David Foster Wallace, Ecclesiastes, and Solipsism
The one way I’ve progressed I think is I’ve gotten convinced that there’s something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn’t have that much to do with talent…Talent’s just an instrument. It’s like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn’t. I’m not saying I’m able to work consistently out of the premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that love can instead of the part that just wants to be loved. I know this doesn’t sound hip at all. I don’t know. But it seems like one of the things really great fiction writers do—from Carver to Chekhov to Flannery O’Connor, or like the Tolstoy of “The Death of Ivan Ilych” or the Pynchon of “Gravity’s Rainbow”—is give the reader something. The reader walks away from the real art heavier than she came into it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet….It’s weird—it has to do with quality but not that much with sheer writing talent. It has to do with the click. I used to think the click came from, “Holy shit, have I ever just done something good.” Now it seems more like the real click’s more like, “Here’s something good, and on one side I don’t much matter, and on the other side the individual reader maybe doesn’t much matter, but the thing’s good because there’s extractable value here for both me and the reader.” Maybe it’s as simple as trying to make the writing more generous and less ego-driven.
—David Foster Wallace, 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery
For David Foster Wallace—a writer who, three years ago, I would have been loathe to cite as the bedrock of this essay (more on that below)—good fiction, and for our purposes I think it is safe to say good art, was all about a communal clash—sometimes rough, sometimes smooth, sometimes both, usually inflected with dynamism not only in form but in content and trajectory—what he calls, later in this interview, the artist giving the reader “imaginative access to other selves.” But it’s also about something else: a dramatic reversal. Sometimes the reversal is of the reader’s expectations, sometimes the reversal occurs in the heart of a character, but wherever it happens the most important part is that it occurs as an experience for the reader. “I had a teacher,” DFW says in the same interview, and I’ll substitute the word art for fiction, “that used to say good art’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” I think that’s lovely.
What’s more, if we take these two premises to be true—that great art is a communal event, a meeting of selves, and also a sort of instigator of reversals—it does not mean that art panders to its audience. DFW’s stories and essays border on the impossible sometimes, whether because of length or experimental form or syntax, but legions of readers have essentially devoted their lives to him because of the meaningfulness they derive from the struggle of experiencing his work. Art as gestation, experience as a wrestling match. Zadie Smith, in her collection Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, gives a beautifully curated reading of Wallace’s work, and much of the point she is making has to do with that gestation process. The same sort of relationship between reader and writer—a tough love kind of relationship—is fairly obvious with Flannery O’Connor and her enduring readership. In other words: If a writer loves his readers, and really seeks to serve them (that’s what DFW is suggesting above), that doesn’t entail creating a smooth experience.
For various reasons I am incredibly vulnerable to black-and-white thinking. I’m the firstborn son of a firstborn son. I breathe the hard work mantra of the American Protestant. I tend toward obsession, excess, desire for control, addiction. So when I read a writer, for example, I tend to either glorify or demonize her. When I read someone I really like—Marilynne Robinson, for example—I have to put everything else on a holding pattern in order to pry apart every book she’s written. The same goes for a writer I dislike or have some reason to stay away from. When I first walked onto campus at the University of Minnesota two years ago as a spritely first-year MFA student, just about every nonfiction writer had a little shrine in the back room dedicated to David Foster Wallace. In fact there was a reading group of a handful of students—all males, I think—who read Infinite Jest aloud to one another. Over and over. The members of the group claimed to have individually read the 1,100-page novel four or five times each. They employed footnotes and fireworks the way he did. They brought up Brief Interviews with Hideous Men every seventeen seconds. They probably used “w/r/t” without irony. They debated hotly whether his fiction or his nonfiction was better.
Naturally, I didn’t want to mimic my peers/enemies, so I decided to stay away from Wallace, and when I say “stay away” I mean vow not to read any word that had ever ushered from his mouth—not his novels or stories, not his interviews or the famous commencement speech at Kenyon College.
