Sunday, May 10, 2009

Everything in its right place

The New Yorker recently featured a retrospective on the life and work of David Foster Wallace--a brave article, filled with fire and verve and quotes about what it means to be a fiction writer, and what it means, really, to be a human being. David Foster Wallace, if you don’t know, is the brilliant contemporary novelist who hanged himself on his front porch last September, at the age of 47.

He said: freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to, and to choose how you construct meaning.”

There are so many things I have to say about him and the article: what a gift is to have access to the New Yorker again, to feel like I’m participating in a dialog with the best minds alive today, relishing every exquisite sentence. What a tragedy it is to have lost one of our best novelists. How awful is the continued massacre of artists by their own hands. How I feel required to apologize for his and my own battle with depression, and how I refuse to do so.

What I want to say most, though, is what a brilliant man he was, and how lucky we are that he managed to stave off his fear and doubt enough to create at least two novels. How grateful I am for that. I haven’t read them yet--I’ve only read his shorter work--but I savor their future reading the way kids look forward to dessert. That anticipation in this case is coupled with sadness that his words are so finite. Two is all we get.

Despite his awful death, I believe he grasped in some essential way the core of what it means to be successful in life. His end doesn’t matter as much as the courage he had to make good choices about his own internal life for 47 years, to battle the demons of addiction and depression that stalked him. I find it intolerable that, because he eventually succumbed to those demons, after going off the antidepressants that kept him alive for twenty years, people can invalidate his life’s work.

He sought to find the truth behind experience. He wasn’t willing to accept archness and irony as substitutes for substance. He wasn’t afraid to risk being cheesy. Or he was afraid, terrified, but he was brave enough to confront that fear and overcome it, for a long, long time.

In the book he was working on when he died, a vast exploration of the inner lives of IRS agents, he said:
“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.”

So much of his internal struggle echoes mine. I fight those same neuroses, trying to control my inner life. Lately, people, intending to be helpful, have dangled these ghosts in front of me, the specters of the artists who offed themselves serving as cautionary tales. See, you really don’t want to be an artist. Look what happens to them! They’re consumed by despair! They go crazy! They kill themselves!

I refuse to be scared by demons or ghosts. I celebrate the accomplishments of those who spent their whole lives battling mental illness and the war of our culture against those who speak painful truth. I’m so grateful that David Foster Wallace managed to wrest meaning and beauty from his experience. I refuse to invalidate his success.

Friday, May 01, 2009


Flowers are pretty.

Another poem today, this one by Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish national treasure. (I should add that I'm also not the author of the previous poem, as some seem to have assumed. That was John Updike, who died last year.)

The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes.

Some would be devoted to acting against consciousness,
Like the flight of a moth which, had it known,
Would have tended nevertheless toward the candle’s flame.

Others would deal with ways to silence anxiety,
The little whisper which, though it is a warning, is ignored.

I would deal separately with satisfaction and pride,
The time when I was among their adherents
Who strut victoriously, unsuspecting.

But all of them would have one subject, desire,
If only my own—but no, not at all; alas,
I was driven because I wanted to be like others.
I was afraid of what was wild and indecent in me.

The history of my stupidity will not be written.
For one thing, it’s late. And the truth is laborious.