Sunday, September 14, 2008

On the Tragic Loss of David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

I've always had a difficult time trying to fathom what sort of mental state one has to be in to not only be willing to consider taking one's own life, but to actually go through with the task. When this life is all the time you have, I can't understand why a healthy individual would ever want to cut it short. Lives are necessarily bumpy rides, and I've always felt that the joys of life combined with the very fact that you have a life to be living should in nearly all cases outweigh the low points.

But I have only my own experience as a frame of reference. As much as I want to be justified in my anger, as much as I want to judge, I have no place. It's a frustrating problem that has beaten back many a philosopher for thousands of years; there is simply no way to know what it is like to be anyone else, because you can never step outside of your own consciousness, can never adopt a perspective outside of your own unique perceptual boundaries. If ever I were some particular suicidal individual, I'd be that suicidal individual inside of Dan, and I would still be just as perplexed.

On Friday night, one of my favorite writers, David Foster Wallace, hailed by many as one of the greatest American writers of the past 20 years, hanged himself at his home in California. All day I've had flairs of emotion, ranging from grief for the loss of a rare human being and an extremely potent talent, to anger over his doing something so seemingly foolish as committing suicide. His reasons are unknown, and will perhaps always remain elusive. I profess to know little about Wallace's private life, though I have always felt that the person that shone through in his writing was sharp and sincere and playfully alive in a way that seemed to be lacking in the majority of people I encountered, through writing or in person. Then again, all readers feel like they have some special view into the minds and souls of the writers that most capture their attention, insights that are usually quite naive but form the basis of a connection that can truly be profound. It seems cliche to talk of a certain writer "speaking" to you, but there is truth in the remarkable way that the minds of a gifted few writers can bring out the best in the minds of enamored readers. I know that Wallace's attention to detail and irony and his constant struggle with capturing a satisfactory picture of the immensity of one's own consciousness have inspired me, have changed the way I think about things and the way I approach my own writing.

There was a moment today where I wanted to feel robbed, because I operated within a worldview where David Foster Wallace was still writing, would still produce books every few years, would still delight and amaze me with his prose and acumen in the art of human nature and modernity. But I stopped myself. I read again about him, about his life, considered what he stood for and what he seemed to be most concerned with, and I realized that the selfish, narcissistic streak that runs through us all is something that always scared Wallace about himself. A tribute to Wallace that appeared on today sums up his view: "he wrote about the maddening impossibility of scrutinizing yourself without also scrutinizing yourself scrutinizing yourself and so on, ad infinitum, a vertiginous spiral of narcissism -- because not even the most merciless self- examination can ignore the probability that you are simultaneously congratulating yourself for your soul-searching, that you are posing" (Miller). It becomes easy to take advantage of heroes, to slip into the mentality that people like Wallace were placed on Earth to inspire and entertain you, rather than to acknowledge how truly kind and selfless it is for them to have shared their gift at all, how they were (are) acting out of a much opposite interest than that which makes the rest of us feel so entitled. We are not owed by, but owe the people that inspire us most (and here I'm referring to true, dictionary-definition inspiration, a word that Wallace himself struggled with, afraid to invoke its widespread, cliche connotations).

Still, it all seems a shame, largely because the gene pool was never enriched with his remarkable code. But while Wallace may not have left any children behind, he certainly planted seeds in the minds of those lucky writing students who had the fortune of being able to interact with him on a more intimate level than the rest of us.

And we readers have his catalog, not necessarily prolific by many literary standards, but formidable and engaging like few other American bibliographies. Ironically, in the past two weeks, I had just taken to rereading several of Wallace's essays from his collection Consider the Lobster, so he was particularly in the forefront of my mind at the time of his passing. I know that, as I have in these past several days, I will greatly enjoy revisiting the work he did leave for years to come. For that I am sincerely thankful.

Rest in peace, David Foster Wallace. You are profoundly missed.

Friday, September 12, 2008

On Questions or Something Else?

The other day while I was browsing in the Philosophy section of Barnes and Noble, I was approached by an odd-looking (and possibly slightly disturbed) old man who asked me if I was "looking for the answers." Now, the trainwreck of a belief system the old man was to expound upon for the better part of 30 minutes is another story, but to his initial inquiry I responded in the negative. Later, I wished I had had the presence of mind to shoot back: "No, I'm looking for books." But it was a conversation with a friend about the encounter that produced the best answer, though it doubtlessly would have been lost on the old man. The response should have been, "no, I'm looking for questions."

And I am. When I read back on a lot of the things I've written here, I find many of them are peppered with questions. Many of them may be rhetorical, but that's alright. The point is, they're being asked, and whether they require no answer, have no answer, or have many answers, they all serve to stimulate the minds they're being posed to. Our language-filled world is rife with moral ambiguity, and often the only way that one can traverse the fractured, delicate social landscape is to pose questions, which help to illuminate ours and other's intentions and desires, as well as the occasionally murky chains of cause and effect and the consequences of potential courses of action.

And while I may always be looking for questions, that does not mean that I'm unconcerned with answers, only that the answers one uncovers should be viewed as a means, not as the end. This may seem like a backwards way at approaching the question/answer dichotomy. This is where a lot of people stumble, I believe, and why a lot of people fall into close-minded routines and ill-informed systems of belief. Many people stop at the first seemingly coherent answer provided to their inquiries, and depending on the context, this can be a dangerous practice. Many religious beliefs and social and economic ideologies are supported by steadfast adherence to just-satisifactory answers, and as a result, tolerance, understanding, communication and mutual respect often rapidly break down. And rest assurred, I'm by no means attempting to issue some sort of "final answer" in my ramblings here. I can't say for sure that the methodology I place my faith in (yes, in the protean realm of human consciousness and its place in the universe, even logic and science take a measure of faith) is the best path to the "truth" we all seek to varying degrees, but I've found that it has helped me to become a more informed, well-rounded, and high-minded individual. Questioning the world is never a waste of time, and the best answers will clarify the topic of your initial inquiry and instigate new lines of questioning.

