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.