The Art of Prose: Cracking Open the Human Psyche
If I were charged with helping an artificial intelligence understand the human mind, David Foster Wallace's essay collection Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (Consider the Lobster) would be part of its required readings.
If I were charged with helping an artificial intelligence understand the human mind, David Foster Wallace's essay collection Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (Consider the Lobster) would be part of its required readings. Great writers, especially during modernist and postmodernist movements, expand the boundaries of the usage of language. Wallace weaves philosophical ideas and sometimes obscene humor into winding sentences that effectively capture human consciousness and how it interacts with language, literature, and the contemporary United States.
Though the essays deal with all sorts of subjects, from the moral implications of boiling lobsters to the presidential campaign of John McCain, Wallace consistently writes with an irreverent verve that captivates the reader. He investigates "the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography" with the same vigor as lobster neuroanatomy and the adult film industry. Wallace performs rhetorical acrobatics with his sentences, which entertain me even on subjects as esoteric as feuding dictionary companies.
It's universally acknowledged that art aims to move you in some way. Visual art makes me reimagine visual stimuli on a canvas; music moves me to hear melodies in the horn of a train. Consider the Lobster is an invigorating shot of curiosity to my mind, just like chugging a Monster Energy drink. Wallace's essays, on a superficial level, entertain me with their absurd humor and literary pyrotechnics. On a philosophical level, it provokes reactions: the title piece "Consider the Lobster," angered many carnivores and lobster fishers with its discussions of lobsters' capacity for feeling pain. It reminded me to fight humanity's solipsistic tendencies and consider the world around us. He encourages readers to think and to question what water surrounds them (as he described in a speech given in the same year as the publication of Consider the Lobster). Consider the Lobster contains thoughtful reflections, through engaging one's ethics, on what it means to be human.
However, Consider the Lobster does not have a universal appeal. Wallace's sentences are verbose, and every other word seems polysyllabic. He describes academic writing, in a long series of adjectives, as "pompous, abstruse‚Ä¶sesquipedalian, Heliogabaline, occluded, obscure, jargon-ridden, [and] empty." Ironically, many of these arguably apply to Wallace's own writing. For those who prefer a simpler, subtler style of writing, Wallace's wordy sentences may seem over the top and his digressions unnecessary. His inclusion of long asides in footnotes or parentheses, a technique common to Wallace's genre of postmodernism, distract from the text. It is a sort of literary device I never understood-often following the convoluted path of the aside, I forget the context of the sentence. The most annoying thing about this book, for me and others who don't have an encyclopedic vocabulary, is that every other page of the book also requires a dictionary visit.
Looking past dictionary frustrations and unnecessary postmodernist tricks, Consider the Lobster is still an excellent read because Wallace's writing seems to capture the essence of human consciousness: a whirlwind of thoughts that not only engages with the self, but prompts us to engage with our surroundings and consider the minute details. Wallace's works are not patronizing. He doesn't ask the reader to stop eating lobster. He simply provides a gateway into these abstract concepts and obscure perspectives, encouraging the reader to reflect upon the implications of the human mind when approached by these ideas. He prompts both self-reflection and reflection upon the world. In a time in which our media is increasingly polarized, where the propriety of one's thinking, one's 'supposed' takeaways and worldly observations have been laid out, I find this valuable.