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September 18, 2008


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

What has your response been to the suicide of David Foster Wallace? In an email he gave me permission to copy and paste, frequent 2Blowhards visitor PatrickH wrote an eloquent passage:

I am so depressed over the death by suicide of David Foster Wallace. Why, I’m not sure. I just am. He was a kind of hero to me...a man of hugely varied interests, of great curiosity, and in his own way, fearless. I read and learned from (and was massively frustrated by) his book on the mathematical concept of infinity, even though it was organized in such a perverse way as to be virtually useless to the reader. Infinite Jest is a book so overrich with, well, everything, that I could reread it a thousand times and still not get to the bottom of it.

Sigh. I knew he was married, and I am angered that he would treat his wife this way (Spalding Gray made me angry in the same way), but I was even more appalled at first because I thought he had children. It doesn’t make me any less depressed by his loss, but it does make me less angry, knowing he hasn’t abandoned any children. I have no idea why he did what he did, and for all I know he could have been very sick physically, or perhaps mentally (I’ve known what it’s like to be clinically depressed), so he no doubt had what must have felt to him to be compelling reasons. But self-murder is still murder, and to take a human life is a kind of cosmic blasphemy that only gets more difficult for me to accept as I get older.

Sigh. Damn. I wish he hadn’t done what he did.

Because I was never a fan of DFW's writing, my own response was the generic one I usually have to news of suicides: "I'm so sorry"; "Gosh that's awful"; "I wonder what the real story was"; and "What an asshole." Killing yourself -- unless we're talking about horrendous, physical, end-of-life situations -- may be an individual's own business in some ways, but it's also often a terrible thing to do to the people who know and care about you.

Gil Roth was saddened by DFW's death too, and links to a couple of worth-reading pieces. I wrote some unappreciative and ungallant words about DFW's writing in the comments here -- but read the posting for the comments by Mr. Tall, who makes a very interesting case for DFW.



UPDATE: Because I'm an asshole too with no sense of the decencies, I'm going to venture a probably-unfair and definitely-out-of-line thought. Here it is, and do take it with a giant grain of salt: "DFW's suicide illustrates something for me: that the combo of philosophy, 'literary fiction,' early acclaim, academia -- DFW was the son of teachers and spent much of his own life teaching -- and playing the 'genius' game is one seriously unhealthy life-recipe." Now please forget that I ever said such a thing.

Possibly related: Dave Lull calls attention to a New York magazine article about the demise of the traditional book-publishing industry. Favorite-of-mine MD points out that the reliably cheery Alexander McCall Smith -- whose work she aptly calls "anything but stodgy and Booker Prizy" -- is writing a novel online for The Telegraph.

posted by Michael at September 18, 2008


Really enjoyed much of his writing and I think he's an asshole for offing himself. It's a loss to writing, but more of a loss to his family.

I actually liked his non-fiction stuff more than his fiction. I think all his pyrotechnics actually worked better in the non-fiction area.

Posted by: JV on September 18, 2008 12:34 PM

Why would you call a clinically depressed person an "asshole"? He had a mental condition, was able to function at a pretty high level in spite of it, but in the end it did him in.

"Playing the genius game" was pretty clearly how his brain was wired--part of the same wiring that did him in. I don't know if he really rose to the level of genius--I thought several of his short stories were pretty impressive, but could never make it through his longer work--but lots of authentic geniuses have the same faulty wiring ("faulty" in the sense of not being able to sustain ordinary human relationships and function as an ordinary human being on a day-to-day level). "Unhealthy life recipe" strikes me as an odd way to look at a suicide. Obviously, not everyone is mentally equipped to judiciously mix the ingredients of their life like a chef in a kitchen.

Posted by: Steve on September 18, 2008 12:57 PM

This is good.

Posted by: JV on September 18, 2008 2:16 PM

Thanks for the post, Michael. I second Mr Tall's superb comment on DFW, and would only follow up here with this: much of your disdain for "lit-fic" has been (rightly IMO) focused on its neurasthenic, emotionally etiolated, hyper-intellectual qualities (and perhaps, its feminized tone and look and feel).

