Monday, September 12, 2011

David Foster Wallace: In Memoriam

Writing about the significant author in your life, for a literary dork, is often akin to talking with passion and longing for an old childhood imaginary friend of yours. For me, and I suppose for others as well, we revere our beloved authors with the ferocity of a religious zealots. We treat them like prophets: every action of theirs serves as a sign of some sort. We view their works as scripture in that we devour every word they said, every letter they wrote whether in a margin of some book now in Austin, or on their numerous drafts of their sacred works, or even their poems from childhood. We want to know every detail of their life.  We defend them regardless of the accusation until proven otherwise by conclusive evidence. We assume most people don’t truly understand the author, not like we do anyway. We wait restlessly for a biography to emerge, and applaud the academic world for finally catching up with our knowledge of the genius of this author, though we cry for the reason he emerged now. Of course, I’m talking about David Foster Wallace(the title gave it away, I know). It’s strange to think that this kind of obsessiveness we normally think we reserve for those in love, or stalkers, but where else do we find this kind of obsession besides for the world of art?  
To then begin to talk about them in a way that both does justice to the saint-like version in our mind while at the same time honoring the fact the author also existed as a real person, well, it seems like a futile attempt. I want to convey what David Foster Wallace meant to me because I believe his beautiful capabilities can affect other people too, but in a way, writing a eulogy gives in to this illusion of kinship between myself and this author. I never met him. I don’t know him at all in any private way. In no way do I believe that because he wrote with his blood on the pages that I understand him at all as an autonomous complete other human being. I can speak to the public's David Foster Wallace, why he drew so many obsessed fans, why people called him the voice of their generation, how he goes about making you feel as if he is whispering all his words into your ear, humbly. How our lionization of this human being actually belies his writings, but I can still not claim to know him, despite that strange feeling he bestows that he knows us, or that if given the chance we could actually be best friends.
This rests not on some abstract argument regarding the death of the Author, or authorial intent. Simply put, even he knew that on some level, as much as literature served as a mode of communication for him to us, he also knew of the artificial nature of that dialogue. We all realize the mask of literature, its crafted nature, something projected, we just sometimes stare at it for so long we forget it’s there.
In some ways, though this might sound obvious, but I imagine it still needs mentioning. David Foster Wallace was an eminently flawed human being. His writing overflows with, even if he gave reason for these indulgences, extraneous matter, with a brilliant mind experimenting, exercising for his sake, not necessarily the readers. What I find disturbing about Saint Dave, or this closeness that we feel is how much he began to insinuate his authorial self into my personality. To this day, I ask myself, what would David Foster Wallace think about this situation. I miss him, viscerally, and I think many of his Fantods do to. I cannot help but think his thoughts, write in his style (or attempt to), and lean on his words in times of weakness. (God, how many times have I/we read that graduation speech.) The problem with all of this adoration, as with any adoration is that it blinds us to other visions, shuts us off from divergent thinking, from noticing the strong depressive streak in his writing that colors his viewpoint. Maybe in some respects, David Foster Wallace, even got things wrong. Maybe we don’t live in a world of Total Noise. Maybe the answer to boredom lies not in attention, and maybe he didn’t plan on making many life assertions as we import to him. The point being that at the point you stop thinking for yourself, because of a schema you received from someone else, you should assess your relationship to that thought system.
With that being said, he matters too much now, to not speak positively about his contribution to my life. I too found him in the solitude of sadness (I think Franzen nails this point on the head), and for me he emerged as a light, a guide, a voice that spoke through the total noise of life. He accomplished, at least for me, what he set out to do, a rare feat for an author: to make the normal feel weird and the weird normal, and he comforted the masses of lonely people. Not people who necessarily live alone, or anti-social people, but existentially lonely people in a way that no one in our generation has. He allowed us to partake in genuine conversations, to indulge in genuine feelings and questions without looking stupid anymore. Through him, so many people overcame this post-modern tic of cynicism.
He challenged the reader to accept the possibility that they are smarter than they think they are, or he made us smarter, demanding more from us whether it entailed patience, attention, looking up word after ridiculous word, or simply guided us into the directions of other authors, of foreign ideas, (Wittgenstein!) He forever taught. He couldn’t help but teach because he saw so much pain and hoped to alleviate just some of it, apparently his own, but mostly ours. He allowed us to realize that art can demand from us, he opened us up as a perennial though unwitting teacher to Todd Gitlin, to David Lynch, to the intricacies of tennis, basically to think intelligently but feeling immensely in every situation. How any situation has what to tell you if you look hard enough. that solopsisim is the worst state possible, that an intellect is not a free pass to or from anything, that morality still matters, that cliches are important, that genuine connections still command our attention despite the effort and complexity they demand.
He let us take comfort in our humanness, in our innumerable frailties, our endless reserves of courage and strength, our actual feelings of hope; In our addictions, not in a sense of contentment, but an empathic understanding and caring for the well being of ourselves and others. He let us see both the extent of our pain, our damage, our selfishness, our skewed values, our predicament, while also showing us ways out. If he liked to wallow in the dregs of our life it was not only because of its humane beauty but because of the belief that you can only get better, and grow, if you can actually describe the sickness. As in the opposite of Hal knowing way more about the things he did than in the why he did anything. He brought back words that some of us wouldn’t dare to utter. God, humility, morality, obligations, civic duty, genuineness, honesty. He made writing cool. He actually seemed to believe in something we might even call the human spirit. How quaint.
But in the end, even as we still mourn his death, for me, I know I need a break. I need to leave the obsession behind, maybe separate completely, for now. Too many authors exist out there, too many points of view that to limit myself, to focus, for the most part on his ideas only hinders my ability to grow as a human being. But I cannot, on this day of remembrance, undervalue his importance in my life. I don’t know who to thank or what to mourn for per se, but I know I feel grateful for his existence and literary output, I feel grateful for his struggle that he shared with us, and I feel mournful for both the loss of public Dave, and the loss to his family and friends of the private Dave Wallace.
You are loved.
Thanks for reading,


  1. i really appreciated what you wrote...better, i felt it in a personal yet communal way...
    "(God, how many times have I/we read that graduation speech.)" this parenthesis alone sums up all your post and everything i have in mind and i'm unable to write down properly right now,


  2. Hey Lorenzo. Thanks for reading and commenting. Looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts.

  3. Thanks, Joe, for capturing the thoughts of many of us in the Mourn But Celebrate His Life boat.

    I hope it's okay that I posted an excerpt on my Tumblr, and linked to your blog


    Jack (from wallace-i)