David Foster Wallace

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.

Published in: on September 13, 2008 at 10:34 pm  Comments (35)  


  1. I’ll add him to the reading list…

    I appreciate your thoughts on suicide as they very much echo my own. My mother maintains that every morning she used to wake up and make the decision not to be crazy. I am not sure everyone can make that choice.

  2. I completely agree. And there is a particular push given to the suicidal impulse by the act of writing. It doesn’t come from the writing itself, but from the relentless solitude, and from being left alone with one’s senses for days or months at a time.

    DFW was a writer’s writer, as they say, and he was held to an extremely high standard. I think he was expected to be a genius at all times, both as a prose stylist and as a teacher, and then was often mocked for his ambitions. That looks like doom to me now, although he seemed to wear the terrible position lightly. Of course no such thing is ever light. His death feels catastrophic to me. As a writer he simply didn’t acknowledge limitations, and he passed that courage on to his readers and his students. There is a huge, David Foster Wallace-shaped hole in the world tonight, and forever more. Yikes.

  3. There is that famous artistic temperament at work, I’m sure. I have always had a very hard time being held to a high standard. It makes me feel so nervous that I used to fail on purpose just so no one could expect anything of me. I sometimes look at people who live on the surface and I think “How simple that would be…” The tortured genius is a clique but there is a reason for that.

    I wish that the library had some sort of netflix/beaming technology so I could just immediately read every book or author that is recommended to me!

  4. I cannot spell. It’s a cliche.

  5. Oh, no. This is a huge loss. DFW was a genius and a force and humble, so humble. Everything i see on the internet tonight, each clip of him speaking and reading his work, reminds me of how we won’t see his like again…he looks so alive, so present in everything i’m watching, here….as if he never had a pre-meditated thought. But of course, he did. This last one was particularly difficult for those left behind; I respect his choice. I honor his life and so i must honor his death. This is my little clutch of words to salve the heart a bit….

    Though they go mad they shall be sane
    Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again
    Though lovers be lost love shall not
    And death shall have no dominion.

    Dylan Thomas

    Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death
    hath no more dominion over him.
    For in that he died, he died unto sin once; but in that
    He liveth, he liveth unto God.

    Romans 9

    And I will show that nothing can happen more beautiful than death

    Walt Whitman, Starting from Paumanok

    The good die first

    William Wordsworth

  6. I shall go and read everything he has written and regret I hadn’t done so sooner, and if there is ever a bright spot to something like this, and I know from experience there usually isn’t one we see, perhaps the people you touch who will be touched by this man via your words will keep him alive. Does that make sense? Thank you for sharing this.

  7. It’s a terrible loss.

  8. http://www.salon.com/09/features/wallace1.html

    what an amazing man. salon got it right, here. the illustration is very moving…

  9. My heart goes out to his family and friends. I can only imagine what despair drove him to the final decision. I pray – which is rare for me being a failed Catholic and Methodist – that none of us make that same final decision, and we respect and honor his memory by encouraging new readers to read his books.

    This tragedy makes me grateful we still have Haven, Augusten and Suzanne!

  10. Supposedly Fun Thing is indeed brilliant and flawless, and when I read it I was amazed by his capacity for brilliance in so many subject areas. You don’t see the right and left sides of the brain working in harmony at that level of genius very often. We’ve lost something rare and wonderful, indeed.

    I have this copy of Infinite Jest sitting on my bookshelf that I’ve been meaning to read for ages. I think today’s the day to begin.

  11. I did not know his work either, but I, too, will learn about his work and life. Death is indeed a personal thing in so many ways, and I do not judge him either. I grieve for all of those who loved him and will miss him. All are in my prayers.

