Thursday, July 4, 2013

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: On the Riddles of David Foster Wallace

One of the stranger, perplexing, yet still highly enjoyable stories by David Foster Wallace is his story, “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” from the collection Oblivion. In it, a dutiful son takes care of his mother, driving with her back and forth to her lawyer’s office on the bus. The mother, reaping rewards from a liability suit, elected to get cosmetic surgery which went terribly wrong, twice. She now walks around with a constant face of terrific panic and fear, which understandably, scares those around her. Her son, the narrator of the story, was involved in his own lawsuit with a 9-year old boy who fell through the roof of his space in which he keeps many deadly species of spiders. The boy fell and was killed. Past that, there’s not much narrative in the story. Rather, like much of the rest of Oblivion, it is a story of telling of a story. In the immediate presence of the story, the son and the mother are on the bus, and that’s all that really happens.

All of which adds to the confusion of the story. But DFW always loved paradoxes and riddles, and he piles them on in this story. While most of the story unfolds in a clinical manner befitting a person obsessed with the science of spiders, there are interspersed moments of narrative that appear as non-sequiturs. While the son discusses some minutia of spiders, he all of a sudden begins discussing the facts of the lawsuit brought against him. After reading the story once, and being left in a bit of scratching head situation, it feels as if DFW wanted us to feel confused, and wanted us to solve the riddles of this story. He purposeful doesn’t tell us names, and keeps the nature of the son’s obsession i.e. spiders, out of the story till the end. Many facts of the story only unfold with time, and many others are left out. The story also appears purposeless. While authors can make compelling stories out of the most mundane events, this feel trip to a lawyer on a bus feels purposefully purposeless, almost a sort of game, a chase to find clues and put together to get at the truth.

Perhaps the biggest confusion of the story is the title. The title is both a beautiful and old metaphor for philosophy, made most famous by the seminal philosophical book of the same name written by Richard Rorty. At first, and second, and even third glance, the connection between the book and this specific story is tenuous at best. Rorty’s book and philosophy, as a whole, fits in with DFW’s general thought. Rorty, to put it crudely, sought to undermine the classical sense of philosophy as providing the grounds on which to judge all our cultural knowledge. This is probably the most simple understanding of philosophy, which many have called a mirror to nature. I.e. we believe that somehow, through unique philosophical thinking, we can uncover the center of our knowledge, that which grounds how and what we know about everything else in the world.

An offshoot of this belief is that the purest and best form of knowledge is scientific or philosophic, which is exactly what Rorty wants to undermine. For Rorty, and many other philosophers, including DFW’s favorite, Wittgenstein, philosophy is less about finding the truth, and rather about a unique type of therapy. For Rorty, systematic philosophy that creates its own system of thought and jargon is simply a choice of another type of discourse. In no way should philosophy or science be seen as more privileged, outside of its immediate realm. Though science and philosophy purports to tell us the whole truth about the world, it tells us a truth within a framework of rules. All of this type of thinking is therapeutic because it pushes a person away from the concretization and rigidity of thought.

Philosophy then, and for DFW we can say literature, is not about arriving at some truth, after which a person can rest, but philosophy and literature is rather a posture of openness to information, other people, and the outside world. It’s not hard to see this as part of DFW’s general thought in that his #1 fear was solipsism, the obsession with what goes on inside a person’s brain as opposed to real and fluid interaction with other people. Much of DFW’s themes, imagery and stories, depict people stuck in some sort of language game, whether that is the jargon of addiction, or advertisement, or psychotherapy. Consequently, so much of DFW’s writing attempted to break down the borders between different systems of language. Many of his stories unravel jargon, pointing to its border and emptiness, the need for constantly changing and new language.

But what does this have to do with this specific story, and couldn’t really any of DFW’s story have been called Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Probably, because any sort of explanation is hindsight and reconstructive. Yet, I do believe a synopsis quote from Rorty’s book provides the beginning of some keys to read the story in its fulness:
To see keeping a conversation going as a sufficient aim of philosophy, to see wisdom as consisting in the ability to sustain a conversation, is to see human beings as generators of new descriptions rather than beings one hopes to be able to describe accurately.

Classical philosophy in this breakdown assumed that not only was accurate description possible, but that it would bestow wisdom and change. To know, to categorize, was seen as enough in the way of understanding. The contrast is to see all sorts of language systems, all jargon self-contained and tell us very little about anything past themselves.

Looked at in this light, in the sense of language hardening into rigidity limiting true contact, this story oozes with the limits and pretensions of language. In fact, it is less a story per se and considerably more of a language game which highlights what happens when different systems of language butt up against each other and break down. The narrator, the son, has no conversation in this story at all. His job and obsession is scientific categorizing and he feels the need to consistently point out idioms as idioms, as if we wouldn’t understand the duality of language. His stiltedness gets so tough to deal with that at points, he seem clinically unable to feel or understand emotions, or any of the mess of life. He is the Uber-scientist and philosopher who believes he can capture the world through understand and the correct use of language, as he could break through to some center that would explain everything. 

This story is a send-up of a prevalent, though outdated view of philosophy and science. Moreover, the story fits into the rest of Oblivion as most of the stories describe a person caught in the jail of their own brains. Here, the jail manifests in a sort of obsessive need to categorize which creates a distance and disables any sort of real communication. There’s also a sort of classic DFW irony in which we tend to think of language as the ultimate sign of humanity, but here, we see it as an evasion, a crippling jail that robs this person of any semblance of humanity. As an added layer, the riddles of the story ends up really going nowhere. There is no center of the story, no real key to understand its riddles, which is sort of the whole therapeutic point of Rorty’s book.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I believe you missed some key elements of the story:
    The narrator is revealed to have been wearing thick-lensed goggles and heavy gloves, and to have carrying with him a briefcase full of venomous spiders.
    As for the minutiae of spiders, I believe Wallace was using them as a means of drawing parallels between the narrator and the natural specimens he studies. For example:
    It is mentioned that Widows look for right-angles to make their webs in. Early in the story, the narrator says he was able to "work out a more right-angled solution to the problem..." in reference to the issue his mother faced when looking for a seat on the bus.
    Widows, the narrator says, like to live in dusty arttics, closets, and, more importantly, basements. The narrator's legal situation arose from an incident in which a young neighbor fell into the garage where he kept his specimens.
    The narrator describes himself as towering over other people while on and waiting for the bus. Widows live in the fronds those same people stand beneath at bus stops.
    I believe solution to the "riddle" of the story is that the narrator, and the personal philosophy fostered by his "studious bend", mirror the objects of nature toward which his studies are directed.

  3. This is a great reading. I just wanted to quickly add that the son, in making himself like his black widow spiders, is also making himself like, if only in nomenclature, his widow of a mother who can only watch in seeming terror as they both recede deeper into themselves.

  4. Just read this story. Also about halfway through IJ, first time. Interesting that some of the descriptions of thew widows (where they like to live, their patience) show up in both of these. Spiders as a symbol seem to code for a few different themes in IJ, one being addiction (a form of obsession, also at work in this story.) I really like how this story jumps between the different threads and how the threads mirror eachother in little ways. My favorite image (situation? Scene?) in this story is the moment when the mother sees her new face for the first time and she/the nurses aren't sure if the look of terror is her reaction to what she's seeing or just what she's seeing-- the stimulus or the response. Playful and mind bending like a daoist riddle.

  5. Did the previous commenter solve this by accident? The story is structured like a web, lots of little tangential threads