Monday, September 15, 2008

R.I.P. D.F.W.

Novelist and teacher David Foster Wallace was found dead by hanging on Friday, September 14, 2008. He was 46.

The last time I wrote a literary obit on here was for Norman Mailer, and there one could speak of a long life, a long career, one felt one had grounds for summing up. In Wallace's case, such assessments seem somehow premature. Certainly, he accomplished enough to be notable, a challenge and an inspiration to many young writers. His two novels, The Broom of the System (1987) and Infinite Jest (1996) are funny, fascinating and, especially Jest, infuriating at times. Wallace possessed a mind unlike anyone who was currently writing, and his story collections and non-fiction feature writing have earned him many enthusiastic readers. Jest earned him a MacArthur "genius grant" in 1997, and he was, by reports, a beloved, admired, and engaging teacher at, first, Illinois State, and, until now, Pomona College. Wallace was a truly gifted and brilliant individual, but he also placed himself on "suicide watch" around the time his career began to take off and seems to have experienced extreme depression at times.

American letters has far too many notable suicides: Hart Crane, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter Thompson, to name only a few. Besides the sense of loss -- in terms of talent and presence -- that such deaths provoke, there is always a kind of wonder: how could such talent, such success, come to such an end? We ask this because we want to believe that talent is its own reward -- something to live for -- and that success brings other rewards worth living for. And we seem to sense that somehow, if such talented individuals choose to cash it in early, we, our society, has failed them, and that it also fails to show us what the problem is.

I'm certainly not one who favors "life at all costs," and I suppose I can imagine some sort of psychic blow or emotional loss that would condone a feeling of oblivion as the best solution. But Berryman, for one, who wrote poem after poem trying to understand his father's suicide, shows how we always come up short trying to fathom death as a deliberate act. Schopenhauer, Dostoevsky's Kirilov, Albert Camus notwithstanding, suicide, while it can have an intellectual purpose, even, perhaps, an existential challenge contained within it, always arrives as "giving up." Giving up belief in change, at least, if not belief in some higher purpose. But also belief in the other people who are a part of one's life. Suicide is, perhaps, personal, private, solitary, but, if so, it asserts that solitariness over every tangible tie to life. That, I think, is what makes suicide a challenge to those who live on. Though we know that our means to defeat death are limited and will, ultimately, fail for each one of us, we seem to think that only truly inevitable death is acceptable -- that accidents and suicides and other surprising forms of death, "could have been prevented." Maybe so. But maybe we can only take what the gifted give us, for as long as they give it, until "something" gives out.

David Foster Wallace was a writer who loved facts and figures, so here are a few, from "" (numbers are only for the U.S.):

1.3% of all deaths are from suicide.
On average, one suicide occurs every 17 minutes.
Suicide is the eighth leading cause of death for males.
73% of all suicide deaths are white males.
The suicide rate is highest in the western region of the U.S. and lowest in the northeastern region.
The suicide rate has decreased from the 1950-1980 rate of 13.2 to the present rate of about 11.

And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry, merry month of May,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
And who by avalanche, who by powder,
Who for his greed, who for his hunger,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who by grave assent, who by accident,
Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
Who by his lady's command, who by his own hand,
Who in mortal chains, who in power,
And who shall I say is calling?
--Leonard Cohen, "Who By Fire" (1974)

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