And although today I am no Zen master of literature, I have grown up enough to at least realize that shutting oneself off from another writer, book, or worldview, unequivocally and without investigation, is dogmatic and stupid. As I’ve explored my own influences and contemporaries I’ve found traces of David Foster Wallace here and there. He has increasingly popped up in the writers I’ve been reading, and then in one of my graduate classes our teacher assigned his book of essays Consider the Lobster, and while I don’t employ a lot of his stylistic devices, I’ve discovered the metaphysical worldview from which he worked is uncannily similar to mine.
We see the modern malady in literature the same: dogma on the right and the left, what Wallace, in that commencement speech, called “blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.” We share this point of view with many, many people; writers like Marilynne Robinson and Annie Dillard come immediately to mind, and publications like Image, and its editor Gregory Wolfe, just an innumerable number of great writers and thinkers today. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone: the culture wars. The increasingly schismatic nature of our political discourse, which Wallace, in a different interview, saw as “a formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition. Everything’s relentlessly black-and-whitened.”
There’s that mode of thinking I have been so easily seduced by—the black-and-white, which of course is reductive, which makes human beings theories or abstractions instead of individuals, but also which is just so damn easy—right?—because it allows me to sit on my lofty liberal cliff and say, “Those Republicans! How they misunderstand the world!” And I feel good about myself because I point to them and see how horrible they are.
My great liberal authority, my great atheist authority, my great Christian authority, my great white authority, my great American authority, my great writerly authority, my great professorial authority—whatever kind of authority I am using to level against another human being in order to feel validated in my own existence, this is the way of black-and-white thinking.
Certainty leads quite naturally to solipsism: If I am totally certain of my worldview, if my intellectual stricture is not questioned or doubted or investigated, then I am unable to see from another human being’s point of view, and thus unable to experience empathy. In other words, I won’t be able to love other human beings. So how do I get freed from this certainty, this certainty that Wallace claims is a form of “imprisonment”?
In 1967 we thought we found an answer. In response to the whitewashed post-WWII era came irony and post-structuralism, a much-needed questioning of the values our Western world said it lived by. We believe in freedom, except for African-Americans. We believe in freedom, except that we get to dictate what happens in x, y, and z countries. Here is Roland Barthes in his magnum opus “The Death of the Author”—
The author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English Empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the “human person.” It is thus logical that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the “person” of the author.
Barthes is deconstructing an author that wields power over a reader, an author that retains power both for himself and the critics-at-large (as he explains later on in the essay). This consolidation of power against the readership, which pits writers and critics (i.e., the few) against the general readership (i.e., the masses), is deplorable. And the post-structuralists pointed it out. John Berger pointed it out in Ways of Seeing. People began to think and question and challenge like they never had before, and it’s no accident that this advent in literary theory coincided with a number of important social revolutions around the world, revolutions that are still happening today. Barthes is critiquing, really, a faux-individualism, an ersatz humanism, a value system that nominally places all value on the individual but in reality takes a very low view of human beings. The “human person” Barthes writes against is the “human person” who is selfish and arrogant, an aggregator of power—the solipsist, whose world revolves around the elusory appetites of the self.
But there’s a problem. At first post-structuralism seems to cut through the bullshit butter of the culture wars—fueled by the certainty of positivism and religious dogmatism—but in reality the very things that post-structuralism deplored—authority and solipsism—were the selfsame ideas it was founded upon. We are learning that now, almost fifty years after Barthes’ essay. Here’s DFW on the natural endpoint of poststructuarlism—
Irony and cynicism were just what the U.S. hypocrisy of the fifties and sixties called for. That’s what made the early postmodernists great artists. The great thing about irony is that it splits things apart, gets up above them so we can see the flaws and hypocrisies and duplicates. The virtuous always triumph? Ward Cleaver is the prototypical fifties father? “Sure.” Sarcasm, parody, absurdism and irony are great ways to strip off stuff’s mask and show the unpleasant reality behind it. The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, “then” what do we do? Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady’s bunk and Just Say No is bunk, now what do we do? All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naïve to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving.
