“I don’t really know what the interior of anybody else is like – I often feel very fragmented, and as if I have a symphony of different voices, and voice overs, and factoids, going on all the time, and digressions on digressions…” David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace was always Meta-thinking – thinking about thinking. He could be very insightful, and engaging, and interesting, and yet also get lost in recursions and riddles of semantics, and in puzzles of grammar.
He lived inside his head.
He would talk about the “special sort of buzz” logic gave him, how often “a gorgeously simple solution to a problem you suddenly see, after half a notebook with gnarly attempted solutions, you about hear a click“.
Boredom was terrifying. He would suffer severe writer’s block. He had this ever present, oppressive mental feeling of something not right, that he wasn’t really, somehow. . . him. . . a menacing, unconnected feeling inside.
Being a person felt like being a ghost.
Substance use gave him great RELIEF. Intoxication helped him feel whole. He became addicted with a natural ease.
At a Kenyon College commencement, speaking to a literary audience of avid readers and writers, he tried to warn them about the dangers of the mental life: be careful! mentation isn’t all it is cracked up to be! you can be a fish swimming in water, and not know what water is. Stay grounded in simple truths. Somehow they are really true.
” The word despair is overused and banalized now but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. It’s close to what people call dread or angst, but it’s not these things, quite it’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable sadness of knowing I’m small and selfish and going, without a doubt, to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.”
Julian Jaynes famously noted that the mind of Achilles, in the Iliad – a mind solely and completely in the present – is very different from the mind of Odysseus in the Odyssey – a mind scheming to manipulate appearance and orchestrate the future. Sometime in antiquity, the human mind changed. It may have been writing, and the emergence of the reading mind. With reading, we grow the power of imagined experience. With some, like David Foster Wallace, it can go too far, it can be too much.
In his writing, his characters are not centered, his plots are disjointed. There is lack of structure, with endless digression and foot notes. His writing is more psychiatric exposition than literature. He does convey for us his lost, unmoored, painful experience of being. That is his sad contribution.
“He waited two more days for an opportunity. In the early evening on Friday, September 12, Wallace suggested that his wife go out to prepare for an opening…After she left, he went into the garage and turned on the lights. He wrote her a two page note. Then he crossed through the house to the patio, where he climbed onto a chair and hanged himself.”