“Humility — the acceptance that being human is good enough — is the embrace of ordinariness.” — underlined by David Foster Wallace in his copy of Ernest Kurtz’s The Spirituality of Imperfection.
“True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.” — David Foster Wallace, The Pale King
Among David Foster Wallace’s papers at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin are three hundred-odd books from his personal library, most of them annotated, some heavily as if he were scribbling a dialogue with the author page by page. There are several of his undergraduate papers from Amherst; drafts of his fiction and non-fiction; research materials; syllabi; notes, tests and quizzes from classes he took, and from those he taught; fan correspondence and juvenilia. As others have found, it’s entirely boggling for a longtime fan to read these things. I recently spent three days in there and have yet to cram my eyeballs all the way back in where they belong.
Wallace committed suicide in 2008. There has been a natural reluctance to broach questions surrounding the tragedy with his family and friends, just as there was reluctance to ask him directly about his personal history when he was alive. But there are indications — particularly in the markings of his books — of Wallace’s own ideas about the sources of his depression, some of which seem as though they ought to be the privileged communications of a priest or a psychiatrist. But these things are in a public archive and are therefore going to be discussed and so I will tell you about them.
One surprise was the number of popular self-help books in the collection, and the care and attention with which he read and reread them. I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace’s library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully.
Much of Wallace’s work has to do with cutting himself back down to size, and in a larger sense, with the idea that cutting oneself back down to size is a good one, for anyone (q.v., the Kenyon College commencement speech, later published as This is Water). I left the Ransom Center wondering whether one of the most valuable parts of Wallace’s legacy might not be in persuading us to put John Bradshaw on the same level with Wittgenstein. And why not; both authors are human beings who set out to be of some use to their fellows. It can be argued, in fact, that getting rid of the whole idea of special gifts, of the exceptional, and of genius, is the most powerful current running through all of Wallace’s work.
All his life, he’d been the smartest boy in class, the gifted athlete, the super brain, the best writer. He graduated summa cum laude from Amherst, writing two senior theses, one in philosophy and one in English, both praised to the skies; the latter was published as a novel, The Broom of the System, when he was just 24. When Infinite Jest appeared, in 1996, acclaim came in like a tidal wave from nearly every critic of stature. “A work of genius.” “The plaques and citations can now be put in escrow.” “Exhilarating.” “Truly remarkable.” “Taking the next step in fiction.” The New York Times was relatively restrained in its praise, but still called Wallace “a writer of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything.”
But Wallace had already learned to mistrust such praise. There are many, many places where he talks about that mistrust, but here’s just one: David Lipsky spoke with him in 1996 in an interview that later grew into Lipsky’s book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. Here, Wallace explained that he was proud of Infinite Jest in a way that he was not proud of The Broom of the System: “Which I think shows some talent, but was in many ways a fuck-off enterprise. It was written very quickly, rewritten sloppily, sound editorial suggestions were met with a seventeen-page letter about literary theory that was really a not-very-interesting way… really a way for me to avoid doing hard work. […] I was arrogant, and missed a chance to make that book better.”
A bit later, he expanded on what he’d since learned: “I gotta tell you, I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer. Because that means I’m going to be performing for a faceless audience, instead of trying to have a conversation with a person. […] It’s true that I want very much — I treasure my regular-guyness. I’ve started to think it’s my biggest asset as a writer. Is that I’m pretty much just like everybody else.”
Wallace’s self-image was fragile and complex, but he was consistent on these points, from then onward. His later work enters into many, many kinds of minds, many points of view, with unvarying respect and an uncanny degree of understanding. Every kind of person was of interest to him.
The love his admirers bear this author has a peculiarly intimate and personal character. This is because Wallace gave voice to the inner workings of ordinary human beings in a manner so winning and so truthful and forgiving as to make him seem a friend.
Wallace seemed always to be trying to erase the distance between himself and others in order to understand them better, and trying visibly to make himself understood — always asking questions, demanding to know more details. He owned his own weaknesses willingly and in the gentlest, most inclusive manner. Also he talked a lot about the role of good fiction, which, he opined more than once, is about making us feel less alone. He offered a lot of himself to his readers, in all his writing; this generosity seemed like his whole project, in a way. This was the outward, public Wallace.
But those who followed his career at all closely always knew that there was another, darker part to his nature. A secret part. Wallace was fairly well known to have been very ill, to have been hospitalized more than once for depression, to have attempted suicide, and to have been in recovery for addiction to alcohol and drugs. The paradox of Wallace’s humor and good-natured candor, the qualities so many of his readers enjoyed most, set against the many secrets there have always been around his private life, is laid bare in the Ransom Center documents.
