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July 2, 2009 / Infinite Tasks

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.]

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7 Comments

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  1. Dan Summers / Jul 5 2009 11:55 am

    I think this is a very, very valuable perspective, and one that we should be careful to consider, not only with Infinite Jest, but also with some of his short stories, such as “The Depressed Person” and “Good Old Neon.”

  2. Martha / Jul 6 2009 10:59 am

    It’s irresistible to wonder how much autobio went into every character in light of DFW’s suicide. And speaking of craft, the Kate Gompert section was the first one I flagged for the clarity and immediacy of its evocation of depression. But I’ve just read the Joelle Van Dyne section beg. on p. 219 which seems even closer to something pouring out of DFW the man.

    But what I want to know is where did he learn so much and how did he remember it and organize it and release it in such a controlled way. Like the Things You Learn in a Halfway House section beg on p. 200 that segues on p. 205 into the tattoo section. The beauty and power of this writing and the shear amount of remembered knowledge, like the beauty of the Madame Psychosis brochure reading beg on p. 185 leave me with no response but gushing–it’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. I guess that’s why they had David Eggers write the intro.

    • infinitetasks / Jul 6 2009 8:21 pm

      I appreciate the need to gush about DFW, Martha. That’s why we’re all here!

      Still, I find myself unmoved by the quote irresistability unquote of imputing autobiography to these passages. (I won’t comment past today’s spoiler limit.) I think of it in terms of the difference between immediate and mediate experience. If the experience (of depression, for example) is immediate, the recording of that experience is mediated, a process of judgment, literary skill, narrative commitments, etc. What makes the sections so real is precisely that they have been distilled in this massive process.

      I think what adds to the confusion is that writers do start, as the old saw has it, from “what they know.” From the humble origins of this “knowing” begins the process of world-shaping, and only later in this process can we, as readers, find ourselves, too. We would hardly find ourselves in the confused junk of the mind of another (we can barely make sense of our own, right? and even stream-of-consciousness is really just the opposite of unmediated, it just appears to be so); we bring meaning to a text that is already a constructed narrative world. And we have much to thank DFW for what I called a “lucid” rendering of this world of pain.

  3. Paul / Jul 10 2009 6:01 pm

    When I read the book the first time, obviously these concerns were not present. But this time I couldn’t help think of the autobiographical implications of Kate and Joelle. But mostly I came away with an awareness of how (at the time) he was able to take experience and turn them in to art. Like all of the other things that he clearly did a lot of research on, it seems more like he used his meticulous attention to detail (in this case of his own life) and was able to craft something amazing from it.

    And while I do (in moments when I not actively reading) feel badly that DFW must have felt something like this, I simply can’t let it impact my reading of the book. It’s not fair to the author.

    .

  4. Zach / Sep 25 2009 5:23 pm

    After just finishing DFW’s essay on the usage wars in modern grammer, I don’t think the anonymous letter could possibly be his. Too many sentences ending in a proposition.

    Otherwise, I just want to say that your discussion of Infinite Jest has consistently provided an uncommon amount of depth and insight into my own interpretation of the novel, so much that I’m going back through all of your posts from the beginning. Let me know what you plan on reading/blogging about next, as I’ll be inclined to read along.

  5. quilty / Apr 28 2010 1:00 pm

    You hear that a real-life Kate Gompert sued Wallace after IJ was published? speaking of the conflation of literature and biography…

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