The Cult of Literary Celebrity Goes Rogue


7 March 2009

This post will be a bit of a tangent — except insofar as it does have to do with literary commerce and consumption.

I am pretty irked by DT Max’s profile this week of the late David Foster Wallace in The New Yorker.  I will try to sum up my response as succinctly as I can, since a) this is a blog, and b) if I rant too much I risk remorse, a la Steven Levy.

The profile is quite long and documents DFWs long struggle with depression and anxiety — both psychological and artistic (if these two can even be distinguished).  DT Max shows us how Wallace wrestled with the meaning of existence in a deep way, in a way that made the writing of his final (unfinished) novel a veritable battle for personal hope.

Max gives us a compelling portrait of a man trying to both satisfy and calm his soul via his work (and, as Max describes in detail, via a variety of prescribed medications)… and who, toward the end of his life, hungered more and more for a kind of “adult sanity.” But then he concludes the article — after detailing the last few days of Wallace’s life and his death-by-hanging in his home — with this:

Green [DFW’s wife] returned home at nine-thirty, and found her husband. In the garage, bathed in light from his many lamps, sat a pile of nearly two hundred pages. 

Max goes on to deduce that this was DFWs parting “message,” the manuscript was all.

Throughout the article, Max draws us into the pain and anxiety of this talented man struggling with what it meant to be, as Wallace himself put it, a “fucking human being.” But here at the end, he takes us from his wife finding her dead husband hanging, right to “bathed in light… sat a pile of nearly two hundred pages.”

I was first startled, and then truly disgusted, that the writer would turn the article so abruptly, and then end it, with PAGES — bathed in light.  As if the pages are the man, as if the pages mean more than the man; which is sophomoric, pseudo-artistic crap.  The man lived with a woman, his wife, and they made a life of love together.  As an artist and a man, he suffered much distress.  Pages bathed in light?  

There will likely be much hullabaloo around the publication of said pages next year.  I hope we can control ourselves — all this oggling and deifying (and inevitable crass commercializing) of an artist who had a very hard time of it… as many do.  

Read the whole article.  Tell me what you think.


5 Responses to “The Cult of Literary Celebrity Goes Rogue”

  1. jerrysmolin Says:

    Sonya – Thanks for your comment on my blog post about the DT Max essay. I’m away from my desk for the day but promise to respond more thoughtfully in the next day or so. Jerry

  2. Ryan Michael Williams Says:

    I didn’t give much though to the phrase “bathed with light” here, but now that you’ve pointed it out, I think you’re right about its forced and affected literary pretentiousness. It does change my reading of the ending of Max’s article—before I simply found it overwhelmingly sad. I didn’t read it as a suggestion that the pages were somehow more important than Wallace’s life or his family—rather, I thought Max was aiming at expressing the idea that the scale of Wallace’s literary achievement makes his lack of satisfaction with his work, and the role that it played in his depression and suicide, that much more tragic, that much more unnecessary. But: you’ve convinced me on that phrase, “bathed in light,” as a fatal flaw for Max’s article. It’s a writerly gesture that cheapens the emotion of the piece, and shows that Max lost track of the seriousness of the situation he was describing, at least in that one critical moment.

    • sonyachung Says:

      Thanks for your response. The article is so compelling up until that sharp turn; in a way, Max sets up the magnitude of the failure himself by drawing us in so effectively to the story of the man himself, a human being trying to understand what it is to be a human being… and then ending the article so inhumanely.

  3. Lisa N.R. Says:

    DW’s writing (I read in a memorial that he actually hated the “Foster” that publishers made him add—he thought it sounded pretentious), at least the pieces I’ve read, seem to me to be infused with compassion, a humaneness, as he writes to make sense out of suffering and folly in this absurd postmodern world. He is willing to “die on the page” for the reader.
    I though Max’s article resonated the same quest for understanding in DW’s life as an artist, until the end where it succumbed to a lurid and contrived staging of a SCENE. (I thought to myself, my god, he’s writing the movie, even now) Utterly false and unjust. I don’t know what happened to Max along the way; he seems to lose his moorings. The article begins compelling us to consider the deep pain that DW endures, but in the final paragraph, he implies that DW left his pages, arranged in the lamps for Karen and the rest of us,and went out to the patio and CHOSE to snuff out his own light. The last line…”it was the ending he chose” is, on the one hand, a tautology. Yes, by definition, it was the ending he chose; he did it. On the other hand, and I don’t think the author intended this effect, it makes DW look like a selfish prick who doesn’t care for the suffering of others, particularly his wife and family who nursed him through those devastating collapses. As if DW was just so self-absorbed and despairing of his PROJECT (The Unfinished), his pages, that he ended his life in a stagey, “bathed in light,” Hamlet, sort of way. I suspect that DW’s untreated illness killed him, that he was not in a position of true CHOICE and that is the enormous tragedy, whether it happens to an artist or teenager or a housewife. Perhaps Max meant to be elegiac and offer consolation, i.e. “at least we are left with his work,” but to me, it smacks of rifling through the pockets of the dead, finding something to take for oneself.
    People who get cancer are always commended as “brave” for going through their suffering, even when it kills them. Not to romanticize or deify the struggle with mental illness, but I do believe DW had a type of courage in battling his illness and Max’s article ends in a negation of DW’s struggle to become a “fucking human being.”
    I’m going to forego the frenzy to feed on carrion and wait a good long time to read any more post-humous DW. I’m going to honor his memory following in DW’s footsteps and taking up Dostoevsky on his recommendation— “a piece of morally passionate, passionately moral fiction that was also ingenious and radiantly human fiction.” Rest in peace, Dave.

  4. sonyachung Says:

    LNR — I wish I thought Max was being elegiac. He took the meaning of Wallace’s life into his own hands and, yes, I think, staged it. Ick. Godspeed with the The Brothers K.

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