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September 25, 2008 - 11:08am



Suicides, especially the suicides of sensitive writers we love (Virginia Woolf, Randall Jarrell, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace), are a serious body blow. They anger and demoralize us. They make us brood.

Even if he'd left a tightly argued, thousand page suicide letter -- with endnotes -- we'd find what Wallace did mysterious, unaccountable.

Yet if suicide is a million miles away from our experience, it's also luridly intimate.

To be sure, most of us are so wedded to existence that we struggle, without a second thought, even under dire circumstances, to stay alive; yet when someone we know or know about commits suicide, the act can unearth a buried but rather extensive region of thought and feeling in us that has to do with the worth of existence.

One way we try to neutralize suicide's threat to our affirmations about life is to medicalize it, and modern psychology has given us all we could ask for along these lines, a pharmacopia of terms and treatments for what, in my suicidal grandmother's day, people called involutional melancholia. The fact that in many cases anti-depressants recharge depressives' batteries reassures us that brain chemistry, not philosophy, pertains. But in the case of Wallace, even shock therapy failed to spark him.

Like Wallace, my father - twenty-five years ago - hanged himself. His blood teemed with psychotropics.

We can continue to medicalize these outcomes. We can say modern science hasn't yet fully conquered depression. But even when we come up with a pill that keeps everyone away from nooses, the pull toward suicide on the part of so many people will continue to shake us.

A British writer, Julian Gough, argues that something about universities helped drive Wallace to suicide. UD wants to consider this argument:

"… [H]e was unplugged from electric, living America, by a life spent in the university system. His father was a professor of philosophy, his mother a professor of English. He majored in English and philosophy at Amherst, did an MFA in creative writing in Arizona, turned his English thesis into his first novel, studied philosophy at Harvard, got a job in the English department of Illinois State University, which he left to teach creative writing at Pomona College in California, where he died.

He was an immensely gifted and original writer, with a brilliant, hyper-analytical mind. The two things such people should avoid are marijuana and universities. He was aware of the dangers of the former (which was not just a threat to his prose—after his first novel he checked into rehab and asked to be put on suicide watch). But he couldn't escape the warm, welcoming trap of the latter. Only universities will give a job for life and full health insurance to a novelist with heavy-metal hair and a history of depression. He was, as ever, aware of the risk to his fiction. In a brilliant, painful television interview with Charlie Rose in 1997, he said, "Oh boy, don't even get me started on teaching… The more time and energy spent on teaching, which is extraordinarily hard to do well, the less time spent on your own work… I find myself saying this year the same thing I said last year, and it's a little bit horrifying." He looked like a trapped animal. He'd been teaching for four years. Eleven years later, still teaching creative writing, never having written another novel, he killed himself.

… A life in academia formed, deformed and almost ruined Wallace's writing. Infinite Jest is nearly a thousand pages of exhausting, inexhaustible, hugely flawed and brilliant novel. It is followed by almost a hundred pages of endnotes (his editor made him cut as many again). The endnotes have footnotes. Wallace was, on one level, aware that he was cut off from ordinary America, but the knowledge put his prose into a hyper-analytic death spiral. Like so many academics, he became obsessed with the white whale (or pink elephant) of the authentic. He spent much of his time attacking forms of language of which he disapproved (pharmaceutical jargon, advertising, corporate PR). This was literary criticism disguised as literature—grenade attacks on a theme park.

Wallace was not alone in this; it happens to most American academic novelists (like the superbly gifted writer George Saunders who, at 49, has still never written a novel or left school.) They waste time on America's debased, overwhelming, industrial pop culture. They attack it with an energy appropriate to attacking fascism, or communism, or death. But that culture (bad television, movies, ads, pop songs) is a snivelling, ingratiating, billion-dollar cur. It has to be chosen to be consumed, so it flashes its tits, laughs at your jokes, replays your prejudices and smiles smiles smiles. It isn't worthy of satire, because it cannot use force to oppress. If it has an off-button, it is not oppression. Attacking it is unworthy, meaningless. It is like beating up prostitutes.

But under all that froth, that energy wasted attacking confectionery ads, lies the true, hard core of Wallace's work: its engagement with depression, addiction and death. Infinite Jest contains the most accurate and moving descriptions of clinical depression in modern literature. Read now, the Kate Gompert chapters provide a mature, gentle explanation of Wallace's own death. And they forgive us, his wife, his parents, his friends: we weren't to blame. They are noble pages. As Thomas Pynchon has said: "When we speak of 'seriousness' in fiction, ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death." It is a tribute to modern America that this is so. Modern America beat fascism and it beat communism. Death is the last oppressor left standing in America…"


The real shock therapy Wallace needed, in other words, was to get the hell off campus. The university, with its obsessive reflection upon authentic and inauthentic modes of existence, put his hyper-analytical mind into a philosophical death spiral. His art and life crashed because he fixated on the wrong things... the sort of things that academics fixate on. He over-intellectualized, and he wasted time dreaming of an authentic life when he should have been living among and writing about people experiencing actual lives.

Although Gough doesn't offer examples of the sort of literary artists he has in mind, UD figures he means someone like Tom Wolfe, with his out there, fully connected, electric acid America... In a way, Gough's argument goes back to the sort of thing critics like Georg Lukacs, a Marxist, were saying in the 'thirties and 'forties when they attacked modernists like Kafka and Beckett: An art of surreal depressive nattering fails to engage with the realities of human lives; it also -- like suicide itself -- undermines our will to live, and our faith in our ability to improve the world.

Yet Gough doesn't really consider the connections between America's debased culture and suicidal tendencies. Nor does he include in his description of that culture what Wallace was really talking about - not so much the lowest of elements of popular culture (moronic tv, etc.) as higher-level, therapeutic culture - the culture into which, as the son of university professors, he was born. This culture can indeed be, as cultural critics like Christopher Lasch made clear, an enervating, disconnected form of life. And of course the university might be considered the epitome of the tendency. But this life is just as real, in its contours and effects, as the middle-class Rabbit Angstrom's life in the work of John Updike.

In a limited sense, though, Gough may be right: If your subject is the dangerous-trance-inducing unreality of affluent, pleasant, postmodern America, you might want to avoid full-time immersion in the particularly narcotic undertow (the phrase is Don DeLillo's) of the university.


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