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Existentialist thoughts on David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

[From 2008. Copied here, somewhat irrelevantly, in recognition of the recent suicides that have been in the news.] Read an article in Rolling Stone about Wallace. I see that his whole life was essentially my life between 18 and 25. In other words, it sucked. Right up to his suicide he had the same insecurities, the same thoughts, I had. Consider what he wrote in a letter: “I go through a loop in which I notice all the ways I am self-centered and careerist and not true to standards and values that transcend my own petty interests, and feel like I’m not one of the good ones. But then I countenance the fact that at least here I am worrying about it, noticing all the ways I fall short of integrity, and I imagine that maybe people without any integrity at all don’t notice or worry about it; so then I feel better about myself. It’s all very confusing. I think I’m very honest and candid, but I’m also proud of how honest and candid I am—so where does that put me?” These sorts of paradoxes, the paradoxes of self-consciousness, I was writing about eight years ago and finally stopped caring about one or two years ago. Being self-conscious on a second level, then being conscious of that level, then being conscious of this fourth level, until you lose all sense of yourself and conclude that self-determinations determine a vacuum and hence are vacuous. But then what? Then you stop thinking and go outside and play and know who you are again, unconsciously. Wallace’s curse was that he couldn’t stop thinking.

Just think: he craved the label ‘genius’ but couldn’t accept it when it was conferred on him. He knew it didn’t mean anything. His friend Mark Costello called him once: “He was talking,” says Costello, “about how hard the writing was. And I said, lightheartedly, ‘Dave, you’re a genius.’ Meaning, people aren’t going to forget about you. You’re not going to wind up in a Wendy’s. He said, ‘All that makes me think is that I’ve fooled you, too.’” An honest person in this age can’t accept that he’s a genius and then go on with his life in the certainty that he’s a genius, comforted eternally by that thought. He knows it’s false, even if it’s true: he’s not an object, not a brilliant rock or something like that; he’s a person who changes from moment to moment, of whom it’s meaningless to predicate the stable, static, lustrous quality genius. Wallace couldn’t believe he instantiated a concept, since his mind had motion (self-consciousness)—and he knew, anyway, that if he did, the concept was basically meaningless. He craved self-confirmation but couldn’t achieve it because the greater one’s self-consciousness, the more quickly and completely one transcends one’s objectifications. In the end, therefore, once he stopped taking his medication he couldn’t bear the unfulfillment of his desire to be thickly valued, to be value itself, and he killed himself.

The reason I’m able to tolerate my lack of recognition—to say it yet again—(or, to speak more accurately, the story I tell myself (in order, namely, to salve the wound, and stanch the bleeding, of insulted self-love))—is that I know being published wouldn’t satisfy me because nothing matters, published authors are no better off than I am because fame means nothing and proves nothing, and besides, writers are irrelevant now even to culture because culture is dead and everything is irrelevant. For myself I’m an unusually valuable person and for now that’s enough, it’s enough if I know my value. Few people have a better chance than I of living posthumously. (And yes, I know that’s a pointless desire, like the desire for recognition itself, but you can’t reason these desires out of existence. They’re there, driving you, driving even your act of communicating that these desires are pointless.)

Good joke from him, funny because it’s true: “What does a writer say after sex? ‘Was it as good for me as it was for you?’” (The not-knowing-yourself. The knowing-the-other-better-than-yourself.)


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