Remembering David Foster Wallace

The world has lost a spectacular writer. Already it seems as if some special portal of human intelligence has been closed off. — John Seery, colleague and friend in HuffPost remembrance

David Foster Wallace, one of my heroes and inspirations, hanged himself Friday night here in Claremont. Considered among the greatest writers of his generation, and certainly a jewel on the Pomona faculty, I’ve been reading and following his work for years. His loss is crushing.

Virtually every time I read Wallace I feel inspired to want to be smarter. He inspires me with his range — from the meaning of number zero to esoteric literary theory to talk radio to tennis to politics. He inspires me with his style — surely not everyone’s taste, but even his critics admire his courage to re-define his genre and challenge convention. He inspires me with his relentless humor — even if his ideas were baseless (they’re not) he would still be recognized as a world class humorist. He inspires me with his raw thought process — how he arranged his verbs and nouns to produce an argument that was accessible and rational and entertaining all at once.David_foster_wallace_3

Wallace’s suicide raises for me the question about the correlation between enlightenment and depression. How much truth is there to the phrase "ignorance is bliss"? How unbearable is genius?

It was not a question I discussed with his other readers. When marveling at Wallace’s output, we always talked about its brio but we never seriously pondered whether the author was a happy man.

Discovering that somebody vigorously read (or tried to read!) Wallace became for me another one of those litmus tests when deciding whether to spend time with a person. To me it didn’t matter so much that people liked him or agreed with him, but rather that they were disposed to be tickled by his intellect.

•••

There is sure to be a deluge of remembrances and obituaries about Wallace’s life in the coming days. I thought I could contribute my part to this collection by relaying a quick story about meeting Wallace here in Claremont.

Since 2002 Wallace had taught a class a semester at Pomona College. His reputation as a teacher matched his reputation in the literary world. Students loved him. Far from adopting the pose of "famous professor who doesn’t have time for his students," Wallace was known to offer excruciatingly detailed and personal critiques of students’ work. (He also didn’t need the money of an endowed professorship — see his MacArthur genius grant, for example.)

When I arrived in Claremont in fall 2007, one of my goals was to take his class. As a student at Claremont McKenna, part of the consortium of colleges here which permit cross registration, it was going to be possible but difficult since for popular classes preference is given to seniors at the home college.

I looked up Wallace’s course this past spring at Pomona and saw he was teaching "The Literary Essay," which was about the art of the imaginative non-fiction essay, a skill for which Wallace can comfortably claim expertise, to put it mildly. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to register for it.

I showed up to his class anyway. At the least I just wanted to see him in person. I was terrified.

After going down the list of twelve and taking note of each student’s name, major, and hometown, Wallace looked around to see if he missed anybody. Me. He asked who I was. I said I was a student who hoped to enroll in his class. He said it was full and there was a waiting list. I said I understood. He said I was welcome to leave. I asked if he wanted me to leave. He said it was going to be a boring day of reviewing the syllabus and he wouldn’t want me to suffer through it if I were not going to actually be in the class. David Foster Wallace reviewing a syllabus on writing? People would pay money to be witness to that. I said I’d prefer to stay since I had walked all the way over, and he agreed.

His syllabus was wonderful — and yes, it had footnotes. He seemed to be chewing tobacco and spitting it into a mug as he talked about why this was going to be a class where we as writers improve our ability to engage a reader who has zero interest in our opinions or emotions. He wore big black shoes, the laces seemed undone, and had a bandanna on his head.

To round out the syllabus, Wallace asked some kids to volunteer to turn in essays on certain days for group workshopping. No one volunteered. I looked around, incredulous. David Foster Wallace just asked for volunteers, and no one is volunteering?!?! He announced there would be a bathroom break and when class re-convened, somebody had better be ready to sign up.

Outside, in the bathroom, I smiled awkwardly to him and told him I was a huge fan of his work. I felt like just another fanboy. Even though this famous writer has heard much higher praise, he still smiled genuinely and thanked me for the kind words.

