Incarnations of Burned Geniuses

David Foster Wallace hung himself. I have to be honest, I’m not a huge fan. I hated ‘Infinite Jest’. At least I hated the first third of ‘Infinite Jest’. However, I will always be haunted by his short story ‘Incarnations of Burned Children’. I didn’t know him personally and everyone I knew who met him came back with a different story of what he was like, which only confirms his humanity. He was given a MacArthur Genius Grant, had his big novel lauded as one of the best of the century, and generally had the sort of literary career that most authors would envy. It would be easy to speculate about what made him leap from the ledge, but it’s irrelevant. In the moment when he was there he decided to leap and that’s all that matters. People stand on that same ledge every day and they either decide to come back in or to throw themselves off and the ones who fall take their reasons with them. 

When I read the news, I found myself thinking of John Kennedy Toole, who wrote a novel that I do love very much, ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’. Toole killed himself in 1969. He tried to get the novel published during his life, but failed. His mother took the manuscript to Walter Percy who hesistantly read it and fell in love with it. He managed to usher it into print by 1981. It ended up winning the Pulitzer.

Wallace’s wife found him. Suicides are selfish. Yes, I can hear their shades crying out that I don’t understand the pain they were in, that I don’t comprehend what drove them off the ledge, and it’s true. But they don’t know what pain they have given to others and what kind of mess their exits leave behind. And of course, depression is a ferocious demon to have living in your head every day but surrendering to it is not a solution. I would throw all my paintings on a bonfire or shred every word I’ve ever written before I destroyed anyone’s life.  The words are just words and the images are just oil on wood. Maybe this is why I am mediocre and unknown, but I’m at peace with that.          

The view from the ledge is that of an immense void, a vast nothing. The empty meaninglessness waiting there contains no god or nirvana, just the false promise of an end to suffering. Those who leap into this abyss of existential erasure cling to themselves believing they can impose meaning on the universe. We are all less important than we deserve to be. When I have looked into that void I have seen that I am a few pounds of meat wrapped around a few sticks of bones twitching spastically for a few moments of cosmic existence. But this meat can dream and love as well as suffer and die. The flesh is not the meaning, nor is the empty void; it is the dreams and the love that exist despite them where whatever meaning there is to life can be found.

4 Responses to “Incarnations of Burned Geniuses”

  1. threefullstops Says:

    I have to say that your charge, stated as if’s fact, that suicide is selfish, and the conflation of your ideas about life, death, and suicide with anyone or everyone else’s experience of these things, is exactly the kind of thing DFW wrote about . . . to confuse the outside with the inside, to confuse your inside with someone else’s inside (or outside, as is the case here) is a grave mistake. And by grave, I do indeed mean deathly.

  2. Which one of us is still drawing breath? It seems my coping mechanism is superior to his. Sorry if that’s cold.

  3. I met him once. He was…strange. Some friends of mine knew him quite well, had even been in his home (one of them was even propositioned by him in exchange for an A in one of his classes). Neither of them are terribly surprised. One Halloween I dressed up as him in a rather childish mockery of the man. I am not terribly sorry about it. His writing showed an extremely dark sense of humor that only a troubled mind could conceive.

    From all accounts, he was a very complicated and tormented man who alienated most of the people who cared about him. I’m gratified to know he had a wife and, for a time at least, had found a little happiness. I’ve never been suicidal, but I do know that depression can do all kinds of horrid things to you (including turning you into someone you no longer recognize.)

    My sympathies go out to his wife, who will now always wonder (even if unfairly so) if there was something she could have done to prevent this, and who will probably never accept that there wasn’t.

  4. his article on mccain left out hugh chunks
    I guess his perception of reality was already a haze due to his medicine.

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