From a postcard sent by Wallace to Maria Bustillos, in response to the question, “Were you as scared of The Blair Witch Project as I was?”
When people asked Wallace personal questions about recovery or addiction, he used to slide out of answering them quite neatly. Indeed I asked him myself, once, at a reading in January of ’06 at the Hammer Museum, about the AA-related aspect of the James Frey affair; basically I said, you wrote about AA and about recovery in Infinite Jest, so how did the idea that someone would lie about the circumstances of his own recovery strike you, given what you know and have written. And he replied:
Have any national twelve-step programs to your knowledge commented publicly on this?
[I felt quite scolded, there! Whatever, I shook my head a little hangdoggedly, but I still wanted to know.]
Why do you suppose that is?
[Eek! So scolded! My response is inaudible, who knows what the hell I stammered out.]
It seems as if hmmm [hums a little tune, frustratedly]…. It seems as if, with some of these organizations, you’ve got what is a weird kind of microcosm of the problem of “freedoms” in this country and a kind of Bill of Rights. Um is that, um, when organizations are anonymous and, as far as I understand it, regulations are more or less by suggestion, and there’s no coercion, and you can’t be kicked out, people get to do more or less whatever they want to do. From my vaaaaague understanding!, there — besides the steps, there are also traditions, one of which involves not talking about people’s personal experiences with this stuff on a public level, I mean this is all right there in books, it’s printed, it’s published; another of which involves not getting, you know, not getting involved in outside issues or pretending to speak for the experience of everybody sort of in the fellowship. Anecdotal evidence suggests that people who shit on those traditions do not come to happy ends. That is, in many cases those people who play around with stuff, they don’t have to be punished, they punish themselves.
I felt a little guilty for prying, but on the other hand I was like, look, you write a book that is basically a paean to 12-step programs, people are going to ask you.
For the depiction of addiction in Infinite Jest was, as many readers couldn’t help but suspect, based not on research but on experience. This was halfway confirmed in the cagey responses he gave regarding his personal knowledge of Alcoholics Anonymous in the wake of the success of Infinite Jest, and confirmed more clearly when “An Ex-Resident’s Story” first emerged on the wallace-l listserv in February of 2004.
This anonymous testimonial had been discovered on the website of Granada House, a long-term recovery facility in Boston:
I was referred to Granada House in November 1989. “Referred” is a very polite way to put it. I was a patient in a rehab attached to a well-known mental hospital in Boston, and a psychiatrist in this rehab had established some credibility with me, and he opined that (1) unless I signed up for long-term treatment someplace, I wasn’t going to be able to stay off drugs and alcohol; and that (2) if I couldn’t find a way to stay off drugs and alcohol, I was going to be dead by 30. I was 27. This was not my first in-patient rehab, nor was it my first mental hospital.
Because certain myths about both addiction and halfway houses die hard, I’ll give you a little bio. I was raised in a solid, loving, two-parent family. None of my close relatives have substance problems. I have never been in jail or arrested — I’ve never even had a speeding ticket. In 1989, I already had a BA and one graduate degree and was in Boston to get another. And I was, at age 27, a late-stage alcoholic and drug addict. I had been in detoxes and rehabs; I had been in locked wards in psych facilities; I had had at least one serious suicide attempt, a course of ECT, and so on. The diagnosis of my family, friends, and teachers was that I was bright and talented but had “emotional problems.” I alone knew how deeply these problems were connected to alcohol and drugs, which I’d been using heavily since age fifteen.
l had already learned some months before that Granada House appears as the model for Ennet House in an early draft of Infinite Jest. Some nervous detective work followed the appearance of “An Ex-Resident’s Story”; everything fit datewise, plus there was the unmistakable style of the writing, and the fact that of the various testimonials for Granada House that appeared on the website at the time, only this one was unsigned. Few (really zero, to my knowledge) who looked into the matter doubted that Wallace had written “An Ex-Resident’s Story.”
Here, seemingly, was confirmation of all that had been suspected regarding the author’s own history of addiction and treatment and, maybe most significantly, an acknowledgement that he had felt himself required to throw the whole concept of his own “genius” overboard in order to survive.