Using the email address he listed on the syllabus, I emailed Wallace after class to ask if I could meet with him one on one. To my astonishment he replied a few hours later and said I could come to his office hours and we’d chat. In his reply he also "beseeched" me not to share his email address with anyone. (He was notoriously difficult to access; he did not maintain a Pomona email address; phone calls to the English Dept were directed to his agent; he did very few interviews / media appearances for his books.)

A week later I went to his office hours. I showed up 20 minutes early and paced around the building, going over what I would ask him. I walked in right at 6pm, and saw him in the hallway. He gently remembered who I was, pointed to his office, and said he’d be in in a minute. I stood around in his large office alone, admiring the books lining the shelves and soaking up the reality of the situation.

We ended up talking for about 25 minutes before another student showed up. I asked him about editing the Best American Essays of 2007. I asked him how he crafts such vivid descriptions in his writing (his response was that good writers slave over their work and the brilliant description doesn’t happen on the first try). I asked about the value of an education. He was gracious, kind, and interested.

This all happened just a few months ago. I must admit I harbored some fantasy of meeting him again, taking a full class, getting some tips, learning more about the man behind the prose. That possibility, no matter how remote, is now gone. All I have is the memory of sitting in his office.

More important, the world has lost one of its most distinctive and illuminating voices. A sad night.

14 Responses to Remembering David Foster Wallace

  1. Shefaly says:

    Ben:

    Very good post.

    The most telling line in your post is this: “Virtually every time I read Wallace I feel inspired to want to be smarter.” This is a great test for wanting to spend time on people whether reading their work or knowing them in person.

    On the rest, I cite Camus: “Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal”.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Chris Yeh says:

    One of the things that happens to people over the years as they become more famous and prominent is that it introduces additional distance from others into their lives.

    When you’re DAVID FOSTER WALLACE, no one treats you like an ordinary person anymore.

    For some, this is a pleasure; they delight in playing the role of the famous writer, the politician, the entertainer. R. W. Apple comes to mind.

    Yet for others, it is a torment. It gets in the way of both knowing and being known.

    I’m sure you’ve felt it yourself, when the folks whom you meet after a speaking engagement gaze upwards at BEN CASNOCHA rather than plain old Ben.

    Unfortunately, to feel awed in the presence of greatness is all too natural…at HBS, I was often called upon to ask questions of famous guests (to avoid the embarassing tongue-tied silence that often accompanied the start of their Q&A periods). That’s how I got to ask the first questions of Michael Dell, Carly Fiorina, and Warren Buffett. Yet even I only managed to interact with these luminaries through dint of sheer willpower. When it came to John Doerr, I chickened out–instead of telling him personally that he needed to comb his hair, I cowardly pointed out the fact to his assistant!

  3. Zack says:

    Thank you for this.

    I had never heard of DFW before reading Ben’s blog. Reading his post helps me get my mind around this horrible news.

  4. Now David Foster Wallace knows the true meaning of infinite jest.

    Strangely enough, I think I hear him singing.

  5. Krishna says:

    Indeed sad.

    You quiz “How much truth is there to the phrase “ignorance is bliss”? How unbearable is genius?”

    In that you seek to exemplify a true curmudgeon’s perpetual challenge. Their temerity to unapologetically comment on human condition often earns them a bad rap in a way a messenger is blamed for the message. Despite their honest intentions to debunk (sometimes hollow) conventions, the perceptive world view of them is one of a wet blanket. To shrug it off as others’ obstinacy may be easier as they go up the culture ladder, but when they are on the first few rungs it is caustic enough to scythe through your gut.

    I haven’t read his work. From what you say I reckon DFW amongst those perched high enough. May be his awareness was a curse – in that he couldn’t compromise his standards or just that he failed to manage the suspension of disbelief necessary for feigned cheerfulness. He could’ve tried a bit longer though. My condolences.

  6. Michael W. says:

    Hey Ben,

    You posed a great question about a commonly accepted phrase. Maybe genius is a double-edged sword. For those who knew him, read him, and strove to emulate him… my prayers are with them all.