DFW was this titanic, masculine, grab-at-it-all, my-testicles-are-so-F*CKING-HUGE kind of writer / thinker, that he simply blew the shite out of the lit-fic field, blasted himself out that narrow little gravity well and out into the world of non-fiction (where JV said rightly that DFW belonged), the world of politics, culture, philosophy and mathematics.

He may have been lit-fic, but he didn't feel lit-fic.

I also have a theory about his suicide. In his book on the mathematics of infinity, he begins with a discussion of Zeno's Paradoxes (you know, Achilles and the tortoise, that stuff), then lunges as was his wont into a discussion of abstraction, the systematic even monomaniacal abstraction that gives rise to mathematics, Western philosophy, and perhaps, madness.

DFW didn't think that the hero of his book, Georg Cantor, was mad in the abstraction-driven sense: he argues that Cantor was not schizophrenic but manic/dep, and that his illness had little to do with his mathematical genius.

But DFW himself did write about abstraction in a way that was almost frightening in its emotional intensity. He made it seem half-mad to do at all, let alone systematically. He linked it to paralyzing doubt, the existential kind, the kind that makes you unable to get out of bed in the morning, not because you're feeling down and cannot face another day at the office, but because you realize you cannot PROVE that the floor is even there for you to step onto. For all you know, he wrote, you could get out of bed...and plunge down an infinitely deep well.

Which I think is what happened to him. He wrote about abstraction in such personal terms that I think he suffered from something to which I can, as they say, relate: he abstracted all the time, he questioned and doubted and thought and pondered all the time. And he couldn't stop. He couldn't turn that part of his brain off.

Except by choking it to death. Think about it: gunshot BOOM the abstracting machine is silenced forever. But so are you. Hang yourself,take those minutes to die as you swing back and forth a foot and a half above the faithless floor that wouldn't promise you it would be there in the morning to hold you up as you got out of bed, and maybe, just maybe, as your brain shuts down from lack of oxygen...the abstraction machine will finally shut the fuck up and the rest of your brain, the feeling part, the sensing part, the simple parts that take the world as it is, can have maybe a minute or two of peace. Free from the overweening cortex, the "spike in the forehead" to use Kafka's image, and just let you, him that is, DFW, the guy, the lad, the jock, just him and no one Just this guy. For a minute or two. Life without the camera in the head, the thinking machine that would never shut off, never shut up.

Well, he showed it who's boss. He made that fucker stop. He shut it the fuck right down, yessiree he did.

If that's why he did it, I hope it worked.


Posted by: PatrickH on September 18, 2008 2:26 PM

It's evidence of the decadence of American (or Western?) society that none of the CEOs who've lead their banks to ruin have shot themselves.

Posted by: dearieme on September 18, 2008 2:32 PM

We lived in Edinburgh for years and knew many of the Law faculty at the University. But it was the one who was only a face and a smile to us who became the famous novelist. For those who don't know Sandy McCall Smith's stuff, it's rattlingly cheerful, the "44 Scotland Street" novels particularly.

Posted by: dearieme on September 18, 2008 2:37 PM

The passing of this classic noir author today will probably resonate more among 2Blowhards readers. At least it did with me:

Posted by: GB on September 18, 2008 2:38 PM

"Why would you call a clinically depressed person an "asshole"?"

Point taken. Still, his wife had to find him hanging there. Hard to forgive.

Patrick, really well-said.

Posted by: JV on September 18, 2008 2:43 PM

Michael, If you are an asshole, this world needs more of them. About suicide, one of my favorite quotes is something I heard Camille Paglia say at a book signing: "I'm Italian. I don't like suicide. I think we should direct our anger outward, at people who deserve it."

Posted by: Lester Hunt on September 18, 2008 3:44 PM

I am unable anymore to react in any way to the demise of someone who I didn't know and had no empathetic relationship to.

That book publishing in crisis article is the same old hand wringing. Articles like that are as predictable as the seasons.

What was most revealing was that the first two releases from the supposedly visionary, new HarperCollins imprint are a celebrity cookbook and a celeb autobiography.

This new imprint is no different from the rest of the business. They should put a banner over their doorway: "We have no imagination, we take no chances."

