Religion and Literature by Nan Denette
My first reading of Infinite Jest as a teenager was largely why I decided to study literature in college and why I declared a major in English after just one semester. A year later, however, I added a seemingly unrelated double major in religious studies. Entering into this field, I learned that studying religion is much more than learning the theology and tenets of a given faith or tradition—rather, to study religion is to perform a large, conceptual examination of how religion functions within humanity, how it evolves and expands and encompasses countless aspects of our lives on an individual and societal scale. Literature is one of these aspects. At the intersection of religion and literature, we arrive at the question of what makes a work of literature religious in nature—and by extension, what does this religiosity of a text ultimately say about our own understanding of its author in a critical context?
It is important to first understand the distinction between religious literature and religious texts. The Torah, Bible, and Quran, for example, are religious texts—they are foundational works to a given religious tradition. Religious literature is, to put it simply, literature about religion. Augustine’s Confessions is a useful example of this as is Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, which is heavily informed by Catholic theology. Although Augustine was a leader in the Christian church, while Flannery O’Connor was a layperson of faith, the two both engage with questions and ideas of religiosity at the center of their literary work. Having differentiated religious text from religious literature, I found myself confronted with two questions: what does it mean for a text to be considered religious literature, particularly within the modern and postmodern critical contexts? And could the work of David Foster Wallace be called religious literature?
To help answer the first of these questions, Thomas Tweed, in his book Crossing and Dwelling, provides a useful definition of religion that is both comprehensive and operative. According to Tweed, “Religions are confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and suprahuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries” (2006, 54). This definition is about the functional and active purpose that religion serves in human life—to make homes and cross boundaries while enacting the intensification of joy and confrontation suffering simultaneously. This definition also uses broad terms to address the metaphysical component of religion by pointing to “human and suprahuman forces” instead of making a claim about deities or necessitating an explicit belief in a higher power. This definition is particularly useful when considering what it can mean to call a piece of writing religious because Tweed’s definition coincides well with contemporary American culture in terms of belief and meaning-making—specifically, the locations of religion and devotion within an increasingly secular culture. If intensifying joy and confronting suffering is the goal, then this can perhaps be achieved by a non-traditional belief system or institution, as multiple characters attempt to do in Wallace’s Infinite Jest. In Wallace’s writing, religion is seen less as an overarching presence, and more as an adaptable mechanism—a means of bettering one’s situation when one sees fit. We see the adoption of forms of religious practice as beneficial to ourselves, because this can become a means of confronting suffering and thereby intensifying joy.
Existing scholarship addressing this idea of Wallace as a religious writer, such as Michael O’Connell’s article “Your Temple is Self and Sentiment: David Foster Wallace’s Diagnostic Novels,” and Adam S. Miller’s book The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace, to name a few, have all attempted in various ways to pinpoint where religion can be found within Wallace’s writing, and have gone on to identify and attribute these instances of religion to a particular tradition or point of origin. In my analysis of Wallace’s writing I discuss presences and indications of religion, as well as how religion interacts within his writing thematically, while also exploring how these presences of religion are not indicative of any particular tradition, and why it is instead more valuable to interpret these religious presences within the context of the study of religion on a conceptual level.
In his well-known commencement address delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, Wallace discusses being aware of conscious choice and the idea of worship as a ritual of everyday life. The speech begins with a parable about a fish who encounters two other fish and says “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two fish are confused, and one asks the other “What the hell is water?” (2005). The water, in this parable, is meant to represent reality in a mundane sense, meaning that we as human beings are largely oblivious to what we are completely immersed in—the worldly reality that surrounds us at all times and therefore persists largely unobserved. The solution Wallace posits to this is awareness—consciously choosing how to perceive our own personal experiences. “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship” (2005). Wallace goes on to contend that everybody “worships” something, be it a traditional religious figure or something in the realm of the secular like entertainment, power, or wealth. We all worship, according to Wallace, although where we direct this impulse is up to the individual.
