David Foster Wallace and the Horror of Life: A Really Long Essay by Derek Swannson
[Editor’s Note: For the ideal reading experience, this essay should be viewed in two open browser windows: one for the main text and one for the extensive, DFW-style endnotes. For the reading-impaired, there’s also a free audio version of this essay available on YouTube: https://youtu.be/hq0yVGK4n9Q ]
The thing about people who are truly and malignantly crazy: their real genius is for making the people around them think they themselves are crazy. In military science this is called Psy-Ops, for your info.
— David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
Some days are more horrific than others. Not long ago I spent a Sunday afternoon in the emergency room at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, New Jersey. Some weird virus or allergen had lodged itself in my eye, causing the right side of my face to swell up with bulbous red welts. I looked like a hung-over Phantom of the Opera who’d lost his alabaster demi-masque after a wild night with some diva’s understudy. The triage nurse took one look at me and said, “The first thing I usually ask is: ‘Why are you here?’ But in your case, I can see why.” It couldn’t have been more obvious if I’d had a machete cleaving my forehead.
I wasn’t feeling at my most handsome, but the nurse was young and cute and so big-hearted that she started flirting with me, just a little, as she took my blood pressure and stuck a digital thermometer under my tongue. I was reminded — not for the first time — that a sense of shared humanity runs deep in most people who are drawn to the healthcare professions. It’s only the health insurance providers and hospital billing departments that tend to attract all the assholes.[i]
My vital signs checked out okay, so the nurse told me not to worry, but she thought it might be a while before a doctor could see me. She left me sitting alone in a corner of the E.R. that was set off from the main area by two dingy hospital curtains that she didn’t bother to close on her way out. For idle entertainment, I could use my one good eye to watch the hospital staff going about their business. At one point, three E.M.T.s in short sleeve shirts hustled past the curtains pushing a gurney occupied by a shriveled, white-haired old woman wearing an oxygen mask. She reminded me of a cruel but funny passage I’d recently highlighted in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I’d been rereading in e-book format over the past month during my daily train commute into Manhattan. The passage begins on page 953 in my signed hardcover edition, when Hal Incandenza[ii] recalls his brother Orin’s description of their paternal grandmother as she was dying from emphysema:
Orin reports she’d looked like an embalmed poodle, all neck-tendons and tight white curls and eyes that were all pupil. […] Orin had also liked to recreate for us the spooky kyphotic hunch of Himself’s mother, in her wheelchair, beckoning him closer with a claw, the way she seemed always caved in over and around her chest as if she’d been speared there. An air of deep dehydration had hung about her, he said, as if she osmosized moisture from whoever came near. […] When the nurse was off, a small silver bell was apparently hung from an arm of the old lady’s wheelchair, to be rung when she could not breathe. A cheery silver tinkle announcing asphyxiation upstairs.
That passage encapsulates much of what I love and also kind of despise about David Foster Wallace’s writing. There’s no denying the guy could bang out a clever sentence. (“A cheery silver tinkle announcing asphyxiation upstairs…” I mean, how cool is that?) But that cleverness was offset by Wallace’s tendency to get bogged down in show-offy digressions, obscure terminology (“osmosized” I’ll give a pass to, but if anyone knows what “kyphotic” means, please raise your hand), and seemingly endless recursive interior monologues from amoral drug addicts and solipsistic depressives experiencing hellish bouts of pain, tedium, or violence. Long sections of the book bored me in the same way that reading certain parts of the Bible or Finnegans Wake bored me. I’ve had similar experiences with other near-indigestible chunks of the DFW corpus like “Host,” “Authority and American Usage,” “The Depressed Person,” and Everything and More. Try reading those texts on less than two quarts of coffee and you’ll see what I mean.
Look, I know it’s considered clueless or insufferably haughty to say such things about the post-suicide DFW — one of our more prominent Suffering Saints of Literature — but hey, I’m not the only one. No less an authority than The New York Times’ famed book critic, Michiko Kakutani, called out Wallace’s writing in his posthumous The Pale King as “By turns breathtakingly brilliant and stupefying dull…” while fellow literary superstar, Dave Eggers, wrote in an early-1996 review of Infinite Jest:
Though set against an epic landscape of environmental toxicity and corporate insinuation, at its core (Infinite Jest) is an intimate and bleak portrait of the human fallout caused by a weak-willed country interested in only pleasing itself. Exploring the lives of those enslaved by TV, drugs, alcohol and emotional dependence, Wallace paints a picture, one character at a time, of the decline of a culture paralyzed by its need for escape and its willingness to die in the pursuit of happiness. […] But the book is more about David Foster Wallace than anything else. It’s an extravagantly self-indulgent novel, and, page by page, it’s often difficult to navigate. […] Besides frequently losing itself in superfluous and wildly tangential flights of lexical diarrhea, the book suffers under the sheer burden of its incredible length. […] At almost 1,100 pages, it feels more like 3,000.
Eggers has since overcome that snark-inspiring first impression. In 2006, he wrote a fawning introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of Infinite Jest, which I found kind of amusing. Was Eggers being brazenly two-faced, or just succumbing to the pressures of commerce? You be the judge:
The book is 1,079 pages long and there is not one lazy sentence. The book is drum-tight and relentlessly smart, and though it does not wear its heart on its sleeve, it’s deeply felt and incredibly moving. […] Page by page, line by line, it is probably the strangest, most distinctive, and most involved work of fiction by an American in the last twenty years. At no time while reading Infinite Jest are you unaware that this is a work of complete obsession, of a stretching of the mind of a young writer to the point of, we assume, near madness.
So okay, Dave… whatever. My point here is that not everyone was on-board the DFW train prior to his suicide in 2008 — or even after it, in the case of the imperious M. Kakutani and other bookish eminences.[iii] The fact remains, however, that the world bestowed about as much literary cachet on Wallace as anyone ever gets: He was reviewed in all the top-tier corporate media outlets. College professors added his books to their curriculum and grad students wrote thesis papers about him. He was pen pals with Important Writers of Our Time like Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen. Et cetera.
Today, David Foster Wallace is generally thought of as a heroic, tragic figure — a suicidal genius with a slew of publishing industry awards and a MacArthur Genius Grant to prove the genius part. If you’re young, you might be forgiven for thinking of DFW as the Kurt Cobain of International Prestige Lit. But in my middle-aged opinion, I don’t think he serves as a great role model. The DFW Guide to Living — based on his actual life choices, rather than his self-consciously sappy Kenyon College commencement address — could be summed up as: Become a slave to multiple addictions (alcohol, pot, chewing tobacco, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, daytime TV, loneliness, sex[iv]), write bloated books, hang yourself while still young, and leave a good-looking, bandana-brow-wrapped corpse.
I met David Foster Wallace, briefly, at the Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle when he was touring for Infinite Jest back in 1996. My girlfriend at that time was a locally famous radio DJ and former late-night music video show host — this was toward the end of the grunge era, less than two years after Kurt Cobain’s own tragic genius suicide — and I was working as the director of digital art at the Pacific Northwest’s largest commercial photography studio after an aborted career in journalism.[v] We were in an audience of somewhere between fifty and a hundred people who’d shown up for Wallace’s reading. During the Q and A session that followed, some mousey woman in a yellow Patagonia fleece jacket raised her hand and asked where he got his ideas. Wallace’s reply was curt and dismissive. This was over twenty years ago, so I can’t recreate what he said word-for-word, but in essence Wallace said the question was inane and he wouldn’t waste his time trying to answer it. It was a brainiac beatdown — and everyone in the audience felt it.
I sympathized with Wallace, which might tell you something a bit unflattering about my own psyche. Maybe I was just projecting, but Wallace seemed nervous to me up there at the podium — an internally-conflicted introvert, flop-sweat dampening his trademark bandana as he did his best to entertain an audience that had been thrust upon him by his avaricious publishers. Why the hell should he have to answer the most hackneyed question anyone could ask at a book reading? (Where do I get my ideas? Fuck you, lady… “I get them from a Time-Life subscription series, which costs $17.95 a month.”)
My sassy redheaded girlfriend, however, stood proudly with the Patagonia-clad women of the Pacific Northwest (even though her personal fashion sense dictated that she should spend most of her time in thigh-high leather boots, black miniskirts, and low-cut, cleavage-emphasizing jersey tops). When we got to the front of the book-signing line after the Q and A session was over, she admonished Wallace in a motherly tone, telling him he’d been rude to the “Where-do-you-get-your-ideas?” woman.
“She was just trying to connect with you,” my girlfriend said as I cringed. I offered a mild defense on Wallace’s behalf, reiterating that the question had been the worst sort of cliché. Wallace stuttered out a lame apology or justification, but again, I can’t tell you his exact words. I remember feeling bad for him. Seattle was the third stop on Wallace’s big book tour, after Boston and New York. His scruffy hipster-genius face had just been featured in Time magazine. I had no doubt that his ego was rapidly expanding in the toxic upper atmosphere of celebrity — a situation that would sorely test even the most clear-eyed bodhisattva, which Wallace, by all accounts, was not — and there was my girlfriend, rudely yanking him back to earth.
