Wednesday, September 17, 2008

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

As I have previously noted (and I am not so arrogant to think that anyone reads this with any regularity or in any depth or even is reading this as I type), but I am woefully given to fanboyism. I get girlish in my admiration of artists, especially literary and musical. When I fall in love with an artist's work I go hog-wild. To the point of ruination. I consume, voraciously, the entire oeuvres of artists whom I admire, especially writers. I ate all I could from Vonnegut and Salinger and Tom Robbins and, embarrassingly perhaps, Douglas Adams in high school. In college my diet was pretty strictly dictated through college, but since I have consumed Franzen and George Saunders and David Foster Wallace and dabbled in Barth and Pynchon and Bartheleme, though more cautiously.

And once I have annihilated an author's life's work to date--given that I enjoyed it, which if I have read more than two books, I have--I am left with an eager sadness that there isn't more and an ardent hunger for there to be more. On September 12th, 2008, I ran out of Wallace. Beyond filling me with a very selfish remorse that I will, probably, never get the chance to read a new piece by Wallace again for the first time, I was saddened by a brilliant mine struck down by what Vonnegut would call its "own bad chemicals."

There is always, of course, a notable, palpable sadness when talent, relative youth, and death befall an individual all at once. There is the predictable "what-might-have-been" response that is valid and expected. When such a young and talented person takes his own life, as it is readily apparent that David Foster Wallace did, there is an equally natural reaction of tragedy and a fear that someone so appreciated might well have been saved had he known how appreciated and important he was to his fans or readers or followers. This is again totally natural but not at all what I find intellectually poignant about Wallace's death. (Emotionally, and yes, I have had an emotional response that I find almost surprising, these thoughts are appealing. My fairly common emotional responses, however, are quite surprisingly uninteresting to read and, even, sort of uninteresting for me to think.)

What I have been thinking, instead, about Wallace's recent death (or at least what I have been thinking and that which I think is worthy of sharing, even if in a forum so unformal and undeniably unimportant as this) stems from two cribbed thoughts from elsewhere. has been running comments, thoughts, and ruminations and celebrations of David Foster Wallace. (McSweeney's has been charmingly, if a bit cloyingly, focussed on Wallace as a man as much, if not more, than as a writer.) I was struck by a comment by a Michael R. Hufford, a former (and possibly current, though Mr. Hufford never makes it clear) Abnormal Psychology professor at the University of Montana. Mr. Hufford posits, "It's difficult to imagine how painful it must have been--a unique mind like that, turned on itself."

Having read Wallace extensively as evidence, and given the large numbers of testimonies and obituaries and tributes I have read about the man in recent days, his intellect was a healthy and hungry one tempered by an obsession for clarity of communication so rich that it often ran toward tangent and abstraction and complication, all in service of the ideal of getting the whole idea out, in its entirety with a dedication to diagramming all the idea's moving parts and features. This, of course, was what critics hailed as his pretension and indulgence. Regardless, I think it's clear, or at least interesting and tragic to speculate, that Wallace truly believed what he wrote (in persona of Neal, a "yuppie incapable of love") in "Good Ol' Neon," a story that many people are understandably pointing to in wake of his death, as it is a first-person narrative from the posthumous perspective of a man who killed himself:

You already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all that you can ever let anyone know.

When Wallace writes about "ever let[ing] anyone know," he is not referring to shame about all that flashes within him, as maybe I thought when first reading this years ago. Needless to say, Neal is ashamed of himself and what he perceives as his unending fraudulent tendencies. And even more obvious is that Neal or Wallace or me or you or anybody thinks all sorts of things worthy of shame. But this sentence turns on "can." If Wallace were implying shame, you'd know he'd have been specific in his word choice and would have opted for "dare," or it's nearest nine syllable equivalent.

What actually haunts Neal, and what I am daringly projecting on to a man who I never even met much less walked inside, is that the issue is one of sheer possibility. If we could be seen for all our thoughts and feelings at once, whole, instantaneously, perhaps that would be salvation. Or at least relief. This "unique mind" that "turned on itself," coupled with Wallace's noted insecurity about being misunderstood or misrepresented is what interests me in the wake of his suicide by hanging. That he could never get it all out and that getting it all out might have been the relief of some tension is what interests me.

Of course this is just play. I didn't know the man. But it's made me think.

The other cribbed thought I have been tossing around is something I heard on a remembrance on NPR's All Things Considered by writer David Lipsky:

When someone very gifted kills themselves, it's like the best student dropping out of high school. There's the tragedy, but it's set in a particular and personal fear: What are they seeing that we don't?

While I am tempted to criticize Lipsky's number agreement problems (no doubt in an effort to avoid any appearance of sexism in his pronouns) as a homage to Wallace, I don't wish to be glib about the point being made here. Also, were a SNOOT like Wallace himself to read my blatherings, I am certain that I am guilty of far more transgressive usage and grammatical felonies.

What interests me is the idea that Wallace's suicide demonstrates his seeing something that you or I do not. I don't mean this is the sophomoric and dark sense that were we all brighter we'd hang ourselves. What interests me, instead, is that there has always seemed to be a correlation between depression and creative genius. Not exclusively, both occur independent of one another, but that they seem to occur together often enough so as to be statistically significant when compared to population averages.

This is a thought I have had for years and I think the correlation of substance abuse and talent is much the same. There is something seen by some sorts of genius that leads to malaise and ennui that leads to depression and suicide. I guess it is not surprising, for were one's creative genius to allow him a view of the whole of humanity in a raw and unadulterated form, there is an awful lot of ugliness to behold. There is an awful lot of despair to be felt and an awful lot of reason to not feel much hope for us as a lot. I think, however, that it's more than that. Vonnegut's opinions of humanity were pretty dark, but they always bespoke an optimism in that he was only hurt by humanity because he expected it, us, to be better than our behavior so often indicated. (Vonnegut, too, attempted suicide, however.)

Suicide is, to my way of thinking, generally a very personal affair with very personal causes. (Sorry Durkheim, your model is compelling only insofar as it provides the backbone of a sociological way of looking at human behavior. Anomie may be troubling, but not like a childhood history of sexual abuse or faulty neural receptors or any number of a million personal causes and combinations thereof.) I am wont to believe that Wallace's suicide was caused by internal and deeply personal factors ranging from the ethereal issues of the mind and personality to more quantifiable causes such as dopamine. But I also think depressive and suicidal tendencies may also be a by-product of creativity, just as I think drug abuse may be as well. There are a great many of artists with substance abuse problems, but the substance was never the cause of the creativity. I have often thought that substance abuse is as much a symptom of self-medicating tendencies and depression as it is a stand-alone disease.

Maybe depression is a by-product of certain creativities in certain people? I cannot help but think that it ever helped Wallace, but was rather something he bore until he could bear no longer, but it is unfortunate that the instability had to coincide with the genius. We have to come to romanticize the early deaths of admirable men and women since Christ himself, but it never fails to shock and it never ceases to hurt that we forever have to wonder what might have been.

All this thoughtplay about Wallace's suicide, of course, bespeak one of the great virtues and, perhaps, one of the great lies about literature specifically: that we know the writer because we have read his work. It is personal, it is a communication of course. But to think we know the man or woman who produced it because we know the text is a deliciously enticing fallacy. I did not know this man. I do know that I am sad he has taken his life, however.

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