The End of the Tour, Irrational Man, and the Question of Nihilism

Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour (A24 Films)

A scene in James Ponsoldt’s new film The End of the Tour shows the novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) teaching a college writing class. When a student says, “I just want my narrator to be smart and witty,” Wallace responds dryly but gently, “Try having him say some smart and witty things,” and proceeds to warn the class to avoid the clichéd plot of a campus romance. Wallace’s unpretentious, self-effacing rapport with the students stands in stark contrast to the model of the teacher in Woody Allen’s annual foray into filmmaking with Irrational Man, which uses the cliché of campus romance, in this case between celebrated and jaded philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) and his adoring student-protégée Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), as a vehicle for exploring the liberating power of nihilism.

Allen has been here before, perhaps too often, in films such as Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. With a couple of exceptions, Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine, Woody has been in an extended slump. Irrational Man features Phoenix as a professor teaching a summer class at a posh Newport, R.I., liberal-arts college, where his reputation for creative, independent thinking, hard drinking, and womanizing precedes him.

Set aside the fact that the very idea of a celebrated academic picking up summer teaching in an undergraduate class is preposterous. The use of philosophy here is unintentionally comic. Lucas’s musings about philosophy sound more like a version of a text of philosophy for dummies that no one bothered to fact-check. At the outset, Lucas cites Kant’s claim that the human mind confronts questions that are at once unavoidable and unanswerable. As an example, Lucas mentions murder, which was, however, not among the unanswerable questions for Kant, who held a quite traditional view about that matter. Having decided that philosophical thinking can get him nowhere, he concludes, with a nod to existentialism, that the important thing is to avoid getting trapped in observation and verbal clichés, and to act, to live from one’s gut instincts — not realizing that he has just given voice to a string of clichés.

The film reverses the plots of Crimes and Match Point, in which someone gets away with murder, finds that the demands of conscience can be placated, and wonders whether that makes the act permissible. By contrast, in Irrational Man justice in some sense wins, but it’s hard to take any of it very seriously. Allen purports to take the moral question seriously but he does not do the work a storyteller must in order to make the audience feel the force of the dilemma. It does not help that the upbeat, jazzy Ramsey Lewis song “The In Crowd” plays nearly constantly no matter what the action or mood of the film. The film would be much better if its comedy had had a more consistently dark tone.

The End of the Tour, a much funnier movie, begins with DFW’s suicide in 2008 at the age of 46. That provides an occasion for an extended reminiscence by David Lipsky, a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, who, twelve years earlier, had spent five days traveling with Wallace (Segel in a marvelous performance) at the end of a tour for his lengthy cult-hit novel, Infinite Jest, whose style James Wood dubbed “hysterical realism.”

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The film is as much about the travails and petty jealousies that pervade the world of journalism and writing as it is about DFW’s genius. As Lipsky, a fiction writer turned journalist after his own novel met with critical and popular indifference, Eisenberg plays the same sort of ingratiating, irritating character he did in The Social Network. In an irony that Wallace would have appreciated, Lipsky finally achieved acclaim as a writer when he published his memoir about his time with DFW. His very success reinforces his underling status in relation to DFW.

The film has a number of funny moments. Playing a proper and oblivious Minnesota driver, Joan Cusack, reprising her character type from School of Rock, at one moment shows a kind of matriarchal displeasure at Wallace for showing up unkempt for a radio interview, and then, after hearing the interview, gushes with naïve enthusiasm and tells him that she might have to buy his book and actually read it. To which Wallace whimsically responds, “I’m sorry.” In another scene, Wallace becomes irked at Lipsky’s suggestion that he wants to interview Wallace’s parents. Adopting Yoda-like syntax, he insists, “Interview my parents, you may not.” The funniest scene is the one in which Wallace has Lipsky place an impromptu call to his girlfriend and then takes the phone and discusses Infinite Jest with her, much to the dismay of a deeply envious Lipsky.

