Last Saturday evening, I received a text message that, despite being only 6 characters long, sent a chill through me.
The text was sent by my friend, JB, the one who had suggested – well, insisted really – that I read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. The book that took me a year to get through. Not only because of its enormous length, but because of how intense and emotional it was. Not because I didn’t want to read it – in fact, at times I felt like I couldn’t stop reading it – but because the richness of the writing made me read slowly, savour it, flip back to re-read pieces as new things came up that shed light on things I’d read earlier in the book. And sometimes the intensity of it meant I had to take a break for weeks from reading it.
I replied immediately to the text message with one of my own, saying “NO! What happened? How did he die?” But before I’d even hit send, I knew. A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions:
“David Foster Wallace, the author best known for his 1996 novel “Infinite Jest,” was found dead in his home, according to police. He was 46.
Wallace’s wife found her husband had hanged himself when she returned home about 9:30 p.m. Friday, said Jackie Morales, a records clerk with the Claremont Police Department.” (source)
I had never read anything about David Foster Wallace1 and I’d only read two things he’d written – IJ and some article about tennis2. But the theme of suicide runs deep through IJ – the main character3 committed suicide and Madame Psychosis/P.G.O.A.T. and Kate Gompart both attempt it. And I’ve since read that DFW had battled depression for over 20 years. He was described by fellow author Jonathan Franzen as “as sweet a person as I’ve ever known and as tormented a person as I’ve ever known.”
Since his death, two things of his have been cited as the things you really need to read from DFW. One is “McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express With John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope” – which he wrote after following McCain around as he campaigned to become president back in 2000. The other is his address at Kenyon College’s Convocation in 2005. Some of the things in this address that stuck out to me included:
- “the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance” – in IJ, he talks about the sayings in AA. One day at a time. Easy does it. Things that should be obvious but, in the day-to-day, we easily forget.
- He describes both dogamatic religiosity and dogamatic atheism as “a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.”
- “Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.”
- And probably the most cited quotation from that convocation address since Wallace’s death: “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.”
I’ve been reading some of the reactions to DFW’s death and I think Lee Henderson expresses well what I was thinking:
“He wrote about depression, compulsivity, and suicide in all his books, but I had hoped that by writing out his demons their grip on him weakened, and his ambitions would keep him going.” – Lee Henderson
I’ve personally been fortunate not to suffer from clinical depression3. But I know several people who do struggle with this disease4 and I’ve seen just a glimpse of how devastating it can be. But even that small glimpse has shown me how cruel a disease it is5. My heart goes out to David Foster Wallace, his family and his friends that after a long and terrible battle, the disease killed him in the end. Losing his genius at such a young age is tragic for his fans and followers who loved his work, but I can’t even imagine what those close to him are going through.
1DFW was quite an accomplished tennis player in his youth, which manifested itself in his use of students of a tennis academy as one of the main groups of characters in IJ and in his sports writing about pro tennis – I read one of these articles that he’d written.
2In fact, I had no idea that DFW was so young. In my mind, I pictured him as an older gentleman, with salt and pepper hair, slight crinkles around his eyes and, inexplicably, a British accenta. You can imagine my surprise when I saw photos of this young man with long brown hair. Not at all how I’d pictured him.
aDFW is American, and I did know that.
2Well, arguably the main character. Although it’s hard to pick a single “main” character, J.O.I/Himself/The Mad Stork is certainly a central charcter in the book.
3Although I do believe I suffered from a depressive episode when my marriage fell apart, but this was never formally diagnosed and which I got through with the help of an amazing counsellor and the best friends and family that a person could ever ask for.
4And make no mistake, it is a disease, just like cancer, heart disease or diabetes. It’s not, as some people seem to believe, just a matter of weakness or a lack of will. Mental illness is every bit as much “illness” as other illnesses. I read recently – and I wish I could remember where – that telling someone with depression to just “snap out of it” or “cheer up” is akin to telling someone with a broken leg to “just walk it off.”
4On a brighter note: in the fourth part of her series on depression, Airdrie writes about the silver lining to her own battle with depression and I found her words “depression is treatable” to be one of the most hopeful and inspiring things I’ve read in a long, long time. I know others who, like Airdrie, have managed to treat their depression and I hope that others who are dealing with this devastating disease can find inspiration in those words as well.