Six months in Granada House helped me immeasurably. I still wince at some of the hyperbole and melodrama that are used in recovery-speak, but the fact of the matter is that my experience at Granada House helped me, starting with the fact that the staff admitted me despite the obnoxious condescension with which I spoke of them, the House, and the l2-Step programs of recovery they tried to enable. They were patient, but they were not pushovers. They enforced a structure and discipline about recovery that I was not capable of on my own: mandatory counseling, mandatory AA or NA meetings, mandatory employment, curfew, chores, etc. Not to mention required reading of AA/NA literature whether I found it literarily distinguished or not. […]
People at Granada House listened to me for hours, and did so with neither the clinical disinterest of doctors nor the hand-wringing credulity of relatives. They listened because, in the last analysis, they really understood me: they had been on the fence of both wanting to get sober and not, of loving the very thing that was killing you, of being able to imagine life neither with drugs and alcohol nor without them. They also recognized bullshit, and manipulation, and meaningless intellectualization as a way of evading terrible truths — and on many days the most helpful thing they did was to laugh at me and make fun of my dodges (which were, I realize now, pathetically easy for a fellow addict to spot), and to advise me just not to use chemicals today because tomorrow might very well look different.
This message went pretty much intact into Infinite Jest, in which the wildly disparate group of inmates at a halfway house struggle to arrive at exactly this condition of humility, endure exactly this kind of mockery for their “meaningless intellectualizations,” and sometimes gain exactly this kind of freedom from the prison of substance abuse. Also, the genius of Hal Incandenza, the “lexical prodigy” (who has been dosed by his mother with “esoteric mnemonic steroids”) alienates him so profoundly that he is lost forever. A huge amount of Hal’s trouble is the burden of his genius, even though he has worked hard to be not just good but great, the best, willingly — and yet unwillingly — flying close to the sun. A reluctant Icarus, full of contradictions.
To sum up: all his life Wallace was praised and admired for being exceptional, but in order to accept treatment he had to first accept and then embrace the idea that he was a regular person who could be helped by “ordinary” means. Then he went to rehab and learned a ton of valuable things from “ordinary” people whom he would never have imagined would be in a position to teach him anything. Furthermore, these people obviously had inner lives and problems and ideas that were every bit as complex and vital as those of the most “sophisticated” and “exceptional.”
Even so there was still a lot of the “prodigy” in Wallace, something he hated in himself, not just something he mistrusted and had “gotten over.” Like the guy in “Good Old Neon” he felt that he was performing a character rather than being a person; he felt sundered from himself. But he could joke about that, too. His old friend JT Jackson, whom I met at a Wallace event at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, told me about a joke they used to have when they were in grad school together:
“Say, Dave, how’d y’get t’be so dang smart?”
“I did the reading.”
Exceptional people often come to believe that the ordinary rules don’t apply to them. But because Wallace swam against that current all his adult life, he came to make use of some very standard-issue sources of inspiration. He underlined the following paragraph in his copy of John Bradshaw’s Bradshaw On: The Family, in which Bradshaw describes his own reluctance to seek help:
In my previous go round I felt the 12-step program was too simple for me. I had degrees in theology and philosophy and had taught both of these at the University level. I felt that my problems were more complex than with most of the people I met at the meetings. My drinking was a symptom of a deep and profound sensitive soul. I was one of William James’ twice-born super-sensitive ones. This, of course, was all hogwash! Intellectuals create the most grandiose denials!
That Wallace even had a copy of Bradshaw On: The Family came as a great surprise to me, as I mentioned earlier. But later I talked with my very old friend, S., who went into recovery almost exactly when Wallace did. S. explained that John Bradshaw was all the rage in AA circles at that time. (Bradshaw is the guy who popularized the idea of the “inner child” in the ’90s, and he had a TV show on PBS that was hugely popular.)
“You’re just alive, is the thing, as well as being in recovery, and these things are moving through the culture,” said S., adding that if you were to begin recovery now, as opposed to twenty years ago, you would hear a lot about Eckhart Tolle and “being in the moment” kinds of things, and not much at all about John Bradshaw.
People often seemed a little flummoxed by Wallace’s self-effacing discomfort with “genius.” The issue came up again and again with David Lipsky:
There’s still something basically false about your approach here. To some degree. Which is this: that I think you still feel you’re smarter than other people. And you’re acting like someone — you’re acting like someone who’s about thirty-one or thirty-two, who’s playing in the kid’s softball game, and is trying to hold back his power hitting, to check his swing at the plate, more or less.
You mean in the book?
No, I mean in your social persona. And you’re someone who’s really trying —
You’re a tough room.
