I’m probably convinced David Foster Wallace is obsessed with solipsism because I’m obsessed with solipsism. I’ve been searching for experiences and arguments to refute solipsism ever since the concept was introduced to me through Conrad; “We live as we dream, alone” was a terrible revelation for me junior year and one from which I’ve been reeling more or less ever since. Solipsism was always most obviously for me a question of communication, we live as we dream in that a dream is an experience that is essentially incommunicable, visceral. David Foster Wallace by no means ignores this aspect of solipsism, and I think its why he takes his interpretations of other artist’s work so seriously, he wants to believe he can understand it, to disprove solipsism by the validity of his insight into another’s art. But he also comes at solipsism from another, more unique angle, related necessarily to communication but not entirely the same issue, self consciousness.
Post-modernism has to a large extent been defined by intense self-consciousness, a writer’s writing about writing (let alone about writing about writing like DFW) is an essentially self-conscious act, its the awareness while your doing something, of what that thing really is that your doing. This kind of self-consciousness is the opposite of solipsistic, it rides very much on the assumption that the doing of anything can be understood and interpreted, it assumes a certain kind of communication of understanding is possible, a universality of experience that can be appealed to; you can’t write about writing unless there is something more universal to writing besides your individual experience of it. The most interesting about the David Lynch and Michael Joyce essays is that they portray self-consciousness as something of an obstacle to the actual doing of that thing your self-conscious about the doing of.
It seems David Lynch is able to make films like Blue Velvet and Lost Highway because he’s un self-conscious, David Foster Wallace several times marvels at how Lynch seems to literally not care what other people think of his art, whether it will be understood or not. David Lynch is concerned only with whether he’s realized, by his own estimation, his artistic vision, and it seems that for Lynch to see his artistic vision most clearly he needs not to step back self consciously from it, but immerse himself in it totally. He doesn’t care if the references in his film are lost on most of the audience, indeed he must expect it when they’re references to things like his personal life and obscure old movies. But popular misunderstanding of his work doesn’t seem to be of much concern to Lynch, any more than people who do understand him like Wallace, who apparently is little more to Lynch than a few more cigarettes in his ashtray. This is solipsistic, and it makes Wallace and everyone else a little uncomfortable, but if you can do the interpretive, communicative work as the audience, you realize that this solipsism may be the source of Lynch’s greatness.
Similarly, the Michael Joyce essay struck me as about the solipsistic greatness of a world class athlete. The reflexes required for tennis obviously offer little time to step back and play too much non-intuitive meta-tennis. But more than that Joyce seems to be so intensely wrapped up in what he’s doing that he’s almost unaware of his surroundings, he doesn’t play the meta-game ever, whether on the court or looking at billboards. Initially this seems like stupidity to Wallace, his own particular genius being manifest to a large extent in his ability to play the meta-game at all times. But Joyce is not stupid, and it takes Wallace a little while to realize Joyce’s genius is like Lynch’s; it’s about being so in tune with your natural talents, your vision, that you can just do, that the meta-do that most people fall back on in order to apply their logical intellect to what they’re doing is really an obstacle in the end.
The solipsism of Joyce is that for him living is like dreaming, he’s devoted his life to a pursuit that almost none of us really understand on the same level that he does. It’s why he can never quite explain why he does it to Wallace, the explanation is experiential, visceral, it’s what you feel when you’ve won a big match in front of several thousand people. There’s perhaps a few hundred people who’ve experienced this and I would put forward that even within this elite it’s not the same feeling for everyone, that when you devote your life to something in the complete and unselfconscious way of a Joyce or a Lynch the reasons for doing so become completely personal, solipsistic. I think David Foster Wallace is profoundly uncomfortable with this, because, in the end, it’s a lonely kind of greatness.