Having everything, “we were all extraordinarily sad.”

Whenever a rich and successful person commits suicide, it calls into question much of what our culture holds dearest. I see it written in the glum faces of my fellow subway riders: “If money, fame, recognition, even adulation, do not provide a life rich with pleasure and validation, will anything?” In his tribute to DFW, David Lipsky of NPR responds to his own empty analogy by posing an intelligent question: “When someone very gifted takes their own life, it’s like the best student dropping out of high school. There’s the tragedy, but it’s set in a particular and personal fear: What are they seeing that we don’t?” That it’s a tragedy is regarded as given, here. For whom is it a tragedy: the student, or the school? His own question poses the very mystery surrounding such an act–that, possibly because we are too stupid ourselves, we cannot see what may be very real reasons for “dropping out.”

I for one am not inclined to view suicide in such simple terms: as a “tragedy,” or a “loss.” Certainly it is a loss for us, but are we really so selfish as to demand that a person tortured to the end of sanity remain around for our own sporadic uplifting? I assume not. As far as “tragedy” goes, I find it insulting to DFW to assume that, as brilliant as he was, and as much as we valued him for this, he was not able to make a reasonable decision for himself. Perhaps it was not the right decision–but that is not for me to judge. It was his decision, not mine, and not anybody else’s. It’s meaningless to speculate what his reasons were, but we do owe him an effort to not let his death be written off as simply “unfortunate,” or “a tragedy.” It’s difficult for any society to imagine that it might have pushed one of its finest members to suicide, but given the nature of his work, I think we ought to do him the justice of trying to understand him, and not assume that it was mere sadness that drove him away.

In DFW’s interview on NPR (which Jared posted in the last entry), he is asked to think about why something that is supposed to give pleasure can simply create anxiety. He responds that it has “something to do with being raised in a society where the ultimate value is, let’s see… You make a lot of money, and you have a really attractive spouse, or you get infamous or famous in some way, so that it’s a life where you basically experience as much pleasure as possible. Which ends up being sort of empty and low-calorie…This came as something of an epiphany to us, at around age 30, sitting around talking about why on earth we were so miserable when we’d been so lucky.

What’s startling is not the misery he expresses. After all, the theme of emptiness in the middle and upper classes is, and has been for some time, ubiquitous in notably upper-class rags like the New York Times, and much of mainstream literary fiction in general (Ian McEwan, Philip Roth, the New Yorker’s unintended multi-decade story sequence about adultery in suburban Connecticut, and so on). No, it’s not his misery. It is his candor. In that very same interview, he elucidates on his claim that irony, as a bedrock element of modern thinking, can become tyrannical, by worrying that the great sin of our era has become “appearing naive, or old-fashioned, so that somebody can give you a sort of very cool, arch smile, and devastate you with one extraordinarily crafted line that puts kind of a hole in your pretentious balloon.

It is his candor in the face of that arch smile we are so prepared to give, that same arch smile I just gave Ian McEwan, Philip Roth, the New York Times, and the New Yorker, all in one breath. But sneering at emptiness among the well-to-do simultaneously professes a certain baseline cynicism about what actually grants happiness, or even whether it exists at all. Denying wealthy people the right (if it is one) to feelings of dissatisfaction and ennui grants that those feelings grow from material dissatisfaction only. And it is this point that DFW argued against, involuntarily a defender of the right to emptiness for all.

Yet, having been noted and evenly distributed among all socioeconomic groups, the emptiness is still there. This was the problem to begin with. In his essay, “The Catastrophe of Success,” Tennessee Williams writes of his own sudden rise from anonymity to fame:

The sort of life which I had had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.

I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last.

I sat down and looked about me and was suddenly very depressed…”

I soon found myself becoming indifferent to people. A well of cynicism rose in me. Conversations all sounded like they had been recorded years ago and were being played back on a turntable. Sincerity and kindliness seemed to have gone out of my friends’ voices. I suspected them of hypocrisy. I stopped calling them, stopped seeing them. I was impatient of what I took to be inane flattery.

