Thursday, April 14, 2011

DFW's self-help library

Via Kate S., a really wonderful article by Maria Bustillos on David Foster Wallace's collection of self-help books, and his deep, furious engagement with them. Bustillos does us an enormous service by not just revealing Wallace's marginalia in books like Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child--although she does that extensively. She also takes on Wallace's thoughts about the books, offering her own deep engagement with his fraught self-image. I suspect he would have approved.

Bustillos, through Wallace, situates the powerful self-help streak in U.S. culture within the context of artistic creativity, by showing us the double-edged sword of individuality. The imperative to know and love and help oneself easily gives over to obsessing over and hating same. This makes creativity virtually impossible. As Bustillos puts it (referring to The Pale King),

The book Wallace was too stuck in himself to complete is one in which he was observing how we all ought to become unstuck, sadly. The realization that you have something of value to contribute to the greater world necessarily involves prying your mind off yourself for a minute. [....]

And yet our culture is obsessed with finding the causes, with talking things through, and with getting to the bottom of our problems by thinking and talking about them a lot. With solving the problem of depression. The book The Drama of the Gifted Child, suffers very much from that "self-help", inward-turned weakness. It is a good but flawed book that tells just a small part of the story of how to do family life. There is no blame to pin anywhere; there is a balance to try to achieve.

Anyway, I really recommend you read the whole article. This is one of those pieces of criticism that does full justice to a complex subject, while finding its larger implications for our cultural moment.

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