Capacity of Spirit > Any Special Talents

D.T. Max has a 10,000 word essay in the latest New Yorker on the life of David Foster Wallace. It breaks new ground on several fronts. Most notably, interviews with his wife Karen Green and excerpts and detail on his third novel that he did not finish. Max suggests that Wallace’s inability to complete novel #3 weighed on him to the point where he wondered whether the anti-depressants were hindering his creativity. This contributed to him going off Nardil, which was the beginning of the end.

Here’s one quote along the way that jumped out at me:

In his final major interview, given to Le Nouvel Observateur in August, 2007, Wallace talked about various writers he admired—St. Paul, Rousseau, Dostoyevsky among them—and added “what are envied and coveted here seem to me to be qualities of human beings—capacities of spirit—rather than technical abilities or special talents.

There’s a lot of wisdom there. Someone’s qualities as a human being mattering more than their technical ability or special talents.


Here’s another DFW quote from his interview with Larry McCaffery in 1993:

I’m not saying I’m able to work consistently out of the premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love.

And here are all the articles I’ve read tagged David Foster Wallace.

8 comments on “Capacity of Spirit > Any Special Talents
  • Good post. I really enjoy pondering and acting on this topic. I wonder, when you say one ‘matters’ more than the other, do you think it is only in certain contexts, like literature, or is it universal in its application? Personally, I would argue for the latter. Again, good post.

  • I would agree with this wholeheartedly. It’s possible for art to be well-executed but mean-spirited, manipululative, and quite evil. Good art illuminates our world in a very deep way, which tends to be powerfully uplifting and exhilirating even when it’s tragic at the same time.

  • DFW knew from early on he had a gift, and it seems he made a conscious choice about where to apply his gifts.  Fiction seemed like a pinnacle of intellectual and moral activity, the practice of communicating the human experience.  And he did it better than almost anyone of his time.  It was always sort of hard to see the moral motivation of DFW given that cynicism seemed to be his default setting and had such a natural gift for it.  Yet, morality or even “goodness” was at the heart of his work, and this is the first article I’ve seen ex post that touches on that.

    I have a hard time thinking about DFW and his suicide.  I don’t mean that in the sense that I avoid thinking about it because it’s sad, but more in the sense that I’m unsure and maybe a little scared about what it means.  It seems that I’m more affected by it than I should be.  I only started reading DFW last year, and he’s certainly not the first person I’ve been a fan of to commit suicide.  For me, there’s something more unsettling about it than your average suicide of a great guy.

    DFW was smart.  More so than anyone that I know of, he was attuned to the world, himself, and human nature.  These are all things I strive for, but it’s not always obvious what specifically the goal is of achieving heightened awareness of the human condition.  Acheiving some level of greater awareness certainly brings a more fullfilling and meaningful life, but are there diminishing returns?  Is there a point where it negatively impacts your life?  I can’t completely divorce DFW’s soaring intellect from his severe depression.  There’s no way they’re disconnected.  The more disturbing notion is that there’s a kind of an inevitablility and irreversability around intellectual awareness.  Even if you become aware that your own thinking is causing you harm, you can’t stop thinking.  I’m coinvinced you can’t become less aware of things; you can only pretend to notice them less in your own head.  Self-aware people aren’t particulary good at fooling themselves.

    Fortunately for me, I’ll never be nearly as smart as DFW, but I can’t help thinking if “over-thinking” can cause emotional harm (how meta).  Plus there’s the whole irreversability of it all.  No matter what I do, I’ll never be able to enjoy Disneyland the same way I did as a kid.  I know too much.  DFW seemed to get tired of his writings and even his own thoughts.  Granted, it’s possible recent events in my life have clouded my thinking.  The most optimistic I can be is that the highs are higher and lows are lower, similar to a point you made a couple of weeks back.

  • There’s no doubt that self-awareness has diminishing returns and that being self-aware about these diminishing returns doesn’t help the cause.

    I would add that depression has chemical / genetic component to it, and I believe that most people who take medicine to treat their depression were born that way.

    If you’re not clinically depressed, I think intelligence and self-awareness and a commitment to broader understanding of the human condition can lead to sad and down moments and experiences, but absent a genetic component are unlikely to plunge someone to the depths of despair a la DFW or anyone else who has committed suicide.

  • Wittgenstein, ‘Culture and Value’:

    “The measure of genius is character,– even though character on its own does not amount to genius. Genius is not ‘talent plus character’, but character manifesting itself in the form of a special talent. Just as one man will show courage by jumping into water after someone, so another will show courage by writing a symphony. (This is a weak example.)

    There is no more light in a genius than in any other honest man– but he has a particular kind of lens to concentrate this light into a burning point.”

    And a bit later on:

    “One might say ‘Genius is talent exercised with courage.‘”

    I’ve enthusiastically been reading both Wittgenstein DFW for a while now, and the two strike me as hyper-talented individuals who are very similar in a very special way: both distinguished themselves (their thought and their art) by being prodigious thinkers, but also by fusing their intellectual passion with an undiluted and tangible human passion, if that makes any sense. Both qualities are rare on their own, and the combination makes for truly extraordinary individuals. (Also, Wittgenstein, too, was plagued by suicidal thoughts for most of his life.)

    P.S. The first quotation is from the UChicago edition of ‘Culture and Value’, pg. 35e. The second quotation is from pg. 38e. The italicization is Wittgenstein’s own.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *