Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney (2011)
I’ve easily read more writing about David Foster Wallace than prose he actually composed. Truth be told, I don’t feel guilty about that, for in these time-strapped days, it’s a good replacement for tearing into Infinite Jest. Besides, why ruin the magic of reading others write about him. Something about Wallace as a unifying touchstone for literary-minded people in the 2000s lends itself to great work. Even Jonathan Franzen seems to be at his best in talking about his late friend.
A gem of Wallace-focused literature arrived in early 2011 when Maria Bustillos published an essay in reaction to her trip through David Foster Wallace’s papers at UT-Austin, called “Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library.” Its very existence confirms the rapid transfiguration of Wallace from a brilliant author to something like an existential symbol. Bustillos, however, to her credit, doesn’t scour through the papers of a dead man as a pilgrimage. She instead seeks to reconstruct, and she takes on Wallace as a person and a subject with a critical eye.
Doing so requires leaving Wallace’s perspective be, refusing to take the all-too-easy step of co-opting a symbol for your own argument. She praises and chastises in equal measure, and makes many a perceptive observation about the ways in which intelligence, arrogance, self-awareness and depression worked so readily hand-in-hand in Wallace’s life.
The Wallace whom Bustillos depicts obsessively fixates on how the strengths perceived by others were what he perceived as his flaws. Wallace, Bustillos writes, “wanted most of all to escape from that genius.” This is curious to his readers, for whom his immense talent and perception were the reason why so many admired and continue to admire him.
There’s a flip side to this, however, in that to the mind of a person living within themselves, one’s personal flaws can also become seen as who you actually are. (And, self-regarding creatures as humans are apt to be, as a defining strength.)
It’s common to observe that for many people perceived flaws and perceived strengths go hand in hand. It’s at the root of most self-justifications for bad behavior, and the core of most empathy toward others’ misdeeds. Yet while others will tend to place the emphasis on one’s strengths, and find one’s flaws to be something forgivable or able to be looked past, things look different from an internal perspective. For many, and clearly for Wallace, there’s a sense in which one’s personal flaws come to be seen as a part of thse self—not something to be explained away or ignored, but rather a central part of one’s own story.
Perceived flaws may be inextricable from perceived strengths—or, as Wallace seems to have felt, strengths perceived by others may be what you perceive as flaws. If Wallace wanted “to be an ordinary person who could own his own faults,” then, he was after something slightly different than normal. For he must have felt alienated from his talents, rather than in search of more of them.
What exactly was he up to?
Self-help, as a genre and a societal fixation, veers very quickly into an ethic of self-improvement. Rid of flaws, or counseled through failings, a person will inevitably gain in their overall stature, even when accompanied by no other positive project. One need only believe that a well-adjusted person who doesn’t exercise remains better off than a depressed person who doesn’t exercise.
There is something intrinsically off-putting about this, however, from the perspective of someone who believes themselves flawed. And it appears this was the case for Wallace, where the strengths of his empathy, observation, and intelligence appear to have haunted him deeply indeed.
When you view flaws as a part of your self, any decision to mend those flaws, exorcise those demons, or otherwise move past beyond something dragging you down means giving up a degree of what makes you you. Self-improvement detracts from personal, idiosyncratic, uniqueness.
One way to respond to this is believing that the choice to improve, or to mitigate, involves conscious agency—that you, the autonomous you, has chosen to make this step. The transformation into something different than your current self has your preemptive endorsement.
This idea can founder, however, when confronting the nature of the transition. The solutions offered for self-improvement are typically not individually customized. Rather, the self-help literature—whether pitched at the popular level, guised in the form of a business book, or presented under any other garb—will inevitably be providing one solution to many people. Therefore, any implementation of a self-help strategy, any giving in to an external guide so as to steer you toward a brighter future, involves becoming more like other people.
The need for such solutions implies a lack of being able to arrive at one’s own answers independently. This can make the argument that self-improvement is something you choose to engage in ring false. “Take control of your life!”, it is exclaimed, and yet in order to do so, one must implement solutions supplied by someone else.
This is likely to encourage a natural resistance, perhaps nowhere more than in our individualistic country. Even fully buying into the idea that you’re flawed, even fully buying into the desirability of an “improved” life, the path from A to B will and must always involve giving up deciding for yourself. You are told you will get your self back, but there’s no actual reason to believe this, and no reason to think that the “you” on the other side will be anything but unrecognizable. Improvement may render you someone else entirely. And it’s almost impossible to make someone want to be someone else.