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on September 18, 2008 3:55 PM

I do not know the writings of David Foster Wallace, but I also have to cop to a bad attitude about literary suicides. On such occasions I tend to remember Clive James's comment about visiting one of Ernest Hemingway's homes, "where the walls were adorned with the stuffed heads of seemingly everything he ever shot, except himself."

Posted by: Rick Darby on September 18, 2008 4:20 PM

PatrickH, your gimme-a-moment-of-peace theory seems way overdetermined. A good metaphor for the relentless, uncertain world of an abstract warrior - a strong and beautiful one - but I'll bet DFW's real motivations were a lot less theoretical than that. When you are really depressed, you don't need an intellectual construction to flip you over into despair. Your breathe despair; you are despair.

Posted by: robert61 on September 18, 2008 4:22 PM

I wasn't a fan of his writing either, or at least the little of it that I read, which was only a few essays of his from "Consider the Lobster". I found him mildly engaging and amusing, but also rather bland and a bit too cute and self-satisfied in a pseudo-ironic Gen-X sort of way. I found his constant annotations irritating as hell.

I was shocked by his suicide because, having regarded him as somewhat of a lightweight, I had no idea of his despair. Not that suicide makes you deep, but I must admit I take him a bit more seriously now.

Posted by: green mamba on September 18, 2008 5:03 PM

Well, I, for one, loved the guy's writing.

My reactions, one and two.

I didn't realize until recently how close we were in age, and he's from the midwest, like me. So maybe that's why his writing spoke to me like it did.

Posted by: yahmdallah on September 18, 2008 5:46 PM

Oh, and my dimestore psychology on why is almost the exact thing that did Kurt Cobain in:

1) An early huge hit that would be almost impossible to surpass.
2) Unsustainable definitions of what purity and authenticity are.
3) The tendency to disappear up one's own ass (a few steps past navel gazing) that left them prone to depression and making it difficult to come back, so one time they didn't.

Posted by: yahmdallah on September 18, 2008 6:16 PM

yamdallah, your reaction seems to have come as a surprise to you. Like mine, and also like mine somehow to be caught up in questions of children and life--even though he had no children. Interesting commonality. It's as if somehow DFW had come to embody in my mind a kind of creative (masculine?) life force. It's as if he was his own child, and ending his life was his way of refusing to bring himself into this world any longer.

Thank you for your comments on your (wonderful) blog. I no longer feel quite so bizarre or alone about the intensity of my reaction to the death of a man, whom after I all I didn't know. Nice not to be so alone.

P.S. It's funny to hear Michael, among the most affable and irenic of men, call himself an "asshole". One of the least asshole-ish people I've encountered in a life chock-full of walking bungholes (too often the major one being the guy I see in the mirror).

Posted by: PatrickH on September 18, 2008 7:05 PM

There's a lack in suicides. Proportion. A sense of proportion. Things are bleak. SO bleak. But they're not. They're not all that bleak if the fools only had the sense to step back from themselves, step away from themselves. But they don't. They don't have the sense. So they off themselves. Fools.

Posted by: ricpic on September 18, 2008 7:27 PM

Oh c'mon guys, this is all just part of the pose and you know it. Just like the rock star who parties until he chokes on his own vomit, the tortured genius kills himself.


Posted by: Jourdan on September 18, 2008 7:32 PM

I really liked David Foster Wallace (I found PatrickH's comment above quite perceptive). I think Michael Blowhard has a personal beef with literary artistic types, that frankly makes him unreliable as a judge of their quality. I mean, he's correct that they are often (usually) overrated, but the issue is so personal with him that it's hard for him to judge fairly. They seem to set him off somehow.

From his interviews and writing, Wallace himself seems to have been a thoughtful and modest person who to the extent he played the "genius game" did so because his compulsive intellect and his gift for expression would give him no rest. An irony is that from hearing interviews with him I'm sure he would have agreed with MB that the overintellectual/literary recognition/"genius" bit makes for a difficult life, he often said recognition came to him too soon and was ultimately unsatisfying even though it was (like all artists) also the realization of a fantasy. (However, he never would have faulted his parents as MB seems to, in public he always spoke of them with respect and affection). Another irony is that Wallace was very willing to recognize great art in popular culture, he reportedly said that TV show "The Wire" was the best novel in America.

