Infinite Attention

David Foster Wallace and being bored out of your mind.

Also in Slate, Judith Shulevitz reviews The Pale King.

David Foster Wallace

It seems a telling sign of our technology-angst that we’re getting nostalgic for, of all things, boredom. I have memories of youthful boredom that are as vivid and unpleasant as the memories I harbor of my more serious sports injuries, and yet, when I read of some new research saying the brain needs boredom, or kids today aren’t bored enough, my first thought is: Ah, blessed boredom. (My second thought is: Check email.) And it’s not just me. A trickle of pro-boredom research has inspired a flood of pro-boredom sentiment.

On one hand, defending boredom seems stern and unsympathetic, like a Depression-born mom impatient with her complaining children. (Hi, Mom.) But the depression-era parent urged a kind of stoicism, bearing-up against fake or minor suffering as a moral lesson of childhood. For today’s middle-agers, relishing the image of a teenager thrown into fidgets by a dead cellphone, boredom is not merely fake suffering. It’s important in its own right, a state of latent fertility. It leads to creativity. The contemporary defender of boredom is not a stoic. She’s a graying humanist, the martinet as art teacher.

From this I would like to advance a claim that might come off as either loony or pedantic or just obvious: Our ready nostalgia for boredom shows how deeply our culture—both our actual cultural products and our default ideas about how they happen and what they’re for—remains rooted in the Romantic movement that spanned the late 18th and mid-19th centuries. Today’s technology-anxious and pro-boredom pathos grows from well-wrought Romantic conceptions of freedom, aesthetic experience, artistic creation, and, indeed, technology. The Romantics, seeing the encroaching haste of commerce and industrial production, and people living on a clock set by money and machines, envisioned modes of experience that might partake of a more humane slowness. From Kant’s Critique of Judgment(sometimes called the founding text of German Romanticism), which describes aesthetic pleasure as a “purposeless play of the faculties,” to Thoreau’s solitary puttering around Walden Pond, Romanticism saw people finding moments of freedom through withdrawal and retreat. In this process, we slow ourselves down to experience beauty, and, through this beauty, we might experience a deeper part of ourselves. Or vice versa.

And perhaps, spurred by some natural beauty we encounter in our retreat, we might create artistic beauty. The vague image in the back of the mind of our reflexive defender of boredom, whether or not this person has read a word of Wordsworth, is a guy sitting by himself in a field, surrounded by a host of golden daffodils, letting his mind wander lonely as a cloud, and then recollecting, in this moment of tranquility, the other host of golden daffodils he saw earlier that day, which he plans to write a poem about, or maybe paint a picture of. That, anyway, is the vague image in the back of my mind when I read about the neurological virtues of boredom. I’m something of a Romantic, by inclination and academic training. When I think of human flourishing, the freedom called “positive” by Isaiah Berlin, I tend to think of aesthetic experience and culture. I imagine people slowing down to enjoy high-quality television, turning inward to think, and maybe, depending on how noisy and hasty things have gotten in the real world, dropping out altogether, picking up and moving to, like, a pond.

I own up to my Romantic leanings, and I’m prepared to defend the decadence and blasé politics they suggest. But if there’s anything that makes me regret or question this position, it’s the mournful late work of David Foster Wallace, especially the posthumous fictional writing compiled as The Pale King, which is basically a 538-page monument against Romanticism. Dropping out and turning inward and dawdling in lovely otherness do not arise as alternatives in The Pale King. What Wallace offers instead is a humbling challenge for us to give the fallen world, and the fallen people who live in it, a heroic measure of simple attention.

The Pale King feels heroic and humbling because (besides the light cast upon it by the author’s own life and death) Wallace actually shares the Romantics’ pessimism about the fate of humans stuck within inhuman systems. Indeed, he paints an even grimmer picture of this predicament than they do. Technology and commerce are more soul-killing in his fictional universe. They were an advancing threat for the Romantics. In The Pale King they have simply won, on every level. Their predominance has rendered itself banal. The book’s main setting is an IRS outpost in Peoria, Illinois, where humans process tax returns in the stunned and passive attitudes of feed-lot cattle, and where what counts as public art is a huge photorealist mosaic of a 1978 IRS Form 1040.

On top of this, Wallace retracts all the comforts and inspirations that helped the glum Romantic get out of bed in the morning, the promise of nourishing solitude and reflection, the idea of a pristine pastoral landscape. The Pale King begins in the farmland of central Illinois, where Wallace lived for most of his life, and for a moment, on its first page, you think you’re going to read of some kind of pastoral alternative to the “skylines of canted rust” and “blacktop graphs,” a truer nature further back, in that “place beyond the windbreak”—”the untilled fields.” But the faintly poetic botanical list that follows (“goldenrod,” “wild oats”) is mainly just a catalogue of the grasses, brown for much of the year, that grow in the median of a Midwestern interstate, and the fields comprising these grasses “shimmer shrilly,” and the poetic suggestions of that botanical list have departed well before it reaches its last item, which is “invaginate volunteer beans.”

A foundation of the pastoral vision of the Romantics was the rural town or village, where, as against the grinding and insecure life of cities, real human fellowship could be found. Here’s Wallace’s version of that pillar of pastoral authenticity:

The IGA’s lot abuts the downtown’s main drag, which is the in-town extension of SR 130 and ingeniously named. Directly across this Main Street from the IGA were the bubbletop pumps and saurian logo of Clete’s Sinclair, outside of which the best and brightest of Philo High used to gather on Friday nights to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon and search the adjacent lot’s weeds for frogs and mice to throw at Clete’s bug zapper, which he’d modified to hold 225 volts of charge.

