Reinstating Reality: David Foster Wallace's Short Stories

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3. Representations of Death

Michel Foucault is a figure whose critical approach, called “archeological method”, helps shape Baudrillard’s reflections on death. Foucault compares his methodology to a search for the rules of grammar and logic. His archeology “emerges as a method of analysis that reveals the intellectual structures that underlie and make possible the entire range of diverse (and often conflicting) concepts, methods, and theories characterizing the thought of a given period . . . [I]t discovers rules governing our discursive and behavior of which we may not be aware” [Gut13]. Foucault applied this methodology to his studies of madness and sexuality (genealogical studies) and affirmed that these bodies of knowledge came into existence after these forms were suppressed , marginalized and suppressed; subsequently, they became the subject of study and a body of knowledge was formed around them [Fou71]. This is what Baudrillard refers to as Foucault’s “genealogy of discrimination”. He adopts the same logic in his Symbolic Exchange and Death and brings Foucault’s “archeological” toolbox to bear on the dichotomy of life/death and its ramifications. He posits that the end of symbolic exchange regime results in an exclusion of death and a discrimination against it[Bau95]. First, the dead are given a place in the middle of the village and later transferred to the periphery. In the modern metropolis, they no longer have a place in the physical and mental space of its inhabitants. The unnamed narrator of “The Soul is Not a Smithy” decides to visit his father’s grave but “the area had been refashioned into one of the small and largely unutilized downtown parks that were characteristic of the New Columbus renewal programs of the early ‘80’s”[Wal04].

Baudrillard’s view regarding the extradition of the dead can be understood in light of other similar pronouncements, such as Foucault’s idea of prison panopticon, omnipresent but only refined to gentler forms of social control. Similar to that is Baudrillard’s view about the Disneyland, existing to fool us into believing the outside world is real and Disneyland is imaginary[Bau83]. The dead are extradited only because death has been “naturalized” into the society: “It is correct to say that the dead, hounded and separated from the living condemn us to an equivalent death: the fundamental law of symbolic obligation is at play in any case, for better or worse”[Bau95]. Once death drops out of the symbolic exchange cycle and the dividing line between life and death is drawn, death would not leave the living alone as it circumvents it. These lines and demarcations would be closely inspected in “The Soul is Not a Smithy”, “Incarnations of Burned Children”, and “Good Old Neon”.

“The Soul is Not a Smithy” has a dream-sequence structure. Its main narrative thread is about four students who become unwitting hostages when a substitute Civics teacher has a mental breakdown and starts punctuating his lesson on US Constitutional Amendments with the phrase “KILL THEM ALL” on the board[Wal04]. Only four students do not have “the presence of mind to flee the Civics classroom along with the other children"[Wal04]. The now-adult narrator recounts his limited memory of the event. His absence of mind and disposition to daydreaming led to his inclusion among the so-called hostages. He used to have simultaneous story-lines during these reveries, each happening in a separate narrative “mesh” as he was looking out the window which had a “reticulate wire mesh built directly into the glass”[Wal04]. Due to his attention deficiency, he would have never been allowed to occupy the window seat, had their homeroom teacher been present on that day. The cartoon-strip likeness of the mesh had allowed him to “actively construct whole linear, discreetly organized narrative fantasies, many of which unfolded in considerable detail”[Wal04]. Despite his attention problem, the child had the unusual talent of being able to count the words on a page, even the lowest and the highest frequency of a letter; however, he could not “internalize or communicate in any very satisfactory way what the words and their various combinations were intended to mean”[Wal04]. His nightmarish daydreams are intricate and reflect a tragically naturalistic picture of a working class family. In one of his “illustrated tableaux”[Wal04], a blind girl is the butt of horrible jokes from her siblings and classmates. In another “mesh”, her father loses his hand while fixing a snowblower’s clogged blades “with a horrifying full color spray of red snow and human matter jetting at full force straight up into the air”[Wal04]. On the same day and in a separate narrative tableau, the blind girl’s mother is asphyxiated in the car while putting on make-up, the exhaust pipe being clogged with snow. Even the girl’s dog has a traumatic day as its escapade to the subterranean sewages ends up being parsed as an agonizing misadventure, ending in its graphic death with roaches crawling in and out of its eye socket. The text brings up the issue of self-absorption and lack of attention to the outside world. He complain: “The most obvious flaw in my memory of the incident as a whole is that much of the trauma’s inception unfolded outside my awareness, so intently I was filling in the next row”[Wal04]. In hindsight, he reconstructs the inception of the incident from his classmates’ viewpoint and newspaper reports: “Mr. Richard Allen Johnson inadvertently inserted something else in the phrase, as well – the capital word, KILL”[Wal04]. Even Johnson is surprised for the first few times when he sees what he has written on the board and keeps erasing it. He looks possessed by “some terrible type of evil or alien force” as time passes[Wal04]. The teacher continues writing, “KILL THEM ALL KILL THEM DO IT NOW” on the chalkboard while making a monotonous high-pitched moaning sound that frightens the children even more. Scared students storm outside except four of them. In the end, police shot the teacher dead when he did not heed to orders to drop the chalk and surrender.

