Friday, April 15, 2011

The Pale King, dullness

Former IRS examiner David Wallace on dullness:

To me, at least in retrospect,¹ the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like “deadly dull” or “excruciatingly dull” come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us² spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly . . . but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called “information society” is just about information. Everyone knows³ it’s about something else, way down.

¹ (which is, after all, memoirs’ specialty)
² (whether or not we’re consciously aware of it)
³ (again, whether consciously or not)

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (Boston: Little, Brown, 2011).
The Pale King is a novel in the form of “basically a nonfiction memoir” by former IRS examiner David Wallace, “with additional elements of reconstructive journalism, organizational psychology, elementary civics and tax theory, & c.” This passage is from the Author’s Foreword. The footnote numbers are 26, 27, and 28. Ellipsis in the original.

[Cf. Blaise Pascal’s Pensées 139 (trans. W.F. Trotter): “They have a secret instinct which impels them to seek amusement and occupation abroad, and which arises from the sense of their constant unhappiness.”]

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