is to be observed. No doubt Wallace has been this stylist for many.

Maybe I could like Wallace if I knew what was he referencing. Well, then, what about Wallace’s linguistic gift?


My real problem with Wallace is that I am a very slow reader, and I like to visualize scenes, and to understand what is being said. If I can’t understand what’s being said, I reread the sentence multiple times, in the hopes of getting its meaning.  With Proust, Platonov and Kant, this pays off ninety-seven percent of the time. In short, I like to see with my imagination. But for Wallace this is often impossible. Take this sentence, for example. It is no exception to Wallace’s prose:

Only one or two remaining tips of the digitate spikes of the radial blades of the sun found crevices between the Tortolitaspeaks and probed at the roof of the sky.

The shapes don’t match; he lacks the gift of seeing resemblances in shapes, which is also the gift of visual metaphor, the gift of the poet. Wallace does not reward sensitivity to language, the careful lingering in words. In fact, he seems to make such sensitivity painful for the reader. When I read “radial blades” I think of something very sharp, and am a little afraid. “Radial” here is a scientific word, and Wallace is using it in his style, supposedly, to make a point out about how we see the world through sterile facts—though, really, he’s just using the word to differentiate himself as a stylist.

But the real problem is “blades…probed at the roof the sky.” Can you imagine sharp blades probing at the roof of the sky? To probe is to test again and again, as one would with a finger softly test a wound, or as a doctor would feel your fractured arm and try to find out where it hurts. It is a soft word, to search out, involving a repetitive, retracted action. Moreover, “roof” is a “hard” word, and presents an impermeable texture; the “roof of the sky” is a hard, flat surface, as opposed to, say, the “expansive ceiling of the sky,” which would allow penetration. Can blades probe a roof? I keep imagining a surgeon with a small knife probing and probing a tissue of flesh so that it bleeds terribly from lacerations.

My objection does not regard grammar but the agitating mismatch of shapes. This violates the spatial physics of the imagination.

This is not, of course, a one-time instance. Every single page of Wallace’s work has something like this. It is like being beaten continuously with a bat so my mind feels fatigue. It is like he were blind or had never touched a texture with his imagination.

Of course, Wallace always has this defense: he is doing this on purpose to make a theoretical point about, perhaps, the way that we no longer perceive things naturally but according to data, as if the world were constructed not of images but mere data, mere collections of facts (like the footnotes of Infinite Jest). But this has a little bit of salt in it, like people who can’t do something and instead declare that they’re not doing the thing on purpose. In short, Wallace is a much better writer when he is not trying to use images with his imagination.

Maybe I should just read as quickly as possible and fall into the pace of Wallace’s story. But I keep trying to see what he’s written. And it’s an irritant in the way of someone trying to argue the earth is flat.

Ulysses, and Moby Dick, both novels on the “maximalist” side, never run into the problem that appears in Infinite Jest. Their scenes almost always cohere. They can always appear before our eyes and leave a lasting image. The problem is that Wallace is giving us information in no particular order, no piece of data is given primacy over another, as if one were merely absently, passively receiving data like a seismographer, a dehumanized, terrified individual close to breakdown, who can no longer make sense of his world.

This is, in fact, Wallace’s point. But for the sake of his theoretical point and the cool sterility of the tone suggesting mental breakdown, he trades away the feeling of actually being present in the book. We are unable to enter the character’s world, even as we’re constantly listening to them. Wallace has traded depicting a real world for pure text. Lenore in Broom of the System suspects she’s made of pure language; one often feels this with Wallace’s characters, that they are described a lot, and extremely memorable, but never seem to animate in our minds. They are described, but they don’t exist.

That’s to say, we all know a Depressed Person, we can recognize her in real life, and in ourselves. But can we say how she would react to some other character, in a nuanced way?

The problem with Wallace’s monologuing characters is that they appear on their own stage. But think of the difference between Wallacian characters and those of Jonathan Franzen: don’t Franzen’s characters feel more nuanced, subtle, as if we had experienced our lives through them?

Wallace once said that he felt in his early career that he was merely a “petty forger of style.” And, yes, he is extraordinary at mimicking all different kinds of voices. But for all the diversity of the linguistic vocabulary, the mental mode through all of Wallace’s characters is identical. They all think like Wallace’s prose. Which is to say, Wallace’s prose is manic, recursive, and obsessive—this is his inimitable style. But as a result, all of his characters are manic, recursive, and obsessive.