In other words, post-structuralism has devolved into the same certainty it originally decried, and it descends into an even darker solipsism: If the author is really dead, then reading is a one-sided affair. Remember the definition of great art I (and David Foster Wallace) posited: Great art is communal; it involves multiple selves in a sacred dance, a mysterious mingling. If the author is dead, that dance is a dance of one. The reader is not experiencing the fabric of another human being, but the inert material of a physical text.
And after this kind of art has made its point—the Grand Idea of post-structuralism was to Question Authority—then it descends to something completely self-referential, and instead of serving the reader, it becomes all about the author showing off. Today’s supposed avant-garde artists are these writers—the ones showing off with form for form’s sake, exploding fireworks to say, “Yippee! Look at me!”
Here’s an exchange between David Foster Wallace and his interviewer from 1993—
LM: Formal innovations as trendy image. So it loses its ability to shock or transform.
DFW: These are exploitations. They’re not trying to break us free of anything. They’re trying to lock us tighter into certain conventions, in this case habits of consumption. So the “form” of artistic rebellion now becomes…
LM:…yeah, another commodity.
And here’s another interview in which Kenneth Goldsmith, an experimental poet who more or less claims to have invented conceptual poetry, explains his art—
The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read. You don’t have to read it. As a matter of fact, you can write books, and you don’t even have to read them. My books, for example, are unreadable. All you need to know is the concept behind them. Here’s every word I spoke for a week. Here’s a year’s worth of weather reports…and without ever having to read these things, you understand them.
There is no wrestling with another consciousness; interacting with Goldsmith’s art, according to Goldsmith himself, is like interacting with a machine. Here’s what David Foster Wallace thinks about this didactic, form-as-content kind of stuff—
When rule-breaking, the mere “form” of renegade avant-gardism, becomes an end in itself, you end up with bad language poetry and American Psycho’s nipple-shocks and Alice Cooper eating shit on stage. Shock stops being a by-product of progress and becomes an end in itself. And it’s bullshit.
Performance-obsessed avant-garde writing is actually not avant-garde in the least. Rather than being prophetic of a new era, or anticipating new movements, or a creative and sensitive way of redeeming or critiquing culture, this kind of form-as-content, words-as-objects art is actually the predictable end of the culture it claims to be commenting on. It’s the exact product of its culture. It’s holding up a mirror to culture and calling it “art.” That’s exactly what McCaffery, the moderator in the DFW interview above, was saying. Just another commodity…
The art, the text—this isn’t the end goal. It’s the human connection that is the purpose of art, purpose not in a utilitarian sense but in a spiritual sense—art as the nuclear reactor of empathy. It’s funny that the same year—1967—that Barthes came out with his essay, a group of Brits known as the Beatles came out with a song called “All You Need Is Love.”
We must remember the etymology of the word solipsism. Latin solus meaning alone plus ipse meaning self, so that if the aforementioned definition of great art is true—a mingling of selves—then an art that falls or leads to or is founded on solipsism—as both positivist and post-structuralist thought is, the former by way of asserting one’s own authority via certainty and blocking one’s ability to see from another human being’s perspective and therefore failing to love them, the latter by the inverse operation of reacting against the authority of the powerful and attempting to kill the author, both instances resulting in the solipsism of art, the first the death of the audience, the other, the second the death of the author, the individual—if the aforementioned definition of great art is true, then we must look elsewhere for answers.
For the moment, I want to suggest looking backward—all the way back to the book of Ecclesiastes, to the wisdom literature of thousands of years ago.