Another peripheral incident and dream sequence, before the final narrative thread, took place while the narrator was courting his wife-to-be. They had gone to the movies to watch The Exorcist. The couple had simultaneously stood up to leave the theater, when the possessed girl protagonist was going to self-mutilate her genital with a crucifix. Later, he reminded his wife that during the rendition of the exorcist priest’s nightmares while a medallion was falling in the air, there was a flash image of the priest-character. His wife cannot remember this scene, nor does he know why he remembers the scene so clearly. He believes that “it can only be the incongruous, near instantaneous quality of its appearance, the utter peripheralness of it. For it is true that the most vivid and enduring occurrences in our lives are often those that occur at the periphery of awareness”[Wal04].

The last dream sequence of the story, without any contextual transition, starts abruptly: “For my own part, I had begun having nightmares about the reality of adult life as early as perhaps age seven. I knew, even then, that the dreams involved my father’s life and job and the way he looked when he returned home from work at the end of the day”[Wal04]. This dream sequence details his childhood nightmares about his father’s employment life, where white-collar worker are slavishly toiling in cold, fluorescently-lit offices. The descriptions convey a cog-like quality of office life, which is also portrayed in “Mister Squishy”. The narrator believes to have had these dreams as a result of his father’s moribund visage and the ambient darkness he associates with his return from work: “Nor could it always have been dusk at 5:42, though this is what I recall it being”[Wal04]. This lifeless quality is ascribed to his father’s inability to stand out from the crowd of other faceless employees as he remembers: “Part of the terror of the dream’s wide angle perspective was that the men in the room appeared as both individuals and a great anonymous mass”[Wal04]. The “individual versus herd” becomes one of the central recurring themes throughout Oblivion Stories.

The murder of the teacher, the tragic life of the blind girl and her family, the death of the priest’s mother, and the nightmares about his father’s office job support the final pronouncement of the boring “reality of adult life”. Baudrillard helps us see a recurring pattern around death that the text does not consciously consider and can completely reshape our understanding of its dynamics. To understand Baudrillard here, it is first necessary to grasp his genealogy of labor. The power of the master comes from the deferral of the slave’s death2 and capital has perfected this system in the name of security, “another form of social control, in the form of life blackmailed with the afterlife” that also produces surplus value from accidents and deaths[Bau95]. The narrator remembers the first time he came to know that his father’s job was actuarial: “I knew that insurance was protection that adults applied for in case of risk”[Wal04]. There is more to the risk management apparatus than financial gain in the system. The event of death has to be exhausted of its symbolic dimension, “It is necessary to rob every one of the last possibility of giving themselves their own deaths as the last ‘great escape’ from a life laid down by the system”. There is not an intrinsically rebellious element in death, but the passage from life to death has to be supervised under the watchful eyes of the master to avoid any exchange, “under the sign of comprehensive insurance”[Bau95]. His father occupies a parallel position as The Exorcist’s priest, but guarding the capital’s secularized gates of death and exerting power at the disjuncture of life and death.

