17 September 2008

David Foster Wallace

Contemporary American writer and recipient of the 1997 MacArthur Foundation's grant (affectionately dubbed the"Genius Grant"), David Foster Wallace was found dead in his home on Friday. There isn't much that I can say here that hasn't already been said elsewhere, but I do feel a remarkable sadness that such an interesting creative giant has taken what I can only imagine would have been his best works yet with him. It's always a sad day when the creative among us passes.

Wallace gave the world his popular collections of short stories such as, "Girl With Curious Hair" and "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men." But probably more notably, he gifted the contemporary literary stage with Infinite Jest. I started reading Infinite Jest at the beginning of the summer, and, admittedly, have yet to finish. Even without reaching the hallowed last page, it comes as a profound sadness to know that there will be no more dark wit, cynicism, and off-beat humor. Thus far, I am enjoying Infinite Jest immensely, and I recommend making an effort to pour through it at some point.

But if you don't have time to sit through his lengthy novel just yet, at least take a glimpse of the Commencement speech Wallace gave on May 25, 2005 at Kenyon. It's far from a traditional speech, but it holds some incredibly laid-bare, point blank insights that, while on the surface might sound disheartening, actually gift the graduates with incredible freedom and control of their lives. An excerpt:

As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

His reference to suicide in this profound speech three years ago raises questions about his own personal existence and dealing with his own "Terrible Master." Many references to the old adage of the "thin line between genius and insanity" have been raised since Wallace's death, but I don't believe it can be summed up in such a cavalier way. It ignores the difficulties that creative, highly intelligent individuals experience daily. It ignores the nuts and bolts of every day living. Benjamin Strong from the Village Voice says it best:

The short answer is easy. Wallace's father told the New York Times that his son had been taking anti-depression medications for 20 years and, feeling their cumulative side effects, had tried in the summer of 2007 to wean himself off of them, only to land in shock therapy and hospital stays after his illness returned. The longer, more complicated answer—namely, what it was exactly that was going through the writer's head when he hanged himself in his own home, where he had to know it would be his wife of four years who would find him—let's face it, that explanation is not ever going to be forthcoming.

Unfortunately, we'll never know the actual reason David Foster Wallace chose to take his own life, but I submit that we don't necessarily need to. The over-intellectualizing of his actions is precisely the kind of thinking and day-to-day behavior he railed against in his commencement speech. Sometimes we should just take things for face value and see the Water for the Water.

Do yourselves a favor and pick up one of his books. At the very least skip on over to Harper's, where they so graciously posted every piece they have ever printed by him in PDF format.