What David Foster Wallace Taught Me: Art as an Anesthetic for Loneliness

DFW

We’re existentially alone on the planet. I can’t know what you’re thinking and feeling and you can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling. And the very best works construct a bridge across that abyss of human loneliness.

David Foster Wallace David Foster Wallace wrote that “Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.”

Tonight, I thought of this as I watched a dog awaken from his slumber beneath a patio dining table with the sullen look in his eyes of a lonely child who wakes up to an empty room.

Seated above him was a family of four, warm and loving, noshing on their sushi and quietly enjoying the evening together. The dog, while surely a member of the family, was physically present but gave off the energy of someone deep in their own world – like catching a glimpse of someone on a walk alone, a snapshot of a face far away in thought – and whatever the subject of his thoughts may have been, like all thoughts, they were encoded in a cryptic language, their contents known only to the thinker himself; a citizen of his own skull; a box of bones no one else would ever know.

For a moment I saw what an outward projection of that unspoken belief [that deep down we are different] looked like. The dog knew that he was different from everybody else; he was – to me – a self-aware animal; he was not like the others, the others weren’t sleeping on the sidewalk during dinner. How I wanted to take that dog home and make him my equal. Maybe I would talk to him on long walks along the shore, nice thoughts.

Perhaps he was a spirit animal, a guide destined to remind me of some ancient ineffable truth; perhaps it was written that I witness him wake up and look around at the cool lonely evening. Maybe my perception of his disposition was merely a projection of my own. Questions that can only be answered by the ether of the universe, playful questions.

Would the dog have reminded David Foster Wallace of the loneliness of his own existence – as it had reminded me of mine?

David Foster Wallace wrote a lot of beautiful things on loneliness as it was an element of his life which his psyche would render him deeply familiar with [1] . And while I never knew him – I feel like I did. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer who is fond of illustrating “what it means to be a fucking human being” – or maybe, in borrowing the words of TLC’s Fanmail – it’s because Just like you, I get lonely too. Either way, his ghost haunts me because he was not altogether unlike me.

He was a messenger, someone who could speak for a certain intellectual sect of the populous in quirky and unapologetic sentences that tested the limits of the English language. He did not apologize for this, nor did he filter his writing to sanitize his output for easier digestion. Just watching an interview with him, it’s apparent that his mind had a few more gears than most. Now, I can hypothesize as to what the accompanying costs of a mind like that would have been, but even in my own hubris I do not claim to match the intellect of the late Mr. Wallace; however, I can only imagine the psychic burden of possessing such a deeply philosophical and analytical mind – especially one that ran at a pace as electric as Mr. Wallace’s.

And nonetheless, I entertain myself in asking whether – instead of taking this transportive journey in my head to some timeless space where the present reality becomes a lens through which I see the world – were I a different person with a different mind, would the thought merely have been: “cute dog”?

I suppose I’m parsing my thought process into an existential hypothesis that really has no bearing here beyond hemming and hawing over my own cognition. In light of the fact that I’ll never be able to comparatively measure my own thinking against anything other than behavioral output, I must admit that this has no application beyond a speculative thought exercise. I suppose the real tangible benefit then is whether this somehow is going to allow me to better understand my own psychology – a quest which I pursue through my writing in order to more effectively manage my own psyche.

I guess what it boils down to is that life can be a bit more mentally all-consuming for those quote intense thinkers for whom paradigms abound and life is constantly being interpreted through new lenses, moment by moment. Whether this contributes to loneliness, I’m not sure – but, as David Foster Wallace did, I too have struggled to reconcile with certain aspects of my psyche – namely a sort of sexual-like frustration at not getting out my thoughts and feelings, a condition David Foster Wallace described as being ‘marooned in our own skulls‘. Comparing a kind of intellectual loneliness to sexual frustration is an odd and potentially perverse choice of similes to the non-artist I suppose – but to the individual who regularly seeks le petit mort / catharsis / actualization through art, I hardly think drawing a parallel between sexual frustration and a sort of enigmatic artistic frustration is by any means a stretch of the imagination. Is the means to the end of each [art and sex] not meant to stave off loneliness – to recharge some fleeting part of our sanity by discharging our emotions? Are we not touching at the heart of Freudian catharsis?

I recognize that the previous paragraph is borderline mental masturbation [2] – save for the fact that it’s a clever reminder to the importance of creative expression – but, my point is: creative function serves to produce more than the output of creative works; it’s the act of creating itself which allows the artist to reconcile the tangled meaning of his inner-world through his conscious expression in the outer world. If he fails to do this, who will understand him? How will he fully understand himself? Will he not be lonely? Will he not then be left to chase away the loneliness he has failed to confront in his art? As I grow older the value of leaning on art (both composing poetry, and prose, and digesting it + music) has become one of the paramount pillars of my mind – allowing me to deal with feelings and moods too dark to chase away in the real world.

