David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, and Empathy

A few years ago, I participated in a reading experience called Infinite Summer, in which one attempts to read all of Infinite Jest between Memorial Day and Labor Day. I accomplished the goal, but did not enjoy the book. I appreciated Wallace’s ambition, his characters, and his psychological and philosophical insights, but the story itself didn’t resonate me. I even ended up giving the book away to someone else who wanted to read it — I figured it should go to someone interested rather than just sitting on my shelf.

Which is not to say that I don’t care for Wallace’s other work. In fact, I adore much of his nonfiction, and feel grateful that I was at the Kenyon College commencement in 2005 when Wallace gave what I still maintain is the best graduation speech in history. I was, in fact, surprised that Infinite Jest felt like a chore, considering how much I found pleasure and insight in his other work.

Today is the fifth anniversary of Wallace’s suicide. It was a sad day in my household when I heard the news. For the past few weeks, knowing that this anniversary was coming up, I have been pondering Infinite Jest and the ways that, despite not liking it as a story, it had a long-term effect on me.

Despite not caring for the story, I can’t deny that the characters Wallace created, and the insight that he gave me, has worked its way into my brain. In particular, Wallace’s portrayals of people struggling with addiction and mental illness were so real that the novel made me understand such disorders better than any textbook or class ever could. Despite being fictional, Wallace managed to make mental illness profoundly real, and as a result, made me far more understanding and empathetic than I might have been otherwise.

This passage, in particular, has remained stuck in my brain, even though I don’t have it memorized, even though I no longer have a copy of the novel.

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. 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.

From the moment I read that passage, I could no longer claim that a person who commits suicide is “selfish.” I could no longer describe suicide as a “waste.” I had grown up around such rhetoric. In school health classes, when counselors came to talk about mental health and suicidal thoughts, those who killed themselves were described with shameful, judgmental language, considered stupid or foolish, described as people who didn’t care enough about their family and friends to tough it out and get better. There was nothing from the perspectives of people who had suffered on a level that Wallace, or his characters, or the thousands of people in the world struggling with mental illness. There was no humanity to it, only rhetoric.

After reading Infinite Jest, I could no longer be so abstract about suicide. I could no longer feel judgment, use words like “selfish,” and “stupid,” and “waste.” Such language does a disservice to the memory of the victim, inhibits healing, and furthers the stigma of mental illness in American culture, making it even more difficult for those who suffer to get the treatment they need and survive.

Good fiction can teach us just as well as nonfiction. I am grateful that Infinite Jest found its way onto my reading list. But I regret that Wallace reached that point of desperation. And I regret that he will never be able to realize the power of his art, and its ability to change people, and save them, and to make the world a better place.

In closing, here’s a video of “This is Water.” (It’s audio only; I tried to find actual video, but I wasn’t able to locate any.) I re-read this piece annually, and the older I get, the deeper it resonates. If you haven’t experienced before, give it a listen.

2 thoughts on “David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, and Empathy

  1. Allyson, your blog looks so beautiful! I love the balloons and the font choices…it has been a little while since I’ve gotten to read through blogs, but I’m happy I clicked over to yours.

    Also, yay, Ohio, and yay, Kenyon! I went to a reading there this summer (and it was so good).

    • Thank you, Hannah! I was looking for a fresh template, and was hooked on the balloons the minute I saw them. I actually had balloon wallpaper as a baby, so it seems a fitting motif.

      I miss Kenyon! One of these years I’m going to have to get out for the summer literary seminars. If only plane fare from Texas wasn’t so expensive.

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