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.
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.”