Ordinary Unhappiness
The Therapeutic Fiction of David Foster Wallace
Jon Baskin



In Heaven and Earth

ALTHOUGH THIS BOOK is first and foremost a study of David Foster Wallace’s fiction, it is also meant to be an experiment in seeing how philosophy and literature can work together. I’ve found promising models for doing this in the work of Iris Murdoch, Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, Toril Moi, and Robert Pippin, among others. In one way or another these scholars have all attempted to reproduce or excavate the thinking behind imaginative narrative works without reducing them to a disguised form of argumentative philosophy. Specifically, these authors have conceived of distinctive ways for literature to contribute to our self-knowledge or social consciousness—that is, for it to tell us things we do not already know from philosophy and possibly could not know were we to limit ourselves to philosophy’s customary methods and tools.

Wallace represents a rewarding subject for this sort of approach, and I have even suggested that the unity, depth, and ongoing relevance of his project are hard to appreciate without it. But rather than summarizing my argument about the philosophically therapeutic method and aspiration of Wallace’s fiction, I want to conclude by questioning an assumption that I made when I began studying Wallace’s fiction. To adequately treat the topics I raise here would require a whole other book, probably focused on a different kind of writer. Still, in the spirit of therapeutic self-examination, I hope it will be worthwhile to raise the question, even if briefly, of whether there really exists an “intersection” where literature and philosophy can be said to engage in a complementary activity.

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In his work on perfectionism Stanley Cavell groups together works of literature and philosophy according to his intuition that they both seek to engage their audience in a “journey of ascent.”1 Two of the books he includes in his attempt to describe perfectionism are Plato’s Republic and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.2 If Plato’s Republic is the canonical site of philosophy’s exclusion of literature, it might be argued that the countervailing exclusion occurs in act 1 of Hamlet, when, after seeing the ghost of his dead father, Hamlet tells Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth . . . / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”3

Given that these two archetypal works of Western culture virtually take as their point of departure an explicit exclusion of the other—that is, of art in Plato’s case and of philosophy in Shakespeare’s—it is worth asking how convincing Cavell’s case is for assimilating them to a common project. I take the answer to be relevant to the question of if, or how, Cavell responds to his own earlier question, in The Claim of Reason, about whether philosophy can “know itself” once it allows art back into its just city.

In pointing out the affinity of Wallace’s negative therapeutic project with Wittgenstein’s, I have suggested a fundamental continuity between what Wittgenstein was aiming at in the Philosophical Investigations and what Wallace was hoping to achieve in such works as Infinite Jest and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. To acknowledge this continuity is to acknowledge that the question of whether Wallace would be allowed into Plato’s philosophical republic cannot be separated from the question of whether Wittgenstein would be allowed in. (Just to make sure my cards are on the table: I think they would both be allowed in.) But while I do not claim Wallace was unique in his aspiration to use literary means for philosophical ends, I also do not wish to imply that everyone we recognize as a great artist is actually a philosopher in disguise. In fact, thinking of artists like Wallace—or Tolstoy, or the contemporary filmmaker Terrence Malick—in the way I’ve outlined here may help reveal a deep but often unexamined fault line among “image-makers,” between those who are fundamentally devoted to using images for philosophical ends and those who appear to be doing something else with them.

What is this “something else”? In book 10 of the Republic Plato indicates that the most consequential difference between art and philosophy is not a formal one—that is, that art uses images and philosophy reasoned argument or dialectic. Rather, the deeper difference between them is teleological. Whereas philosophy aims to lead its adherents out of the cave of ignorance and into the true light of the good, poetry and art are content to leave their audience “in the dark” (so to speak): not only do artists communicate with images, but they do not acknowledge any realm of truth that exists beyond them. It is precisely because of art’s ability to make flickering shadows seem so much more interesting and appealing than they really are—viewed in the true light of philosophy—that artists must be banished from the philosophical republic.4

The typical response to this challenge, by philosophers who wish to save art for philosophy (e.g., Aristotle, Arendt, or Heidegger), and by artists who manifest philosophical ambitions (e.g., Tolstoy, Mann, or Wallace), has been to insist that art can lead its adherents toward the good, just as philosophy does, but via an alternative route—say, by educating unruly emotions or helping us to “purge” ourselves of them. Literature professors today who endeavor to show how fiction can benefit our political or social lives are likewise engaged in a project that hinges on coming up with a satisfying response to Plato’s challenge. This means they accept the underlying premise of that challenge, which is that artists, unlike philosophers, do not possess a characteristic subject matter or sphere of authority.

It is this premise that Shakespeare challenges in the passage I mentioned above. Horatio, a philosophy student who is visiting from Wittenberg, describes his and Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost as “wondrous strange.” “And therefore as stranger give it welcome,” Hamlet responds, for “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”5

Hamlet is talking specifically about the ghost, but the line can be read as making a larger claim, about the “more” that would always remain “strange” to philosophy yet is central to both the subject matter and the perspective of the arts. This “more” includes aspects of human experience like love, family, dreams, ghosts, sensuality, and the grief that attaches itself to the melancholy prince like a shadow. It is no accident that Plato sought to discipline or purge all of these things in the Republic; indeed, it can be argued that Plato’s return to the poets in book 10 signals the extent to which the entire dialogue may be read as a contest not just with poets but with the aspects of human experience—family, sexual desire, grief, the fascination with death and decay—that feed the poetic imagination. The Republic is not only incidentally opposed to the “more” of art; it is organized to exclude it.