You make a point of holding back — there’s a point, there’s something obvious about you somehow in a gentle way holding back what you’re aware of as your intelligence to be with people who are somehow younger or…
Boy, that would make me a real asshole, wouldn’t it?
No it wouldn’t: It would make you a reformed person…
The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever, almost made me die.
I understand that.
And I think it’s also like, I think one of the true ways that I’ve gotten smarter is, I’ve realized that I’m not that much smarter than other people.
The Eleventh Tradition of AA requires members to refrain from speaking publicly about their affiliation with that organization. You can tell your friends about your recovery, but you are encouraged to not seek public attention for it, or for the organization. The condition of a recovering addict who happens also to be famous, therefore, is a precarious one. It must have required a Herculean effort to maintain the anonymity of his recovery in the face of questioning as probing and perceptive as David Lipsky’s, but Wallace never failed in this. He told Lipsky and many other reporters a lot of self-preserving fibs, and it is painful to think of what that must have cost him. More contradictions: he was terribly fragile, but also had nerves of steel, an extraordinarily strong will.
But Wallace wasn’t only about his illness and recovery. At the same time that there is a lot of pain and total horror and fear in Wallace’s work, there is also a giddy, life-affirming fizz, and that fizz came undiluted and complete from his mother, Sally Foster Wallace. The writing of these two has a strangely compelling, idiosyncratic beauty and charm: sparklingly sensitive and intelligent, but never too good to stoop to an egregious pun; self-deprecating and friendly and loopy as anything. They are hyperbolists who can evoke a terrible pathos and then vertiginous humor in almost the same breath, one throwaway line after another. In this way, Sally Foster Wallace and her son shared a sensibility so exactly alike that it seems to vibrate between them like a tuning fork.
Mrs. Wallace has written just one book, an English grammar textbook called Practically Painless English. It is the only book of English grammar I know of that can hold a candle to the works of the Fowler brothers. Like them, Mrs. Wallace is delicate, fastidious, crystal-clear and tons of fun, but she has a lovely carefreedom and wild imagination all her own (except for bequeathing 100% of it to her son). Her book is full of snakes and gorillas, monsters, Superman, Cinderella, disasters of every description, ketchup on ice cream, kissing and parachutes and romance. It reveals a dizzying, intoxicating and dangerous world.
The calamities that befall recurring character Fedonia Krump in Practically Painless English, for example, keep the reader in a state of constant anxiety:
Fedonia completely drained the tea cup and then shakily climbed over the counter. She tried hard to sing “I Love You Truly,” but her voice was extremely gravelly. She was fading fast, but she felt too merry to go home. At closing time, she fell asleep on the dirty floor, and Bernie, the waiter, slowly scooped her into his arms, tenderly brushed the dirt from her cheek, and reluctantly threw her out into the snow.
Many David Wallace fans enjoy his frequent deployment of the phrase “the howling fantods” in Infinite Jest. It is a delight to come across this phrase in his mom’s book (2nd ed.), long before Infinite Jest was a gleam in its author’s eye. (“17. Snakes give me the howling fantods.”)
I can’t even hazard a guess as to which of the two of them wrote the dozens of “Selected Student Swifties” that appear in the Ransom Center’s collection of the teaching materials of Wallace fils:
“Remember that two plus two equals four,” Tom added.
“This is a petrified tree,” the guide said hollowly.
“Those are bees,” Tom buzzed.
“There are bodies buried here,” Tom said gravely.
“Some dog has destroyed my flower garden,” Tom said lackadaisically.
There is such pleasure in reading the two Wallaces, so distinctively funny and gentle, scintillating with “the rich glint of lunacy.” Which is something he never talked about much, either humor per se (though there is one really good YouTube excerpt from the interview he gave German public TV station ZDF) or the beautiful part of himself, because nobody is ever aware of his own real beauty or worth. Nor did he talk about Mrs. Wallace very much in public, though he must have identified with her quite a lot. His regard for her was clearly enormous, though; he told Lipsky, “My mother’s the best proofreader in the world, Amy’s second and I’m third, as far as I’ve seen.” (Amy being Amy Wallace Havens, his sister.) You can see how much Wallace loved and valued skill in English by reading his 2001 Harper’s essay, “Tense Present: Democracy, English and the Wars over Usage.”
David Wallace was a person who dwelt in darkness either by nature or compulsion, or maybe even by mere habit, or maybe just because he’d been given the wrong medication. Depression is a very inward-turned and self-loathing thing; he trapped himself in this sort of interior abattoir. But like all depressed persons, Wallace loathed himself in error. He had a real value that others could see, but he could not.