Death is also the main issue in “Incarnations of Burned Children” and “Good Old Neon”. In “Incarnations of Burned Children”, the infant’s screams open the story after a pot of boiling water scalds him and his death ends the story after three pages of graphic descriptions of the trauma. The characters are not named, merely called “the Mommy”, “the Daddy” and “the child”. The horror of the accident is described by a flurry of activity and the tornado of the parent’s “conscious” reeling off while the child merely screams. After moments of holding his legs under a current of cold water and while his face is turning blue, they find out that the boiling water has gathered in the child’s diaper. The child’s death is captured by a stylistic shift; the language gains a dreamy texture: “The child’s body expanded and walked about and drew pay and lived its life untenanted, a thing among things, its self’s soul so much vapor aloft, falling as rain and then rising, the sun up and down like a yoyo”[Wal04].

Once death is banned from life and gatekeepers are assigned to Eternity, this prohibition creates the angst we observe in “Good Old Neon” and “The Soul is Not a Smithy”, in contrast to the child who is free of textual and discursive intrusions and merely screams. Neal, the protagonist of the story “Good Old Neon”, is tired of his life as a fraud and wants to run his car into a bridge abutment to kill himself. His grandmother’s antique watch has a haunting presence in his final moments, carrying the Latin inscription of RESPICE FINEM that means, “Look to the end”. Death is not the end for him as “David Wallace” (extradiegetic narrator) pops up into the narration near the end and confesses to have written this story to deal with the death of this high-school friend of his. As Baudrillard points out, “Throughout the entire system of political economy, the law of symbolic exchange has not changed one iota: we continue to exchange with the dead, even those denied rest, those for whom rest is prohibited. We simply pay with our own death and our anxiety about death for the rupture of symbolic exchanges with them”[Bau95].

After the demarcation of death in progressive societies, through the historical progress from “animism to polytheism and then to monotheism . . . immortal soul progressively emerges”[Bau95]. The most democratic distribution of the postulate of immortality is found in Christianity. The narrator of “The Soul is Not a Smithy” believes that the falling medallion (in dream rendition of The Exorcist’s priest) signifies

the blow to Father Karras’ faith in himself as a son and a priest, a blow to his vocation, which must be rooted not only in faith in a god but a belief that the person with the vocation could make some kind of difference and help alleviate suffering and human loneliness . . . Not to mention the classic problem of how a supposedly loving god could permit this terrible outcome. [Wal04]

We have to place “question mark besides the self-evident truths and accepted modes of understanding and modes of analysis”[Wil99], such as the “faith in a good god” and the circular logic inherent in questioning divine justice, only happening in times of personal human suffering. Both the belief and its subsequent reaction are presented as axiomatic. What is not queried is the imaginary power residing in the rupture of life and death. Father Karras’s religious doubts are merely treated as reactionary, in response to the death of his mother. According to the repeatedly reiterated theme of Oblivion Stories, Father Karras must have been a victim of inattention to the periphery, having found her mother’s corpse after three days. The text uses the logic of postmodernism which is against “centers” and attempts to demonstrate the existence of other centers at margins of our attention, calling these the peripheries of attention, where “the most vivid and enduring occurrences in our lives” happen[Wal04]. Thus, it looks at the problem in terms of a dialectical struggle of center and margin and builds a new dichotomy. This creates a vicious cycle without attempting to ask the more fundamental questions. Transcendental beliefs reside at these divisions and exert their power in the name of imaginary ideals who are supposed to soothe and “alleviate pain” that are the byproducts of the very existence of such ruptures. Baudrillard asks his imaginary interlocutor if immortality matters and a credulous materialist shrugs off the idea as being all “imaginary”. However, Baudrillard is not content with this answer. For him, “this is where the basis of the real social discrimination lies, and that nowhere are power and social transcendence so clearly marked the in the imaginary. The economic power of capital is based on the imaginary just as much as is the power of the Church: capital is only its fantastic secularization”[Bau95]. This transition of the rule over the gates of the “imaginary” from religion to capital can be expounded in “Good Old Neon”.

