David Foster Wallace on Enslavement to Impulse

“That feeling of having to obey every impulse and gratify every desire seems to me to be a strange kind of slavery. Nobody talks about it as such, though.” 

The term “genius” is tossed around a lot, but most would agree that the late David Foster Wallace was worthy of the title. Wallace was a novelist, essayist, and short story writer who rose to literary fame before tragically taking his life in 2008 due to a lifelong struggle with depression.

I’ve written before about Wallace’s unforgettable commencement speech in 2005 at Kenyon College, and I’ll certainly write more about him in the future.

The late DFW giving a reading circa 2006. Via Wikimedia Commons

DFW gives a reading circa 2006. Via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re familiar with his work, you know that DFW was exceptionally and almost painfully aware of the finer details of both himself and his surroundings. One would be hard-pressed to find an individual whose fingers have been pressed more squarely to the heartbeat of late-20th, early-21st century American culture than were those of Wallace.

In spite of his renown and his brilliance, Wallace carried himself with an air of cautious humility, clearly wanting very badly not to convey self-importance or elitism. Many who call his image to mind probably think first of the bandannas (to soak up his excessive perspiration) and long, flowing hair, two iconic aspects of his long-time appearance.

Wallace’s subdued, sensitive nature is evident in a 2003 interview he did with a German television broadcaster. He speaks softly and often criticizes himself for over-simplifying complex topics. And yet, in the midst of this, Wallace dispenses a great deal of insight on wide-ranging subjects.

The hour-and-a-half-long interview is remarkable in its entirety, but I am particularly enamored with one segment in which Wallace discusses American culture:

On a Paradox of American Cultural Values

Wallace highlights two central and conflicting messages of the American value system:

“Being what you call grown-up isn’t a lot of fun a lot of the time. There are things you have to do. There are things you want to do that you can’t do for a variety of reasons. And I think that for young people in America there are very mixed messages from the culture. There’s a streak of moralism in American life that extols the virtues of being grown up and having a family and being a responsible citizen. But there’s also the sense of do what you want, gratify your appetites — because when I’m a corporation appealing to the parts of you that are selfish and self-centered and want to have fun all the time, (this) is the best way to sell you things.”

Wallace points out that in the United States there is a sense that one has a duty to fulfill after a certain age—namely, the duty to settle down, start a family, work full-time, be responsible, etc. This coming-of-age model is pervasive throughout the states, and many people adhere to it as if it were divinely mandated.

Wallace sets this idea in contrast to another quintessential idea in the American paradigm—that you should “do what you want”. Wallace notes that this message arises (at least in part) from the economic model in the United States. Capitalism thrives when people buy things, and a damn good strategy to get people to buy things is to convince them that happiness and freedom lie in doing and spending whatever they please, whenever they feel like it.

The simultaneous influence of these two messages is paradoxical in that one suggests that we should live in accordance with the traditions of the past—i.e. in a way that other people determined to be valuable—while the other suggests that we should live according to our every personal whim and fancy.

The conflict between these two structures of living becomes increasingly problematic as life progresses. When you reach a certain age, as Wallace notes, “There are things you have to do. There are things you want to do but can’t do for a variety of reasons.” Regardless of our mindset toward fulfilling the duties of adulthood, we are required (unless we were born into exceptional circumstances) to perform certain duties—work, pay taxes, buy groceries, etc.

Upon arriving at this juncture, many of us seem to find that the cultural ideal of becoming a “grown-up” with a family and a mortgage and the whole shebang isn’t quite as great as we once thought. Wallace puts it frankly when he says, “Being what you call grown-up isn’t a lot of fun a lot of the time.” And I think that upon confronting this stifling situation, we are easily compelled to embrace the other side of the paradox—i.e. to assert our “freedom” by doing whatever we want right now. 

That is, as adults, in the times when we aren’t providing or looking after or working or running errands-the nights and weekends—we try to make up for our apparent lack of freedom by spending and doing whatever we crave, by seeking highs and loud, flashy forms of entertainment. In doing this, it seems we’re often bouncing from one extreme to the other—from utter submission to duty to an excessive display of “free” will.

