Friday, September 19, 2008
David Foster Wallace—R.I.P.
Like everyone else, I was shocked to learn of David Foster Wallace's suicide last Friday, and of the unendurably long winter of depression that preceded it. Up to the moment when I heard the news on the radio Wallace had been, for me, a writer of annoyingly enviable success, the sort of prodigious talent that makes you—or anyway made me—despair of ever being worthy enough to tie his tennis sneakers.
Like Moby Dick and Ulysses, Infinite Jest, Wallace's thousand-plus page tour-de-force doorstopper of a novel, belongs securely to the short lost of paradoxical masterpieces brilliant and (all but) unreadable—but then one doesn't have to read it to know it's brilliant: you can feel the energy pouring out of its heaped dense pages; you can heft its brilliance; you can weigh its ambition. Books like Infinite Jest seemed designed to make pip-squeak writers like me want to kill ourselves. So it seemed monstrously absurd to me that this man, five years my junior and far more successful by any measure than I, had gone into the basement of his Claremont, California home and hanged himself.
Wallace suffered from deep chronic depression, and had suffered from it much of his life. I hadn't known this. But a closer reading of his work should have given me a very strong clue. Loneliness and sadness had been strong, steady themes in his work, and in retrospect the gargantuan energy that powers his prose can be viewed as the antithetical manic outpouring of a soul steeped in the entropy and inertia of chronic malaise. For every action an equal and opposite reaction. It stands to reason—again, with hindsight—that a man whose work brims with brio, bravado, and brilliance had an opposite dark side. Scratch a comedian and find Hamlet.
As with many writers, for Wallace writing was a means of both confronting and heading off existential dread, of quelling the loneliness he experienced so deep down in his bones. To write is to connect—with a presumed audience of readers, of course, but also, in the act of writing, with one's own soul. Asked what was uniquely magical about fiction, Wallace responded, "Well, the first line of attack for that question is that there is this existential loneliness in the real world. I don't know what you're thinking or what it's like inside you and you don't know what it's like inside me. In fiction I think we can leap over that wall itself in a certain way. But that's just the first level, because the idea of mental or emotional intimacy with a character is a delusion or a contrivance that's set up through art by the writer. There's another level that a piece of fiction is a conversation. There's a relationship set up between the reader and the writer that's very strange and very complicated and hard to talk about. A really great piece of fiction for me may or may not take me away and make me forget that I'm sitting in a chair. There's real commercial stuff can do that, and a riveting plot can do that, but it doesn't make me feel less lonely."
What Wallace says here about fiction is, I think, true of any kind of writing that deserves to be called "creative": that it bridges the boundaries that separate and distinguish us as human beings, those false walls that say, "You are you, and I am I, and never the twain shall meet." At bottom, though, we suffer the same needs and longings and dreads—and this is why we read (and write) fiction: to learn that we are not so unique, not so isolated, not so alone as we might think. But anyone who has read the essays of Montaigne, Camus, or Natalia Ginzberg, or the poetry of Philip Larkin or Robert Frost, knows that, when it comes to dispersing solitude, in the world of letters fiction owns no monopoly.
Which isn't to say that writing cures loneliness or depression. Obviously, for Wallace, as a cure it finally failed—at least in the long run—though one may argue that, were it not for the act of writing, we'd not have had the pleasure of his company for as long as we did, and that what finally did him in was the inability to write because of his depression (one can't help thinking of Van Gogh).
But though it may not cure loneliness, writing can certainly assuage and mitigate it. Even as it immerses us in our awareness of the human condition, it also tells us that this is a condition that we all, at bottom, share.
As Saul Bellow once put it (succinctly if rather naughtily): "The uncontemplated life may not be worth living, but the contemplated life makes you want to kill yourself." Which is to say that the more alive we are, the more we suffer. But then—if you are not alive to begin with—there is no "self" to kill.
A preemptive suicide of the soul may be one solution to the "problem" of existence, but it's a poor solution, and an ignoble one. Clearly it wasn't David Foster Wallace's solution. Tragic though his end was, the pitched battle Wallace launched in writing against the teamed demons of sadness and solitude is now and will forever be cause for celebration.
Posted by Peter Selgin at 3:56 AM