Dialectic of Sincerity: Lionel Trilling and David Foster Wallace

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In a scene midway through William Gaddis's 1955 novel The Recognitions, the struggling and immature playwright Otto, trying in vain to seduce his ethereal poet friend Esmé, catches up with her on a New York City street and proclaims his undying love. "You know I'm sincere," he concludes by pleading, "I've always been sincere with you." Esmé hears him out, turns to him wearily, and responds flatly. "Sincerity," she tells him, "becomes the honesty of people who cannot be honest with themselves."1

Although Lionel Trilling may or may not have read The Recognitionswhich was not exactly a literary smash hit upon its releaseit is precisely the opposition Esmé draws here between sincerity with others and honesty with oneself that lies at the heart of Trilling's 1972 study in the history of ideas, Sincerity and Authenticity. At the outset of the book, based on his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, Trilling defines sincerity as "a congruence between avowal and actual feeling" and traces its emergence in "the moral life of Europe" to the early modern period.2 He cites Hamlet as a central text, placing particular emphasis on Polonius's famous advice to Laertes as the latter prepares to depart for Paris:

This above all: to thine own self be true

And it doth follow, as the night the day

Thou canst not then be false to any man. (qtd. in SA 3)

For Trilling, the otherwise corrupt Polonius here has "a moment of self-transcendence, of grace, of truth" (SA 3). His words are to be taken seriously, and crucial to their import is that truth to one's own self should be understood not as an end, but as a means of ensuring truth to others. Trilling goes on to claim that this consequentialist conception of sincerity would become "a salient, perhaps a definitive, characteristic of Western culture for some four hundred years" (SA 6).3 But by the twentieth century it had gone into sharp decline, superseded by the ideal of authenticity, which conceives truth to the self as an end and not simply as a means. The goal of authenticity is self-examination rather than other-directed communication; authenticity is therefore not about playing a role, and it is precisely the public orientation underlying sinceritywhich emerged during an age that witnessed the efflorescence of the theaterthat makes the notion suspect to the new anti-social temperament. Trilling, drawing most directly on the critique of sincerity as bad faith found in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, puts the problem as follows:

Society requires of us that we present ourselves as being sincere, and the most efficacious way of satisfying this demand is to see to it that we really are sincere, that we actually are what we want our community to know we are. In short, we play the role of being ourselves, we sincerely act the part of the sincere person, with the result that a judgement may be passed upon our sincerity that it is not authentic. (SA 10-11)

In The Recognitions, this is, essentially, Esmé's judgment on Otto's declaration of love: he may indeed be as sincere as he says he is, but his sincerity is not authentic, and is no replacement for the honesty with oneself that authenticity names. Authenticity suggests, in Trilling's summary, "a more strenuous moral experience than 'sincerity' does, a more exigent conception of the self and of what being true to it consists in, a wider reference to the universe and man's place in it, and a less acceptant and genial view of the social circumstances of life" (SA 11). And Gaddis's novel could not be less genial in its treatment of mid-century American society and those who inhabit it, making constant analogies between forgeries in the art world and the forgery of the self that is everywhere prevalent in the world of social relations as Gaddis sees it.

Of course, Gaddis and Trilling were far from alone among intellectuals and writers of their time in drawing attention to the cultural importance of sincerity and authenticity in the postwar United States. The questions that Gaddis was probing in The Recognitions received more accessible and popular treatment in novels including The Catcher in the Rye (1951), On the Road (1957), Revolutionary Road (1961) and The Moviegoer (1961). Sociologists such as David Riesman, C. Wright Mills, Erving Goffman and William Whyte explored notions of sincerity, authenticity, and performance in theorizing the lives of the increasingly bureaucratized middle class of the mid-century era.4 In Sincerity and Authenticity, Trilling was thus employing concepts with a certain zeitgeist quality, and he was doing so at least in part to defend the liberalismnow aligned with a commitment to sinceritythat he viewed as being under threat by the authenticity-obsessed radical movements of the 1960s.5 In employing literature as the primary ground for his historical exploration of sincerity, Trilling's study was likewise part of a stream of similar work in this period on both sides of the Atlantic. Beginning around 1963, critics including Patricia Ball, Donald Davie, David Perkins, Henri Peyre, Herbert Read, and Patricia Meyer Spacks wrote on the connection between sincerity and literary aesthetics; following the publication of Sincerity and Authenticity in 1972, the last work in this wave of sincerity studies was Leon Guilhamet's 1974 treatise on eighteenth-century poetry, The Sincere Ideal.6 As we shall see, however, by the mid-1970s the landscape had changed. Theory had arrived in the US academy, and literary scholars began making themselves busy deconstructing the humanist conceptions of the self and literary expression that underlay the work of virtually all the mid-century critics, sociologists and writers I have just named.

The present article is concerned with what happened to the notion of sincerity following its popular height in this mid-century period, and how the concept was revivedin new and significantly altered formby the late-century American writer David Foster Wallace. In what follows, I present Trilling and Wallace as exemplifying two moments in what I call the dialectic of sincerity; I argue that by tracking the historical movement from one writer to the other we can observe a shift in the cultural meaning of this concept. While I take as my premise that Trilling and Wallace can be understood to share a tradition, the tradition of American literary and intellectual history, it is not a negligible fact that one was primarily a critic and the other a novelist. Partly for this reason, I place at the center of my argument not Wallace's widely read manifesto essay of 1993, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," but his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, which I argue instantiates a new brand of sincerity in a formal and performative manner. My reading of Infinite Jest takes up the middle section of the article, and it is flanked on one side by an overview of the relationships between sincerity, irony and theory in the period before the publication of the novel, and on the other by an overview of Wallace's influence on the fiction of his generational peers. The article concludes with a consideration of the political consequences of Wallace's revival of sincerity, leading me back full circle to Trilling and his mid-century liberal world.

Sincerity, Irony, and Theory

The dialectic of sincerity is an important topic in its own right, but it is also significant in offering a window onto broader cultural themes. The concern with sincerity that differently shapes both Trilling's and Wallace's work points to an overriding concern in both writers with the fragmentation of American social and institutional life in the last third of the twentieth centurya period Daniel Rodgers has recently dubbed the "age of fracture" and George Packer "the unwinding"alongside a wish to reconstitute social and communal bonds in the wake of that fragmentation.7 Trilling is writing near the beginning of this age of fracture, and Wallace somewhere toward its ambiguous end, but both share the view that a cultural overemphasis on the authentic autonomous self over and against the institutional and the interpersonal has contributed to a contemporary malaise. Both writers find this overemphasis on authenticity in a variety of twentieth-century intellectual movements, including existentialism, psychoanalysis and literary modernism, as well as in broader trends in youth culture and (in Wallace's case) contemporary media and advertising. One aim of their respective works is therefore to re-balance the equation in favor of sincerity and social life. However, both Trilling and Wallace also recognize the difficulty of this project, not least with regard to the terms in which they choose to undertake it. At the end of "E Unibus Pluram," Wallace imagines a new generation of "literary rebels" emerging to critique the tyranny of "ironic watching" in American culture, but simultaneously anticipates the jibes these writers will face: "Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic."8 These epithets recall in turn Trilling's own remarks on the unlikelihood of any revival of sincerity in the culture he observed around him: "The word itself has lost most of its former high dignity. When we hear it, we are conscious of an anachronism which touches it with quaintness. If we speak it, we are likely to do so with either discomfort or irony" (SA 6).

