Ecstatically between the pillows and the books

This is from a short story taken from David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel in progress, The Pale King. The whole story, an exploration of childlike faith, is worth reading and rereading—indeed, the emotion I most strongly associate with reading David Foster Wallace’s work is a (generally somewhat frustrated) impulse to reread. But in this case the impulse comes gladly and with a touch of, and a feel for, grace.

At any rate, the best analogy for the experience of hearing these childhood “voices” of mine is that it was like going around with your own private masseur, who spent all his time giving you back—and shoulder—rubs (which my biological mother also used to do whenever I was sick in bed, using rubbing alcohol and baby powder and also changing the pillowcases, so that they were clean and cool; the experience of the voices was analogous to the feeling of turning a pillow over to the cool side). Sometimes the experience of the voices was ecstatic, sometimes so much so that it was almost too intense for me—as when you first bite into an apple or a confection that tastes so delicious and causes such a flood of oral juices that there is a moment of intense pain in your mouth and glands—particularly in the late afternoons of spring and summer, when the sunlight on sunny days achieved moments of immanence and became the color of beaten gold and was itself (the light, as if it were taste) so delicious that it was almost too much to stand, and I would lie on the pile of large pillows in our living room and roll back and forth in an agony of delight and tell my mother, who always read on the couch, that I felt so good and full and ecstatic that I could hardly bear it, and I remember her pursing her lips, trying not to laugh, and saying in the driest possible voice that she found it hard to feel too much sympathy or concern for this problem and was confident that I could survive this level of ecstasy, and that I probably didn’t need to be rushed to the emergency room, and at such moments my love and affection for my mother’s dry humor and love became, stacked atop the original ecstasy, so intense that I almost had to stifle a scream of pleasure as I rolled ecstatically between the pillows and the books on the floor. I do not have any real idea what my mother—an exceptional, truly lovable woman—made of having a child who sometimes suffered actual fits of ecstasy; and I do not know whether she herself had them. Nevertheless, the experience of the real but unobservable and unexplainable “voices” and the ecstatic feelings they often aroused doubtless contributed to my reverence for magic and my faith that magic not only permeated the everyday world but did so in a way that was thoroughly benign and altruistic and wished me well. I was never the sort of child who believed in “monsters under the bed” or vampires, or who needed a night-light in his bedroom; on the contrary, my father (who clearly “enjoyed” me and my eccentricities) once laughingly told my mother that he thought I might suffer from a type of benign psychosis called “antiparanoia,” in which I seemed to believe that I was the object of an intricate universal conspiracy to make me so happy I could hardly stand it.


from “All That,” by David Foster Wallace, The New Yorker, 14 December 2009

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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