Finding the middle zone; redefining spirituality through contemporary American literature

Mickey McPoland


During his commencement address at Kenyon College (2005), [1]David Foster Wallace opines, “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” (Wallace 97-101). What Wallace is doing here is not only providing a snapshot of “adult life” for soon-to-be graduates but also providing commentary on the shift of contemporary notions of spirituality. Wallace grounds this snapshot in the term worship in order heighten the significance of daily practices which normally feel banal. By doing so, he illuminates the shift in contemporary culture away from traditional religious ideologies towards a much more complex, hyper-individualized orientation towards the world spurned by secularization. This concern regarding the secularization of society is not reserved to the literary space that Wallace once occupied, but one which has long been a pressing point of conversation for sociologists. For example, Max Weber traced the journey away from traditional religious maxims into “disenchantment” or “entzauberung” as early as The Enlightenment. Weber’s work documents the “epochal shift” of post-enlightenment society to the secularized world that Wallace’s characters inhabit. Because of this shift, these characters struggle to navigate spirituality internally and externally, which sends them in search of alternative objects for worship

In this essay, I investigate the intersection of post-postmodern literature and post-secular thought. I examine Jonathan Franzen’s novel Crossroads (2022) as a means to examine a religious conception of goodness and how goodness becomes rooted in what we worship. I also look to Infinite Jest and “Good People” by David Foster Wallace. The latter illuminates the conflict between traditional forms of worship and contemporary calls to worship one’s own desires, which results in stagnation, frigidity, and indecisiveness. Characters follow their internal compass, which leads them only further away from a sense of stability. Franzen’s work shows what replaces traditional religious worship –specifically, the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure and immediate gratification through entertainment all under the guise of Freedom. Indeed, as Wallace’s writing suggests, freedom is a term so prevalent in the American vernacular that it’s become synonymous with the concept of America itself. In worshipping individual freedom, Wallace demonstrates that freedom becomes the inverse of itself, an excess that constricts one’s agency.

Finally, I turn to the work of philosopher Pierre Hadot who provides the beginning of a remedy for the secular condition. Hadot urges us to turn towards the work of ancient philosophies, such as stoicism and epicureanism, in order to find guidance for “how to live.” Heeding Hadot’s remedy, I consider the complexity and nuance of navigating a postmodern world in which traditional religion has largely taken a backseat to the hyper-individualized subjectivity established by postmodernism. In doing so, I position my argument in relation to what literary theorist John McClure deems a “partial faith” by redefining spirituality so as to point towards a pathway for individuals to develop a more secure sense of self. Such a self, I conclude, affords a more genuine sense of true freedom.