I now suspect that incident might have caused some psychological fallout for DFW. In D.T. Max’s excellent biography, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (Viking, 2012), there’s a line that refers to the aftermath of that Elliot Bay reading: “In Seattle, [Wallace] had told Corey Washington he could not hang out because he was too exhausted to see even an old friend.” I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe my girlfriend initiated that state of exhaustion — she could have that effect when the smothering mothering impulse ran strong in her.[vi]
Studies have shown that depressed people see life with greater clarity than happy, normal people. The Normals are more prone to denial and dissociation than their depressed counterparts, whose grim perceptions hew closer to how the world really operates. That certainly seems true of DFW (I’ll make my case for that as we go along), but one should always keep in mind that Infinite Jest was, in a sense, a medicalized novel. It was written while Wallace was under the influence of Nardil, a primitive but effective monamine oxidase inhibitor used to treat atypical depression.
Wallace wrote Infinite Jest to impress Mary Karr, a poet and fellow writing professor at Syracuse University who would later become the best-selling author of The Liars’ Club and other memoirs. Karr was seven years older than Wallace, married (soon to be divorced), and she had a young son, but Wallace was obsessed with her — to the point of violence. He’d considered buying a gun and using it to kill her husband. “He saw her… as some sort of mother/redeemer figure,” Daniel Max wrote in his Wallace bio, adding a few pages later: “One day she looked out her office window to find Wallace cursing her and demanding the return of a Walkman he’d lent her. When she threw it down to him, he took it, stomped off, and put his fist through a car window.” Max also noted a few other less-than-chivalrous encounters:
One night Wallace tried to push Karr from a moving car. Soon afterward, he got so mad at her that he threw her coffee table at her. He sent her $100 for the remnants. She had a friend who was a lawyer write back to say she still owned the table, all he’d bought was the “brokenness.”
So we’re not talking about the most emotionally stable individual ever to be thrust upon the world-stage as a distinguished novelist — although others have done worse, of course. Norman Mailer punched his second wife in the gut when she was six months pregnant and, later, stabbed her in the chest at a dinner party (not the same party at which he pissed in a fireplace — although he did that too). William Burroughs shot his wife in the head during a drunken game of William Tell. James Joyce had an appalling fart fetish. (“It is wonderful to fuck a farting woman when every fuck drives one out of her… I hope Nora will let off no end of her farts in my face so that I may know their smell also.”) Samuel Beckett — who began his writing career as Joyce’s (presumably mouth-breathing) secretary — was merely depressed, like Wallace, but he never let anyone forget it.
Bret Easton Ellis, another writer associated with emotional instability and moral depravity,[vii] once spent a few days in 2012 trashing David Foster Wallace on Twitter. It came off as sort of an Internet-enabled literary pissing match, in which one of the participants — already dead — is incapable of pissing back. Here are some samples:
Bret Easton Ellis @BretEastonEllis
Reading D.T. Max’s bio I continue to find David Foster Wallace the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation…
Bret Easton Ellis @BretEastonEllis
David Foster Wallace was so needy, so conservative, so in need of fans — that I find the halo of sentimentality surrounding him embarrassing.
Bret Easton Ellis @BretEastonEllis
DFW is the best example of a contemporary male writer lusting for a kind of awful greatness that he simply wasn’t able to achieve. A fraud.
Bret Easton Ellis @BretEastonEllis
Anyone who finds David Foster Wallace a literary genius has got to be included in the Literary Douchebag-Fools Pantheon…
Bret Easton Ellis @BretEastonEllis
Whether he’s playing tennis with Jay McInerney, beating up Mary Karr or pissing all over Philip Roth: David Foster Wallace is insufferable.
In October of that same year, The New Yorker sponsored a panel discussion titled “Re-Reading David Foster Wallace” that included, among other panelists, Daniel Max and Mary Karr. During that discussion, Max mentioned Bret Easton Ellis’s DFW-bashing tweets to Karr, who shrugged and said the criticisms sounded to her like complaints from “somebody dumber than David.” As the crowd laughed, she continued: “I mean, I’m dumber than David. You guys are, too.” While I believe that statement might be true, I think it’s important to note that no one in the audience hurled a coffee table at Mary Karr that day — even though you could say they’d been provoked.
It’s not my intention here to prove I’m in any way smarter, saner, or a better person than David Foster Wallace. That would be a Literary Douchebag-Fool’s errand. No, what I’m out to prove, instead, is that the whole International Prestige Lit game is rigged — and Important Writers of Our Time like Mailer, Burroughs, and even Bret Easton Ellis have benefitted from that game’s rigged marketing system every bit as much as Wallace. In fact, among all those novelists mentioned, Wallace is the one I feel the most kinship with, in case you couldn’t tell. I think he was an immensely talented and innovative writer (who, like most of us, sometimes wrote stuff that makes you go WTF?). I think he was also an essentially decent, thoughtful, and caring human being (who, like most of us, sometimes behaved like a flaming asshole). The one and only time I met him, I had no doubt that Wallace was the smartest guy in the room. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a plaything for daimonic forces, or some field of collective genius, that — despite his mental firepower — he never truly understood.
“Smart is only one thing,” as Mary Karr pointed out during the “Re-Reading David Foster Wallace” panel discussion. Smart people can still be co-opted by a system that rewards those who — intentionally or unwittingly — create weapons of mass culture (“In military science this is called Psy-Ops, for your info…”) that can be used to “demoralize and passify the unwary.”[viii]
Stay with me and I’ll show you how those weapons of mass culture get made, and why Infinite Jest is one of the greatest of Great American Zombie Bombs ever to be dropped upon an unwary reading populace.
First, however, a little historical detour: Back in the late-1980s, when I was a working journalist just out of college, I used to split the rent on a three-story redwood house by the beach in Cambria, California, with a friend of mine named Christopher Moore. At the time, Chris was a waiter with grandiose literary ambitions. He swore to me that the nineties would be “The Chris Moore Decade” — even though there seemed zero chance of anything like that happening. When we weren’t acting out as raging alcoholics, or lurching after women, Chris and I spent our free time working on novels (his first, my third). But aside from my rabble-rousing newspaper articles, neither of us had published anything worth mentioning. The prospect of authorial fame was remote.
My girlfriend around that time was a slumming Hollywood socialite. Let’s call her Justine the Screaming Eel Skin Queen, since that’s the name she goes by in my latest book. Justine was the sort of person who went around wearing a red square dance petticoat over Wicked Witch of the West leggings while smoking White Owl cigars and eating her daily ration of lithium from a jaunty Woody the Woodpecker Pez dispenser. In other words, loads of fun, but at times dangerously crazy. (She once broke a lamp over my head because I wanted to read in bed on a Saturday night.) Justine’s best friend, JayJay, was friendly with a literary agent at a scrappy little boutique agency in Beverly Hills or Studio City or someplace like that, and when Chris finished writing his novel — which he’d titled Practical Demonkeeping — JayJay gave the manuscript to her agent friend on Justine’s recommendation.
Here’s where things got weird. The agent passed around that unpublished first manuscript by an unknown writer and somehow started a bidding war for it among several major movie studios. It ended up selling to Disney for $400,000.
Holy shit, right?
Four hundred thousand dollars bought a lot more back in 1990 than it does now. (Little, Brown and Company’s advance for Infinite Jest in June of 1992 was just $80,000, for the sake of comparison — and DFW was already an established writer with two successful books behind him at that point.) Chris’s score was big news in our little coastal community. I contacted a friend of mine at a regional arts-and-entertainment weekly called New Times that I wrote for occasionally — a guy named Todd — and I told him the story. Todd ended up writing a feature article on Chris the Waiter’s remarkable Cinderella-like debut among the cultural elite of Hollywood. He also took a picture of Chris on a shitty, Soviet-made, plastic-lensed camera and put it on New Times’ front cover.
Chris, with his usual narcissistic flair, immediately went out and purchased a shiny new gold Nissan 300ZX on a no-money-down plan, using the New Times article as his only credit reference. (Unfortunately, Disney took quite a long time to cut the promised check, so Chris had to borrow money from his widowed mom to make the first few car payments.) He took me for a late-night drive in the ZX shortly after his return from a meeting to sign contracts with his agent down in Los Angeles, where he’d been introduced to the big-time movie producer, Don Simpson.[ix] Chris was in a manic mood and we hurtled along the curvy Pacific Coast highway at over 130 mph. If an overfed raccoon had flashed its bandit mask in our headlights it could have spelled the end for both of us, but the local wildlife had the good sense to stay in the shadows that night — which is where I ended up staying too.
