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.

-- Alistair McCartney (24/09/2008)

Readers Comments

  1. Mrinal Bose says... Wednesday 24 September 2008

    I didn't like the way you have interpreted DFW's suicide. He was a hugely talented and thinking writer, and loved life profoundly. Why don't we see it as a humanist writer's protest against the surroundings he failed to rearrange according to his tastes? Even in his death, he looms larger than life!

  2. Fin Keegan says... Wednesday 24 September 2008

    If JK Rowling killed herself tomorrow (God forbid), her suicide would not only "mark" her body of work, but entirely "infect" it.

    What if she leapt out of a high window, thinking she was a Quidditch ace?

  3. The Bookwright says... Monday 29 September 2008

    Any suicide has to been seen in the context of multiple lives - there can be many reasons for it - perhaps he felt his job was done and to move on, he had to come back again.

  4. The degree of shallowness here defies logic, taste and even a hint of empathy or compassion. Had you witnessed Dave's suffering first-hand during the last year and known the specifics of his life, I'm sure you would see that making critical hay of this tragedy is not only foolish, it borders on evil. I pray no one who knew Dave on a personal level will ever go near this blog.

  5. james tritt says... Tuesday 07 October 2008

    I think it's interesting how the author attempts to redeem this already shockingly tasteless and inappropriate musing towards its end. Too little too late. How can one divorce these unhelpful speculations about the best historical context in which to gain oneself popular notoriety with an audience (sort of the main big subject of DFW's hulking opus, Infinite Jest) from one's concern about the man's "personal circumstances"? Only a very aloof person could so cavalierly commodify an artist as to think it's OK as long as you add an apology.

  6. Rowan Wilson says... Thursday 09 October 2008

    Thanks James. You've helped me nail what is so vile about this piece. Apart from the tasteless timing, the dreadful writing - that pretentious title, all those pompous caveats about 'the human', the meandering filler about wikipedia - and the pseudo-intellectual claims for such meaningless drivel as a 'literary perspective', it is the cynical hypocrisy: 'I'm not commenting on Wallace's personal intentions but I'm going to make sensationalist and vampiric use of his suffering.' The expression is designed to shock and to upset: "David Foster Wallace killed himself in the wrong century." Or: "David Foster Wallace’s suicide has no lasting aesthetic resonance, no historical reverberation, and creates no cultural ripple effect." And then to try and have your cake and eat it by saying "I am not commenting on the personal circumstances."? Nasty, nasty business.

  7. This is Alistair's piece, not mine, so it is up to him to defend it or not. I like to have pieces on ReadySteadyBook that challenge and annoy and provoke -- especially if they challenge, annoy and provoke me first!

    However, I will step in here and say I certainly don't recognise Rowan's accusation that this is "dreadful writing" -- it seems a perfectly decent piece of writing to me -- nor that it has a particularly pretentious title (if anything, "On Literary Suicides in General and David Foster Wallace’s Suicide in Particular" is a rather prosaic title). I think the idea that running the piece so soon after DFW's suicide is bad timing is just being ridiculously precious.

    The core of the argument in the piece is that private gestures have always had public resonances -- whether we like it or not. As Alistair says, suicide has had a Romantic hue since at least Chatterton's time. In an anti-Romantic age this private gesture -- and it is a gesture, whether it was meant that way or not -- shouldn't be constructed to mean something.

  8. matt (mountain7) says... Friday 10 October 2008

    Whether or not you choose to theorise about the apparent symbolic nature of suicide (and I agree, there is always an implied audience when it comes to suicide) what the piece does is to fail to pay sufficient respect to DFW's sickness, of the sickness involved in any suicide. And for that reason it comes across as exploitative.

  9. The negative reactions above are, apart from Matt's (and excluding Mark's defence), marked by a lack of argument. I'm less offended by the tone of the article than by Rowan's hysterical misreading. If one throws in words like "dreadful", "pompous" "pseudo-intellectual" and "cynical hypocrisy" then evidence from the text has to be provided. Parading one's delicate sensibility is not enough (unless, I suppose, one is writing for the Daily Mail). I agree with Mark that the writing and title are nowhere near dreadful or pretentious. In fact, they're objectively flat in comparison to the foot-stamping, thumb-sucking of TR and James Tritt.

