Illustration by Harry Aung
I noticed a blog post about David Foster Wallace’s suicide.
It’s the one year anniversary of DFW death already?
I should begin by saying I’ve never read much of DFW, but I plan to. I think I may have read a short story of his and I barely started Infinite Jest years ago. However, I’m impressed by how much people are impressed by him. I should check out some of his essays.
The reason I’m writing this post is because of the emotional hurt this blogger was trying to communicate. The blogger said he was angry but seemed to be expressing a complex emotional experience. I’ve seen similar responses to DFW’s death by other bloggers. I was trying to get a sense of what is at the root of this response. Why anger?
For very personal reasons, I have a strong emotional reaction to such strong emotional reactions. It makes me feel sad to know that people feel anger about anothers’ sadness… or something like that. I mean these people who are angry consider themselves fans of DFW. From reading about DFW, it seems to me that he gave his heart and soul to his writing. He gave all he had to give which (going by the responses) was immense and apparently he had nothing left to give. What more do his fans want from him? It’s not a matter of judging DFW’s angry fans as being selfish for having wanted more from DFW. Rather, it just makes me wonder how well these fans actually understood him… but I shouldn’t be critical. These fans, of course, have every right to feel anger or any other emotion for that matter, but… I don’t know. It just makes me feel sad.
As for suicide, my perspective is different. I can feel anger towards a world that leads someone to suicide, but I’m incapable of feeling anger for anyone who commits suicide. In fact, I’m constantly surprised more people don’t end their lives. There is a whole lot of suffering out there in the big bad world. The desire to end one’s suffering is a completely rational response and I suspect it’s because people aren’t rational that they go on living in despair.
My usual response to suffering is compassion or at least sympathy. For me, suffering is a personal reality as I’ve had depression for a couple of decades and little has been of help. Many years ago, I attempted suicide. As I personally understand the absolute suffering and desperation someone feels before a suicide attempt, I just don’t have it in me to feel anger. There is nothing wrong with feeling angry and anyways there isn’t much use in judging an emotional response no matter what it is. It’s just not my response. I feel plenty of anger towards many things, but not towards suicide.
A while back, I heard in the news of a young girl who killed herself (which I wrote about in my post Suffeing… two responses). It may seem odd, but my immediate response was a mix of sympathy and relief. The emotion I felt was almost positive in that I was glad someone had escaped a life of suffering. If someone is already feeling suicidal at a young age, it’s quite likely life is only going to get worse. Maybe I’m a cynic, but it’s the way I experience the world.
Killing oneself is one of the hardest things to do, harder than killing another person. There is somewhere between 8 and 25 attempts for every suicide death. So, quite likely DFW had attempted suicide a number of times before and it was probably constantly on his mind for years.
I must admit I feel a desire to defend DFW… and all the other severely unhappy people in the world. If I were feeling suicidal and I personally knew someone who felt anger towards someone who had killed themselves, I very well might feel even more suicidal. Nothing makes a depressed person even more depressed than the sense that others don’t understand their despair. Depressed people generally already feel enough anger towards themselves that they don’t need any help in that respect.
I do have a hard time understanding anger towards suicide. I understand it in a sense, but I just can’t feel it. I’ve come across a number of people who were angry at DFW for his suicide and it truly bewilders me.
I wonder if part of it is fear. After all, if one admires someone like DFW whose writing was grounded in his emotional experience, then that brings up some difficult issues. Is there danger in admiring someone who killed themselves? If someone truly understood DFW’s suffering, wouldn’t that lead one to despairing in the same way? We all have the potential for suicide and that can be a scary thought when considered seriously. It might take the wind out of one’s anger and I’d guess that many people feel anger so that they won’t feel despair.
Any death can bring up many negative emotions. This is especially true when a person’s life ends when they still have much potential. I can think of a few favorite writers I wish had lived longer lives.
Somewhat comparable to DFW might be Philip K. Dick. PKD died at the top of his game. His name became very well known and his family grew rich off of his writings. He knew much suffering and struggle, and he attempted suicide about 10 yrs prior to his death. His years of drug use probably led to his dying at the peak of his career. I could be angry that he flirted with death a bit too much and didn’t live long enough to manifest all of his potential, but I’m not. His disturbed state of mind led to a precarious life and it led to a depth of insight that is rare. I’m not sure there is a way to have one without the other. Artists often suffer for their art and often die young… that is no new idea.
