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.


Audra said...


Rodger said...

Those who have never felt that "crushing boredom" really have no understanding of how desperate life can become. I never understood it myself until an episode triggered by the antibiotic Levaquin last Thanksgiving. Those weeks were an experience I hope never to repeat, but they did give me enough of a glimpse into the abyss to respect those who face it daily. If Heaven is a connection with God and all things, Hell is most certainly that abyss of being absolutely and forever alone.

Melissa said...

I completely agree, Rodger. One of my worst depressive episodes was also triggered by an antibiotic last year, a fact I only realized afterwards. At the time, I felt like everything I was experiencing was real, truth, and it was awful.

I'm a full believer in spirit, as you well know, but I find it helpful to think of my brain as a mass of chemicals that can be managed and understood. It's a tricky balance.