I have been planning a particular post for a few days now, but I’m going to put it aside until tomorrow, following the news that David Foster Wallace has committed suicide at the age of 46. This will be upsetting to many, many people in the world of books and ideas, and those who love a person brave enough to combine the two, as he did. He was a brazen prose stylist, a great wit, and the rare public intellectual. His essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is perfect from start to finish. And while it is has never been free of (often reductive) criticism, Infinite Jest is a masterpiece. I read it with two bookmarks: one for the text and one for the footnotes, at the beach one summer. It has remained a hallmark in my reading life. It is like nothing that came before it and nothing has ever compared since. There are images, whole passages of that novel that are so fresh and redemptive they justify any tangents or self-indulgences. I’ve often thought that it was a work that could save a life, if for no other reason than it is so boundlessly joyous and broad and deep all at once. It didn’t save Wallace’s own life, but it was an astonishing contribution, among many he made, and he should be held in the highest esteem.
Gawker offered this piece of an address he delivered at Kenyon College in 2005:
“[L]earning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.
This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.”
Wallace hanged himself and was found by his wife. He must have been in extraordinary pain to have done such a thing to a loved one. No one reading this is a stranger, I’m guessing, to the suicidal impulse, which Jung believed was ‘the Soul’s call for drastic change.’ Sometimes it’s possible to make that change and sometimes we must rely on something much smaller and more immediate. The Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran, who wrote extensively about despair and dread, said, “I have always lived with the awareness of the impossibility of living. And what has made existence endurable to me is my curiosity as to how I would get from one minute, one day, one year to the next.” He also made the rather pithy observation that no one has yet proven that it is better to be than not to be.
Let’s assume that it’s better to be; it’s better to turn to the Buddha or Bob Dylan. There is always a shot of whiskey and Jesus’s commandment that we come and reason together. I don’t have it in me to judge those who kill themselves, as many people do, claiming that suicide is an unforgivably selfish act. Every death is a loss. This one is a damned shame.