Hamlet is often referred to as a philosophical or a political drama, and many philosophers—Hegel, Freud, and Cavell among them—have attempted to show how the play can be read as directing its audience toward philosophical ends. As I have mentioned, Cavell conceives of Shakespeare as working in the perfectionist tradition—a tradition he believes spans the distance usually posited between philosophers and artists, showing both to be engaged in an activity whose most powerful image is Plato’s allegory of the cave. But by emphasizing Hamlet’s “more,” I mean to cast doubt on the suggestion that we could or should span that distance in the way that Cavell recommends. This is not to say there can never be any benefit to reading Shakespeare’s tragedies philosophically, as Cavell has often done. But it does mean that the philosophical critic, in accepting Plato’s framework regarding the direction (up, out of the cave) and ultimate ambition (happiness, justice, or flourishing) of worthwhile thinking, has committed herself to reading a work of tragic art on terms other than those it might set for itself. It means that she begins by asking, as Cavell often does in his writing on Shakespeare, “What is the good of such a tragedy?”6

In the case of Hamlet Cavell answers thus: the play, he says, is about the “work of mourning.” Paraphrasing the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, he describes such work as being characterized by “the severing of investment, the detaching of one’s interests, strand by strand, memory by memory, from their binding with an object that has passed, burying the dead.” But, Cavell adds—rather conspicuously, considering the play under discussion—“the condition of this work is that you want to live.”7 Hamlet, his reading tells us, shows us how to live through our grief. But does it? This is the point where Cavell himself seems not to have considered a possibility that would appear obvious to anyone who has not already decided there is a philosophically recognizable “good” to Hamlet: that Hamlet, the character, may not want to live and that Shakespeare, his creator, may not think he ought to want to.

This is not the place for a full reading of Hamlet or of Cavell’s interpretation of it. But I do want to briefly summarize an interpretation that I find more faithful to the play’s spirit than Cavell’s, one that emphatically rejects the notion of Hamlet as offering a therapeutic benefit of any kind. In Harold Bloom’s reading, an expansion of Nietzsche’s, it is not Hamlet’s grief but his “insight into the horrible truth” about the world that forestalls him from taking action. Bloom emphasizes that if Shakespeare had wanted to help purge us of our grief, he chose a very strange ambassador to show us the way. The prince’s melancholy may appear partial and extreme in act 1, but the mature Hamlet of act 5 does not so much overcome that grief as he learns to generalize it; the way Bloom puts it is that the Hamlet of act 5 has grown “sorrier for mankind than he is for himself.”8 If Socrates may be thought of as the Western exemplar of philosophical optimism—the view according to which death is a small thing, not even worth our fear—then Hamlet would seem to remind us of our ceaseless attraction, noted also by Freud, to our own annihilation.

This might seem a strange point to make at the end of a book that argues for a philosophically therapeutic literary criticism. For me, though, it is helpful in distinguishing which works are appropriate for this form of criticism and which will be more rewarding of a different kind of engagement. Wallace’s greatest work of fiction, Infinite Jest, begins with a protagonist, Hal, whose blend of brilliance and existential angst recalls that of the Danish prince. But it is precisely the undermining of Hal’s authority, and even of our interest in him as readers as the novel unfolds, that marks Infinite Jest as a work disciplined by philosophical ambition in the Platonic sense. I think it a worthwhile question to ask what the “good” is of Infinite Jest. I am less sure than I once was that such a question can be profitably asked of Hamlet, a play that seems to progressively deepen and confirm the authority and attractiveness of its protagonist’s “pragmatic nihilism,” as Bloom calls it.9

Therapy, philosophical or otherwise, depends not only on the idea that we want to live but also that we want some of the things that philosophers have always held to inhere in the good life: happiness, justice, maturity, peace. Plato’s rhetorical achievement in the Republic and elsewhere is to make it seem that if tragic poets do not accept that this is what people want, it is because they are separated from true knowledge, live in confusion, or “keep company” with the lower, irrational parts of the soul. I think Wallace operates according to this logic in his fiction: it is why he seeks to show through his characters that what we often perceive as an existential lack is in fact attributable to a philosophical error. To see this is to see what is of most value about Wallace as a thinker. At the same time, it is to recognize the limitations of this value from a point of view that we might call the poetic. For it may be reasonable—if risky—to presume, based on what we now know of his life and death, that Wallace chose not to convey everything that he knew in his fiction: for instance, that there are things on heaven and earth we want even more than we want happiness.


1. Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 7.

2. Cavell, 5.

3. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, 3rd ed. (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006), 1.5.165–66.

4. Much of what I say in this and the following two paragraphs was shaped by conversations and courses with Irad Kimhi, a philosopher who I can only hope will someday publish his incredibly generative insights about the relationship between philosophy and art. What follows should not be taken as any kind of definitive statement on Professor Kimhi’s ideas: I do not want to speak for him, and it is likely that he would disagree with or qualify much of what I say here. But my own thinking is indebted to my time with him at the University of Chicago from 2012 to 2015.

5. Hamlet, 1.5.163–66.

6. Stanley Cavell, “The Political and the Psychological,” in Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare, updated ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 162.

7. Stanley Cavell, “Hamlet’s Burden of Proof,” in Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare, updated ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 186.

8. Harold Bloom, Hamlet: Poem Unlimited (New York: Riverhead, 2004), 131. In a direct response to Cavell and many others Bloom chides commentators for making “too much” of Hamlet’s mourning.

9. Bloom, 119.