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.

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