Two pieces by DFW:

a letter about his rehab facility gives a sense of him personally -- his retrospective take on his own cocksure young assholishness shows real humility:

his wonderful piece about taking a vacation on a cruise ship:

Posted by: MQ on September 18, 2008 8:23 PM

Thank you for the link, MB, although I wish it were to the end of something nicer; this is just sad news.

(I guess the obvious thing to say about this post is that people who commit suicide aren't thinking clearly and I'm not sure it has anything to do with being artsy or literary, except, I seem to remember rates of depression being high in some of these groups. I don't recall, exactly, Razib at Gene Expression probably knows the data. I remember my ex, who used to drink, just didn't think the way the rest of us would. I used to think maybe substance abuse was just the end result of really confused, messed up thinking. Anyway. Very sad, very sad news. Terrible for his family).

Posted by: MD on September 18, 2008 8:35 PM

PatrickH and Yahmdallah, we're clearly on the same wavelength w/r/t DFW.

He was a simple-hearted genius, and that's a tough row to hoe, in any age, but maybe especially in this one. He was born to be sincere, but sincerity is systematically undervalued -- often trashed -- in the contemporary arts/literature scene, and I wonder how crazy that must have made him feel sometimes.

Michael, please don't berate yourself on this one -- I thought your comments were pretty mild, compared to some I've seen. And you're one of the best examples around of how to open eyes and see something beautiful when you've been indoctrinated to do the opposite . . . .

I think for DFW really to resonate with you as a reader, you have to cover some of the same mental map. PatrickH's comment was right on: DFW was engulfed in abstraction. I'm no genius, but I'm deeply interested in, and attracted to, abstractions, the grander the better. I'm a classic 'INTP' type, if you're familiar with the Myers/Briggs classifications, and I guess DFW might have been, too. We're the over-explainers, the types who are quiet most of the time, but then get a little frothy at cocktail parties when someone asks us about the latest book we've read or project we're working on, and 20 minutes later we're still trying to outline the full extent of our ideas, making sure we name each and every detail and demonstrate how it fits into the grand scheme that we can see so clearly in our own minds, wondering all the time why our conversation partner is looking more and more glazed, but not really wondering, because we're self-conscious enough to know exactly what we're doing and why we're doing it, but seemingly still unable to just shut up and ask the other person a normal small talk question, a mental list of which we keep back in that storehouse of abstractions, too, and . . . .

You see what I mean?

Requiem in pacet, indeed.

Posted by: mr tall on September 18, 2008 10:07 PM

I don't know about the circumstances around Wallace's death, but I know that Spaulding Gray suffered from severe depression for several years and modern medicine was unable to relieve his suffering--he tried to find successful treatments. Under those circumstances, I think the only people who would call a suicide an "asshole" is someone who has never suffered from clinical depression and has no idea what it's like.

Posted by: CyndiF on September 18, 2008 10:09 PM

And one more thing: Michael, your comment about DFW 'playing the genius game' is perceptive and perfectly apt. I think he did feel that need; he certainly understood what the game entailed in his time and place, i.e. becoming a pomo-rific doorstop-novelist; and he was plenty smart enough to pull the whole thing off a couple of times. The good son of the teachers, indeed. And he was granted the awards our culture has deemed appropriate for genius novelists -- a modicum of fame, a nice writer-in-residence post at a university, the little nods of acknowledgment from the literary establishment . . . .

But if I'm right about the kind of mind DFW had, his deepest instincts would have been utterly anti-pomo, i.e. towards systematizing and organizing abstractions, making Big Sense out of Total Chaos, instead of deconstructing traditional order and sowing confusion. This contradiction is to me the reason his novels are so frustrating to read: there is a particular kind of genius on display everywhere, but it's frittered away on trivia. Not always -- his gift couldn't always be denied -- but all too often.

