Infinity of Jest, Finitude of Grace

A major part of growing up is coming to terms with the fallibility of our heroes. Okay, make it “gradual erosion of faith in our heroes” or “being almost free from the belief in heroes”. The same heroes, or rather, the same faith in the existence of heroes, that was our ladder to adulthood, that sometimes we want to cling to, rather desperately. However, as we start seeing more and more shades of gray, the photographs of heroes in our attic start seeming gradually lackluster. And yet, curiously, even ironically, more real. As if, finally, we have access to the third dimension which, hundreds of two-dimensional projections were a poor substitute for.

Still, we’re never really free of belief in heroes, because, in a world ruled by chance and chaos, we need that straw to keep afloat. And so, when someone else tries to cut down our heroes to a size too small for a pedestal, we instinctively cringe; or — get angry, or combative, or even, dismissive.

David Foster Wallace (DFW), one of the best-known American novelists of our era, killed himself in the month of September, nine years back, a day after the date that no American will easily forget, two days after the World Suicide Prevention day, ironically. With DFW, one is never sure if the connections are tenuous or real. And I get a feeling, that’s exactly how he would have wanted it. Being sure would have defeated the purpose.

In last two decades, as I’ve struggled to make progress on my personal, non-professional, ambition of being a writer (or wanting to be a writer, to be precise), there are a few writers (and I’m really talking about fiction writers) I have looked up to. Umberto Eco, for instance, or Amitav Ghosh, Arthur Koestler, Orhan Pamuk, Hermann Hesse, Zadie Smith, Kamila Shamsie. The list is long, and not exhaustive. But if there is one writer who I’d have liked to be, one writer I’d have liked to write like (not exactly same, obviously, but you know what I mean), it’s got to be DFW.

I say this based, not just on his masterpiece Infinite Jest, but also his debut book, Broom of the System, or his unfinished symphony, Pale King, tied up into some semblance of a novel by his longtime editor and friend Michael Pietsch, and his Interviews with Hideous Men, and other short-story collections; I’ve read every word of Wallace with adulation. And especially with Pale King, I’ve cried thinking of DFW writing that, while feeling inadequate as a writer, and a human being, and killing himself, denying us all a lot more he could have produced, with his abundant talents, but above all, denying himself all those years of unlived life.

And so, when I read his longtime friend and competitor Jonathan Franzen’s piece “Farther Away” (from his eponymous collection of essays), dealing with, among many things, the death of David Foster Wallace, my reaction was almost visceral. In a sense, because, on some level, Franzen was right (if not on many levels, after all, he knew Wallace, I just read him). Especially when he says:

The people who knew David least well are most likely to speak of him in saintly terms.

And I got to know about that more when I recently read DFW’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. It talked of a Wallace that one would have a hard time imagining just reading his fiction — because that kind of understanding, that level of pathos, that kind of empathy, as exemplified by his writings seems incongruous with some of the aspects of his personality, especially the (lack of ?) personality ethic. Then again, it’s always a possibility. Growing up has taught us as much, if nothing more.

Still, Franzen’s writing about his self-confessed friend seems devoid of grace.

A bit of context is due for those who do not know the background. Jonathan Franzen and DFW shared a borderline healthy (or unhealthy, as you see fit) rivalry as writers. With Infinite Jest, DFW seemed to have pulled ahead into a territory that’s reserved for a few. Much of what Franzen writes about DFW seems to be weighed down by that enormity — and it’s almost like Franzen is angry with DFW because he basically cheated Franzen of a chance to prove he could beat DFW to it and more.

*

Franzen makes no efforts to hide his anger at DFW for killing himself in a hideous way:

At the time, I’d made a decision not to deal with the hideous suicide of someone I’d loved so much but instead to take refuge in anger and work. Now that the work was done, though, it was harder to ignore the circumstance that, arguably, in one interpretation of his suicide, David had died of boredom and in despair about his future novels. The desperate edge to my own recent boredom: might this be related to my having broken a promise to myself? The promise that, after I’d finished my book project, I would allow myself to feel more than fleeting grief and enduring anger at David’s death?

Strangely, though, this seems to be the only way in which Franzen seems to relate to DFW’s suicide — this being the only sympathetic interpretation in the article. Thus, subconsciously, elevating himself to DFW’s level — a boredom of the Titans.

That just sets a tone for a piece, that for every other distraction in it, is basically about DFW — and Franzen’s getaway to reflect on the relationship, in its glorious contradictions. But what is shocking, for a close friend of someone who’s grappled with depression all his adult life, and a very perceptive writer, to have almost completely ignored the elephant in the room.

In the summer before he died, sitting with him on his patio while he smoked cigarettes, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the hummingbirds around his house and was saddened that he could, and while he was taking his heavily medicated afternoon naps I was studying the birds of Ecuador for an upcoming trip, and I understood the difference between his unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not. (emphasis mine).

The joy of birds? Really? And this, while he starts the paragraph with “he loved his dogs more purely than he loved anything or anyone else”. How can a friend miss the forest for the trees?

This is where it starts making sense, though:

The depressed person then killed himself, in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed. Betrayed not merely by the failure of our investment of love but by the way in which his suicide took the person away from us and made him into a very public legend.

A cursory google search will give you some interesting figures (link):

  • In 2015 (latest available data), there were 44,193 reported suicide deaths.
  • Currently, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
  • A person dies by suicide about every 11.9 minutes in the United States.
  • Every day, approximately 121 Americans take their own life.
  • Ninety percent of all people who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.

David Foster Wallace may have been a genius. But he was a part of those statistics. Just one in many. What’s more, there is a strong link between creativity and mental disorders, as discussed by Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene.