  12. My view on suicide is more experiential as, at the age of 7, I attempted it twice (obviously I was VERY bad at it, ha – LOL). In my instance, it would have been a way to escape darkness. My young thoughts went something like this: “I can’t call mom cause I don’t know the area code the operator keeps asking for, Jesus wouldn’t like what he makes me do, I pray to Jesus, he is nowhere, he is nothing, I should be more important than a sparrow, how to make it stop . . .

    so I am at a swimming pool with a deep end and I can’t swim, ergo – jump in there and I will be nothing and it will end. Didn’t work because somebody fished me out and yelled at me – I screamed “why didn’t you leave me alone” (if that isn’t a reason to get a child some help I don’t know what is) . . . so several days later I get it in my head to visit the trailer I used to live in in the same town (which I know is now abandoned), maybe there will be my mother’s new number there?? I felt safer there when we lived here . . . I borrow my cousin’s banana seat bike and start biking – biking – until I get to some gravel roads (all the gravel roads, I thought, would lead to the trailer), but I never find it and I bike some more . . . then a semi trailer comes down the road and – why not pull in front of it – it’s bigger than me, so I will have nothing . . . I wasn’t fast enough, I just kind of bounced off the grill and to the side . . .

    I don’t think the driver even saw me because he kept driving . . . I can just lay on the road and maybe someone else will run over me……that would be good.

    I fall asleep (probably a concussion) . . . then an old woman gently shakes my shoulder. She and her old husband want to take me “home” . . . I said, “but I don’t know the area code” . . . they want to take me to the hospital and I say “but I’m not allowed to talk to strangers” – but they insist . . . finally, I am away – everybody thinks it is an accident . . . my stepdad flies in to pick me up, I am battered, stitched, and casted up – no one knows the unspeakable, unseen injuries. I tell no one because my anut’s husband had shown me what he would do to my mom or my baby sister if I told – he would take a knife and slit them open until their eggs fell out, he showed me at the river with a newly caught fish.

    He is still alive.

    When I told my first boyfriend at age 14, he slapped me because I wasn’t a virgin.

    I thought about suicide many times since then, but finally came to the conclusion that I could plan his murder and go do it as soon as I had my license.

    that kept me going for the remainder of my childhood . . . then it was a question of how I could get away with it . . . I could never figure that out . . .

    So I am still alive. And I have created ways of coping.

    My point about suicide is that it can simply be an exit from here to somewhere else. When people accuse someone of being “self-ish” by suiciding – you just don’t know the dark shadows that can cloud the soul; sometimes, you love and are loved back, but it doesn’t heal the pain. Sometimes it is just really exhausting fighting back the intangible darkness, like trying to catch fog . . .

    I just pray that he has found peace from whatever was smothering him and I wish him well on his journey. I’m so sorry his choice has pained others, but I do believe it was his right to choose for himself. Whatever his reason, it doesn’t mean that he wasn’t loved enough, it probably had nothing to do with anyone but his own soul’s release.

    Celebrate the creativity he expressed during his life.

  13. Sher, I spent years reading Plath’s biographies, and in every case I would reach the moment she moved in to the apartment in London formerly occupied by Yeats and think, “Okay, this time someone is going to save her.” I even dreamed I reached the apartment in time and explained to her that she was one of the greatest poets who ever lived; she was barely thirty; huge changes were coming that would benefit her directly (feminism and pharmaceuticals). And then I read an account I’d never heard of, from the man who lived in the flat below her, of something she said to him the night before she died. I don’t even remember the words, just that my immediate response was, “She couldn’t have gone on living no matter what — it wasn’t possible.” To wish her alive would be to wish her back into a life of unrelenting pain. (That said, her poor babies.)

    There must be a world of difference between those who actually go through with it and people like you, Sher, who are stalked by what A. Alvarez called ‘The Savage God.’ You must have wells of resilience or a stronger life force — something — that holds you here. Whatever it is, I’m glad you have it.

  14. I am glad you have it, too, Sher.

  15. I never knew this man, nor read anything he wrote.
    But as a person who lived a life on the edge of oblivion, I was drawn to the notice of his death.
    Such a young person, with obvious talent and prestige.
    His internal burden must have been very great, for him to have inflicted it so profoundly on his wife.
    That was the real violence in his act, and one unfathomable and hard to pardon.
    My heart goes out to her and all those who feel the gap of his presence.
    Thank you for your touching eulogy.

  16. Oh. No.

    This is the first I’ve heard of David Foster Wallaces’ death. Infinite Jest is a favorite of mine. I don’t feel so hot.

    One other thing we must remember is that he KNEW his tennis. And he knew about the burning in the legs after 10 minutes of “touch ‘n go’s”. He knew that sometimes you’re caught in the deadzone and you must do SOMETHING. He played his heart out.

