David Foster Wallace, the writer who reinvigorated the long-essay form to depict the wide, strange breadth of modern life, and who created a landmark in contemporary American fiction with his novel Infinite Jest, has died at the age of 46. He committed suicide Friday night at his home in California. Wallace was a favorite of many young musicians and writers that I know, and some tributes have already appeared in the jazz blogosphere: Darcy James Argue writes of the inspiration that Wallace gave him as an artist, and jazz historian Ted Gioia was evidently a fan as well. Outside of the jazz world there are excellent appreciations from Newsweek and from Laura Miller at Salon; the Wallace fansite The Howling Fantods has a comprehensive round-up of links.
Although he was only 46, Wallace had already done the work of a lifetime, publishing two novels, several story collections, and numerous essays. His grammatically snaky sentences and incandescent riffs gave the impression of someone who could barely contain–or perhaps stand–the brilliance of what was flashing through his mind at any given moment. Today I read an extraordinary commencement address that he gave several years ago at Kenyon. It contains the following passage, which has gotten wide note since the report of his death:
“As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote 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. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.”
There’s much more–it’s an insightful and touching reflection on the psychological realities of adult life.
Wallace was a teacher as well as a writer, and obviously a generous and inspiring one; the many tributes and remembrances from his former students appearing around the Internet are heartbreaking to read. There are also numerous accounts from people who met him and were touched by his considerable human kindness. Here’s the conclusion of one, posted to a Facebook group, from someone who attended Wallace’s 2006 reading at the Strand in New York City, and who had just lost a brother to suicide:
“If it isn’t to cornpone to directly address the dead, I’d like to do so now, please forgive me, but you have encouraged me in so many goddamn ways, sir, and I am so so sorry and aggrieved and angry and other Kubler-Rossianisms that you are not in the world in the same way you were, and I wish you had remembered some story like mine, and there will be dozens or hundreds or many more of them if you listen, before you reached for the rope, because sir, you were good, you are good, and insofar as I am good you’ve helped.”
Several artists I admire—Bloomington native novelist Ross Lockridge Jr., rock musicians Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith—died as suicides. Much of J.D. Salinger’s oeuvre revolves around a suicide. No need here to go into occupational-hazard clichés and such regarding sensitive, brilliant people. There can be a morbidly seductive tendency to dwell on the loss, or to see it as a perverse exclamation point on an aesthetic legacy. But how can one not dwell on the loss? Beware of platitudes bearing less than the truth, but beware, too, of not allowing yourself to simply feel human. Reading the news on a rainy, overcast Sunday autumn afternoon in Bloomington threw me into the same kind of despair that I felt when Smith killed himself several years ago, and the only thing I could think of doing, besides pulling out my copy of Infinite Jest, was to walk down to my favorite used-bookstore and look for some of Wallace’s other books. The wind was driving the rain and I knew that even with an umbrella I’d get wet, but I didn’t care; at times like that you just want connection in some assuring form, whether it’s rain on the skin or conversation (in all its halting and sometimes frustrating forms) with someone that you know. Or don’t know. You just don’t want to keep sitting around in your own despair. (Because actually you do, and you know it’s better not to.)
Like all but those who knew him closely I can only speculate on why Wallace chose to end his life, but even a quick overview of his books and his biography will reveal that the idea didn’t come out of nowhere (rightly or wrongly, the short story “Good Old Neon” from his 2004 collection Oblivion is already being read now as a long rough draft of a suicide note). Today’s New York Times piece leaves little doubt, though, about the ultimate cause of the author’s ending. Depression, whether it’s induced by the state of the world (and Wallace was acutely aware of the not-so-fun house of mirrors, the sad spectacle that much of modern life has become—it’s at the forefront of his writing) or by one’s own self-castigation for perceived shortcomings, can be insidiously terminal. From midlife on I suspect it only grows more lethal. Wallace was an exhilarating and fearless author, and while his work delved deep into the operation of individual consciousness, it was anything but solipsistic or depressed; it was, instead, an ongoing illumination of all that is around us, bemused, empathetic, and unflinching in the face of anything, whether it be vulgar, banal, or beautiful.
Sometimes, as I face my own yawning gates of middle-agedom, I feel as if I’ve begun to stop watching the world. The easy allure of comfort and habit, the stultifying labor of routine, the increasing wear of years on the brain and body—all of these things and more can lead an adult to reside simply in the dim-bright light of his or her own mind. Ultimately that’s where one has to reside, of course, but one can choose to no longer use the mind as a means of engagement with the world around it. Through his words, through his life and through his death, David Foster Wallace tells us what a loss that would be. Walking home from the bookstore this late Sunday afternoon, listening to the rain-slickened tear of tires on the street, feeling the fine spray of precipitation teasing around my ankles, I thought the same thing I’m sure thousands of other people have been thinking today: wish you were here, still and not so still.