On Literary Suicides in General and David Foster Wallace’s Suicide in Particular
It appears that last Friday, on the 12th of September 2008, writer David Foster Wallace, best known for his 1,000 plus page novel Infinite Jest, hanged himself in his home in Claremont, California.
On a human level, though I am not sure what that level is -- actually let me define that level as the private sphere, if there is such a thing as private space anymore, the realm of the personal, the unknowable sphere of the personal, which contains the suffering of David Foster Wallace himself and of those in proximity to him, the suffering of which we know nothing -- this event is of course terrible, tragic. On this level, I have no authority whatsoever to speak.
But when interpreted on another level, from another perspective, a literary and historical perspective, the suicide of this great writer whom I admire deeply is not tragic in the least.
Rather, his gesture towards self-annulment is anachronistic.
As outlined in A Alvarez’s The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, between the 18th and 20th centuries, the suicide of a writer was a significant and meaningful gesture. This notion was heralded in by the era of Romanticism, specifically the suicide of the 17-year old poet Thomas Chatterton in 1770, to be later immortalized in a painting by Henry Wallis, which depicts the pale redheaded poet lying prostrate after imbibing some arsenic.
Like a signature and wax seal on a document issued by a notary, suicide legitimized the writer, gave him posthumous authority. Suicide carved out a territory or space for the writer’s name and the writer’s memory, launching him into immortality. And as we see in the painting of Chatterton, lying there on the bed in his garret in his blue knickerbockers and his white blouse, taking one’s own life was a profoundly aesthetic gesture; it made one beautiful.
Recall just a few of the writers who followed Chatterton’s example: Gerard de Nerval’s hanging himself by an apron string from a window grating in 1855; Virginia Woolf filling the pockets of her coat with stones and drowning herself in the River Ouse in 1941; Hemingway blowing his brains out with his double barreled shotgun in his house in Ketchum, Idaho, in 1961; Sylvia Plath gassing herself in the kitchen of her flat in Primrose Hill in 1963; Paul Celan’s leaping into the Seine in 1970 (though the latter suicide falls into another category altogether, one situated within the horizon of the Holocaust, utterly outside of this Romantic framework.)
When I found myself looking up the category of literary suicides on the ubiquitous Wikipedia, I discovered that the category did not exist, and had been placed under “Categories for deletion.” The discussion over whether to delete this category read like a story written by Foster Wallace himself, testament to his genius in anticipating the absurd bureaucratic rhetoric we all occupy today, a language that flattens everything. As the voters discussed whether or not to delete the category, they offered their reasons: “The title is vague,” said one. “I agree, I don’t really love this category,” wrote another. It appeared that they had decided to rename the category “Writers who have killed themselves.” But when I clicked on that link, this category also did not exist. It had been deleted and merged into the general category of “Suicides,” which contains 42 subcategories including “Aviators who committed suicide,” “Chefs who committed suicide,” “Nazis who committed suicide,” and “Socialites who committed suicide.” Literary suicides had been relegated to the subcategory of “Writers who committed suicide.” Foster Wallace has already been placed on this list.
Yet in the 21st century, this list and suicide as a gesture has taken on an entirely different resonance, specifically because the arena in which it is conducted has shifted, or rather expanded, into the public realm, due to the activities of those individuals whom we refer to as suicide bombers.
In this sense, suicide is no longer purely a private gesture, or one connected to art or creativity or personal suffering. It is also, and, as of this moment, primarily, a public gesture, and a political one (and of course, given that a suicide bomber seeks victims, it is no longer purely an act of the self, but of course, it never really was.) Though one could argue that it is still operating within the framework of Romanticism, for within their ideological and religious delusion, those young male self-described martyrs definitely see a Romantic allure to their actions, and perhaps whilst committing their acts of violence, even consider themselves poets of a kind.
David Foster Wallace killed himself in the wrong century. This will sound heartless, and it is, but if he had killed himself in the 20th century, which was abundant with literary suicides, the gesture would have still qualified as tragic, mythic, legendary, particularly if he had hanged himself within a year of the release of Infinite Jest, published in 1996. The 1990’s was the last gasp of Romantic suicide, though this was mainly played out in the sphere of rock and roll, and perhaps came to an end with the suicide of Kurt Cobain in 1994.
But for Foster Wallace to kill himself in 2008, this gesture is outdated. (The date of his death, September 12, takes my mind on a riff, that again, could be a story Foster Wallace wrote himself, a story about a man who decides to hang himself on September 11, 2008, but who amidst his mind destroying grief realizes the socio-historical significance of the date, associated as it is with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; pondering how a suicide on September 11 will be interpreted after he is gone, he worries that it will turn his suicide into something bordering on kitsch, and thus waits patiently until the next day.)
As it stands, David Foster Wallace’s suicide has no lasting aesthetic resonance, no historical reverberation, and creates no cultural ripple effect. His suicide will not create a space for his name. And most importantly, it offers no revelation regarding his work; it tells us nothing further about his rich and prodigious literary output. It adds nothing to his greatness; nor does it detract from it in any way. (Though I can hear his ghost, even more prone to irony than the man himself, reminding me that the very fact that I am writing this is ironic, given my thesis.)
In the 21st century, writers will require other gestures to seal their names, though I suspect that at this point in time, any kind of gesture by a writer towards posterity is something that is in itself also anachronistic; just as too many writers have taken their own lives, dissipating and diffusing the power of this gesture, too many writers have written too many books, dissipating the possibilities of writing the great book that will linger on. Today, certain contemporary literary deaths that are not acts of suicide but mysterious in circumstance still carry with them a certain magnetism; recall W.G. Sebald’s fatal car accident in 2001, an event that was as enigmatic as his work. But suicide is no longer enigmatic. It is sad and it obvious. There is no mystery to it.
Again, let me be clear: I am not commenting on the personal circumstances of David Foster Wallace’s death, or seeking to confer any meaning or lack thereof to the act itself. Any such attempt to interpret this would be a misinterpretation, and a violation --mere psychologizing—of the unknowable specificity of one man’s life and one man’s heart. Of course, in this sense, his death is calamitous and of deep moral significance, just as it is in the literally literary sense; the loss of this sublime writer who laid the groundwork for many of us writing today, including myself, is devastating and heartbreaking: it is irreparable. Nor do I wish to even imply that he was attempting a Romantic gesture, and failed. That is similarly unknowable.
What am I arguing is that in these early days of the twenty-first century, the suicide of a writer does not mark their body of work, does not inflect it, in the same manner in which it did previously, during the epoch of Romanticism. Is literary Romanticism dead? Perhaps, although it is still too early to say; either way, the terrain in which we are writing and living and dying is shifting; the definition of tragedy today also needs to be examined further. Although we could argue that everything is anachronistic, that we live in an epoch with no sense of itself, and that we occupy a dislocated era, an age out of its proper time, an age Foster Wallace predicted, from a literary perspective, the suicide of David Foster Wallace, or for that matter, the suicide of any writer in the 21st century, is of no importance.