  17. […] David Foster Wallace I have been planning a particular post for a few days now, but I’m going to put it aside until tomorrow, following […] […]

  18. Haven & Linda –

    I, too, am glad to be here. I have found my voice and am freed from the oppression of religion and fear. I have researched many aspects of childhood resilience/survivorship traits, and I still don’t know what the undefinable line is between survivor triumphant and victim/broken forever.

    Very few journals discuss childhood suicide – I think it is much more frequent and covered by a veil of “accidents”.

    “Sylvia” is a fantastic film about Plath and it shows the dialogue you spoke of about the ground floor neighbor. She calmly spreads butter on bread for the babies before sealing the windows . . .

    In the end, we can only save ourselves and it is as much about what we choose to dwell on/in.

    Speaking of pharmaceuticals, yippee!, how many less aunts/uncles do you think are locked in the “tower rooms” because of them? They are a great coping mechanism and assist many people, I have done a whole series based on my “joy” of them: called, Coping Skills, they are a set of crazy-quilted script bottles (169 of my own) displayed on a mirrored altar . . . art has literally saved me, more the expression than the medium chosen.

    Artist/Philosophers usually have a few monkeys on their backs – it is their pool of source. Sometimes, it is hard to keep your head above water.

  19. Hooray for Prozac! I recently wrote a blog on my own journey. I’m just hoping that my ability to do dishes and be sweet to my kids won’t cancel out my ability to write.

  20. I just heard the news of Wallace’s death, a great talent who’s energy shall remain, I believe, long after his body turns to dust.
    My mother took her life some years ago after decades of severe mental illness and many attempts. Not long after a close friend of mine, who was a fierce lion of a woman also took her own life. My thoughts are that it is an act of bravery among other things…there is certainly nothing cowardly about it.
    But to return to my original thought, I find it compforting to think that the soul never ‘dies’, for we are but energy or as I just read in Suzanne Finnamore’s Zygote Chronicles- ‘Calling it Death is bad PR, it should be called Stage B’. I like that.

  21. I have been meaning to check out his work for some time now and never got around to it. I definitely plan to now. Like others have said on this entry, the biggest blessing in his death is that it will bring new light to his talent.

    As far as thoughts on suicide, I agree with all of the above — of course it is a terribly grievous thing that can never be judged by outsiders, and like with Plath — some people just are not meant for this world. Something in them simply cannot be saved.

    As a theatre major, I must bring this up — has anyone read Sarah Kane’s play 4.48 Psychosis? Extraordinarily beautiful and brutal depiction of a suicidal mind. Kane herself committed suicide before the theatre community had really accepted the groundbreaking value of her work; another brilliant mind lost.

    It is so difficult to live inside the mind. The extent of the toll it takes is tragic, but we are so lucky to have those minds while they choose to stay with us.

  22. Haven- I just moments ago finished reading Iodine. SO SO SO very much to think about!

  23. Kimberly, I haven’t read this play but will find it as soon as I can.

    It does seem to me that the farther removed in time we are from a suicide the more sense it makes, if I can say such a thing. I’ve never thought of Hemingway’s death as anything other than his own business, for example, although I’m sure if I’d been a fan of his at the time, or a member of his family, I would have been destroyed.

    And sine_30: Sigh. You said it perfectly. He played his heart out.

  24. Linda, I felt the same way writing it. My barn wasn’t finished when I wrote that book, and my beloved friends Tim and Leslie let me use a studio at their house. Leslie came out to check on me one morning, after she knew I’d been up all night working, and found me asleep on the dog’s bed. God, that sounds exactly like something that would have happened in Mooreland.

  25. My favorite uncle died when I was six. It was 1966 and he was a psychiatrist in New York City. I am told that he was found dead in his office. It was two weeks after his father, my grandfather, had died. I know he had been addicted to various drugs while in medical school – or after during his time in the Navy as paying off his debt. I always felt a special kinship with him growing up that I never fully understood. He was a very handsome man, almost Hollywood movie star handsome. I related to him during bouts with depression in my teens and twenties, but didn’t recognize the similarities when my alcohol addiction crept up on me in my late thirties. Now sober at the end of my forties, and older than he was when he died, I am again feeling that kinship. I have always felt his death was an overdose but of course no one will say it. I do like to think about souls being reunited after death so perhaps there will come a time when I can ask him. That would please me very much.

