Skip to content

This Monk Understands David Foster Wallace

And people who reject the unholy Trinity of Rationalism, Empiricism, and Progressivism.

Photo by Pietro Pisarra / Unsplash
A Cistercian monk in Austria writes eruditely about David Foster Wallace. He appears to embrace "The Bridge Option" when dealing with modernity: embracing postmodernity and premodernity . . . bypassing modernity. 

The Lamp continues to impress. Issue 11 arrived last week. I think it might be the best yet.

It’s eclectic yet Catholic. Probably more eclectic (“A Catholic journal of literature, science, the fine arts, etc.”), so much so, that I have a hard time believing anyone, Catholic or Druid, wouldn’t enjoy it.

The thing is, it’s unabashedly Catholic, but it’s kinda like Catholicism is just stamped there. Its Catholicism is like a grass-mowed field that can be used for frisbee, lawn bowling, whiffle ball, football, sprinting, bird-watching, etc. You might get engrossed in an activity, but all the while, you’re playing on the same field. You cease to be aware of the field, but it’s always there and it occasionally makes itself known pointedly, like when you slide and get a grass stain.

The author bylines, by themselves, are interesting. Issue 11 features a review-essay about David Foster Wallace that is written by a man who is obviously conversant, not only with Wallace’s postmodernist prose but also with the Wallace scholarship.

The writer of the absorbing essay? Edmund Waldstein, a Cistercian monk.

A monk?

Yeah, yeah, I know: “Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton.” Monks write, often very well.

But still. A man so conversant in something so postmodernistly cultural . . . a monk?

It’s a snapshot into something important.

Very important.

It’s a snapshot of a thing I call “The Bridge Option.”

Those People Who Refuse to Worship the Unholy Trinity of Rationalism, Empiricism, and Progressivism

Modernity was The Great Rejection, which was western civilization’s rejection of the Tao.

The Great Rejection, being a rejection of the fundamental truth of our existence, wasn’t sustainable, so rejections of The Great Rejection started cropping up with increasing frequency as modernity rolled on.

Counter-rejections were evident at the beginning of modernity in Blaise Pascal (a healthy counter-rejection) and the irrational Rosicrucian movement (not so healthy). As modernity steamrolled everything before it with increasing contempt and disregard for anything outside its unholy trinity of Rationalism, Empiricism, and Progressivism, the counter-rejections picked up steam as well.

Counter-Rejections Take a Myriad of Forms

Counter rejections take all sorts of forms, as illustrated in the life of Jack Kerouac. Some edifying, some not; some beautiful, some terrifying.

The Great Rejection championed rationality. The counter-rejections celebrate irrationality, such as the occult and the absurd.

The Great Rejection championed empiricism. The counter-rejections celebrate the problem of induction and science’s relentless reversals of its own conclusions.

The Great Rejection championed progress: wealth and comfort. The counter-rejections celebrate intentional poverty and austerity (living off the grid, extreme endurance sports).

Some anti-modernists seek to raze modernity: churn the ground, upheave all foundations, and throw salt everywhere (the “Punic Option,” named after the fate of Carthage after its third defeat by Rome).

Some seek to reach back over modernity to earlier foundations. They embrace the postmodernist ideas but, instead of just rejecting everything, seek to reach back to a time before modernity was ascendant. The Bridge Option.

Such, I think, is the approach of that David Foster Wallace expert monk. He's steeped in postmodernist literature, living in accord with a rule of life developed in the 12th century. And he's a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College, which is a classical Great Books school, but he understands postmodernist literature.

And what does this monk conclude about David Foster Wallace?

He concludes that Wallace is the twentieth century's Blaise Pascal.

Pascal simultaneously recoiled from the two cutting-edge intellectual currents of his day: Montaigne’s blanket skepticism and Descartes’ rationalism. Pascal responded with a celebration of the irrational (the heart has its own reasons) and the need for humility in light of the enormous mystery that is existence (everything on the other side of Huxley's door . . . the Tao . . . my take, not the monk's).

Wallace, according to the monk, likewise recoiled from the same two intellectual currents: skepticism and rationalism, but by Wallace's era, they had grown alarmingly into postmodern skepticism and scientific rationalism. Wallace didn't recoil against modernity, the monk says. He recoiled against "hypermodernity."

Pascal and Wallace Used the Same Weapon

So, what weapon did these allies across the centuries use?

The sacred.

“Worship” appears in many key passages of Wallace’s work. In order to escape hypermodernity, Wallace knew, we needed to find something sacred.

Wallace seemed to have a rather immanent (earthly) understanding of the sacred, something he called “the sub-surface unity of all things,” but it was a sense of the sacred nonetheless.

It’s what gives Wallace’s work such absorbing interest.

Wallace and Kerouac

It all reminds me of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

People focused on Kerouac's “kicks,” especially the drugs and sex, but that’s not what the book was about. If drugs and sex were the points of the book, it wouldn’t have been a source of such absorbing interest back in the 1950s and 1960s. It wouldn’t have been the leitmotif of Judd Apatow’s excellent Freaks and Geeks on NBC in 2000.

On the Road is about the sacred: the need to worship, to find the Beatific Vision (“It!”) away from the conventionalities of modern life.

Likewise, the monk assures us, Wallace’s work is about the sacred. We can focus on the dissonance of his prose—the paragraphs that continue for pages, the unique punctuation—but that would be like focusing on Kerouac’s form of dissonance--the drugs and sex--and not realizing Kerouac was tearing at the conventionalities of modernity in order to get to something deeper: the sacred.

I’m not sure Wallace or Kerouac ever found the sacred, but they were trying.

And for that, they deserve respect and attention.

I think my new monk friend would agree.