Tag Archives: david foster wallace

Proverbs from Infinite Jest

My fascination with David Foster Wallace goes back several years now, but it was only after moving to his home state that I attacked his monster novel, Infinite Jest. I can technically say that I finished it last week since I read every word in its 1,079 pages, including the 388 end notes, but I now believe that one never really finishes Infinite Jest. As in, when I finished War and Peace years ago, I finished War and Peace. But Infinite Jest appears to carry on like maybe your high school experience carries on—you never really stop thinking about it.

I won’t even try to explain or in any way recreate the book. I’ll note that the section that made me laugh out loud the hardest was Mario’s “first and only even remotely romantic experience, thus far” (pp. 121-126), and the two sections where DFW’s descriptive writing just left me stunned at his gifts were the squeaky bed flashback of J. O. Incandenza (pp. 491-503) and Hal’s visit to the NA meeting (pp. 795-808).

But what leads me to dust off my blog today and share is the six-page passage of “exotic new facts” learned “around a Substance-recovery halfway facility” (pp. 200-205)—the profundity sprinkled in that passage is most worthy of sharing with others who will (should?) never read Infinite Jest.  

So here you go. I’ll remove the “That” intro to selected sentences and offer these as sort of proverbs from David Foster Wallace, may he rest in peace:

  • Certain persons simply will not like you no matter what you do.
  • No matter how smart you thought you were, you are actually way less smart than that.
  • ‘God’ does not apparently require that you believe in Him/Her/It before He/She/It will help you.
  • You do not have to like a person in order to learn from him/her/it.
  • Evil people never believe they are evil, but rather that everyone else is evil.
  • It is possible to learn valuable things from a stupid person.
  • Boring activities become, perversely, much less boring if you concentrate intently on them.
  • Sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt.
  • You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.
  • There is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness.
  • Concentrating intently on anything is very hard work.
  • It is simply more pleasant to be happy than to be pissed off.
  • A clean room feels better to be in than a dirty room.
  • The people to be most frightened of are the people who are the most frightened.
  • It takes great personal courage to let yourself appear weak.
  • You don’t have to hit somebody even if you really really want to.
  • No single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable.
  • Other people can often see things about you that you yourself cannot see, even if those people are stupid.
  • Having a lot of money does not immunize people from suffering or fear.
  • Trying to dance sober is a whole different kettle of fish.
  • Certain sincerely devout and spiritually advanced people believe that the God of their understanding helps them find parking places and gives them advice on Lottery numbers.
  • “Acceptance” is usually more a matter of fatigue than anything else.
  • Perversely, it is often more fun to want something than to have it.
  • If you do something nice for somebody in secret, anonymously, without letting the person you did it for know it was you or anybody else know what it was you did or in any way or form trying to get credit for it, it’s almost its own form of intoxicating buzz.
  • Anonymous generosity, too, can be abused.
  • Having sex with someone you do not care for feels lonelier than not having sex in the first place, afterward.
  • It is permissible to want.
  • Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.
  • There might not be angels, but there are people who might as well be angels.
  • God might regard the issue of whether you believe there’s a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it’s interested in re you.


My youngest daughter gave me a LARGE PRINT (appreciated!) book of David Foster Wallace essays titled, “Both Flesh and Not.” She knows that I may have developed a reader crush on Wallace. Among other admirable qualities, Wallace’s conventional knowledge is astounding, but his unconventional approach is stunning. For instance, one of the essays included in the book is composed entirely of bullet points. Twenty-five pages’ worth of bullet points (well, LARGE PRINT, so maybe two pages, but still).

So if the imitation/flattery cliché is true, then consider the following as feeble-yet-genuine praise.

