Fear the hearts of men are failing
These our latter days we know
The great depression now is spreading
God's word declared it would be so.
D. T. Max's review of the life and work of David Foster Wallace in the current New Yorker comes six months after the writer's death by hanging--another victim of the wretched "black dog." Lately I was rereading some of Wallace's essays--on tennis, on television, on David Lynch--and I was most struck by their coruscating intelligence, their fierce intensity. If I knew nothing about him apart from his writings and the fact of his suicide, I would have inferred that he had bipolar disorder, but apparently, from what little I have picked up from the press, he was never classically manic (in the Robert Lowell sense anyway).
But the sheer urgency and obsession with detail of his prose make one wonder, although not because it veers out of control--indeed, it is fascinating because it seems always on the verge of shivering to pieces, but pulls back just in time. And his incredible humor is evident in every line: very dry, yet unself-conscious, ingenious, yet never supercilious. His exuberant brilliance doesn't overwhelm, because he is constantly reminding the reader how much he himself, the author, doesn't know.
Wallace's illness began in adolescence, it seems, with anxiety and panic symptoms, and it sounds like the depression that followed for nearly three decades rarely abated altogether, although the symptoms were more or less controlled at times. He had ECT twice, once as a young man (when it was somewhat helpful) and again in the year before his death (when it wasn't).
Interestingly he did relatively well on Nardil for years, just as some rare individuals seem to do better on MAO inhibitors than on newer and supposedly "cleaner" antidepressants. But sometime in the year or two before his death he may have had a tyramine reaction after eating at a Persian restaurant (MAO inhibitors and exotic cuisine don't mix well), and as he struggled for years to crank out a third novel he developed the classic concern that the antidepressant was dulling his creativity. So he stopped the Nardil. It sounds like it was pretty much downhill after that, although obviously we don't know if staying on it would have made a difference.
Wallace seemed always to struggle from a conviction that something was seriously wrong not only with himself, but with his era. And while he did serious student work in philosophy, he always came back to literature as a possible way out; it's hard to think of another author who so urgently looked to fiction as a "writing cure." According to Max's review:
His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. "Fiction's about what it is to be a [freaking] human being," he once said. Good writing should help readers to "become less alone inside."...The central issue for Wallace remained, as he told McCaffery, how to give "CPR to those elements of what's human and magic that still live and glow despite the times' darkness."
Literature as moral and existential CPR--that is a tall order. Indeed, in contrast to his non-fiction works, which Wallace seems to have tossed of fairly easily, he agonized over his fiction. After his second novel and magnum opus Infinite Jest in 1996 twelve years had passed when, after struggling for years with an uncompleted third book, he took his own life. One wonders if, despite his general genius, he was asking too much of his own fiction.
Max quotes from Wallace's first novel The Broom of the System:
Apparently she was some sort of phenomenon in college and won a place in graduate study at Cambridge...but in any event there she studied...under a mad crackpot...who believed that everything was words. Really. If you car would not start, it was apparently to be understood as a language problem. If you were unable to love, you were lost in language. Being constipated equaled being clogged with linguistic sediment.
Without being reductive, I wonder if Wallace sought in words a cure for a depression that ultimately was not about words, but about the way his brain was wired. But if you're looking at a nail and don't have a hammer, you might use a heavy book instead. And some get by with that, if the wires aren't too tangled, or the nail isn't too big (metaphors mixing here). But as Wallace wryly put it in an interview, "I had kind of midlife crisis at twenty, which probably doesn't augur well for my longevity." He died at 46, and his story suggests that he braved much to get that far.
Wallace never wrote directly about his own depression, but Max quotes the following from the story "The Planet Trillaphon:"
I'm not incredibly glib, but I'll tell what I think the Bad Thing is like...Imagine that every single atom in every single cell in your body is sick...intolerably sick. And every proton and neutron in every atom...swollen and throbbing, off-color, sick, with just no chance of throwing up to relieve the feeling. Every electron is sick, here twirling off-balance, and all erratic in these funhouse orbitals that are just thick and swirling with mottled yellow and purple poison gases, everything off balance and woozy. Quarks and neutrinos out of their minds and bouncing sick all over the place.
Malaise that penetrates to the sub-atomic fundamentals of being: it's hard to think of a better metaphor for severe depression. And yet Wallace's writings show his capacity to be more delightfully alive to the wonder of living than most of us ever manage. Sometimes our current treatments are no anodyne: but I can't help wishing he hadn't stopped the Nardil. Maybe the third novel never would have been, but perhaps he would have survived; as it is we have neither. There is depression and then there is depression; his was not the kind to toy with.