Literature and Theology: David Foster Wallace and Christianity from Without

In my last post on Faulkner and Biblical Interpretation, I examined the idea that theology should be understood more like literature (seen as a network of symbols and themes conveyed through a master narrative), and that literature should be read more for its theology (how it speaks to the heart, as the Bible does for Faulkner’s Isaac, rather than to the analytic mind).

In this post, I intend to reflect on a passage from another work which, again, does not deal chiefly with theology—a scene in the short story “Mister Squishy”, the first in the 2004 collection Oblivion: Stories by David Foster Wallace. I featured this passage in its 2-page, single-sentence entirety in a past post, but this time I want to isolate and explicate several theological details.

The scene takes place as Terry Schmidt, a middle-aged marketing analyst, directs a focus group on a new line of Mister Squishy brand confections while simultaneously directing his own internal monologue plagued by fears of inadequacy and mental isolation.

Without further ado:

“Schmidt had a quick vision of them all in the conference room as icebergs and/or floes, only the sharp caps showing, unknown and –knowable to one another, and he imagined that it was probably only in marriage (and a good marriage, not the decorous dance of loneliness he’d watched his mother and father do for seventeen years but rather true conjugal intimacy) that partners allowed each other to see below the berg’s cap’s public mask and consented to be truly known, maybe even to the extent of not only letting the partner see the repulsive nest of moles under the left arm or the way any sort of cold or viral infection the toenails on both feet turned a weird deep yellow for several weeks but even perhaps every once in a while sobbing in each other’s arms late at night and pouring out the most ghastly private fears and thoughts of failure and impotence and terrible and thoroughgoing smallness within a grinding professional machine. . .

“Or maybe that even the mere possibility of expressing any of this childish heartbreak to someone else seemed impossible except in the context  of the mystery of true marriage, meaning not just a ceremony and financial merger but a true communion of souls, and Schmidt now lately felt he was coming to understand why the Church all through his childhood catechism and pre-Con referred to it as the Holy Sacrament of Marriage, for it seemed every bit as miraculous and trans-rational and remote from the possibilities of actual lived life as the crucifixion and resurrection and transubstantiation did, which is to say it appeared not as a goal to expect ever to really reach or achieve but as a kind of navigational star, as in in the sky, something high and untouchable and miraculously beautiful in the sort of distant way that reminded you always of how ordinary and unbeautiful and incapable of miracles you your own self were” (31-2)

Two particular features animate this passage: first, it articulates a nuanced view of the theological layer of reality, especially from a writer who approaches Christianity and theology as an outsider. Though Wallace tried out various churches, (once entering Catholic RCIA and marrying a Catholic convert, according to D. T. Max’s biography) he never seemed to adhere to a specific religious creed, as D. T. Max speculated in an interview with The Atlantic: “I don’t think the Judeo-Christian God ever satisfied him. I think he found it hard to put his skepticism away and feel faith.” Second, it delves into the mind of a character, granting the reader immediate and intimate access to his crippling fears and lofty speculations.

Theological Idea(l)s as Immaterial Ideals

Overtly, this passage discusses marriage theologically as “not just a ceremony and financial merger but a true communion of souls” in which husband and wife are fully known by one another in what the “Church” calls “the Holy Sacrament of Marriage.” While worthy of discussion, marriage will not be the focus of the analysis. Rather, the implications that Schmidt draws out from the sacramental nature of marriage interest me for their insight into the higher-level reality of theological concepts.

Along with the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, Schmidt regards sacramental marriage as “miraculous and trans-rational and remote from the possibilities of actual lived life,” meaning that they appear “not as a goal to expect ever to really reach or achieve but as a kind of navigational star,” which reminds one of one’s own limitations.

Wallace does well to describe theological ideas as guiding principles, as ideals that layer over reality. Though the Crucifixion and Resurrection are much more grounded in history than other transcendent notions, such as Original Sin and human dignity, it is important to realize that theology does not concern itself merely with hard-data and events, but with the meaning of those phenomena, hence becoming multi-dimensional. The Crucifixion, for example, is both the Roman execution of Jesus of Nazareth on a wooden cross in first century Palestine and the fulcrum of Salvation History, an act of pure sacrifice that mirrors and redeems Adam’s Fall through the fruit of a tree as the incarnate God suffers the death of mortal man, which serves as a guiding principle of Christian devotion and love.