The writer of Ecclesiastes anticipates the sort of droll, recursive mimesis that Roland Barthes and his French Friends implied. Kenneth Goldsmith would appreciate it because it is a book of many authors, a book of collection. Its title in Hebrew is closely related to the world qāhal, meaning “to gather, assemble.” It is a book of Hebrew wisdom influenced with Aramaic aphorisms and Persian expressions. Like the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes wrestles with doubt and contradiction. Like many of the Psalms, it mourns the pain in the world. Like many of the Proverbs, it nevertheless finds meaning in that magical space between human beings—and, as we will see, between human beings and the Divine. The book begins,
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!
The word being translated to vanity here is hebel. The liner notes in my English Standard Version Bible say that the term “refers concretely to a ‘mist,’ ‘vapor’…and metaphorically to something that is fleeting or elusive.” C. L. Seow of Princeton Theological Seminary says that hebel physically, literally refers to a “puff of air,” a word that suggests “anything that is superficial, ephemeral, insubstantial, incomprehensible, enigmatic, inconsistent, or contradictory.”
Ecclesiastes is chaos. It makes no sense—
The eye is not satisfied with seeing;
Nor the ear filled with hearing.
But once you struggle with the backwardness of the book, something besides contradiction yields. The book uncannily anticipates any number of modern philosophies. The never-ending hunger of capitalism, the fruitless accumulation of wealth: “He loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this is also vanity.” The angst and sorrow of the existentialists: “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow,” so reminiscent of Hemingway’s quip, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” Ecclesiastes details the fruitlessness of not only material wealth but even of wisdom. “I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.” And the ultimate realization: “This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all.”
Everyone dies. And if the same thing happens whether you’re good or bad, whether you’re rich or poor, whether you fear God or despise him, then does it matter to live a moral, virtuous life? If so, why, and if not, why not? Ecclesiastes asks the Big Questions that we are so fond of avoiding today—fond of avoiding because positivism has cemented many into their premeditated answers, while post-structuralism—what might be called a kind of dogmatic skepticism—despises any authority that seeks an answer to the Big Questions.
At first glance, what with all the death and oppression and vanity, there doesn’t seem to be an answer, but hidden in the book—almost like a passive refrain—is a great benediction pushing the reader, the listener, toward love. It occurs in the third chapter—
God has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.
—and the fifth chapter—
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun…
—and in the ninth chapter—
Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun…
Two things the book extols: work and love.
If death rules the day, if the oppressive repetition of the universe mandates the tediousness of our lives between sunrise and sunset, if the good die as the evil, if the malicious succeed and the liberal fail, why work well, and why love? Why fear God, as the writer suggests in his closing words?
There is a remarkable syntactic climax in this work of wisdom literature. In a genre fraught with pithy lines and aphorisms, the writer barrels like a runaway train, let loose and free, at the very end of the book—
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low—they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets—before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, all is vanity!
If I have ever read a more violent, beautiful, tragic, terrible, lyrically explosive, frightfully epiphanic ending, I cannot bring it to mind. I don’t know exactly how this passage is rendered in the original Hebrew, but in English it has been translated into a 207-word tour-de-syntactical-force followed by the main refrain, a nine-word punch after the prolonged exposition.
The reason Ecclesiastes is able to praise labor and love in the midst of seemingly meaningless pain is because of the overarching narrative. Remember also your Creator. This begs the reader to recall the poetic cosmology of Genesis. The sentence begins with the Divine creation and ends with the spirit returning to her Maker. Everything in between is framed within, and thus there exists in Ecclesiastes absolute freedom—the freedom to pleasure, the freedom to labor, the freedom to love—within constraint. If and only if this frame exists is the quotidian redeemed into something holy. Human life exists in cosmic tension—between the nostalgia of Eden and the hope of the New Jerusalem. That interplay between order and chaos enables the daily life to be sacred.
