The Page Addressing the Duality of David Foster Wallace’s Legacy: Unsure Whether to Love Him or Hate Him, or Something Else.

I have no idea how to feel about David Foster Wallace. Good Old Neon was the first DFW work I came across, and it knocked me on my ass. It took no more than those 40-something pages to be convinced he was the coolest and smartest writer, ever. With DFW, the blaring hyper-intelligence that could forge an inward portal through any given mundane situation was only the beginning. Good Old Neon, with its exploration of fraudulence and the inner-outer friction, resonated in what felt like a deep and special way with me. Looking at it now, I imagine that his writing’s success comes from it having this effect on each and every reader, tapping some deeply mutual strand of self-consciousness that all of us wish we could express as he does.

And of course, I watched Jason Segel’s sublime performance in The End of the Tour, further perpetuating DFW’s legacy as brilliant, charming, and poignantly, neurochemically unfortunate, tragically capped by suicide.

Then, I read Jonathan Franzen’s piece in the New Yorker, Farther AwayFranzen explores the intricacies of DFW in a way only someone close to him, both socially and mentally, could. He reveals and contextualizes the DFW duality that makes it so difficult to know how to feel about his legacy. There are the highs, a writer who finds momentary salvation in his work, and the lows, a narcissistic addict bent on hurting those who love him most.

Some excerpts from the Franzen piece:

This duality played out in the year that followed his quitting Nardil. He made strange and seemingly self-defeating decisions about his care, engaged in a fair amount of bamboozlement of his shrinks (whom one can only pity for having drawn such a brilliantly complicated case), and in the end created an entire secret life devoted to suicide. Throughout that year, the David whom I knew well and loved immoderately was struggling bravely to build a more secure foundation for his work and his life, contending with heartbreaking levels of anxiety and pain, while the David whom I knew less well, but still well enough to have always disliked and distrusted, was methodically plotting his own destruction and his revenge on those who loved him.”

He’d loved writing fiction, ‘Infinite Jest’ in particular, and he’d been very explicit, in our many discussions of the purpose of novels, about his belief that fiction is a solution, the best solution, to the problem of existential solitude.”

The Work, or the Life?

DFW’s legacy absolves him, or rather erases all tracks, of any culpability in his inflicting pain upon those who loved him most. This insidious nature is tough to reconcile with the idolization a generation of aspiring writers undeniably feel towards his unparalleled writing style (which, though many may try, cannot be replicated).

But zooming out a little farther, there’s a larger tension at play that plagues the entire history of Western Intellectualism: to what degree should we admire and seek to emulate the work of those who led lives we have no interest in leading?

More broadly: what is, or ought to be, the relationship between one’s life, and one’s work? 


This question is what William Yeats’ poem, The Choice, explores:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.”

I don’t know where this leaves us, or him. If anything, this unearthed friction intensifies my fascination with both his writing and life. Maybe that’s what he wanted? In puzzled conclusion, a few of my favorite DFW quotes:

Nothing from nature is good or bad. Natural things just are; the only good and bad things are people’s various choices in the face of what is.”

– David Foster Wallace, Back in New Fire, “Both Flesh and Not”, p. 171

If we’re the only animals who know in advance we’re going to die, we’re also probably the only animals who would submit so cheerfully to the sustained denial of this undeniable and very important truth. The danger is that, as entertainment’s denials of the truth get even more effective and pervasive and seductive, we will eventually forget what they’re denials of. This is scary. Because it seems transparent to me that if we forget how to die, we’re going to forget how to live.”

– David Foster Wallace, Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young, “Both Flesh and Not”. p. 51

And it’s so true it’s trite that human beings are narrative animals: every culture countenances itself as a culture via a story, whether mythopoeic or politico-economic; every whole person understands his life-time as an organized, recountable series of events and changes with at least a beginning and middle. We need narrative like we need space-time; it’s a built-in thing.”  

David Foster Wallace, Ibid, p. 52

What exactly do you think you are? The millions and trillions of thoughts, memories, juxtapositions — even crazy ones like this, you’re thinking — that flash through your head and disappear? Some sum or remainder of these? Your history…The truth is you’ve already heard this. That this is what it’s like. That it’s what makes room for the universes inside you, all the endless inbent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices, the in- finities you can never show another soul. And you think it makes you a fraud, the tiny fraction anyone else ever sees? Of course you’re a fraud, of course what people see is never you. And of course you know this, and of course you try to manage what part they see if you know it’s only a part. Who wouldn’t? It’s called free will, Sherlock. But at the same time it’s why it feels so good to break down and cry in front of others, or to laugh, or speak in tongues, or chant in Bengali — it’s not English anymore, it’s not getting squeezed through any hole.”

– David Foster Wallace, Good Old Neon, “Oblivion”, pp. 179-180