Thursday, September 25, 2008

The source of modern resentment

(A blog entry that has no relevance at all to pigs, lipstick, hockey moms, bailouts, suspended campaigns, mortgages, Presidential debates, or the Chicago Cubs)

The present era is so proud that it has produced a phenomenon which I imagine to be unprecedented: the present’s resentment of the past, resentment because the past had the audacity to happen without us being there, without our cautious opinion and our hesitant consent, and even worse, without gaining any advantage from it. Most extraordinary of all this resentment has nothing to do, apparently, with feelings of envy for past splendours that vanished without including us, or feelings of distaste for an excellence of which we were aware, but to which we did not contribute, one that we missed and failed to experience, that scorned us and which we did not ourselves witness, because the arrogance of our times has reached such proportions that it cannot admit the idea, not even the shadow or mist or breath of an idea, that things were better before. No, it’s just pure resentment for anything that presumed to happen beyond our boundaries and owed no debt to us, for anything that is over and has, therefore, escaped us.

Javier MarĂ­as, Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Fear

(trans. by Margaret Jull Costa)

Monday, September 15, 2008

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace died last Friday by suicide. In the late nineties, after Infinite Jest came out, a friend of mine was living with a producer at a bare-bones cable access talk show in Southern California. Once she showed me an interview with Wallace that her boyfriend had taped. Wallace was nervous, sweating, a little paranoid, worrying on-camera that people would actually see the interview, fretting that he would come off wrong, and so forth. If you’ve had conversations with extremely self-conscious, hyper-intelligent, depressed people you would recognize the style – arguing with oneself while second- and third-guessing the meanings and intentions of the interlocutor. Defensive, and very, very uncomfortable, but at the same time self-aggrandizing and annoyed. Clearly the man was not having a good day. He was pretty famous at this point among those of us who were searching for a generational spokesperson other than Douglas Coupland. My friend and I laughed and felt a little sorry for him. It was pathetic, but endearing. He was so talented. After seeing the tape, I also thought he was lucky, because the crippling self-doubt on display in the interview hadn’t prevented him from doing it. This was about ten years ago. In more recent footage of Wallace (on youtube) he’s soft-spoken, but not visibly terrified. Maybe he perfected a sort of persona for the purpose of appearing in public – and he taught creative writing so his students probably trained him to hold his cards a little closer to his chest. (Some students react to a nervous professor like sharks when there’s blood in the water. I can’t imagine he didn’t notice it right away.) Also legal pharmaceuticals for calming performance nerves are a lot easier to get today. In short, he probably gave that one inconsequential public-access interview on a particularly bad day. He probably had them every now and then, until he had a really bad day last Friday.

Today, a lot of publications published online eulogies. They focused on the brilliance of his work and his impact on literature, but refrained from speculating on the cause of death. When I look at news on the Internet I almost always read the comments, and sometimes, if it’s a piece on a topic I already know a lot about, the comments are all I read. The New York Times forums are my favorites. There are a few trolls here and there, but readers generally don’t overreact, and the editors step in if things turn ugly. The Times comments section after Michiko Kakutani’s discussion of Wallace's work shows a particular style of group grieving – people who knew him personally or through his work shared memories, and a few weighed in on depression and suicide (a sin or a sickness? Discuss.) Some posts cited mentions of depression in Wallace’s writing - for example, the bit about the urge to jump overboard in his Harper’s essay on cruise lines, or his essay on depressed people. Sarah Palin was mentioned several times. I’m not a genius, but I am a person who values thoughtfulness, and I have to agree with the readers who drew parallels between what she symbolizes and how people like us (here, I’m not talking about Wallace – I’m talking about snooty Eastern urban types – folks who read the New York Times arts section online) feel when she mocks “big fat resumes” and her supporters consider book-learnin’ a political liability. In the reader’s forum, one reader speculated on Wallace’s thoughts about “this country's response to Sarah Palin, the blatant reaffirmation of the strident anti-intellectualism that put us on the downward slope with our foreign relations, our economy and our future as a place where it can even be possible to be a reflective human being and be appreciated as such.” Another reader replied, “shame on you for the Palin jokes. Think of how his family feels.”

It’s not a joke. It might be a partisan attempt to hijack sorrow in order to promote a political goal, which is tasteless (and a well-worn political strategy), but it’s also a statement of fact. When that feeling of worthlessness descends, reading today’s political coverage doesn’t help. Is the candidacy of Sarah Palin sufficient cause to do myself in? Of course not. Is her ascendance depressing to people who think there’s more to foreign relations than guns and bluster? Well, yes. When I visited my nephew’s grammar school I was struck by all the “anti-bully” propaganda plastered all over the school. It shows up in my own child’s urban school materials too, but not half as much as it does in the Republican stronghold my nephews live in. Yet the swaggering, hard-nosed bully is what the Palin / McCain ticket glorifies (This is the sort of paradox that Harpers-type writers love to point up, and if I were half as talented as David Foster Wallace, I would have written an entire essay by now on that topic.) The Third Reich rose on a wave of shared resentment over the humiliations of Versailles and the economic traumas of the early thirties. People supported Hitler because he defended them against those who would denigrate German pride. They didn’t necessarily recognize him as a bully – he was their champion. The grievances expressed by supporters of Palin are not fake – they're as real as the hurt felt by middle-class Germans when their savings became worthless and Goebbels told them to blame the infiltration of Jews, communists, and intellectuals. Looking at Palin through that lens, it feels dangerous and outmoded to be a thinking person at this moment. Even if Wallace had no thoughts at all on the current situation as he took steps toward his own death, those of us who are trying to make sense of what causes such a smart and successful person to kill himself can’t help but consider it. On the other hand, maybe we just think too much.