David Foster Wallace

Remembering David Foster Wallace:

Really, though, I knew him as a reader knows a writer. I thought I could see him, even if he couldn’t see me, even if he couldn’t (clearly) see himself. […]

However, all great writers — and I have no doubt that he was one — have a preeminent purpose: to tell the truth. David Foster Wallace’s particular vocation was to allow us to see just how fraught and complicated, how difficult yet how necessary, that telling had become — not just for him, but for all of us. What will we do without him?

There are two temptations confronting me while thinking about the death of DFW. On the one hand, I could write an elegaic post in the form of a DFW novel, with lots of footnotes and asides and run-on sentences, which sentences would also need to be beautiful and witty and insightful or else what would be the point? On the other hand, I feel tempted to over-emphasize the effect his work had on me, since he was my favorite author only for a couple of years, before I fell in love with Hannah Arendt and developed a Patrick O’Brian habit in my spare time.

Still, there’s one thing that must be said: David Foster Wallace understood addiction and pain, and his suicide wounds me precisely because he seemed to have figured out how to get virtue out of wisdom, by which I mean that he seemed to be able to make knowledge work for him, in his favor, to think his way out of despair and loneliness and isolation into a love for the world and connection with its inhabitants, and enjoyment of the many funny, strange, uncomfortable, challenging, ecstatic run-on experiences it and they offer. (Those are the experiences he tried to shove into his mammoth sentences, parentheticals, and thirty page footnotes.)

Though few details have surfaced over his reasons, nor any hint of a note, (oh god… the prospect makes me think of “Girlfriend Stops Reading David Foster Wallace Breakup Letter At Page 20” and laugh and cry simultaneously) I feel like I really need to know what reasons he could offer himself, his friends and family, students and fans, to explain this awesome change of heart, this new minor premise in the ultimate ethical syllogism, when he had so eloquently explained the counter-arguments so many times.

Here’s his Kenyon Commencement address from 2005, now widely cited because he mentions suicide in it while explaining why a liberal arts education is what prevents middle-class tedium and alienation from driving one to it: 

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

WTF DFW?

As usual Metafilter has the best responses.

UPDATE: New York Times has some illuminating details.

His father said Sunday that Mr. Wallace had been taking medication for depression for 20 years and that it had allowed his son to be productive. It was something the writer didn’t discuss, though in interviews he gave a hint of his haunting angst.[…]

James Wallace said that last year his son had begun suffering side effects from the drugs and, at a doctor’s suggestion, had gone off the medication in June 2007. The depression returned, however, and no other treatment was successful. The elder Wallaces had seen their son in August, he said.

“He was being very heavily medicated,” he said. “He’d been in the hospital a couple of times over the summer and had undergone electro-convulsive therapy. Everything had been tried, and he just couldn’t stand it anymore.”

2 thoughts on “David Foster Wallace”

  1. Very nicely written, AnPan.

    You know, we were talking about suicide in my Existentialism class just last week. I reminded my students that it takes only one moment– really, just one moment— when a person cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel. We're probably all a lot more vulnerable to that moment of hopelessness than we think we are.

    We shouldn't assume, I think, that DFW's suicide indicates some conscious or ultimate rejection of life and its meaning. It just indicates that life can be very painful and, for a moment, for a man, it appeared as if the darkness would not lift.

  2. Thanks Dr. J.

    I think we've talked before about how suddenly most suicides make their decision, how quickly they progress from "Ah, fuck it," to doing the deed. This is why simple things like not owning a gun or placing confusingly difficult barriers on the sides of bridges can save lives: the additional effort of purchasing the weapon or navigating the obstacles will often be enough to snap a person out of their decision.

    DFW was a bit of an archetype of phronesis, a phronimos for me. Specifically, I appreciated that he had found the way to combat akrasia, the incontinent or impetuous act of vice. Part of what's at stake in understanding and working through addiction as he did is finding ways to manage and control the inevitable attacks of akrasia, the impulses that promise to overwhelm our intentions, bolstering the weak will with insight and reflection. As Laura Miller pointed out in the Salon piece I linked, there is some indication that he was working on and through these issues in his most recent short fiction. I don't mean to grant him omni-reflective self-control, but I do suspect that this was a premeditated act.

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