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On Trusting David Foster Wallace

I'm not above the cult of celebrity and enjoying tittle-tattle about who's been tweeting what about whom; just that it's so rarely by or about anyone that interests me. I couldn't care less what The Royal Family or Lindsay Lohan has been up to: my heroes are mostly scientists, philosophers and novelists. Even political sleaze and corruption these days is much more depressing than it is interesting.


So it was a rare treat to indulge this immature compulsion by lapping up the news that Bret Easton Ellis, most famous as the author of American Psycho, launched a Twitter broadside against David Foster Wallace. Over the course of over a dozen tweets, he called Wallace insufferable, needy, tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious and a fraud, and called his fans "Literary Doucebag-Fools [sic]." As tittle-tattle, it's not as interesting as it might have been if Wallace hadn't been dead for four years.


Full disclosure: I consider David Foster Wallace to be a genius, and I don't use the word lightly. I have never read any of Bret Easton Ellis's novels, but on the basis of his tweets (these Wallace tweets aside) I have for a while considered him to be an asshole. I note that attacking a venerated figure is a good way for a has-been to generate publicity, and if that venerated figure is dead then they can't retort. Of course I don't know either Ellis or Wallace and I have no business judging them as individuals, so I started to question the judgements I had - semi-consciously, semi-automatically - made, and my reasons for making them.


The impetus for Ellis's attack was the release of a new biography of Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. I haven't read it yet, but the reviews say that it reveals and details some unpleasant sides of the man Ellis sardonically calls "Saint David Foster Wallace": he spent most of his life a recovering addict (alcohol, cannabis), once threw a coffee table at a girlfriend, had a huge number of sexual relationships, one with an underage girl.


I asked myself why don't these facts affect my judgement of him as a person? I have an image of who Wallace was. It's only an image (do we ever know anyone more deeply?), and it's based on reading his novels, his stories, his non-fiction; on watching TV interviews he gave. I consider him to have been a good man, and stories about getting angry and losing his temper, about substance abuse and sexual promiscuity, don't alter this image in my mind. Perhaps it's because I can relate easily to these particular vices, but how do I explain the differences in my perception of Wallace trying to push a girlfriend from a moving car and my perception of Chris Brown beating Rihanna? What they both amount to is domestic violence, morally indefensible whether perpetrated by a literary genius or a brainless singer. Maybe all I'm doing here is expressing an unfair bias, but I see Chris Brown as a misogynist who doesn't consider his actions because he believes that wealth and fame entitle him to do whatever he pleases; I see David Foster Wallace as a frightened, oversensitive man who spent his whole life thinking - maybe too hard and too much- about the question of how to live a meaningful life. A man who tried his best and failed not just in specific instances, but in general: after battling 'atypical depression' for decades, Wallace hanged himself in 2008 at the age of 46.


I wonder can a man who writes with such passion, intelligence and humour about the human condition fail to know what it means to be a good person? Of course: many grisly and nasty people have created beautiful art, and someone of Wallace's incredible intellect and (imo) unparalleled command of the English language is surely capable of being highly manipulative. But still my beliefs about what Wallace was like as a person are unchanged.


These thoughts have all been quite meandering and incoherent - I'm typing as they come to me - but if I can draw a conclusion from them it's that this is all about trust. I parenthetically remarked earlier that - cliche or no - we can't really know anyone; all we know is surface and image, not the depths that the image represents. When an image of someone is incomplete or we suspect it of lacking authenticity, we speculate based on what we have. To make negative speculations may be unfair but is often necessary; to make positive speculations is called trust. My image of, say, my friends may be much fuller than my image of David Foster Wallace or my image of Chris Brown, but on the basis of them I trust my friends, and I trust David Foster Wallace.




"If you worship money and things - if they are where you tap real meaning in life - then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already - it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power - you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart - you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out."


- From a commencement speech at Kenyon College, published in The Guardian under the heading "David Foster Wallace, who died last week, was the most brilliant American writer of his generation. In a speech, published here for the first time, he reflects on the difficulties of daily life and 'making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head'"


Glasgow, 2012.


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Taken on May 14, 2015