People say that Infinite Jest, like Ulysses, is a polyphonic text, but this is true only at the surface level. Each of Joyce’s characters are as easily entered as a well-fitted glove; their consciousnesses are readily accessed and available; their mental modes are diverse. But Wallace’s style is so overpowering, and this is his greatest weakness. Wallace has no freedom from Wallace’s style and can’t actually inhabit a mental mode that is not his own. All of his characters are really just Wallace’s prose, like Lenore who’s afraid she’s just language—they merely use different vocabulary.

Yes, he depicts all different kinds of ethnicities and people. But Black Wallace, Latino Wallace, Bostonian Wallace, are merely Wallace using Black, Latino, and Bostonion vocabulary, like he merely appropriated their clothes, and we reward him by saying he has a wondrous grasp on the diversity of American human existence. He has an incredible thesaurus, a mad compulsion for words. But these words are all owned by Wallace, and his characters only rent them from him. As a result, the reader never becomes anything but Wallace.


What is it like to admit that we are not as smart as we wish to be that in fact, we have nothing real to say, that we don’t understand what we have read, and have read, mostly, to impress other people? – And, then, why is it that we care? How often do we get into debates about “whether or not this person is actually intelligent?”

There is no difference in mind more pronounced than between Wallace and his hero Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein had such purposeful silence. He laid out a scaffolding for the edifice of logic only to tear it down, concluding that the proper understanding of his philosophy is to recognize his propositions as senseless, and what remains is a quiet in which one feels no longer like a philosopher, like no philosophy had actually been done, like it was all boring. Thus what rested there was a kind of shimmering, mystical silence, not faraway but underfoot, that is to say a cradle as if we had always been held in it, within its bounds, as if we had gone faraway with speculation and awry thoughts, and, prodigal, were brought gently back to the simplicity of quiet existence.

Tractatus is like a silence slowly emerging from the map one holds up to represent reality, soothing and disappearing all of logic’s routes so that nothing remains, so that one actually no longer needs a map because the represented world is shown to be unintelligible. Logic is a game that should no longer be played. Thus one goes to the real world, stops philosophizing, becomes a doctor, takes up an honorable profession.

Wallace, by contrast, is trying to cover the map of reality in as many words as possible, pouring ink onto the page in the flights of manic attempts to impress himself with his own intelligence—his self-consciousness, his apologies for cliché, are as awkward as trying to erase an inaccurate stroke of ink.

The more Wallace fears the lack of his own intelligence, the more twisted and awry his work becomes. Reading him, if I can avoid an irritation (the visual failures of his prose), I feel sadder and sadder for the feeling that he had gotten stuck in the impression of his genius. That’s to say, it was like so many people demanded that he be a genius that he could no longer leave his intellectual pose. He thought too fast and broke things so easily, but he lacked nuance, precision, and subtlety, and, lastly, actual genius.

Insecurity is a bag of resentments. It leads one to do things that are outside of one’s intention, to perform and twist oneself, to even hurt others. David Foster Wallace’s mad compulsion came from incredible insecurity—constantly apologizing for being uninteresting—and this fueled the greatest effort in the realm of art that we have ever seen.

Reading his biography, I have always felt him to be a hero because his struggle is a true struggle. Then I feel annoyance at his books. In my mind, he will be remembered for what his person stood for—his statue—rather than his works. He was a compelling, sensitive man with a monstrous underside. It’s no surprise that so many of us loved him, for Wallace has felt awful where we hardly dare feel awful.

What is lost if we lose our notion of Wallace’s genius? Well, many things.

We no longer idolize a man who helped us in our times of deep torment, who gave language to things we underwent (and perhaps, by giving these problems names, even worsened them). We no longer feel as if we have been understood by someone great who walks in the realm of the dead. We may have to take off his picture from the wall. –But do we?

If he has spoken to you, he has spoken to you: he has been a friend to you. I cannot make someone dislike a book that they have already liked. Such a thing is impossible and this impossibility tells a fact on how literary criticism works (I can open a book to you, but I can’t close it). Only stop saying things like “Have you read as much as Wallace has?” or “he was capable of doing everything in language,” or, “Wallace has already figured out that objection and resolved it.” The fellow shot out rays of genius, that is to say, he emanated the impression of genius. We’ve all done it, at one time or another. Just cringe a little bit, be thankful for his presence, and do as you please.

Samuel Liu is a writer living in Cambridge, Mass., whose pseudonym is “Samuel.” He is an Assistant Editor of Criticism at The Marginalia Review of Books.  Reach him at overnightamillionnooses.net