I was happy for my friend. In fact, I felt a kind of pride to be so closely associated with a writer who’d made it. That pride only grew as Chris went on to write many more successful novels (Bloodsucking Fiends, Lamb, A Dirty Job, You Suck, Fool, Sacré Bleu, etc.), some of which actually made it onto The New York Times Best Sellers list. But at the same time, a spiteful imp inside me was always asking:
Why is that fucking clown catching all the breaks?
After a few failed screenplay adaptations (including one written on spec by yours truly that, according to Chris, was rumored to be going into production until it was nixed by the famously fickle Jeffrey Katzenberg), Disney decided not to make a movie from Practical Demonkeeping, after all — so the $400,000 ended up as a sort of gift, allowing Chris the financial freedom to ease into his career as a novelist without having to work at some soul-sucking day job, like the rest of us.
Over the years, Chris’s luck held. He bought a house on the island of Kauai and lived there for a few years. Then he bought a lavish home in San Francisco that had been designed by the famous architect of Hearst Castle, Julia Morgan. He became a multimillionaire. A world-traveler. He had the luxury of being able to do pretty much whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted to do it — all just from writing books.[x]
When Chris and I were hanging out together in the eighties — drinking cheap beer on the back patio with The Velvet Underground cranked up on the stereo — he used to tell me stories about growing up in Ohio. Chris’s dad had been a highway patrolman with a warped sense of humor. He’d sit down with the family for dinner after a hard day on the job and tell funny stories about the horror of life. In the grim tradition of dead baby jokes, a slain four-year-old by the side of the road became comic fodder. It was a coping strategy, a way to keep from going insane, as Chris explained it. He internalized that coping strategy, and after his dad died from a heart attack in his early-fifties (like Don Simpson), Chris became the world’s best-selling horror humorist.
I’ve often wondered what it was, exactly, that made Chris’s first book so beguiling that Disney was willing to fork over $400,000 for it. Todd the Journalist described Practical Demonkeeping as “a popcorn read” in the article that he wrote about Chris for New Times, so we’re not talking about a Dostoyevskian examination of the human soul here. What was it then? The plot? The humor? I’m working on an answer to that, but right now if the mousey woman in the yellow Patagonia fleece jacket raised her hand and asked where Chris got his ideas, I could tell her this:
When Chris was a sullen sixteen-year-old growing up in Mansfield, Ohio, he had a habit of driving around in his beat-up old Chevy late at night with his jaw clenched, feeling misunderstood and melancholy. For the most part, this was due to an abject failure to get laid, as I interpreted it. The cops in Mansfield thought Chris looked suspicious, going around with his jaw clenched like that, so they pulled him over — despite his dad being a highway patrolman — and they searched his car for drugs. This happened on more than one occasion. In fact, it happened all the time. The cops never found anything, but they persisted. Chris became so resentful of this routine that he started to fantasize about driving around with an invisible man-eating monster in his backseat, lurking under the pile of discarded Taco Bell chupacabra burrito wrappers, sucked-dry Wendy’s milkshake cups, and a talismanic scattering of Trojan condoms still in their hopeful blue foil packages. The next time the cops pulled him over, Chris would say: “You might not want to search the backseat this time — ‘cuz there’s a monster in there.” If the cops didn’t heed his warning, they would get eaten.
That’s basically the plot of Practical Demonkeeping: a guy drives around in an old Chevy with an invisible monster in the backseat — and people get eaten.
Some of you might be having the same reaction that many people describe when viewing some of the less skillful manifestations of modern art: My kid could do that! And indeed, as David Foster Wallace would later say of his own first book, The Broom of the System: “a very smart fourteen-year-old” could have written it. Maybe that’s what Disney liked about Practical Demonkeeping — its potential appeal to the misunderstood, jaw-clenched teen demographic — but I think there was more to it than that. Here’s a clue:
Another writer friend of mine, Jasun Horsley,[xi] recently published a scholarly book about Whitley Strieber called Prisoner of Infinity. Jasun’s thesis (way oversimplified here by my own no doubt imperfect understanding of it) is that Whitley started inventing “crucial fictions” (conflicted narratives that both explain and obscure the weird facts of his existence) because his perceptual reality had been hijacked by some sort of trauma-based mind control programming. Whitley’s the guy who wrote Communion, the famous book about how he got butt-raped by aliens, in case you didn’t know. But before Whitley published that allegedly true account of intergalactic bestiality and lust (for a rumored million-dollar advance), he was a novelist, like Chris. Check out Jasun’s description of Whitley’s pre-Communion career arc and see if you can pick out what Chris and Whitley have in common:
A press kit for Majestic in 1990 said “Before he became a writer Strieber worked first in the newspaper business, then in the film business and finally in the advertising industry, leaving in 1978 as a vice president.” 1978 was the year he published his first novel, The Wolfen, which became a bestseller and was turned into a Hollywood movie in 1981, the year he published The Hunger (which also became a Hollywood movie). Both books were about a hidden, supernatural, highly intelligent predator that sees humans as its rightful prey.
Okay, so maybe that was too easy… but the question you should be asking yourself right now is: Why does Hollywood so richly reward writers whose first books are about hidden, supernatural, highly intelligent predators that see humans as their rightful prey?
What the hell is up with that?
A partial answer might be found in Chris Moore’s fifth novel, The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove. In that book, a horny sea monster named Skippy rises from the ocean depths to feed on depressed people.[xii]
Which leads us right back to David Foster Wallace.
The thing about people who are truly and malignantly crazy: their real genius is for making the people around them think they themselves are crazy.
Some of the topics David Foster Wallace chose to write about can be kind of hard to take. He was the undisputed master of mapping the inner states of depressives, junkies, perverts, cat murderers, and a pantheon of hideous men. How does that old creative writing class adage go? Write what you know… right?[xiii]
What Wallace did for depression is similar to what Kafka did for existential futility and dread. Take the character Kate Gompert, who turns up early in Infinite Jest, in a psych ward, where “sarcasm and jokes were often the bottle in which clinical depressives sent out their most plangent screams for someone to care and help them.” Re-reading that book now — and knowing quite a bit more about DFW’s personal life than I did during my first read-through in 1996 — I can’t help but think of Kate Gompert as coded autobiography, a suicidal girl on “Parnate with a lithium kicker” who served as a sweaty little slice of gender-inverted Bildungsroman for Wallace (who suffered his first full-blown mental breakdown while still an undergrad at Amherst), allowing him to articulate the bleak reasoning of an extremely smart young person suffering from clinical depression:
There is no way Kate Gompert could ever even begin to make someone else understand what clinical depression feels like, not even another person who is herself clinically depressed, because a person in such a state is incapable of empathy with any other living thing. […] If a person in physical pain has a hard time attending to anything except that pain, a clinically depressed person cannot even perceive any other person or thing as independent of the universal pain that is digesting her cell by cell. Everything is part of the problem and there is no solution. […] It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence.
Of course, Kate Gompert isn’t the only depressed character in the DFW canon. In fact, there’s a depressed narrator in Wallace’s first published work of serious short fiction,[xiv] “The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing,” which begins: “I’ve been on antidepressants for, what, about a year now, and I suppose I feel as if I’m pretty qualified to tell what they’re like.” There’s also the thinly veiled depiction of the self-obsessed writer Elizabeth Wurtzel (Prozac Nation, Bitch, etc.) in “The Depressed Person” (“The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror…”). There’s the suicidal narrator at the center of “Good Old Neon” (“Self-loathing is not the same thing as being into pain or a lingering death, if I was going to do it I wanted it instant…”). There’s the suicide of James O. Incandenza by microwave oven in Infinite Jest. There’s the… I could go on (and on), but that would just be depressing.
If any one paragraph about depression stands out among David Foster Wallace’s many, many paragraphs about depression, it might be the one that follows. It’s attributed to Kate Gompert in Infinite Jest, but it sounds like something Wallace might have wanted to say to those he left behind after he hanged himself in Claremont, California, at the age of 46, on September 12, 2008: the day when the singular thrill of being David Foster Wallace — celebrated author, cavalier cocksman,[xv] widely-heralded genius — was no longer reason enough for him to go on living:
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. And 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.
All this writing about depression acts as a mind virus, a shared sickness. Reading it, you begin to feel somewhat depressed yourself (well, at least I do…). Could that be intended? I believe that argument could be made — and I’m just the guy to make it.
My Internet friend Jasun Horsley has written an essay that seems relevant here. It’s called “Raskolnikov and the Peanut: Mirror Neurons & the Arcane Art of Writing.” It starts out like this:
In 1992, or so the story goes, Giacomo Rizzolatti and a team of neuroscientists accidentally discovered mirror neurons while experimenting on monkeys. The monkeys had their brains wired up in order to observe how motor neurons related to hand movements, and when a monkey picked up a peanut, the neuron fired. But to the team’s surprise, the same motor neuron also fired when the monkey was watching a lab assistant pick up a peanut. Apparently, to the monkey’s brain, seeing someone grabbing a peanut was a similar experience to grabbing the peanut itself: action and perception were “tightly linked.” […] I don’t know how true this story is — it’s probably an apocryphal way to catch the average person’s attention because the real story of how mirror neurons were discovered (or posited) is, like Stephin Merritt’s book of love, long and boring. I also don’t know how reliable — or desirable — knowledge gained by torturing monkeys is. But the idea of mirror neurons is now firmly established in scientific culture, and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to use it.
