Tuesday, September 16, 2008

David Foster Wallace



I have never read Infinite Jest, but the novel means a lot to a dear friend of mine, so I've been meaning to read it for some time. I'm sure many others will be motivated to do the same now that the man behind it is dead . . . for understandable reasons suicide creates a shroud of mystery around the artist's work which gives it another level of permanence.

I have, however, read several of David Foster Wallace's essays, and found them quite intelligent and entertaining. There's also a sense of pain and raw emotion present in his writing that my favorite book reviewer, Sam Anderson, pegged as almost a feeling of "self-help" in his memorial on New York Magazine. In it, he mentions Wallace's commencement address to the 2005 Kenyon graduates. Here are a few lines that really spoke to me:

"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-type hell situation not only as meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the starts: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that the mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it."

Things can be bad. I, for one, know that I make them worse when I let my anxieties and insecurities get the best of me. I know what's quoted above seems flouncy and Buddhist, and perhaps it is, but I can't hear advice like this often enough. So much of my reality is often colored by my negative perception. If I could learn, as DFW suggests, to seek the positive, even in times of stress, I think the world would seem less fruitless and that people would seem more kind.

I only wish his own advice had been able to sway him from giving up. My thoughts are with his family and friends. His words survive.

6 comments:

Bookhouse said...

It was intensely sad to read about David's struggle over the last year. He had battled depression for over 20 years with success, and output work that is staggering in its brilliance.

His essay E Unibus Pluram is the reason I do not watch television, and why I had a "Kill Your Television" sticker in the back window of my pickup. I remember precisely where and when I read that essay it was so profound and affective.

To suddenly find oneself so beset by a problem you thought was under control, and to endure some of the treatments he underwent, is heartrending to think about in the conclusion of his life.

Snobber said...

bh: thank you, as always, for reading! depression is a very serious illness. it seems insane to think how many people (and many of them, like DFW, so creative and lovely) to this disease.

Paul Pincus said...

dfw was truly inventive...original. this was incredibly sad. in '97 a close friend of the family committed suicide. i was numb. for some reason i kept thinking of that jeff buckley quote.

"Sensitivity isn't being wimpy. It's about being so painfully aware that a flea landing on a dog is like a sonic boom."
—Jeff Buckley in 1994

i'm not sure why exactly those words came to mind. i think it's because i felt i understood depression, but suicide, to me, seemed unrelated...separate. maybe this sounds outrageous, but i've wondered if it was destiny for some. and on some level noble. brave.

i completely agree with you regarding his advice. he's correct! we just have to keep reminding ourselves of this. you're so right about life being coloured by negative perceptions. i guess in the end the only thing we can truly control is our reaction.

Paul Pincus said...

i should make clear that when i said it was destiny for some i meant that the thought had crossed my mind. that thought had crossed my mind about brilliant people who had made this decision for themselves. people who i've admired and maybe obsessed about. sorry for rambling.

Snobber said...

pp: i am so sorry to hear about your friend. i understood what you were trying to say . . . with brilliance comes a tendency to overthink things (obviously). i think it's important that we all (brilliant or not) stay connected to our families and friends and remind ourselves that even if things are bad there's still something to learn. one might as well go along for the ride. that said, depression is very painful. maybe someday we'll finally have drugs that are work for everyone with a serious case.

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