On Being a Slave to One’s Impulses

According to Wallace, though, even what many would deem the ultimate expression of freedom (following every impulse, gratifying every desire) might be a bizarre sort of servitude:

“American economic and cultural systems that work very well in terms of selling people products and keeping the economy thriving do not work as well when it comes to educating children or helping us help each other know how to live — and, to be happy, if that word means anything. Clearly it means something different from whatever I want to do — I want to take this cup and throw it right now, I have every right to, I should! We see it with children — that’s not happiness. That feeling of having to obey every impulse and gratify every desire seems to me to be a strange kind of slavery. Nobody talks about it as such, though. We talk about the freedom of choice and you have the right to have things and spend this much money and you can have this stuff. Again, saying it this way, it sounds to me very crude and very simple.”

Wallace explains that when we shift into this mode where all we do is satisfy whatever fleeting desire seizes us, we’re indulging a mindset that is characteristic of children. For Wallace, it seems that to gratify every impulse is to become a slave to the urges of the moment. He suggests that this is not a path to happiness (“if that word means anything”).

What to Do Then

Wallace’s words lead me to considerations of what it means to be free. If following one’s fleeting desires is “a strange type of slavery”, what should one do to lose the chains? I don’t want to get into a full-blown metaphysical discussion of free will right now (though I will say about the topic that I appreciate and identify with the conclusion of Zen and Taoism—that existence might simultaneously be deterministic and allow for free will; Zen and Taoism allow for the possibility that existence is inherently paradoxical yet still totally chill, and that, being inseparable from existence, you can likewise live the paradoxes but remain in harmony with yourself), but consider this:

Free will or not, it seems to me that there is something inherently liberating in living in your own way. When I say “in your own way”, I refer to something that lies beyond either extreme of the paradox highlighted by Wallace. Rather than performing a cultural standard of success and propriety or obeying our every impulse, we might carve out a middle ground in which we “do our thing”—i.e. express ourselves openly and honestly in our lives/actions, flow intelligently and spontaneously with our nature.

This doesn’t mean living by our every whim and fancy, but rather, possessing an intuitive, fluid understanding of ourselves and our values, and allowing this experiential intelligence to indicate the way that is best for us—a way that might involve indulging animalistic impulses or heeding cultural norms or both of those or neither, depending on the circumstances. Approaching life in this way often means not consciously dissecting every decision, but simply knowing what is to be done. This approach involves a more free-flowing, holistic, intuitive intelligence that is difficult to communicate to people for whom it is something foreign. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about and want to know more, Alan Watts’ books Tao: The Watercourse Way and The Way of Zen would be fantastic places to seek more perspective on the matter.)

If we manage to approach life in this way, we might find that the apparent paradoxes—both cultural and existential—resolve themselves, and that we feel a sense of self-efficacy and liberation. This, at least, has been true for me. It should be noted, however, that the sort of self-knowledge necessary for operating in this state may not be something that is immediately available. Deep, intuitive self-understanding, in my experience, results from experimentation, reflection, an ability to see beyond the influences of external sources, and probably a significant number of “dark nights of the soul”, as it were.

This process of self-discovery can be trying, but it may well be necessary, if one is to resolve the anxiety-producing paradoxes elucidated by Wallace. And ultimately, if we do not take it upon ourselves to understand our nature and intelligently determine how best to live based on that knowledge, then something else—be it our reptilian brain, our cultural norms, or tricky marketers and advertisers—will surely do the determining for us.

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About Jordan Bates

Jordan Bates is a writer and perpetually curious autodidact interested in just about everything. He tweets a lot. He questions all the things. He makes unusual rap songs. He wanders the globe and writes about the most vitalizing, useful, and/or world-changing insights he happens upon. He dreams of a more compassionate, cooperative global community in which every human being's basic needs are met and in which all sentient beings are respected. Befriend him and/or get his best ideas sent to your inbox, if you like. Amor fati, humans.

