Bangs and Whimpers

We all know, or know of, people who crash and burn, the mad ones, the ones whose candle burns at both ends, who end with a bang, who burn out instead of fading away. They are common enough, in fact, that I am able to write an entire sentence about them using other people’s words. The rock stars, the drunken poets, the strung out artists, the ones who get Rolling Stone issues dedicated to them, whose graves inspire supplicants, who put the chic in heroin chic and the manic in manic depressive.

I don’t in any way mean to denigrate the sufferings of these people, which are real, and troubling, and which surely do as much to detract from their lives as they do to enhance their art. But this weekend brought a sad reminder that there are other kinds of suffering — less blinding, perhaps, but no less real.

I first read about David Foster Wallace’s death via my friend Steve’s FriendFeed post. I have rarely been so grateful to have an online community. Watching the comments on that post, and later posts by Steve and Steven and Rochelle and Jessamyn, I was bouyed somewhat from the awful shock of it because I was connected to so many people for whom the news was equally tragic, and in some cases more so.

My cousin Jennifer gave me a membership to the Quality Paperback Book Club when I graduated from college, and one of the first books I bought was A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I knew Wallace because his story “Girl With Curious Hair” was included in the anthology Voices of the Xiled, which I bought, I think, on some New York City trip in college, and I was just starting to think that essays were perhaps my favorite literary format. The book didn’t disappoint; a decade later, it’s still on my shelf, and I still crack up every time I even think about the title essay.

I remember the boyfriend, later husband, of another good friend talking about how he and some friends always meant to take a pilgrimage to Bloomington-Normal to go pay him a visit, although they never did. I remember starting Infinite Jest and thinking it was marvelous and wonderful and crazy and then stopping sometime in the middle of a footnote and not getting back to it, though I always meant to.

Just this morning I was talking to a library patron about Wallace and about how sad we were, and about how both of us had started but not finished Infinite Jest, and about how guilty we felt, me because I bought a remaindered copy; she because she gave hers away.

Today at work I checked through all the various blogs and things I regularly read, and I came across the New York Times story that quotes his father, who talks about how Wallace had been taking medicine for depression for twenty years, and how just last year medication had started to fail, and in the past year new things had been tried, new medicine, no medicine, ECT, and how none of them had ultimately worked.

And I was reminded of how cripplingly, dully, horrible depression is, how unromantic, how difficult. We think so often of the mental illness of artists as being of the crazy, manic, candle burning at both ends sort, and in doing so we forget that just as often it is the sort of unrelenting, boring, deathly illness that probably plagued David Foster Wallace for years, that has plagued me at times, that I believe probably ultimately killed my father, who killed himself when he was only about a decade older than Wallace was at his death.

There isn’t any really happy conclusion to this. I don’t have a policy proposal or even a pat remark, except to say, as one does in so many situations, that it is terrible that things should have to come to this for us to take notice.

PS Steve has a good collection of links on DFW.

One thought on “Bangs and Whimpers”

  1. I finished Infinite Jest. I liked it. There were some sideplots (the Canadian separtists group) that were difficult to follow, but for the most part, I thought the characters (and concepts about human nature and groups) were fascinating. I really enjoyed Consider the Lobster. I think that his essay about McCain’s presidential run in 2000 (DFW was a reporter for Rolling Stone) was a unique perspective on presidential politics (and the character of anyone who chooses to put themselves through the process). I think that the pilgrimage to Bloomington Normal (that never materialized) is a perfect subtext for his work – the tension of action and inaction.

    It is hard to know what someone was thinking. I do have compassion for DFW and for others suffering from depression. Not that depression is easy for anyone, but I believe that it’s even more difficult for those who are intelligent and aware. It’s easy to reason yourself out of various treatment options. And for those who are aware, it’s all to simple to focus on human nature and the state of the world. And I agree with you about taking notice.


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