Some aren’t willing to see these immaterial dimensions. A skeptic might respond that a man’s death on a cross has nothing to do with the sins of others, that no measurable redemption occurs (remember, though, that we are also told that the Crucifixion is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” [1 Cor 1:23]). This materialist skepticism is the same sort of attitude espoused by Steven Pinker as he dismisses belief in the human ‘soul’ in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.[1] But Wallace gestures at the higher realities of these concepts, concepts which spiritually guide our lives rather than physically describe them. C. S. Lewis (metaphorically) describes Christianity in a similar way, not as some identifiable feature of the world, but like the light of the sun that allows him to see the world at all.[2]

C. S. Lewis, Light, and Looking Along

And to C. S. Lewis I turn to explain the second feature of this passage from “Mister Squishy”; the way in which Wallace allows us to inhabit the character of Terry Schmidt, to look along with him rather than at him.

In an essay titled “Meditations in a Toolshed,” Lewis distinguishes between looking at a ray of light—a thin stream of photons projecting through the hole of a toolshed roof—and looking along that same ray—a, quite literally, enlightening experience by which the sky and treetops beyond the toolshed are illuminated. While ‘looking at’ limits the viewer to analytics and data, ‘looking along’ immerses the viewer in a view-altering experience.  This is the difference between measuring the pulse and temperature of someone who is in love, boiling the experience down to hormones and neurology, and actually being in love oneself.  Pinker’s nonphysical human soul substance vs. the sensation of being a soulful human.

Wallace succeeds twofold in looking along. Not only does he embody the experience of a corporate employee paralyzed by the “thoroughgoing smallness within a grinding professional machine” and invite the reader to do the same; he also views Christian doctrine as a non-Christian not by scrutinizing as an outsider looking in but by adopting the Christian perspective as an outsider looking along.

Conclusions: Literature as View to the Soul?

Wallace’s engagement with Christianity and theology in general takes a similarly empathetic approach. In a section of The Pale King, an IRS agent reflects on how he belittled a Christian for her ‘coming-to-faith’ experience only to realize in the wake of his own vocational epiphany that “enormous, sudden, drastic, unexpected, life-changing experiences are not translatable or explainable to anyone else , and this is because they really are unique and particular” (206). His short story “Good People” (which would become part of The Pale King) inhabits the mind of a Christian dealing with his unexpectedly pregnant girlfriend, quoting esoteric Bible verses and grappling with Christian conceptions of sexuality and moral responsibility. Even more hidden away, a passage in Infinite Jest describes God’s presence in the world as the flow of water that two fish fail to recognize despite its pervasiveness.

“Mister Squishy,” along with nearly all of Wallace’s Oblivion: Stories focus on the interiority of human characters, spinning minute verbal details into brilliant literary expressions of self. From the literary bits emerge a narrative guiding by thematic ideals and a glimpse into human lives, albeit fictitious ones, that ordinary discourse rarely permits. Yet, we do not take these stories as just words, nor people as mere particles arranging into a complex chemical chimera of personhood. Literature enkindles a narrative, a holistic structure, a soul. For the world, theology endeavors to do the same.

_______

[1] Pinker reasons that because human bodies consist of only biological parts just as machines consist of mechanical parts, we have no more reason to believe that the merely material apparatus of the human gives rise to a soul than we have reason to believe that your laptop’s metallic assembly (or, to be more fair, a Star Trek android) gives rise to one. To start, this is a poor comparison. Machines and organisms exhibit markedly different behaviors which lead us to believe that there is something about organisms that is simply categorically different from inorganic matter—there is a certain “livingness” that differentiates what Peter van Inwagen calls “composites” (any living being) from mechanical replicas. Perhaps we can pin down this “livingness” as consciousness. Moreover, Pinker’s analogy wholly misses the point of what is meant by a ‘soul.’ In the book, Pinker defines a soul as an immortal entity “made of some nonphysical; substance, which can part company with the body” (10). The question is, what would a nonphysical substance look like? How could Pinker’s view be falsified? Do we need some kind of invisible petroleum jelly to constitute the soul? I find this approach rather foolish. If one could quantify or observe a nonphysical substance through physical means, it would necessarily be physical. When we talk about nonphysical, immaterial things, we are invariably talking about ideas that ‘map on’ to reality—essences, ideals, “something high and untouchable and miraculously beautiful” to quote Wallace. We should think of the soul as a reality, but not a material reality. Rather, it is a reality that is endowed into and hence emerges from the material arrangement of the human body. Recall that Paul talks about resurrection as involving bodies, too: “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44). I would go so far as to say that if there is organized organic matter, there is spirit in some sense (as consciousness, essence, perhaps?), even if not in the immortal, subject-to-judgment reality of the human soul. The body-soul relationship certainly demands some heavier, more rigorous thinking on my part.

[2] “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see  everything else” – C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?”

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