  • AuntieMame

    I see no great “insights” from this person regarding freedom. Freedom is not the ability to buy whatever we want or do whatever we want. Freedom is the choice of a certain life path or philosophy, but it is not independent of the world around us. If a serial killer were to suggest that the only way he can be happy is to kill people, no one would agree that his “freedom” is being stifled by our laws. If we choose to live within a society, we choose to share that society and all of its resources. The first step in freedom is that choice. “I choose to live as a member of society.” This means that you agree that there will be limits to your absolute freedom. You don’t get to kill people, or steal their stuff, or molest children. It also means you don’t get to buy whatever you want, whenever you want. Freedom does not supersede consequences for our choices. If I choose to date men that treat me badly, I should not rail against their treatment as some infringement on my pursuit of happiness. All he is talking about are unpleasant consequences of breaking the social compact. “I have entered into financial obligations, therefore I am limited as to how many new financial obligations I may pursue.” This isn’t a discussion about freedom.

    Yes, corporations have intruded into our lives to convince us to give them more of our money. In the 50’s, we did not have telemarketers calling us at home all of the time, or texting, or billboards everywhere, etc. We have allowed the psychology of selling to become an integral part of our world. Giving into the manipulation is not about giving up your freedom to choose to ignore it and choose a better method of measuring your worth. It is absolutely possible to be an American that does not feel compelled to purchase all new fashion every season or buy every new bit of music or tech gadgets or whatever toys they dream up. Setting your own personal values, regardless of external influences, is a choice with serious consequences. External locus of control is not new to the human race.

    • Hey, AuntieMame, thanks for commenting. Nice to read your opinions. I have a few thoughts in response to what you wrote. First, you seem to imply that Wallace was trying to talk specifically about freedom (“I see no great “insights” from this person regarding freedom.”). He wasn’t. He was discussing American culture and mentioned in passing that doing whatever one wants is a strange type of slavery. I picked up this thread and made a few tangential comments related to freedom. You write that freedom is “not the ability to buy whatever we want or do whatever we want”, as if to insinuate that I somehow made that claim at some point in the article. I did not, nor did Wallace.

      Your definition of freedom aligns very closely with what I recommended at the end of the article — consciously choosing your own lifestyle. I said that doing so was liberating, but I didn’t go so far as to call it “freedom”, as I think freedom can have many definitions. You then begin to comment on the article within the context of the social contract of a society. I feel you’ve committed a fallacy in reasoning that each of us “chooses” to be a member of a society and thus agrees to limit our freedom. I was never given a choice to live inside or outside of society. I was born into a society, and I was told how I was expected to behave.

      I certainly would not disagree with you that there should be boundaries on someone’s ability to follow their every whim (particularly if the fulfillment of their desires would in any way harm another person). This entire article was, in fact, a commentary on the limitations of treating life as an opportunity to unreflectively gratify one’s every desire. And, I disagree with your claim that all Wallace is talking about are the “unpleasant consequences of breaking the social compact”. I don’t think that’s what he’s talking about at all — at no point does he mention anything related to breaching the established law and order of society.

      With regards to your second paragraph, neither Wallace nor I claimed that isolated incidents of giving into manipulative marketing/advertising are instances of sacrificing one’s freedom. It’s more so that these marketing/advertising agendas contribute to the “I should do whatever I want, when I want” mentality that is (perhaps) a strange type of slavery. I am 100% in agreement with your comment about the possibility of being an American who is not a rampant consumerist, and at no point did I say anything to suggest otherwise.

      Your second-to-last sentence is the most intriguing to me of everything you wrote. I agree that attempting to set one’s own personal values is a difficult and even painful struggle that will almost certainly lead one to become a very different person than they would have otherwise become. I wonder what exactly you meant by “serious consequences” though? For society? For the individual psyche? Interesting. I also wonder if it’s possible to be entirely without external influence in one’s value system. Perhaps exceptionally rare individuals are capable of this, but I think that the best most of us can hope for is a sort of dynamic interplay between our internal intellect and filters and the external people/messages/media/culture with which we interact.