    Rowan then puts words into the author's mouth AND makes a non sequitur: to reiterate the "death of the author" theory and to distance oneself from the author's suffering has nothing to do with eating cakes.

    I've added my own response to the responses to DFW's death here:

  10. Hi Mark, forgive the delayed response, I was traveling-see a response below, best, A

    Hello all, forgive the delayed response to your responses ,but I was traveling at the time. I have to say that the hysterical content of the majority of the responses, a hysterical form of humanism (maybe humanism is always hysterical?), makes it almost impossible to respond to them in any meaningful way. It seems as if the majority of responses were coming from the mouths of mourners, not readers or thinkers, and how can one dialogue with someone in mourning?

    The essay should speak for itself--an essay from a novel in progress you may or may not have noticed, I don't believe in nonfiction-- but one thing I would say is that the essay makes it perfectly clear that it's not a commentary on the reasons for David Foster Wallace's death or his death in itself--that to me would be "vile" to use one of the terms of the respondees,a violation--it's a commentary on the way in which the meaning of a writer's suicide, perhaps anyone's suicide, has shifted in our century and been de-romanticized. And although many of the readers seemed to find my thoughts disrespectful, from another viewpoint their sentimental romanticizing of this great writer's death, their personalizing of it, is even more disrespectful to the beautiful complexity of Wallace's work.

    But perhaps I published it too early; I should have waited until the end of this century.

  11. Jeffrey Green says... Friday 03 July 2009

    I am writing this in July 2009 after DFW's death last fall, so perhaps my notes are irrelevant. But, perhaps not. Therefore, I humbly offer the following comments, even at this distant date from the McCartney essay's original publication.

    Despite his protestations to the contrary, McCartney suggests that DFW's suicide was, in fact, a gesture. In fact, that's his whole point: David Foster Wallace's suicide was an anachronistic gesture. How might I prove this claim? Take the essay, print it, and line through all the text that doesn't relate directly or indirectly to that idea. What's left? In my own case, I find little remaining. McCartney may very well have intended to make a different argument than the one he made; he certainly suggests that in his response. I have no doubt that he meant no insult to DFW and that his intention, i.e., to argue that suicide is no longer a romantic gesture, which is a legitimate argument in a different context, was well-meant. But, I believe McCartney goes grievously off the path by failing to distinguish suicide as a faddish, 19th-century gesture (perhaps this is the case; I cannot confirm it independently as it is not my field) and the suicide of a severely, clinically depressed person, whose only motivation is to, finally, escape the no-longer-bearable psychic pain of his consciousness. It is most unfortunate that McCartney, despite what I can only assume were good intentions, would even mention suicide-as-gesture in connection with David Foster Wallace's self-destruction. His death, far from gestural, was secondary to severe mental illness, and, specifically, the failure of the drug, Nardil, to offer him the relief it did before doctors stopped it to try more recently developed, more sophisticated, anti-depressants. When those supposedly better drugs left Wallace in unrelieved pain, his doctors reintroduced Nardil. But DFW reached the point of unendurability before the Nardil could provide relief, even assuming that it eventually would have done so. May I recommend D.T. Max's excellent essay on this subject in the March 9, 2009, issue of The New Yorker? Thank you.

  12. Killing yourself for any kind of "effect" probably only happens amongst teenagers.

    Grown men that clearly can't deal with life are depressed, and may not be thinking clearly. They certainly aren't thinking about what kind of long-lasting effects their suicide may or may not cause.

    They're trying to end their pain, nothing more.

    You're a fucking moron with no perspective whatsoever.


  13. Estella says... Monday 12 April 2010

    I live in Claremont and knew his wife. I also attended a class at another building from where he taught. I heard form the custodian that he was nice but that the atmosphere there is stuffy. Perhaps he didn't have anybody to talk to.

  14. Writing is anachronism. Tweets will eventually be confined to 17 syllables, with reference to season mandated. Meanwhile seasons are anachronisms, as in many places a January freeze turns to suntanning in February, and back again to freezes. Meaning is up next on the chopping block of anachronism, which, to mix a careless metaphor, is the ashes writers are waiting for to rise renewed.

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