A Puritan's Dilemma

Article excerpt

Before his suicide in September 2008, David Foster Wallace published three short story collections, two novels, two essay collections, a book about rap music and another about infinity. His final, unfinished novel, The Pale King, was published early last year. His essay subjects ranged from Dostoevsky to the porn industry

to tennis. But for all his output and range, Wallace rarely wrote about politics. The most notable exception was a long article about the 2000 primary campaign of John McCain. A prominent thread in that narrative is Wallace's exaggerated innocence about all things political, set against the polished professionals of the mainstream press corps.

Wallace had even less to say about religion. His masterpiece, the 1,000-page novel Infinite Jest, is shot through with the quasi- religious elements of Alcoholics Anonymous. It examines recovering addicts' commitment to a higher power, but traditional religious organizations and formal theology are almost entirely absent. The same is true of his famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech, published as This Is Water, which posthumously brought him to the attention of a wider authence.

If rarely his explicit subjects, though, religion and politics were nearly always Wallace's subtexts. He mostly ignored the hideous spectacle of electoral politics in the United States, and he had no time for the nonsense that pervades much of American religious life. But his work is obsessed with the roots of our religious and political poverty. It's a sustained jeremiad aimed at America's spiritual childishness, and it's a plea for preserving what is most valuable in religious thought and practice. Wallace was a Puritan, not in theology, but in his sensitivity to a set of insoluble questions and tensions that are deeply rooted in the Calvinist tradition - most notably the tension between freedom and determinism.

Though freedom is the foundation stone of America's national identity, it was a foreign idea in the "city upon a hill" that the Puritans left England to build. Calvinist theology taught that God had predestined some people to salvation and others to damnation. Only God knew one's fate. As Edmund Morgan wrote in The Puritan Dilemma, a classic account of early colonial life, Calvinist theology created tensions that were "at best painful and at worst unbearable. Puritanism required that a man devote his life to seeking salvation but told him that he was helpless to do anything but evil." By the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, the hard determinism of the early Puritans had been fading for decades. The burning question within Puritanism became the issue of free will: What role does the individual play in her own salvation? By the early 1800s, strict Calvinism was only a minor thread within American religion, as evangelical denominations resolved the Puritan dilemma by denying the determinism that created it. God didn't choose you. You chose God.

The political equivalent of free will's religious triumph was America's messianic sense of its mission in the world. If the Puritan experiment was about creating a sacred space set apart from the world, America aimed for worldhistorical transformation. The new nation would be "a new order of the ages," liberated from the corruptions and determinisms that defined Europe. "We have it in our power," as Tom Paine wrote, "to begin the world over again."

Freedom and/or slavery

Wallace's body of work is a report, two centuries on, about the results of that bold project. He takes for granted the nation's success in begmning the world over. But the victory has been primarily cultural, in the proliferation of consumer goods and in our ever- more sophisticated and engrossing forms of entertainment. Despite the presumed progress, something vital is missing. "How is there freedom to choose," asks a character in Infinite Jest, "if one does not learn how to choose?"

The perils of consumer culture and the vacuity of mass media are familiar themes, and though Wallace approached them with astonishing creativity, what gives his work its power is less the originality of his critique than the way he methodically erodes the opposition between freedom and slavery. …