      Finally, let me say that I enjoyed thinking about the comments you made, and that I hope you didn’t find this article to be completely devoid of meaningful insight. If that was the case, I’m sorry to have wasted your time! Take care.

  • Well at the very least it’s very easy to play on impulses to create an environment of more or less thoughtless impulse slaves. If you could fulfill your every desire at the snap of a finger, how much of your time would you invest in thinking about morality or the future? (Note: I wrote this before reading his piece, so my opinion is not a result of his but rather, hopefully, a result of free thinking, haha.)

    I guess if completely following your every impulse was actually possible, you would more or less be a slave regardless of whether or not there was corporate involvement though.

    I actually had somewhat of an identity crisis when my hormones disagreed with me as a teenager, and had me “falling” for girls that I disliked as people. Needless to say, I did not give in to the impulse, but then again what is the point of such an action? You are only denying yourself possible gratification.. and if you are denying yourself a moment of happiness, or at least for it to have any meaning, would mean to believe in there being a higher meaning to ones life than happiness, and usually being on the nihilist side of the spectrum, more often than not, I don’t believe that there is.

    But then again I have found that the way I was raised, or at least the way my brain seems to work, makes mindless impulse following not very fulfilling either, so the pursuit of happiness cannot be completed by chocolate eating and frequent nap-taking, sadly.

    I don’t think it’s possible to completely break free of the opinions of other people unless you were born outside of civilization… so that would make us all slaves in one sense or the other.

    Oh, and I personally find that the traditional lifestyle, and the traditional search for accomplishment rather distasteful, but who’s to say that’s not just a product of how unsuccessful I am by traditional standards? A sort of coping mechanism? And would that not in a sense still make me a “thought slave”? Because my thought would still be a product of society, even if it was one of disagreeing with it’s current state.

    As a somewhat of a pessimist and nihilist, I would prefer to live for the buzz of the moment, but my cursed morality, or empathy or whatever it is, doesn’t allow me to overlook the tortured screams of the less fortunate. Perhaps when I start making some more money I can buy peace of mind with some healthy donations! For now though, I am going to try volunteering.

    • Ragnar,

      Thank you for the valuable thoughts. Intrigued by your mentioning of a hormone-related “crisis”. I personally feel that sexuality is perhaps the most misunderstood and powerful force of human behavior. I’ve certainly had my fair share of conundrums related to grappling with the erratic spontaneity of my own sexual feelings.

      I think denying oneself certain momentary gratifications is useful in that we gain the satisfaction of feeling in control of our actions, disciplined in our lives. Whether we’re actually in control is up for debate, but this is an empowering feeling nonetheless.

      I too feel that it’s not possible to break free of the civilization in which you were raised. However, I think it’s possible to challenge, resist, and re-imagine that civilization in meaningful ways, to become an active constituent in the further creation of the culture (my most recent blog post on Terence McKenna addresses this).

      I too find the traditional definitions of accomplishment (money, acclaim) to be distasteful, and I’m certain this isn’t purely because of my relative lack of success in those areas. This is something you need to answer for yourself. Personally, I feel as if there are myriad ways that I could achieve those things, but I simply do not want them for their own sake.

      One’s thought will always be in some way reactionary to the conditions of one’s society, but I think “thought slave” is a strong term. We’re all “enslaved” to our own subjectivity anyway, even if we grow up outside of any society. Thus I don’t think its useful to dwell too much on whether or not one’s thought is in shackles, but rather, to try to get in touch with one’s most honest thoughts/intuitions about how life should be lived and follow that model (unless it means hurting others; I draw that line, even though it’s a slippery qualifier).

      I don’t see the “buzz of the moment” as necessarily at-odds with helping the less fortunate. At this point, during my free time, I more or less do whatever I feel like doing. It’s just that I’ve sort of sculpted my personality and discovered my ideals in such a way that the things I feel like doing are not unreflective impulses but an extension of how I wish to be in the world. Regardless of what I’m doing, I can express myself creatively and be a kind person, thus giving others permission to do the same and hopefully contributing to the ripple effect that such actions (may) have in the world. Doing so helps everyone in the world, I think.

