David Foster Wallace, that enigmatic genius who mesmerized many with his stupefying, and brilliant book Infinite Jest (my very short review here), struggled with the weight of its success (literary, mainly) for the rest of his life — not a very long life after that point, owing to his tragic suicide. That struggle may well have contributed significantly to his suicide, by many an accounts.
Thomas Pynchon, one of the early influences on Wallace’s writing, and an enigmatic/cryptic force himself, had this to say in a moving obit to Wallace [Edit: Dammit, see the PS]:
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”.
That got me thinking. In a sense, it’s a good problem to have, right? You already have a massive work out there, in the prime of your life, written, published, validated, celebrated. I mean, many if not most struggling writers (extrapolate this to anyone in any creative profession) would love to be there. I know I would. And I’m not even a struggling writer. I mean, I would even be ready to exchange my place to be a struggling writer. But that’s besides the point.
So back to the point, isn’t that what most writers would settle for? But, apparently, if you’re tipped to be in the league of champions, you don’t think that way. And if you’re already in the league, like Wallace was, you would probably trade real immortality for one more work that creates bigger ripples in the pool of literary world. Just one more. And then …
Part of the problem is, of course, that that’s never a real trade on offer. The only immortality on offer is through your legacy. And your legacy is not your bestest. It’s your latest. And hence the imperative to live up to, if not surpass, your best work, every time. A kind of monkey in the room that would make living hell for almost anyone. Even someone as obviously gifted as David Foster Wallace.
This term, living up to, is a very curious term. I first came across it way back in my formative years, from my cousin/friend Mahendra. Those were the days, when email was not an option, at least not for most, including me. And we would make do with the three P’s that most long distance relationships/friendships predicated on: pen, paper, post.
And boy, did we write? In those days prior to availability of instant communication, that delay — between one person writing, posting, the postal delays, the other person writing … — it made all the difference. It gave one time. It took away the pressure that availability of instant replies brings with it. It also made one treasure the process of writing. The overheads meant one wanted the communication to be worth the wait, the delayed gratification.
Again I digress. But Mahendra, in one of his letters — not sure if he remembers — wrote that when writing (to me, I’d like to remember, he said, as that strokes my vanity) a letter, the pressure of “living up to” contributed to delays in responding. It didn’t sound right then, given that I was at an age when it didn’t matter to me — living up to and all that. One wrote, one read, one got ideas, one wrote … There was so much to respond to, that the thought of “living up to” never bothered me. But now, years later, I see that. I think once we think those golden years (twenties typically) have slipped from our fingers, we start measuring everything. Living up to becomes natural. Inevitable, maybe.
There is possibly another angle to why I didn’t feel that need to live up to the level of communication. Maybe I was just responding, and wasn’t really driving, or starting the communication, generating new threads. So obviously my cousin, who I greatly looked up to, had to take lion’s share of that. And that’s why he felt that, even if mild, pressure to live up to.
It’s not at all strange that when we’re young we don’t typically have these notions (except for those ahead of the game). Because we think the best is yet to come. That a dud here, a wasted opportunity there, hardly matters. We know there will be better days. That we’ll live up to our dreams of ourselves sooner than later. But as the sand starts slipping through our fingers, we start looking back. Because the reassurance is not in the future, but there, in the past. And we want to beat that ghost of any semi-success in the past, because, what’s the point of life if the best is already back there?
Back too Wallace, though, I’m not sure he was anywhere close to that point. Not when you think of his output after that, even if it’s not in one fictional form where he probably wanted it (I can’t comment on his last, posthumously published book, as I’ve not yet read it). But when one has a crowing achievement that makes everything look pale by comparison, what option does one have but not to live up to it? It’s curious that one of the kings of American writing, should name his last work in progress The Pale King.
My heart shudders at the thought of that terrible terrible waste, in pursuit of that obsession with living up to. And yet, if not for it, we wouldn’t have a lot of great literature. Or art. And much more. Still, I’d rather have seen Wallace alive, and kicking. One can’t have everything, I know!
PS: Dammit I was fooled. That’s not Pynchon. I had seen it long back on Salon, and believed it. It was a spoof (in fact the Salon link in my bookmarks does not work now). Serves me right! When one can’t find references, one should smell there is something wrong. Anyways, it was a supremely well done joke (and I’m not saying it just because I was fooled by it). You can find the full text here.