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The Hell of Absolute Consent in a Short Story by David Foster Wallace

A partir de um conto de David Foster Wallace, somos levados a refletir sobre a moral liberal, para a qual deveríamos ser livres até para abortar.

From a short story by David Foster Wallace, we are led to reflect about liberal morality, for which we should be free even to abort.| Photo: Bigstock

In the short story ” Good People” [Pessoas boas], by 2007, writer David Foster Wallace shows us the tormented conscience of a Christian whose fidelity to the Gospel is put to the test by the reverence he pays to autonomy. Like it or not, Wallace expresses the harm done by the idea of ​​perfectly deliberate choice – the dogma of absolute consent.

The protagonists of “Good People” are college students with some goodwill. They cannot shake the feeling that, in plotting the abortion of the child they unintentionally conceived, they are playing the role of antagonists to Christ. Raised under a regime of self-sovereignty – which Patrick Deneen describes as “one of the most damaging lies” of our time – they realize the vacuum and violence of the decision. And they are unable to repeat the therapeutic chorus of Newspeak terms like “reproductive rights” and “my body, my rules.”

The story begins with effervescent silence. Lane A. Dean, Jr. and his girlfriend, Sheri, silently sit on a picnic table on the shores of a lake, without saying the name of the procedure she will undergo. But everything around them – the “hole in the ground” and the “submerged helmet” that “scatters cells across the water” – are signs of a fetus about to be murdered. Scariest of all is Lane’s heart, because despite “knowing it’s wrong, knowing something was being demanded of him”, he remains undecided as to what is “right and true”, pretending that this decision is for ” the good of the girlfriend.”

Lane knows coercion well. In college, he was taught a watered-down version of Jean-François Lyotard’s phrase that “persuasion is also violence and suppression.” When Lane “turns the matter over to Jesus Christ in prayer,” he sees himself as a baseball player, “ringing his fist with his other hand and turning it slowly as if he was still playing, shaping the glove to remain alert and alert.” On this day on the shores of the lake, however, this gesture strikes him as “cruel and indecent” – apparently he fears that the sight of a closed fist means coercion.

He temporarily soothes her conscience by promising her company. Lane “assures her once again that he will accompany her and be there with her”, elaborating this as “the only safe and decent thing” he could say. But Sheri laughs “in an unfortunate way that was just air coming out of her nostrils,” clarifying that he couldn’t accompany her during the abortion; he would stay in the waiting room.

By Lane’s tormented gaze , Sheri seems “convinced of her faith and values,” traits he once found admirable and attractive but now fears. This fear prevents Lane from seeking pastoral counseling. This fear convinces him that what he and Sheri did, far from being “a consecrated act in itself” as in “The Scarlet Letter”, was “a real sin and not just a holdover from past puritanicality.”

Theologian John Henry Newman says that the principles of liberalism submit, confront and ostracize the principles of the faith. Free souls defend “rights of conscience such that everyone must defend the right to profess and teach what is false and wrong in religious, social and moral matters, since to the private conscience everything seems right and true”. If this were true, explains Newman, then “individuals have the right to teach and practice fornication” – or to kill the fruits of fornication.

Until now driven by his free choices, Lane begins to see – almost too late – that limits to his autonomy actually serve to save him. Random truths insinuate themselves into Lane’s consciousness, freeing him from the false idea of ​​self-mastery that immobilizes him like a straitjacket. At that moment, the possibility of eternal distancing from God seems plausible to him.

Comparing Sheri’s kindness with his corrupted thoughts, he begins to reflect on hell and damnation. Earlier, when the subject came up during a service, he “tolerated hell like a job that lets you save money to do what you really want.” Now, however, realizing how easily he lies to someone so full of faith and truth, he perceives himself as a hypocrite who “disputes words.” He even wonders how he can keep praying. Without mincing words, Lane begins to get “a taste of the reality of what hell can be.” Hell, for him, would be the distance from both Sheri and God, however close he may be to both.

Wallace superimposes Lane’s coldness on the hellish “lake of fire”, which until then Lane considered incompatible with divine compassion. Like Dante, Lane begins to see hell as a cold place, not a hot one; as an immobility that lasts for eternity: “still, looking at each other and perceiving something profoundly different and strange, something they could not understand, without being able to hear each other’s voices or understand their expressions, thus paralyzed, incomprehensible and antagonistic, for all eternity.”

But then it’s like if this hellish horror went through a thaw phase full of ambiguities. As Lane tries to downplay “the reality of what hell means,” he sees a reflection in the lake’s waters. Under the sunlight, “you could see the bottom of the lake” – in a superficiality that seems more than literal.

Alone, Lane does more than “see what is going on beneath the surface” and at that very moment he experiences “a kind of vision” that he will later call “a moment for free”. If the story speaks of the consciousness caught between the culture of choice and the Christian self-transcending ethics, then this moment of Grace is questionable.

Toward the end of the story, Lane imagines Sheri saying that she “searched within herself for the answer and decided” that she “can’t do this” – she can’t kill her son. This conclusion comes as a fantasy based more on the fiction of consent than on the demands of the Gospel. The Sheri imagined by Lane insists that this decision is hers alone and that “it doesn’t oblige you to do anything”. She encourages him to pursue his happiness and repeatedly assures the father of her child that she is not demanding anything of him except that he “respect what she has to do.” What Lane understands by Grace seems to be the freedom to not fulfill his obligations. That is, he builds a scenario in which choice – devoid of duty and innate goodness – is the first and last measure by which he accepts Sheri and her son. Of course, neither Grace nor Natural Law is greater than free will, but there is only good in our sufferings

if our sufferings are free.

For a conscience rocked by a culture of self-definition and consent, choice, camouflaged by Grace, will always be preferable to real and random suffering. Still, Lane is smart enough to realize that the Sheri he imagines is lying as she takes responsibility for her and the child away from him. Lane can learn to accept the burden of fatherhood, a responsibility he has until now pretended to be nameless.

This hard truth is something that rescues us from the hell of endless deliberation – which, as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has said, is the hallmark of contemporary moral theory. Should we rejoice in hope or suspend it when a soul like Lane’s, seeing that the mother of her child “has no choice left,” wonders for the first time, “why are you so sure you don’t love her”? Should we criticize Lane’s endless questioning or should we be glad he asked himself, in language that matches his shallow devotion but goes beyond what his immature heart can understand, “What would Jesus do?”

Joshua Hren is founder of Wiseblood Books, co-founder of Honors College at Belmont Abbey, and co-founder of the Masters in Creative Writing at the University of St. Thomas.

©2021 Public Discourse. Published with permission. Original in English2022
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