#related#Segel’s large physical frame and ambling stride give to Wallace a physical awkwardness that mirrors the conflicts within. With the pairing of the punctilious Lipsky and the slovenly Wallace, the film feels a bit like a version of The Odd Couple, with Felix and Oscar on a road trip. It also downplays Wallace’s caustic intelligence in favor of rendering him as a sort of oversized child, ill equipped for the adult world. There is, in this, something of the standard American romanticization of genius.

Wallace in real life was an odd mix of high and low culture. His brilliance was evident very early. By college, he was writing two honors theses, in philosophy and in literature, both of which he finished before his second semester of senior year and both of which were eventually published as books. That’s an astonishing feat for an undergraduate. A devotee of Dostoevsky, he has a kind of addiction to TV shows, binge-watching such shows as Falcon Crest, Magnum P.I., and Charlie’s Angels. He has a sense that some pop culture (he and Lipsky share an appreciation for the first Die Hard film) is genuinely entertaining even as he fears that mankind could become so immersed in the world of pop that it would be “really dead.”

Wallace dreads the threat of the nihilism that Allen’s main character finds liberating.

Wallace dreads the threat of the nihilism that Allen’s main character finds liberating. He is seeking something in his own life and in his relation to others; he is after what the ancients called true and lasting friendship, as opposed to the incidental relationships based on mere pleasure or utility. He hopes for marriage as a “shared life.” This fits with Wallace’s claim about freedom in his famous Kenyon commencement speech: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

A version of that is what Christians call love. Not surprisingly, there is growing attention to the religious elements in Wallace’s life and writing. In that same speech, he said, “Here’s something else that’s weird but true: In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” In End of the Tour, Wallace describes his affliction as a “spiritual crisis.”

Overt philosophizing rarely fares well on screen. Consider the difference between the first Matrix film, in which philosophy surfaced mostly at the interstices of the plot, and the next two, in which the Wachowski brothers, having read reviews lauding their philosophical genius, stuffed the plots with verbose, pedantic philosophizing.

Ponsoldt’s film manages to capture the complexity, warmth, and deep sorrow of one human life.

While Allen’s film uses the tired motif of the college romance as a vehicle for bloodless and abstract theorizing, Ponsoldt’s film manages to capture the complexity, warmth, and deep sorrow of one human life. Wallace suffers from the sort of paralysis of will that afflicts Dostoevsky’s narrator in Notes from Underground, a narrator, who, like Wallace, supposes that it’s better to see the meaninglessness directly, but recognizes that it’s also worse, because seeing causes an inability to function. He is unable simultaneously to focus consciously on the apparent meaninglessness of things and to engage in meaningful action. The former undercuts the latter. To think, as does the main character in Irrational Man, that the problem of nihilism could be solved by asserting that we create meaning is an adolescent fantasy that throws the door wide open to nihilism, which Nietzsche called the “unwelcome guest.” Wallace thus suffers from what the narrator in Underground calls “hyper-consciousness.”

Thinking here has become a disease which further thought only exacerbates. To be rescued from this trap would be a kind of miracle, an experience of unmerited grace. Perhaps that is why Wallace was persistently drawn to religion, even if he never quite crossed over. As Alan Jacobs puts it:

All of which leads me to think: how sad it was for Wallace, trapped in those endless “loops” of self-consciousness, and struggling most of his life between faith and unbelief. There’s a chicken-egg question here: Did he get caught in the loops because he couldn’t find his way to secure faith? Or was he unable to achieve such faith because he was caught in the loops? 

It is a mark of the superiority of The End of the Tour to the juvenile Irrational Man that it takes us to the cusp of these weighty philosophical and theological themes. That Wallace at least occasionally hoped to go further is evident from a prayer of St. Ignatius that Lipsky at the very end of the film finds taped to the wall in Wallace’s house:

Lord, teach me to be generous.

Teach me to serve you as you deserve;

to give and not to count the cost,

to fight and not to heed the wounds,

to toil and not to seek for rest,

to labor and not to ask for reward,

save that of knowing that I do your will.

Thomas S. HibbsThomas S. Hibbs is the dean of the honors college and distinguished professor of philosophy at Baylor University.


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