“Good Old Neon” starts with the confessions of Neal, who believes he is a fraud: “Pretty much all I’ve done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people”[Wal04]. The confessions are addressed to a psychoanalyst, Dr. Gustafson. Neal believes this attitude emerged at an early age. At school, the only reason for him to try to get good grades, make sports teams, and explore his sexuality with girls was to show off to his peers that he is the person who could have made such achievements. He addresses the reader and makes a new confession: “I tried analysis like almost everybody else . . . a lot of people I knew tried it. It didn’t really work, although it did make everyone sound more aware of their own problems and added some useful vocabulary and concepts to the way we all had to talk to each other”[Wal04]. Sports, drugs, career, church, oriental meditation and psychoanalysis cannot satiate his excessive self-consciousness and the need to be noticed. The labyrinth that Neal has woven around himself is unresolvable: “The fraudulence paradox was that the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you feel inside”. He had perceived this paradox at the age of nineteen, but this recognition “only brought home in spades what an empty, fraudulent person I’d basically been ever since at least the time I was four and lied to my stepdad”[Wal04]. He remembers how he made her sister to be blamed for his mistakes and wrongs by cunningly playing dumb; misleading his stepparents by taking responsibility while wearing an unconvincing face. He finally confides to the analyst of his efforts to show off his knowledge of the field and himself, so he could stand out from crowds of people who attend such sessions. However, such honesty is again for Neal a further sign of his advanced fraudulence, “that there was very little chance he [Dr. Gustafson] was going to see or diagnose anything about me [him] that I [he] wasn’t really aware of”[Wal04]. As time goes by, Neal starts to lose hope in Dr. Gustafson’s ability to cure him and “was starting to think of various ways to kill” himself[Wal04]. During the last sessions, he relates how the feeling of fraudulence has taken pleasure out of his life since childhood, how he could never savor every moment as he was merely considering how he would appear to other people. His two important personal efforts to overcome his fraudulence were joining the church of the “Flaming Sword of the Redeemer” (Oblivion 166) and trying oriental meditation. He had become very active in the church, but it struck him once again that he only wanted to “impress the congregation with how devoted and active I [he] was”[Wal04]. Neal would pretend that the Holy Spirit had entered his body like a “juggernaut” as he babbled and claimed that he was speaking in tongues. Once he had given up on church, he took up meditation and he proved capable at keeping meditation postures longer than others keep in the group, earning the title “The Statue” from Master Gurpreet. However, he comes to think that the Master is actually aware of the pain he was going through to sustain the postures and that the final certificate he received was “in reality a subtle rebuke or joke at my [his] expense”[Wal04]. He tells Dr. Gustafson of a nightmare where he is waiting at a statue of himself, polishing it all day while birds come and dirty it again. His ex-girlfriend sits at the shadows of the stature with her lover and seems to be oblivious of his presence. Neal describes the analyst’s postures, office environment, and his choice of metaphors to prove that he is a closet homosexual. Gustafson has recently been diagnosed with colon cancer, “a blatant symbol of . . . homosexuality”[Wal04]. The doctor tells him that man’s attitude to the world can take either the shape of fear or love: “One cannot serve two masters’ – Bible again – and that one of the worst things about the conception of competitive, achievement-oriented masculinity that America supposedly hardwired into its males was that it caused a more or less constant state of fear that made genuine love next to impossible”[Wal04]. He comes to rationalize his in ability to love by the “fraudulence paradox” and expands this newly found insight to his life. He must have been in a constant state of fear to convince others of his “masculine validity”, a game of pretension that excludes any possibility of love. If he is serving one master, fear, he cannot ever serve the other one, love. This leads to retrospective ruminations of his love for his parents, sister, and the women he had been dating. While watching a re-run episode of Cheers (TV series), a psychoanalyst-character says that if she has “one more yuppie come in and start whining to me [her] about how he can’t love, I’m [she is] going to throw up”. Neal, who has come to believe that “being fraudulent and being unable to love was in fact the same thing”, views the laughter of the studio’s audience as proof to the trite inauthenticity of his complaints[Wal04]. This paradox cannot be untangled. Neal assures us that no one can claim that a line in a comedy series leads to suicide, but this epiphany further encourages him to start planning to take his life. The next day, he calls in sick and starts writing suicide letters to his sister and work. He apologizes to his sister for the mean things he had done to her and writes extensively about his fraudulence and inability to love.