BTW, to lighten things up a bit, if DFW's style does appeal to you, another novelist who's similarly geeky smart but a bit more pleasant and satisfying to read is Neal Stephenson. His Cryptonomicon succeeds at introducing and taking wondrous joy in abstractions, while still managing to hold together as a story with some good characters.

Posted by: mr tall on September 18, 2008 10:28 PM

I felt very sad about the news, too - I enjoyed a lot of DFW's writing, particularly the journalism. And I actually did read all of "Infinite Jest", although I'm sure I'll never read it front to back again.

Behind all the mod-lit-fic stuff, I think that Wallace was, in fact, a very smart person whose personality gave him a lot of grief. The cruise ship article is a great place for people who haven't read him to start - if it drives you up the wall, the rest of his work will, too, and more so. But there are some really perceptive things in there - the feeling of despair that overcame him on that trip is something I've felt myself, and he did such a good job of describing it.

The too-much-awareness thing that he had going may have been a literary device, but I think that's probably looking at things the wrong way around. I think he really did feel things this way, and was able to write about them well. Perhaps he had nothing going on as an author without these feelings, which would be a rough situation. Anyone who shows the awareness of addiction that he did in "Infinite Jest" had clearly been through some bad experiences - perhaps they never really stopped.

He was a smart, funny, guy, with interesting thoughts that he did his best to get down on paper. And his death diminishes me (Donne was right), particularly when it came the way it did (just as in the cases of Primo Levi and quite possibly Randall Jarrell).

Posted by: Derek Lowe on September 18, 2008 10:39 PM

Regarding depression, Rollo May somewhere says that its essence is a disordered relationship to time - the present gloom seems eternal, and the hoped-for recovery eternally far off.

Regarding DFW, I haven't read his writing, but he almost sounds like an honorary Blowhard in this quote:

What's it like to be a young fiction writer today, in terms of getting started, building a career and so on?

Personally, I think it's a really neat time. I've got friends who disagree. Literary fiction and poetry are real marginalized right now. There's a fallacy that some of my friends sometimes fall into, the ol' "The audience is stupid. The audience only wants to go this deep. Poor us, we're marginalized because of TV, the great hypnotic blah, blah." You can sit around and have these pity parties for yourself. Of course this is bullshit. If an art form is marginalized it's because it's not speaking to people. One possible reason is that the people it's speaking to have become too stupid to appreciate it. That seems a little easy to me.

If you, the writer, succumb to the idea that the audience is too stupid, then there are two pitfalls. Number one is the avant-garde pitfall, where you have the idea that you're writing for other writers, so you don't worry about making yourself accessible or relevant. You worry about making it structurally and technically cutting edge: involuted in the right ways, making the appropriate intertextual references, making it look smart. Not really caring about whether you're communicating with a reader who cares something about that feeling in the stomach which is why we read. Then, the other end of it is very crass, cynical, commercial pieces of fiction that are done in a formulaic way -- essentially television on the page -- that manipulate the reader, that set out grotesquely simplified stuff in a childishly riveting way.

What's weird is that I see these two sides fight with each other and really they both come out of the same thing, which is a contempt for the reader, an idea that literature's current marginalization is the reader's fault. The project that's worth trying is to do stuff that has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it's also pleasurable to read. The reader feels like someone is talking to him rather than striking a number of poses.

Full interview here.

Posted by: Brian on September 19, 2008 12:23 AM

Steve, CyndiF -- The "what an asshole" remark has to do not with the person's sufferings, which are obviously real and deserve respect, but with what the suicide-er is doing to the people who are close to him, have cared for him, have loved him, given him time, etc. I've known a few people who were close to people who killed themselves, and they've all had a combo reaction: horror, grief, and "what an asshole." Whatever else it is, killing yourself is a horrendous thing to do to the people who care about you.