Both thinkers mention irony here, but the term is only a very minor player in the grand dialectical opposition Trilling constructs between sincerity and authenticity. If this sidelining of irony in his history of ideas seems, to our contemporary sensibility, itself something of a quaint anachronism, this only highlights our distance from Trilling, even this later Trilling who has become aware of the arrival of "a period which [historians of culture] call 'Post-Modern'" (SA 98).9 While he may have seen postmodernism arriving in these 1970 lectures, Trilling could not at that historical moment anticipate the extent to which irony would emerge as postmodernism's dominant mode. Although this emergence is most often conceived today in widespread cultural terms, one major legitimating site for the new ironic outlook was the American academy.10  From the 1966 Johns Hopkins conference on "The Structuralist Controversy" through the next three decades, the set of intellectual movements that would come to be known as "post-structuralism" and eventually simply as "theory" would shake up assumptions about language, culture, knowledge and identity that had held relatively stable over the period of the postwar boom.11 This shift had implications not only for irony but also for sincerity and authenticity as Trilling conceived them: the opposition he establishes between these two concepts masks the fact that both depend for him upon a surface/depth model of the self, and upon a model of language as a relatively transparent tool available to communicate that deep and pre-existing self.12

Neither of these assumptions about selfhood and language would emerge unscathed from the age of theory's hegemony, nor could irony continue to be conceived in older, stable forms. In her astute study of the theory and history of irony, Claire Colebrook suggests that "[i]rony may well be tied up with the long history of Western subjectivism: the idea that behind language, actions, difference and communication there is a ground or subject to be expressed."13 While some theories of postmodern irony continued to presuppose an expressive subject able to employ irony as a tool of self-fashioningRichard Rorty's influential conception of liberal irony comes to mindother theories positioned irony as a challenge to subjectivity.14 Colebrook shows how Jacques Derrida's deconstruction, to cite one prominent example, "forge[s] a path between two styles of irony: a satirical irony that attacks the conventions of a specific context, and a broader Romantic or transcendental irony that aims to think beyond context."15 When kept separate, these two styles of irony each allow space for the notion of an expressive subject, whether a Socratic subject who questions accepted conventions or a Romantic subject that raises itself creatively above the finite everyday. When threaded together in the work of Derrida and others, however, these styles of irony would seem to make a prior expressive subjectivity impossible. Anxiety over the political dimensions of this position on language and subjectivity spurred critics of Derrida's work in the 1980s and encouraged Derrida himself to foreground questions of ethics and politics in his later texts.16 But the problem of arguing for belief, commitment, and sincerity under a model of language without prior subjects would nonetheless prove a tricky one. One way to put the problem (a problem unanticipated in the work of Trilling) is as follows: Can one maintain an ideal and practice of sincerity without a grounding notion of expressive subjectivity?17

This is one of the central questions framed throughout the writing of David Foster Wallace, a major late-century inheritor of this postmodern age of irony and theory. Wallace, who attended Amherst College and the University of Arizona in the early-to-mid 1980s, a period when theory was at its zenith of influence in the US academy, argued as early as his first published essay for the relevance of continental philosophy and literary theory"such aliens as Husserl, Heidegger, Bakhtin, Lacan, Barthes, Poulet, Gadamer, de Man"to the concerns of the contemporary fiction writer. 18 This contemporary writer could no longer afford to ignore the fact that "the idea that literary language is any kind of neutral medium" had been shown up by theory to be an ideological delusion (FF 63), that literary language after theory, as Wallace put it in a later review-essay, must now be conceived "as not a tool but an environment."19 Yet while in 1988 Wallace saw the "forward-looking, fertile" literary opportunities this situation afforded (FF 65)"our generation," he contended, "is lucky enough to have been born into an artistic climate as stormy and exciting as anything since Pound and Co. turned the world-before-last on its head" (FF 63)by 1993, when he published the highly influential "E Unibus Pluram," Wallace had homed in on irony as the central problem of the age. Now he argued that the political edge that irony had retained for an earlier set of American writersthe postmodern generation of Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, Nabokov, Gass, Coover, and Gaddishad been dulled and domesticated by the rise of television and advertising, which had incorporated postmodern strategies and insights into their standard operating procedures. Irony, like language, had shifted from being a tool to being an environmentas Wallace told Larry McCaffery in their 1993 interviewand literary writing needed to find new strategies to offer both negative critique and positive affirmation. 20

Sincerity became for Wallace, as it had been for Trilling, one name for a new, or renewed, literary and cultural practice. And while Wallace never mentions Trilling's name in his published work, his awareness of Sincerity and Authenticity is evidenced by a handwritten note he made in a book from his personal library held at the Harry Ransom Center.21 Moreover, Wallace's pretentions to broad social pronouncement and his liking for cultural and conceptual historynot to mention his liberal imagination, to which I will returnall connect him closely to the figure of Trilling; we might even say that the most famous thing Wallace ever said in an interviewhis declaration, made to McCaffery, that "Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being"is a claim made over and over again (minus the swearword) in the humanist literary criticism Trilling wrote.22 But Wallace's overt preoccupation with irony alongside sincerity differentiates him from his forebear and marks his work as a further turn in the dialectic of sincerity. If for Trilling, in other words, the key concept that opposed sincerity was authenticity, for Wallace it was irony. This shift alters the theoretical foundations and cultural connotations of sincerity, and it is also what makes the novelwith its dialogic form and more complex relationship to ironic statementthe place where Wallace's highly developed thinking on sincerity could find its most telling manifestation.

In the next section I will explore the operation of this thinking in Infinite Jest, but first, as I did with Trilling's ideas in the first section, I want to place Wallace's concern with sincerity in a broader intellectual context. After three decades of neglect, in the period since 2004 there has been a significant upturn of critical interest in this concept, and scholars have begun to construct histories of sincerity and to revise and update the notion for the post-high theory and heavily media-conscious twenty-first century. Among this new wave of sincerity studies are monographs and essay collections about fiction, poetry, politics, ritual, and rhetoric, with R. Jay Magill's 2012 trade book Sincerity even offering a straightforward updating of Trilling's history of ideas with some material added on recent American culture (in particular, hipsters).23 In an essay surveying this expanding field of scholarship, Angela Esterhammer has highlighted some differences between the first wave of interest in the relationship between sincerity and literature during the 1960s and early 1970s, and the revival of interest we have witnessed recently. Noting that the majority of scholarship in both waves is anchored in the context of literary Romanticism, one difference Esterhammer highlights concerns the poet that each wave takes to be the central vector for conceiving the relationship between sincerity and literature:

The first wave of "sincerity studies" in the 1960s and 1970s focused on Wordsworth and recognized him, against an eighteenth-century background, as the first poet to cultivate sincerity as a poetic value. A recent, second wave, which is much more likely to adopt Byron as its model, interprets sincerity as a code or convention, thereby historicizing Romanticism as a movement defined by its materialistically determined construction of its own values.24

It is part of my argument that David Foster Wallace bridges these two positions, combining the cultivation of sincerity as a poetic value with an awareness of the materialistically determined construction of sincerity as a convention. Although the sentiments expressed in "E Unibus Pluram," particularly the clarion call for sincerity at its conclusion, make Wallace sound like a wannabe Wordsworth, his literary fiction is equally close in spirit to Byron in its ironic awareness of its own artificiality and inability to attain a pure sincerity. Like Trilling, Wallace praises sincerity while recognizing its difficulty, yet Wallace's notion of sincerity updates Trilling's more nostalgic conception, making sincerity responsive to changes in media technology, to new theories of language, and to contemporary conceptions of truth.

