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Why David Foster Wallace is ENTP

By John Barnes

In his many interviews Wallace comes off as sensitive, caring, and self-conscious about being self-conscious. These seem like stereotypical traits of an introvert, especially an intuitive introvert like Elon Musk or Richard Ayoade. It’s surprising to people (and to me initially) to see that CelebrityTypes has Wallace under ENTP. One of the complaints against this typing is that it doesn’t take into account the usefulness of certain stereotypes about ENTPs, e.g., ENTPs aren’t shrinking violets. The first part of this essay will be a counter-stereotype that breaks the perception of Wallace as an effete artist and supports my claim that Wallace is ENTP.

‘David’s cries of “Why?” and “That doesn’t make sense!” were familiar at Yankee Ridge Elementary, where he went from 1969 to 1974, and though teachers saw how smart he was, many found him a handful. One day at Crystal Lake Day Camp, where he and Amy went many summers, he grew tired of the counselors and their rules and simply walked several miles back to his house.” (Every Love Story is A Ghost Story pg. 5)

“His classmates remember him as cheerful, popular, funny,” (ibid. pg 7)

“David could be malicious… he would taunt [his sister] mercilessly, telling her she was ugly or fat, or would make exaggerated gestures of shrinking from her as she walked down the hall or wry faces when she would take a second helping.” (ibid. pg 7)

“Socially, Wallace was becoming more of a clown, someone good at imitations, at times a teaser who would lash out with his wit, then retreat into the pack.” (ibid. pg 7)

“Wallace’s parodies sometimes offended. A piece he wrote about cossetted students at antebellum Amherst arriving with their slaves drew a protest from the Black Students Union.” (ibid. pg 27 n 5)

So the facts show that Wallace wasn’t very agreeable; He was a teaser and a taunt; His parodies became provocations; He was gregarious and witty; and he demanded rational explanations from authority. All of which, paints the picture of a smirking satirist (typically the role of an ENTP) and not the puling wallflower that he’s portrayed to be.

Now I’ll move on to the functional approach to determining type. The first question is whether Wallace’s feeling was extroverted or introverted. I’ve already argued that Wallace was not very agreeable. However, in situations where Wallace was not among friends, he would behave appropriately interpersonally. He wrote to his freshman roommate that he hoped they would have “a productive and inspiring year.” (ibid pg. 15) And he would address his seniors by honorifics. (“Rereading David Foster Wallace” and Every Love Story is A Ghost Story pg147.) D.T. Max writes “His cockiness was always muted by politeness and even graciousness.” (ibid pg147) When he left college for the first time because of his depression, his friend Mark Costello noted that he was surprised to see that Wallace was focusing on him (Costello). (ibid. pg22) So Wallace’s feeling seems to be oriented toward the objective situation, his listener or the appropriate terms of address. This suggests extroverted feeling, a function that often manifests as an appreciation of unifying under the same sentiments. But Wallace’s feeling does not appear to be very mature. He alternates between obsequiousness and reveling in the arguments that spawn from dissent. He was fond of such arguments and found that “opposition could energize him” (ibid pg61). This alternation precisely illustrates tertiary extroverted feeling. The ETP on the one hand finds himself drawn to kindness and politeness but on the other hand can be excited by dissent and a kind of analytic viciousness.

Using the functional approach to typing someone, I’ve so far argued that Wallace’s feeling was extroverted and tertiary. (Albeit, my argument for its tertiary position is not as strong as my argument for its orientation). Now the question is whether his intuition was introverted or extroverted. Extroverted intuition seeks to include more and more data through creative association and through introverted sensation compiles these data into a kind mosaic pattern. Extroverted sensation holds more firmly to the data than extroverted intuition. Through introverted intuition, the type finds the constitutive forces that govern the data. In his essay “Authority and American Usage”, Wallace clearly exhibits the attitude of extroverted intuition. He compares the attitude of a prescriptivist to the elitist feelings of a religious conservative; he applies his idea of a Democratic spirit into the arguments about abortion; and he explains Wittgenstein’s claim that there can never be such a thing as a private language. All of which are branching observations from his thesis, expanding the subject matter. And his observations are interesting and serve to elucidate his main point, but they aren’t the intense zooming-in of Ni/Se types. His observations are hardly tied together into a coherent system in “Authority and American Usage”. They fall into the free-wheeling musings of a dominant perceiving type. (“Authority and American Usage” and “Revisiting the Types: ENTP”).

There’s a great example of his dominant extroverted intuition. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Jonathan Franzen, and Mark Leyner, Wallace pounces on a contradiction he’s heard from Franzen. Extroverted intuition is always trying to move beyond the initial data. E.g. (The Portable Jung pg 221) After Franzen claims that he’s not being inconsistent, Wallace presses him, trying to drag more and more out in the classic sparring-match interpersonal style of ENTPs. (David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen and Mark Leyner on Charlie Rose) Even Wallace’s pedantry reveals some characteristics of dominant extroverted intuition.

“I am so pathologically obsessed with usage… it’s got elements of fanaticism and rage to it, plus a snobbishness that I know I’d be mortified to display anywhere else.” (“Authority and American Usage”)

Jung on the extroverted intuitive type: “He exempts himself from the restrictions of reason only to fall victim to neurotic compulsions in the form of over-subtle ratiocinations, hair-splitting dialectics, and a compulsive tie to the sensation aroused by the object.”

Published in John Barnes