• Adversity: Simple definition: “a difficult situation or condition.”
• Synonyms: misfortune; mishap; tragedy.
• First known use: 13th century.
• Probability that you (and me, but I’m writing here, so you) will encounter adversity: 100%.
• Leading responses to adversity: Popularly (and boring-ly), fight or flight. More descriptively, nausea; all versions of weeping, from softly into a dark pillow to convulsive wailing; bitterness; rage; blaming, from self to upbringing to society to presidents/candidates to God to karma to your stupid ex-whatever; prayer; tubs of ice cream; throwing things; liquid courage; television binge; a life of crime; join the circus.
• Approximate amount of fun in any of these responses at least by the next day: Zero. (Except possibly the circus, which depends so much on your new job description.)
• Common themes from an “adversity” search on Google Images: Mountains; tightropes; Martin Luther King, Jr., loneliness.
• Strangest return item from an “adversity” search on Amazon: Adversity Board Game.
• Opening line of product description for Adversity Board Game: “Become the greatest advertising mogul the world has ever seen!” (Oh, it is AD-versity. Clever.)
• Most fun line of opening customer description of Ad-versity Board Game: “We tried this game both while drinking and while sober, and both times it sort of stank.”
• Why I’m thinking/writing about adversity: Life, lately. Some personal, some observational, from many corners of life.
• What to do when the tendency to criticize how others handle adversity rears its ugly head: Slip on their moccasins. (Figuratively of course, although a literal situation is conceivable, like if maybe someone gets bad news from the doctor and runs screaming on to a sizzling hot highway, and if you’re barefoot and their moccasins are right there anyway… This all seems highly unlikely.)
• How I want to handle inevitable adversity: With love; head on; with courage and strength; at peace.
• Probability that I will do so: Unknown, but greatly increased with resolve, preparation, practice, and reflection.

A Call to Leadership


I trust my friend, Mikey, for all things writing-related and recalled his deep admiration for David Foster Wallace when “Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays” was sitting by a trash receptacle when Pepperdine students moved out in May. So I snagged it. Mikey was right, of course. Wallace was a genius.¹

(Note: If you accidentally left your copy of “Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays” by David Foster Wallace by a trash receptacle last May, I lacked the requisite intent to be charged with larceny.)²

For instance of said genius, check out this magnificent description of a New York Times journalist Wallace penned from the McCain 2000 presidential campaign trail in “Up Simba” (an article he wrote for Rolling Stone): “…a slim calm kindly lady of maybe 45 who wears dark tights, pointy boots, a black sweater that looks home-crocheted, and a perpetual look of concerned puzzlement, as if life were one long request for clarification.”

I read that last phrase a hundred times it is so awesome.

So, I was called on to fill-in preach at church this past Sunday morning, which I am reluctant to do anymore but did for some reason this time, and that afternoon I was finishing “Up Simba” when I stumbled across a paragraph that perfectly illustrated the point of my entire sermon. The sermon offered the distinction between self-interest and true love of others as the language of my faith, but Wallace described the same dichotomy as salesmanship versus leadership. So, you take your pick today—politics, religion, or leadership—and reach your own conclusions. Here is Wallace:

Now you have to pay close attention to something that’s going to seem obvious at first. There is a difference between a great leader and a great salesman. There are also similarities, of course. A great salesman is usually charismatic and likable, and he can often get us to do things (buy things, agree to things) that we might not go for on our own, and to feel good about it. Plus a lot of salesmen are basically decent people with plenty about them to admire. But even a truly great salesman isn’t a leader. This is because a salesman’s ultimate, overriding motivation is self-interest—if you buy what he’s selling, the salesman profits. So even though the salesman may have a very powerful, charismatic, admirable personality, and might even persuade you that buying is in your interests (and it really might be) – still, a little part of you always knows that what the salesman’s ultimately after is something for himself. And this awareness is painful . . . although admittedly it’s a tiny pain, more like a twinge, and often unconscious. But if you’re subjected to great salesmen and sales pitches and marketing concepts for long enough—like from your earliest Saturday-morning cartoons, let’s say—it’s only a matter of time before you start believing deep down that everything is sales and marketing, and that whenever somebody seems like they care about you or about some noble idea or cause, that person is a salesman and really ultimately doesn’t give a sh*t about you or some cause but really just wants something for himself.


¹ I happily discovered when about two-thirds of the way through the book that there is a movie out about Wallace right now called “End of the Tour.” So I had to see that, too. It is a touching film about this talented, fascinating, tragic life that I highly recommend.

² Wallace used lots of footnotes.  I am so easily influenced.