Brain Pickings

David Foster Wallace on Writing, Death, and Redemption

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“You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness … has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.”

On May 21, 2005 David Foster Wallace took the podium at Kenyon College and delivered the now-legendary This Is Water, one of history’s greatest commencement addresses — his timeless meditation on the meaning of life and the grueling work required in order to stay awake to the world rather than enslaved by one’s own self-consuming intellect. It included this admonition:

Think of the old cliché about “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.

Three years later, on September 12, 2008, Wallace murdered his own terrible master — not by firearms, but by hanging himself. Several months prior, frustrated with the disorienting side effects of the antidepressant he had been taking to alleviate his 20-year struggle with depression, he had attempted to wean himself off the medication. His personal tragedy was soon inscribed into the modern-day literary canon, turning him into a kind of public patron-saint of the Tortured Genius archetype.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace (public library) — an essential, the essential, collection of 22 interviews and profiles of the beloved author — reveals with empathic granularity Wallace’s conflicted relationship with life and death, and its slow, subtly menacing evolution.

In an interview by Larry McCaffery, originally published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993, 31-year-old Wallace appears already remarkably aware of the mortality paradox, the exorcism of which he sees as the highest achievement of fiction:

You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are like sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of real art-fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.

This dark whimsy is what lends literature its mesmerism, and in it Wallace sees both redemption and remedy for our existential dance with anxiety:

If you’re going to try not just to depict the way a culture’s bound and defined by mediated gratification and image, but somehow to redeem it, or at least fight a rearguard against it, then what you’re going to be doing is paradoxical. You’re at once allowing the reader to sort of escape self by achieving some sort of identification with another human psyche — the writer’s, or some character’s, etc. — and you’re also trying to antagonize the reader’s intuition that she is a self, that she is alone and going to die alone. You’re trying somehow both to deny and affirm that the writer is over here with his agenda while the reader’s over there with her agenda, distinct. This paradox is what makes good fiction sort of magical, I think. The paradox can’t be resolved, but it can somehow be mediated — “re-mediated,” since this is probably where poststructuralism rears its head for me — by the fact that language and linguistic intercourse is, in and of itself, redeeming, remedying.

Later in the conversation, Wallace considers, with his typical sharp self-consciousness and meta-awareness, the terrifying joy and vulnerability that great art necessitates and the courage creativity calls for:

The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet. … Maybe it’s as simple as trying to make the writing more generous and less ego-driven.

How wistful to consider that, fifteen years later, Wallace took his young self’s advice all too seriously, too literally, too extremely — for isn’t suicide the ultimate, most tragic, and most permanent denial of the ego?

But perhaps most prescient of all — most heartbreaking, most humbling, most harrowing — is something Wallace said to one interviewer particularly preoccupied with the root of the author’s genius:

That was his whole thing. “Are you normal?” “Are you normal?” I think one of the true ways I’ve gotten smarter is that I’ve realized that there are ways other people are a lot smarter than me. My biggest asset as a writer is that I’m pretty much like everybody else. The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever almost made me die.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace is revelational in its entirety. Complement it with his timeless wisdom on why writers write, the original audio of that mythic Kenyon commencement speech, and Wallace’s animated advice on ambition.

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