Jasun goes on to unpack his theory that if our reality is “a language-based construct” — a concept that is simple enough to understand, if not believe, now that “Everybody knows,” thanks to ubiquitous computer programming, “that code creates images, and images reflect (and can pass for) reality” — it follows, then, that the act of reading can heal or harm us, depending on how the language gets our mirror neurons to fire. Language “becomes script, code.” Writing introduces the possibility of thought transference occurring “not only across space, but across time” because the science of mirror neurons argues that “the writer’s mood and current circumstances — even when they are in no way inferred by the written or spoken material itself” — can be transmitted via language to the reader, who in a kind of shared trance, matches brain states with the author (who can be alive or dead — what counts is “the brain state of the author at the time of writing…”).
Here’s a more straightforward take on the same subject by Teka Luttrel, author of “Mirror Neurons: We Are Wired to Connect”:
Neuroscientists have discovered specialized cells in the brain, called mirror neurons, that spontaneously create brain-to-brain links between people. This means that our brain waves, chemistry and feelings can literally mirror the brain waves, chemistry and feelings of those who we are communicating with, reading stories about, watching on television, or people who we simply have in our thoughts. This is perfectly natural and has been happening all along. It allows us to instantly empathize with others and to know what they are feeling and experiencing.
Jasun points out some rather interesting (and disturbing) implications for his writers-and-mirror-neurons theory after drawing attention to a scientific study, cited in Up From Dragons: The Evolution of Human Intelligence, in which
…a group of people imagining physical exercises increased their strength by twenty-two percent, as compared to a group performing actual exercises whose strength increased by thirty percent. No wonder Jane Fonda’s workout video was such a success! […] If our muscles can improve simply by watching a fitness video, or even by reading about somebody working out, what about the countless acts of violence which we vicariously experience day after day in movies, novels, TV shows, comic books and rap songs? It’s no wonder the military is among the leading researchers in video game technology: if mirror neurons exist, then a soldier in training doesn’t know the difference — at a physiological level — between simulated acts of war and the real thing.
Okay, so by now I think you can see where I’m going with this: a clinically depressed writer like David Foster Wallace passes along his clinically depressed brain state to his readers. (As DFW himself put it during his long talk with David Lipsky: “I think with writing it’s really feeling that, their brain voice for a while becomes your brain voice. And that you feel — the Vulcan Mind Meld perhaps is a better analogy.”) When you attentively read something that DFW wrote, your mind becomes entrained with his mind at the time of the writing. Which is why, when you read any random passage in which DFW deployed his immense talent and extraordinary powers of observation to depict one of life’s many horrors, as in the short story “Incarnations of Burned Children” (and, really, I’d advise you to stay away from that one in particular — it should come with a trigger warning), you’ll often wind up feeling like you need to puke.
So I’ll ask the question one more time: Could that be intended?
We’re talking about social engineering here. Psy-Ops. Trauma-based mind control. The thing about people who are truly and malignantly crazy: their real genius is for making the people around them think they themselves are crazy…. Is that sinking in now? Do the Popes of High Culture[xvi] reward certain writers with movie deals, MacArthur grants, and prominent spots on the New Fiction tables at every Barnes & Noble et cetera because they excel at making us crazy?
And if so, Why? Why are they rewarded? Why do the Popes of High Culture want to make us crazy and miserable?
I’ll tell you why:
See, there’s this horny sea monster, and… no, wait… there’s a man-eating djinn in the backseat of a beat-up Chevy, and… no, that’s not quite it, either… uhm, there’s a UFO-propelled horde of spindly gray aliens probing human sphincters with high-tech speculums, and… oh crap, let’s start over… hold on… (deep inhalation)… there’s a hostile, jealous god known to the Gnostics as the Demiurge, who created this calamitously fucked up world and now rules it, maliciously, with the help of interdimensional mind parasites, known as Archons, who stoke our pain and mental anguish so they can energetically consume it, and… okay, now we’re finally getting somewhere.
Sci-fi stuff, right? Not to be believed. But consider the evidence… if you take a hard, objective look at what our species has been up to on this planet, you almost have to conclude that we’re self-harming victims suffering from a massive collective psychosis. Here’s how I summed up the current state of America in the early pages of my 2016 book, Crash Gordon and the Illuminati Underground:
Everything’s turned inside out, upside down, and backwards from the way things ought to be: The middle-class is being taxed right out of existence so we can give subsidies to corporations that shield their profits from taxes offshore. Politicians whore themselves out to the highest bidders and get elected based on their willingness to legislate the will of the people right out of the legislative process. Big Pharma and health insurance companies do everything they can to prevent us from getting the healthcare we need, while steering us, instead, into insanely expensive medical regimes that cause harmful side effects and do a poor job of curing our ills. Lawyers and judges pervert the rule of law to oppress the poor and let the rich get away with murder and mass thievery. Colleges deliberately promote obscure theories over real knowledge, while saddling students with crippling debt, turning potential free thinkers into overtaxed wage slaves. Meanwhile, U.S. foreign policy seems intent on destabilizing the Middle East and starting a new Cold War with Russia — we terrorize other countries to supposedly stop terrorism — while the National Security Agency[xvii] spies on its own citizens, making the whole world more insecure in the process.
Toward the end of that same book I wrote:
…the problems of the world can seem overwhelming at times: Global warming. Species extinction. Poverty and drug trafficking. School shootings, mass murders, and false flag terrorist events used as fear-based justifications to curtail our civil liberties. Predatory financial institutions looting public funds and pensions, torpedoing our economy, and then demanding taxpayer-funded bailouts and austerity programs that erode social safety nets and inhibit infrastructure investment. The military-industrial-intelligence complex waging multiple wars in a never-ending cycle that only increases the power and wealth of the Deep State while screwing over everyone else. The new slavery ginned-up by the for-profit prisons working in tandem with an increasingly militarized police force. The ravaging of our planet’s ecosystem due to fracking, deforestation, overfishing, strip-mining, and Monsanto’s version of industrial agriculture…. We’re facing huge systemic problems, demanding radical systemic changes. The present-day morally bankrupt neoliberal system of corporate capitalism and globalization is only making our situation worse because it operates like the Archons: it consumes other people’s lives for its own dark purposes. The pathology of greed is now eating away at everyone and everything.
Things have only gotten worse since Donald Trump was elected President. (The thing about people who are truly and malignantly crazy… well, you know the rest — getting gaslit by our malignant narcissist-in-chief and the establishment media has become our national pastime.) So you tell me: Is there something fundamentally wrong with our way of life on this planet? Is there, perhaps, some underlying malevolence at work, deliberately screwing things up for us? Or did Professor Pangloss have it right:
This is the best of all possible worlds.
That Panglossian gloss on reality doesn’t work for everyone. If you’re feeling unsure about it, check the headlines from my favorite news source, Cryptogon.com, for the week just past as I write this (May 19th — 25th, 2017):
Americans Are Paying $38 to Collect $1 of Student Debt
U.S. Special Forces Expanding Shadow War in Africa
A Quarter of American Adults Can’t Pay All Their Monthly Bills; 44% Have Less Than $400 In Cash
CIA Malware for All Versions of Windows
Kim Dotcom Claims Seth Rich Was WikiLeaks Source
Manchester Arena Suicide Bomber Kills Twenty-Two
President Trump’s Budget Includes $2 Trillion Math Mistake
Baking Soda Shortage?
If that’s not dystopian enough for you, this morning I read a story in The New York Times about a “Palm Beach County man who… ate so many cockroaches and worms in a bug-eating contest[xviii] that he vomited, collapsed and died.” I also read that young women are trying to improve their “wellness” by eating clay, sunbathing their vaginas, and paying $55 for a tiny jar of something called Brain Dust to sharpen up their (obviously compromised) mental faculties.
David Foster Wallace, always the smartest guy in the room (despite his steady diet of blondies, Pop-Tarts, Diet Rite Cola, and mint-flavored chewing tobacco), wrote something in The Pale King that seems pertinent to the argument I’m setting up here for an essentially Gnostic way of looking at the world:
Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain, because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from. […] Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly… but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUV’s backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.
What is that “something else, way down,” that’s so horrifying to us? Is it the same something that drove Wallace to hang himself — the metaphorical flames that create “a terror way beyond falling”?
If you ask me, the literature of Gnosticism has an answer for that.
