I was just watching this discussion on David Foster Wallace between D. T. Max (author of the recent biography on DFW) and Harvard literary critic James Wood. At one point Wood reads a passage of Wallace and comments that, because of DFW’s apparent Buddhist-related themes (such as that of awareness) he’s surprised that Wallace only attended the first few days of a Zen retreat led by Thich Nhat Hanh in France, when he had been booked to stay for a full two weeks.
D. T. Max responds:
There is this idea now of David as ‘St. Dave,’–this sense of him as too good for this world, too cultured, too delicate for this world in some way. But to me what’s wonderful about David is he’s actually quite practical. The reason he leaves that Buddhist retreat, if I remember right, is that the food is bad. Or that he can’t smoke… Buddhism was in a certain way exactly the wrong [religion for him]…
What’s the raunchiest, most vibrant, of all religious faiths? The most corporeal? That would have been really the one that he might have had a chance at.
Max acknowledges that Wallace “flirted with Catholicism” and suggests that perhaps Russian Orthodoxy would have been the more appropriate religion for Wallace, with its “gold encrusted idols” and so forth. “Maybe that’s why he liked Dostoevsky so much.”
Wood later reiterates the connection between Wallace and Buddhism:
The more I read him I’m struck by this Buddhist emphasis. But I also agree that if he’d stayed in the [Buddhist] retreat in the south of France, he’d have had to stop writing. Because the cessation of consciousness would be precisely the cessation of fiction.
This discussion reminded me of a wonderful passage from Catholic novelist Walker Percy’s essay “The Holiness of the Ordinary,” in which he commends Christianity (and more specifically Catholicism) as the religion most perfectly suited to the novelist’s earthy concerns:
While no serious novelist knows for sure where his writing comes from, I have the strongest feeling that, whatever else the benefits of the Catholic faith, it is of a particularly felicitous use to the novelist. Indeed, if one had to design a religion for novelists, I can think of no better. What distinguishes Judeo-Christianity in general from other world religions is its emphasis on the value of the individual person, its view of man as a creature in trouble, seeking to get out of it, and accordingly on the move. Add to this anthropology the special marks of the Catholic Church: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which, whatever else they do, come for the highest significance upon the ordinary things of this world, read, wind, water, touch, breath, words, talking, listening–and what do you have? You have a man in a predicament and on the move in a real world of real things, a world which is a sacrament and a mystery; a pilgrim whose life is a searching and a finding.
Such a view of man as wayfarer is, I submit, nothing else than a recipe for the best novel-writing from Dante to Dostoevsky.
It is no accident, I think, that the great religions of the East, especially Hinduism and Buddhism, with their de-valuation of the individual and of reality itself, are not notable for the novels of their devotees.
Show me a young Californian novelist raised in Taoism who spends his life meditating on the Way and I’ll show you a bad novelist. Show me a lapsed Catholic who writes a good novel about being a young communist at Columbia and all show you a novelist who owes more to Sister Gertrude at Sacred Heart in Brooklyn, who slapped him clean out of his seat for disrespect to the Eucharist, than he owes to all of Marxist dialectic.
(Walker Percy, “The Holiness of the Ordinary,” from Signposts in a Strange Land, 369-370)
Incidentally, DFW attempted to become Roman Catholic at two different points in his life. “I’ve gone through RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults] a couple of times,” he once said in an interview, “but I always flunk the period of inquiry.”