This is not atavism; look at David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech again. He is talking with his audience about the same banal recursive existence that Ecclesiastes questions. In 21st century America, it’s the rat race. Going to the cubicle every day. Working eight to ten hours. Going home. Watching TV. Unwinding for an hour. Going to sleep. Then waking up and doing it all over again. For five days a week of nearly every week of nearly every year. Is it possible to redeem such an existence? Is there meaning in such a life? Wallace talks about that repetitive existence and one day coming home to find no groceries in the fridge, thus going out to the store where thousands of other nine-to-five slaves are crowded in the aisles, themselves having no groceries. People sweating and people talking on their phones too loudly and people cursing and people stinking and people cutting you in line and people, angry people and lazy people and fat people and skinny people and ugly people, an excess of exhausted humanity. Then, this from Wallace—
It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
How does he make that jump? In a similar way to the writer of Ecclesiastes. In Wallace’s case, it’s the freedom to choose how to think, to wake up to this world and to become conscious of the fact that the universe does not revolve around you—no matter how deeply this false truth is hardwired into our brains and spewed at us by our culture. He points to that mysterious interplay between order and chaos, this from an interview—
Maybe our touchstone now should be G. M. Hopkins, who made his “own” set of formal constraints and then blew everyone’s footwear off from inside them. There’s something about free play within an ordered and disciplined structure that resonates with readers. And there’s something about complete caprice and flux that’s deadening.
What is it in the gray? The tension, the apparent paradox between order and restraint, freedom and servitude. The mistake is to think that freedom comes from being free. One of the most aggravating points Wallace makes in his commencement address, which turns out not to be so aggravating once we think about it, but, rather, really and actually freeing, is the irrevocable fact that we all worship something. Zadie Smith recognized as much in Wallace’s worldview. Here’s her voice on the matter, talking about Wallace’s spirit as seen through Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—
The real mystery and magic lies in those quasi-mystical moments, portraits of extreme focus and total relinquishment. We might feel more comfortable calling this “meditation,” but I believe the right word is in fact prayer….It’s true that this is prayer unmoored, without its usual object, God, but it is still focused, self-forgetful and moving in an outward direction toward the unfathomable (which the mystic will argue is God). It is the L word, at work in the world.
In the nearly 2,500-year span between Ecclesiastes and now, there is a living tradition of this mystic art. Art that is, as Smith notices, as Wallace said over and over, about moving away from the self. How can art achieve that movement?
The same emphasis on relationships and reversals are found in the absurdist parables of Christ, the Confessions of St. Augustine, the Divine Comedy of Dante, the Essays of Michel de Montaigne, the plays and poetry of Shakespeare, the sprawling novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, the earnestness of Thomas Merton, the fervor of Flannery O’Connor. What Wallace called the click. The click is in the Cloud of Unknowing and in the sacred texts of the Buddha. It threads the heart of St. Theresa and the self-immolating monks in Tibet. The click lives in the Salvation Army employee. In the Christian and Jewish and Muslim poems in Image journal. In the great films and stories of our generation, in the characters and teachers we do not forget.
In 1996 an important but quiet American poet named Mark Jarman came out with a book of poems called Questions for Ecclesiastes. In every respect this is a humble book. It is a book that experiments little in form; there is some variation, but for the most part not only are the lines of similar length but the poems of similar shape. Jarman has a series of poems called the Unholy Sonnets. This titling is both a reference to John Donne’s Holy Sonnets—written almost 400 years ago—but also a usage of a form dating back to the 13th century. Jarman’s work points forward and backward at the same time, and its preoccupations are the same as those of Ecclesiastes: time, death, suffering, the interplay between the individual and the community, family, generations, love, the strange tension between Eden and the New Jerusalem. The poet is the son of a preacher. He is in the natural position to question he worldview in which he has grown up, but this is not a work of falling away from faith. Like its namesake, Jarman’s work finds its magic in the electricity generated when compounding faith and doubt, for in the collection there are moments of profound despair; the book opens with the death of a teenage boy—
I knew him as I say I knew him, then,
Which wasn’t very well. My father preached
His funeral. He came home in a bag.