Gnosticism, in a glib sense, is usually thought of as a counter-religion, the flip side of Christianity — a bunch of Jehovah-bashing heretics scattered throughout history — but it’s more properly understood as a metaphysical orientation, or a system of thought.[xix] Simon Magus, a contemporary of Jesus, has been called the Father of Gnosticism (as well as the Father of All Heresies). He’s the original anarchist, the first person on record in world literature to stand up and say that all the gods are demented maniacs and therefore everything that originates from them is twisted and false. Don’t believe their fucking lies, Simon Magus would tell you, were he alive today.
After Simon Magus came Thomas the Apostle, Basilides of Alexandria, Valentinus, Mani, and many other Gnostic prophets. There were differences among their various Gnostic sects, but they were united in their belief that only a flawed creator would have created a flawed material universe like the one we inhabit — so steeped in evil and suffering, so rife with the horrors of meat-based existence. Here are some other beliefs they loosely (very loosely) held in common:
· We live in a simulated world — a flawed, fabricated nightmare-reality.[xx] Our way of life depends on deception, corruption, and utter depravity. (Do some research into how the global financial system is dependent on warfare, drugs, debt, and money laundering, if you need convincing.)
· We don’t belong here. Incarnation in materiality is a form of incarceration for our souls. We’re trapped here, ruled over by a crew of cosmic prison wardens, psychic rapists, and swarming hungry ghosts — a persecuting interdimensional mafia known as the Archons.[xxi]
· Who we are is eternal and immortal. Each of us carries a Divine Spark that originated from the True God (also known to the Gnostics as the Originator, the Godhead, the Monad, or the One). When we awaken to our Divine Spark, we obtain gnosis — spiritual knowledge that can return us to the Pleroma, where the True God resides, far beyond this material realm.
· The Archons and their demented creator-god, the Demiurge, lack Divine Sparks — and they’re super-pissed about it. They do everything they can to prevent us from awakening to the divinity within us, and then gorge on our resulting pain and misery, like demons (or hidden, supernatural, highly intelligent predators that see humans as their rightful prey.)
So there you have it. W.H. Auden might have been describing the Archons’ malevolence when he wrote in his poem, “They”:
…we realize the woods are deaf and the sky
nurses no one, and we are awake and these,
like farmers, have purpose and knowledge,
but towards us their hate is directed.
We are the barren pastures to which they bring
the resentment of outcasts; on us they work
out their despair; they wear our weeping
as the disgraceful badge of their exile.
Would that sort of Archontic fuckery qualify as “a terror way beyond falling”?
Don’t take this the wrong way. The Gnostic sensibility might seem like a downer at first, but in my experience it’s really the best way to keep your sanity in an increasingly insane world. Some modern Gnostics even believe the Archons might be doing us a favor by making life on Earth appear ever more crazy and cartoonishly evil, because by doing so they’ll eventually awaken us to our Divine Sparks.
“What can one say in favor of the suffering of little creatures in this world?” Philip K. Dick wrote just before the end of his wild, traumatized life. (Five marriages! Drug addiction! Grinding sci-fi poverty!) “Nothing. Nothing, except that it will by its nature trigger off revolt or disobedience — which will in turn lead to an abolition of this world and a return to the Godhead.”
If you want my opinion, the abolition of this world won’t be happening anytime soon, so don’t get your hopes up. But let’s face it: sometimes the world-at-large can make you feel like you’re trapped inside a bad science fiction novel — or living between the covers of a beyond-Infinite-Jest-sized book of hysterical realism — with characters whose names are so on-the-nose that if Philip K. Dick or David Foster Wallace came up with them you’d wonder if they’d lost their mojo. For example, imagine Alex Trebek intoning the following on a recherché postmodernist version of JEOPARDY! (as in the DFW short story, “Little Expressionless Animals”):
“This former NASDAQ chairman and Ponzi-scheming investment advisor made off with billions from his greedy, gullible clients.”
“Who is Bernie Madoff?”
“This former Hitler Youth and Pope Emeritus refused to rat out child-molesting Catholic priests while serving as a high-ranking Vatican official.”
“Who is Cardinal Ratzinger?”
“This seven-term U.S. congressman and two-time candidate for Mayor of New York famously couldn’t stop sending underage girls Twitter pics of his weenie.”
“Who is Anthony Weiner?”
“This foul-mouthed White House communications director has a namesake in the notoriously boastful but cowardly clown — or “little skirmisher” — of Italian commedia dell’arte.
“Who is Anthony Scaramucci?”[xxii]
“This U.S. President’s surname denotes a winning card in a game played by indolent, soft-brained geriatrics, and it’s also British slang for a loud, low, wet fart.”
“Who is Donald Trump?”
The Archons can’t be outwitted or defeated in this world because they operate outside our fraudulent Newtonian space-time matrix.[xxiii] They can remember the future and rearrange the past. They can ride certain individuals in the same way that night hags were said to ride folktale-fearing peasants. Dick Cheney would be an obvious example — as would George H. W. Bush, Caligula, and Allen Dulles. Such Archon-possessed puppet leaders function as superior slaves directing lesser slaves (i.e. the rest of us) to fulfill the Archontic agenda of maximizing pain and emotional violence in all the Demiurge’s creatures. Hence, our kill-or-be-killed Hobbesian meat-matrix of perpetual warfare, starving children, loveless marriages, rampant addictions, and everyday incest, rape, and torture.
Our school for despair and murder: good old Earth.
Were the Archons riding David Foster Wallace? That line of speculation might seem too bizarre to even entertain, but think of it this way: If you intuitively knew that every time you caved in to anger, fear, or clinical depression you were feeding those interdimensional mind parasites known as the Archons, wouldn’t it be a lot easier to take a step back from the sad, recursive interior monologues or irrational anxieties that were driving you crazy and say, “Is this really coming from me? Or does some thing want me feeling this way so it can feed off me?”
Becoming an impartial observer of your own negative, self-sabotaging thoughts might feel strange at first, but it can be quite helpful once you’re willing to consider the possibility that you’ve been tricked into having those thoughts. If you think of the Archons as psychic tapeworms that will be glutting themselves on a huge injection of food from your suicide, that sudden impulse to go hang yourself on the back patio of your house in Claremont, California, might not seem like such a great idea, after all.[xxiv]
According to Plato and some of the philosophers that came after him — like the Neoplatonists and the Gnostics — we arrive on Earth with two souls: an immortal soul that seeks union with our divine spirit, or True Self; and a mortal soul that identifies with the False Self and its attachments to the material world. The Gnostics further elaborated that the True God had given us our rational, immortal soul — or pneuma — while the Demiurge (a.k.a Yahweh, a.k.a. Yaldabaoth, a.k.a. Saklas, a.k.a. Samael) was responsible for our sensuous, irrational, mortal soul — or psyche.
The mortal soul is “subject to terrible and irresistible affections […] tethered like a beast untamed in the belly.”[xxv] But if we’ve become enlightened during our time on Earth, when we die we’ll shed our mortal soul so that our immortal soul can merge with our True Self. And each True Self is a ray of divine light emanating from the One — the True God. So in that sense, we’re all gods serving time on this prison planet, where we ultimately don’t belong.
Infinite Jest is all about those “terrible and irresistible affections” tugging on sensuous, irrational psyches. I’m not the first person to come to that conclusion, of course. After all, the central conceit of DFW’s magnum opus is that right before the suicidal patriarch, James O. Incandenza, irradiated his brains in a microwave oven, he made an avant-garde art film — the eponymous Infinite Jest — that was so impossibly enthralling, so lethally entertaining, that it robbed viewers of every desire except to keep watching it in a zombie-like stupor until they shit themselves and died from dehydration. So yeah, just substitute words like addictions or distractions for “terrible and irresistible affections” and you’ll find that a lot of people arrived at the same conclusion. Need proof? Check out ForTheLoveOfRyan on YouTube, a geeky book-reviewer who shines his geeky brilliance on this topic about midway through his video disquisition on Infinite Jest:
Okay, so for those of you who want the takeaway point: what’s the thesis? For me, it’s about… this itch. Though itch seems to be less accurate than just a constant and constantly annoying metaphorical buzzing sound at the back of your conscience, telling you that nothing is all right, that you are not all right, and the world is not all right — and we should be running around screaming our truest selves to the stars, and seeking other people in this vast darkness. And of course our response to this itch — to this buzzing sound — is that instead of running around and screaming our vulnerabilities, and setting them in front of other humans, we are, instead, seeking out distractions — and not just distractions, but distractions that become so large that they consume us: entertainment (in the form of TV, or movies, or sporting events if you’re the one watching them), or drugs (which will let you forget yourself and/or your problems for at least a little while), or celebrity status (your belief that you, as a person, are worth worshipping on some level). The thesis of Infinite Jest — in my opinion, at least — is about this itch, this feeling that maybe the world is not okay… and what we can do to scratch that itch, or face it, uh, in a non-harmful way.