And another bad thing: he identified so closely with his mom, it’s as if she got caught in the crosshairs of his self-loathing.
I have known intimately and looked after depressed people, and have no illusions about my ability to understand the real nature of that illness. The sort of blues I occasionally suffer through compares to real depression like a broken fingernail compares to being shot in the head and then set on fire and drowned. But it seems to me that the victims of that terrible disorder are often trying all their lives in vain to figure out why this must be so. Why them. And maybe there really is just no reason, or the reason is completely random, a cluster of neurons misfiring one day by accident, a bad thing that happens and could not be helped.
A highlighted passage in Bradshaw On: The Family:
Wallace’s notes in Bradshaw On: The Family and especially in Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child reveal a person who felt himself to be messed up totally and permanently. He felt particularly nailed and revealed to himself by the latter book, one in which he blames his mother for quite a lot of his suffering.
To say that Wallace took The Drama of the Gifted Child to heart is to put it very mildly indeed. He returned to it over and over again; his notes were made at many different times, in wildly differing sizes and styles of penmanship, states of mind. Here are the markers I could more or less identify:
Red sharpie, thin
Pink, thinner, like a faded red Rolling Writer?
Blue thinner Rolling Writer-type
Dark blue felt-tip, thin
Black fine felt-tip
Furious blue Sharpie, a thick one
This is another book that made a big splash when it appeared; Wallace’s copy is an eighteenth printing, from 1993. The thesis of The Drama of the Gifted Child is that particularly high-achieving children are damaged because their mothers did not allow them to be themselves, but instead through their own insecurities gave their children the impression that only achievement could win them love. That any deviation from right behavior was unlovable, that they would be rejected unless they performed well.
So Alice Miller says the gifted child has to perform all the time, perform even to himself, and is thereby sundered from himself profoundly. “Narcissistically disturbed” is her phrase of choice for this condition. Because the child doesn’t feel free to own his feelings candidly, but instead must censor and control himself ceaselessly and let only the good things about himself become manifest, all the bad feelings like jealousy, rage, envy, are driven underground and fester there and make the child secretly, existentially miserable, and in a special way, “divided” in rather the way R.D. Laing describes in The Divided Self. Miller’s gifted child splits into two: one is the grandiose child, who is a super-achieving, obedient, reliable and “good” child, and the other a depressed child who never was loved, never was allowed to be a child, who was forced to perform and excel from such an early age that he has become irrecoverably lost to himself.
Pink highlighter indicates underlining or brackets in the text of his books; in green are the notes written in his own hand.
So Wallace, the A+ student whose profs at Amherst had written things like, “un plaisir, mon vieux” at the end of his tests, during which part of his life he’d been very ill from dependence on drugs and alcohol, wanted most of all to escape from that genius. To be an ordinary person who could own his own faults. Not just in a philosophical way, as I used to imagine, and not only because he’d found relief from his troubles for a time through “ordinary” means, but in a manner connected very intimately to what he saw as the genesis of his illness, as if he blamed his illness on the genius itself.
It will not come as news to any reader of Infinite Jest that Wallace had some complicated and deep-seated issues with regard to the subject of motherhood generally. The relationship between Hal and Avril Incandenza is to some degree a replay, one could not help but think, of the author’s relationship to his own mother. Hal is so obviously a projection of Wallace himself: a tennis player, a prodigy, a gifted writer, a brilliant intellect. Thoughtful and kind, but fake, empty inside. Mute. Unable to feel. A secret drug addict, too, who before the end (or at the beginning, if you like) will be destroyed (in my reading of the novel, at any rate). Avril Incandenza, “militant grammarian,” is a mysterious but also a monstrous figure, whose love is suffocating, all-encompassing, intrusive, terrible.
Well, all of that emptiness, muteness and monstrosity is suggested in the markings that appear in his copy of Miller’s book. And Avril Incandenza’s super-loving but emotionally barren character — that, too, is indicated here. And her ambition, the way she souped up Hal’s brains by putting “esoteric mnemonic steroids” in his cereal. The mother that appears in these notes is responsible. Created the son’s inability to feel, to speak.
[Tiny, pink writing.]
These elements of his childhood, Wallace felt, were responsible for his troubles with women generally.
Wallace was scared of a lot of things. Not just the bugs and roller-coasters that he told us about being scared of, but of losing his ability to write.
