Maria Bustillos | April 5, 2011
"Humility—the acceptance that being human is good enough—is the embrace of ordinariness." —underlined by David Foster Wallace in his copy of Ernest Kurtz's The Spirituality of Imperfection.
"True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world." —David Foster Wallace, The Pale King
Among David Foster Wallace's papers at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin are three hundred-odd books from his personal library, most of them annotated, some heavily as if he were scribbling a dialogue with the author page by page. There are several of his undergraduate papers from Amherst; drafts of his fiction and non-fiction; research materials; syllabi; notes, tests and quizzes from classes he took, and from those he taught; fan correspondence and juvenilia. As others have found , it's entirely boggling for a longtime fan to read these things. I recently spent three days in there and have yet to cram my eyeballs all the way back in where they belong.
Wallace committed suicide in 2008. There has been a natural reluctance to broach questions surrounding the tragedy with his family and friends, just as there was reluctance to ask him directly about his personal history when he was alive. But there are indications—particularly in the markings of his books—of Wallace's own ideas about the sources of his depression, some of which seem as though they ought to be the privileged communications of a priest or a psychiatrist. But these things are in a public archive and are therefore going to be discussed and so I will tell you about them.
One surprise was the number of popular self-help books in the collection, and the care and attention with which he read and reread them. I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace's library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully.
Much of Wallace's work has to do with cutting himself back down to size, and in a larger sense, with the idea that cutting oneself back down to size is a good one, for anyone (q.v., the Kenyon College commencement speech, later published as This is Water ). I left the Ransom Center wondering whether one of the most valuable parts of Wallace's legacy might not be in persuading us to put John Bradshaw on the same level with Wittgenstein. And why not; both authors are human beings who set out to be of some use to their fellows. It can be argued, in fact, that getting rid of the whole idea of special gifts, of the exceptional, and of genius, is the most powerful current running through all of Wallace's work.
All his life, he'd been the smartest boy in class, the gifted athlete, the super brain, the best writer. He graduated summa cum laude from Amherst, writing two senior theses, one in philosophy and one in English, both praised to the skies; the latter was published as a novel, The Broom of the System , when he was just 24. When Infinite Jest appeared, in 1996, acclaim came in like a tidal wave from nearly every critic of stature. "A work of genius." "The plaques and citations can now be put in escrow." "Exhilarating." "Truly remarkable." "Taking the next step in fiction." The New York Times was relatively restrained in its praise, but still called Wallace "a writer of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything."
But Wallace had already learned to mistrust such praise. There are many, many places where he talks about that mistrust, but here's just one: David Lipsky spoke with him in 1996 in an interview that later grew into Lipsky's book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself . Here, Wallace explained that he was proud of Infinite Jest in a way that he was not proud of The Broom of the System : "Which I think shows some talent, but was in many ways a fuck-off enterprise. It was written very quickly, rewritten sloppily, sound editorial suggestions were met with a seventeen-page letter about literary theory that was really a not-very-interesting way... really a way for me to avoid doing hard work. [...] I was arrogant, and missed a chance to make that book better."
A bit later, he expanded on what he'd since learned: "I gotta tell you, I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer. Because that means I'm going to be performing for a faceless audience, instead of trying to have a conversation with a person. [...] It's true that I want very much—I treasure my regular-guyness. I've started to think it's my biggest asset as a writer. Is that I'm pretty much just like everybody else."
Wallace's self-image was fragile and complex, but he was consistent on these points, from then onward. His later work enters into many, many kinds of minds, many points of view, with unvarying respect and an uncanny degree of understanding. Every kind of person was of interest to him.
The love his admirers bear this author has a peculiarly intimate and personal character. This is because Wallace gave voice to the inner workings of ordinary human beings in a manner so winning and so truthful and forgiving as to make him seem a friend.
Wallace seemed always to be trying to erase the distance between himself and others in order to understand them better, and trying visibly to make himself understood—always asking questions, demanding to know more details. He owned his own weaknesses willingly and in the gentlest, most inclusive manner. Also he talked a lot about the role of good fiction, which, he opined more than once, is about making us feel less alone. He offered a lot of himself to his readers, in all his writing; this generosity seemed like his whole project, in a way. This was the outward, public Wallace.
But those who followed his career at all closely always knew that there was another, darker part to his nature. A secret part. Wallace was fairly well known to have been very ill, to have been hospitalized more than once for depression, to have attempted suicide, and to have been in recovery for addiction to alcohol and drugs. The paradox of Wallace's humor and good-natured candor, the qualities so many of his readers enjoyed most, set against the many secrets there have always been around his private life, is laid bare in the Ransom Center documents.
[Read the rest at the above posted link]