Sunday, September 14, 2008

He killed Himself

I can't remember ever being as startled by a headline scrolling across the bottom of the television screen: David Foster Wallace, 46, found dead of an apparent suicide.

The first thing I said aloud: I thought he was above it.

I sit here feeling speechless. I find the LA Times obituary, I scour the internet, I read hundreds of comments on fan sites, and I see that being rendered speechless seems to be the general consensus around the blogosphere. It is as if DFW left this world and took with him all the words worth saying.

And then I think, what kind of wise-beyond-wit comment would he have about a flood of hundreds and hundreds of comments from people who admit therein they have nothing to say?

I feel genuinely sad now. Lump-in-the-throat sad. Part of that comes from a cringing compassion for his wife, who returned home to find he had hanged himself. I think the suicide of someone who is married or in an intimate relationship is horrifying beyond measure. It's so hopeless, whether it says the relationship wasn't reason enough to keep living, or just that you couldn't tell your partner it wasn't.

Part of my lump in the throat comes from the fact that so much of what he wrote was about depression, madness, suicide -- those things are underlying themes as well as major plot points of Infinite Jest -- and he was so smart about them that I thought he would not fall prey to them. I thought he had stared them in the face and, if not conquered them, then rolled up his sleeves and flexed his literary muscles to show they couldn't mess with him, that he was better than any mere demons. I couldn't read his writing any other way.

I was struck by this comment from "seth" on Edward Champion's Reluctant Habits that David Foster Wallace "noticed and spoke of things that most of us need to ignore to keep going."

Part of the sadness comes from a general question often asked of the universe about why brilliant artists have to be crazy. I mean, really?

The first comment I read online, on the blog cosmopolis, noted that his work will now be "read retrospectively with knowledge of his end as if it were ordained." A la Sylvia Plath, John Kennedy Toole, et. al.

But besides authors there are all the crazed composers, and the Vincent Van Goghs, and so on. Why? What madness is this creation? (And what does that say about the very notion of "god" by the way?)

I know I've mentioned before that Amy Ray and Emily Saliers (who together are my favorite musical duo Indigo Girls) have commented on this phenomenon in multiple interviews. They are by all indications very healthy (although who knows, right?); they are careful to take time off between albums and tours, and go running, and plant tomatoes. They have talked cautiously about the myth of the crazy artist in a way that is almost suspicious of their own artistic success, like, wow, I'm creative, what must be wrong with me? I can't say I haven't thought the same thing about myself sometimes, in my more volatile moments. Is it just inevitable? Their song "Caramia" is running through my head: "Some say your genius/ is in your madness/ will you get better/ and then will you leave us?"

But the above paragraph is just musing, speculation, ramblings from someone who doesn't know what to say.

I feel (selfishly?) glad that I read Infinite Jest before he died. Sometime last spring I couldn't believe how much time -- law school time! that is in a whole other dimension than regular earth-time! -- I gave to that book. But it gave back. And of course now I can't imagine it any other way.

I wrote about him a bit on my Literary Supplement although I was often too preoccupied with law school to blog much. I also spent time grappling with whether or not I even liked the book. But his talent? His way with words? His, yes, genius? You've got to experience them.

I do encourage you to read him. After Infinite Jest I moved his essay collections closer to the top of my mental list of Things to Read Soon, although I didn't necessarily imagine getting around to them until after law school. But it's not like his book is something you read and then put away. Brian and I still talk about it, and tell other people about it, and contemplate it.

I feel obliged to end this entry with a DFW quote, but I won't, because that would imply that there's some way to sum up or make sense of such a thing as "Writer David Foster Wallace hanged himself Friday night. He was 46."

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