Wallace is known to have had many lovers, and also to have wanted a family one day. He expressed regret to David Lipsky at having reached the age of 34 without having married. But his relationships ended badly, it seems, most of the time.
Later, about addicts, suggesting that addiction is a way to try to regain lost, repressed feelings, a license to feel and experience.
At the end: tiny and in a new pen
There’s no way to date the marks made in this book, but Wallace was at least four years into his recovery when it was published. When I was reading this I felt very bad. Like my hair was standing on end, thinking how this literary sleuthing is also just prying. But I am also glad I read what I did, because I can argue with these views. This man spent a lot of his life in terrible pain, desperate for an explanation and a way out. It’s not surprising that in the derangement of his mind he would reach out to those closest to him to blame.
However, I read Miller’s book myself at some stage, years ago — it made a terrific noise when the English translation came out — and I can tell you that it is a book that will make anyone detest his own mother for a week at least because that is what it is designed to do: to blame mothers.
But the truth is that, while The Drama of the Gifted Child was highly regarded at that time, there is something essential missing from it. Miller believes that it is so harmful for mothers to want their kids to “perform” and whatnot, that they’re stealing their childhoods from them, not letting them feel their feelings; okay, yes, at one extreme there’s the controlling mother, the Vinegar Mother, the Tiger Mother, who really literally won’t let the kid feel his feelings ever. But at the other extreme of the mom-continuum is the crazily indulgent freakish child-worshipping monster who believes that her child’s every Feeling is somehow Sacred — to which you’re all, hoy, lady, your kid is running around this restaurant literally screaming? Such children do not ordinarily grow up to be happy or well-adjusted adults, either. (They fuck you up, your mum and dad.)
It’s crazy hard, too, because when you’re a parent every single minute of childrearing practically requires compromise of some kind, in order to manage the requirements for a child’s being socially adept and well-mannered, but not repressed or bullied or overly controlled. If you indulge a child too much, “respect his feelings” too much, then you become one of those doormats who lives in a nightmare where the child is a tyrant over the house, and if you discipline him too much, he will feel sad, lonely and unloved.
The whole thing is a balancing act that nobody really understands the trickiness of until he has a kid himself. When you can only really see yourself qua child, it is impossible to get a good sense of the other side, and maybe especially not when you have spent enormous amounts of time in therapy and worrying about how fucked up you are, and trying to “find answers” to questions for which answers may never be forthcoming, not ever.
I’m not saying that I know how these things should be managed, because I do not. What I am saying is that these books seem to present a lopsided view.
It must have been incredibly frustrating to be paralyzed with self-criticism and self-loathing, and have people telling you that you’re a genius all the livelong day and forking over Genius Grants and things. Even Wallace’s old college roommate Mark Costello told him so, just after he’d won the MacArthur grant.
Costello says, “He was talking about how hard the writing was. And I said, lightheartedly, ‘Dave, you’re a genius.’ Meaning, people aren’t going to forget about you. You’re not going to wind up in a Wendy’s. He said, ‘All that makes me think is that I’ve fooled you, too.’”
Wallace’s harrowing depictions of self-loathing in “Good Old Neon” and “The Planet Trillaphon As It Stands In Relation to The Bad Thing” remind me every time of the things I have wanted to say (but can never actually say) to the depressed people I’ve known. Namely: fine, if you are such a worm, so false and worthless, unfit to live, then why are you even listening to yourself? You are the very last person anybody ought to be listening to, apparently? Just please back away from the mirror now, because it is all bullshit in there, nothing but illusions, illusions all the way down. Sometimes I think that the principal difference between those who are in general cheerfully-inclined and those who are not is that the former know better than to even countenance their own bullshit for one instant.
Maybe someone should have kept telling him that he may have been a genius, but he was also a big idiot, the way everyone seems to have done at Granada House. He knew it, too, is another crazymaking thing. By 2007 he seemed to be thriving, married now and working on the new book, and everyone who loved his work figured that the worst was behind him, and was just waiting for the new book and enjoying the various articles and readings and different little things that he did.
Wallace had a penchant for extrapolating the troubles of American individuals into a broader indictment of U.S. culture and politics, as Infinite Jest depicts a society enslaved to its own insatiable need for entertainment. His own history provides a similar parallel. Wallace spent over twenty years fighting addiction and depression, and though he privately seems to have credited AA and related therapies with saving his life, these methods were not enough to prevent him from committing suicide at age 46. What the available details of Wallace’s life and ideas suggest is that we in the U.S. are maybe not doing a very good job of taking care of recovering addicts, or of those suffering from depression.
