Tuesday, May 19, 2009

David Foster Wallace

A couple weeks ago, my friend Brian wrote a short post at The Fiction Advocate in response to David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College (now published as This is Water). I've been thinking a lot about Wallace lately, probably more than is healthy, and I intend to post more later, but for now, I'm going to stick to countering several points in Brian's argument.

According to Brian, the thought processes that made Wallace's life so hellish were also those that made his writing great. On this much, we agree. Wallace's great talent was being able to make sense of a great deal of chaos. On a basic level, all narratives are about ordering facts and creating meaning, and no one needs narrative and meaning more than a depressive.

The general thrust of Wallace's Kenyon speech is that it's crucial and yet very difficult to stay fully attentive to the world around you. This has been a theme in much of Wallace's writing, though the distractions are often externalized. Wallace was very interested the way individuals filter through the barrage of often conflicting messages delivered through various media, an experience he tried to recreate in his writing through his liberal use of endnotes, footnotes, digressions, and asides. The Kenyon speech, however, is concerned specifically with the problem of getting lost in one's own thoughts and losing track of what's occurring in reality. This is also a feature of Wallace's writing, one that takes the forefront in his essays and many of his short stories, but it's clear that in the Kenyon speech Wallace is speaking more candidly than in much of his other writing if for no other reason than that he directly addresses one of the most common criticism lodged against Wallace's work.

Where I perceive candor, however, Brian sees "someone who's been exposed to too much clinical therapy and prescription drugs." My problem with Brian's assertion is, first, that it misconstrues the main point of the the speech and, second, that it seems emblematic of a certain knee-jerk disdain for modern psychiatry that both glorifies and oversimplifies depression.

As Brian sees it, the speech employs "psychotherapy jargon" to "implor[e] the graduating class to regulate their lives to the point of normalcy." Here's the passage he cites:

Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education—at least in my own case—is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

That sounds vaguely academic, but it's hardly full of psychological argot. Moreover, the point isn't to regulate one's life but to simply pay attention and try not to be a self-absorbed asshole. Sure, self-absorption is a problem that depressives struggle with more than most, but the tendency to get lost in one's own world to the exclusion of other people is natural and plagues everyone. It's as universal a theme as you'll find anywhere in his work.

The issue I take greater umbrage with is the claim that Wallace had undergone "too much" treatment for his clinical depression. While it may be arguable that Wallace could have been better served by different treatment, had he not received treatment at all, he'd have died much earlier. What the D.T. Max's profile in the New Yorker makes clear is that neither Wallace nor his wife and family believed his treatment was the problem. His widow, Karen Green put it bluntly: "The person who would go off the medications that were possibly keeping him alive was not the person he liked."

Toward the end, of course, Wallace, did choose to go off medication. He had been struggling with writer's block for a long time, and if the naysayers of therapy had been right, he'd have begun working on a new opus. Instead, it exacerbated his paralysis. David Foster Wallace penned his last words in a private letter to his wife on September 12, 2008, and while there may still be writing to be found in his personal records, there certainly won't be anything new. He finally got lost in his own head for good.

The Kenyon speech's main theme is that one should try, against all obstacles to avoid too much indulgent and abstract navel-gazing. It's a very simple, even common idea, but it's important. That Wallace struggled to extract himself from the labyrinth of his own mind is not lost on me, but the struggle itself wasn't what made his writing great. Rather, it was his frequent triumph. Had he merely succumbed to it, he'd have never written a word. That Wallace was capable of talking opening about the difficulty of trying in the most basic way to be good—that is, by simply paying attention to other people and the world around you—without resorting to platitudes nor skirting the complexity of the problem is miraculous. The result is a sort of secular homily for our age. That it's central theme can be dismissed out of hand seems like a great shame.


Brian Hurley said...

When you put it like that, yeah, I'm an asshole. Who am I to say how much clinical treatment a total stranger should have?

I still need someone to explain to me the extent to which DFW's style of maximalism can be described as navel-gazing, and how that relates to his admonition to these kids to STOP navel-gazing. Was his work meant to be kind of a cautionary tale? But I guess you're saying his work EXPLORED the idea of engagement or non-engagement with the world, and I'm trying to make distinctions that simply aren't there.

Matt said...

Dude, this is something I'm a bit peevish about, but you're not an asshole. Still, I worry about the idea that getting treatment for a serious mental disorder will stifle one's creativity. I worry about this both on a personal level and in the sense that it's probably irresponsible to tell people that they're better off being sick. (More about that later.)

In any case, I think the navel-gazing quality of Wallace's writing is clearest in his nonfiction, though some of his short stories have this as well. (They're also a bit maddening because reading them feels like being trapped in some else's skull.) But I don't think he's telling them to stop thinking or navel-gazing or whatever. I think the key word in the passage you quote (and I quote you quoting) is "over-intellectualize." The point, as I read it, is to not let your interior monologue become an endless argument with yourself or to let your thought process become so academic as to have no practical or social person. And also, don't yell at the person who jostled you trying to get on the train because, really, you don't know what's going on in her life or in her head, and perhaps she has a really good reason for being in such a hurry.

Brian Hurley said...

The last sentence of your comment sounds like exactly what Carolyn is talking about lately with the Buddhist and Hindu books she's reading.

Matt said...

Just as a point of clarification, "or social person" should read "or social purpose."