MQ -- What do you say we agree to avoid the "someone's taking it personally so we can dismiss his reaction" thing? 1) This is art, all our reactions are personal -- you, me, Harold Bloom, everyone. 2) It kicks off a stupid spiral of mutual dismissiveness. It'd be easy for me to respond to you by saying "Well, MQ didn't like the fact that I didn't like DFW's writing, so he's dismissing my remarks by saying that I have personal trouble with lit-fict generally. Ha. In fact, what's really going on here is that MQ has personal trouble with people who disagree with him. Which entitles me to dismiss his enthusiasm for DFW." Things turn in pointless circles and nothing interesting winds up getting said. A remark about the arts is either useful/provocative/funn/insightful/valid/etc or it's not. But it's always personal.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 19, 2008 12:33 AM

Ah, Google Books - is there anything you don't know? The relevant Rollo May chapter, for those interested, begins here.

Posted by: Brian on September 19, 2008 12:51 AM

I never read anything by DFW but I was stunned and upset by his suicide. I printed out his short story "The Depressed Person" and sat down to read it.

At first it seemed like a dreary overwritten analysis of a depressed mind. Big deal, I thought. I've read "The Crack Up" and I don't need any more examinations of depression.

But lo and behold, the story turned out to be a savage and bitter denunciation of the depressed person. The anger and contempt just blew me away.

My (uninformed) feeling is that DFW struggled with depression and hated himself for it. A terrible state to be in.

Posted by: Sister Wolf on September 19, 2008 3:48 AM

One can be depressed and a bastard at the same time.

Fuck it, sometimes there is an obligation to live. He should have concentrated less on writing eloquently about the feelings of a depressed person and more on the feelings of the ones left behind by their death.

Fucking writers's introspection, how about a bit of extrospection?

No, and I haven't read his work. But I've damn well seen enough of the trauma that suicide causes to the ones left behind.

May God have mercy on his soul.

Posted by: slumlord on September 19, 2008 8:19 AM

I was piss drunk and reading news online after work when I heard about it. I then posted a long incomprehensible screed in my blog while not hitting the main point of it.

In the novel I've been writing a copy of Infinite Jest takes a center role in the life of a suicidal character, as a book he wants to get through, but can't. I'm wondering if I should go back and edit it out.

Damn. I really did like the aspirations of his work, if not the execution. A friend of mine in grad school was lucky enough to have him as a creative writing professor. He remarked about him at the time: "Yeah, he was a really down to earth guy, though he was kinda weird. He'd constantly have a wad of Skoal in his mouth and would spit in a huge plastic cup every now and then."

Both details were kinda unexpected to me.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on September 19, 2008 9:54 AM

My college girlfriend killed herself many years after we broke up. By then she was a professor of philosophy. I had pretty much the same thoughts as Michael at the time, regarding her lifestyle. Her mind was a distorted echo chamber, and I don't think her obsession with philosophy helped it at all. But then there's no solace for some people.

I once had a bout of severe depression and it was just awful. It was the first time I ever understood how someone could kill themselves. I felt as if I would never feel happiness as long as I lived. I agree with the "what an asshole' sentiment, but I don't think we can really understand the state of mind of someone who can do something so awful. While acknowledging the pain they cause, a certain forgiveness is in order for them.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on September 19, 2008 10:17 AM

PatrickH, an interesting theory and, if true, a tragically naive assumption that we can end it all simply by killing our physical bodies.

Posted by: buster1 on September 19, 2008 12:56 PM

".... I don't think we can really understand the state of mind of someone who can do something so awful."

My point exactly--severely depressed people are literally not in their right mind. I understand the pain and anger of people living with a loved one's suicide, but the bottom line is severe depression is a disease. Which renders judgments like, "oh, he's an asshole" a bit, well, asshole-ish. It's like calling a schizophrenic an asshole for hearing voices in his head.

Posted by: Steve on September 19, 2008 1:56 PM

Steve -- So we're having afew reading-comprehension challenges today?

Look, it wasn't a judgment, it was a (clearly labeled) personal response. And it wasn't "he's an asshole" all by itself. It was "what an asshole" along with "I'm so sorry"; "Gosh that's awful"; "I wonder what the real story was" -- all offered up in a hyper-heightened context of "I admit I don't know what I'm talking about here, take it for what it's worth" and deference towards everyone who cared about DFW's work.