In this, Wallace can be seen to be respond, avant la lettre, to the call by Ernst van Alphen and Mieke Bal for "a new theorization" of the concept of sincerity.25 In their introduction to The Rhetoric of Sincerity, a collection of essays that reflects back on the theory age from the viewpoint of 2009, van Alphen and Bal begin by noting an irreducible division embedded in the concept of sincerity: "In a traditional sense, sincerity indicates the performance of an inner state on one's outer surface so that others can witness it. But the very distinction between inner self and outer manifestation implies a split that assaults the traditional integration that marks sincerity" (RS 3). Moreover, in the age of theory, this inaugurating split between inner self and outer performance becomes further complicated, and even displaced, by the deconstruction of the expressive subject and the privileging of language as environment rather than tool. In the wake of such radical reconceptualizations of selfhood and language, the notion of sincerity might seem simply to be rendered outdated and inutile. But such is not the case, according to van Alphen and Bal: "Sincerity cannot be dismissed [...] because it is an indispensable affective (hence, social) process between subjects" (RS 5). If we are to think the communal and interpersonal then, we need sincerity, but what is required is a rethinking of sincerity's rhetorical basis "outside of its bond with subjectivity," with particular regard to be paid to the formidable influence of a present-day media-sphere in which "performance overrules expression" (RS 5). In Infinite Jest, as we shall now see, performance overrules expression in just this way, resulting in the emergence of a new and institutionally mediated brand of sincerity.

Infinite Jest and Institutional Sincerity

One of the most prominent and memorable strands of Infinite Jest depicts the inner workings of Alcoholics Anonymous recovery meetings. The structure of these meetings sees a speaker addressing the audience and telling the story of his or her journey to that point, from initial drug use to addiction to total despair ("bottoming out") to finding AA and onto recovery and a tentatively rehabilitated life. The speaker's audience consists of fellow addicts, who range from skeptical new arrivals in recovery to older men and women whom Wallace's narrator refers to as Crocodiles, and of whom we are told: "Sincerity with an ulterior motive is something these tough ravaged people know and fear."26 Despite the priority offered in this quotation to a seemingly pure sincerity, however, what is striking about the many transcriptions of recovery stories offered in Infinite Jest is their very similarity. This similarity is in fact mandated by AA: in essence, if an addict is to prove his acceptance of addiction and his willingness to recover, he must repeat clichéd mantras and tell the same generic story about his journey that everyone else also tells. "All the speakers' stories of decline and fall and surrender," the reader is told, "are basically alike, and like your own" (IJ 345). It remains undecidable to what extent the generic frame and language employed by each speaker emanates from his or her own traumatic experience, and to what extent that frame and language are handed down by AA; Wallace offers support to both positions at the same time. But what is clear is that we are no longer in the Wordsworthian realm of sincerity as spontaneous creation: prioritized instead are a set of communally recognized generic forms and linguistic motifs, which combine to create a story with which everyone present can identify (AA's motto in the novel is "Don't Compare, Identify").

The standard way to read this situation in theoretical terms is to say that AA interpellates its subjects, that what the reader sees in their actions and responses is the discursive manifestation of a powerful institutional agency.27 Resistance to such institutional power was a reflex of American countercultural and postmodernist fiction, seen for instance in the depiction of the army in Heller's Catch-22 (1961), the mental health hospital in Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), the state mail monopoly in Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and the prison in Elkin's A Bad Man (1967).28 All these novelists found the roots of their critique in Kafka, and that critique was taken up independently in the work of Althusser and Foucault, before going on to characterize large swathes of literary theory, most notably the New Historicism. But the negative representation of the institution across this body of work has recently received a corrective, with a significant strand of contemporary thinking acknowledging the power of interpellation by institutions while attempting to give a more balanced and even positive account of institutional life. Perhaps the most prominent example of this trend in American literary studies is Mark McGurl's The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009), and in a more recent essay, McGurl has been explicit about the need for scholars to embrace and shore up the institutions they inhabit, and in whose name they speak.29 Universities and creative writing programs are not equivalent to AA programs, of course (although the precise differences are open to debate), but the point made consistently throughout Infinite Jest is that the world outside institutions is inhospitable to the contemporary individual. Responding to the question of what makes the AA program different to institutional brainwashing, Don Gately thinks to himself that "the Program might be more like deprogramming than actual washing, considering the psychic job the Disease's Spider has done on all of them" (IJ 369). A minor character, Bruce Green, agrees: "if Boston AA is a cult that like brainwashes you, he guesses he'd got himself to the point where his brain needed a good brisk washing" (IJ 562).30 In the technocapitalist world of hyper-entertainment presented in Infinite Jest as a near-future version of the American present, classic liberal freedom has irretrievably morphed into a libertarianism that leaves individuals isolated but increasingly without sovereignty over themselves.31 True freedom, Wallace seems to suggest, is now to be found in recognizing limits and submitting oneself to boundaries (on the analogy of submitting oneself freely to the moral law in Kant), and thereby discovering within those boundaries others like oneself. This understanding of freedomproposed most clearly in Infinite Jest by the tennis philosophy of Gerhardt Schtitt (IJ 81-84)requires a concomitant rejection of an understanding of sincerity as the pure and uninfluenced emanation of the self. In place of this understanding is the embrace of a range of learned behaviors that connect one to one's community, and the adoption of a new set of values that can be held sincerely without that sincerity presuming the rejection of communal and institutional influence in order to maintain oneself as authentic and apart.32

In Infinite Jest, then, success in the AA recovery program means finding a way to speak sincerely using a formula that possesses no originality as an emanation from the self. This is precisely a form of sincerity for which, to go back to van Alphen and Bal, "performance overrules expression," where sincerity is rethought "outside of its bond with subjectivity" (RS 16, 5). The apotheosis of this conception of sincerity is the AA recommendation that addicts get down on their knees every morning and pray to their chosen "Higher Power." Rather than placing us in the territory of The Varieties of Religious Experience, wherein sincerity would be viewed as the expression of personal belief, Wallace's narrator stresses the formalism of this gesture, how belief in the divine recipient of the prayer is very much secondary to the formal process of undertaking the ritual. Again, this is precisely Gately's experience, because "when he tries to understand something to really sincerely pray to," all he feels is "Nothingness" (IJ 444). But Gately is advised to continue to carry out the ritual even if he cannot rationally connect it to the progression of his sobriety. The director of his recovery house puts this in its bluntest terms: "Pat had said it didn't matter at this point what he thought or believed or even said. All that mattered was what he did. If he did the right things, and kept doing them for long enough, what Gately thought and believed would magically change" (IJ 466). The sense of community around the addict as they undergo this process is then sustained by regular questions from other addicts, verifying whether he is praying or not. Hence, Wallace depicts the functioning of this new kind of sincerity precisely in its social dimension, precisely as what van Alphen and Bal call "an indispensable affective (hence, social) process between subjects" (RS 5).33

But what makes Infinite Jest the novel it is, rather than simply a representational drama of contemporary ideas about sincerity, is that the reader is made to participate in this process too. The first recounting of AA meetings in the text is prefigured by an opening five-page section in the narrator's own voice, which begins as follows: "If, by the virtue of charity or the circumstances of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility like Enfield MA's state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts" (IJ 200). Among these facts are the following:

That anonymous generosity, too, can be abused.

That having sex with someone you do not care for feels lonelier than not having sex in the first place, afterward.

That it is permissible to want.

That everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different to everyone else. That this isn't necessarily perverse.

That there might not be angels, but there are people who might as well be angels.