Toward the end of his five-day interview with David Lipsky back in 1996, David Foster Wallace said pretty much the same thing in a different way:
I think the reason people behave in an ugly manner is that it’s really scary to be alive and to be human, and people are really really afraid. […] fear is the basic condition, and there are all kinds of reasons for why we’re so afraid. But the fact of the matter is, is that, is that the job that we’re here to do is learn how to live in a way that we’re not terrified all the time. And not in a position of using all kinds of different things, and using people to keep that kind of terror at bay. […] for me, as an American male, the face I’d put on the terror is the dawning realization that nothing’s enough, you know? That no pleasure is enough, that no achievement is enough. That there’s a kind of queer dissatisfaction or emptiness at the core of the self that is unassuageable by outside stuff. […] And that our particular challenge is that there’s never been more and better stuff comin’ from the outside that seems temporarily to sort of fill the hole […] Personally, I believe if it’s assuageable in any way it’s by internal means […} I think those internal means have to be earned and developed, and it has something to do with, um, um, the pop-psych phrase is lovin’ yourself.
“Lovin’ yourself,” in the end, might be an inadequate response to existential terror, if we’re to judge by David Foster Wallace’s suicide — though who knows? Maybe DFW thought that ending his life on Earth was the very best gift he could possibly give to his True Self.
Does the pop-psych phrase lovin’ yourself equate to the much balder exhortation to be selfish in your mind too — or is that just my warped way of thinking? Selfishness is what got us into this mess in the first place, if you ask me. I tend to think of this world as a sort of spiritual rehab center, or planetary aversion therapy clinic, where addicts to anything corporeal are quarantined until they’re ready to return to the divine realms free of their materialist-junkie habits. I’m talking about a birth-to-death boot camp for substance abusers in the widest possible sense of that term. And I’m making an assumption here that it’s done for the addicts’ own good, so they won’t wreak havoc as spiritual beings.[xxvi]
You can see my point, I hope. Think about it… when we’re incarnated/incarcerated on this planet we can indulge in just about any vice imaginable: We can eat the corpses of other creatures (for speed and convenience there’s a drive-thru line at your local Taco Bell or Wendy’s). We can even boil those creatures alive for our gustatory pleasure (as DFW reminded us all in Consider the Lobster). If we’re old men, we can load up on Viagra for fierce erections and hunch away at MILFs and whores until we’re well into our eighties — or if we’re young and broke, we can spend all day masturbating like fiends to free Internet porn (soon to be supplanted by virtual reality porn and android fuck machines — with free same-day shipping from Amazon). We can become alcoholics in really spectacular ways and stay shitfaced for upwards of thirty-five years (just ask the wraiths of Malcolm Lowry and Charles Bukowski). If alcohol doesn’t do it for us, we can join the legion of oral narcotics addicts, like Don Gately & Company (drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under fifty). We can even molest children, as thousands of Catholic priests can attest (along with the wraiths of Errol Flynn and Jimmy Savile).
No matter what level of depravity we might aspire to, no vice will be denied us if we’re really determined to experience it — but every experience comes at a price that gets progressively steeper once we get hooked. That’s the planetary aversion clinic model in action: Just about anything on Earth that we like too much will end up punishing us in the end. That applies even to the things that we need to survive, like sunlight (which can cause skin cancer), tasty food (which can make you fat), and love (which can break your heart — or give you syphilis, gonorrhea, or AIDS, if you love without a condom). Kind of sucks, doesn’t it?
Don’t think you’re immune if you’re too timid to sin in a really big way. Our clinging to the material world might be the most heinous addiction of all from a spiritual point of view. It’s an addiction rarely mentioned, although the Gnostics were wise to it. They didn’t want to become martyrs, or go around committing suicide en masse like some Comet-Kohoutek-riding doomsday cult, but the Gnostics scorned the material world, as if it were beneath them.
And maybe — just maybe — they were right.
Historical Detour #2: I won a scholarship to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 1984. That’s where I met Chris Moore for the first time. That’s also where I met Shelly Lowenkopf, a writing instructor in the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California. Shelly was a big fan of Milan Kundera in those days, and he insisted that I needed to read Kundera’s debut novel, The Joke (or Žert in the original Czech). I ended up liking Kundera’s writing well enough and went on to read a few of his other books, including The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which taught me an interesting and useful Czech word: litost.
According to Kundera, “Litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.” I’ve seen another Czech writer define it as the feeling we get when confronted with “an immense, negative and unchangeable breach of the order we expect the world to have” — when something is turned inside out, upside down, and backwards from the way things ought to be. Kundera attributed an almost mystical quality to the word:
Litost is an untranslatable Czech word. Its first syllable, which is long and stressed, sounds like the wail of an abandoned dog. As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it.
To illustrate the concept, Kundera wrote about a pair of young lovers — a college student who couldn’t swim very well, and his athletic girlfriend, a strong swimmer:
She was madly in love with him and tactfully swam as slowly as he did. But when their swim was coming to an end, she wanted to give her athletic instincts a few moments’ free rein and headed for the opposite bank at a rapid crawl. The student made an effort to swim faster too and swallowed water. Feeling humbled, his physical inferiority laid bare, he felt litost. He recalled his sickly childhood, lacking in physical exercise and friends and spent under the constant gaze of his mother’s overfond eye, and fell into despair about himself and his life. They walked back to the city together in silence on a country lane. Wounded and humiliated, he felt an irresistible desire to hit her. “What’s the matter with you?” she asked him, and he started to reproach her: she knew about the current near the other bank, and that he had forbidden her to swim there because of the risk of drowning — and then he slapped her face. The girl began to cry, and when he saw the tears on her cheeks, he took pity on her and put his arm around her, and his litost melted away.
So, in this example, litost is generated by a casual display of superiority, which could be thought harmless, but it registers in the (sensuous, irrational) psyche of the perceiver as deliberate and cruel. As Kundera explained it:
Litost works like a two-stroke engine. Torment is followed by the desire for revenge. The goal of revenge is to make one’s partner look as miserable as oneself. The man cannot swim, but the slapped woman cries. It makes them feel equal and keeps their love going.
If that’s what it takes to keep love going, no wonder the divorce rate hovers around fifty percent. “It’s not very pleasant to be slapped for knowing how to swim,” Kundera wrote. We can extrapolate from there. Marriage forces two dissimilar psyches to share a home built on the bedrock of their real or imagined love — and then it subjects them to the relentless chthonic pressures of monogamy and monotony (and, usually, money worries…). Love’s many fault lines and fractures become a perpetual source of litost.
Torment is pretty much a given in this world, but what if the desire for revenge is thwarted, or impossible to achieve? What if the man is chivalrous and refuses to slap women around? What if corporate greed is trumping the rights of local communities to protect their health, land, and water? Let’s get even more specific: What if Big Ag companies like Monsanto, DuPont, BASF, Syngenta, and Dow AgroSciences decide to poison families on the island of Kauai by drenching 16,000 corporate-owned acres of GMO crops with an annual 12 tons of acutely toxic “restricted-use” pesticides — and a corrupt federal court system says there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it?[xxvii] What then?
Theoreticians familiar with these kinds of situations refer to them as instances of “litost block.” Or so wrote Kundera, who went on to write that litost block is “the worst that can happen.” I’ve since come to think of litost block as a sort of grim cock-blocking of the soul — an extremely effective psychic weapon to be used against us by the Archons.
To illustrate one of the self-harming (Archon-inspired?) methods we use to get around litost block, Kundera described another scene from the student’s life. When the student was a child, he had to take violin lessons. The student always dreaded the lessons because he had no talent for the violin
and his teacher would interrupt him to criticize his mistakes in a cold, unbearable voice. He felt humiliated, and he wanted to cry. But instead of trying to play in tune and not make mistakes, he would deliberately play the wrong notes, the teacher’s voice would become still more unbearable and harsh, and he himself would sink deeper and deeper into his litost.
As Kundera summed up, there are two basic ways to deal with litost:
If our counterpart is the weaker, we find an excuse to hurt him, like the student hurting the girl who swam too fast. If our counterpart is stronger, all we can do is choose circuitous revenge — the indirect blow, a murder by means of suicide. The child plays a wrong note on his violin over and over until the teacher goes mad and throws him out the window. As he falls, the child is delighted by the thought that the nasty teacher will be charged with murder.
Here’s a more elaborate example from my own family history:
I have an older cousin who was a great beauty in her youth. In college, she decided to become a nurse. She met a handsome young orthopedic surgeon while he was doing his residency at a hospital in Fresno and they got married. She soon gave birth to two handsome baby boys. Several years later, in 1992, they moved to Bainbridge Island and bought a big, beautiful house overlooking Puget Sound. The surgeon was offered a position in a thriving orthopedics clinic in downtown Seattle and he started commuting to work each day by ferry.
