Suffering is by no means a privilege, a sign of nobility, a reminder of God. Suffering is a fierce, bestial thing, commonplace, uncalled for, natural as air. It is intangible; no one can grasp it or fight against it; it dwells in time - is the same thing as time; if it comes in fits and starts, that is only so as to leave the sufferer more defenceless during the moments that follow, those long moments when one relives the last bout of torture and waits for the next.Cesare Pavese writing in October 1940, quoted by The Diary Junction. Ten years later he killed himself.
Ten years in a sentence. Is this the gift of writing?
I had no intention of writing about David Foster Wallace, and I still don't. Instead, I want to try to answer my own question by writing about the response to his death. Not just the initial shock and disbelief of his fans, which is plain to see, but also the move toward his books since the dreadful news, which is not.
They are two sides to this movement. First, the everyday human. For months in my local library, the sole copy of Infinite Jest had sat bright and squat on the shelf without a single withdrawal. Now it is in demand. I saw it on the Reserve shelf awaiting its claimant. (His book of stories Oblivion is there now too). Of course, there is no need to guess why it shares the fate of the latest celebrity pleonasm and Booker-shortlisted politeness. And while it would be my default position to disdain the extra-literary reasons with which a book - any book - can attract the curious, in this case I wonder if it has less to do with readers seeking the testimony inferred by the 1088 pages of a novel than with an obscure need to comprehend the book's presence now that the author is dead. This is the second side.
It's easy to disregard. Alistair McCartney's response to the news is to reassert the separation of author from his work: "from a literary perspective" he writes, "the suicide of David Foster Wallace, or for that matter, the suicide of any writer in the 21st century, is of no importance." He means of no importance to their writing.
[I]n these early days of the twenty-first century, the suicide of a writer does not mark their body of work, does not inflect it, in the same manner in which it did previously, during the epoch of Romanticism.He refers us to The Savage God, Al Alvarez's famous study of literary suicide, which describes why "between the 18th and 20th centuries, the suicide of a writer was a significant and meaningful gesture". Now, McCartney says, the significance and meaning of suicide extends beyond the realm of the literary.
[In] the 21st century ... suicide as a gesture has taken on an entirely different resonance, specifically because the arena in which it is conducted has shifted, or rather expanded, into the public realm, due to the activities of those individuals whom we refer to as suicide bombers. […] In this sense, suicide is no longer purely a private gesture, or one connected to art or creativity or personal suffering. It is also, and, as of this moment, primarily, a public gesture, and a political one.However one feels about the timing of such an argument - and feeling is very much part of the issue at hand - I quote this at length because it highlights a conflict embedded in general literary discussion about art in its relation to personal suffering or, as it's called more often, life. It's a conflict that suggests the epoch of Romanticism remains with us, unresolved.
When we think of Romantic writers we think of Wordsworth and Byron, Goethe and Holderlin - writers working in heady political and intellectual times - and we respond much as Edmund Blackadder responded to his coffee shop owner as she swooned in their presence: "Mrs. Miggins, there's nothing intellectual about wandering around Italy in a big shirt trying to get laid." Yes of course, the writer is vain and writing is selfish! The irony is that such knowingness is a product of Romanticism's resistance to the separation of art and life. As this summary puts it, Romanticism is a counter-enlightenment in which "intuition, imagination, and feeling" take precedence over rationality. The Romantics explored freedom beyond the conventions of the reasoning intellect, hence their formal innovation and their attractive personal and political adventures. Unfortunately, there was a contradiction at the heart of this project: the logic of such exploration meant ultimate personal freedom equalled the loss of sovereign individuality, a merging with the mass of humanity, with nature, with the sublime, with God; death, in other words. Science was perhaps a better career move.
Suicide then marks both a failure and a success. While it is the supreme act of selfish power, its result, if not its goal, is a loss of self, impersonality. Creativity is much the same.
"This comparison of art to suicide is shocking in a way" writes Blanchot in The Work and Death's Space:
But there is nothing surprising about it if, leaving aside appearances, one understands that each of these two movements is testing a singular form of possibility. Both involve a power that wants to be power even in the region of the ungraspable, where the domain of goals ends.Which brings this back to the goal of contemporary literature.
David Foster Wallace is celebrated as a decidedly modern writer and, with Infinite Jest, published in 1996, he produced what might be the definitive modern US American novel. But, according to this bibliography, it was his final full-length work of fiction. What happened? Salon reports that he had suffered from clinical depression. Could this be the answer? It's not a subject about which I knew much until Stephen Fry's documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. I assumed depression was always one-way: down. However, Fry describes its two sides: hypomania and troughs of desperate, self-hating inertia and anxiety. The first includes outbursts of fecund creativity, the second, a wish to die. Oliver Sacks describes the literary symptoms in his review of Michael Greenberg's memoir:
The onset of mania is sudden and explosive: Sally, the fifteen-year-old daughter, has been in a heightened state for some weeks, listening to Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations on her Walkman, poring over a volume of Shakespeare's sonnets till the early hours. Greenberg writes: Flipping open the book at random I find a blinding crisscross of arrows, definitions, circled words. Sonnet 13 looks like a page from the Talmud, the margins crowded with so much commentary the original text is little more than a speck at the center.In a hypomanic state, there's an unshakable fascination with meaning, the possibility of meaning, there's a belief in achievement, in encompassing everything, the visible and the invisible. One idea sparks another and then another making it impossible for the individual to rest. Keith Gessen loves Wallace's essays for their stability on such a highwire:
He writes such long sentences, they are filled with so many ideas, you don't think he’ll ever get back to the point, the point has been lost, and then he does, and it's incredible. It's incredible and then you never forget it.Whether or not Wallace had manic episodes is not a question here. Whatever the clinical facts, his work displays, in its size, scope, ambition and worldly success, an energy and optimism unique to his nation's literary life, and unique to its demands. The incredulity of his fans at news of his death supports this impression. Infinite Jest embodies a certain hope; a hope that everything could be contained in a book, unified by narrative; that with enough talent and hard work, a novel might become the world, exceeding the limits of the self, a hegemonic power against the regions of the ungraspable. All this is apparently contradicted by the manner of his death.
So what of the darkness spoken of by his friends and family? "Suffering from near-crippling anxiety" Salon says, "Wallace found himself unable to write". Perhaps the literary tragedy, which remains a human tragedy, is that he could not produce a work that maintained itself in the actuality of suffering. It may be instead the margins of the novels and stories he left will grow wider and we will see it there. The movement towards his books in the library evokes a longing for such a space, a space in which something appears. His death would then indeed inflect his work.
Another decidedly modern writer suffered a similar torment to Wallace. "For years I had taken refuge in a terrible suicidal brooding" he told one interviewer . "Every morning on waking I was inevitably caught up in this mechanism of suicidal brooding." But, as explained in the book from which these quotations come, Thomas Bernhard displaced his suffering with a surrogate, a prose companion who crosses the line he, the writer in the refuge of writing, will not reach.
When I write about this kind of thing, about this kind of centrifugal situation that leads to suicide, I am certainly describing a state of mind that I identify with, which I probably experienced while I was writing, precisely because I did not commit suicide, because I escaped from that.This is not to say Bernhard escaped; he also killed himself. But, such is the gift, it was writing that kept him alive.