Throughout the speech, Wallace uses the word “worship,” a word that bears obvious religious connotation, as well as other words like “belief,” which are then given a religious connotation in context. Wallace’s use of this type of religious language is particularly interesting in the written drafts of his speech, which can be found at the Harry Ransom Center. There remains only one mention of spirituality in the final version, in the phrase “choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship.” However, in one of the speech’s drafts, Wallace elaborates further on the idea of spirituality:
Because I feel embarrassed talking about this stuff so bluntly, let me stress to you once again that none of this is about morality, or rules, or being a quote “good person” as our culture defines it. And it is most assuredly not spirituality in the sense of organized religion or metaphysical dogma or life after death. It is about life before death … It is about education, which as Lao Tzu and Plato and Christ and all the real teachers keep saying, is more about awareness than about knowledge … and awareness of what’s so obvious, so all around us all the time (2005).
Here, it seems that Wallace is defining spirituality as an internalization and subsequent awareness of our own reality. Even though the specific references to “the real teachers” of religion were cut from the final version, this section of the address is significant in conceiving of Wallace’s understanding of spirituality, and how he believes it is an integral part of day-to-day life. It is worth noting that Wallace is talking about religious ideas while making a point to stress that this is not about “organized religion.” The fact that he excluded this section from the final speech seems to further emphasize this point; nevertheless, ideas of religion were clearly a significant backdrop to the points Wallace was attempting to make in writing this address.
In outlining these ideas of religion, spirituality, and awareness, Wallace’s commencement address, including its drafts, can be read as a first-person account of what he thinks about religion and its place in his own culture and experience. These ideas become relevant in reading Infinite Jest as a work of religious fiction, in moving from a discussion of Wallace the author to his fictional text.
In the world Wallace creates in Infinite Jest, there is a glaring absence of any traditional religious institutions, such as churches or temples. In fact, the words “religious” and “religion” only appear in the entire text a combined total of twenty-seven times—most instances of which are used to describe experiences or make comparisons with secular institutions. One example is when James Incandenza Sr. describes a memory of his experience playing tennis using the word “religious”: “It was a religious moment. I learned what it means to be a body, Jim, just meat wrapped in a sort of flimsy nylon stocking, son, as I fell kneeling and slid toward the stretched net, myself seen by me, frame by frame, torn open” (1996, 69). Similarly, in conversations about AA, Don Gately attempts to qualify the religious nature of the institution. “[Gately] wants to launch into a fairly standard Boston AA agnostic-soothing riff about the ‘God’ in the slogan being just shorthand for a totally subjective and up-to-you ‘Higher Power’ and AA being merely spiritual instead of dogmatically religious, a sort of benign anarchy of subjective spirit …” (1996, 366). Despite these and other brief mentions of religion, as well as the usage of some religious language, Wallace creates a narrative world that is noticeably devoid of traditional religious institutions and worship. No one attends a temple or a church or prays in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, language of religion is used by Wallace to conceive of a world that has a vacuum where religion would traditionally be—because characters in this setting do not see religion functioning in their world. Nevertheless, the characters experience and encounter anxieties relating to their existence, the role of fate in their lives, and other questions that are traditionally answered and confronted by religion.
Additionally, attachment to external ideas and objects is a major theme of the novel. There are many specific examples of this external attachment, referred to by Wallace as “worship” in the commencement address, which manifest as addictions for multiple characters. These objects of worship repeatedly consume the worshiper, rendering them helpless and inescapably consumed by this “suprahuman force,” to borrow Tweed’s phrase (2006, 54). Thus, out of our respective addictions, questions of religion come to light: is God or some suprahuman entity responsible for suffering, or do we bring it upon ourselves? Does complete devotion to something tangible or superficial still qualify as “religious,” or is this impulse of devotion a fatal human flaw? The increasing secularization of the contemporary North American society of the novel, combined with a cynical and vacuous popular culture, creates, within the world of Infinite Jest, a void that characters fill with various forms of devotion to an external, material object. Wallace’s examination of these “devotions” is part of what qualifies him as a religious writer.