It is true that you may not always find answers for the questions you have. It is also true that even in considering questions with elusive answers, the multitude of intuitive systems in your brain are shaping your opinions and options and helping you to become a broad and logical thinker. A little healthy skepticism and an inquisitive nature has never hurt anyone. Some revelations may be emotionally or philosophically disturbing, but few intelligent people should find themselves asking to be returned to their ignorance regarding issues that effect them so personally. One could argue that the occasional frightening discovery in the course of dedicated question-asking is likely only to help one in future considerations, and having many tiny bubbles burst throughout the course of one's lifetime is surely preferable to letting a single, vulnerable bubble grow and grow until someone or something finds the desire to stick a pin in it irresistable.

And so on and so forth. What's the point of all this musing you ask? Well, that's a question. I've already got you started. And what's the answer? Just an attempt to understand why I ask so many questions. Already I've stumbled upon some ideas during the course of this relatively stream-of-consciousness bout of pondering that will likely produce more questions. And maybe you don't agree with some of what I've had to say. Good. It's your right (and arguably your duty) to question it. It'll only help you to articulate and refine your own position. And however different your opinions and whatever you discover on your way to developing them, I'm hoping that at least on this point you'll agree with me:

There is nothing more important than uncovering and understanding what it means to be you.

Monday, September 8, 2008

On Giddiness Regarding the Impending Collision of Particles

Over the past few days, I've encountered several really interesting things that I know I should be writing about, but for some reason have been having trouble mustering the ambition to do so. As such, I've got a backlog of topics I'd like to consider here, and hopefully in the days coming I can bring myself to elucidate these strands of the otherwise hectic, whirlwind-style operating mode of my conscious brain activity.

The thing that's grabbed me by the lobes today (brain lobes, mind you) is the Large Hadron Collider, a $10 billion particle accelerator that has been built beneath the Franco-Swiss border. It is the collaborative effort of over 8,000 physicists from 85 countries. The collider basically is a massive, highly-magnetized, 17-mile underground loop that scientists will shoot opposing streams of protons through (at 11,000 revolutions per second!), smashing these particles together and hoping the results will illuminate our understanding of the forces of the universe. On Wednesday, scientists will turn it on for the first time, and, provided everything operates in the intended manner, the results produced by experiments within the collider could provide the hard evidence for a variety of hypothetical concepts with key roles in present-day models of physics. Conversely, they could also shake modern theories of physics to the core.

Some of the plausible results of colliding particles on such a large scale seem straight out of science fiction: the unveiling of alternate spacial dimensions (Now Coming to You in Astounding 5-D!), the creation of micro black holes, and, according to a few overzealous apocalyptic types, the end of the very world as we know it. Of course, the latter option shouldn't rightfully be included in a list of "plausible" results, but such histrionics should certainly be considered when gauging just how charged the scientific atmosphere is around this momentous event. It is truly exploratory science, and many physicists are steeling themselves, preparing to potentially have their understanding of physics torn to shreds. While the main focus of the experiments conducted within the LHC will be to finally produce tangible evidence of particles called Higgs bosons (something I researched briefly and won't even pretend to understand, though apparently essential in the Standard Model of particle physics for explaining how massless particles can combine to create matter that does have mass), scientists also hope to gain a better understanding of the origins of the universe by creating situations similar to those that existed immediately after the Big Bang.

Even with a less-than-lay comprehension of modern physics (especially astrophysics, to which the LHC seems particularly relevant), I've found myself giddy with excitement all day. Wednesday will mark a momentous occasion in the history of science, and science always (well, usually) makes my day. I only lament that the publication of results from LHC experiments will probably take considerable time.

A final thought on all the doomsday trappings that are attached to the operation of the LHC: some of the more extreme opponents of the project have hypothesized that the LHC could produce a black hole large enough to result in the accretion of the entire planet, and a few have gone so far as to file lawsuits in an attempt to prevent the LHC from being turned on. While this possibility seems to be of almost no concern to those scientists operating the LHC, its consideration from an imaginative standpoint produces some interesting questions. What if a significantly large black hole was produced by the collider? Obviously one large enough to swallow the Earth wouldn't allow us to react to (or even be aware of) the disaster (another thing interesting to ponder, because those claiming it as a legitimate possibility would never discover they were correct should they actually be), but what about a smaller black hole that consumed less than the entirety of the planet's matter? Where exactly would the hole exist, and how would it effect people? How would the world be informed about a black hole disaster when so little of the world has any working understanding of what a black hole actually is? In the realm of speculative-science-become-nightmarish-reality, who becomes the authority on just how to inform the world of the situation, let alone devise a method to address the problem? How do you cordon-off a black hole when one can never know whether they've crossed the event horizon (that being the point at which you can no longer overcome the black hole's gravitational pull and escape)until it's too late? What does the process spaghettification look like (that is, before a person/thing is reduced to an imperceivable strand of elementary particles)? Even with a painfully amateurish grasp of the bare basics of quantum theory associated with black holes, starting to ponder such things is near migraine-inducing. I can almost understand how some overly paranoid, astrophysics-distended naysayer might actually convince themselves that the LHC is the ultimate, terrible expression of the purest form of nihilism. Blah.

My lobes hurt.