The nature of Heroism

“Gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism. Heroism… True heroism… The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theater. The grand gesture, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all – all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience… Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality – there is no audience.  No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth – actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King, p.229. 

I’m slowly working through The Pale King, DFW’s unfinished novel, which is – amongst other things – about the IRS, corporations and the state, community, life choices and heroism – and, I think, growing up, and the fact that western society is, by and large, *not* keen on growing up. Not in the sense of growing up and making choices, accepting consequences and responsibilities and learning to understand that there is good in those things. 

In this chapter (the book is somewhat bits-and-piecesy, both because that is how DFW does novels and because this one is unfinished), an accounting lecturer is telling his final year students what their lives will be like – and why it’s worth it.  And I think, from what I know of DFW’s talking about the novel while he was working on – this is at the heart of what he was trying to get at – that most people don’t get an audience telling them they’re special all the time, and that accepting that and learning to live with that in a contented fashion, to go out and do a job that is necessary, and go home and live your home life in your family or your community, might be better and make you happier than chasing the dream to be ‘special’ and ‘applauded’ that we are sold in the western hemisphere.  I think he is, fundamentally, saying, “Grow Up, and learn to live a good life,” (and I think The Pale King is philosophically linked to various ideas about the nature of the Good Life).  At times he makes it seem quite bleak and quite hard, and perhaps not worth it – which I suspect is connected to his own mental health at times, and also to the fact that it is not only hard to make those choices but also to learn to live peacefully with them yourself – to accept, as DFW writes elsewhere in the book, of: 

“Our smallness, our insignificance and mortality, yours and mine, the thing we spend all our time not thinking about directly, that we are tiny and at the mercy of large foces and that time is always passing and that every day we’ve lost one more day that will never come back and our childhoods are over and our adolescence and the vigor of youth and soon our adulthood, that everything we see around us all the time is decaying and passing, it’s all passing away, and so are we, so am I, and given how fast the first forty-two years have shot by it’s not going to be long before I too pass away… That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we’re all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion*…” (p. 143) 

*DFW’s choice of oblivion is interesting (if it is his and not the character’s, of course), because DFW has an interesting relationship with faith/christianity/religion.  I don’t believe it is an obvion, myself – but it is an end and a break from our norm, whatever you believe comes after. 


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