That God unless you're Charlton Heston, or unhinged, or both speaks and acts entirely through the vehicle of human beings, if there is a God.

That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there's a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it's interested in re you.

"You," here, are none other than the reader, the person being appealed to (or interpellated by) the novel's narrator, in an unusually direct manner. The prose draws attention to itself as apparently spoken, for instance in the jocular tenor of the reference to Charlton Heston, and alternatively written, as in the pedantic faux-precision of "his/her/its list of things s/he/it's interested in re you," which is impossible to say out loud as printed on the page. This undecidable oscillation between speech and writing is one indication that the sincerity of the tone here is anything but simple; another indication is the liturgical quality of the passage, which is close to the familiar genre of mantra, litany or catechism. The passage's stand-alone maxims, each given its own single-sentence paragraph, deal with things that have an aura of importance: the emotional repercussions of sex, the expression or repression of desire, the belief in individual uniqueness, the human relationship to God. And yet sincerity is inseparable here from its instantiation in a socially established genre: not only the genre of the liturgy, but the genre of the modern novel itself, which unlike religious verse understands itself to be irreducibly fictional.

Indeed, the novelization of these Wordsworthian sentiments means that they are protected by an ironic (and Byronic) awareness of their fictional status. Their potential triteness is thus simultaneously embraced and held at a distance. At the heart of a work of seemingly avant-garde fiction thus sits an unillusioned acknowledgement of formula, alongside a barely repressed hope or belief that such formula need not entirely negate the expression of something genuine and real.34 This makes Infinite Jest truly a novel for our times. How else, for example, can we imagine squaring our weary cynicism regarding the mediated quality of political sound bite culture with our yearning for something sincere to be expressed by our leaders nonetheless? How else can we negotiate between our knowledge that all mediated performance is artificial and our need to judge and make decisions regardless? Wallace's novel employs complexity and impurity in the service of his text's sincerity, paradoxically mobilizing the contaminations of the fictional to access the true.

Literary Sincerity after Wallace

The influence exerted by Wallace's novelistic model upon the concerns of his fellow American fiction writers can hardly be overstated. More than Infinite Jest's singularity within the contemporary literary landscape, it is the evidence of its effects upon the work of significant peers and successors that justifies the claim that Wallace's work heralds a new turn in the dialectic of sincerity. Wallace's generation of writers have been called post-postmodern, and it stands to reason that these writers have absorbed the depictions of institutional interpellation in the postmodern fiction of authors like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, alongside the overt critique of these interpellative processes in structuralist and poststructuralist theory. But the result of this inheritance is that for twenty-first-century writers, interpellation is now acknowledged as a given: speaking or writing in the contemporary moment involves expressing forces beyond one's own authentic interiority; subjectivity is not only a cause but also an effect, whether of technology, culture, neurochemistry, or language. Like Wallace, then, many of his peers are concerned to find a sustainable model of sincerity without maintaining an outdated and ineffective commitment to expressive subjectivity that fails to acknowledge present realities.

The form that this concern with sincerity takes varies from writer to writer. Dave Eggers's early work, from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) to What is the What (2006), provocatively combines a claim of urgent and traumatic truth-telling with a canny awareness of generic conventions, reader response, and market conditions, producing a first-person version of Wallace's model that withdraws from the full embrace of fictionality. In Jennifer Egan's Look at Me (2001), a novel also concerned with the relationship between sincerity and fictionality, the protagonist Charlotte Swenson finds that the New York celebrity world through which she moves is a "mirrored room," in which subjective consciousness has become infiltrated by a range of institutions and discourses, including the texts and discourses of postmodernism itself. George Saunders, from CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) to In Persuasion Nation (2006), experiments with the extent to which flat characters whose discourse (whether first person or free indirect) has been contaminated by the linguistic poverty of received neoliberal mantras, can nonetheless be understood to speak sincerely and generate affective responses in the reader. In Saunders, subjectivity has become a struggle with the limits of linguistic style, while in Colson Whitehead's Apex Hides the Hurt (2006) style itself has become a function of advertising. Whitehead's novel asks, nevertheless, whether an interiority made up of brand names can still be made to articulate something sincere and true. Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision (2005) asks something similar of the contemporary bildungsroman, telling a fable of political conversion that seems to invite rather than protect against accusations of imperial privilege and ironic mockery. The possibilities of contemporary politics are likewise at the heart of Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document (2006), which queries what it means to hold political beliefs sincerely in a culture where radical protest has been corporatized and developments in media have turned protest itself into a form of advertising. Finally, the new relationship between genre and sincerity explored by Wallace is similarly taken up by Michael Chabon and Junot Díaz, who, in The Final Solution (2004) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) respectively, employ genre tropes and a comic tone to address the horrors of the twentieth century, thereby inviting questions concerning the sincerity of these gestures.35

But perhaps any argument about a turn in the dialectic of sincerity is most convincingly made not in relation to relatively experimental writers, such as those named in the paragraph above, but with regard to novelists often presumed by critics to uphold the canons of realism. Jonathan Franzen is no doubt the preeminent example here, with The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010) generally regarded as standard bearers for the contemporary realist novel. But while it is difficult to argue against a reading of Freedom that sees it as sustaining the notion of the liberal subject that also underlies classic nineteenth-century realist fiction, at least one critic has queried the extent to which The Corrections can be said to maintain a classically liberal position on subjectivity and agency.36 All that said, my example here will not be Franzen, but Jeffrey Eugenides, whose most recent novel The Marriage Plot (2011) has broadly been read by reviewers not only as a defense of realism but as an attack on the literary developments associated with Wallace. In a review for the London Review of Books, Christopher Beha called the novel "aggressively conventional," placing Eugenides firmly on one side of a polarizing debate in contemporary letters: "The Marriage Plot arrives at a time when convention is the fashion, and takes Eugenides to the forefront of a neoconservative movement that views literary experimentation as the God That Failed."37  Beha points out what many readers of the novel will not fail to recognize, that the character of Leonard Bankhead is constructed from the traits of the real-life David Foster Wallace.38 This suggests to Beha that "[t]he clash between postmodernism and tradition is among the novel's explicit subjects," and he concedes that Eugenides "can't be faulted for lack of ambition. He too is seeking a way forward rather than a mere retrenchment" (R 20). But the reviewer goes on to outline the many ways in which, within the early-1980s Brown University milieu that Eugenides constructs, postmodern theory is mocked and sidelined, just as Leonard will be by the novel's plot. Aesthetically, the realist frame also appears to win out, and Beha therefore concludes that Eugenides "has chosen the winner in the debate by choosing the terms of the discourse" (R 19). He dismisses any notion that the writer's residual experimental gestures add up to much: "The Marriage Plot is littered with coy metafictional gestures, but they are mostly embedded in Madeleine's consciousness, so they never break the realist frame" (R 20).

