DFW: The Depth of a Bottomless Mind

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?

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6 thoughts on “DFW: The Depth of a Bottomless Mind

  1. “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.”
    You’re fucking smart, huh

    • Your comment lacks a period. Just thought I would point that out as you comment on intelligence. Granted, this makes me a grammatical jerk… so be it.

  2. It’s so easy to postulate about an individual, especially an artist, but I don’t know how useful it is to understanding their work. I find it more distracting than anything. The fact that Wallace killed himself, and the fact that I know that about him, colors how I read his work. It’s bothersome, a nuisance. And it leads to sentences like:

    “He is so used to his own thoughts that he finds them trite before you get a chance to disagree. ”

    I don’t think that’s true at all. He doesn’t find his thoughts trite, he finds them difficult to express orally while dealing with an even larger-than-usual number of social niceties and thoughts. I see distraction more than boredom. He was simply more comfortable expressing complex ideas in written form instead of in oral interviews. Anyone who’s been interviewed can relate to that anxiety, and so I don’t think that taking an interview with the author and using it to color your interpretation of his work (or even his life) is useful in the least. You’re simply projecting your own insecurities on to another person.

    “Awareness IS pain. It IS helplessness. It IS torture”

    Finding a kindred spirit in a manic depressive who killed himself is indeed an uncomfortable place to be, don’t you think? Re-read “This is Water”. Do not be comforted; be disturbed.

    • “It’s so easy to postulate about an individual, especially an artist, but I don’t know how useful it is to understanding their work.”

      I don’t know how useful – or even feasible – it is understand art except by extrapolating my own experience of it. By drawing large and crude conclusions that I revisit, and polish – but never perfect – over time. I suspect this is what everyone does anyway, regardless of their pedigree (and regardless of the vocabulary they use to keep you from finding out).

      I’ll say it: My pontification is undisciplined, arrogant and woefully self-interested. Call me shameless, but that doesn’t bother me in the least. Accuracy isn’t something that concerns me. People get obsessive about coming asymptotically close to some definitive, empirically “correct” interpretation. I won’t tell those people that it’s meaningless (who am I to decide what generates meaning in someone else’s life?), but I don’t think their clinical approach produces any more accuracy than my undisciplined experience.

      So how “useful” is my postulation to understanding DFW’s work? Empirically, I don’t know (and don’t care). Personally, very. It helps me understand his work in the way that I, at this point in my life, want to understand his work. I’ll take it!

      “You’re simply projecting your own insecurities on to another person.”

      Oh, I hope so.

      “I don’t think that’s true at all.”

      Nah, I’m not going to pit my interpretation against yours. We’re both projecting, even if you think you’ve stumbled across the capital-A Accurate interpretation. Also,

      “Anyone who’s been interviewed can relate to that anxiety.”

      And here it is. Your entry point to understanding his state of mind. Your interpretation, based on what you can relate to (and have extrapolated as some larger truth). Welcome to Pontification Island – stay close to shore, and bring swim trunks.

      “Finding a kindred spirit in a manic depressive who killed himself is indeed an uncomfortable place to be, don’t you think?”

      Finding a kindred spirit at all is a pretty strange place to be. And sure, if you’re going to slap sloppy labels on him (as if facets of his existence define it entirely), then I’d be committing several faux pases by begging to differ. But I don’t think brilliance is too many degrees from agony, from illness. So if I am to admire and identify with DFW (at least with the writer I think he is), I would be remiss to pretend his best work has nothing to do with his worst demons. And while you find his complexity a nuisance, a distraction and bothersome, I find it…integral. I’m learning to live with cognitive dissonance.

      “Re-read ‘This is Water.’ Do not be comforted; be disturbed.”

      Why should I be either?

      • “Welcome to Pontification Island – stay close to shore, and bring swim trunks.”

        You can get cute, but you don’t get to tar me with the same brush. You’re using your own interpretation of an old interview to make sweeping claims about a man. I’m suggesting that there are simpler realities that seem far more likely regarding an accurate reading of a man in an interview (and considering how many unknown variables there are that we don’t know about when considering something as logistically complicated as an interview). To base your understanding of the man’s work off of your self-involved reading of an interview he gave is banal at best, truly troublesome at worst.

        At least you’re reading and thinking about an important author. That’s commendable, full stop. It’s just that so much of people’s writing about DFW does so little to actually investigate anything he had to say. Instead, you boil down to something totally useless:

        “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.”

        I mean, what the fuck are you even talking about? How is that statement connected to his work? If it is, show us how. If it isn’t, then its pointless, meandering nonsense, and you’re better off writing literally anything else.

        And nobody labeled anyone anything. He was diagnosed as a manic depressive, he was medicated for it. That’s not a label, that’s a fact. Just because there exists a romantic mythology of the “tortured artist” doesn’t mean you have to buy into it with silly sentiments like, “I don’t think brilliance is too many degrees from agony, from illness”.

        Furthermore, I do not find DFW’s “complexity a nuisance, a distraction and bothersome”. That’s a deliberate misreading of my statements, or you’re being obtuse. Either way, I find my knowledge of his fate and my personal feelings about his suicide bothersome to my understanding of his work. For instance, Ernest Hemingway very famously killed himself, but it wasn’t in my lifetime, and I had no relationship with Hemingway’s works before he killed himself. I knew David Foster Wallace’s works from before he took his life. I was anticipating his next novel intensely. So reading “Pale King” to me, is incredibly difficult, because DFW’s suicide hangs like a black pall over it.

        That pall colors his other work as well. It becomes nearly impossible to block out your own knowledge of what this man did, and I become personally embittered over how a man who saw so clearly and wrote about it so beautifully, could then succumb. As you can see, these thoughts quickly becomes overly-sentimental, distracting, and not very useful. I can read Hemingway and think critically. I can’t, really, (at least, not half as well as you need to be able to to really parse and digest Wallace’s fiction) when I’m reading DFW.

        So my distaste for your interpretive method, here, is not just borne out of avarice for navel-gazing self-obsession on the internet, but also because it’s the precise impulse that I struggle against when reading DFW.

      • As I consider several responses to your comment, it strikes me that every thought I have is the offspring of a single, driven desire to win this argument. And while that’s knee-jerk and default, it’s not really what I want to do with my time. It’s not really what I want to do with yours, either.

        What I will do is mull over the points you have made, which (I believe) you made in earnest. You are likely correct – when I revisit my own writing, I am often confronted with disingenuous, hollow and rudimentary ideas that I once (perplexingly) mistook for profundity. But achieving this kind of clarity will take time and much more humility than I can muster in the moment.

        I freely admit that I still find your tone presumptive and condescending, but perhaps time and reflection will refine my sense of what you’re trying to say. (And/or perhaps time and reflection will alter your thoughts too, dogmatically impossible as that may seem right now.) If this is an opportunity for me to reflect – to examine the authenticity and clarity of my ideas, to critically edit my assumptions, to scrub down the bullshit and find substance – then I should…will rise to the occasion.

        In any case, I’ll probably come back to this again. In the meantime, thanks.

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