It was over two years ago that I read an elegant essay on tennis by David Foster Wallace. It is one the most memorable piece of sports journalism that I’ve ever encountered. To be more specific, Wallace wrote about the miraculous game of tennis that Roger Federer plays. Wallace calls watching Federer play in person a religious experience, not almost religious, rather genuinely religious. It is also a thing of beauty and grace. Wallace writes:
“The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”
If you’ve ever had the privilege of watching Federer play tennis, even if was on TV, which Wallace says is a poor approximation of watching him play in person, you’ll understand what he means. This is the case even on those days, which were uncommonly numerous last year, when Federer wasn’t winning. Wallace calls his miraculous plays “Federer Moments” and attributes his genius to three factors: “One involves mystery and metaphysics and is, I think, closest to the real truth. The others are more technical and make for better journalism.”
David Foster Wallace committed suicide last year. He had been deeply depressed throughout most of his adult life and was only able to survive as long as he did with one or more of the anti-depressive medications he took. Although, Wallace never wrote about his own mental illness, in a short story titled The Depressed Person, he did write about these drugs: “None had delivered any significant relief from the pain and feelings of emotional isolation that rendered the depressed person’s every walking hour an indescribable hell on earth.” It is hard not to believe he wasn’t at the same time talking about himself.
Wallace is the subject of a sadly engrossing profile by D. T. Max in a recent New Yorker. Max writes:
“He was only forty-six when he killed himself, which helped explain the sense of loss readers and critics felt. There was also Wallace’s outside passion for the printed word at a time when it looked like, it needed champions.”
His incredibly lengthy novels (Broom, Infinite Jest and the unfinished The Pale King) are full of facts, qualifications, footnotes, witty language, lengthy sentences and a large number of digressions. Wallace also wrote three collections of short stores, two books of essays and one titled Everything and More, a history of infinity that reflects his background in philosophy and mathematics.
Max’s profile is rich with details about Wallace’s life, illnesses, and his novels. According to Max, Wallace was continually struggling with the question of the purpose of fiction and never felt that he had answered it satisfactorily. Here are some of the things he said:
“Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being. Good writing should help readers to become less alone inside.”
“Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that thee are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”
Until then [when he began to write fiction] Wallace had seen novels primarily as a pleasurable way to get information.
…he realized that fiction could order experience as well as philosophy could and also provide some of the same comfort.
This is a generation that has an inheritance of absolutely nothing as far as meaningful moral values and it’s our job to make them up.
The Pale King, the novel Wallace was trying so desperately to finish at the time of his death, explores his continuing preoccupation with boredom. He apparently assembled page after page of research studies about it trying to come to a better understanding of the desolation it can give rise to.
The novel centers on a group of IRS agents who spend hours, day after day, year after year auditing tax returns. Max suggests that Wallace felt that “Properly handled, boredom can be an antidote to our national dependence on entertainment” leaving open the matter of what “properly handled” means. For Wallace it meant:
“Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find [Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”
Be mindful, concentrate on the important things, the things that will devastate you once you lose them.
As Max notes in conclusion, Wallace’s death was not an ending “anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the ending he chose.”