Thursday, October 9, 2008

we gotta get out while we're young: on dfw

I haven't written about this yet because I have been so bothered by it and am also aware of how ridiculous and self-absorbed it is to be bothered so personally about it, so instead I've been reprimanding myself and telling myself I must not be so bothered by it, or at least must not tell anyone else about it. But well, to quote my young buddy Carlos Williams of Emerson College, shit.

A few days after my birthday, David Foster Wallace hanged himself. His wife found him. He was forty-six.

I discovered DFW late, really upon moving to Boston. I started reading Infinite Jest this past summer. I savored it, lingering over parts that made me squirm, taking breaks to let it all sink in. I could read other things during these breaks. Infinite Jest was not jealous by nature, rightfully secure in its literary place in my heart.

I became positively giddy reading this book. I would read entire passages out loud to friends who possessed varying degrees of context and interest. "Can you believe how crazy he must be to write something like this?" I would squeal. This was a triumphant squeal of admiration and camaraderie. I had never read a biography on this man, but I could recognize easily in the obsessive incisiveness and impeccably desolate sense of humor. He was obviously obsessive-compulsive, and probably quite depressed. He was, for lack of a better way to put it, someone like me, and he did things I wanted to do, and was wildly successful at them. He was fast becoming an inchoate hero of mine, and he wasn't even that old! Maybe one day, I thought, I'll get to meet him, and tell him how much his work influenced my own.

Talent like that takes its toll. They used to call it making a deal at the crossroads. Selling your soul. Before that in Greece it was the Melancholia. The Black Bile. The broodingest of Temperaments.

When I found out, I was barely past the halfway mark in Infinite Jest. For days, I'd try to read it and get a choking lump in my throat, no matter how much I tried to convince it away. Finally, I had to put it down and take a break.

It's not that I don't understand. That's the worst part. He wrote one of the Great American Novels, made his living off his craft, was married, had a great job, and was widely renowned and adored. And it didn't matter.

I believe it's impossible to do work like he did, like I want to do, without these drives, whether you call them OCD, Depression, Melancholia, or whatever. When aimed directly, they can be that driving force in the face of futility or rejection or indifference or passions necessary to create whole worlds in your head and spend years writing them down (which is not and never going to be a 'sane' practice, no matter how you slice it). But I also know that just a millimeter to the left or right and they can sink a person, despite talent and even desire, into despondency, terror, paralysis, and worse.

General thought cross-section:

*I never want anyone I love to find me hanged, bled, OD'd, suffocated, shotgun-beheaded, or however they're doing it these days in the movies.

*I wonder how many fleet-fingered nerds raced directly to Wikipedia to be the one to edit his entry into the past-tense.

*At least his mind is quiet now.

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