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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Freedom? David Foster Wallace 1962-2008

David Foster Wallace 1962-2008

Writer DFW was found dead September 12 at age 46. He wrote what some have called one of the best 100 books of American fiction at age 33: Infinite Jest. I haven't read it. I haven't read anything of his, except some quotes. But his death is a sting anyway. I was impressed with his thoughts, some of which I've copied below. Strangely, he spoke of suicide in this commencement address, which makes me wonder if that is something he always struggled with. Friday his wife found him in their home where he'd hung himself. Today's NYT appraisal here.

DFW said this in a 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College:

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too. . . .

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Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real. . . .

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This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. . . .

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And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible -- sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. . . .

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That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting. . . .

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The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.


24 comments:

Loring Wirbel said...

You loved him too, huh? Just learned this from Dan Sunday evening, haven't felt this bad since Dave Carter had a heart attack jogging in 2002.

Sharon said...

Peace to you David Foster Wallace. May you fly with the angels and be full in your journey through the infinite.

gaz said...

it's always extremely sad when someone gets to a point when they are so low they can take their own life.

Rauf said...

Never heard of him Ruth, and i am very reluctant to google him.
All living organisms are programmed to defend themselves and survive.

Ruth said...

Loring, I barely knew about him, saw his name for years, heard about his influence on people like my friend Tom Bissell. But his story grabbed my heart yesterday, and I began reading about him. I'm an ill read person, Loring, very ill read. I am working on rectifying that.

Ruth said...

Sharon, I don't know what brought him to this, maybe more will come out.

Ruth said...

Gaz, from what I've read, Wallace was extremely introspective. It is so difficult to live with the world as it is and resolve the hurt.

Ruth said...

rauf, I don't know quite what you mean about your reluctance to google him.

It was strange yesterday when I read this news about his death, as if I already knew him well, and this was not a surprise, I was expecting it somehow. I don't know what I mean. I just felt it.

Do any animals commit suicide, rauf? I seem to remember hearing about it, even depression among animals.

Rauf said...

i am not sure Ruth, some whales do.
quite puzzling for the scientists.

i could have taken such extreme step long time ago Ruth when i realised the world is not going they way i wish to be.
It will not.
i have to change myself, make compromises, adjustments specially if you live in chaotic conditions like India.
i have my own style of truth. i will not say my ' brand ' of truth for i don't like to be branded.
Life cannot be confined to a definition.
i feel that i am not making efferts to be accepted by the world, by the society. i have always moved towards alienation which brought misery to me. You know about my recent depression. i was refusing to accept changes imposed on me. i had to change. That brought some relief to me and to my friends. My happiness lies in the fact that i am not too sure that i am right. That makes me enjoy the beauty that life has to offer. If i am sure that i am right and go about cribbing always, one day i will take my own life. A man who thinks that he is always right doesn't enjoy life Ruth.

Then one day you hear some good news. Oh ! This is the world i want and it is happening. Good. The Church of England has finally decided to tender an apology to Darwin. Indirectly accepting the theory of natural selection. But will it help ? People still would stick to their beliefs. The Vatican finally accepting in 1992 that the world is round and it goes around the sun hardly had any effect. They literally accepted defeat. Once Darwin is accepted, you have to delete Genesis from the Bible. When the foundation is lost would the building collapse ?
No, the world would still be the same.

Loring Wirbel said...

Rauf, I understand exactly what you're saying. Ninety percent of the time I am disturbed by the vanity of suicide, particularly with a world where there is so much magic in every flower bud.

But I'm sympathetic to where Wallace was, because there is a 10 percent darkness in me that took me close to where he was. I almost made attempts in the last few years. Right now, I'm on small daily doses of Zoloft to keep the darkness in a small locked room. I used to make jokes about "Prozac nation," and rant and rave like Tom Cruise about over-prescription of SSRI anti-depressants, but after exploring the dark room a couple times, I realize that the 21st-century world is asking too much of damaged people, and most of those on Paxil or Prozac or Lexapro or Zoloft probably really need it. Are they crutches? Have we lost our toughness? If Zoloft keeps me from the Wallace space, I don't care.

And Ruth, you do indeed want to start with Infinite Jest, if its thousand-page size doesn't intimidate. It's one of those huge swirling complex masterpieces like Gravity's Rainbow or Terra Nostra.

Ruth said...

rauf, at risk of sounding like I think you are spouting Buddhist platitudes, I think you are saying you don't want to be attached to outcomes. I know you don't follow religion or philosophies, this comes from within you, from your own experiences.

It struck me that Wallace said the things he did, and ultimately he couldn't live with something - with himself, with the world, I don't know. He sounded like he understand some basic things, about how complex it is to see the world through our individual eyes. He sounded like someone who could adjust.

But we are so fragile, and one person's victory over the temptation to end the struggle is just out of reach of another.