It is this final claim, that the protagonist's consciousness and the realist framing blunt any experimental side to the novel, which I want to press upon here. If on the level of the plot it certainly seems plausible to read the collapse of Leonard Bankhead as an allegory for the dismissal of Wallace's literary project, on the level of the novel's languagewhich Beha describes as "pedestrian," "flat" and "clichéd" (R 20)I want to argue that The Marriage Plot constitutes, at least in some significant moments, a more sophisticated attempt to merge the conventions of realism with some of the complex concerns with sincerity articulated in Wallace's fiction. In order to show this, I will focus on a five-page segment of the novel (65-69): this segment concludes the opening movement narrated from the point of view of Madeleine Hanna (the novel's Isabel Archer), and then switches to narrating the consciousness of its other main viewpoint character, Mitchell Grammaticus (its Caspar Goodwood). Madeleine's love affair with Leonard is entering its first moment of crisis, and as she feels Leonard pull away from her emotionally she acts out of desperation, calling in unexpectedly on him late one night in his biology lab. "Madeleine had the crazy hope," the narrator tells us, "that this expression of weakness might in fact be strength. It was a brilliant strategy because it lacked all strategy. It involved no games, only sincerity. Seeing such sincerity, how could Leonard fail to respond?"39

Madeleine's hopes, reminiscent of the early illusions of many a young heroine of nineteenth-century fiction, but also recalling, in the presumed opposition between sincerity and strategy, the complexities of Infinite Jest, are soon dashed when Leonard responds "with a look not of love but of annoyance" (MP 65). As early as the next page, however, the couple have made up spectacularly, and Madeleine again acts impulsively during a moment of high passion:

Leonard was kissing her. When she could bear no more, Madeleine grabbed him savagely by his ears. She pulled Leonard's head away and held it still to show him the evidence of how she felt (she was crying now). In a hoarse voice edged with something else, a sense of peril, Madeleine said, "I love you." (MP 66)

Here, it appears, is an act of pure sincerity, Trilling's "congruence between avowal and actual feeling" (SA 2), the showing of one's inside on one's outside. Sincerity exposes the self by asking for a response from the otherunlike authenticity, it does not imply the autonomy of the selfand the words "I love you" spoken during passionate lovemaking represent the apotheosis of this appeal to the responsive other. Hence the "sense of peril" that "edges" Madeleine's hoarse voice. But Leonard's response demonstrates that there is another kind of peril at stake here, one that cuts deeper by questioning whether Madeleine can mean what she says at all, and whether the simplicity that Madeleine assumes lies at the heart of sincerity in fact dissimulates a more basic complexity. Rather than respond in kind, Leonard stays silent and reaches for the book Madeleine has in her bag. It is A Lover's Discourse, by Roland Barthes, and on the page Leonard opens for Madeleine, under the heading "I Love You," she reads the following words: "The figure refers not to the declaration of love, to the avowal, but to the repeated utterance of the love cry. [...] Once the first avowal has been made, 'I love you' has no meaning whatever .  .  ." (MP 67). This is a theory of language entirely other to the one that undergirds Madeleine's (and Trilling's) understanding of sincerity, and it implies that language can betray the self rather than enable its expression. Language, in other words, is "not a tool but an environment," an environment within which, as Wittgenstein puts it in a line Wallace quotes in interview, "I don't know my way about."40 Or perhaps the only people who do know their way about are sophisticates like Leonard, who in a move reminiscent of the practiced openness of the seducer Orin Incandenza in Infinite Jest, informs Madeleine on their first date that he's been secretly walking her toward his apartment: "This is how I do it, apparently. It's shameful. Shameful. I don't want to be like that. Not with you. So I'm telling you" (MP 58). In The Rhetoric of Sincerity, van Alphen and Bal argue that in a post-theory age "the issue of sincerity is no longer one of 'being' sincere but of 'doing' sincerity" (RS 16). Leonard is "doing" sincerity here, yetin a move widespread in contemporary American writinghis sincerity is unavoidably contaminated from the beginning by the anticipation of the effect it will have upon the other.

The third character in the novel's love triangle, Mitchell Grammaticus (whom Beha reads as an avatar for Eugenides himself), also practices a kind of sincerity familiar from Infinite Jest. When we switch to his perspective for the first time in the novel, he is contemplating his rejection by Madeleine, and we discover that he has become accustomed at such anxious moments to reciting the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner" (MP 68). He has learned this technique from Salinger's Franny and Zooey, a book he compares favorably in his mind to the fiction of Dostoevsky. But it is in Mitchell's conception of how the prayer works that Infinite Jest most resonates: "you just kept repeating the prayer until your heart took over and started repeating it for you. This was important because, whenever Mitchell stopped to think about the words of the Jesus Prayer, he didn't much like them" (69). Here again, in an echo of the experience of Don Gately and his fellow addicts, we have a case in which "performance overrules expression," where the meaning of the words or the speaker's assent to them come a distant second to the simple action of repeating them, and to the potential ameliorative effect that the repetition might have. Not only do these aspects come second, in fact, but the words he repeats never become intellectually acceptable to Mitchell despite his reliance on the prayer's effects, which is why he is never able to convert to the Catholic faith. This is a faith that Wallace, according to his biographer D. T. Max, also attempted unsuccessfully to join on a number of occasions.41  And his position on language suggests why he could not: for Wallace, as for Mitchell, it was possible to reject intellectually the meaning denoted by words and mantras while nonetheless acknowledging their importance. Indeed, to hold this seemingly contradictory position was not only the key to a contemporary sincerity. It was also, as we shall see in the final section, the key to a contemporary democracy, wherein one's own beliefs must co-exist with those of others in a community held together by actions rather than words.

Political Sincerity after Wallace

Fyodor Dostoevsky, the writer Mitchell Grammaticus rejects, was an important literary model for Wallace. In contrast to the contemporary American intelligentsia, who "distrust strong belief, open conviction" and produce writers who "won't (can't) dare try to use serious art to advance ideologies," Dostoevsky was a deeply ideologically writer, engaging passionately in the intellectual debates of his day.42 This ideological commitment allowed Dostoevsky to write "morally passionate, passionately moral fiction"wherein formal niceties are subordinated to a quite searing brand of sincere confrontation with the selfa model of art that had gone missing from the contemporary American scene.43 Thus Infinite Jest is modeled in large part on The Brothers Karamazov, featuring three contrasting brothersone a lecherous womanizer, one an anguished intellectual, one an angelic believerwho explore a set of urgent questions about the meaning of life and the task of the human.44 In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Mikhail Bakhtin remarks that "Dostoevsky was capable of representing someone else's idea, preserving its full capacity to signify as an idea, while at the same time also preserving a distance, neither confirming the idea nor merging it with his own expressed ideology."45 Like Dostoevsky, Wallace treats his ideas polyphonically and dialogically, so that they do not reduce to a straightforward ideal of emanation from a prior and unified self. Yet Wallace, as we have seen, maintains a further distance, adding an overt acknowledgement of artifice to Dostoevsky's dramatic art. In one of his last interviews, he claimed that while terms like "moral" and "ethical"concepts that have to do, like sincerity, primarily with not being false to othersmight be apt for describing the era of Dostoevsky or the European Romantics, these terms had become thorny and problematic for those born in the postmodern age.46 No longer was it possible to confront the self head-on in the old ways, without recognition of the way this confrontation is mediated not only by language and genre, but also by institution and community. This downplaying of individualism in favor of community and institutionality makes it far from irrelevant, then, that Wallace's art does not produce a religio-anarchist politics in line with Dostoevsky's. Wallace associated anarchism with the ironic attitude of the postmodernist generation, and instead defended a form of democratic liberalism in line with his commitment to a new and complex form of sincerity.47

This brings us back full circle, of course, to Trilling. The final claim of the present article is that the politics that emerge from Wallace's fiction might be said to embody a sophisticated dialectical reimagining of Trilling's brand of liberalism, what Anthony Hutchison has referred to as Trilling's commitment to "ideas in modulation."48 In their shared distrust of the radicalism of the 1960sa radicalism that a good deal of recent scholarship has aligned with the growth of libertarianism in the post-60s era49it is no coincidence that Trilling and Wallace both turned to the concept of sincerity to defend their versions of liberalism. For by the time Sincerity and Authenticity was published in 1972, the coherent public sphere that the concept of sincerity invokes and undergirds was under attack not only from the radical movements Trilling inveighs against, but also from the bureaucratic and corporate culture that sociologists such as David Riesman and C. Wright Mills describe in their work. What Mills termed "a sacrifice of selfhood on a personality market" was already revealing itself, in the postwar context, as a great threat not only to liberalism but to the very structure of American democracy.50 A democratic society relies upon an informed public and on politicians that areto cite a contrast from John F. Kennedy's "new frontier" speech that Wallace employs (unreferenced) in an essay on John McCain"leaders" rather than "salesmen."51 The increasing impossibility of telling these two figures apart, and of maintaining a distinction between truth and advertisingbetween "the public interest" and "what interests the public," as Wallace puts it in another late essay52made issues of sincerity, authenticity, and irony increasingly crucial as the century advanced.

