Kate Gompert: On Confusing Authorship with Autobiography
Since David Foster Wallace’s suicide, it has been common knowledge that he suffered from depression, that he had been institutionalized and undergone ECT (possibly well after the publication of IJ, unless this anonymous letter from a mental institution is indeed DFW), and that his fragile mental life was held together by a 1950s-grade anti-depressant. As a result, the discussion between Kate Gompert, a 21-year-old woman on “Specials” (Suicide Watch) and the doctor/resident on psych rotation is seen by readers as all the more poignant (pp. 68-78), even autobiographical.
The simple purity of Kate’s descriptions is striking. When the doctor asks why she wanted to hurt herself, she drags herself into a conversation with the clarification that “I wasn’t trying to hurt myself. I was trying to kill myself. There’s a difference.” The difference, of course, is that suicide is a simple escape from the eternity of pain, from a feeling and not a state of being, a feeling that is beautifully described as “lurid,” a word we often use as a simple synonym for prurient or off-color, as pornography, but which is best understood as ghastly, revolting. In a truly magnificent turn of the emotional wrench, she also corrects the doctor when he describes her as having a “feeling of wanting to stop feeling by dying,” when instead she simply responds that “The feeling is why I want to. The feeling is the reason I want to die.” [Note to self: Discuss possible positive reasons for suicide in context of Camus’ arguments and objections in An Absurd Reasoning.] And finally, the desperate appeal for ECT as possible relief- “either give me ECT again, or give me my belt back” – elicits in the reader a primal horror, a horror that was apparently shared by David Foster Wallace. ECT, we might like to believe, is at best a lesser of evils, but most of us believe at some visceral level that it is a sort of psyscho-witchery practiced by malevolent lab scientists. And down in that viscera, too, is the belief that DFW can speak the truth because he has lived it, that his words come to us from that feeling itself.
So yes, DFW was able to provide a lucid, painful expression of depression (though let’s not forget there is humor laced into this passage as well). But this lucidity does not make it autobiography. Although I won’t go into Camus and suicide at this point, I’ll nevertheless turn to Camus in a different context. In a 1959 interview (printed in Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, “Replies to Jean-Claude Brisville”), Camus gave a very brief but telling reminder to this inquiry:
J.C. – Your last hero, the narrator in The Fall, seems discouraged. Does he express what you feel at the current moment?
Camus – My hero is indeed discouraged, and this is why, as a good modern nihilist, he exalts servitude. Have I chosen to exalt servitude?
Camus is a classic example of someone whose fiction is often mistaken for “the way he feels about the world.” Since he was variously a philosophical critic, a journalist, and a novelist, his fiction could too easily be seen on a continuum with his more analytical essays. (A problem he admittedly compounded by the near-simultaneous publication of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus and their overlapping themes; he even wished initially to have the play Caligula published alongside, as well.) DFW, with his brand of “journalism,” (gonzo-journalism in the tradition of Hunter S. Thompson?), may be subject to the same blurry readings. The very personal voice that brings us deep into the text, a reader tends to think, brings us into touch with the author him- or herself.
There is a kind of relativist approach to philosophical analysis as well, that tends to reduce all philosophical speculation to autobiography. Given that philosophy is rooted in a specific historical, cultural and geographical nexus – and given the gradual disappearance over the course of the twentieth century of a traditional understanding of “objective” or scientific Truth – when one accesses a philosophical text one is actually accessing nothing more than a certain perspective, and analysis can only reveal the historical/cultural influence on that text and that author, and not its truth-content simpliciter.
I agree with this, up to a certain point and with a significant clarification: while all philosophy is autobiography, it is never reducible to autobiography. Understanding the specific personal and social milieu and aims of an author is crucial to unlocking meaning from a text; but the text is value-less as a mere reflection of a singular person and must nonetheless transcend this opaque singularity and characterize intersubjective, shared meanings. At some level, the best writers, whether of fiction or philosophy (or, better, the kind of fiction that is also philosophy, the kind of philosophy that has the virtues of fiction), already know this. And this is why they craft their work so carefully.
Camus’s books always have a feel of being somewhat hastily composed. They lack systematicity, and the deceptive linguistic simplicity – a product of the influence of Faulker and Hemingway transposed into the history of the French novel – gives them a stream of consciousness feel, an immediacy that many texts fail to provide. So, if we recall that one of the most personal of writers, Camus, is constantly called upon to separate himself from his text, we should be all the more cautious when trying to find DFW in his far more obviously crafted writings. [Speaking of craft, the pseudo-vernacular in the voices of Clenette (pp. 37-38) and yrstruly crewing with C. and PT (pp. 128-135) are truly awe-inspiring, particularly the latter section.]