“Now we are getting to the time when I actually killed myself. This occurred at 9:17 PM on August 19, 1991”[Wal04].

Neal runs through his last thoughts during that day and his hesitation to continue with his suicide plan. He becomes more conscious of the fact that whatever he is doing, seeing, hearing, and eating would be for the last time. After thirty-nine pages of what Barthes calls a “tissue of citations, resulting from thousand sources of culture” (Barthes 146), an extradiegetic narrator, “David Wallace”, resurfaces to reveal that he has written the story in an effort to make sense of his classmate’s suicide, to “somehow reconcile what this luminous guy had seemed like from the outside with whatever on the interior must have driven him to kill himself in such a dramatic and doubtlessly painful way” (Oblivion 181). The technique draws attention to language – a favorite metafictional technique – and the reader is shaken out the story line. However, I will avoid two pitfalls here; namely, to see the story through the prism of Wallace-Author or that of art as a vehicle for eternity.

The observational prowess presented in Oblivion Stories is phenomenally accurate and detailed. In a New York Times article, Weber praised Wallace’s as “prodigiously observant, exuberantly plotted, grammatically and etymologically challenging, philosophically probing and culturally hyper-contemporary” [Web08]. This makes a rich textual tissue in “Good Old Neon”, but the tyranny of the discourse of reality cannot exert its exacting demands on the burning child of “Incarnations of Burned Children” in his concise story. In Barthes words: “Language . . . is neither reactionary nor progressive. It is quite simply fascist: for fascism is not the prohibition of saying things, it is the obligation to say them” (qtd. in JB, FCPES 26). The child does not curse “their God’s first name” (Oblivion 116), nor like Daddy holding “anger at the Mommy for allowing this thing to happen”[Wal04], but merely becomes “a thing among things”[Wal04]. However, he is afforded a soul and the solace of timeless, albeit “textual”, existence. This is all done to “generalize the imaginary”[Bau95]. In stark contrast to this death, a dream-like transition, Neal even transcends his death and is eternalized. Baudrillard believes that “[a]ll the agencies of repression and control are installed in this divided space, in the suspense between a life and its proper end. . . All the future forms of alienation that Marx denounces, the separations and abstractions of political economy, take root in this separation of death” (JB, SED 130).

“Good Old Neon” and “Incarnations of Burned Children” attempt to eternalize the dead; however, the incidence of suicide takes up more length. Suicide makes “an infinitesimal but inexplicable breach, since it is total defeat for a system not to be able to attain total perfection”[Bau95]. The psychoanalytic sessions and Neal’s knowledge of this field allows him to go to great lengths about his fraudulence and search for a way out of his condition, but the child is empty of the discursive parole and langue, handed down by previous generations and laden with ideologies and latent power structures. Neal is immortalized and eternal because he had his life steeped in “millions and trillions” of texts. The narrator rhetorically asks Neal and the reader, “What exactly do you think you are? The millions and trillions of thoughts, memories, juxtapositions – even crazy ones like this, you’re thinking – that flash through your head and disappear?”[Bau95]. In his final moments, Neal’s every movement “takes on a kind of ceremonial aspect” and he sees “the very sacredness of the world as seen”. However, in a few lines, Neal sees the “ceremonial aspect” of his movements as another attempt at fraudulence but what is saved textually – and for the readership – in this equation is “the very sacredness of the world”[Wal04]. The same message is at the core of the axiom of the “universality” of Father Karras’s feeling towards his mother’s death, that his “vocation could make some kind of difference and help alleviate suffering and human loneliness”[Wal04].