This isn’t just snobbery against small towns. The Pale King portrays sociability in general as a series of misfires, misunderstandings, botched conversations. Indeed, to the extent that characters in The Pale King experience any sort of quasi-Romantic inwardness, any reflective solitude, it’s usually during a conversation, when it’s the other person’s turn to speak.

They do this not because they’re vicious or selfish, but because they’re anxious and self-conscious, and other people make them more anxious and more self-conscious. The tightening spiral of anxiety and self-consciousness is a kind of rebuke, or at least a cautionary counterexample, to the Romantic ideal of self-reflection. The anxious person confronts the possibility that he can heighten the anxiety just by thinking about it: What if she can see that I’m nervous? That’ll make me more nervous and she’ll see that somehow. Oh God I’m getting more nervous just thinking about being nervous. Help! Well, imagine a person whose anxiety manifests on the surface, immediately, in symptoms that both betray the inner weirdness and evoke (to be frank) justified disgust. There are many scenes of morbid self-reflection in The Pale King, but the signal ones involve a guy named Cusk who, when he so much as thinks about sweating, sweats in glistening sheets that melt down his face and neck and soak his clothes. So how does this guy not think about sweating? How does his inner-life not consist entirely of variations on the question “Am I sweating yet?” My point is that the ideal of self-reflection probably seems somewhat less redemptive to sweaty Cusk than it did to, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

If being bored spurs rumination, as people Romantically imagine, but rumination spurs morbid self-consumption, then we might have a pretty solid reason to recoil from boredom. But maybe self-reflection doesn’t just go awry or get stuck, turn morbid fears into real objects. Maybe the scary thing is already there, in which case we have an even better reason to avoid quiet contemplation and boredom. In a hilariously recursive “Author’s Forward” (which appears on page 66), the “author” writes: “Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain” because it fails “to distract people from some deeper type of pain that’s always there.” He goes on to mention “Walkmen, iPods, Blackberries, cell phones that attach to your head. …  I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.”

But The Pale King takes boredom beyond the latently redemptive or secretly terrifying lack of stimulation. It imagines boredom as complete immersion in tedious experience. For the characters in The Pale King, boredom is something that comes at you, relentlessly, redundantly. It is inescapable. There is no layer of inspiration or freedom beyond or beneath it, which you might access through one of the Romantics’ escape hatches. In one galvanizing chapter, a mysterious lecturer in a class on tax accounting declares that, where heroism and bravery once consisted in acts of discovery that generated new facts and meanings, today there are no new facts. Today, heroism consists in attending to existing facts, so as to order them better, and bravery consists in bearing up against this task’s unbelievable tedium. Today’s existential heroes, in other words, are CPAs. (It is one of this book’s many profound jokes that a visiting lecturer of tax accounting is enlisted to restate the stoical hinge of Nietzsche’s thought: the embrace of finite existence and the doctrine of Eternal Return.)

This lesson takes a more human form—sad, breathtakingly rigorous and searching, ultimately hysterically funny—in a long chapter near the end of the book. An IRS examiner named Meredith Rand falls by accident into discussion with a co-worker named Drinion but dubbed by his colleagues Mr. X,  where “X” stands, sarcastically, for “excitement.” Meredith Rand is so beautiful she can’t have decent conversations with anyone—men always trying to impress her through inane performances, women always resenting and distrusting her. Behind her back men describe her as “sexy but crazy and a serious bore.” Mr. X, for his part, is patently unattractive and odd, overwhelmingly bland, but Meredith finds herself divulging detail after painful detail of her life to him.

As their conversation progresses, it grows clear that Mr. X has some Wallace-version of Asperger’s syndrome. He’s keyed almost solely to the task of processing language, and is thus immune to the woman’s paralyzing beauty. He’s never had sexual feelings, he says, for anyone. But Meredith Rand is unspooling long and largely coherent strings of words, and this alone holds him completely rapt. And the fact that this strange and sexless man is listening to her and understanding her, and that he carries not a flicker of suppressed attraction, or self-consciousness, or self-importance, or, really inner self of any kind, frees her to speak coherently. Normal guys bring to Meredith Rand an irksome drama of romantic compulsion, channeled through stratagems intended either to mask it or imbue it with a dignity it cannot have. They can’t, in other words, get over themselves. (I think of the Gary Larson cartoon of a miniature man standing before a beautiful and much larger woman and telling himself: “Remember to act shy and vulnerable.”)

But Mr. X has no inner drama to mask. He’s not trying to fashion her a gift of his dignity. What Mr. X has to give the seriously boring Meredith Rand is his hearing ability, his uncompelled interest, his above-average comprehension of human speech, and the occasional innocent question for clearing up ambiguous meanings, because the only thing he wants is to understand what’s before him. Mr. Excitement’s gift to Meredith Rand is to let his own self dissolve across the spreading surface of her words. It helps that he doesn’t have to try very hard. His self was pretty flat to begin with. 

In other words Mr. Excitement is exemplary because he pays attention. He gives the tedious world its due. He doesn’t waft into dreamy contemplation when the ocean of facts leaves him understimulated. He listens, closely enough to find these facts exquisite, and then, for some reason relating to the pleasure he finds in boredom, or to the bravery and heroism he embodies in his transcendent blandness, he levitates.