The Death of David Foster Wallace
I've had a few days of celebrating, accompanied by mixed emotions. While Obama's election and the clear rejection of the GOP brand by the majority of the country is certainly something to celebrate, the fact that Prop. 8 in California passed and Michele Bachman was re-elected showed me that too many of our people are still entrenched in a painful paradigm of separation and hate.
And I admit I'm a little concerned that some of the vitriol stirred up by the GOP's despicable campaign might have some disastrous repurcussions. The Secret Service can probably protect Obama and his family well enough, but they can't protect the rest of the black population.
But, at least we're headed in a new direction in terms of our leadership. Surely, if people manage to control themselves at least a little bit and wait to see what happens, when they see that Obama isn't working with the terrorists to make this a Muslim country; and doesn't take all their money and give it to black people; and isn't the anti-Christ who'll make Christianity illegal and round up all the believers and set off the Rapture; and doesn't turn out to be the Illuminati's henchman who'll let the Reptilian overlords take over and turn us all into food; then they'll start to realize that he's just another politician (who happens to be a good one able to appeal to a broad spectrum of citizens by having a lot of integrity, good ideas, and the eloquence to communicate both) and we can finally, together, as Americans, dig ourselves out of the hole we've dug ourselves into by electing and going along with morally and intellectually bankrupt leadership.
I guess I'll just have to continue to wait and hope and see how things turn out in that respect. But at least now I can turn my mind to something else. And one of the things part of my mind has been chewing on while the forefront has been concerned with the election is the suicide of David Foster Wallace. It was brought back to the conscious part of my mind today by seeing an ad in the back of A Public Space (an excellent literary journal published in New York), for a lit mag out of California, Black Clock. Apparently DFW has a piece in the upcoming issue.
And seeing that, part of me (that judgmental part I'd love to get rid of, whose voice I do my best to quiet in my day-to-day dealings with people) thought: O, nice, take advantage of the glamor of a suicide to sell some magazines. Part of me thinks that publishing his work now is capitalizing on the suffering of others. But of course, in truth, it takes so long to arrange for publishing things, his work was probably scheduled to come out long before his death. (I reminded myself of my own poem, "Bitter in New Orleans," which is scheduled to come out in the next issue of the Tampa Review. The poem has nothing to do with Katrina; it was written years before, shortly after I'd left that city, following my husband in a career change. But not long after Katrina, I'd included it in a contest entry, not to take advantage of the sudden interest in that city, but because at the time it was one of my very best poems. But I worried that I'd be seen as trying to ride the wave of sympathy and fascination the horror of that storm, and the Feds' underwhelming response to it, had caused.) It's not Black Clock's fault that he killed himself after agreeing to let them publish whatever of his work they're publishing. And even if it's the case that his wife agreed after his death to a quick publication of something he'd left lying around, who could blame her? She'd just been abandoned, hadn't she? It seems she has every right to make what she can from his work to replace what he would have continued to earn had he not chosen to kill himself.
That's harsh rhetoric, I know, to remind people that suicide is an abandonment, a choice. But it is. And it's a cowardly one, too, and stupid. There I go being judgmental again, eh? Before you come down on me, let me explain myself.
I suffer depression; I have at least since I was fifteen. Probably before that, but I didn't start keeping journals until shortly before, so the first written account of my misery, my flirtation with the idea of checking out of here, jumping ship, as it were, was at fifteen.
I've never tried it, and I'll tell you why. At first, when I was younger, it was the fear of Hell, one of the benefits of a strict Irish-Catholic upbringing. When I was too young to be selfless enough to think about the suffering my suicide would cause others, I at least feared the punishment of eternal suffering in Hell. While I've often resented other aspects of Catholic dogma (I think the concept of original sin, for example, is a horrible thing to instil into a child, clearly designed to destroy their self-esteem), at least the injunction against suicide kept me alive long enough to come up with more realistic reasons not to take the plunge into nothingness.