I got so sick of hearing people say, “I loved your play!” that I could not say thank you any more. I choked on the words and turned rudely away from the usually sincere person. I no longer felt any pride in the play itself but began to dislike it, probably because I felt too lifeless inside ever to create another.”

For the record, Williams was a lifelong depressive. He was also an alcoholic and an avid user of prescription drugs. He died from choking on the cap to a bottle of eyedrops.

“Then what is good?” he asked. “The obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction.”

As an author facing sudden and radical success, and as a man of moral conviction and rapt attentiveness to his world, Williams found the luxury of his new “effete lifestyle” repulsive. Whether or not DFW suffered this particular fate is less relevant than that they both sought to illuminate the emptiness of that life. Williams wrote,

The heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies.”

Having received the rewards he denounced, having struggled his whole life to get to a place where there was nothing left to struggle against, and facing many long years cutting daisies, perhaps his suicide isn’t such a mystery after all. Perhaps it was simply a sign of moral conviction–having made his best effort, and finding it not enough to change the world, he simply wasn’t willing to become everything he’d spent his whole life denouncing. 

To have real moral conviction may very well condemn you to depression. To pay careful attention to the world, to watch it eat idealists alive, swallow them whole and spit them into ergonomic chairs in nameless offices, marketing the very lifestyle they abhor, may have the same effect. Having achieved fame, garnered a literate and compassionate readership, received awards, and earned a well-paid and tenured position at a prestigious college that demanded little of him… perhaps these marked the true onset of emptiness for DFW. It amazes us that his passion was great enough to create Infinite Jest. Why are we surprised that that same passion, upon finding that its masterwork had changed nothing, would simply throw up its hand and say, “not another word”?



4 responses to “Having everything, “we were all extraordinarily sad.”

  1. Infinite Jest changed quite a few people forever. Perhaps part of what you’re getting at though was that it didn’t change everything, and that’s the impossibility of ambition, moral or otherwise.

  2. It didn’t change everything. It might not have changed anything. Maybe it changed something. Maybe he knew, maybe he didn’t know… maybe it didn’t change anything. I think he wrote it not out of a desire to change people, but to express a discontent with the patterns of the world at large (hence its breadth and scope), and that when that effort failed to enact change (of course, of course, we say, with our clever and devastating well-crafted lines), he felt–not learned–but felt, the “impossibility of ambition,” as you put it. Changing people, I don’t think, is any substitute for changing the world. And isn’t it a moral decision to choose not to exist–to default by absence, by lack of presence, to abstain–in a world that not only twists anything moral and good, but even subsumes that which you consider your ultimate testament, subsumes you yourself into its own morass? I guess I think so. I think it’s a moral decision, more than anything else. If he felt it deeply and truly–if–then I sympathize. Maybe a part of me applauds him.

  3. I have been sporadically keeping up with your endeavors through No Record, but I don’t think I have commented until now. I just wanted to say that I am floored and so grateful for your perspective on suicide, regarding D.F.W. in particular. Although I was initially stunned by your thoughtfulness on the matter, this was immediately followed by a thought of “well, of course,” because if anyone I know could provide such a genuine inquiry into a sensitive topic, it would be you.

    Anyway, I am grateful to you for asking the question of “For whom is it a tragedy: the student, or the school?” I feel that our perspective on suicide is overly colored by the thoughts and regrets of loved ones left behind, simply because they are the ones left to do the talking… and I feel many of the questions you pose are right on, and get at the too-often-overlooked-meat of this issue. As I see it, there is a gap between that which we chase for fulfillment, and that which will ultimately fulfill us, and as intelligent as we may be as a species, nearly all of us fail to make the leap. Worse yet, it appears that even awareness of this gap is not enough to save us.

    I thank you and love you dearly.

  4. yes, thank you — this post has the compassion, respect, and honesty that dfw put forward in his work and life. these are some hard questions.

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