Alix pointed this out to me a few months ago at what I think was her birthday party, suggesting that the two events were maybe not entirely unrelated. Later that night, she handed me her copy of Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, and emphatically recommended the long piece of McCain 2000 campaign reportage, “Up, Simba!,” contained therein (she also, at various points that evening, handed me Elif Batuman’s “The Possessed” and Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” point being that Alix is a generous soul with excellent taste in books).
I only just now got around to cracking Consider. Up until now, I thought the implication that DFW killed himself because of the Palin pick was kinda ridiculous. Then I read the following passage:
Here’s what happened. In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and was flying his 26th Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi, and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb. His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi. (There is still an N.V. statue of McCain by this lake today, showing him on his knees with his hands up and eyes scared and on the pediment the inscription “McCan—famous air pirate” [sic].) Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the lifevest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of North Vietnamese men swim out toward you (there’s film of this, somebody had a home-movie camera and the N.V. government released it, though it’s grainy and McCain’s face is hard to see). The crowd pulled him out and then just about killed him. U.S. bomber pilots were especially hated, for obvious reasons. McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a rifle butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90º to the side with the bone sticking out. This is all public record. Try to imagine it. He finally got tossed on a Jeep and taken only like five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison—a.k.a. the Hanoi Hilton, of much movie fame—where they made him beg a week for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound ) stay like they were. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. The media profiles all talk about how McCain still can’t lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it’s important. Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without a general would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened. He was mostly delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then, after he’d hung on like like that for several months and his bones had mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up, they brought him to the prison commandant’s office and closed the door and out of nowhere offered to let him go. They said he could just . . . leave. It turned out that U.S. Admiral John S. McCain II had just been made head of all naval forces in the Pacific, meaning also Vietnam, and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. And John S. McCain III, 100 lbs and barely able to stand, refused the offer. The U.S. military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who’d been in Hoa Lo a way longer time, and McCain refused to violate the Code. The prison commandant, not pleased, right there in the office had guards break McCain’s ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. Forget how many movies stuff like this happens in and try to imagine it as real. Refusing release. He spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a special closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.” Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different profiles of McCain this year. It’s overexposed, true. Still though, take a second or two to do some creative visualization and imagine the moment between McCain getting offered early release and his turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer: What difference would one less POW make? Plus maybe it’d give the other POWs hope and keep them going, and I mean 100 pounds and expected to die and surely the Code of Conduct doesn’t apply to you if you need a real doctor or else you’re going to die, plus if you could stay alive by getting out you could make a promise to God to do nothing but Total Good from now on and make the world better and so your accepting would be better for the world than your refusing, and maybe if Dad wasn’t worried about the Vietnamese retaliating against you here in prison he could prosecute the war more aggressively and end it sooner and actually save lives so you could actually save lives if you took the offer and got out versus what real purpose gets served by you staying here in a box and getting beaten to death, and by the way oh Jesus imagine it a real doctor and real surgery and painkillers and clean sheets and a chance to heal and not be in agony and to see your kids again, your wife, to smell your wife’s hair . . . can you hear it? What would be happening in your head? Would you have refused the offer? Could you have? You can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard even to imagine the levels of pain and fear and want in that moment, much less to know how you’d react. None of us can know. But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, mostly in a dark box, alone, tapping code on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code. Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know , for a proven fact , that he is capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest. So that when he says the line in speeches now you can feel like maybe it’s not just more candidate bullshit, that with this guy it’s maybe the truth. Or maybe both the truth and bullshit: McCain does want your vote, after all. But that moment in the Hoa Lo office in ’68—right before he refused, with all his basic normal human self-interest howling at him—that moment is hard to blow off. All week, all through MI and SC and all the tedium and cynicism and paradox of the campaign (see sub), that moment seems to underlie McCain’s “greater than self-interest” line, moor it, give it a weird sort of reverb it’s hard to ignore. The fact is that John McCain is a genuine hero of the only kind Vietnam now has to offer, a hero not because of what he did but because of what he suffered—voluntarily, for a Code. This gives him the moral authority both to utter lines about causes beyond self-interest and to expect us, even in this age of Spin and lawyerly cunning, to believe he means them. And yes, literally: “moral authority,” that old cliché, much like so many other clichés—“service,” “honor,” “duty,” “patriotism”—that have become just mostly words now, slogans invoked by men in nice suits who want something from us. The John McCain of recent seasons, though—arguing for his doomed campaign-finance bill on the Senate floor in ’98, calling his colleagues crooks to their faces on C-SPAN, talking openly about a bought-and-paid-for government on Charlie Rose in July ’99, unpretentious and bright as hell in the Iowa debates and New Hampshire THMs—something about him made a lot of us feel the guy wanted something different from us, something more than votes or dollars, something old and maybe corny but with a weird achy pull to it like a smell from childhood or a name on the tip of your tongue, something that would make us hear clichés as more than just clichés and start trying to think about what terms like “service” and “sacrifice” and “honor” might really refer to, like whether they actually stood for something, maybe. To think about whether anything past well-Spun self-interest might be real, was ever real, and if so then what happened? These, for the most part, are not lines of thinking that the culture we’ve grown up in has encouraged Young Voters to pursue. Why do you suppose that is?
By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home – you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job – and so now, after work, you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out: you have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register. Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your cheque or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etc, etc.
David Foster Wallace had a vivid imagination for torture.
The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people.
Only by gathering the force of will from ____ (he never really satisfactorily fills this blank, as Dreyfus and Kelly point out in All Things Shining) to totally reject the egotist perspective that turns everything that’s bothersome into a vindictive, personal act on the part of the universe (personal as in “this time it’s personal!”), and instead observe your situation from a point of peaceful reconciliation.
If he ever managed to sustainably achieve such an perspective, I guess it’s impossible to know. But I think that the fact of his suicide strongly suggests he never did. But McCain somehow did, we can at least imagine Wallace thinking.
McCain’s situation was personal. When he crash-landed in Hanoi, was bayonnetted and had his shoulder broken by a mob of North Vietnamese, the pain they inflicted was for his identity as an American bomber pilot. After the prison commandant put the prospect of his early release on the table only to have it rejected, the torture he suffered was about him — who he was the son of; his immediate act. And yet he persevered, and, as Wallace saw it, kept the principled core of himself through five years of a continuous torture that requires far less than Wallace’s prestigious descriptive talent to imagine and be horrified by. One can only wonder at how Wallace imagined McCain managed this. I posit that he couldn’t, and recognized that he couldn’t, which was why he admired the man so much — saw him as transcendent of the millennial world Wallace arguably observed more keenly and understood more fully than almost anyone.
And then McCain, out of nothing but an apparent total self-abandonment to cynicism, tapped her on the shoulder.