      I cannot save the lives of all those suffering in the world, and I think that to get too caught up in images of the “screams of the less fortunate” can actually be a bad thing. We are not wired to understand a community larger than something like a village, so the sense of a global community in dire straits can be a huge burden to us. Yet paradoxically, if we simply focus on being a sort of beacon in our small social circles and spreading a bit of goodness in the small ways that we can, we do impact the whole world.

      In the past I’ve suffered anxieties over what I “should be working on” and how much “bigger changes” I could be effecting in the world for the people who “are really suffering”. I feel I’ve gained clarity on this and come to feel that the best way I can serve the world is to simply express myself honestly and be kind or at least courteous. Do I have bigger plans for activism and philanthropic efforts that could benefit the hyper-underprivileged and people in foreign lands? Yes. But I no longer feel guilty about not trying to enact those plans immediately. They can come in time. Lone individuals were not meant to save the world; our collective efforts on a small, community scale are much more important, I think. We should take solace and pride in encouraging creativity and humanity in the few people closest to us.

      Long response, but I felt your comment warranted it. Sorry it took me a few days. Thanks for the support. Take care, and I’ll talk to you again soon.

      • Pawel

        Amazing reply, Jordan. I wish everyone thought this way. Well, I wish I was living this way on more regular basis. I think I’ll visit this site more often 😉 You are doing great job.

        • thanks so much, Pawel. grateful you took the time to leave a note. do stick around. it gets lonely here without others to talk to. :3 peace

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  • The Paradox in American Cultural Values is the violent conflict between wholly different and mutually warring thought systems. The moralizing influence is strong, although often suspect. The Mass Disseminated Media influence on attitudes on a whole host of issues, is massively pervasive. I just said nothing. Ah, but who is W-I-N-N-I-N-G? Are young people becoming more like thinking Moral Man, or more like spectator Media Man? That’s not even a question. We all know the answer.
    My Freedom is my right to think, puzzle, and question, in the privacy of my own (tiny) mind. My Freedom is to “get my ticket’s worth”. I get to watch the whole Movie. I even get to star in my own play. The crowd of one – ME- is free to applaud wildly. Against that, I react strongly at being pushed around. Emotionally, physically, spiritually or politically. I like to say I am a non-violent Anarchist. Dare I tell anyone how to live? Hell, no. But don’t try and tell ME how to believe, or vote, or conform. As far as I’m concerned, you’re all full of it. I’m reminded of Johnny’s mother watching the military parade go by. Proudly addressing the other mothers, she said: “Just look at my Johnny! He’s the only one not out of step!” I sure like Johnny.

  • Here, here, sir. I’m frightened by the extent to which we are all becoming passive spectators absorbed and engulfed by the vast void of entertainment and stimulation that is immediately and constantly accessible to us. Being ‘Moral Man’ isn’t necessarily good either if it just means inheriting the “morals” of your nation-state.

    The thinker and explorer and puzzler is what I too (for better or worse) seem to be becoming/have become. It may be a difficult route sometimes, but I would certainly argue that we need more people to move in that direction if we are to combat the enormous forces driving the world to destruction. Heavy stuff. It’s tough to feel (like you do) that I would not tell anyone else how to live, but to simultaneously know that we all need to start living differently or we’re going to destroy ourselves and our home. Mmmmmm, difficult. Maybe too much for a Wednesday.

    Thanks for the comment. Cheers.

  • Condor

    i think he endorsed john mccain. bad move.

    • I’ve actually read the long-form journalism piece that he wrote about McCain for Rolling Stone. It was a brilliant piece of political commentary. At no point, however, did he endorse McCain. At least not in that piece.

      • Condor

        i never read that. i thought i read a brief passing comment years ago where he did but perhaps i’m wrong. peace