Lost youth, life snuffed out before its time. The title poem of the collection deals with suicide. The poet’s father, the preacher, has gone out to the father and mother of a young girl who has “discharged a / rifle through the roof of her mouth and the top of / her skull.” How does the preacher approach this? What message of hope exists in a time like this? The poet asks the question at the crux of the collection—
They all seem worse than heartless, don’t they, these stark
and irrelevant platitudes, albeit stoical and final,
oracular, stony, and comfortless? But they were at
the center of that night, even if they were unspoken.
They are both “heartless” and “at / the center”? Is Jarman speaking with Yeats, who wrote that the “centre cannot hold”? This poem is very nearly at the middle point of the collection, and just when the dark night of suicide and loss seems to threaten the potential sacredness and mystery of poetry and holy texts, Jarman sketches the most beautiful moments—
This God recedes from every metaphor,
Turns the hardest data into untruth,
And fills all blanks with blankness. This love shows
Itself in absence, which the stars adore.
Are “the hardest data” referring to the pains of suicide? The questions of death? Later the poet notes, in a line that seems almost an aside, that “Simone Weil must be right,” her idea about “light and gravity” holding the universe together. Simone Weil, Christian mystic, French philosopher, a woman of action who starved herself to death in solidarity with the soldiers on the front. Few have lived as outward-oriented lives as Weil. Mark Jarman’s book makes no mention of any other popular figure; the book instead lives in the domestic. Mentioning Weil is deliberate and shocking. That outward-oriented view enables the sort of prayer that Zadie Smith saw in David Foster Wallace. In one of the poems toward the end of the book, the poet describes a woman, his wife, washing dishes—
She’s praying as she does this, as she soaks
A sponge with liquid soap and looks outside,
The lapse into iambic pentameter! The predictable trajectory, the modern temptation would be to abandon faith. To abandon traditional form, to abandon authority, to seek total freedom in the face of the death that saturates this collection, yet for Jarman the opposite occurs. Not only is prayer sought—an outward-oriented journey toward the Divine, an attempt at transcending the self—but prayer that forms itself in a menial task, washing dishes, a prayer that forms itself in iambic pentameter. Everything that exists in Ecclesiastes exists here: the reliance on form, the sacredness of the quotidian, the self oriented outwardly. Mystery is found where chaos, order, and other intersect. In the face of all the pain and suffering, the poet as the Preacher focuses on the eternity of God, or mystery for Zadie Smith, or art for many others—that which is eternal. The meta-frame allows for those moments that Wallace claimed can be “on fire with the same force that made the stars.” It is about doubting and questioning and investigating.
Hebel has another meaning: breath. Read this way, Ecclesiastes becomes not some contradictory lament, not a struggle through existential questioning, but rather a celebration of all that is mundane. Hebel as breath means praying while washing the dishes. Hebel has breath means that the author is not dead but neither omnipotent—simply breath. It means that the reader is breath. That the text is breath, or the mingling of two breaths. The text is the space where two selves interact, journey together, reason together, experience together. Art gives the “imaginative access” that Wallace talks about. Life pulses with breath. And sometimes it isn’t easy, and sometimes people die, and sometimes “these stark / and irrelevant platitudes” seem nothing more than ungraspable mist, but life is breath framed from a great mystery. It is the awareness of hebel as breath that allows the artist—or any human being—to achieve the kind of conscious mind that Wallace strove for so urgently in his work and thought. “The magic of art is that it addresses and antagonizes the loneliness that dominates people.” Hebel as breath means an aliveness in human community that precludes solipsism. Hebel as breath is the click that Wallace talked about. It is love for the “imagined other” that Marilynne Robinson writes about. It is what allows us to wake up and love one another. Hebel as breath is moving past the debilitating effects of cynicism and toward the writer that Wallace envisioned, the writer that would “be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow.”
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