In light of this objection, one of the few good cases for entering into that middle period of surrender is to realize that the exercise of self-control over your life and your decisions can increase autonomy, by allowing you to align the actions you take more capably with the priorities you purport to have (and perhaps with a little less crankiness along the way.) This story offers some appeal: the real you is struggling under some mess of problems, flaws, failings and miscues, and provided the right tools you can charge forward toward what you really want to be doing, who you really want to be.
You just have to let go, and the Wallace Bustillos describes in a treatment center, willing himself toward surrender, seems intent on doing so.
His search for a way out of an indescribably unique set of gifts involved, in Butillos’ telling, an effort to cut down to size, to embrace the ordinary and to find comfort in the mundane. This can’t help but come to mind in reading Willpower, one of the latest installments in another burgeoning movement. Like many other recent popular nonfiction books, Willpower combines lessons from psychology, economics, and neuroscience with the goal of creating modern people, conscious of their cognitive biases, and armed with the tools to trick, cajole, circumvent, and otherwise escape the limitations of their monkey brains and emerge disciplined, rational, happy and whole individuals. Their argument, ever and always, is that we are far less complicated than we might choose to think.
These books are great to read, and full of sensible advice. Yet there’s a crushing banality in their attempt to universalize the problems which people face. In writing to everyone in possession of human faculties, the writers of these books have to go broad, so the same problems recur over and over again: losing weight, quitting smoking, drinking less, being more kind to one’s partner. The faceless, genderless, race-less audience of these books are brought into the same universal identity, of someone trying to be better in a more complicated world. The ritual repetition of the same set of experiments, the endless problems of choosing jams and resisting marshmallows, starts to sound like an incantation. In reciting the same limited (though doggedly empirical) corpus, the authors propose a new canon for the modern monkey.
“Who wouldn’t want to be better?”, they ask, and the answer is provided for the reader. From one perspective, this isn’t crazy, as anyone willing to shell out the money to read a book like this has at least some interest in applying what they read in real life. There might be some worth in actually providing an answer to this first question, however, especially when the answers on offer complicate an easy “yes.”
For there are real consequences to internalizing the notion that you are, at root, a mammal whose choices are mostly dictated by fluctuations in blood glucose levels, and that the relative weight you give to ideas, choices, moods and values can well depend on what you had for breakfast. It may be true, rigorously so, calculated to a certainty, but the sheer sterility and reductiveness of the answers research has arrived at can’t help but seem to rob life of a certain magic.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable, in that vein, for anyone to react to a scientific understanding of their personality with a brazen retreat into their own flaws. Better a frail person than a programmed homo sapiens. And this isn’t a minority view in the world lately, either; people seek out antiheroes in fiction for the same reason, preferring people who seem “real” over those who act in more rational and life-affirming ways but strike us as false, or, worse, boring. If authentic living is much harder when you view yourself as a statistic amid a data set, and living authentically is important to you, then it might well be worth it to incur the costs of conducting yourself in less healthy and well-adjusted a fashion.
Against this, Bustillos unearths in Wallace something quite unexpected. She makes a convincing case that the way he reacted to the intuitive aesthetic and emotional appeal of personal autonomy may be one of his most profound achievements. One of the most singular figures in recent memory took every possible effort to not distinguish himself from others. What Wallace seems to have understood, interacting with an earlier, and no less potent strain of research literature, is that the ordinariness of the problems we face and the flaws we have may well provide a path toward nobility in modern life.
There may in fact be nothing special about the unhappiness in our hearts, even when it can feel like the most unique part of yourself. Tolstoy, one might argue, had it precisely backward. Unhappy people are a featureless mass of those helpless in the midst of fluctuating glucose levels and inevitable cognitive biases. The enlightened person, by contrast—conscious of their limitations, in touch with their ordinariness, in love with the simple dignity of the task of being human in spite of full consciousness of their condition—may well hold out more gifts than we ever previously could have imagined.
This humility, if it leads to empathy, could be our finest ethical accomplishment.
And it might mean we have no more need for anti-heroes.
Postscript: I’d be remiss in not noting William Deresiewicz’s review of DFW’s body of work, recently shown to me, which has some overlap with and difference from Bustillos’ take. I’ve also revised a sentence in the last full paragraph of the above essay.