When I visited, I could watch the ferries silently come and go out in Elliot Bay as I sat talking with my cousin over breakfast in her lovely renovated kitchen. Her life seemed perfect in almost every way: fresh-cut flowers in every room, a Range Rover in the driveway, and a seemingly endless supply of money, which my cousin often spent frivolously. In my eyes, she was one step removed from a princess in a fairy tale. She’d given up nursing long ago. Her days were spent raising the boys and entertaining friends and family. We — the people she entertained — were given the impression that she might be a little lonely, and entertaining was her way of compensating. But then we started to hear rumblings of a deeper trouble.
One day, my cousin asked me if I wanted to go to Hawaii to look after her sons. She’d booked a family vacation there — everything was already paid for — but she was angry with the surgeon (over what, she wouldn’t say) and she no longer wanted to travel with him. So I went instead. I had a great time. The surgeon was difficult to get to know, but by the end of that trip I loved him like a brother. My other brothers felt the same way about him. Talking among ourselves, we realized that we liked the surgeon perhaps even more than we liked our beautiful, fun-loving cousin.
Months passed. My cousin’s marriage started to show larger cracks. She kicked the surgeon out of the big, beautiful house he’d bought for her and told him to go live with me. At the time, I was renting a two-bedroom ground floor apartment with bad plumbing in a backwoods area of Bainbridge Island, near Poulsbo. I didn’t have a Puget Sound view, or fresh-cut flowers in every room. In fact, the whole place had a vague stench of sewage, because of a backed up septic tank system. I tried to cover it up with a lot of Glade Sparkling Spruce air freshener, so the apartment always smelled like someone had gone in there and shit out a pine tree.
Despite the lingering stink, the surgeon and I had a surprisingly good time as roommates. In the evenings, after we both returned from work, we sat outside in webbed lawn chairs, talking and staring up into the infinite night while we smoked his cigars. The surgeon confessed that it had been a long time since he’d been laid. My cousin was waging a campaign of frigidity against him because he “didn’t talk enough” — or so she claimed. I told the surgeon he should go on a talk-free date with a beautiful hearing-impaired woman to spite my cousin and boil off some of his litost. The surgeon said he could never do that — he didn’t know sign language and he loved my cousin too much — but he was starting to reconcile himself to the idea of a divorce. He knew it would cost him, but he’d inherited millions from his recently deceased surgeon father, and he thought there was enough money to go around to keep everyone happy. My cousin wouldn’t have to give up her lavish lifestyle entirely. She’d just have to downsize a bit.
Apparently, my cousin didn’t like the idea of downsizing. One night when the surgeon was visiting the big, beautiful house to see his boys and discuss the terms of his separation from my cousin, she seduced him. I’m not sure if seduced is the right word in this context. There might be a better word in Czech for a married woman who tricks her spouse into having sex with her, after a long stretch of enforced celibacy, so she can avoid a potentially litost-fraught divorce.
The next day the surgeon returned to my shit-smelling apartment, exuberant — like a triumphant Viking back on Swedish soil after a successful bout of raping and pillaging. He informed me that my cousin had spread her legs for him again. I tried to feel happy for him, but my gut told me their rekindled romance was doomed. I wish I’d said to him: “Are you sure you don’t want to date a deaf girl? I know a really cute one — and she won’t mind if you don’t talk a lot.”
The surgeon moved back into his big, beautiful house. I broke the lease on my backwoods apartment after the septic tank overflowed, and I moved to Seattle. I didn’t see the surgeon quite as much after that, but I still visited and kept in touch with him via email. He was teaching me how to trade calls and puts in the stock market, and sometimes, during those conversations, he would tell me how he was doing with my cousin. The surgeon had become a slinking dog for love, begging for just a few morsels of tenderness from a woman who kept him on a steady diet of sexual indifference and domestic harpy routines. When I was alone with her, my cousin complained that the surgeon had been acting closed off and depressed. “Well, who wouldn’t act that way in his situation?” I wanted to ask her, but I didn’t.
The surgeon’s deep, inexpressible love for my cousin prevented him from taking revenge on her in any direct way. Instead, he began to sabotage himself. To make up for my cousin’s frivolous spending, he started taking huge call positions on Dell shares in the stock market. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars wagered on a daily basis. And Dell’s stock did almost nothing but head straight down, making the calls worth less and less. The surgeon lost millions.
Around that same time, the surgeon got addicted to oral narcotics. He was showing up at work so loaded that he eventually got caught and was barred from practicing as a surgeon until he checked into a rehab clinic and proved he could stay clean and sober. He got a job driving a school bus instead. By then, the big, beautiful house on Bainbridge Island had been sold to pay off his debts.
The surgeon and I met for the last time at a small café in Seattle just before I moved to New York in the summer of 1999. I’d made enough money trading options to rent a one-bedroom penthouse in midtown Manhattan.[xxviii] I wanted to thank the surgeon for providing me with that opportunity. When I saw him, he sat down and told me, apropos of nothing, that he was on a new drug called OxyContin® that made him feel like he’d “just taken a really great shit.” Which, of course, reminded us of his stay in my sewage-scented apartment. We reminisced about that for a while. He said he’d moved into an efficiency apartment that wasn’t much better than my old place. He also said my cousin was dating a lawyer (for the free advice, I presume — they didn’t date for very long).
The surgeon was still the same guy I knew and loved, but everything about him seemed blunted, as if he was talking at me through a layer of plastic wrap that was slowly suffocating him. I didn’t know it then, but in a sense, he was already dead. The Archons had him. Litost was the psychic weapon they were using against him. After all he’d been through, he must have felt like murdering someone. But because he was a surgeon (“first, do no harm”), taking revenge through his own annihilation probably seemed like the only option available to him.
Less than a year after I moved to New York, I got married (perhaps a bit rashly, but the union lasted for seventeen years, so it wasn’t a complete catastrophe). I invited my cousin to the wedding, but like the surgeon, she was too broke to travel by then. Three years later, my parents called to tell me the surgeon had taken his own life.
That happened in 2003. The surgeon was younger than I am now. I don’t remember anyone describing exactly how he died, but for years I was under the impression that he’d taken a scalpel to a secluded beach and opened his jugular vein just as the sun was going down. I imagined a relatively peaceful death: sitting barefoot in the sand, staring at the orange setting sun with a clench of his handsome jaw, the quick nick of the scalpel, followed by hardly any pain or fear at all — just a gentle bleeding out and then a smooth swoon into unconsciousness.
That’s not how it happened.
My younger brother visited me in New York while I was working on this essay. He was out on the East Coast because another member of our extended family had just committed suicide — a schizophrenic brother-in-law who’d spent the last twenty years hearing voices telling him to kill himself.[xxix] My brother’s wife and two teenage daughters arrived in New York with him. After we all shared a good meal at La Bonne Soupe on 55th Street, the women went back to their hotel room, while my brother and I went up to have a few drinks on the terrace of Salon de Ning — the rooftop bar at the Peninsula Hotel — where we quite naturally started to reminisce about the surgeon. There were obvious parallels to the brother-in-law’s suicide. I described my vision of the surgeon dying serenely on a secluded beach.
“Dude, he didn’t do it at the beach,” my brother gruffly told me. “I don’t know where you got that.” He went on to explain that he knew a paramedic on Bainbridge Island who’d been one of the first people on the scene when the surgeon’s body had been discovered. It hadn’t happened in the way I’d thought at all. The surgeon had died on the bed in his crappy little efficiency apartment, and his death had been in no way peaceful or serene. He’d taken litost to its illogical conclusion and decided to make a bloody statement. He hadn’t stared at the setting sun with a clench of his handsome jaw while making a tiny incision with a scalpel:
The surgeon had stabbed himself in the heart with a steak knife.
One of Milan Kundera’s statements about litost strikes me as at least partially untrue. He wrote:
Anyone with wide experience of the common imperfection of mankind is relatively sheltered from the shocks of litost. For him, the sight of his own misery is ordinary and uninteresting. Litost, therefore, is characteristic of the age of inexperience.
I respectfully disagree. The surgeon wasn’t inexperienced, but he was used to having things go his way. Handsome, rich, intelligent, gifted… how strange it must have felt when everything was taken from him. While it’s true that he did it to himself (for the most part), it still must have come as a shock when he went from being a multimillionaire orthopedic surgeon to an opioid-addicted driver of a yellow school bus.
Crumbling love can do that to you — along with ramped up stress levels from a drastic change in circumstances.[xxx] Litost often has little to do with inexperience or immaturity.
As it happens, I also married a woman who stopped loving me because I didn’t talk to her enough.[xxxi] A few months ago, she finally asked me for a divorce. A few weeks ago, we sold our big, beautiful house in Montclair, New Jersey. A few days ago, I started looking for a cheap apartment on the Upper West Side in New York City (hopefully, one that doesn’t smell like a lumberjack’s sulfurous fart reek as he digests a Douglas fir).[xxxii]
The irony is that now that we’re committed to disentangling our lives, my wife and I are talking in a refreshingly open and honest way that we hadn’t seemed capable of for years. We seem to be past all the harsh recriminations and moving toward a place of mutual understanding. I get it now: seventeen years of me is enough for anybody. When I catch my wife looking out a window with her golden hair undone, she looks lovely to me. So I’m wearing my litost lightly. I’m not addicted to anything, or throwing away my money on bad stock market decisions. I’m not even dating a deaf girl. I’m just sitting here writing this essay to show the world what a loser I’ve become.
