Sunday, March 8, 2009

DFW Revisited

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.

Uncle Tupelo

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.


Retriever said...

Very good post. But just the way his brain was wired??? A problem to be fixed by meds??? I think not. What's the old Police song line "we are spirits living in the material world" referring to? Sting knew whereof he sang. What ails us, ails our spirits, and they are more than the molecules (tho affected by them, obviously).

Novalis said...

Well, what currently goes by "depression" is a highly heterogeneous beast, and many varieties do not in fact call for biological intervention. But there are subtypes that most certainly do, and in those cases nothing else will suffice (other things may help, but not suffice).

There is reductionism, but the contrary fault is a fuzzy and sentimental assumption that "we shall overcome" (through the power of spirit or whatever).

If someone has severe diabetes, by analogy, grace and faith may help them cope wonderfully well with the disease, but without insulin he will succumb to ketoacidosis.

You're not going to bring up miracles are you?

(You know I appreciate you though!)

Retriever said...

Of course, what you say makes sense and I wouldn't dream of bringing up miracles here.... :) Whatever works. It's just that meds alone aren't enough (pet peeve, having fought with insurance companies too much on this one, trying to get family members needed care)

Anonymous said...

The idea of living with incompletion can be too much to endure. Or conversely, knowing completion but still having to suffer the artifice of incompletion through the everyday exigencies/contingencies of habitual existence is lethal.

Some lives are done for before they begin; others are medium to the point of extreme numbing bluntness; a few are overdone; and on brief occasions--confluences willing--you get lives so rare that they drip with the blood of rawness. The cost of admission is nothing in comparison.

Faults have a habit of wiring themselves. You can't deny them the experience of being, however faulty their raison d'etre may be. We'd be at fault to reason otherwise. And to extinguish a fault is to be faultless.

Is it in the nature of wish lists to contract? no. But sometimes life offers you free vouchers so that you can feel a little closer to getting nowhere.

chris said...

As another of those who does well only on an MAOI, i have my doubts that we are 'rare'; we just are rarely found or helped.

Depression is only useful for art if is very mild. Real depression ruins the shallow stuff for you, the same way life experience slowly dulls the wonder that everyone had as a kid. You need the extremes for art, and knowing there is a colder darkness out there that you aren't feeling anymore ruins that.

Anonymous said...

O frabjous day! My BFF DFW on my fav psych blog! WooHoo!

And coruscating is such a fittingly hyperlexical word for his brilliance.

I've been mulling over the psych implications ever since the first stories came out suggesting he'd gone off the MAOI and <BAM> fallen irretrieviably into a slough of despond. (Or is this the kind of retrieving the Retriever does?)

Before the Max article, I blamed psychiatry: how could you not keep this man alive? Max's article fills in the pedestrian details we're wired to question after the tragic fact, making it seem he could have been retrieved if only, and makes me give psychiatry & its limitations some reprieve. Were meds that could have helped switched too soon? Would going back on Nardil sooner have helped? (And shirley the man should have been in a hospital.) ECT failing must have been a huge blow and part of what left him literally at the end of his rope.

Still, his story has got to give the howling fantods to anyone thinking of going off an anti-depressant (and who isn't?). My psych history mirrors DFW's to an eerie degree, but with a happier course of ECT this summer. And minus the genius writer part. And thanks in no small part to him, minus thinking I should do without the [freaking] meds.

Missing from Max's article is any mention of psychotherapeutic or spiritual interventions, strange given how ultimately moral and spiritual the goals for his fiction were. His Kenyon College address speaks of having control over how and what you pay attention to, perhaps a Buddhist-style mindfulness. Therapists, with their endless little hand cages changing shape, sure get harsh treatment in his fiction (unlike AA). We'll get more biography in time. For now, it's another what if.

Brian1982 said...

So you know, Uncle Tupelo did not write "No Depression". It was written by either A.P. Carter or James David Vaughn and made popular by the Carter Family in 1936. The Uncle Tupelo version is a cover.