But I was not made for the great light that devours, a dim lamp was all that I had been given, and patience without end, to shine it on the empty shadows. I was a solid in the midst of other solids.
from Molloy by Samuel Beckett.
David Foster Wallace was a literary genius. David Foster Wallace was also a self-dramatizing artiste— and, despite obvious motives of professional jealousy, kudos for Bret Easton Ellis for pointing that out back in 2012. The subject came onto my radar again while reading an interview with Ellis in the current issue of Vice. For the past few years, he has been outspoken in his disdain for what he regards as a peculiar and, in some ways, cultivated oversensitivity current in popular culture right now. I agree. The millennial generation, my generation, has a problem with valorizing powerlessness, especially in the face of isolation, addiction, depression and other forms of psychological distress. David Foster Wallace is in no small way responsible for giving that idea moral, aesthetic, and intellectual weight.
Much as I enjoy his fiction, there are moments where Wallace’s exploration of extreme psychology feels like an indulgence. His novels and stories are overloaded with characters whose neuroses are somehow hyperattuned to whatever flavor of existential despair the author is trying to evoke. This makes things interesting for the reader, but it also plays into a host of self-paralyzing beliefs—that agency is impossible under consumerism, that addiction is widely applicable model for everyday behavior, that being paralyzed by anxiety and self-doubt confers some kind of privilege in analyzing how society works.
You could argue that it’s wrong to draw simplistic conclusions from such a complex and wide ranging body of work. You would be right. The scale and intellectual ambition of a novel like Infinite Jest prevents it from being trite, but the attitude that the “DFW” cult takes regarding issues such as mental illness is not so far removed from cloying webcomics like “I had a black dog, his name was depression.”
Great as they are, Wallace’s books make a poor guide to life. Gerald Howard, a man who edited both “DFW” and Bret Easton Ellis, says it best when he writes:
At the moment, the Wallace style is dominant and that is what drives Bret Ellis nuts. David’s 2005 commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College, “This is Water,” has assumed the stature of a manifesto and ultimate statement…I don’t buy it as a guide for right behavior. It feels uncomfortably close to those books of affirmations, no doubt inspiring but of questionable use when the hard stuff arrives. I truly believe that David was the finest writer of his generation, but his design for living seems to me naive and likely to collapse at the first impact of life’s implacable difficulties. It badly needed an injection of Montaigne or Marcus Aurelius.
Lauding a writer is an understandable reaction following a suicide. In an egalitarian literary culture dead set against mythmaking, it’s one of the only ways we have left of seeing someone as larger than life. That’s our poverty. But I would rather celebrate “DFW” for his erudition, his intellectual ambition, his trust in the reader, than for his status as a victim of clinical depression.
With some justification, we’ve become skeptical of the claim that the alcoholism of writers like Hemmingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Cheever is somehow proof of genius and an authentic reaction to pressures of life. In fact, we’ve become quite shrill in denouncing that belief, just as we have become cynical regarding the deaths of rock stars like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. Excess, it seems, does not lead to the palace of wisdom—unless we’re talking about an excess of sensitivity.
How about an honorable bargain? ‘You always wanted to become a doctor. Now’s your chance. Why, you could have become a great healer and benefit humanity. What’s wrong with that?’ Just about everything. There are no honorable bargains involving exchange of qualitative merchandise like souls. Just quantitative merchandise like time and money. So piss off, Satan, and don’t take me for dumber than I look. As an old junk pusher told me, ‘Watch whose money you pick up.’
William S. Burroughs from “Words of Advice to Young People”
There is a loathsome recent online trend for our favourite dead writers, a great many of whom were complex and difficult characters, to say nothing of their work, to be reduced to glorified self-help therapists (“What Susan Sontag can teach you about your inner child”) or creative writing tutors (“Ten awesome writing tips from the weeping ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald”). Aside from my continued belief that Mephistopheles invented the listicle, the vacuous narcissism, spiritual horseshit and mercantile utilitarianism involved in such half-baked articles are sorry indictments of our times. This has led to reluctance on my part in acknowledging that any writer is or should be useful other than simply being free to write books. Usefulness is a censor’s way of thinking. Yet Burroughs, almost despite himself, is. Most obviously, he led by example in terms of what to do and what not to do. Long before Bowie (who he influenced with his cutup technique and subject matter), Burroughs, in a sense, wrote this life into existence.
From the wonderful essay “The Third Man: William S. Burroughs at One Hundred” by Darran Anderson, easily one of the best short pieces on the author that I’ve ever read. As the title suggests, this week marks the centenary of the literary experimentalist and Beat Generation provocateur. He was an important early influence on my writing and worldview, as he undoubtedly was and perhaps still is for many other self-proclaimed teenage misanthropes who harbor vague and misguided literary inclinations. A few years back, Publishers Weekly did a survey in which booksellers reported the titles most often stolen from their shops. Predictably enough, Burroughs appeared near the top of the list. At home, there’s a battered copy of Naked Lunch filled with all manner of doodles and laughable marginalia. I can’t remember whether I acquired it legally or not.
The folks at decomP have published my short story “Glass Hamburger in Helsinki” for their February issue. A Kunstgeschichte on the themes of devotion, obsession, and the peculiar charm of dolphin shaped paperweights, it should resonate with anyone who has strived toward anything and received nothing but the promise of more work for their pains.
Underpinning Cambon’s exalted sense of self was the belief—shared by many of the senior ambassadors—that one did not merely represent France, one personified it. Though he was ambassador in London from 1898 until 1920, Cambon spoke not a word of English. During his meetings with Edward Grey (who spoke no French), he insisted that every utterance be translated into French, including easily recognized words such as “yes”. He firmly believed—like many members of the French elite—that French was the only language capable of articulating rational thought and he objected to the foundation of French schools in Britain on the eccentric grounds that French people raised in Britain tended to end up mentally retarded.
From The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark
The folks at Old Growth Northwest have been kind enough to publish me in another issue of their regional lit mag Poplorish. The theme this time around is romance—liberally interpreted of course. My story “Lost River” follows two broke postgraduates on a journey from an unnamed east coast city into uncharted realms of time and space, with meditations along the way on the nature of love, memory, and the entertainment mecca that is Branson, Missouri. You can read my story here as a PDF on pages 44-45.