Monday, September 15, 2008

D.F. Wallace - RIP

On Friday night, a terrible thing happened. David Foster Wallace, Professor of Creative Writing at Pomona College and a flatly brilliant writer, committed suicide. His wife came home to find him dead, which is awful.

I met Professor Wallace once, which, I suppose is the sort of thing you mention in unsolicited eulogies. He was being considered for a position at Pomona College (vice versa, really). As an exercise, he asked us to offer a three page critique of short stories written by other students in the department.

To my surprise he commented on my critique. In blue ink. Complete with smiley faces, the perfunctory kind with two vertical dashes for eyes and a broad ellipses connoting the mouth. From a writer whose name has become synonymous with dystopia, not to mention verbosity (Google "Infinite Jest"... It's length is noted in every single review), I found it curiously empowering. I hadn't prompted a smiley from a teacher since high school.

But Wallace was a fierce antagonist to the profligation of irony in creative media, or, at least, to the ironic affectation that allows us to ignore central truths. He took the business of teaching seriously, having remarked on each of the dozen or so critiques individually. Nothing says "I agree" like a smiley, so he used a smiley.

In a manner of speaking, then, he wasn't verbose at all. Rather, he observed much. His political essay from aboard McCain's Straight-Talk Express (2000 edition), which burst the seams of Rolling Stone magazine, is spectacular in its array of detail. No element of the political campaign escaped his eye. His essay (which played no small role in fomenting my enthusiasm for the candidate) may be the best political piece ever written.

And so, Wallace didn't have to take the time to comment on my typo-ridden little critique. When little colleges have the opportunity to hire great authors, they leap at the opportunity, create special endowments and setup contigency plans for the throng of students certain to seek enrollment in said author's courses, but who cannot be accommodated due to space issues and general considerations related to desirable class size for a small liberal arts school of 1,500 or so.

In short, Wallace was not a jerk. And so his decision to kill himself is troubling.

Committing suicide is a selfish decision, and Wallace (by all accounts) would have agreed with this sentiment. Scanning the myriad obits from authors and friends, each takes care to point to the innate morality of his work.

Suicide is the elimination of everything you represent to the thousands (or millions) of people. It is a bold trespass, not only against the self, but against everyone, or some similar sentiment. From a self-indulgent person, suicide is unsurprising.

For a man to fully understand the calculus at play, to go through the process of preparing a noose, leveraging the proper dimensions to ensure success of the act, knowing when and, more importantly, by whom, he would be discovered...

It is as sad as it is terrifying. A man of remarkable observance, who was acutely, extravagantly aware of decisions and their consequences, who marked pages with unironic smiley-faces and who was authentic and sincere in writing and in person, is now dead of his own doing.

A jest. Infinite indeed.

David Foster Wallce (1962-2008)

Rest in Peace

P.S. Pomona President David Oxtoby's letter is worth reading...

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Blogger Jerad said...

On the selfishness of suicide, and the person who suicides having completely thought through the process: Suicide is often the result of mental illness. Another great author, William Styron, wrote about his own experiences with painful depression in "Darkness Visible." See what he says about the complete self-awareness involved in his 1985 attempt.

For people whose minds work normally, suicide can be a self-centered or self-involved act. More often, however, suicide is the end result of untreated, or insufficiently treated mental illness.

This is not to say medication would have saved his life, but particularly when grappling with the dissonance you face, contrasting what you experienced of DFW with what you've heard in the news, the surviving friends and relatives of other people who have attempted suicide shake their heads knowingly at the familiar paradox of the person when he is well and the person when he succumbs.

For many who attempt suicide, the action is the result of a biological brain disorder, not an innate character flaw.

12:14 PM  

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