In arguably one of the David Foster Wallace’s greatest quotes, he distinguishes between things that chase away loneliness and things that treat it:

Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.

As someone who has personally found solace in precisely the things which David Foster Wallace lists as places where loneliness can be treated, I find this quote reflects a universal truth about the choice we have, our personal agency in deciding whether we are going to chase away loneliness or confront it, transfigure it, and treat it.

Loneliness untreated is a ticking time bomb, and there will be consequences to yourself and to those you love should you attempt to chase it away rather than treat it. The habit of chasing away loneliness is simply not something one can sustainably maintain; eventually every shred of the false comfort and security that you manufacture by chasing away loneliness is ripped away upon your inevitable and necessary return to reality. And when you have been stripped of the temporary refuge you sought, you will be left facing the very same loneliness you tried escaping: the scab comes off, you bleed again.

Ugly words, but not nearly as gripping as David Foster Wallace’s description of facing substance addiction from Infinite Jest:

–and then you’re in serious trouble, very serious trouble, and you know it, finally, deadly serious trouble, because this Substance you thought was your one true friend, that you gave up all for, gladly, that for so long gave you relief from the pain of the Losses your love of that relief caused, your mother and lover and god and compadre, has finally removed its smily-face mask to reveal centerless eyes and a ravening maw, and canines down to here, it’s the Face In The Floor, the grinning root-white face of your worst nightmares, and the face is your own face in the mirror, now, it’s you, the Substance has devoured or replaced and become you, and the puke-, drool- and Substance-crusted T-shirt you’ve both worn for weeks now gets torn off and you stand there looking and in the root-white chest where your heart (given away to It) should be beating, in its exposed chest’s center and centerless eyes is just a lightless hole, more teeth, and a beckoning taloned hand dangling something irresistible, and now you see you’ve been had, screwed royal, stripped and fucked and tossed to the side like some stuffed toy to lie for all time in the posture you land in. You see now that It’s your enemy and your worst personal nightmare and the trouble It’s gotten you into is undeniable and you still can’t stop.

The quest to chase away loneliness is indeed a slippery slope for many, one that can easily morph into the kind of toxic and dangerous, enslaving type vices; before too long, your escape becomes your morphine and you become a mouse seeking more of that substance / thing / feeling on your quest for an even mental keel. Vicious cycles are one of the few things that prevail in the battle to combat loneliness.

As David Foster Wallace further elucidates in Infinite Jest: Most Substance-addicted people are also addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thinking.

It’s one of those opaque truths that define the way we operate in life: our relationship with our own thinking and whether we are in the habit of chasing away loneliness or treating it. David Foster Wallace talked about how to prevent going through life alone by choosing how to construct meaning from experience, by ‘learning how to think’:

Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliche about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many cliches so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.

But what happens when you fail at this? As Dave Wallace said, you will be totally hosed.

I imagine that for those beautiful minds who fail to live in a way that effectively treats their loneliness, they simply arrive in the place that many find unendurable.

For someone like David Foster Wallace, who had battled severe depression, this meant hanging himself and betraying the words he had once written: “That no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable.”

For the millions of Heath Ledgers and Junior Seaus of the world, single moments indeed are unendurable. And it’s not just chasing away loneliness that can be disastrous – but perhaps even viewing the world in a way that gives way to loneliness.

In saying: Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else, was David Foster Wallace projecting his own egocentric paradigm, which reflected his personal thoughts and belief that deep down he was different from everybody else? It’s our differences that separate us and it’s separation that creates loneliness. And so it’s tragically ironic that David Foster Wallace himself told once an interviewer:

“The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever, almost made me die.”

I certainly do not presume to decipher someone’s suicide, nor do I desire to; there exists a certain smugness to the idea of laying claim to knowing why someone choose to end their own life that I just don’t like, but David Foster Wallace didn’t cloak his struggle with depression in secrecy – something I find very brave of him. He eloquently describes both depression and loneliness throughout his writing, so much so that Salon.com called him The defining voice of depression.

It’s rare that minds like his open up, but when they do it becomes a doorway for the rest of us to journey into a world within ourselves that we wouldn’t otherwise be capable of understanding. This is quite a gift – as only someone who has passed through the mental gates of their own personal hell can accurately describe what the unrelenting grip of depression and loneliness feels like; without people like David Foster Wallace, depression and loneliness remain the elephant in the room; it’s there, but no one dare talk about it or try to transform it.