But the cultural turn away from sincerity and toward authenticity that Trilling describes can be understood in retrospect as a last-ditch attempt to react in the world of private relations to a public tide that could not be stemmed. By the time Infinite Jest was published in 1996, the awareness was complete, for Wallace and his generation of writers, that the fight to preserve personal authenticity had proven impossible, so much did advertising and consumerism proliferate in the daily private lives of Americans. What remains possible, in Wallace's fiction, is the reconstruction of new forms of sincerity, with the artwork as a model of interpersonal connection, and what he called "The Democratic Spirit" as a goal of political life.53 That Wallace's new sincerity works in paradoxical, complex, and even contradictory ways can be said to increase rather than diminish his importance for our time. Writing of Trilling, Louis Menand notes that "his characteristic sentences turn in on themselves; they can sometimes seem self-negating," but that "[t]he cast of the mind that produced these sentences is not paradoxical; it is dialectical."54 In the case of Wallace, it is better to call his conception of sincerity paradoxical and dialectical all at once. This is a possibility Trilling himself permitted to the artist in one of the most memorable passages in The Liberal Imagination: "A culture is not a flow, not even a confluence, the form of its existence is struggle, or at least debateit is nothing if not a dialectic. And in any culture there are likely to be certain artists who contain a large part of the dialectic within themselves, their meaning and power lying in their contradictions."55 David Foster Wallace was very much an artist in this mode, and the themes, forms and contradictions of his fiction mark a new turn in the dialectic of a culture and the dialectic of sincerity.

Adam Kelly is a lecturer in American literature at the University of York, UK. He is the author of American Fiction in Transition: Observer-Hero Narrative, the 1990s, and Postmodernism (Bloomsbury, 2013) and is currently at work on a book about the aesthetics and politics of sincerity in contemporary American fiction.

The present essay was substantially completed while I was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. I would like to acknowledge the feedback offered by members of the Harvard American Literature Colloquium, and the ideas and enthusiasm of the students in my seminar on David Foster Wallace and his generation. I am also grateful for postdoctoral funding received from the Irish Research Council, and for the Ransom Center fellowship I received to undertake work at the Wallace archives at the University of Texas-Austin.


