A comparative reading of David Foster Wallace’s ‘The Depressed Person’ and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground
Allard den Dulk
This chapter argues that David Foster Wallace’s ‘The Depressed Person’ (1998/1999) and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864) offer a comparable cultural critique and approach to casting critical-philosophical ideas into fiction. Dostoevsky is an important example for Wallace that some philosophical problems are best approached through literature; in both authors’ works, philosophy and literature are partly overlapping activities. However, despite these affinities, the connections between their fiction have so far remained under-researched. Furthermore, most critics have interpreted ‘The Depressed Person’ as expressing a supposedly inevitable failure of language and communication. This chapter argues against such interpretations, through a comparative close reading with Dostoevsky’s novella, tracing shared themes, motifs, and formal traits. Both texts portray their protagonists as a type, as an embodiment of the tendencies of their respective cultural formations. These tendencies foster hyperconsciousness, scepticism and spite, which lead to both protagonists’ distrust of communication, of successfully explaining themselves, that scholars have mistakenly interpreted as the view expressed by Wallace’s story as a whole. While the protagonists of ‘The Depressed Person’ and Notes from Underground fail to realize communication and empathy, the fictions of which they are part do achieve this and serve to make readers aware of their role in the realization thereof.
In David Foster Wallace’s fiction, long-standing philosophical debates – does language describe the world accurately? can I explain myself to others? what are the values and dangers of self-consciousness? how can I lead a meaningful life? – play a central role. In fact the need to explore these debates as representing urgent problems of contemporary human existence is what motivated Wallace’s ‘occupational switch’ from philosophy to literature. This volume presents new essays by prominent and promising Wallace scholars that show that Wallace’s work originates in-between philosophy and literature. Its philosophical dimension is not a mere supplement or decoration, a finishing touch to perfect his literary writing; nor is it the other way around: a pre-established truth the literary serves to illustrate. Rather in Wallace the two discursive modes are always already intertwined in a never-ending process of cross-fertilization. This approach constitutes an investigative perspective that allows for a variety of theories and methods to shed light on the constitutive in-betweenness of Wallace’s oeuvre – instead of imposing a preconceived methodology or a theoretical context that univocally homogenizes each single reading. The essays included offer a plurality of interpretations of Wallace’s engagement with philosophy and literature. Organized in three parts – ‘General perspectives’, ‘Consciousness, self, and others’, and ‘Embodiment, gender, and sexuality’ – this volume breaks new ground: it shows that Wallace’s texts, characters, story-worlds, linguistic and formal choices, plots and concepts are all to be read ‘between’ philosophy and literature, and thus provides a highly valuable contribution to the field of Wallace studies.
David Foster Wallace between philosophy and literature
Allard den Dulk
This collection aims to show that David Foster Wallace’s work originates from and functions in the space between philosophy and literature. Indeed, the philosophical dimension of his work is not a mere supplement or decoration, a finishing touch to perfect his literary writing. Nor is it the other way around: a pre-established truth which Wallace sees the literary merely serving to illustrate. Rather Wallace intertwines the two discursive modes in a never-ending process of reciprocal cross-fertilization. In this introductory chapter we first briefly address Wallace’s relation to and career switch between philosophy and literature, in order to argue that, for Wallace, philosophy and literature are co-originating ways of confronting reality: philosophical works, styles, and concepts trigger literary experiences, while literary works, styles, and genres trigger philosophical questioning. Both appear within and amplify each other from the start. Then we outline three aspects in which philosophy and literature both differ and overlap – but never fully dissolving into one another – namely: (1) as activities or practices; (2) with regards to their instruments, i.e. their forms of language and communication; and (3) with regards to their purposes, or the experiences and possible understandings they generate. The work of David Foster Wallace is exemplary of this fruitful cross-pollination. Finally, we outline the chapters in this collection that, organized in three parts – ‘General perspectives’ (Wallace’s aesthetics, interest in performativity, formal choices, sociology, and ethics), ‘Consciousness, self, and others’, and ‘Embodiment, gender, and sexuality’ – represent a multifaceted engagement with the philosophical-literary in-betweenness of Wallace’s oeuvre.