If you think I'm an asshole that's OK with me. But let's get the writing facts straight.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 19, 2008 2:07 PM

Oy, again with the reading comprehension jibes! Writing-facts-wise, "what an asshole" may be a personal response but it's also a judgment. And, it seems to me, a strikingly inapt one for someone suffering from a mental disease--like calling an Alzheimer's patient an asshole for failing to acknowledge family and friends.

Posted by: Steve on September 19, 2008 3:51 PM

but the bottom line is severe depression is a disease

So is pneumonia, so what?

How you deal with life's slings and arrows determines your moral character. When faced with adversity--even if it's in your own head--you have to grow some balls and face life, crawling into a ball or trying to kill yourself is running away from the pain: cowardice in the language of our fathers. The act is worthy of moral censure.

Except in the most extreme cases, depressives have a handle on reality, unlike the two poor examples of schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease.

Depression is a mental state made manifestly worse by the habit of introspection and self absorpiton; something writers and other artists have buckets of. Self absorption is the friend of depression, humility its enemy.

He should have stopped thinking about his problems and gone out to smell the roses; it may have given him a reason to live.

Posted by: slumlord on September 19, 2008 6:15 PM

In the email to Michael that started this discussion, I stated that I was very angry with DFW, as I had been with Spalding Gray, as I had been before that with my best friend Mark who killed himself at 25, an event that even more than the deaths of my family from alcoholism, scarred me for life.

I understand the "you asshole" completely. It's just plain normal, human, natural. Jesus. I also grieved DFW, also normal. Jesus. This stuff happens. It's called being alive, human and having emotions. Lordy.

I was more upset that Michael didn't recognize DFW as someone who blew po-mo lit-fic to pieces and was possessed of deep moral seriousness. Mr Tall nailed it again in his comment above. Now, Michael's attitude in that area...that will produce a visit to NYC and a thrashing. Well, not really. could.

It could. Remember that, Blowhard. I know (roughly) where you live. 'Nuff said.

Posted by: PatrickH on September 19, 2008 6:45 PM

I reread this week John Updike's preposterously brilliant 1978 comic novel "The Coup" about an African dictator with the mind of John Updike. His next novel was "Rabbit Is Rich," which won all the awards in 1981. If Updike had hanged himself at his peak after finishing the Rabbit Is Rich manuscript, he'd be celebrated today like I'm sure David Foster Wallace will be in 28 years. Instead, he's gone on cheerfully living, enjoying himself churning out book after book, getting a little less brilliant and a little more repetitious each year as he ages. And, therefore, nobody seems to be interested in Updike at all anymore.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on September 20, 2008 6:09 AM

Compare DFW's description at the beginning of this article with the video here, beginning at 2:00.

Posted by: bjk on September 20, 2008 7:41 AM

I'm not a big fan of fiction, so it was news to me when this "David Foster Wallace" fellow checked himself out. Subsequently, a single snippet of an interview with him on NPR was all that was required for me to discover a potential new favorite.

I am awaiting my package from Amazon as I type.

Of all the sorrows that afflict mankind, the bitterest is this, that one should have consciousness of much, but control over nothing -- Herodotus

Poor guy. He should've kept firmly in mind an aphorism I have pinned on the wall before me:

"You cannot avoid the ecstasy-terror of existence no matter how creative you are. There is
no end to self-overcoming."

Posted by: Tupac Chopra on September 20, 2008 10:53 AM

Sister Wolf comes closest, I think: "DFW struggled with depression and hated himself for it."

As far as I can tell, scanning through the comments, no one has yet referenced this amazing WSJ reprint of a commencement address Wallace gave in 2005. It leads to much the same conclusion,

"In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things -- if they are where you tap real meaning in life -- then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already -- it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power -- you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart -- you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on."

Posted by: David C on September 20, 2008 12:01 PM

Yes, I read that address from the Kenyon commencement some time ago, and had a few thoughts on his advice as it related to living as an expatriate here.

Posted by: mr tall on September 20, 2008 7:55 PM

Yes, I read that address from the Kenyon commencement some time ago, and had a few thoughts on his advice as it related to living as an expatriate here.

Posted by: mr tall on September 20, 2008 7:55 PM

Any footnotes in his suicide note?

Posted by: James M. on September 22, 2008 1:49 PM

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