For the Soul of David Foster Wallace

The death of JD Salinger on Thursday and a comment from a reader on Friday about John Knowles have brought my own favorite fiction writer to mind. Sixteen months ago, David Foster Wallace (left) committed suicide by hanging himself. Compared with this final act, JD Salinger’s professional suicide, hiding out from the world in a hermitage, is small potatoes. But both lives, both deaths remind us how fragile, how transitory our highest impulses are, and how much we need God in our lives. Without God, it’s all just a big damn mess.

Let’s be clear about both JDS and DFW. In our enlightened post-modern culture, they were gods. At least I thought so—Salinger when I was Holden Caulfield’s age in the late 1960s, Wallace ten years ago when I read his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, for the first of three times, mostly while guffawing my guts out on a trip with Katie and the girls. I haven’t read it again since becoming a Catholic, and I’m not sure I would even like it now.

You don’t want to know what it’s about. Written in the mid-1990s about a dystopian near-future when years are named for products (The Year of Glad opens the book), Infinite Jest is set in a tennis academy and in the halfway house for substance abusers that happens to be next door. The main characters are tennis whiz Hal Incandenza, a possibly schizophrenic adolescent, not unlike Holden, who spends most of his time high on marijuana; and Don Gately, a recovering pill-popper who receives a terrible injury defending someone on the streets and dominates the last 100 pages of the novel, lying semicomatose in bed and hoping the nurses won’t administer painkillers, which will only re-addict him. Oh, and there’s a video so insidiously alluring that, once you sit to watch it, you become catatonic; the video is sought by a Quebecois terrorist cell that hopes to use it on the American population. You see, you didn’t want to know.

But here’s the thing, the very sad thing: Despite clinical depression (he went off his medication at the end, probably prompting the suicide), Wallace was basically a positive person, and IJ is shot through with silent prayers for humanity. Wallace told an interviewer that he wrote the novel to express a deep sadness he felt about our culture and its many forms of addiction. To my mind, that sadness clearly was the bedrock of a sincere hope for humanity (his and mine). I think he thought his writing could make a difference, but though he was perhaps the most inventive writer of his generation, he lost his way and, with it, his hope.

Without God? . . . Ultimately, without faith in ultimate redemption any hope is bootless. God is notably absent from both Catcher in the Rye and Infinite Jest. I did not know JD Salinger (who did?) but I will pray for David Wallace, because I knew and loved him well.

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  • I could write a lengthy appreciation for this post, but I will just say Thank you, really and truly.

  • Webster Bull

    Thank you, Deacon Scott.This is one of those posts you write and you think, Will anyone care? Will everyone think I'm crazy? But I care, I wonder what terrible suffering DFW must have lived with, and I don't think I'm crazy.

  • You've described well my whole relationship with blogging!

  • Webster:Thank you so much for this. You wrote the post that I should have written months ago but never did. Just ask Deacon Scott!

  • El Bollio Tejano

    That is such a beautiful post. Thank you for that.

  • Confession time: I have never heard of this author, nor do I know the first thing about him or his work. But here is a given that I can say with 20/20 hindsight and now Catholic foresight: I have yet to begin to scrape at the top of this iceberg called life and our experiences of it. Every time I hear of a suicide I am profoundly saddened. It is as if the person has realized that this life is empty and they yearn for the "otherside" but skip the all important step of being redeemed by Our Lord's death, burial, and resurrection, and then pledging their service unto Him. For as Webster so aptly put it, thisremind us how fragile, how transitory our highest impulses are, and how much we need God in our lives. Without God, it’s all just a big damn mess.

  • I don't know this author either, but this post reminds me very much of Vic Chesnutt. I had never heard of him before I heard an interview with him on NPR on December 1. I don't know if any of you know who he is,(probably, I'm a bit out of the rock culture) but he is a singer and songwriter who, when he was 19 was in a wreck that paralyzed him from the neck down. He eventually regained partial use of his hands and could play the guitar. He spoke about his mother's death and about the times he had tried to commit suicide but failed. He talked about how he had decided that he wasn't really ready to die and about a song he had written that was a sort of Dear John letter to death. He sang a very engaging song in which the lyrics were words that his grandmother had said to him to tell him how much she loved him. He was brought up in a Fundamentalist home, but he was an atheist. Still, something about this interviewed really touched me, and I decided to try to remember to pray for him. On Christmas Day, he died of drug overdose. This is almost unbearably sad to me. (I guess that's my way of saying that it's a big damn mess.) I think I will pray for his soul for a long time.The song about death is here: anyone is interested. Not quite my usual style. I hope I typed that correctly. Boy, I wish you could cut and paste in these boxes. AMDG

  • Webster Bull

    Janet, I'm sorry it's not easy to create a hot link in these boxes. I have taken your link and made it "hot" right here. Thanks.

