David Foster Wallace: Waking to Darkness and Lightning

I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition, that this goodly frame the earth seems to me a stale promontory, this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.


Depression is no laughing matter, is it? It eats up life like a black hole that has no bounds. It sucks the life force out of even the happiest of beings. Someone once said that happiness is a state of mind. Milton said: “The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” How do we survive in a wasteland of our own making? Samuel Beckett once told us that “nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that. Yes, yes, it’s the most  comical thing in the world (Endgame).”   Someone asked Ken Bruen, the Galwegian Crime Writer: “How do you define humor?” His response to this was: “It’s our way of getting even.” Maybe that’s the key. Maybe that’s the only way we can confront our despair of existence – the darkness within and without. Getting even. Laughing till the pain and bleakness disappear under the burden of darkness. As David Foster Wallace says it: “You are a trained observer and there is nothing to observe” (The Pale King). That’s DFW to a tee. A man all guzzied up ready to take on the whole world who realizes at the last moment that the world he’d take on resides in his own brain pan all curled up like the Cheshire cat winking back at him with the feint smile and gnomic wisdom of a Dostoevskian idiot. A gentle giant of a man whose compassion and passion gave us the Infinite Jest.

In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature – not to be confused with Richard Rorty’s work by that name, DFW writes of the good son who attends to the care of his Mother:

It is for such a case that I am her sematic accessory or escort, with my imposing size and goggles one can tell beneath the gaping rictus she believes I can protect her which is good.1

What’s left out of the story is the criminal pathology of the son. And, yet, the pathology comes out through the mother whose facial travesty exposes in her a “chronic mask of insane terror” the bitter truth of her own son’s dark secret. The son carries a briefcase with him at all times, on their trips to the Lawyer’s office (the mother of course is framed against mutilation and malpractice suits):

I also carry a briefcase at all times since my own case. One today would call a briefcase a sematic accessory to warn off potential predators.(ibid)

Reading DFW for a while one gets a sense that here is a man who saw the world through mathematical precision, an almost geometrical clarity in which – as in this story, every visual que becomes an event in some algorithmic design. As in this descriptive passage:

A bus’s circular steering wheel is not only larger but is set at an angle of incidence more horizontal than any taxi, private car or police cruiser’s wheel I have seen and the driver turns the wheel with a broad all-body motion which is resemblant of someone’s arm sweeping all the material off a table or surface in a sudden fit of emotion. And the special perpendicular seats in the bus’s anterior segment comprise a good vantage from which to watch the driver wrestle with the bus. (ibid)

The myriad of stories are rendered not in some logical narrative fashion, but as if from differing nodes in the brain, the accumulated detritus of a brain accustomed to combative episodes of disjunctive pressure. DFW follows a hidden stream of his own, each sentence walks on stage like an unbidden guest, displaying its wares slowly and methodically, then falling away into oblivion. Instead of some totality or whole, we get the accumulated effect of a multiplicity of fractures: fragments without center or circumference. The puzzle of this story is that we are in the midst of a law suit, one that is dispersed throughout the tale like droplets in an ocean. The law suit is the son’s not the mother’s, although one misses that effect the first time through. DFW is almost like a black magician who holds up the rabbit with the left hand while pruning the roses with his oblivious right hand. The sleight-of-hand, now you see it now you don’t, that filters out more than in, and covers the threads of a law suit in which the son is the supposed aggressor rather than its victim is mirrored in the dismal tale of the mother and her Medusa mask. A reversal that brings us waking to darkness and lightning rather than to the simple strength of a tale gone awry.

Whether guilty or innocent our Mother’s son admits nothing:

My position throughout the proceedings was a natural deep regret for the kid and his family but that the misfortune of what happened as a result did not justify hysterical or trumped-up charges of any kind.(ibid)

Such sentences are dropped randomly throughout the story, as a tale within a tale, told as a sort of philosophical parable that mirrors not the analytical problematic of this strange logic, but rather the subtle truth of a mind that cannot forget a thing, that seems to retain even the most abstruse minutiae:

Standardized testing has confirmed that I have both a studious bend and outstanding retention in study which she would not even deny. (ibid)

Such is the genius of David Foster Wallace. A man with a briefcase full of crawly things ready to tip the balance of the world from darkness to lightning. Laughter comes even in tears. And his long battle with depression speaks to us still. There comes a moment in Infinite Jest when the tears overtake the laughter as the truth emerges and DFW limns the ‘livin death’ that took him into that long night’s dance:

—then vocational ultimatums, unemployability, financial ruin, pancreatitis, overwhelming guilt, bloody vomiting, cirrhotic neuralgia, incontinence, neuropathy, nephritis, black depressions, searing pain, with the Substance affording increasingly brief periods of relief; then, finally, no relief available anywhere at all; finally it’s impossible to get high enough to freeze what you feel like, being this way; and now you hate the Substance, hate it, but you still find yourself unable to stop doing it, the Substance, you find you finally want to stop more than anything on earth and it’s no fun doing it anymore and you can’t believe you ever liked doing it and but you still can’t stop, it’s like you’re totally fucking bats, it’s like there’s two yous; and when you’d sell your own dear Mum to stop and still, you find, can’t stop, then the last layer of jolly friendly mask comes off your old friend the Substance, it’s midnight now and all masks come off, and you all of a sudden see the Substance as it really is, for the first time you see the Disease as it really is, really has been all this time, you look in the mirror at midnight and see what owns you, what’s become what you are

— ‘A fuckin livin death, I tell you it’s not being near alive, by the end I was undead, not alive, and I tell you the idea of dyin was nothing compared to the idea of livin like that for another five or ten years and only then dyin,’ with audience heads nodding in rows like a wind-swept meadow; boy can they ever Identify.2

1. Wallace, David Foster (2004-06-08). Oblivion: Stories. Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.
2. Wallace, David Foster (2009-04-03). Infinite Jest. Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

8 thoughts on “David Foster Wallace: Waking to Darkness and Lightning

  1. I can’t help but feel that ‘depressive realism’ is encapsulated in- and satirised by- Michel Houellebecq. There is not a single ray of happiness or joy in Houellebecq’s fictions or his poetry, any attempt to elevate such prospects inevitably end with them getting thrown down the stairs and paralysed. At best he allows a dark laughter, corrosive but clean. Like Cioran, Houellebecq’s despairs are also the attempt to sum up all despairs- historical and ontological- and present the betrayal of the promise of democracy (both men write about liberation and liberalism as a sort of fatigue, the product of dead spirits- the literary equivalent of the mood of a Joy Division song). Yet each is also a provocation, a temptation to believe and to disprove, the tracing of an ambiguous movement between loss and Lack, pessimism and utopia., between a rational sobriety and a wordly intoxication.

    ‘It’s not that I feel tremendously low; it’s rather that the world around me appears high’- Houellebecq, Whatever.


  2. Pingback: Impossible Object(s) & Other Speculations from Dark Ecologies | Senselogi©

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