Most instances of worship posited by Wallace closely align with Tweed’s definition of religion, particularly the concept of human interaction with “suprahuman forces.” However, it seems that Wallace’s examples of material-world worship that are illustrated in Infinite Jest indeed have many characteristics of a religious interaction, but do not actually provide the spiritual and existential benefits that religious experiences traditionally do; the one-sided nature of these acts of worship is something I suggest should be called para-religious, because although they function largely in the way religious interactions do, they do not intensify joy, confront suffering, or offer fulfillment or salvation. As Wallace posits in the commencement address, “An outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive” (2005).
The structure of Gately’s narrative—and the structure of Infinite Jest as a whole—places the reader in a disorienting space, where they are often unaware of past events and context and are forced to move backward and forward through time as the novel progresses, gaining information about each character in a non-linear manner, as though piecing together a puzzle. There is no way to understand every aspect of the novel in its fullest depth, despite its length and painful attention to detail. The structure of Infinite Jest is a representation of the massiveness of contemporary life, characterized by entertainment, over-stimulation, and disillusionment. This appears to be Wallace’s diagnosis of the modern world. Suffering results from this existential predicament. We must find ways to have identity beyond addiction within a massive and expanding entertainment-driven culture that is easy to become lost in—and in doing so, we become addicted. We devote ourselves to small, specific pieces of the puzzle, because the entirety of it would be too much to comprehend. Existence guarantees suffering in some form or another, and thus the human instinct seems to be to attempt to escape this inherent suffering by devoting oneself to something else—alcohol, drugs, entertainment, wealth, or even a straight-faced understanding of God, in the case of Mario (1996, 591).
The relationship between the narrative structure of Infinite Jest and the novel’s content is highly relevant to the exploration of religion operating within the novel. Infinite Jest describes a world in which para-religious interactions are diagnosed as a symptom of the innate human impulse toward devotion. Diagnostically, Wallace thoroughly outlines this predicament by way of both narrative and the novel’s overall structure and form. The question I have arrived at, however, is this: within the massive novel Wallace uses to outline and diagnose this problem, does he offer us any kind of solution? Is there actually a way out of this predicament? We know that the human impulse of devotion is unchanging. The narrative structure of the novel, of course, eliminates the reader’s access to a chronological “ending” to the protagonists’ narratives, so it cannot be said for sure whether Gately recovers from the gunshot wound, whether Mario’s belief in God can actually help him connect with another person, or whether Hal ever regains the ability to speak. Turning back to the commencement address, however, Wallace posits a solution to this same problem in the form of awareness and selflessness: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing” (2005). This gesture toward a solution to the problem of para-religious, addictive impulses, sounds at first glance like something that is far easier said than done. The goal of attaining this “freedom” that Wallace describes in the commencement address is, in fact, the same as Tweed’s definition of a religion, in that both aim to confront suffering and intensify joy. Although it is, of course, impossible to say with certainty precisely what Wallace meant to illustrate about the human condition and religion within Infinite Jest, it is incredibly valuable from a critical perspective to consider the novel within the context of the study of religion.
The field of religion and literature is typically concerned with texts which, at the surface level, are most easily sorted into this category—that is to say, literature that focuses on or operates within a particular religious tradition. However, expanding the scope of religion and literature to include texts that engage with religion on a conceptual level, such as Infinite Jest, allows for further inquiry into what it means to write about not just “a religion” but religion in a broad sense, and how works of literature are a medium within which the conceptual study of religion can occur.
Miller, Adam S. The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace: Boredom and Addiction in an Age of Distraction. Bloomsbury, 2016.
O’Connell, Michael. “Your Temple is Self and Sentiment: David Foster Wallace’s Diagnostic Novels,” Christianity & Literature 64 (2015): 266-292.
Tweed, Thomas A. Crossing and Dwelling. Harvard University Press, 2006.
Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Little, Brown and Company, 1996.
Wallace, David Foster. “2005 Kenyon Commencement Address,” Kenyon College, Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin, 21 May 2005. bulletin-archive.kenyon.edu/x4280.html.
Wallace, David Foster. My Commencement Speech Handwritten and Typescript Drafts, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin, MS box 28, folder 10-11.
Nan Denette is an M.A. student in Religious Studies at the University of Chicago with a concentration in religion, literature, and visual culture. She has a B.A. from the College of Wooster in Religious Studies and English. Her academic work focuses on intersections of literature, religion and contemporary American culture.