I've learned a lot from you, rauf. And almost every day, if I feel myself resisting something, I hear a little voice, "I am an Indian, I adjust," that my brother rauf has said to me so many times.

Ruth said...

Loring, isn't it interesting that in this commencement address DFW used the word 'sacrifice' in caring for people. That's the first thing I thought when I read of his suicide, that it is ultimately a selfish act.

But that is far too simple and simplistic an assessment of suicide. I think it is ludicrous for anyone to stand in judgment of suicide who has not wrestled with depression, as you and rauf have. I appreciate your openness, and his, because I am certain far more people face that pain than admit it, and it might help someone.

I'm so grateful Zoloft keeps you in a safe place, away from the Wallace space.

I wondered about starting with Infinite jest after reading about its length and meanderings. But if his prose is as rich as they say, it might be a worthwhile chasm to fall into.

Rauf said...

Loring quite true, there are various reasons, some physical some mental, some external. Sylvia Plath was wholly internal, she couldn't endure the pain, brilliant though she was. You seemed to handle it quite admirably Loring. Van Gogh was both internal and external. He endured the agony but at the same time he didn't want to be a burdon on his loving brother Theo. Loss of his brother had a disasterous impact on Theo who got married a few months before, i am not sure. Theo died six months later, his brother's death ate him.

Ruth, The pressure and high expectations from parents drive students to commit suicide. They expect their children to be tough and compete and succeed. Its not easy for them to tell the parents, its ok i give up, i don't want to be in the race. These are external factors which we can handle. Just a shift in attitude. But this slight shift is like moving a mountain for some. They crack under pressure.

A couple of years ago my friend's son committed suicide Ruth. Very religious parents, very loving, and very rich, no pressure from them, he was studying in Australia. He added pressure on himself and couldn't handle it.

Bob Johnson said...

Wow, what a talent from reading his words, very profound, too bad he couldn't live any longer, makes you wonder what his thought processes where leading up to this tragedy.

Ruth said...

Oh rauf, what makes a boy like that end his life? It's all in our mind, how we see the world, ourselves. It's so complicated.

Ruth said...

Bob, so many brilliant minds, brilliant artists, ended their lives early. Others who died of disease young, like Keats. It almost seems that sometimes the cup is too full and says 'no more, this is enough.'

denise said...

Many artists walk the line between light and dark. Some of them slip off.

We will miss him.

Ginnie said...

I was suicidal for 9 months once, Ruth, and probably should have been on one of those medications that Loring mentioned. I did all kinds of research and one of the things I read often is that it is one of the most selfish acts we can commit. When I read that, I always wanted to add, but it's also the least of all the evils! That's what I felt. Bill's cousin recently stepped in front of a train to end his life. He had been on medication for years and was in unbearable depression. I think his suicide was a release for everyone, though dreadfully shocking and painful. It does intrigue me that so many of our brightest, most gifted and complicated artists take their lives. I'm surprised David, the Psalmist, didn't take his. I think he wanted to. In the end, maybe we're only starting to understand what suicide is all about. The Catholic Church has perhaps kept us from pursuing it sooner than we could have, to get more to the bottom of it. I don't know. We've been so brain-washed about so many things and then find out later they are totally "natural." I ponder these things in my heart....

Ruth said...

Denise, even though I have not been seriously tempted to end my life, I can understand the pain.

Ruth said...

Boots, you make some astonishingly good and poignant points. Yes, maybe selfish from one perspective, but sometimes it must just become too hard to keep negotiating it all. I'm so sorry about Bill's cousin, and yes, also I can see how it would be a relief for everyone not to face the tightrope with him day after day. And that also is a selfish thought I suppose. I had never once thought about David in this regard! Oh you must be right that he wanted to end things out of despair many times. I remember being very thankful that he was honest in his words about his despair, otherwise, where would we be with our own? Yet, the Church still managed to deny this aspect, for me anyway, of Life.

Ginnie said...

When we contemplate suicide but instead choose to live and "face the music" (if we're strong enough to do it and not in severe depression), I think we become stronger people for the next time we are hit with our human frailty. At least that's my own experience. I am discovering about myself that I do NOT want to be human. I want to always be perfect...SUPER human! Where does that come from...the Church? But it's impossible to be superhuman, whether I like it or not. Astrid is so much more in touch with this than I am and is teaching me to LET myself be human. It's a very humbling experience right now and brings tears to my eyes. I'm 63, for God's sake. Why did it take so long????

Ruth said...

At last I've let go of perfection, what a relief. It was not ok to fail in our home, whether that was an outcome of church, I don't know. It can take a lifetime to shed.

mystic rose said...

VERY Intorpsective, the whole speech. Not everyone can do it or even take this honesty.

Ruth said...

I was very impressed with everything he said, and in such an earthy, honest way.