The new Me Generation of the aughts is like a steroids version of the innocent ’70s one, which really amounted to little more than plain hedonism. There wasn’t as much guilt and self-recrimination in those days. Today this focus on “Me” is something more like an obsession with our faults, a sick perfectionism, coupled with an insatiable need for attention; the idea of the ‘star’ as something we want to be.
A case can be made that U.S. society is very much obsessed with “self-help,” which involves thinking a whole lot (too much, even) about yourself and your own problems, seeing everything only as it relates to the self, rather than seeing oneself as a valuable part of a larger valuable whole; this is one of the themes of The Pale King.
We’ve changed the way we think of ourselves as citizens. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries — we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?
The book Wallace was too stuck in himself to complete is one in which he was observing how we all ought to become unstuck, sadly. The realization that you have something of value to contribute to the greater world necessarily involves prying your mind off yourself for a minute.
I am making an informed guess that these things that we dwell on with our therapists — they may or may not be false, but almost necessarily, they’re only the tiniest part of a picture that is so very much larger. To dwell on the terrible things is to miss the point. To fail ourselves, in a sense. But when you are that sick that is just what is happening, it’s you missing the point, never being able to see the beauty or good in things because you are ill. It is the illness talking, and talking, and talking.
And yet our culture is obsessed with finding the causes, with talking things through, and with getting to the bottom of our problems by thinking and talking about them a lot. With solving the problem of depression. The book The Drama of the Gifted Child, suffers very much from that “self-help”, inward-turned weakness. It is a good but flawed book that tells just a small part of the story of how to do family life. There is no blame to pin anywhere; there is a balance to try to achieve.
“… the deeper alchemy by which Kafka’s comedy is always also tragedy, and this tragedy always also an immense and reverent joy.” — David Foster Wallace, “A Series of Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Not Enough Has Been Removed”
I have a friend, C., who has suffered from depression for many years; she is a fellow-admirer of Wallace. C. used to have a photograph of him on the wall of her very pretty, comforting red-walled Midtown office, and she would tell people that he was either her son or her boyfriend, depending on her mood.
I chanced to be in New York some weeks after Wallace’s death, a catastrophe that had hit the both of us like a couple of bricks to the head. We had a good late lunch and afterward on that cold, blowy, fast-darkening late afternoon we sat on freezing stone steps on a quiet corner and snuggled together and talked about Wallace for a while. I mentioned that I could not understand how anyone would want to commit suicide, not right then, not with this historic presidential election right around the corner; how could you not want to stick around and find out what happens? And C. looked at me with pity and sadness, as if from a great distance, and said, “Oh, honey. You don’t care. You don’t care; that’s the whole point.”
That’s just the thing about recognizing our common humanity, our common burden. We’re suspended for a moment on this spinning blue pearl, here together and alive right now, conscious, though no one knows why. It is a question of caring. When one of us considers the experiences of another, all the failings and the achievements in someone else’s life, we are seeing from this common place, knowing that it’s all taking place in doubt and the absolute solitude and terror of being human, and knowing that it’s all temporary. All those who are unsure of themselves and suspect themselves of the worst falseness and wrong, bad things are to be not only pitied but loved, identified with and known. Wallace taught that, and suffered for it, and in a way he died of it, too.
One last crown of laurels that is left from the war he waged in himself is the beautiful, McCarthyesque passage that was first published as “Peoria (4)” in TriQuarterly in the fall of 2002, and later turned up as the first chapter of The Pale King, the first part of which ends:
Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.
Other Archive Discoveries
My favorite among all the hundreds of documents I mowed down might be the few issues of Sabrina, the Amherst humor mag that Wallace edited in 1982–83 with Mark Costello, with whom Wallace later co-wrote Signifying Rappers. In Sabrina they cultivated a kind of proto-Onion vibe that owed something to Lester Bangs and the old Creem house style, and maybe a little something to Monty Python and Saturday Night Live. If you go in for the fourteen-year-old-boy variety of impertinent, puerile comedy, as I do, it is irresistible stuff. As I hovered over the brittle, oversized newsprint in that silent and stately library — I had been coached to keep the pages flat, and to handle them only by their edges — I shook like a leaf, eyes watering, in a mighty effort to keep my whoops contained.
News Briefs: Professor Czap ‘not just a Pair of Eyebrows’
Prof. Czap yesterday denied reports that he received tenure principally because of his amazing furry eyebrows. In a particularly unattractive part of the interview he was heard to agonize in a small voice, “I am not an animal, I am a history professor.” Moments later the interview was abruptly ended as an enraged Czap rushed toward the camera threatening to apply the Vulcan nerve grip.