Those realistic reasons include the fact that suicide is, as my father used to remind me, a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Even when you suffer depression, the worst parts come and go. And a lot of time our worst moments can have something to do with external circumstances, a situational component. I know in my heart that at least part of my dark moods for the past twenty years have had to do with the realization that I was living in a country with a corrupt government, far too influenced by, for lack of a less conspiratorial-sounding phrase, the military-industrial complex: the way our food is produced and delivered is damaging to our health and the health of the planet and involves immense cruelty to other sentient beings; under Democrat or Republican rule we've been waging wars for economic reasons; we've been building an empire to benefit the wealthy rather than managing a Republic for the good of all the people living here. And I know DFW was not unaware of these facts, either. The basic facts of being an American, for those willing to look under the rug, are plain for all to see. But nothing is permenent, and there is certainly reason to hope that things are beginning to change. I can only imagine that, had he held on a little longer, his spirits would have been at least partially boyed by the changing political tide. Not only are we getting out from under the Republican shadow (who are notoriously clumsy -- read deadly -- with their empire building), but Obama even seems to be a new kind of Democrat, and not just because of his race. He really does seem pretty serious about eliminating the influence of corporations, with his strict policies to keep lobbyists out of his adminstration. Again, we'll have to wait and see, but at least there's cause for hope.
The other reason, the one that serves the purpose that the fear of Hell once did, my last-ditch rescue rope, is that my killing myself would hurt a lot of people. My husband and children, yes, of course. My siblings, my mother, my friends. Even the kid down the street who would find it confusing and awful. Empathy and compassion for others: something to cultivate, really, it turns out, even if only as a survival mechanism. And I don't think that DFW was lacking in those, normally. If he could feel sorry for a lobster, certainly the pain he'd inflict on others by hanging himself must have given him pause; apparently his pain outweighed even the guilt of that. But in something he wrote, I'm led to believe that it was as much fear of pain as any real pain (which is where the "cowardly" part comes in). He once wrote something trying to help people understand suicide in which he compared suicide to someone jumping out of a burning building, like the World Trade Center towers. He said that the fear of the flames had to be greater than the fear of falling. But here's the thing: the flames of depression are illusory. They may burn but they don't destroy. No matter how much it might convince you that it's a permanent state, suffering, like everything but death, is temporary. Virginia Wolfe walked into a river with rocks in her pockets because she felt her derangement returning, and didn't think she could handle it again (she could have, especially if she'd trusted her husband's love to see her through it, rather than apologizing to him in a note). Like a bad trip, though, a depression WILL always end. Whatever it is that causes it seems to have, like LSD, some sort of a half-life. At some point you come out of it and the joy of existence is there for you again, rich and in full color.
I guess I'm hard on suicides because it helps me not give in. I don't want to be a coward, or to inflict pain. I couldn't live with myself even for the split second it would take to accomplish the act. And I think I need to give voice to this not to be mean, or to disrespect the dead, but because there are a lot of people at risk for suicide (now more than ever, with people's financial futures suddenly being jerked from beneath their feet), and they need to be reminded that there are reasons not to do it. It IS a stupid and a cowardly choice. And the dead are where our opinions of them don't matter, and can't reach them. The time to be compassionate is while people are living. David Foster Wallace hurt his wife, any surviving relatives, his friends, all of his students, his colleagues, fellow writers who looked up to him and who now wonder if he, so brilliant, couldn't come up with a reason to live, how can they hope to? And the generations of readers who will never have the benefit of what he could have written in his maturity.
The best reason, one that I remind myself of while I'm not depressed but somehow forget while I am, to continue to struggle to survive, is that life is an incredible and incredibly unlikely opportunity. It's an opportunity to enjoy beauty, and companionship, and love. To wrestle with ideas, to create, to improve things for the future.
Right now as Americans we've got a lot of work to do. We've got to heal the wounds opened during this campaign, after extracting the poison injected by the GOP's rhetoric, as well, and even worse, by their surrogates. We've got to work hard to fix this economy; it'll take a lot of community-based solutions, like victory gardens and soup kitchens and community shelters, for all of us to make it through the time of serious hardship that is most likely coming. The very real karma of the Bush years is only beginning to play out. People need to be reminded now more than ever that the web of human relationships holds together only when we maintain it; suicide rips it apart as sure as hate. If you know someone who is succumbing to despair, try to remind them that this, too, shall pass. And that every day is a gift. Even suffering is a gift, an opportunity to learn humility enough to ask for help.