As I watch this, I can understand how existing might be so difficult for David Foster Wallace. How hard it must be to strive for truth in every word, to berate what he sees as his own platitudes the moment they form in his mind (and far before they escape his lips). He is bored with himself even as you ponder his unusual and singular profundity. He is so used to his own thoughts that he finds them trite before you get a chance to disagree. (You can see that he speaks in footnotes for maintext that has barely grazed the page.)
I suppose many will say he’s perceptive, which he is. But more than anything, I think he’s viscerally aware. And because we trade bliss for authenticity, I imagine he must have been in pain, all the time.
At least once a year, I revisit “This is Water,” Wallace’s commencement speech delivered to Kenyon College graduates in 2005. It never ceases to teach me something new, to make me hurt just a bit more every time.
I think a lot about what it means to be profound, and to enjoy the depth of a bottomless mind. And I use the word “enjoy” loosely, because I doubt that it’s enjoyable. Not even the bragging rights that come with brilliance do much to temper the sting of always being confronted by emblems of human emptiness, by episodes of one’s own fraudulence. If your life’s work is about piercing through thick slabs of bullshit, you won’t come out on the other side with any love or joy for what you find. It is remarkably painful to see things and people for what they actually are, and to realize that even though you don’t belong (no one does, really), you’ve been adopted by these repulsive platitudes. And it’s probably too late to emancipate.
Posterity demands that we remember DFW as a depressed man who was able to squeeze out brilliant writing in spite of his illness. I would argue that to be as viscerally aware as he is means to be in pain, and to be tortured, all the time. Awareness IS pain. It IS helplessness. It IS torture. And so it isn’t that he was brilliant despite his depression, but that he could never be brilliant without sacrificing his inner tranquility.*
But people have trouble with cognitive dissonance. Depression, mania, borderline personality – these are negative, ugly, funky things to be done away with at one’s earliest convenience. How can it be that a man is brilliant BECAUSE OF his depression (or depressed BECAUSE OF his brilliance)? To acknowledge that they are mutually inclusive is to be met with the possibility that chaotic emotional sensitivity can be both gift and curse. And even though the entire existence of society is to contradict itself, society does not allow contradictions to exist in the way it frames (limits, oppresses) human experience.
So, for all intents and purposes, DFW is “reflective” when he’s well, and “depressed” when he’s not. As if he was anything other than the same man and the same mind all along.
*Nor without sacrificing companionship. Awareness is a solitary affair (which makes it sound much more dignified / stylish than it actually is). For every slab of bullshit you uncover, you lose a friend. You see it in their unfocused eyes, in the stealth stabbing jut of their chin that tells you either A) you’ve crossed a line by calling them out (or by calling out a hypocrisy that implicates them, or by being self-reflective to a degree that they mistake for low self-esteem rather than raw authenticity – in any case, by being too honest), or B) they’re just too tired to follow you down another level of introspection. No one really wants to journey to the center of the earth, to the core of their own being. It’s a nice thought – a pleasant cliche – but in practice, that kind of awareness will swallow you whole. And so the more you see, the more you understand about other people, the less they understand you. No one wants to be read like an open book, particularly if they’ve done everything in their power to keep it closed, even to themselves.
There’s an etiquette to intellect, you see. Once you dig past the fifth layer people label you a show-off, a self-indulgent fraud. And then if you’re brave enough to dig past that, well. Then you’re just clinically batshit. Either way, there’s a point at which society no longer appreciates your awareness. The trick is to keep your profundity digestible, non-threatening. It’s all about being cute.
Ah, what would a DFW post be without footnotes?