Friday, October 10, 2008

The gift of writing

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.


  1. Suicide, whilst always being a product of extreme sickness has always been a public, symbolic gesture hasn't it? Depending on the method, there is always an implied audience. McCartney's only point is that the audience has grown.

  2. I don't understand this statement that Thomas Bernhard "also killed himself". In the Introductory essay on your own pages about him, Thomas Cousineau says: "Bernhard died of a heart attack on the morning of February 12, one day after the fortieth anniversary of the death of his grandfather."

  3. It's a point worth clarifying Lloyd.

    Gitta Honegger's biography reports that two days before his death Bernhard signed his will and, the day before, called close friends to say goodbye. He then washed down "his final medication" with a bottle of his favourite cider.

    Also, the TB site is not mine. I have contributed to it of course but I have no control over its content.

  4. Steve, I'm struck by the way this post and your previous post complement each other.

    Of DFW, you write that

    "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. [...] 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, a hegemonic power against the regions of the ungraspable."

    And in the prior post, you gave us the "revelation" that led to Beckett's post-'45 aesthetic:

    "I simply understood that there was no sense adding to the store of information, gathering knowledge. The whole attempt at knowledge, it seemed to me, had come to nothing. It was all haywire. What I had to do was investigate not-knowing, not-perceiving, the whole world of incompleteness."

    Those are two radically counterposed ways of approaching writing (altho' the first might find itself always dogged by the second), and I think you're right too in seeing the former as in some ways specifically American ("hegemonic power" was subtly evocative in this regard!). Might there be a cultural impediment making it difficult for American, or even Anglo-American, writers to "produce works that maintain themselves in the actuality of suffering"?

    On a different tack, I have to say I've always disliked the "medical fallacy", much more even the biographical fallacy, although surely they're related. You know, the idea that El Greco painted such stretched-out figures because of an eye disorder, or that Poe's fiction can be explained by dipsomania, or whatever. Maybe the medical fallacy's extreme reductions are the revenge of Enlightenment rationalism on Romanticism!

  5. "It may be instead the margins of the novels and stories he left will grow wider and we will see it there."

    Don't really have to wait for the margins to widen...or the text block for that matter:

    I picked up Oblivion the other day on sale at Canada's monopoly big box book store...On the second page of Good Old Neon the narrator talks about trying analysis, and it not working '...although it did make everyone sound more aware of their own problems and added some useful vocabulary and concepts to the way we all had to talk to each other to fit in and sound a certain way'... and later on down the page "Putting in all this time and energy to create a certain impression and get approval or acceptance that then I felt nothing about because it didn't have anything to do with who I really was inside, and I was disgusted with myself for always being such a fraud, but I couldn't seem to help it.'

    He then lists about half a page's worth of treatments he tried, followed by "I know this part is boring and probably boring you, by the way, but it gets a lot more interesting when I get to the part where I kill myself and discover what happens immediately after a person dies."

  6. Edmond, I'm not sure that they're fallacies. Perhaps items of evidence instead. I hoped I made it clear that I wasn't stating something rather than speculating; wondering aloud.

    What I was searching for was a way to highlight the space between the cold light of the book and the intangibility of experience (inc. the experience of the book). Bernhard wrote in that space. It doesn't mean that he wrote *about* himself. Re-created himself perhaps. That's why I find his work hopeful.

    So, Nigel, with that in mind, I'm not sure that merely fictionalising personal experience amounts to what I was suggesting. Bernhard's narrators, for example, are themselves at one remove from another's experience. Even when, such as in Concrete, they are suffering themselves. It's a matter of making that space a felt presence in the work.

  7. There were no Foster Wallace's on the shelves of Foyles last week - a "space" that as you rightly point out, may actually get filled by the suicide, as readers go back to the books to try and understand.

    With regards to the more general topic and your comments about Bernhard being kept alive by writing, Mailer said something very similar about Hemingway - and, perhaps like Foster Wallace, we don't know yet - it was when the writing was no longer possible that the depression he'd always fought against won out.

  8. Hi Steve:
    That's just the way I took it, that you were wondering aloud, and looking at the way that the current crop of biographical remarks about DFW got extended into those speculations about the links between his illness and his style. I didn't think your remarks departed from what I took to be a kind of agnosticism on your part when it came to making direct links between writers' lives and their works. I just tossed in my 2 cents on that sub-topic as part of my overall appreciation of yet another thoughtful post.

  9. Edmond, it's not so much that I'm agnostic about the links between biography and work (its form as well as style), but that the debate misses what interests me most: the space opened by the work.

    As biographical prurience / criticism tends to be practised by the least literary of literary types (I can name at least one in British arts coverage), the question has always been one way: how has a life influenced the work? Reverse the question and it might provide more interesting answers (particularly as we all share the work).

  10. Anonymous2:09 am

    I came to this post via your most recent one, and while I think I've read it before, I clearly didn't read it carefully, because I realise now it clarify's something of why DFW's work always left me cold: not the supposed 'coldness' brought on by 'postmodern games' but rather a coldness brought about but a lack of engagement with suffering in the ontological or metaphysical way the Pavese describes. Wallace's work is 'about' suffering, often, but he approaches as as societal diagnostician, that is, from a position of privilege.

    It as, as you gesture towards in your recent post, something that is all over American fiction, this constant engagement with a society whose contours can be mapped, can be represented by fiction, whether the writer sees that society as comprhensible in a 'realist' meanner, or whether it (because of television or whatever) is a welter of unconnected transvaluations that can only be reconciled with the meta-narrative of a 'book'.

    Bernhard's work, or the work of his narrators, is engaged precisely in a rejection of the role of diagnostician: they understand only that they do not want to understand. To clear away the dead wood and isolate the factor of suffering is futile too, as Bernhard knows. And that is the sufferer's terrible dilemma: to finally isolate sufferring in the hope of assuaging it is to be left only with futility.

  11. If you don't see that Wallace engaged with suffering in an ontological or metaphysical way, you must be reading a very different author than the David Foster Wallace I've read. Suffering is at the heart of most of Wallace's fiction, his supposed position of "privilege" notwithstanding (there's almost author about whom this argument can't be made relative to another).

  12. Chris, I have not finished a book by David Foster Wallace as whenever I have tried to read one, it didn't hold my attention. This post contrasts him with a writer who suffered similarly and managed to write "a work that maintained itself in the actuality of suffering". If you're saying he does that, then maybe I should try again.



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