Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Infinite Loss

I don’t think I’ve read a single word David Foster Wallace ever wrote. He was plugged too insistently as the Hot Young Thing when I was in college; I saw too many copies of Infinite Jest tucked under hip arms in the ‘90s to give myself over to discovering his work, an experience that should feel more private. I remember a long article some years back (NYRB?) about Wallace’s retro hang-up with his postmodern elders—Pynchon, Barth, Barthelme, Gaddis, Gass—which gave someone looking to dismiss him every reason to do so and just stick to the originals. A friend of mine worked for a literary editor who had a story about DFW, fresh out of school, coming around to the house with his agent, pushy and golden and hungry for fame. I hadn’t known about it till the obits, but the Pomona College teaching gig—“The Roy Edward Disney Professor of Creative Writing” has a kind of Barthelmean ring to it—would have seemed like the fitting court sinecure for such a charmed & well-trumpeted career.

Since Friday’s news, I’ve seen him in an entirely new light. Reports say he suffered from depression, which millions do; there’s nothing inherently authorly or deepening about a chemical imbalance. But I can’t shake the feeling, since his death, that there must have been more to the work than the ballyhoo around it ever let me hear. Is it nuts to take his writing more seriously now? Probably no more nuts than it was to pass on it in the first place because of the media scrim. I recognize I’m just swapping out one cliché for another—the enfant terrible becomes the suffering Romantic. But with so damn much out there, clichés tend to matter: they help you to sort and direct your attention in a world where information badly needs a human shape. Sadly, mine’s now on David Foster Wallace in a way it never was before.


The PSU Writing Center said...

Was reading Plato's "Gorgias" last night, for a fall class. Toward the end:

SOCRATES: In the time of Cronus, and in the relatively recent past during Zeus' reign as well, living judges dealt with living people and passed judgement upon them on the day of their impending death, which made the administration of justice poor. So Pluto and the supervisors of the Isles of the Blessed came and told Zeus that the wrong kinds of people were getting through to [the Isles of the Blessed or to Tartarus.] So Zeus said, 'I'll put an end to that. The reason the administration of justice is poor at the moment is that people are being assessed with their clothes on, in the sense that they come before the court during their lifetimes, and plenty of people with corrupt souls are dressed in attractive bodies, noble birth, and wealth; also, when it's their turn to be judged, a lot of witnesses come forward and testify to the exemplary lives these people have led. All this impresses the judges. Besides, the judges themselves are wearing clothes as well: their souls are enclosed with eyes and ears and bodies in general. All this--their own clothing and that of the people they're assessing--constitutes a barrier. The first job,' he went on, 'is to stop people knowing in advance when they're going to die, as they do at the moment. Prometheus has already been told to put an end to this, in fact. Second, they'd better be judged naked, stripped of all this clothing--in other words, they have to be judged after they've died. If the assessment is to be fair, the judge had better be naked as well--which is to say, dead--so that with an unhampered soul he can scrutinize the unhampered soul of a freshly dead individual who isn't surrounded by his friends and relatives, and has left all those trappings behind in the world.'"

As you pointed out: Wallace was (and still is, though in a different way now) definitely clothed by his readers and critics. And maybe he clothed himself a bit. Though I think the way many critics responded to his work was particularly off-base--at a loss for what to say, they often seemed to take name a quality that made his writing his (the "maximalism," or the footnotes, the details, etc.), and then claim that it was something he shouldn't do. Criticism-as-homogenization is a pretty common critical cheat, right?

But it has happened many, many times that I have given a story or essay of his to an undergraduate who has never heard of him, and the student has come back a day (or many) later and said, "Who is this? Who is David Foster Wallace? Why has no one told me about him? Where can I read more things by this person?"

Without that context that surrounded him, taken as just words on a page, being read by fairly earnest readers: the work has tremendous force.


rodney k said...

Hi Dan,

That’s a winning connection, Gorgias and Wallace. “People assessed with their clothes on”—love that, with its suggestion of emperors.

Your comment chimes with that Charlie Rose interview circulating on the blogs, which I’ve seen since this post. Wincing and self-correcting in the media glare, like a tennis pro who’s knocked a shot just over the line, DFW regrets the early attention, so little of which was accurate or concerned with the books. For several reviews, he says, he “did basic arithmetic” and figured out they couldn’t have possibly read the book at the time they wrote the review. He talks about how much the early attention messed with his head, and sounds like he’d been working hard, cocoon-like, on a new context for himself and his writing. Hope some for the time to enter the “tremendous force” camp soon

mark wallace said...

To some extent, I'm having the opposite problem. Each time I look at something DFW had said, or even the titles of his books, I see "depression" and "manic depression" written all over them. Now I know there's more to it than that, but it's hard not to see things in that light when he's made comments like "There's something about America that's just very sad." I don't entirely disagree, but it's hard not to see a comment like that in light of what we now know about him.

suzanne said...

I was always very turned off by everything about DFW, especially Infinite Jest, the arrogance of the scale of it alone irritated me to no end. I've never read a word he's written. It is terribly tragic he took his life, but I am no more interested in his work now however than before. I am VERY interested in or curious about how deeply moved so many people I know have been, both by his work and by his suicide. The suicide is a fathomable and unfathomable act, that's what I want to attend to and think about---the romance of it is anything but romantic. It's a deeply agonized selfishness, it's narcissism, it's as grand as an 800page novel that calls itself an endless joke. I hated the thought of David Foster Wallace in life, but I feel sensitive to the kind of pain that would make someone take his own life against the call of life around him that undoubtably wanted and needed him. (For example, his wife.) If I start reading David Foster Wallace though, it will be in the same way I come to most other texts, by a kind of interested accident or by suggestion from someone I love and respect. Because of his suicide? It doesn't make the writing even one iota more attractive to me than before. But with heartfelt sorrow: RIP troubled soul DFW.