David Foster Wallace the genius
The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
If you are lucky, on occasions an author will touch you so deeply that you feel a personal connection. This happened with me when I learned that David Foster Wallace won (21 Feb. 1962-12 Sept. 2008) won the MacCarthur Genius Grant, a year after writing his monstrously long novel Infinite Jest in 1996. The 1,079 page novel represents his most famous achievement, but this book is not how I came to know this man, with profound insights on existence and empathy.
When the Genius Grant was announced in 1997, I was suprised to hear that Wallace won the prize for literature because I hadn't heard of him. This piqued my interest, and I researched him on the internet, finding that he was known for his quirky, self-conscious style and use of extended footnotes. His interests were diverse, like my own, extending from quantum physics to serious literature. I had to know this man.
I went to the public library in an attempt to pick the mind of this genius. My tiny library at Blackfoot, Idaho did not have Infinite Jest, probably because it would have filled the library shelf space. But, the book I did find changed my thinking on life profoundly.
Wallace grappled with infinity and zero
He wandered into avenues that I did not know existed, contemplating the nature of zero compared with the concept of nothing. There is no difference between the two, right? Wrong, and he illustrates this through masterful writing and examples.
0 vs. nothing is one of those abstract distinctions that’s almost impossible to talk about directly; you more have to do it with examples. Imagine there’s a certain math class, and in this class there’s a fiendishly difficult 100-point midterm, and imagine that neither you nor I get even one point out of 100 on this exam. Except there’s a difference: you are not in the class and didn’t even take the exam, where as I am, and did. The fact that you received 0 points on the exam is thus irrelevant — your 0 means N/A, nothing — where as my 0 is an actual zero. Or if you don’t like that one, imagine that you and I are respectively female and male, both healthy and 20—40 years of age, and we’re both at the doctor’s, and neither of us has had a menstrual period in the past ten weeks, in which case my total number of periods is nothing, whereas yours here is 0 — and significant.
Wallace turned something trivial and insignificant into a serious subject, deep and profound. 0 and nothing are different, and he made me see that. He had a talent for turning the insignificant into a profound subject, worthy of investigation. The task was not simple for him, and the work was unprecedented, as he labored toward the "creation of a new literary genre within what Wallace calls “pop technical writing”, in which the sense and depth of mathematics can be expressed creatively and readably with minimal loss." He was successful. I am an idiot in math, and he made one of its most difficult concepts comprehensible to me.
Wallace helped me see that in between 0 and 1 on the number line, lies infinity. He asked me to consider .9, in between the two. Now, add nines after that number (i.e. .9999999999 etc.). How long can you add nines to that initial .9? The answer is infinitely. So, in between 0 and 1, you could run nines to the moon and back. You could extend nines infinitely out into the universe, and never stop. That is infinity contained between the numbers 0 and 1. You, being smarter than I, had probably considered this before. I had not, and Wallace completely exploded my perception of what infinity meant.
After reading this, I turned to remarkable essays in Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, excited to find a new, stimulating writer that sparked my interest in learning novel ideas. I felt close to the man I did not know and thought of him as a mentor, guiding me into new territory. I watched video interviews, searching his brain. This was 1997.
Suicide: As incomprehensible as infinity
September 12, 2008, five years ago now, Wallace hung himself on his patio, after suffering from severe depression for more than 20 years, battling it with antidepressants and even electroconvulsive therapy. He was 46. He carefully wrote a two page note before killing himself, and his wife, Ms. Green, has spoken of "these still difficult, emptied-out days" since his passing. Emptiness is the best description for the pain I too have felt since the suicide, without ever meeting the man.
His words intruded upon my life, worked their way into my heart, and his absence has left a hole in the universe, a gap in infinity. Hearing of his death reminded me of the pain I felt when I heard of Kurt Cobain's suicide. I think of them in their final moments, and I wonder at what they must have felt, the darkness that engulfed them, a desperation that I too have felt. And, I do not blame them at all, but simply empathize with facing the end of the world alone, bleak, and cold.
I reluctantly recommend getting to know the man that David Foster Wallace was, reluctant because I am certain it will bring you pain. But, the power of his mind and words, captured on paper, are infinitely worth it, extending to the moon and back, drifting in never ending space. The final concept he taught me was infinite sadness.
You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.
List of works via Wikipedia:
Please share any thoughts or feelings you have on David Foster Wallace or suicide. It helps me to talk things through.
You might enjoy:
By Darin L. Hammond
Writer for ZipMinis and owns ZipMinis Freelance Writing. Darin Publishes across the web on sites like Technorati, BC Blog, Blog Critics, Broowaha, Demand Media Studios, and Social Media Today. Google