I once watched an interview in which Jonathan Franzen speculated about a solemn difference between the late David Foster Wallace and everybody else, including Franzen. It’s a story many who occasion this sort of marginalia will be familiar with.
Franzen and Wallace were out with binoculars looking for birds, perhaps in a marsh or field or glen. Franzen recalls seeing something of interest. While pointing, he remarked to Wallace something to the effect of, “See that bird? Isn’t it beautiful?” Wallace was reported to have shrugged his shoulders or nodded his head in apathy.
Franzen had said that this was the key distinction (read: dysfunction) in Wallace; that nature or “natural beauty” didn’t seem to animate him. By extension, and rather anecdotally, it also seems as though Franzen was suggesting that Wallace was incapable of experiencing the numinous, the sublime.
Though I haven’t read any of Wallace’s work beyond an essay or two – some excerpts from novels – there is a block of text I once came across which seems to refute notions of Wallace’s impotency to feel thus moved. Wallace’s posthumously released The Pale King, a book editorially redacted from the pile of notes and manuscript pages left behind by Wallace, contains at its beginning an often referenced pastoral:
“Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lambsquarter, cutgrass, saw brier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butterprint, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads nodding in a soft morning breeze like a mother’s hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.”
However this passage is later contextualized, it is the product of a writer plenty familiar with the transfixing charms of nature and natural beauty. The solipsism Wallace is so often reported to be concerned with (and which Franzen swears against) seems less Kafkaesque and more Keatsian. A look at the last stanza of “Autumn:”
“While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourne;
Hedge crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red breast wistles from a garden croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.”
Another of nature’s enchanted, Longfellow, draws similar contours in “From Evangeline:”
“This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.”
Even as Wallace’s nature seems to fetishize the imposition of human prejudices (flannel; blacktop; tobacco; weeping; coins; A.M.; toys; ale; etc.), Wallace doesn’t sulk and mythologize in the way of the 19th Century bird watchers, those Romantics who we are so accustomed to invoking for their eulogy of the un-touched knoll or wood-rounded glade.
Poetry is also useful with Wallace because the cited passage bears every mark of a writer interested in phonetic rhetoric. When he lists the plant types, he is building a jungle of words comprised of distinct and alluring sounds. The beauty about which he seems to be fantasizing here is one of concrete nominalism – though Wallace always claimed that perfect communication between minds was impossible.
But this is Wallace on beauty. Give the man a pair of binoculars and he’ll write you into your own epiphany about nature. When Franzen asked Wallace if he thought that the bird in view was beautiful, I have a suspicion that Wallace’s reflex was to ask, “In what way?”
Unfortunately, if this was Wallace’s deconstructionism, it was ultimately foiled by his belief that words, for every step forward, took two steps backwards. Franzen would never be able to understand what Wallace’s idea of beauty was, and so Wallace just shrugged his shoulders. Even in the face of Franzen’s seemingly harmless pragmatism, Wallace wasn’t interested in an approximate or agreeable idea of beauty.
Once again, given that I’ve read only a paucity of Wallace’s work, let my thoughts on these matters be qualified thus. In light of the excerpt from The Pale King, Wallace could, at the least, imagine enjoying nature. This seems certain. Whether or not this is the same as Franzen’s appreciation of a seldom bird, I’m not sure.
If Wallace recognized the bird as beautiful, his ability to communicate why or how was stifled by his inexorable anticipation of being misunderstood. Despite what appears to have been an awesome power to fabricate fictive natural beauty – and to have probably experienced it for himself – one ought to maintain that Franzen was right to connect the story.
Although Wallace’s catatonic bird-watching cannot be explained by a failure to represent beauty, it does seem to derive from a yearning to be perfectly understood.