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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

David Foster Wallace excerpt

I saw that the Dec. 14 issue of The New Yorker has an excerpt from David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel. I wouldn't know who he was if I hadn't seen mention of him in America magazine's blog when he committed suicide, and if I hadn't then looked him up and read and posted his short essay Are some things still worth dying for? Reading his writing makes me feel disturbed, not sure why, but anyway, here's just a bit from the excerpt in The New Yorker which has a mention of the just war theory .........


[...] The specific instance traceable as the origin of my religious impulse after my interest in the cement mixer passed (to my parents’ great relief) involved a nineteen-fifties war movie that my father and I watched together on television one Sunday afternoon with the curtains drawn to prevent the sunlight from making it hard to see the screen of our black-and-white television. Watching television together was one of my father’s and my favorite and most frequent activities (my mother disliked television), and usually took place on the couch, with my father, who read during the commercials, sitting at one end and me lying down, with my head on a pillow on my father’s knees. (One of my strongest sensory memories of childhood is the feel of my father’s knees against my head and the joking way he sometimes rested his book on my head when the commercial interruption occurred.) The movie in question’s subject was the First World War and it starred an actor who was much lauded for his roles in war movies. At this point my memory diverges sharply from my father’s, as evidenced by a disturbing conversation we had during my second year at seminary. My father apparently remembers that the film’s hero, a beloved lieutenant, dies when he throws himself on an enemy grenade that has been lobbed into his platoon’s trench (“platoon” meaning a small military grouping of infantrymen with close ties from being constant comrades in arms). According to my father, a platoon is usually commanded by a lieutenant. Whereas I remember clearly that the hero, played by an actor who was noted for his portrayal of conflict and trauma, suffers private anguish over the moral question of killing in combat and the whole religious conundrum of a “just war” and “justified killing,” and finally undergoes a total psychological breakdown when his own comrade successfully lobs a grenade into a crowded enemy trench and leaps screaming (the hero does, fairly early in the film) into the enemy’s trench and falls on the grenade and dies saving the enemy platoon, and that much of the rest of the film (albeit constantly interrupted by commercials when I saw it) depicts the hero’s platoon struggling to interpret the action of their formerly beloved lieutenant, with many of them bitterly denouncing him as a traitor, many others holding that battle fatigue and a traumatic letter from “Stateside” received earlier in the film exculpated his act as a kind of temporary insanity, and only one shy, idealistic recruit (played by an actor I have never seen in another movie of that era) secretly believing that the lieutenant’s act of dying for the enemy was actually heroic and deserved to be recorded and dramatized for posterity (the shy, anonymous recruit is the narrator, in “voice-overs” at the film’s beginning and end), and I never forgot the movie (whose title both my father and I missed because we didn’t turn on the television until after the movie had begun, which is not the same as “forgetting” the title, which my father jokingly claims is what we both did) or the impact of the lieutenant’s act, which I, too (like the shy, idealistic narrator), regarded as not only “heroic” but also beautiful in a way that was almost too intense to bear, especially as I lay across my father’s knees. ♦



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