  26. I think I will need to read Iodine a second time. Then, perhaps, I can chat with George about it away from this blog (because I don’t want to give any thing away!) because I may have the same questions he mentioned previously.

    And, just one final note before I am off to bed… I love dogs, Haven. Always have. I have two now. Our older one is really my husband’s as he brought her home as a puppy. Gracie is a yellow lab mix. Her tail was broken when she was just a few days old so it has never wagged. Our other dog is “mine”.His name is Foster. A friend brought him into the office because he was one of the last of a litter to go. I told her I would find a home for him so I walked around the office with him on my chest for about 2 hours. He was just 8 weeks old but he got heavy and hot on me just like a newborn baby does. Finally I looked at him and realized he had already found his home. (awwww) Well, his mother is a purebred golden retriever. The father is a mystery. But, he must have been black because Foster is a beautiful black with some white on his chest. His tail works better than well, he knocks things off of the book case with it. I love this dog so much sometimes it just hurts to look at him. Dogs are wonderful creatures.

  27. We can chat, Linda.

    And Sher…I don’t know you, but I your story of strength and survival makes me that much more confident of our ability to persevere. Someone — maybe it was you — said here earlier this summer that they were victors of circumstance. I like that phrase and I am keeping it.

    I am sorry to say that I haven’t read Wallace, but I am so grateful to this blog and Haven for telling me to read him. When I do that, he comes alive at least in my reader’s mind.

    As far as suicide, when I was on the police beat, I saw and heard of so many of them. We seldom covered them at the newspaper. The one that affected me most was a professor from Ball State who had worked with the Indianapolis Star as a writing coach. In the mid 1990s, he killed himself. I really was surprised by my reaction because instead of sorrow — and I did feel sadness — I was angry at him.

    I was with my uncle in April when he died. Over and over again, I assured him that there was something on the other side and he would soon be there. I know in my heart this was comforting to him and me, too, because I am convinced there is something wondrous and very different on the other side.

    I have often thought about why I have felt no impulse to kill myself.

    It comes down to this. Curiousity killed the cat, but curiousity keeps me alive. I want to know what is going to happen next.

    Welcome back, Haven.

  28. George! Hearing from you is always a reason to live.

  29. Have you seen this? http://link.veryshortlist.com/r/86VWMR/2OPC/8BJU/AP51/HJK2/50/h

  30. Jnyanydots: Two people who saw it described it to me and it sounded very painful. Did you find it to be so? I went back through and read the comments on Gawker, and they were enough to bring tears to my eyes. Various commenters had transcribed sections of his books and essays, including things he’d written about depression, and they were . . . well, it was gorgeous prose, which just made the content all the more disturbing.

  31. Haven, I thought it was a nice tribute to him and includes a link to the full commencement address that he gave at Kenyon College. The link that I sent earlier seems to have moved but this one should take you directly to the site: http://www.veryshortlist.com/vsl/daily.cfm/review/623/Website/david-foster-wallace/?tp I think it is worth reading but still so, so sad.

  32. I too, just finished ‘reading’ (listening to the audiobook version of) Iodine. And I immediately flipped my iPod back into my hand and pressed play again. So very many things to think about.

    Haven I don’t want to come off as too fangirlish, but one of the first things I thought when I heard about DFW’s death was “I wonder what Haven Kimmel would have to say about that.”

    It wasn’t till just now that I came and looked. Thanks for this wonderful tribute. I am on a listserv for fans of Wallace, and the remarkable thing everyone keeps coming back to was that he was unfailingly kind and generous to everyone he met. I think it’s sad that someone who was generally accepted as a wonderful human being to suffer so much.

    Anyway, hello, and thanks for writing the first book to inspire me to begin writing again since I read Infinite Jest. Iodine is wonderful, and I’m glad I stumbled upon it.

  33. From one of David Foster Wallace’s students:

    I used to confuse “further” and “farther,” and, apparently, I did it quite often. In one of my stories, I’d confused them yet again, and in the margins, he’d written, simply, “I hate you.” I’ve never confused them since.

  34. Laura, thanks for everything you’ve written here. I was in tears for a couple days following the news of Wallace’s death — I’d forget and then remember, as with most shocking events.

  35. Oh, hello, Scott.

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