Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Infinite Jest

Melancolia Albrecht Dürer

I have to admit that I haven't read any of David Foster Wallace's fiction. I have a pretty short attention span, and his masterwork Infinite Jest is over 1000 pages long, and extensively footnoted. Some of the footnotes have footnotes. I have enjoyed his essays though, like this one, about the McCain campaign press bus during the 2000 elections: The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub

As most of you know, Wallace took his own life last week. He suffered from chronic depression for years, and it grew resistant to medication. His father told the New York Times, "Everything had been tried, and he just couldn’t stand it anymore."

Hundreds of literary sites and blogs have posted tributes. The heartbreak of his friends, colleagues and readers is palpable. One bewildered question keeps bubbling to the surface, and I'll paraphrase here: He was so funny/humorous/witty. How could someone with such a great sense of humor commit suicide?

In A Treatise of Melancholie (1586), Timothy Bright described the paradox of a depressive personality. Aside from the Aristotlean physiology, it's good enough for the DSM-IV.

The perturbations of melancholy are for the most parte, sadde and fearful, and such as rise of them: as distrust, doubt, diffidence, or dispaire, sometimes furious and sometimes merry in apparaunce, through a kinde of Sardonian [sardonic], and false laughter, as the humour is disposed that procureth these diversities. Those which are sad and pensive, rise of that melancholick humour, which is the grossest part of the blood, whether it be iuice or excrement, not passing the naturall temper in heat whereof it partaketh, and is called cold in comparison onely. This for the most part is setled in the spleane, and with his vapours anoyeth the harte and passing vp to the brayne, counterfetteth terrible obiectes to the fantasie, and polluting both the substance, and spirits of the brayne, causeth it without externall occasion, to forge monstrous fictions, and terrible to the conceite, which the iudgement taking as they are presented by the disordered instrument, deliuer ouer to the hart, which hath no iudgement of discretion in it self, but giuing credite to the mistaken report of the braine, breaketh out into that inordinate passion, against reason.

For the depressive, humor (sometimes of the sardonic variety) bridges the gap between the shadows of his reality, and the sunshine of everyone else's. Cassandra predicted a future that nobody wanted to hear; a depressive experiences a present that most can't comprehend.* I don't think David Foster Wallace's sense of humor was inconsistent with his depression. And, it probably kept him alive for much longer than if he had been without. Rest in peace, DFW.

*I speak from personal experience, although I hasten to add, mostly to reassure my family, that in no way have I ever been as ill as Wallace. He was hospitalized more than once, and received electroconvulsive therapy when nothing else worked.

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