It’s this aspect of inherent generosity within David Foster Wallace’s writing that has benefited me in my attempt to better understand my own life. And because of this the substance of his writing remains an asset do me; it makes me less lonely. An objective which he had intentionally strived to achieve:

There are a few books I have read that I’ve never been the same after, and I think all good writing somehow address the concern of and acts as an anodyne against loneliness. We’re all terribly, terribly lonely. And there’s a way, at least in prose fiction, that can allow you to be intimate with the world and with a mind and with characters that you just can’t be in the real world. I don’t know what you’re thinking. I don’t that know that much about you as I don’t know that much about my parents or my lover or my sister, but a piece of fiction that’s really true allows you to be intimate with … I don’t want to say people, but it allows you to be intimate with a world that resembles our own in enough emotional particulars so that the way different things must feel is carried out with into the real world. I think what I would like my stuff to do is make people less lonely.

When we think of loneliness we construct our understanding of it around proximity and relationships, but as DFW wrote, “Loneliness is not a function of solitude”, and loneliness is not remedied when two people from subjective viewpoints intersect at the same point in space and time. Loneliness is something we experience when we are unable to express our inner-world; when we can’t reconcile the meaning of our internal truths through the lens of our external relationship with reality.

As Carl Jung stated in his biography:

Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.

David Foster Wallace echoes Jung’s sentiment about communicating the unseen in his views on writing fiction:

…writing fiction becomes a way to go deep inside yourself and illuminate precisely the stuff you don’t want to see or let anyone else see, and this stuff usually turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers and readers share and respond to, feel.

Isn’t that called vulnerability? Okay, I’ll give it a try:

Having previously admitted this – yes, I sometimes get lonely; however, I do not over indulge in self-pity (at least I feel compelled to have to tell myself this). I might indulge in under and over sleeping, in mild agoraphobia, and in occasional culinary gluttony (an Oreo shake sounds delightful right now), but I do these things with a healthy dose of balancing guilt that prevents them from evolving into something more than unhealthy and immature defense mechanisms. We all slip up (don’t we?). For me, the cycle might be: 1. Feels like crap > 2. neglects health > 3. Feels guilt for neglecting health, gets ‘back on track’. Perhaps that’s simply self-abandonment, self-neglect. Either way, I’m not adverse to discussing the parts of me that make me human. As an adult I realize that there is no such thing as a hero without flaws. It’s not that I celebrate my flaws, but I believe in self-honesty; unfortunately, as David Foster Wallace one remarked: Genuine pathological openness is about as seductive as Tourette’s Syndrome.

Now obviously that’s simply the ego driven part of me acknowledging that sometimes my writing goes to places vulnerable that I cannot go to in real life (outside the bubble of a therapist’s office), and that by nature this kind of free, unmasked prose is antithetical to the ethos of American success culture and American machismo, but so far I am unable to produce this kind of writing without inserting an apologetic and excusatory clause such as this; although, I suppose I apologize in vain, as I long ago accepted that I would not be the kind of person who cared more about outward appearances than the authenticity of his own art; alas, the emperor knows he wears no clothes, for I am naked but only slightly ashamed.

But that’s what you sacrifice in art, you sacrifice what you have to to not be lonely.

Footnotes:

1. I’m taking a lot of liberty in saying this, and were he a living writer would I say this? I don’t know. I don’t query myself this because of his suicide, but rather because it’s typically not couth to draw inferences about someone’s real life from their fiction. David Foster Wallace had been in treatment for depression for twenty years and wrote beautifully on loneliness in a way that has connected with me deeply; he painted loneliness as only the lonely artist can.

2. Sorry for another seemingly hyperbolic innuendo, but yes – “mental masturbation” really is the linguistically correct choice here.

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7 thoughts on “What David Foster Wallace Taught Me: Art as an Anesthetic for Loneliness

  1. This is a sympathetic, not a troll question:
    Do you have children?
    DFW did not.
    It’s amazing how the appearance of children in your life makes loneliness a non-issue. Someone suddenly appears who is utterly and completely dependent on the two people who brought him/her into being.
    And that — not literary angst — is what life is really about.

    Like

    • Love this comment, I do not – yet. I absolutely intend to and I love the reminder you have given me of this. This blog has and always will be in essence ‘for my children’. Thank you for dropping by and giving this a read.

      Like

    • Really? What happens when that child turns out to have a bitter miserable existence due to genetic material you passed on to them?

      Like

  2. Really great post. I have a question about one of your DFW quotes. This one: “Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved…” Do you happen to know where that originally comes from? There are millions of results when I google it, but none of them gives a reference.

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  3. I love DFW and I’m having a particularly lonely night. Reading this article helped. Reading about someone else vibing with his stuff in a similar way that I do.

    Like

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