David Foster Wallace: The Big, Uncut Interview (2003)

In 2003, an inter­view­er from Ger­man pub­lic tele­vi­sion sta­tion ZDF sat down with nov­el­ist David Fos­ter Wal­lace in a hotel room. The ensu­ing con­ver­sa­tion, whose raw, unedit­ed 84 min­utes (find links to the com­plete inter­view below) made it to the inter­net after Wal­lace’s sui­cide, remains the most direct, expan­sive, and dis­arm­ing­ly rough-hewn media treat­ment of his themes, his per­son­al­i­ty, and the fas­ci­nat­ing (if at times chill­ing) feed­back loop between them.

You can also expe­ri­ence this con­ver­sa­tion in short, the­mat­i­cal­ly orga­nized clips; above, we have “David Fos­ter Wal­lace on Polit­i­cal Think­ing in Amer­i­ca.” Wal­lace express­es his con­cerns about the strong influ­ence of tele­vi­sion ads on elec­tions, which means, he says, “we get can­di­dates who are behold­en to large donors and become, in some ways, cor­rupt, which dis­gusts the vot­ers, makes them even less inter­est­ed in pol­i­tics, less will­ing to read and do the work of cit­i­zen­ship.” This he sees cou­pled with an indi­vid­u­al­is­tic mar­ket­ing cul­ture which stokes “that feel­ing of hav­ing to obey every impulse and grat­i­fy every desire” — “a strange kind of slav­ery.”

But as his pained, self-ques­tion­ing expres­sion reveals — espe­cial­ly when it retreats into strange­ly endear­ing post-answer cringes — Wal­lace did not believe he pos­sessed the cure for, or even a pre­cise­ly accu­rate diag­no­sis of, a sick soci­ety. Offer­ing social crit­i­cism at a vast remove from the avun­cu­lar con­dem­na­tion of a Noam Chom­sky or the raised mid­dle fin­ger of a Bill Hicks, Wal­lace dis­cuss­es his fears through a nov­el­ist’s con­scious­ness that longs to, as he explains the desire else­where in the inter­view, “jump over the wall of self and inhab­it some­one else.” When the inter­view­er tells him about her peers’ frus­tra­tion at feel­ing edu­cat­ed but “not being able to do any­thing with it,” Wal­lace puts him­self in the mind of stu­dents who go from study­ing “the lib­er­al arts: phi­los­o­phy, clas­si­cal stuff, lan­guages, all very much about the nobil­i­ty of the human spir­it and broad­en­ing the mind” to “a spe­cial­ized school to learn how to sue peo­ple or to fig­ure out how to write copy that will make peo­ple buy a cer­tain kind of SUV” to “jobs that are finan­cial­ly reward­ing, but don’t have any­thing to do with what they got taught — and per­sua­sive­ly taught — was impor­tant and worth­while.”

Under­neath Wal­lace’s respons­es rush­es a cur­rent of the ques­tions his writ­ing leads read­ers to think — and think hard — about: How far has enter­tain­ment evolved toward pure anes­thet­ic? Can we still sep­a­rate our needs from our wants, if we try? Has post-Gen X irony made us not just col­lec­tive­ly inef­fec­tu­al but that much eas­i­er to sell things to? Can we ever again use terms like “cit­i­zen­ship” with­out instinc­tive­ly sneer­ing at our­selves? To the David Fos­ter Wal­lace novice, these clips make for a help­ful the­mat­ic primer, but the full record­ing (see below) will there­after become required view­ing. The inter­view brims with the kind of asides that make it feel like a page from the note­book of one of Wal­lace’s own favorite lit­er­ary crafts­men, Jorge Luis Borges. Wal­lace won­ders aloud how much of what he says will get edit­ed out, if he can dis­cuss his all-con­sum­ing sus­pi­cion that “there’s some­thing real­ly good on anoth­er chan­nel and I’m miss­ing it” while he’s actu­al­ly on tele­vi­sion, and how to talk to the media about how dif­fi­cult it is to talk to the media while pre­tend­ing you don’t know you’re talk­ing to the media. As he admits after unpack­ing one par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult issue, “It’s all… com­pli­cat­ed.”

The com­plete inter­view can be viewed up top.

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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