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Two of the most important people in building my worldview were Fred Rogers and David Foster Wallace — and, oddly enough, they both taught similar things. Mister Rogers taught that there was nothing more pure than love for human beings for just being human beings and David Foster Wallace taught me that it’s OK, but not just OK but rather important and pure to not be bothered by the ideas of people saying real and important things without the protective layer of irony. Emotions are real and important, and while I don’t know if Mister Rogers ever read any of DFW’s work, I am certain that he would have enjoyed and identified strongly — not that I expect that Mister Rogers had the particular demons that DFW suffered from, but that he would see both DFW’s pure humanity and his desire and shouting for others to embrace THEIR pure humanity as well.
Here is a paragraph from Infinite Jest:
Mario’d fallen in love with the first Madame Psychosis programs because he felt like he was listening to someone sad read out loud from yellow letters she’d taken out of a shoebox on a rainy P.M., stuff about heartbreak and people you loved dying and U.S. woe, stuff that was real. It is increasingly hard to find valid art that is about stuff that is real in this way. The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy. The worst-feeling thing that happened today was at lunch when Michael Pemulis told Mario he had an idea for setting up a Dial-a-Prayer telephone service for atheists in which the atheist dials the number and the line just rings and rings and no one answers. It was a joke and a good one, and Mario got it; what was unpleasant was that Mario was the only one at the big table whose laugh was a happy laugh; everybody else sort of looked down like they were laughing at somebody with a disability. The whole issue was far above Mario’s head, and he was unable to understand Lyle’s replies when he tried to bring the confusion up. And Hal was for once no help, because Hal seemed even more uncomfortable and embarrassed than the fellows at lunch, and when Mario brought up real stuff Hal called him Booboo and acted like he’d wet himself and Hal was going to be very patient about helping him change.
The happy laugh is important and it’s all right. Even if we think that perhaps the Pemulis jokes might hit a little too close to home, there is still something there that is true and pure. People are, as DFW said, too uncomfortable by the really real; I cannot cast stones from a pure stand either, unfortunately. I have been made uncomfortable by things that are real. It is impossible for me to tell my best friends that I love them — though it is true, and should probably at some point be said, ideally at a time when there is no looming or already-loomed-and-moved-on tragedy — it is still impossible to say and that in itself is a tragedy. I even think of saying it but for some reason some block in my brain keeps it from escaping and I don’t know why. It’s not necessarily that I fear making them uncomfortable, but also my own self uncomfortable as well. And that is silly but it is still unfortunately a real feeling. Would anything happen if I said it? Probably not. It would be returned I figure — I don’t think there’s a fear of rejection in that; it’s just the fear of making something concrete what was previously implied or assumed or even known but not ever spoken aloud.
David Foster Wallace, I did not know personally. I wish I had. But just the same, I loved him. I still do. I love you, David Foster Wallace. You gave so much — you had not only an immense talent for words that made reading a joy just from the use of the English language and phrasing but the important concepts and ideas that you put down, particularly in a world where irony is so prevalent as a shield both over transmitters and receivers; it is not only in the atmosphere, it is almost the atmosphere itself protecting us like the ozone, but like ozone itself, though made of oxygen, is poisonous and while it can help it also hinders and kills.
I do not think irony is what killed David Foster Wallace — that would be too pat and rather silly and just an extreme reduction of the real and true demons he battled and would do him a complete disservice. I do fear that perhaps irony kept him from speaking to others about his fears and terrors and dread outside of in the admittedly more passive field of text-only communication. Text is safe; if anything it can join with irony to provide that protective layer that allows us to say either that we’re only kidding or that that’s not really us but someone else made up and of course we don’t feel that way even if it is from a first person point of view and even if that character speaking in the first person has the name Matt Keeley or David Foster Wallace or whatever other names you would like to see. The words do not escape our lips and therefore they are not us. Even if we read the text aloud it is still not us but a quotation from someone else even if that someone else who wrote the text is us. There is that layer of a questionable identity which allows us to not necessarily take ownership and therefore avoid rejection. If someone does not like what we say, we can say that it’s not a matter of people not liking us, just people not liking the words. And therefore we are still safe, though perhaps hurt that the words are not liked, but not enough that the actual self that we are and we believe makes us up are not liked. And it is perhaps reductionist to make the argument that we are our words and that is also wrong, but the argument that could be made is that while we are not our words, our words are us, or at least vestiges of us and what make us us, our ambassadors to others who can make themselves known as to what we are, but like an ambassador who makes some political faux pas allow us to disown those words and say that while at the time we thought it was a good choice, they have been proven to not be truly what we think of as representative of ourselves. And that is good, as well — people do change, and we should never be held to what we wrote decades ago. But while we might not share the same ideas, we should also be able to recognize that that is indeed who we were at some time.
This, however, is a huge digression that has very little to do with David Foster Wallace aside from that this is what I have been thinking of upon hearing of his death and the kind of things that he has shown me in his writing. The writing so powerful that in the case of the first chapter of Infinite Jest is hilarious on the first reading and absolutely terrifying once the book has been finished and the first chapter re-read. The re-interpretation of the same words is an amazing trick, and one David Foster Wallace pulled off in such a way that my jaw drops every time I think of it. I know that I will never have that level of talent with the English language and I accept that. I am however glad to have read the works of someone who did. I wish that the person who wrote those words was still alive to continue writing words perhaps even more amazing and jaw-dropping than even those words were, even as they were written over a decade ago, and I do not doubt that David Foster Wallace, had he continued to survive, would have handily been able to.
Here is another part of Infinite Jest:
The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.
I honestly have nothing more to add other than perhaps the last line of “Westward The Course Of Empire Takes Its Way”:
You are loved.