(It turns out that Amherst history prof Peter Czap was indeed possessed of a powerful set of eyebrows. Photographed in 2008, the eyebrows appear in resplendent health.)
Hadley Arkes Symposium Planned
by Dan Francheese
In the wake of sightings of Hadley Arkes in Belchertown, the Political Science department recently announced plans to fund a “Hadley Arkes Symposium.” Said Professor Austin Sarat, Chairman of the Department, “We intend to sort myth from fact to determine once and for all whether Hadley Arkes exists or ever did exist.” Dismissing the claims of two student workers who reported seeing Professor Arkes lurking in the B level Men’s room of Frost Library as “unsubstantiated rumor,” Sarat gives more credence to samples of what some faculty members believe to be Hadley Arkes droppings found on the carpet of Merrill Dining Commons. Others disagree. As Sarat says, “They could be the droppings of any faculty member really.” The symposium is planned for April.
Dan Francheese gives way to Dan Trapeze and Dan Francisco. Very few of the articles are signed.
There are the Letters to the Editor, as well.
We would like to say that the material you will publish will be profoundly offensive to us as soon as we have read it. In fact, we will never be so insulted in all our lives.
Society of Outraged Peoples (SOP)
Especially enjoyable were the three pages he wrote as an undergraduate on Pride and Prejudice. He freaking hated Miss Bingley, calling her “a mean-spirited, selfish little bitch who is so intent on grabbing Mr. Darcy for a husband that she is willing a) to be extremely obsequious and agreeable to Mr. Darcy and, b) to tear to shreds (subtly, if course) any woman in whom Darcy shows the slightest interest.”
An exam book from History 48, Japan Since 1800: Spring 1981, Amherst College 100 A+. The questions are along the lines of, “Why did the four-nation fleet attack Shimonoseki City in Chooshuu clan in 1864?” And he had to fill out the names of a whole lot of cities on a map of nineteenth-century Japan. He didn’t miss even one.
“Trying to come up with the theme of a story and then articulate it is HARD. It’s also COOL and WORTHWHILE. Kennedy, for once, states the case really well: “Trying to sum up the point of a story in our own words is merely one way to make ourselves better aware of whatever we may have understood vaguely and tentatively.”
He had a long, fun list of vocabulary words, forty-two pages long, that he seemed to add to every year. One version is thirty-nine pages long, and is called “Vocab 3/97”, and then there is the forty-two page version called “vocab 1997.”
Birl, cause to spin rapidly with feet
Musth, period of heightened sexual drive in elephants (Vulcans) when they’re more aggressive
Peculate, to embezzle
A wonderful correspondence between Wallace, age nine, and his fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Taylor.
Sept, 13 1971
Dear Mrs. Taylor,
I saw a great movie called on any Sunday. It was a biography of motorcyclists.
Remember to capitalize names of movies. You know how to spell very well, especially the long words. That movie sounds really interesting. I’ll have to tell one of my friends about it. She has a Yamaha 175.
Dear Miss More 9/14
Yamaha 175’s are all right but not as good as some (check consumer report) Honda 222 is best its speed recor is 138 ½ m.pn. Next time she or he is shopping for a motorcycle tell him or her that. Dave W
p.s. My hobby is motorcycle research that is why I went to the movie.
Have you seen Evel Knievel on any of the talk shows? He’s quite a character!
Dear Mrs. Taylor,
I sure did see it and I liked the 20 car jump and the Ceaser Palace wipeout. Dave
Do you think he will make it over the canyon?
Dear Mrs. Taylor 9/16
We had fun last night, we went over to our neighbors and played football.
This is football season. It’s in the air, on radio, television, on playgrounds, in parks — everywhere.
p.s. No he’ll get killed
That’s what I’m afraid of, too!
And finally, as a bonus, here is a quiz that he gave his undergraduate students.
WIN A LUNCH WITH DAVE, SPARKLING CONVERSATIONALIST, WELL-MANNERED EATER, BY SIMPLY IDENTIFYING WHAT ALL THE FOLLOWING WORDS HAVE IN COMMON:
My only stab at a guess is that these are words that can be used to describe writing itself, though I feel like “pulchritude” is kind of wrong, that way. I would love to hear other ideas.
Use of archived materials courtesy of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin
Photo by Steve Rhodes. Used with permission.