  • Webster Bull

    @ El Bollio Tejano,Thanks for the compliment. I think Frank and Janet were afraid you and I were going to get into it over at the Salinger post, but we've put that behind us! 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Hi Webster, did you happen to read the commencement address that David Wallace Foster gave(his last I think) to the students at Kenyon Univ. ? (I'm almost sure it was Kenyon). The Wall Street Journal printed it when he died and it's brilliant. I had never heard of him until that point and then he was already dead. Basically he gives advice to get out of yourself;to see others not as objects in our way but as real living breathing people like ourselves. He knew what demons he was fighting against and I'm afraid he lost the fight. Check it out if you can. And thanks for this blog-I'm addicted to it. Regina

  • El Bollio Tejano

    Webster, nothing to be afraid of here! Pass that on to Frank and Janet. I'm still smarting over the rejection by you and Frank over my Ferris Bueller commentary… Great blog. Discussions here are rock solid. 🙂

  • Webster Bull

    For those following the comments in this thread, here is DFW's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College.

  • Regarding Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace said he wanted to write a book about what it means to be human and many think he succeeded at least in sharing his perspective of what it is like to be human. Wallace suffered from clinical depression since his first year in college. Through the depression and medication he still was able to see that we often miss a selflessness that makes us human and he wrote about it and talked about it and fretted over it. He got married and his life was going along well enough, he thought, to stop his meds and hopefully avoid some bad side effects. Once off them, he became overwhelmingly depressed. He tried returning to the meds, but unfortunately they sometimes lose their potency on the second attempt, and they did. According to his family he suffered terribly. In his novel Infinite Jest, Foster Wallace seems to desperately try to explain the pain of depression and those who choose to take their own lives:"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 [depression's] 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. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire's flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It's not desiring the fall; it's terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling 'Don't!' and 'Hang on!', can understand the jump. Not really. You'd have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling."

  • When I crushed my elbow and had to have part of it removed, I fell into a deep chemical depression. It was just as Scott wrote. You are not depressed about anything in particular. It's not that things in your life aren't going the way you want. It's just a feeling that you cannot bear to exist and you can never conceive being happy again. Al Kresta, in Surprised by Truth, called it the Miserific Vision. The only time I had any peace was when I was outside saying the Rosary, but it was January and very cold, so I couldn't do that often.Because of my Faith, and because I knew that it was caused by the break or the pain killer, I figured that it would end, and after a few weeks it did. But if I had known that it would go on and on, I'm not sure how long I could have endured it. Thank you for posting that, Scott. I don't think that many people really understand what this kind of depression is all about.AMDG

  • You are welcome and I am glad you found it helpful in some way. I am also glad that your faith helped you in a time when, most likely, nothing else could. If you poke around the web and read about Wallace I think you will find he had a faith in God that was less defined than yours but he did have a faith and I get the impression that it helped him. I can't speak for him of course but there is plenty of his comments and interviews on the web where he speaks about his beliefs.I don't suffer from depression, but reading Infinite Jest made me realize how painful it is and I try to understand and empathize with those who do.If recently came across a video about the biology of depression that I think is a helpful step in changing our thinking about depression and mental illness. The link is below, but in summary it explains how depression is a 'biological event'. The fatigue, the pain, etc. is very much a function of the physical manifestation of a disease that is as unavoidable as something like colon cancer. If our culture would re-orient our thinking to understand this physical nature of the disease, our perspective and how we relate to people suffering from such illnesses may change for the better. Here is the link if you are interested:

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks, Scott. For other readers less knowledgeable about David Wallace and not patient enough to work their way through his long Kenyon College speech referenced above, here's a meaty, perhaps THE meaty paragraph, at least for Catholics. Wallace said: "Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness." This is not an argument for Catholicism, of course, or even Christianity, and it may offend some of the more doctrinaire among us at YIMC, though I think in the main we're a pretty tolerant bunch. BUT! At least it will get you into CS Lewis's hall, which for many is the first step.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Webster, Thanks for excerpting part of Wallace's speech. I am not put off by his loosely formed concept of faith. What I see instead is that in it's absence he is still able to gravitate towards the truth and kind of hover around it. He used his gifts as a writer to observe life and put what he saw into a narrative form. It just makes me think how lucky I am to have been taught the Faith b/c it saves a lot of time spent groping around trying to find truth. I leave that in the capable hands of Augustine and Aquinas and a few hundred others. Thanks! Regina

  • Webster Bull

    Not quite willing to let David Wallace rest yet, let me share a long appreciation that appeared in The New Yorker after his death.

  • Webster Bull

    For anyone coming late to this party and tempted to read Infinite Jest, please heed the following, offered as commentary to a subsquent post: IJ is an acquired taste, but let me give you a tip. On page 223 of the first American edition, you'll find "Chronology…by Year," from (1) Year of the Whopper to (9) Year of Glad. To sort out the story on the first reading, it is imperative to know this chronology in advance. It shows you, for example, that the first scene in the book is actually the last to happen. Kind of like "Pulp Fiction," to cite another non-Catholic source and outrage Warren even more.One more thing. The main characters are the Incandenza family: Father James (dead during most of the action), mother Avril (watch out for her), Orrin (punter for the Arizona Cardinals), Mario (terribly deformed and the most Christ-like figure in the book, except maybe Don Gately), and Hal (dope-smoking protagonist). Everyone else, except Gately, is secondary. There, now I feel better recommending the book. You're on your own!

  • Sandy

    I will be reading this because of you, Webster. I think many of us can feel connected to such people. I know I can.