“We of the craft are all crazy,” Lord Byron, the high priest of crazies, wrote. “Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.” Versions of this story have been told, over and over, with bipolar disorder, with some variants of schizophrenia, and with rare cases of autism; all are “more or less touched.” It is tempting to romanticize psychotic illness, so let me emphasize that the men and women with these mental disorders experience paralyzing cognitive, social, and psychological disturbances that send gashes of devastation through their lives. [SNIP]

In Touched with Fire, an authoritative study of the link between madness and creativity, the psychologist-writer Kay Redfield Jamison compiled a list of those “more or less touched” that reads like the Who’s Who of cultural and artistic achievers: Byron (of course), van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Jack Kerouac—and on and on. That list can be extended to include scientists (Isaac Newton, John Nash), musicians (Mozart, Beethoven), and an entertainer who built an entire genre out of mania before succumbing to depression and suicide (Robin Williams). Hans Asperger, one of the psychologists who first described children with autism, called them “little professors” for good reason. Withdrawn, socially awkward, or even language-impaired children, barely functional in one “normal” world, might produce the most ethereal version of Satie’s Gymnopédies on the piano or calculate the factorial of eighteen in seven seconds.

In the years that I’ve read more and more about DFW, I’ve asked myself this: “would I be willing to host his demons, if that were the precondition of being the kind of artist that he was?” The answer is a rather quick and an emphatic NO. We lesser mortals, the statistically normal humans, are blessed with a missing bone. We wouldn’t know what to do with the demons. It’s not a kind of price one chooses to pay. It’s what one pays because there is no choice.

Later in the piece, Franzen tries to be more charitable:

That he was blocked with his work when he decided to quit Nardil—was bored with his old tricks and unable to muster enough excitement about his new novel to find a way forward with it—is not inconsequential.

Fiction was his way off the island, and as long as it was working for him—as long as he’d been able to pour his love and passion into preparing his lonely dispatches, and as long as these dispatches were coming as urgent and fresh and honest news to the mainland—he’d achieved a measure of happiness and hope for himself. When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death. If boredom is the soil in which the seeds of addiction sprout, and if the phenomenology and the teleology of suicidality are the same as those of addiction, it seems fair to say that David died of boredom.

But here again, even at his charitable best, Franzen cannot accept DFW as just one in those thousands, who kill themselves, unable to cope with chronic depression. Occam’s razor asks us to pick the simplest explanation. Franzen, on the other hand, comes up with a twisted logic of “phenomenology and teleology of suicidality (sic) being same …” He wants to be fair, to his friend and competitor. But what is fair about dissecting a dead person who cannot question anything, even the reason (or unreason) he chose to be dead over being alive. Franzen, one suspects, would have taken the deal, demons and angels together, if it were on table, but is angry that it’s not on the table.

It’s this tone deafness of the article, even when he has access to the big picture from a close distance, that has kept me from reading Franzen’s fiction all these days since I read this piece for the first time. I know that’s not a right response. And that I’m doing a Franzen here, trying to read a betrayal in a survival strategy. Maybe, I lack the grace too.

It’s probably unfair to expect authors to be better than us in empathizing with others — yes, even those authors whose writing seems to overflow with empathy. Because, writing, above all, is a self-serving exercise. But, it does seem rather strange, that someone who understands motives and motifs, can open themselves to a charge like that, by being so transparent (if they were actually — daft otherwise). And yet, it takes a kind of courage to open one’s heart, with all its pain and anguish, even at the risk of sounding insensitive. Franzen has displayed that in abundance.

*

Ironically, the grace I was looking for, in this context, came from a this piece:

I wish he had spoken to me, or I to him: I could have offered him some fatherly  advice on the futility of competing with your younger self: every review of every novel I’ve written since Gravity’s Rainbow contains the phrase, either explicitly or implicitly, “not as good as.” It is clear that taking the Big Dirt Nap was already very much on his mind when he delivered the 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College:  “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms nearly always shoot themselves in…[sic] the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.” After the antidepressants and electroshock therapy had failed, I guess he assumed he had nowhere else to go, and succumbed to Entropy.

I say ironic, because, this wasn’t written by the author of Gravity’s Rainbow, and an early influence (that DFW went to lengths to deny) on DFW, Thomas Pynchon, that reclusive writer who’s avoided the eye of the media religiously, and successfully. This was a parody piece published in Salon, as a spoof Pynchon piece, now unavailable (I had to dig up this passage, which I remembered vaguely, from the Internet Archives WayBack Machine snapshot).  Many fell for it. Including me. Because it seemed like something that had to be written, about DFW. And what better person to write it, but Pynchon, a father figure that DFW consciously, and consistently, disowned. For death makes all amends impossible from the one who has died, leaving those who are left behind, to forgive, and forget, magnanimously. Because they’ve still got that one thing the deceased doesn’t have: a chance to make things right, even if unilaterally, and marginally. It’s what grace demands.

Maybe, there is no Infinity of grace. Maybe, the celebrated authors, who we assume, have been given a special x-ray vision into people’s souls, are as blind with petty human emotions like anger, and pain, as the rest of us. Maybe grace is finite. And one has to find it in a fictionalized parody alone. Maybe, in reality, grace is a price too steep for even the Titans to pay.

*

“Dhoondh ujade hue logo me wafa ke moti. Yeh khazane tumhe mumkin hai kharabo.n me mile”

(Search the pearls of loyalty in those who have lost everything else, for maybe there, in the broken men, you may find those treasures)

That’s a loose translation of a couplet from Ahmad Faraz’s ghazal. But that’s incidentally what Infinite Jest is all about, among other things. Maybe the Titans are too upright to expect grace from. Maybe, we’re cursed to find it only in those we shy away from. And definitely not within.

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