The Moral Vision of a Tormented Man: The New Yorker Remembers Author David Foster Wallace

wallace1The New Yorker has just published a piece about the writer David Foster Wallace entitled “The Unfinished.” It details a depressed man who grasped for a moral vision and a lasting joy.  Sadly, it seems, he found neither, as the following quotations show.

On his depression and seeming addiction to medication:

“The writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide on September 12th of last year. His wife, Karen Green, came home to find that he had hanged himself on the patio of their house, in Claremont, California. For many months, Wallace had been in a deep depression….he had taken medication to manage its symptoms.

Depression often figured in his work. In “The Depressed Person,” a short story about an unhappy narcissistic young woman—included in Wallace’s 1999 collection, “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”—he wrote, “Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, Tofranil, Wellbutrin, Elavil, Metrazol in combination with unilateral ECT (during a two-week voluntary in-patient course of treatment at a regional Mood Disorders clinic), Parnate both with and without lithium salts, Nardil both with and without Xanax. None had delivered any significant relief from the pain and feelings of emotional isolation that rendered the depressed person’s every waking hour an indescribable hell on earth.” He never published a word about his own mental illness.”

The Purpose of Good Writing:

“Good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.” Wallace’s desire to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,” as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems. For one thing, he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles. He could not be a realist. The approach was “too familiar and anesthetic,” he once explained. Anything comforting put him on guard. “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is meditated and delusive,” he said in a long 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State.”

Wallace’s critique of irony:

“The default for Wallace would have been irony—the prevailing tone of his generation. But, as Wallace saw it, irony could critique but it couldn’t nourish or redeem. He told McCaffery, “Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”

The tormented author’s desire for a moment-by-moment joy:

A typed note that Wallace left in his papers laid out the novel’s idea: “Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.” On another draft sheet, Wallace typed a possible epigraph for the book from “Borges and I,” a prose poem by Frank Bidart: “We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.”

In all of these selections, I think that we see the tragic thrashing of a man doomed to live in awareness of his lostness.  Wallace never found the all-surpassing peace and joy of Christ, but in these quotations, one sees that he searched for it, and for a moral vision that could order and make sense of his world.

I do not make light of him, though I would doubtless have many, many disagreements with him.  His critique of irony, I think, is worth noting, and I look forward to reading more of his diffuse prose.  In the end, the picture one draws from this story is one of the sinner out to sea, adrift, with little but meds to keep him company, a confused man leaving behind a family.

If one pities him, one also must remember: there but for the grace of God go I.

(illustration from the New Yorker)


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