Thursday, March 05, 2009


Not to double-up on links to New Yorker profiles, especially when I really don't have anything to add, but the long profile on David Foster Wallace's life and death is quite moving. This is the crux of it, and it's crushingly sad:
For some time, Wallace had come to suspect that the [antidepressant] drug [Nardil] was also interfering with his creative evolution. He worried that it muted his emotions, blocking the leap he was trying to make as a writer. He thought that removing the scrim of Nardil might help him see a way out of his creative impasse. Of course, as he recognized even then, maybe the drug wasn’t the problem; maybe he simply was distant, or maybe boredom was too hard a subject. He wondered if the novel was the right medium for what he was trying to say, and worried that he had lost the passion necessary to complete it.

That summer, Wallace went off the antidepressant. He hoped to be as drug free as [Infinite Jest protagonist] Don Gately, and as calm. Wallace would finish the Long Thing with a clean brain. He entered this new period of life with what Franzen calls “a sense of optimism and a sense of terrible fear.” He hoped to be a different person and a different writer. “That’s what created the tension,” Franzen recalls. “And he didn’t make it.”
Not a good trade. How much better would it have been to just wait another twelve years for a new novel? Or to get no new novel at all?


Me and DFW


stridewideman said...

Thanks for the link. That was a good read, if sad. There's nothing really to say about someone who did so much for so many but was chemically bound for doom.

It seems to me to be an intellectual fallacy to conflate the loss of his fight against depression with the writing he was trying to do. The two were not the same thing (though certainly DFW was more and more breaking through in to the work as himself).

I prefer to think that his commitment to what made life worth living was what made him worth reading; too, that that commitment is what kept him alive and writing for so long and is the testament to the intrinsic value of the work itself.

Perhaps at base, the idea could be summed up that there are reasons worth living for, and one has to work hard to find them and focus on them, and then some people lose sight of those reasons and die.

DFW's suicide was not, then a comment, but rather a capitulation. It takes a lot of energy to stay focused on the good, and I would argue more the smarter you are and the more you can take in the negatives of the world around you. That DFW was overcome doesn't denigrate the worthiness of the effort; if anything it highlights the stakes.

Rob said...

But apparently the decision to go off Nardil really was, at least in part, about the writing he was trying to do and the idea that he would be better able to finish his novel off drugs than on them.

I know that for a lot of people, taking those anti-depressants comes with real costs. You're tired, you feel a little detached, maybe your sex drive is reduced. I don't know if it's true that Nardil really was making DFW too wooly-headed to complete his novel, but my understanding is that wooly-headedness in general really can be a side effect of some anti-depressants. So it's not a crazy thing to think.

Some people make the choice to endure their depression rather than taking the drugs, and okay. Everyone makes choices and weighs out different factors, and it can be hard to make those choices. But for very severe chronic depressives like Wallace, going off medications is just simply not the right choice. Can't that be said?

I'm not criticizing him or his family or other people I've known at various times who had similar symptoms. They are hard choices, and they are not mine to decide in hindsight. But it was a mistake for someone with his medical history to stop taking anti-depressants. Right? Is that something we can say?

stridewideman said...

Depends on which he was focused more on, his life or his art. The really unfortunate part is that it sounds like he didn't realize that was the choice until it was essentially too late.