  1. William Gaddis, The Recognitions (New York: Penguin, 1993), 452. []
  2. Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 2. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as SA. []
  3. In support of Trilling's claim about the emergence of a moral discourse of sincerity in the sixteenth century, see John Martin, "Inventing Sincerity, Refashioning Prudence: The Discovery of the Individual in Renaissance Europe,"American Historical Review 102 (1997): 1304-42; and Jane Taylor, "'Why do you tear me from Myself?': Torture, Truth, and the Arts of the Counter-Reformation," in The Rhetoric of Sincerity, ed. Ernst van Alphen, Mieke Bal and Carel Smith (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 19-43. []
  4. On both of these developments, literary and sociological, see Abigail Cheever, Real Phonies: Cultures of Authenticity in Post-World War II America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010). []
  5. See in particular the closing chapter of Sincerity and Authenticity, "The Authentic Unconscious." For an important recent defense of Trilling's liberal approach to literature against reflex radical positions, see Amanda Anderson, "The Liberal Aesthetic," in Theory After 'Theory,' ed. Jane Elliott and Derek Attridge (London: Routledge, 2011), 249-61. []
  6. Henri Peyre, Literature and Sincerity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963); Patricia M. Ball, "Sincerity: The Rise and Fall of a Critical Term," Modern Language Review 59 (1964): 1-11; David Perkins, Wordsworth and the Poetry of Sincerity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964); Donald Davie, "On Sincerity: From Wordsworth to Ginsburg," Encounter (Oct 1968): 61-65, and "Sincerity and Poetry" (1965), in Speaking of Writing: Selected Hopwood Lectures, ed. Nicholas Delbanco, (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1990): 209-17; Herbert Read, The Cult of Sincerity (London: Faber & Faber, 1968); Patricia Meyer Spacks, "In Search of Sincerity," College English 29 (1968): 591-602; Leon Guilhamet, The Sincere Ideal: Studies in Eigtheenth-Century English Literature (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1974). []
  7. Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011); George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (New York: Faber & Faber, 2013). In his epilogue, Rodgers dates the end of the age of fracturerather problematically, in my viewto the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Packer defines the unwinding in more generational terms: "If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you spent your adult life in the vertigo of this unwinding" (3). []
  8. David Foster Wallace, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (London: Abacus, 1998), 21-82 (81). []
  9. Our distance from the earlier Trilling is summarized by Louis Menand in his 2008 introduction to the NYRB reissue of Trilling's best-known work, The Liberal Imagination (1950). Commenting on Trilling's declaration that criticism must broach "the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meets," Menand notes that "the idea that people have some sort of moral obligation to match up their taste in art and literature with their political opinions exercised a much more powerful appeal in Trilling's time than it does today," and concludes, "Since the 1960s [...] cultural taste has largely been liberated from politics." Louis Menand, "Introduction" to Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (New York: New York Review of Books Editions, 2008), x, xi. This "liberation" of taste from politics is something Trilling himself recognized in the same footnote of Sincerity and Authenticity that acknowledges the coming of the "Post-Modern" age: "The audience likes or does not like, is pleased or not pleasedthe faculty of 'taste' has re-established itself at the centre of the experience of art" (SA 98). []
  10. For a detailed study of the cultural role of irony in postwar America, see Lee Konstantinou's forthcoming book Cool Characters: Irony, Counterculture, and American Fiction from Hip to Occupy. []
  11. Many histories of the rise (and fall) of theory are now available. Exemplary instances are Nicholas Birns, Theory After Theory: An Intellectual History Of Literary Theory From 1950 To The Early 21st Century (New York: Broadview Press, 2010); and François Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, trans. Jeff Fort (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008). []
  12. This is not to say that for Trilling the self is necessarily whole: he takes Freud's conception of the unconscious very seriously as a challenge to the notion that the authentic self is autonomous and undivided. But one only has to compare the version of Freud presented by Trilling, wherein the truth of the self is primarily psychological, with the revisionist versions presented by Lacan or Derrida, who emphasize the role of language, to see the distance between Trilling and theory. []
  13. Claire Colebrook, Irony (London: Routledge, 2004), 20. []
  14. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). []
  15. Colebrook, Irony, 95. []
  16. See, for instance, Barbara Foley, "The Politics of Deconstruction," in Rhetoric and Form: Deconstruction at Yale, ed. Robert Con Davis and Robert Schleifer (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 114-34; and the essays, by Derrida and others, collected in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, ed. Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld and David Gray Carlson (New York: Routledge, 1992). []
  17. For some further background on the notion of expressive subjectivity employed in the present article, seein addition to Colebrookthe discussion in Martin, "Inventing Sincerity, Refashioning Prudence," of John Calvin's gloss on Psalm 15 in the latter's Commentaries on the Psalms. Of one particular sentence, Martin writes, "In the first part, in his stress on 'a concord and harmony of the heart and the tongue,' Calvin's ideas were consonant with those of medieval writers. But the second part of the passage, in its emphasis on the ideal of speech as 'a lively image of the inward affection,' presents a profoundly new ideal, rooted in the new Renaissance emphasis on the expressive subjectivity of the individual" (1332). []
  18. David Foster Wallace, "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young," in Both Flesh and Not: Essays (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2012), 37-68 (63). Originally published in 1988, and hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as FF. []
  19. David Foster Wallace, "Greatly Exaggerated," in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, 138-45 (140). []
  20. Larry McCaffery, "An Interview with David Foster Wallace," Review of Contemporary Fiction 13 (1993): 127-50 (148). Much has already been written on Wallace's relationship to irony, but critics have tended to follow certain gestures Wallace makes in "E Unibus Pluram" and in the interview with McCaffery which suggest that a writer can choose whether to make language a tool of irony or a tool of sincerity, as if the difference involved were simply one of intent. For instance, Marshall Boswell argues that in Wallace's fiction, "hip irony is itself ironized in such a way that the opposite of hip ironythat is, gooey sentimentcan emerge as the work's indirectly intended mode." Marshall Boswell, Understanding David Foster Wallace (Columbia, SC: University Press of South Carolina, 2003), 17. For Mary Holland, the question is likewise one of authorial intent, where the opponent is ambivalence and narcissistic addiction: Don Gately in Infinite Jest represents, on her reading, a character "earnest enough to suffer the irony and brave enough to struggle heroically to escape it, but still doomed, almost sadistically so, by an author who cannot overcome his own ironic ambivalence." Mary K. Holland, "'The Art's Heart's Purpose': Braving the Narcissistic Loop of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest," Critique 47.3 (2006): 218-42 (220). Lee Konstantinou's account of Wallace's "postironic belief," finally, although it is closest to my own description of how sincerity operates in Infinite Jest, and although it offers a nuanced outline of the nature and purpose of metafiction (88-91), still ultimately depends upon a theory of language as tool rather than environment, and on an explicitly anti-dialectical sense of the movement from irony to expressive belief. Lee Konstantinou, "No Bull: David Foster Wallace and Postironic Belief," in The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, ed. Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012), 83-112. Although a full account of Wallace's relationship to irony is beyond the scope of this essay, it will be clear from what I say that I think the situation is more complex than these critics have it. The most fundamental question for Wallace the writer (as opposed, perhaps, to Wallace the cultural commentator) is not what intentional stance we taketo believe or not to believe, to be naïve or to be cynicalbut how language works and what it enables us to do. For this reason it is to Wallace's fictionwhere literary language and irony are more clearly environments rather than toolsthat we should look to understand his moment in the dialectic of sincerity. []
  21. On the inside of the second flyleaf in Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871, the fourth volume of Joseph Frank's biography of the Russian writer (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), Wallace writes: "Sincerity & Authenticity / or 'Authenticity & Sincerity' / Lionel Trilling." The reference comes in a list marked "Classic Dost" (presumably classic criticism on Dostoevsky), alongside references to fellow New York intellectuals Irving Howe and Philip Rahv. Of these figures, only Rahv is mentioned in the main text of Frank's book, which suggests either that Wallace had already read the works he names by Trilling, Howe and Rahv, or that his research for his Village Voice review of the Frank biographies (a review reprinted as "Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky" in David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster [London: Abacus, 2005], 255-74) led him to these names and texts. For more on Wallace's relationship to Dostoevsky, see section V below. []
  22. McCaffery, "An Interview with David Foster Wallace," 131. []
  23. See Deborah Forbes, Sincerity's Shadow: Self-Consciousness in British Romantic and Mid-Twentieth-Century American Poetry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); Pam Morris, Imagining Inclusive Society in Nineteenth-Century Novels: The Code of Sincerity in the Public Sphere (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004); Susan Rosenbaum, Professing Sincerity: Modern Lyric Poetry, Commercial Culture, and the Crisis in Reading (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007); Adam B. Seligman, Robert P. Weller and Michael J. Puett, ed., Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Elizabeth Markovitz, The Politics of Sincerity: Plato, Frank Speech, and Democratic Judgment (University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); Ernst van Alphen, Mieke Bal, and Carel Smith, ed., The Rhetoric of Sincerity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009); Tim Milnes and Kerry Sinanan, ed., Romanticism, Sincerity and Authenticity (London: Palgrave, 2010); R. Jay Magill, Jr., Sincerity (New York: Norton, 2012); John Attridge and Rod Rosenquist, ed., Incredible Modernism: Literature, Trust and Deception (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013). []
  24. Angela Esterhammer, "The Scandal of Sincerity: Wordsworth, Byron, Landon," in Romanticism, Sincerity and Authenticity, ed. Milnes and Sinanan, 101-19 (104-5). []
  25. van Alphen and Bal, "Introduction" to The Rhetoric of Sincerity, 1-16 (16). Hereafter cited as parenthetically in the text as RS. []
  26. David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1996), 369. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as IJ. []