But why anger towards an artist who sacrificed himself in plumbing the depths? Artists like DFW and PKD give more to the world than most people who live twice as long. Why not instead feel anger for the vast majority of people who don’t even come close to living up to their potential? Or is that it? Do people feel anger when their heroes fail because they know they couldn’t do any better? Is the anger some of DFW’s fans feel in actuality anger towards themselves? I suppose I could understand that… but if so, why not just say that? Is it hard to admit what that means if you feel anger for a person who you realize even in failure is a greater person than you can ever hope to be?
Is that being too harsh?
When our heroes fail, we realize that they too were human. An artist, no matter how great, is first and foremost a human just like the rest of us. However, the fan knows and loves the artist as an artist. It’s strange the ways someone tries to communicate the loss of a hero. Junkdrawer67 was himself responding to another blogger (John Moe: I Did Not Read Infinite Jest This Summer) who used two analogies. That other blogger described it in terms of a superhero:
We’re an urban metropolis that’s collapsing under the weight of corruption and moral degradation, gangs are everywhere and no one collects the garbage. Dystopia, right? But! We do have this one super hero who occasionally rescues us and occasionally he can’t quite rescue us but even then he provides us with the idea of hope, the idea of salvation and redemption being possible from our little hell. Only now David Foster Wallace has hanged himself and so our superhero has just announced that screw this city, I’m moving to Australia and you’ll never see me again and so we’re just left with rot and sorrow and no one will even collect the garbage and the cops are shooting people for no reason and everything’s on fire. Wallace left us.
That is what a good artist does. They make themselves feel present. This blogger hadn’t ever met DFW or even read his greatest work, and still he felt that DFW had somehow personally left him behind. Ultimately, though, that is an illusion the artist creates. We don’t even hardly know the people who are immediately in our lives. For the reader of DFW, he has never left for his words remain and words are all a reader has.
It’s interesting that people look to artists with hope. An artist offers the possibility of redemption, the possibility of saving us from our drab lives. In participating in the artist’s creation, we fill inspired by the potential of life. Creativity, after all, is a seemingly life-affirming activity and so the suicide of an artist hits even harder. What the blogger doesn’t mention here is that not only couldn’t DFW rescue us but couldn’t even rescue himself.
Before this description, the blogger began his post with another analogy:
I’m still upset at the author for being a thief. Ever been robbed? Like had your house burglarized and your stuff rummaged through and stolen? There’s this period right after it happens when you can’t believe that someone got into where you live, the space where you sleep and bathe and eat, and just took stuff you had bought and taken care of. David Foster Wallace hanged himself and robbed us of all the work he would have produced in the future. Our homes were stocked floor to ceiling with the promise of the best goddamn writing people could make and Wallace fucking ripped it off. I’m still walking around wanting to punch someone. Don’t bother calling the goddamn cops, they won’t do anything.
There is a sense that a fan has toward an artist. It’s a sense of ownership. When an artist puts his work out into the world, it stops being simply his own and becomes something like public property. Along with the sense of knowing the artist, there is a sense that the artist’s life is public property. Even in death, someone like DFW lives on in the mind of his fans. That has happened for me as well with a few writers. PKD is very much a living person to me even though he died when I was beginning elementary school.
I guess my sense of PKD is a bit different. Maybe it’s different because he was already dead when I discovered his writing. His suffering was something of the past. I never thought PKD would rescue me. I quickly understood the dark path down which PKD’s writing could take me and I accepted that whatever redemption PKD offered me it was a redemption mired in suffering. Also, I’m not sure I feel either that I possess PKD’s writings or that I’ve lost anything, but maybe that once again has to do with his death being a foregone conclusion. I never had the hope of having anything more from PKD. It does sadden me that he didn’t get around to finishing the stories he had in mind when he died, but it’s just the way it is. Death, even when chosen, rarely comes at a convenient time.
My sense is that the anger about the loss of a hero is about a loss of hope. In admiring an artist especially a living one, maybe it’s always a risk that we end up expecting too much from them. But this is the problem of all of life. Everyone starts off in life with more expectations than life itself can meet. It’s the fate of being human. The artist for a moment helps us to believe in something greater. Nonetheless, the artist shares our fate in being human.
I’ll give the last word to DFW:
Hal isn’t old enough yet to know that… numb emptiness isn’t the worst kind of depression. That dead-eyed anhedonia is but a remora on the ventral flank of the true predator, the Great White Shark of pain. Authorities term this condition clinical depression or involutional depression or unipolar dysphoria. Instead of just an incapacity for feeling, a deadening of soul…. Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself…. Its emotional character… is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed…. Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution. It is a hell for one….The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise…. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames.