It’s a ghoulish game to hunt for “why’d you do it?” clues in the work of literary suicides. For anyone who actually cares about their writing, there is something close to a moral imperative to resist this vulture-like behavior as much as possible. But with David Foster Wallace, it’s really hard, because the reasons for suicide are overdetermined. While he is intellectually far more adroit, he can be just as confessional about his hopeless discomfort with existence as a not-so-great poet like Anne Sexton, so that you just want to look away after reading certain passages, and say to him (posthumously) PLEASE STOP SHARING.
I think suicide is caused by anhedonia that the sufferer perceives to be unalterable and no longer bearable, and this is true whether you are as sensitive a mental instrument as DFW or not, although the sensitive are obviously more vulnerable to it. But it’s also hard to imagine this writer being born into a worse time and place to have had the sensibility, concerns and the very type of talent he did. Imagine: a person who really believed that complex human expression via the written word was of profound, even vital importance being born into the Great Garbage Patch of mass communication in the US in the late 20th century, when it’s an inescapable fact that reading is a marginal activity of far less consequence to most people’s emotional and aesthetic lives than TV or film viewing, or even gaming. And language is much more effectively used here and now as a tool to obscure, pervert, and deny issues of consequence than to try to understand them. (This isn’t new, but the sheer mass of information we now have to critically assess all the time makes it more consequential). All this comes just at the very moment when our society had achieved the economic and technological capacity to be fully and truly literate, with ease. That is quite enough to make you despair, if you care about language and ethics enough, and in these essays, it’s clear that David Foster Wallace did.
He doesn’t make it easy for you to love language as much as he does, the stultifying way he often uses it. But a kind of engaging clarity sometimes shines through, particularly when he’s talking about other authors and why you should care about how they succeed or fail at what they do. Feminists should be grateful to him for outing Updike’s Pathetic Phall-o-cy, in a way we never could do and be heard, just as GIs can do for the condemnation of war. Essays on Kafka and Dostoevsky also stimulate and illuminate.
It’s funny: I think textual illiteracy is possibly the least of our literacy problems in the contemporary US: our social and ecological illiteracy are much worse for our chances as a society and a species. But I’m not anhedonic or despairing. Don’t ask me why. And don’t ask why David Foster Wallace was. There are too many answers.