What Today Brings
“There is no great genius without some touch of madness.” - Aristotle
Authors and creative spirits are always on my mind but never so much as while sifting through hundreds of books for our new Versailles bookstore, Rabbit House Books & Notions, coming December 9th at the corner of Main and Green streets. Yesterday, I placed on our shelves the wildly creative and untamed mind of David Foster Wallace who serves as a beautiful and empathetic glimpse into the human condition. In all of his work but specifically his book of essays, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Foster invites us, rather summons us, into his personal experience with existence. Just as Prince sang, “Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”
This author of creative non-fiction and fiction was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” in 1997. Wallace had an unquestionably expansive intellect both scholarly and intuitively. His wisdom ranged from science and history to politics, art, sports and matters of the heart. Unapologetically using his own stream of consciousness, his mind works swiftly on so many levels that I am enthralled at the speed at which his synapses fire and captivated by the amount of information he packs into one sentence. While discussing his love of tennis, he delves into the mind games of the sport while simultaneously investigating the human spirit. “Midwest junior tennis was also my initiation into true adult sadness,” he wrote. Brought at an early age to live in Illinois, young David found the unruly weather of the area to be in sync with his own Zen like acceptance. He rolled with the changes in the atmosphere, referred to as ‘Tornado Alley’ for its wicked winds and unpredictable climate. As adjustable as any army kid who had to move where he was told, he held no rulebook, flinging his body in the direction of the ball and using the erratic, volatile wind as his partner. Speaking of how his own untamed ways worked to his advantage as a tennis player, he talks of his “Taoistic ability to control via noncontrol.”
Wallace is a second generation academic, his father was Emeritus Professor at the University of Illinois and his mother was an English Professor at Parkland College who won the Professor of the year award. His essays resemble academic works and take form with a clear thesis or argument. He uses phrases like, I submit, e.g., i.e. and is famous for his titanic usage of footnotes.
In the widely read essay about the style and importance of writer/director, David Lynch, (Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet), Wallace delves into pop culture and its significance. His love of the director is refreshingly enthusiastic and innocent in nature. He gushes while prodding on to prove why we also should gush. “I submit that Lynch’s lack of irony is the real reason some cineastes – in this age where ironic self-consciousness is the one and only universally recognized badge of sophistication – see him as a naïf or a buffoon. In fact, Lynch is neither…”
Wallace goes on to demonstrate his own education regarding art and its historical evolution, all the while revealing his massive vocabulary. “What (Lynch) is is a weird hybrid blend of classical Expressionist and Contemporary Postmodernist, an artist whose own “internal impressions and moods” are (like ours) an olla podrida of neurogenic predisposition and phylogenic myth and psychoanalytic schema and pop cultural iconography – in other words, Lynch is sort of a G.P. Pabst with an Elvis ducktail.” Now that is a mouthful! Earlier in the same essay he had already given us a lesson on irony, Third World rebels, the phenomenon of modern filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, classical Expressionistic cinema, French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, German philosopher Martin Heideggar, Barthes Mallarme, New Critics, Poststructuralist and “a neat example of that modern commissure where Continental Theory and analytic practice fuse.” A person needs to be educated at a graduate level in the arts or the child of overzealous philosopher parents to begin to understand his work fully. Even then, one needs several trips to Wikipedia to get each reference.
The Lynch essay in “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” is filled with detailed explanations of historically used symbolism, technique and the subconscious needs and yearnings of the movie going audience. Wallace delves deeper than his obvious education on all things art and cinema and goes into the humanity of his subject, pointing to times where Lynch fails. Most interestingly, he reveals how Lynch fails as an empathetic human being. Wallace reveals his distaste for the way Lynch treats other people and exploits them as he did in casting Richard Pryor post Multiple Sclerosis, the disease which as the author put it, “stripped him of 75 pounds and effects his speech and causes his eyes to bulge and makes him seem like a cruel child’s parody of a damaged person.” This casting choice turned the empathetic Wallace off tremendously. He goes on to say, “His casting is thematically intriguing, then, but coldly, meanly so, and watching his scenes I again felt that I admired Lynch as an artist and from a distance but would have no wish to hang out in his trailer or be his friend.”
A champion of the underdog, Wallace is unabashedly honest about his feelings and courageously calls out even those he deeply admires. While insecurities served him well as an artist, they made living difficult and he unfortunately conducted a lifelong battle with depression. In 2008, newly married and teaching in Santa Barbara, Wallace tampered with an anti-depressant that had apparently been working for over a decade. He fell into a deep depression and was never able to get back in balance or find the magic formula his brain needed to keep him okay. David Foster Wallace took his own life at the age of forty-seven.
In his writing, he ushered us into his over active mind and empathetic heart, reaching for the reader that could relate, all others be damned. The stream of consciousness may be extreme, wild and untamed but his opinions, beliefs and emotions are unrehearsed and unregretful, which is what art, at its best, can only hope to accomplish.
Thomas Wolfe wrote in Of Time and the River in 1935, “At that instant he saw, in one blaze of light, an image of unutterable conviction, the reason why the artist works and lives and has his being — the reward he seeks — the only reward he really cares about, without which there is nothing. It is to snare the spirits of mankind in nets of magic, to make his life prevail through his creation, to wreak the vision of his life, the rude and painful substance of his own experience, into the congruence of blazing and enchanted images…”
Wallace was a true artist, a troubadour and a champion of the human condition who did, before his untimely death, “wreak the vision of his life, the rude and painful substance of his own experience, into the congruence of blazing and enchanted images.” For this he deserves to be honored, remembered, studied and revered.