David Foster Wallace, RIP, and a Provocation to Catholic Theology

The death of David Foster Wallace, who apparently took his own life last week, is a permanent, and perhaps underappreciated, deep loss for theology in general and Catholic theology in particular. As the commentary about his life and work over the last several days has begun to spell out, Wallace’s work, both the form and the content of his creativity, registered the complexities and possibilities of post-1960s American culture. Particularly in his biblical tome Infinite Jest, I found a writer who could register so freshly, melancholically, manically, and profanely, a new era: both hell-bent on both understanding what the Baby Boomers had left in their wake for those of us growing up in the 1970s and beyond, and on fashioning a form of writing that could hold and signal our new social landscape. In the simultaneous reveling-in and distancing-from the superficialities of our consumer-media-capitalist everydayscape, Wallace seemed to be saying there was actually a way forward, however ambiguous, for those whose identities commenced after the 1960s. It is almost extraneous to note that Catholic theology has not yet caught up with the funk or angle of literary form Wallace wanted, nor with the irreverences of topic and manner he stewed up. Does theology see in such writing as Wallace’s a site of possibility? I hope that it yet will. Born in the early 1960s, Wallace mediated the hopes and hedonisms of the 1960s through the hopes and hedonisms of the 1970s and 80s, whispering through his inanely brilliant footnotes about the modesty and majesty of both. Does any work in Catholic theology really get any part of the social reality with which Wallace wrestled? Perhaps Vincent Miller’s Consuming Religion comes closest, in Prof. Miller’s lovingly laborious philosophy of everyday practice in contemporary culture. But Prof. Miller, in my reading, wants Catholic doctrine to be and to do what it can neither be nor do, nor probably ever did: to meet us in the stability of a way out. David Foster Wallace, and any future Wallacian theology, would want to stay less settled.  

Tom Beaudoin

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