Our culture and media emit a two-faced discourse about suicide. On the one hand, suicide demonstrates stupidity, weakness and mental illness; so for the sake of our dignity we should never consider it. That’s it. End of question.
On the other hand, we make it out to symbolize the climax of a particular kind of lived experience in which a person has a disastrous yet beautiful temperament of both brilliant intelligence and emotional sensitivity. Disastrous because this duality, when we consider the inherent self-hate and self-abuse our society quietly allows, reads like the recipe for a cold and brutal life; Beautiful because of the honest and tragic sense of ourselves and the world around us, that these personalities display.
It is impossible to claim that David Foster Wallace’s popularity would be as ubiquitous as it is now if we detached this second narrative from the overall story of his life. I make this argument as a cultural truth, not as an attempt to decry Wallace’s work. Infinite Jest is a great novel at some points, an unsurpassable one at others. I am sure the best years of its fandom are still ahead of it. When we talk about the actual person David Foster Wallace, however, unforgiving criticism and excessive idolatry draw parallel lines in the discussion of a man who apparently embodies in full, the dangerous relationship between sinner and saint. The frankenstein of conversations and debates revolves around a persona that none of us have the right to speak for, yet we somehow all feel entitled to do so.
But this kind of thing didn’t start with Wallace. The trope of the tortured artist — an archetype swollen with a perverse romanticism — has survived in our cultural memory for what seems like a very long time. Wallace’s suicide seems only to have been the most recent manifestation of this gross stereotype, which we’ve begun to call the “Kurt Cobain Effect.” Idealizations of Sylvia Plath or Van Gogh carry with them a similar odor, and a step away from suicides brings us into a discussion of the fetishization of suffering as just a subcategory for the fetishization of “creatives” in general.
We not only love art; We also love artists. We view them as the avatar of whatever we find so exemplary about their work. In the case of Wallace or Cobain, our culture constructs a story of idealists, whose work and death functioned as both the means and the end. Their smart, sympathetic, fragile personalities became entangled with the dark corners of the human condition, and only their art manages to provide a relief from pain. However, when the art fails, either through its “selling-out” or through its distortion, the artist fails. And in our pathetic world of “talk-the-talk” and “walk-the-walk”, the trope of the tortured artist, who is now also a failure at the only thing that kept him or her going, realizes his or her own teleology: to end that thing which has failed the art. To end yourself.
We know Wallace is “for real” because he fulfilled this story. He knew something true and esoteric about depression or killing himself because he actually tried, and eventually succeeded, to kill himself. And so upon this tragic event, his writings instantly obtain a brand-new validity they never had before, because we believe someone to have brushed up against a harsh, unrelenting type of knowledge, or maybe because he dealt with a way of living with which many of us are familiar, but unlike Wallace we (and I do not mean the royal “we” here; I include myself) do not have the bravery to confront and banish it from our psyches.
The fact that we can predict suicide as a terminus to a life-story should cause us to reexamine the nature of our society’s fascination with these kinds of artists, and with suicide in general. I don’t necessarily understand the cultural effect of Wallace’s sainthood. I’ll venture to say that our intense focus on someone who wrote pretty often about suicide and suicidal people has at least a little to do with that person’s own suicide. We will consume good stories wherever we can find them. All the better if they “actually” happened. All the better if the story of the artist is just as painful as the work itself. All the better if we know there is someone as illustrious as Wallace who shares our struggle. God forbid that we examine the grotesque patterns of the stories we devour, or that we change the way we view artists so that their suicide does not mark their merit. God forbid that we forget who Wallace was so that we do not take comfort in identifying or falling in love with a man we don’t actually know. God forbid we separate the artist from the art so that the truth we find inside the work doesn’t translate into a cultural obsession about killing oneself.
David Foster Wallace gave many of us a common vocabulary for our depression, our guilt and our suicidal thoughts. He made many of his readers understand that their feelings did not signify inadequacy or abnormality. But I hope we can divorce that from his life and its sadness, which was never the story we were intended to read.