“New” David Foster Wallace interview (2006)
The New York Review of Books posted, for the first time in English, a rather insightful interview with David Foster Wallace that had previously been for Russian audiences. Ostap Karmodi released a conversation from a two-hour interview (that was supposed to be 15 minutes long) that, while rambling, seemed to carry on the bright and engaging bent that some of us love Wallace for (and perhaps some of us dislike him for that very trait). Karmodi wrote, “the subjects we covered ranged from the cynical tone of US politics, to the horrors of factory farming, to the state of American literature, to the progress in his own work.” Here are a couple of excerpts – the rest you can read at NYBooks:
OK: I personally believe that the needs of humans come first, but it’s a matter of degree: the needs of animals should be at least considered.
DFW: I absolutely agree. I’ve had many arguments with friends about this. It’s seems to me that there’s no better example of why corporate interests and economic logic need to be balanced with laws and restrictions on corporate behavior than the fact not only that so many animals are killed, but that they are made to live lives where none of their instincts get to be acted out, where every waking moment of their lives is suffering and torture, all so that meat can be produced for fifty cents less per pound. To me it’s a monstrosity.
On the other hand, at least in America, one of the things that drives us crazy is our professed ideal to try to be fair to everyone. To try not to exclude or discriminate. And in some ways America has made progress in realizing as a culture for instance how terribly black Americans have been treated, how unfairly women have been treated, how handicapped people have been discriminated against by things as simple as staircases that wheelchairs can’t get up. What you see in America right now, though, is yet another backlash. It’s so expensive and so difficult to try to be fair to everybody, and it ends up with so much litigation and so many people howling for their rights, that many on the right wing and many in business simply want to throw up their hands and say “Fuck the whole thing and let’s just go back to the state of Nature and war of all against all.” This all gets really tricky.
My personal belief is that because technology and economic logic has gotten so sophisticated, cruelties can be perpetrated now that would have been unimaginable two or three hundred years ago. Therefore we are under more of a moral obligation to try very very very hard to develop compassion and mercy and empathy. Which means these are very bad times in America because the American electorate is simply not interested for the most part in much of this right now.
OK: A popular modern Russian writer, Viktor Pelevin, has said that the main character of much of modern cinema and pop-literature—all of pop-culture—is a black briefcase full of money. We mostly follow its fate, and the fates of the other characters depend on it.
DFW: I’ve heard about Viktor Pelevin, and everything I’ve heard about him is that he’s very smart and very astute. I think one reason his image is so funny is that it’s somewhat accurate. At least here in America, we’re in a time that’s very, very cynical. So that when you have a piece of pop-culture that has a very virtuous person or a hero, people see those qualities much more as presentations by someone who’s trying to get something, whether money or approval, than true human virtue or true qualities. One consequence of what American scholars call a post-modern era is that everyone has seen so many performances, that American viewers and American readers, we simply assume now that everything is a performance and it’s strategic and it’s tactical. It’s a very sad situation and I think the chances are that nations go through periods of great idealism and great cynicism, and that America and Europe, at least Western Europe right now, are in periods of great cynicism.
As a final note, I was recently surprised by and enamored with an essay of Wallace’s Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley (1992), wherein he speaks of using the elements of the weather in rural Illinois (near where I recently lived) to win tennis matches. But to hear me speak of it I am likely doing more harm than good. If you haven’t read this essay yet, I highly recommend it, even if you’ve never stepped foot in the Midwest.