Appreciation: David Foster Wallace

Appreciation: David Foster Wallace

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One of the most vexing frustrations of the human condition is the fact that we are forever caged inside our own minds. Love, romantic and familial, and friendship, bring us as close as we ever get to inhabiting the soul of another, to see the world through others’ eyes.

Reading is only other thing that comes close. A lot of reading is done to acquire information, to satisfy curiosity, to while away time, or engage in escape. But the rarest and most elevated experience a reader can have is to feel, briefly, in contact with another mind. To see one’s one inchoate sentiments articulated so precisely, that our own inescapable and endemic solitude momentarily lifts. It’s a profound connection. We can probably all name authors we feel this way about, and for me David Foster Wallace was that first and foremost. That’s why I cried last night when I learned that he had committed suicide at age 46.

I read Infinite Jest, the summer between high school and college and it blew my mind. I loved it so much I returned to it again while living in Italy in 2000. I devoured his short story and non-fiction collections. (Stop what you’re doing and go read the title piece in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.) My senior year of college I adapted his brilliant (and under appreciated) book, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men for the stage. One of the actors in it was John Krasinski (of TV’s The Office), who is now making a movie version of the book. As much as any single writer and thinker, Wallace shaped my own sensibility. And I always held out hope that I’d meet him one day.

Wallace’s project, which he lays out pretty clearly in this 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, was empathy. And as a hyper-brilliant mind, the path he took towards it, in his writing, was to use his raw intellectual horsepower to achieve a kind of moral enlightenment. There was, in this way, a merging of form and content: his writing worked because he was able to achieve this kind of brilliant, self-conscious, painfully self-aware, but nonetheless robust and heart-breaking empathy for his characters and subjects. And as a reader, the prose itself made one feel a similar kind of soul connection to both the writer and the people the writer described. He felt close. His characters felt close. And reading him I found that the prison bars of my own embedded subjectivity, my own selfish “default setting” was shaken, bent, expanded just enough to be able to glimpse something eternally, capital-T True. Something sublime.

His loss is an unimaginable tragedy.

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