The silence of the kid shows the textuality of reality that resurrects Neal, at least by the promise of eternal life in the text and a re-creation of his imaginary afterlife, a representational act – a simulacrum of its own sort. This also raises concern about the title word of “Incarnations”. There is only one burning child in the story, but the title suggests the eternalization of all burned children, stated as the plural form. Baudrillard concludes that “the concept of immortality grew alongside the segregation of the dead, for the flip-side of death, this eminent status which the mark of the ‘soul’ and ‘superior’ spiritualities, is only a story that conceals the real extradition of the dead and the rupturing of the symbolic exchange with them”[Bau95].

Baudrillard believes, “Immortality is only a kind of general equivalent bound to the abstraction of linear time” (JB, SED 129). In “Good Old Neon”, the chronological time and linearity are directly questioned and undermined in form – the nonlinearity of the narrative structure – and content. Content-wise, Neal talks about a new conception of time, which he gained upon his death. It is a non-linear time that is beyond language where “[a]ll the different words are still there . . . but it’s no longer a question of which one comes first. . . or you could say it’s no longer the series of words but now more like some limit toward which the series converges. . . Or maybe imagine everything anybody on earth ever said or even thought to themselves all getting collapsed and exploding into on large combined, instantaneous sound”[Wal04]. The text is conscious of the constructedness of language, calling it a “charade”, and states that English, or any other language, fails to capture Neal’s understanding of afterlife. However, it is language that makes the difference in the very short size of “Incarnations of Burned Children” – only three pages – and the very long “Good Old Neon”, which involutes into extreme details and deliberations to finally give a “sacred” quality to life. It is the very “charade” of language which succeeds in making a larger “prison house of language” [Wil99] in “Good Old Neon”, to use Fredric Jameson’s metaphor. The story saves a “sacred” principle for life, when not exchanged symbolically, only enlarged to hold us ad infinitum, an illusion.

John Keats‘s metaphor of “Apartment of Many Mansions” is close to the narrator’s idea of life after death. Keats said that of all the “mansions” of the metaphorical “apartment” of life, he could only access two of them, “the infant or thoughtless chamber”, and the “chamber of Maiden-Thought”[Kea18]. However, in Neal’s newly constructed eternity, all “mansions” doors are open to access. The portrayal of death is democratic in the text, there is no more hell or paradise but an egalitarian eternity stripped of the religious elements, one which claims universal availability for all men: “Think for a second – what if all the infinitely dense and shifting worlds of stuff inside you every moment of your life tuned out now to be somehow fully open and expressible afterward, after what you think of as you has died . . . you can as they say open the door and be in anyone else’s room in all your own multiform forms and ideas and facets?”[Wal04]. In a long footnote, “David Wallace” directly talks to Neal (and the reader) and questions the linearity of time. The story makes an argument for the “literary immeasurable instant between impact and death” and we are invited to doubt the linear time in favor of a new understanding for “what makes room for the universe inside”[Wal04]. “Wallace” asks the reader if the flash second between life and death does not hold the eternity inside it, like the unending “inbent fractals”[Wal04]. The infinity of time is the Enlightenment’s equivalence of traditional Christian eternity. Baudrillard posits that with the advent of “bourgeois Reason” and the dissolution of Christianity, the obsession with death takes a different shape in the era of industrial production and political economy: “From this point on the obsession with death and the will to abolish death through accumulation become the fundamental motor of the rationality of political economy”. The power reigning at the gates of death transitions from religion to capital. “Value, in particular time as value, is accumulated in the phantasm of death deferred, pending the term of a linear infinity of value”[Bau95]. The laical eternal state, where the phantasm of Neal lives in, is also compared to the un-ending fractals, “what if afterward now each moment itself is an infinite sea or span or passage of time”[Wal04].

This “guy” with a “neon aura”[Wal04] who excelled in every possible undertaking of the system had no reason to commit suicide. How could he not take solace in the “infinity of capital”? Baudrillard clarifies that “[e]ven those who no longer believe in a personal eternity believe in the infinity of time as they do in a species-capital of double-compound interests. The infinity of capital passes into the infinity of time, the eternity of a productive system no longer familiar with the reversibility of gift-exchange”[Bau95]. The current system’s fascination with eternal life has only one point, “[i]t is simply to generalize the imaginary. The revolution can only consist in the abolition of the separation of death”[Bau95].

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