  27. In one of the earliest and most thorough criticisms of the AA model as the ideal solution to addiction in Infinite Jest, Mary Holland offers an exemplum of this institutional critique in her psychoanalytic emphasis on the trope of narcissism. Narcissism is made institutional in the AA program because the addict is asked "blindly to submit his or her will to the universal experience of the program. When the program asks its members to 'Identify' with each other, it is requiring them to empathize with this standard story that each member tells, with their own story, with themselves. In this way, the AA and NA programs ultimately ask not that members reach out to empathize with strangers but that they recognize their own place in this infinitely repeating sameness, the recursivity of addiction." Holland, "'The Art's Heart's Purpose,'" 233. On Holland's account, it is not so much that the self is prevented from locating an outside to the institution, but that the institution supports the notion that there is no outside to the self. As will be clear from my reading in this section, I view Holland's emphasis on narcissism as serving to reinforce critically, via psychoanalysis, the very norms of expressive subjectivity that Infinite Jest questions in its revised account of what constitutes sincerity. []
  28. For a complementary account of how postmodernist writers rejected institutional interpellation by positioning themselves as non-alienated creators set apart from the increasingly bureaucratized middle class, see Sean McCann, "Training and Vision: Roth, DeLillo, Banks, Peck, and the Postmodern Aesthetics of Vocation," Twentieth-Century Literature 53.3 (2007): 298-326. []
  29. Observing that "literary critics tend to see their existence in institutions as a kind of embarrassment, if not a kind of imprisonment," McGurl advises as follows: "At a time when the institutions inhabited by literary scholars and their students are under various forms of existential threat, and absent the likelihood of an anticapitalist revolution, this focus on liberation now seems much less urgent than the need to safeguard a stable institutional home." Mark McGurl, "Ordinary Doom: Literary Studies in the Waste Land of the Present," New Literary History 41.2 (2010): 329-49 (337). []
  30. Significantly, Green's agreement with Gately here is not accidental; another character observes that Green's statement is "not an original view, being exactly what big blockheaded Don Gately repeats about once a diem" (IJ 562). Again, genre and repetition take precedence here over original and spontaneous formulation, and yet not only is Bruce Green's sincerity not in question, but his honorable speech and actions throughout the novel make him one of its most validated characters. []
  31. For an analysis of the Marathe-Steeply conversational strand of the novel in which this larger political shift is debated most directly, see Adam Kelly, "Development Through Dialogue: David Foster Wallace and the Novel of Ideas," Studies in the Novel 44.3 (2012): 267-83. []
  32. In a review-essay that serves as an important addendum to Sincerity and Authenticity, Peter Berger places Trilling's ideas in a wider sociological context, and in doing so comments directly on the institutional meaning of the shift to authenticity: "The transition from sincerity to authenticity is the ideational correlate of the modernization of institutions. The progressive sharpening of the tension between self and society implied by the transition points directly to a progressive crisis in the institutions of modernity." Peter L. Berger, "'Sincerity' and 'Authenticity' in Modern Society," The Public Interest 31 (1973): 81-90 (84-85). This helps us to see why Wallace's reconstruction of sincerity is simultaneously a renewal of institutional life, and why one depends upon the other. []
  33. My description of the functioning of sincerity in Infinite Jest bears some resemblance to Elizabeth Freudenthal's account of what she calls "anti-interiority" in the novel, so it is important to highlight the differences between us. "Anti-interiority," Freudenthal writes, "is a mode of identity founded in the material world of both objects and biological bodies and divested from an essentialist notion of inner emotional, psychological, and spiritual life. Anti-interiority is a subjectivity generated by the material world and yet works against oppressive political, economic, and social forces in that same world, not in the ideal realm of interiority, with its normative modes of agency and its metaphysical connotations." Elizabeth Freudenthal, "Anti-Interiority: Compulsiveness, Objectification, and Identity in Infinite Jest," New Literary History 41.1 (2010): 191-211 (192). While this offers a strong description of how the process of freeing oneself from addiction actually operates in Infinite Jest, it evades the social and institutional supports that underlie the transformation. Broadly speaking, I feel that Freudenthal goes too far in her denial of the importance sincerity possesses as social affect; this leads her to construe as a paradox the sense of personal responsibility that the AA community instills in each member: "Paradoxically, AA also insists on an internalized personal responsibility to the exclusion of external causes [...]. One's addiction is one's own fault, but it's also caused by a parasitic Spider or worm. Either AA philosophy is preposterous, or, more generously, The Spider, tecato gusano, and 'personal responsibility' are entities for which 'interior' and 'exterior' have no relevant meaning" (ibid. 202). My approach offers an alternative to this either/or of preposterousness vs. meaninglessness, and makes fuller sense of the links the novel establishes between action and institution. []
  34. For a related treatment of the role of genre in Wallace's literary aesthetics, see Andrew Hoberek, "The Novel after David Foster Wallace," in A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies, ed. Marshall Boswell and Stephen J. Burn (New York: Palgrave, 2013), 211-28. []
  35. I have published essays on a number of these writers, who form the core of my current book project; for an overview of the project and an expansion on the themes of this paragraph, see Adam Kelly, "The New Sincerity," in Postmodern/PostwarAnd After, ed. Jason Gladstone, Andrew Hoberek, and Daniel Worden (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, forthcoming in 2015). []
  36. On Freedom's adherence to the liberal conventions of the realist novel and the problems this causes for its critique of overpopulation, see Margaret Hunt Gram, "Freedom's Limits: Jonathan Franzen, the Realist Novel, and the Problem of Growth." American Literary History 26.2 (2014): 295-316. On The Corrections as a post-postmodern novel that deconstructs liberal selfhood, see Stephen J. Burn, Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism (London: Continuum, 2008), 88-128. []
  37. Christopher R. Beha, "Reconstruction," London Review of Books 33.19 (6 October 2011): 19-20 (19). Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as R. The best-known sallies on the two sides of this debate about contemporary realism and experimentalism are Franzen's New Yorker essay on William Gaddis and the response by Ben Marcus in Harper's. See Jonathan Franzen, "Mr. Difficult," New Yorker (30 September 2002), 100-11; and Ben Marcus, "Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it: A correction," Harper's (October 2005): 39-52. []
  38. These traits include the fact that Wallace and the character Leonard both wear a bandana, chew tobacco and spit in a cup, are "brilliant but socially awkward, disheveled and uncombed but physically magnetic," possess a deep interest in the "eternal verities," and are depressive and suicidal (R 19). We could add to these observations by Beha the fact that Leonard Bankhead's initials match those of Lenore Beadsman, the protagonist of Wallace's first novel The Broom of the System (1987), whose key character trait is that she worries that she is no more than a linguistic construct, a character in a novel. []
  39. Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 65. Hereafter cited as MP. []
  40. McCaffery, "An Interview with David Foster Wallace," 144. []
  41. Max tells us that during the period in which he was pursuing a relationship with fellow writer Mary Karr, Wallace would meet with two friends to discuss the possibilities of faith. "Wallace said he was trying to pray," Max writes, "because, even though he did not necessarily believe in God, it seemed like a good thing to do." D. T. Max, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (New York: Viking, 2012), 166. His attempts to convert to Catholicism never came to fruition, however, and Max comments that "[f]aith was something he could admire in others but never quite countenance for himself" (251). []
  42. Wallace, "Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky," 272, 274. []
  43. Ibid., 274. []
  44. For further comparisons between the two novels, see Timothy Jacobs, "The Brothers Incandenza: Translating Ideology in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 49.3 (2007): 265-92. []
  45. For further comparisons between the two novels, see Timothy Jacobs, "The Brothers Incandenza: Translating Ideology in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 49.3 (2007): 265-92. []
  46. See Wallace's interview with Michael Silverblatt on Bookworm (2 March 2006). Audio file, online at: http://www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/bookworm/david-foster-wallace-1 []
  47. The exact outline of Dostoevsky's politicswhich broadly shifted from radical to reactionary after his prison release in 1854has been a source of debate in scholarship on his work, but most critics generally agree with Blackmur's description of the politics as "non-social," those of a man "whose way of dealing with life rested on the fundamental belief that a true rebirth, a great conversion, can come only after a great sin." R. P. Blackmur, "In the Birdcage: Notes on The Possessed of Dostoevsky," Hudson Review 1.1 (1948): 7-28 (7). See also Irving Howe's chapter, "Dostoevsky: The Politics of Salvation," in Politics and the Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957), and Joseph Frank's series of biographies on Dostoevsky, passim. On the first title page of his copy of Frank's Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871, Wallace writes the following: "Big: Dostoevsky's argument against radical, humanist, utilitarian ethics'Russian Nihilism'is apposite today's culture war between liberal utilitarians & deontological conservatives." Wallace clearly identified himself with neither of these latter groups, leaving space for a more modulated and reformulated liberalism somewhere in the middle. []
  48. Anthony Hutchison, Writing the Republic: Liberalism and Morality in American Political Fiction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 63. []
  49. This case is put most polemically in Sean McCann and Michael Szalay, "Do You Believe in Magic? Literary Thinking after the New Left," Yale Journal of Criticism 18.2 (2005): 435-68. []
  50. C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 348. []
  51. David Foster Wallace, "Up Simba," in Consider the Lobster, 156-234 (226). []
  52. David Foster Wallace, "Host," in Consider the Lobster, 275-343 (314). []
  53. In "Authority and American Usage," perhaps his most important late essay, Wallace describes "The Democratic Spirit" as an outlook "that combines rigor and humility, i.e., a passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others. [...] you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and at your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually." David Foster Wallace, "Authority and American Usage," in Consider the Lobster, 66-127 (72). []
  54. Menand, "Introduction" to The Liberal Imagination, xii. []
  55. Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, 9. []