David Foster Wallace — Being A Ghost

by John Rotilie

For the writer, David Foster Wallace, “every love story is a ghost story”, because for David Foster Wallace,

being a person was like being a ghost.


David Foster Wallace, photograph by Giovanni Giovannetti, Effigie

David Foster Wallace, photograph by Giovanni Giovannetti, Effigie


David Foster Wallace suffered extreme self-consciousness, day in and day out.  He obsessed about sweating, brushed his teeth and gargled for 45 minutes at a time, mixed tea bags in his coffee, and let his dogs run ruin in his homes.  He could not stand to be watched while watching TV.  He feared tornadoes.  Shopping malls and a Caribbean cruise depressed him.  Boredom was terrifying.


His thinking was always meta-thinking – thinking about thinking.  He was maddeningly uncertain of his own sincerity, of his own motivations.  Lost in recursions, and riddles of semantics and logic, and in nuances of grammar, his world seemed like a baffling tautology.  He suffered severe writer’s block. He feared social exposure.  He could not maintain a comfortable persona.


I don’t really know what the interior of anybody else is like – I often feel very fragmented, and as if I have a symphony of different voices, and voice overs, and factoids, going on all the time, and digressions on digressions. . . “


He lived inside his head.

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace (cited as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005 by Time magazine)


“He would later talk about the ‘special sort of buzz’ that logic gave him, how, often, “a gorgeously simple solution to a problem you suddenly see after half a notebook with gnarly attempted solutions you about hear a CLICK”.


He could not shake being uncertain that he was real.  Life felt like a game, truth like a conjecture, reality like an artifact.  He tried to understand this continuous, unconnected feeling, he tried to grasp how it could be different for others.  Substance abuse gave him RELIEF.  Intoxication made him feel less fragmented.  He became addicted with frightening ease.


It was seductive to think that his troubles were because he was just brilliant, and many did.  But, no, fame made it all worse; it made it all more perplexing.  He just could not feel put together inside.  Ironically, it was only with his friends in recovery, with their simple nostrums, honest confessions, and modest sophistication, that he could find some reassurance.


Oppressive self –consciousness may be the essence of all mental illness, the unitary defect in them all, from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder to autism spectrum disorder.  Recent genetic investigations have revealed that these archetypes of mental illness share the same genetic abnormalities.


Mental illness may be unique to humans, and it may be relatively new.  Julian Jaynes in his book: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown in the Bicameral Mind, has noted that the mind of Achilles, in the Iliad – a mind solely and completely in the present – is very different from the mind of Odysseus, in the Odyssey – a mind scheming to manipulate appearance and orchestrate the future.  What caused the change? It may have been the advent of writing and the development of the reading mind.  It may be that the reading mind has brought us mental illness, for in reading is that ability to split off mental experience from everyday lived life. And it may be that when verbal- mind mothers have children with verbal-mind fathers, mental illness may more likely occur in their children.  Autism spectrum disorder has been noted to cluster near advanced universities.  David Foster Wallace’s mother was an English grammarian, and his father was a university philosophy professor.


Being normal is no easy task.  We must coordinate and differentiate our private and public selves, all the while experiencing the present as we correlate with our memories of the past, and form plans for the future.  We must balance inner analysis and imagination of what might be, with present sensory perception of what is, and execute present action, with future action in mind.  This requires a comprehensive internal coordination and integration.  All mental illness may fundamentally be failure with this internal coherence.


Inside cover of David Foster Wallace's annotated copy of Edwin Williamson's Borges A Life, Harry Ransom Center

Inside cover of David Foster Wallace’s annotated copy of Edwin Williamson’s Borges A Life, Harry Ransom Center


Fiction may help.  Reading good fiction has been shown to improve one’s ability to relate to one’s self and to others.  David Foster Wallace did sense this.  He did sense that good fiction can be positive in an otherwise treacherous media realm.  But, unfortunately, not his fiction.  Like his psyche, in his fiction plot is not developed, characters do not evolve, and issues do not resolve.  Infinite Jest is an unstructured, endless digression.  One gets lost in foot notes and asides.  It is not literature, it is a psychiatric exposition.


David Foster Wallace was unable to feel what most of us feel without thinking or learning, i.e. that we are mortal, physical, self-centered beings and that we are inalienable. . . we are SELF-JUSTIFIED.  This is the ‘faith’ he tried to understand, what his companions in recovery seemed to find, what he sensed he didn’t have, and what he correctly sensed he needed.  It truly mystified him, as he really believed in his core that a mind could and should be able to understand everything, but he couldn’t quite get there, he could never really feel it.


He tried to convey what it was to be like David Foster Wallace, what it was like to be mentally ill, and in that he did succeed, and that is his lasting contribution.


He gave this famous commencement address at Kenyon College, in 2006.  He was speaking to an audience of young believers in the liberal arts as a way of life.  He tried to tell them:  Be careful!  Mentation isn’t all it is cracked up to be!  You can be a fish swimming in water, and not know what water is.  Stay grounded in simple truths!  Somehow they are REALLY true, even though they are simple!


David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College Commencement

David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College Commencement


He spoke of “choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self”.

Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-space kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.  This kind of freedom has much to recommend it.  But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.  The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.  That is real freedom”.


But, sadly, he couldn’t hold on to his insight.


David Foster Wallace draft, openculture.com

David Foster Wallace draft, openculture.com


The only thing that’s capital – T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it.  You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”


No, David, you really don’t.  Reality isn’t a choice, and neither is meaning.  They are built into being alive.


It is the ultimate attachment disorder, to be unattached to your self.  And eventually it must feel very terrible, particularly for someone with intense inner awareness.


“My thoughts now have the urgent but impeded quality of speechlessness in dreams”

David Foster Wallace, photograph by Suzy Allman for The New York Times

David Foster Wallace, photograph by Suzy Allman for The New York Times


He waited two more days for an opportunity.  In the early evening on Friday, September 12, Wallace suggested that his wife go out to prepare for an opening…After she left, he went into the garage and turned on the lights.  He wrote her a two page note.  Then he crossed through the house to the patio, where he climbed onto a chair and hanged himself.”  From: Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D. T. Max, 2012, page 301.




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