words, more words, and feeling…

I only found out  a couple of months ago, well after the fact, that one of my intellectual/literary heroes died, relatively young, by suicide as a result of depression, six months after I finished my second reading of his celebrated book Infinite Jest. An acquaintance told me the news, and of how reading of it inspired him to gather as much of David Foster Wallace’s writing as he could.

Since hearing the news and of my acquaintance’s new found enthusiasms, I’ve in turn been inspired to re-read and discover some more of DFW’s brilliance, and of course try to gain some insight into how such a person could end their life.

This week I’ve been listening to an audiobook of DFW reading selected essays from Consider The Lobster and a podcast of him reading part of his 9/11 essay for an audience. And today, a recording of a session not long after his death of a writers group holding a remembering DFW event. The personal accounts of DFW the man were so much more illuminating than any amount of obituaries.

It kind of tore my heart out.

I already felt so bereft that the world had lost a keen mind unafraid to complexly confront our fears and insecurities, our nature,  and to do so with such thorough delight and zest for the breadth of life.

Listening to these recordings though has deepened another unease: a conflict between a feeling of great inspiration about what it is to be human and live a meaningful empathetic life, and the gnawing sadness that not even a great like DFW could think his way out of the darkness, with a corresponding sorrow (like a half remembered nightmare) that it seems even he got it wrong.

His often quoted 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, includes the passage true freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

It’s such a seductive idea – discipline, control, awareness, empathy, growth, value.

What’s bothering me now is the most likely reality is there’s truly some things we just don’t get to choose, we’re hosed whether we like it or not. Some things we just have to feel, and get through and put up with, and hope we make it out the other side not having lost some important part of ourselves, if we make it out the other side at all. An infinite jest. Whether it be the lost potential of thwarted passion, small petty supermarket queue frustrations, or the biggies such as DFW endured which we so dearly wish weren’t the human condition but so patently, and eternally, are.

For now I’m going to keep on holding on to the exuberance and optimism that wicks through DFW’s writing like liquid gold and maintain trust in the hope we can transcend our condition, at least for long enough to make a coffee and pull ourselves together for the next challenge. And fervently hope not too many more of David’s calibre come to find the unendurable unendurable.

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