"Slogans saved my life. All of them — the dumb ones, the imperatives, the shameless, witless ones." - david carr
My first reaction to David Foster Wallace's death was one of shock, followed by immediate recognition and easy explanation, then anger at myself for making assumptions about him. His work is a world of pain, varieties of which he taxonomized and translated. His voice was soft and his speaking pace was measured, and he seemed thoughtful. He certainly thought. He may have thought himself to death.
Certain deaths are tragic and not at all surprising, which, in the case of a young person, always amplifies the tragedy. Kurt Cobain. Anna Nicole Smith. People can die from private pain worn on their celebrity sleeves, and the microscope of every type of celebrity can reinforce the horrible belief that a person's own pain is inescapable. You've won awards for your explanations of pain. Everybody's watching your pain and reporting on it and consuming it on their train commutes. So it must be, like, bigger-than-big pain, just like it feels. If everybody is looking, it must be a spectacle, right? Tautologically? It must be objectively Big Pain.
According to the New York Times, David Foster Wallace has suffered with depression for 20 years. Since he was 26. I doubt that. It seems to me that he's been treated for depression for 20 years. He published his first novel when he was 24. He was already a working artist by 26. Do you know how hard it is to disentangle your pain and your art, especially when that art has already born success? I do, and I don't; mostly I can only imagine. People would rather destroy their own personal lives, destroy their own minds and bodies, than get better when they fear that their work hinges on their problems.
Of course, that's just stupid, right? David Foster Wallace knew that was stupid and narcissistic, to believe one's pain is tied to one's work, to believe that one's success hinges on misery. He knew enough to see that. He knew enough to see the opposite. He had enough power and empathy to see every side, to see every reality, to berate and mock his own beliefs and those of others. He was at sea in a storm of seeing.
The quotes at the beginning of this post by Wallace and David Carr show a humble kind of lucidity, or perhaps a lucid kind of humility: self-defined intellectual men with great, macho successes under their belts bowing humbly at the Power of Positive Thinking (TM). We humans, for whatever reasons, have evolved with a startlingly consistent need for a Higher Power, and for a Truth that we can cling to like a MobileMart sign in a hurricane. (I swear to those of you who haven't read it that O magazine should just be re-titled "How To Believe In Something When You Don't Really Necessarily Believe In Anything But You Know That People Who Believe In Something Are Happier And More Successful But You Often Find Yourself Too Cynical And Reality-Based To Delude Yourself" magazine.) For all of us godless (and pantheist and monotheist and seeing-all-sides-ist) folks, and for those of us who worship diction and feel truth when synaptic manifestations can be formed into correct-seeming strings of characters and words, platitudes and banal slogans can be a starting point (or at least a convincing, if embarrassing, stand-in) for belief.
You can think your way out of everything, except the problem of thinking too much. Sure, you can use your mind to free yourself from your mind, but that's different from thinking. You do other things. You distract. With purpose, you meditate. You liberate yourself from thoughts, and you do so in terror if your livelihood and bridge to humanity and very SELF feel dependent on your constant curious thinking and churning little brain. You've pitied the deluded forever. Pitied, and envied, but not really, but yes entirely envied. It's hard. It's a great big mindfuck is what it is.
David Foster Wallace tried. And for that, I love him. From the New York Times:
[David Foster Wallace's father] 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."
Well fuck. Fucking fucking fuck shit fuck. He tried.
Those of us who have survived something like suicidal depression have a unique variety of survivor guilt. Because our minds can still see every way, we know it could be us in the casket with an extra thought or one less notion here or there. Timing, people, circumstance are all so crucially important to our survival. Every suicide is an accidental death.
And nobody will ever write like him again.