Water, water everywhere: David Foster Wallace
If you look really hard you can see buildings and seashore below, the Atlantic Ocean meeting Fort Lauderdale. But from above, it's the horizon that's truly sensational.
I have the window seat and the African American mother to my left is teaching her three year old to recognize words in a picture book. The three seats behind us are all empty, so Mom packs up the crayons, books, and child, and moves. I can put up my feet if I like.
After learning a little and saying a couple of prayers, I'll get comfortable and do that, put up my feet.
The son of a close friend is now married to a lovely Miami girl, the reason for this short trip. I actually asked his mother, "How would you feel if I missed it? It's going to be hard to get away."
She looked at me as if to say: Fine, so I'll hate you forever. Miss it.
The day before that Sunday wedding, I took a walk over to see #3 son's latest additions to the family, the new Grandfish. He bought me a couple of new fish, too, baby clowns.
It's a new tank and not yet furnished. We take time buying furniture around here.
My son is now best friends with every salt water aficionado on Craig's list in Chicago, and gets us fish at rock bottom prices. When he was in high school he started a micro-business as an aquarist, set up tanks for people, helped maintain them. He called it Rock Bottom and we had fun making the business cards. Rock Bottom didn't exactly take off, but we've always found a certain reliable joy in this family hobby. Keeping fish alive ratchets down the anxiety for those of us who lean toward Type A.
So when he called to ask if I wanted the two clowns, of course I jumped at them. They huddle together and dance in the corner of the tank in the family room. They seem very happy, and yes, are eating well, for those of you worried about such things. (They looked like babies when I left. FD has done a nice job feeding them out of their infancy in my absence).
This is the late David Foster Wallace, a picture from the Wall Street Journal. He knew about fish, too. You can read DFW's commencement address to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College online. It begins like this:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"Born February 21, 1962 in Ithaca, New York, Mr. Foster died September 12, 2008, a suicide. For more biography, read Richard B. Woodward or Whitney Pastorek's features online. Books about him must be in the making, perhaps they're already in the stores. This gentleman who took his own life (not unexpected, we hear) authored 8 books, including novels and critiques of American life, and one on infinity, as in math. Wildly popular, literary magazines cleared space for David Foster Wallace, as much as he wanted.
Writers worship him.
Mr. Wallace tells over the fish metaphor about consciousness to the graduates at Kenyon College and continues, unless I'm interpreting the speech incorrectly, to say that water represents everything outside our immediate consciousness, that our awareness is hopelessly bound by our self-centered (through no fault of our own) perspective, and that none of us can be anything but wrapped up in ourselves, as much as we try to get out of our heads, thus we don't notice the water until we are older, and even then it is on the cusp of consciousness, and noxious.
Rather than the usual commencement pep talk:
Seize the world, you're all young, good-looking, and above-average,Mr. Wallace tells the class, basically,
Good luck, suckers. Life is a bear and then you die.I finished reading the speech, put down the newspaper and thought to myself,
"This is what it is to be someone like DFW, impossibly stuck in the world inside his head, stuck in words."And I related just a little, as perhaps you do, too, as a writer. But what a terrible waste of a beautiful mind, one that surely couldn't take the madness of it all, so many, many words. Then perhaps, all of a sudden, none. Or none of them good, none of them gratifying.
When I was in my late twenties, a friend of mine called me with a post-partum depression. She said that everything she saw, everything she read, became exaggerated somehow. Things that should be upsetting, but only marginally, now distressed her, terrified her. She couldn't watch the news or pick up a newspaper without dissolving into tears. She didn't want to hold her baby for fear that she would drop him.
These can be symptoms of a pending catatonia, the worst of the depressions imaginable, a psychotic withdrawal into the recesses of the mind. Medical intervention is critical, will save such lives, preserve the parents of the next generation.
David Foster Wallace will be the subject of many a thesis, but to me his decision to suicide, the ultimate withdrawal from life, withdrawal from the water, makes him a casualty, another person I would have wanted to shake, to scream at, insisting, "Just try another medication! There's an agent for everyone!"
Or even a little electricity, just a little.
If I didn't believe in the impervious power of mental illness,* I would say that he needed meaning in his life, too. When he saw the water, and he did, he knew he existed in there, but saw no purpose, not enough. You could say that to him, his pond was more than half empty.
As prolific and productive as he was, Mr. Wallace either didn't want to connect to life, or couldn't, hadn't the energy to make the effort necessary to swim, until finally he found it, the energy, and used it to take his own life. At the age of 46.
With the best years, for a writer some say, yet to come.
Although I haven't read his books, I'm guessing, from his speech, that he failed to see meaning, characteristic of depression, and that hurried his decision along.
To some of us, it is so simple, meaning. Go out there. Do your best. Say Yes when you can, say No when you really know that Yes will come at too great a price.
Give, give, but not too much, and the self will feel worthy, satisfied on more than one level, will know where and how to rest comfortably. The self is that which we can never escape, you see, even if it is not always obvious to us and operates subconsciously; changes imperceptibly, with every sensory impact. The brain, interpreting sensory data, is our first reference point of awareness and self. It is the brain that subsists in the water, or swims, if you prefer, in the sea, the self tucked inside.
We do things as people, and our self-images, what we think of when we say our selves are interwoven into consciousness with our actions, our roles. We call this stunningly complicated weave our identity. Self is separate from the water, but inevitably connected, more or less, depending upon how busy we are. We're going to get wet, regardless, when the waters get rough.
Consciousness, whether it is involved and interacting in life or not, is the water, and it can be unbearable. Our awareness is ours, no one else's. It is private. Our realities are all different, some more negative and disengaged than others. Dr. Wallace understood this, probably, but could not change that experience, couldn't find a more comfortable pond, because of his illness, through no fault of the Pond-keeper. If he were alive he would say, I don't like living in the sea of humanity. It is too hard.
The plane is heading northwest now. I no longer see the ocean, but the memory trace of that place where the ocean meets the sky will basically keep a person like me happy for a long time. Just that sensory data is enough.
And I'm going home, did I tell you? Because Nemo 1 and Nemo 2 are probably looking for me. The impact of little fish, oceans and sky, people in our personal worlds, things we must read and do, the mentoring of our children, sharing life's bookmarks, our missions, meaning, make all the difference. Our commitments shape this thing we call meaning; they guide us, help us move the furniture, improve the clarity of the water in the tank. It can be about as simple as that.
Unless we're really sick. Then there is absolutely nothing simple about the water.
For a real look at DFW and what we've lost, read Carol. She embedded video.
And a writer writes about the writer, Mark Caro, Chicago Tribune.
*In his case, Bi-Polar Disorder, read the comments.