    But on such a grief-ridden weekend on Claremont McKenna’s campus, maybe a different question should be posed. Are we to grieve in different ways when reflecting on one who took his own life versus one whose life was taken from him?

    I am, of course, referring to the tragedy that occurred on the metrolink which killed 25 people, including Atul Vyas ’09.

    Our thoughts are with both of their families and loved ones.

    - Michael

  7. Don’t overlook that being able to be awed in someone else’s presence is one of life’s joys. Some people never get to experience that.

  8. And to answer the post’s main question… genius seems to specialize. I once asked my father what the difference was between civilized and uncivilized peoples, and he said “professional specialization”. Talking about a “genius” is kind of like talking about a “professional” without saying what kind – doctor? lawyer? physicist? evolutionary biologist?

    Some geniuses lead more difficult lives than others. How much responsibility you take on, why you take it on. How much time you spend thinking about the problems that come with your genius, versus appreciating the benefits. (This is something I struggle with a lot myself.) Your degree of meta-control. Whether your genius is such as to lift you out of poverty; whether your work is such as to consume all your energies.

    I think that a genius gets a chance to be happier than most people. But some people will judge that this is not the most important thing they can accomplish with their lives, and once you make happiness into a secondary priority, it often gets traded off – that’s just the way things are, action and consequence.

    But I guess I really don’t understand, on a personal level, how a genius could let it get bad enough to commit suicide. Surely before you do that, you should divert some of your genius to fixing your life.

  9. Jason says:

    While David Wallace’s death is undeniably tragic, I think everyone is missing something here:

    Did he have a history of mental illness and/or depression?

    Please understand that I do not wish to attach any stigma to any psychological disorder. In fact, I have a great deal of compassion for those who battle them — often in silence — on a daily basis.

    However, if Wallace had been battling depression, this may simply be a matter of an undiagnosed illness overpowering its host.

    I find this career as a writer to be irrelevant; anyone can suffer from mental illness. Sure, many “creative types” seem to battle these conditions, but so do crossing guards, pre-school teachers, doctors, accounts… ANYONE.

    In sum, I wish Wallace’s loved ones all the best during this difficult time. And should any evidence of mental illness be disclosed in the coming weeks or months, let us all take it as a lesson to seek treatment and not shrug it off.

  10. Sean S says:

    I tend to wonder whether it’s possible to be as smart as he was without having a mental illness. In other words, perhaps being a genius is itself an illness (there certainly is a definite difference in a genius brain as opposed to a “normal” brain.

    I think of people like Bobby Fischer, and David Foster Wallace, and many others, and wonder whether we truly understand how much different they are than an average person (I understand it’s quite difficult to define these terms). Simply, we may have no idea what it is like to live inside their heads.

  11. There was much revealed about the general state of Wallace’s mind in that commencement address.

    When I read the words “…the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college,” I felt sorry for a man who still couldn’t get outside his head, even when he speechified about it.

    I suppose a person working such a tedious job to pay for his courses at the local college wouldn’t be pleased to call his work meaningless, but such a banality seems to have been beyond the magister’s imagination.

    David Foster Wallace may have lost his heart and soul in this life but I feel confident he sees the Light now.

  12. People, please- geniuses mess up too. They’re still human.

    Poor guy. Your account of meeting him is wonderful, Ben, very glad you took the trouble to do that.

  13. Ben,
    Great post. I am proud to say that I had the great fortune of being a student of Wallace’s in the late 90′s at Illinois State University. I registered for the class not even knowing who he was. It was the most challenging and most rewarding English class I ever took. I laughed out loud when I read about how he took so much time to read students’ work. I was so impressed by how much time he took to pour over everything we turned in to him. He would fill the margins with comments and questions. I always remember that as I grade papers now as an English teacher. I could go on and on, but you already know that DFW’s impact is huge and wide-spreading. I wish that more people had the privilege I did of having him in class.

  14. Brett Hardin says:

    Ben,

    Your obituary for David demonstrates your ability to write. Excellent post.

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