History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as failure porn.
I write books that don’t sell. My last novel was reviewed by six people and purchased by roughly twice that many readers. I’ll never win a MacArthur Genius Grant for writing a critically acclaimed work of literary fiction like Infinite Jest. I’ll never write a bestselling addiction memoir and experience the pleasure of drinking opium tea with Nick Cave in the phantom city of Essaouira. I’ll never become America’s most beloved horror humorist and be graced with the kind of financial success that was bestowed on my old pal, Christopher Moore. Does that bother me? Probably. But it bothers me less than you might think. Sure, this essay could be dismissed as nothing more than “circuitous revenge — the indirect blow” against more successful writers of my acquaintance. I’d be in denial if I said there wasn’t at least some of that going on. Writers are a notoriously thin-skinned lot, and prone to feuding, etc. But trust me, it goes deeper than that.
In a strict financial sense, I (usually) do well enough as a commercial artist to get by, even in pricey New York City. I don’t need my books to sell. In fact, it’s probably better for me, psychologically, if they don’t. That way, if I want to sit down and write a 25,000-word essay about David Foster Wallace as my marriage goes off the rails, there’s no huffy sales-obsessed agent or editor around to stop me. Besides, there’s something insidious at work in the International Prestige Lit game that would seem to preclude my books from being acquired by any of the Big Five publishers. It’s similar to what’s been going on with movies and television.
I’m not talking about the Archons here necessarily… what I’m talking about is the Military Industrial Media Intelligence Complex (MIMIC).[xxxiii] Two acquaintances of mine — the film scholar, Matthew Alford, and the investigative historian, Tom Secker — have sifted through 4,000 new Freedom of Information Act documents to prove that U.S. military and intelligence agencies have been involved in over 800 major movies and more than 1,000 TV shows.[xxxiv] It doesn’t stop there. Joel Whitney’s recent book, Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers, reveals how the CIA has colluded with literary magazines like The Paris Review — and co-opted writers (like Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton) and journalists (far too many to name) — to wage ideological warfare against the rest of humanity via covert programs like MHCHAOS and Operation Mockingbird.
US military intelligence agencies have influenced over 1,800 movies and TV showsmedium.com
In short, the U.S. Military Industrial Media Intelligence Complex has been deploying choice bits of American culture as weaponized memeplexes that can incapacitate an enemy, or “passify and demoralize” entire nations.[xxxv] They’ve figured out that they can just mind-bomb people with inanity to dumb them down or make them depressed (à la Infinite Jest), instead of having to kill them. If you can confuse people into inaction, you can steal from them and exploit them with impunity.
Don’t believe me? Read this excerpt from a 1997 U.S. Army War College essay written by frequent Fox News guest, Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters:
Information destroys traditional jobs and traditional cultures; it seduces, betrays, yet remains invulnerable. How can you counterattack the information others have turned upon you? There is no effective option other than competitive performance. For those individuals and cultures that cannot join or compete with our information empire, there is only inevitable failure. […] Information, from the Internet to rock videos, will not be contained, and fundamentalism cannot control its children. Our victims volunteer. […] In this age of television-series franchising, videos, and satellite dishes, this young, embittered male gets his skewed view of us from reruns of Dynasty and Dallas, or from satellite links beaming down Baywatch, sources we dismiss too quickly as laughable and unworthy of serious consideration as factors influencing world affairs. But their effect is destructive beyond the power of words to describe. Hollywood goes where Harvard never penetrated, and the foreigner, unable to touch the reality of America, is touched by America’s irresponsible fantasies of itself; he sees a devilishly enchanting, bluntly sexual, terrifying world from which he is excluded, a world of wealth he can judge only in terms of his own poverty. […] Contemporary American culture is the most powerful in history, and the most destructive of competitor cultures.
Famous authors will insist that no one tells them what to write. And, of course, that’s true — because what they write already suits the purposes of the MIMIC (or the Archon of International Prestige Lit). Those authors embody the memes that the MIMIC wants to propagate. That’s why their books are widely published and heavily promoted. It’s just like Harold Bloom said, there’s a kind of Gresham’s Law for literature (we could call it John Grisham’s Law): the bad books drive the good books into obscurity.
With that in mind, I’d like to juxtapose two quotes from David Foster Wallace. The first is from a letter DFW wrote to Jonathan Franzen, right around the time he was finishing up Infinite Jest:
If words are all we have as world and god, we must treat them with care and rigor: we must worship.
The second quote is from Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address:
There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some other infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else will eat you alive.
If Wallace had consulted the Gnostics, he would have known that worshipping a rabid god like Yahweh (a.k.a. the Demiurge) would pretty much get him eaten alive too. But worshipping words, well… that was just asking for trouble. I mean, the Archon of International Prestige Lit wasn’t exactly kind to Wallace in the end, was it? Plenty of people have speculated that he hung himself because he knew he could never write another book that would surpass Infinite Jest.[xxxvi] That inner certainty must have lit up his self-loathing brain circuitry like a Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
Novelist and psychoanalyst Timothy Lachin makes an interesting observation about Wallace’s self-loathing circuitry in a Jacques-Lacan-infused essay called, “The Psychosis of David Foster Wallace.” Lachin’s premise is that Wallace’s main psychological problem was not atypical depression or his susceptibility to addiction, but instead “compensated psychosis” as theorized by Lacanian psychoanalysis. He explains:
Wallace’s numerous nervous breakdowns indicate that something more serious than depression was going on. For psychoanalysis, psychosis is not a disease but an existential orientation. It is a special kind of relationship with language and the body, one that cannot be “cured”. History is filled with gifted psychotics, from Isaac Newton to Ludwig Wittgenstein to Glenn Gould, whose specific genius is indissociable from their psychosis. Where the neurotic suffers from the limitations imposed by repression, the psychotic suffers from an absence of limits. Psychotic genius is sprawling — as is psychotic suffering.
Lachin’s essay is a rich word stew, with phrases like “the desperate performative narcissism of the nameless pariah.” Frankly, that sort of armchair psychoanalyzing almost never works for me, but what I found myself appreciating about Lachin’s essay was his citation of Stanford researcher Tanya Luhrmann’s work and his extrapolations from her findings.
In 2014, Luhrmann devoted herself to comparing reports of aural hallucinations from psychotic people in India, Ghana, and the United States. She discovered that “the nature of the relationship between psychotic subjects and their voices differed greatly from culture to culture.” Many of the Indians and Ghanaians were reportedly on friendly terms with their voices, but every last one of the Americans heard voices that persecuted them. Lachin derived an interesting new theory from that data:
I believe that the explanation for this phenomenon lies in the inhuman voracity of consumerism. It is not just an economic system; it is a terrible God, and it speaks in our unconscious. The inane, restless voice that Wallace so brilliantly captures is neither “his” voice nor some hypothetical eternal superego voice. It is a direct transcription of the frivolous, harrying voices of capital and publicity themselves. The clarity with which Wallace renders this voice is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness as a writer.
A few paragraphs earlier in that same essay, Lachin wrote:
The schizophrenic does not speak; he is spoken like a puppet. Wallace, of course, was supremely gifted when it came to rendering this voice that could not be stopped or slowed down, for the simple reason that he was tormented by it his entire life. […] I suspect that his fascination with American particularism derived from the knowledge that the voice in his head was not his but rather the voice of America, one against which he was incapable of defending himself.
Just let that sink in… the logorrheic, incessant voice of America was coming through David Foster Wallace. Not the sort of feel-good “I Sing of America” voice of our sham democracy that Walt Whitman was famous for channeling, but the real deal: America as it is, replete with drug addicts, depressives, cross-dressing intelligence agents, and tedium-besieged civil servants. The America undone by corporate greed and government irresponsibility. The America of cutthroat commerce that says, “Your misery is our opportunity.” The America that spends U.S. tax dollars to put its own citizens under constant surveillance and make them the most propagandized people on Earth. The America so in love with its own servitude that it exalts its billionaire betrayers and hates anyone who makes it think about things that can’t be tweeted in 140 characters or less. The America that sells us cigarettes, oxycodone, CIA heroin, St. Ides Malt Liquor, Jacked 3D Bacon Cheddar Ranch Doritos, Big Macs, Top Gun, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The America that miseducates its children because a nation full of ignorant, craven, subservient people is the kind of nation the oligarchs like best. The America that cons us into believing we have certain unalienable rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness — when, in actual fact, we’re all more or less suckers for mass marketing campaigns that turn us into debt-burdened wage slaves and self-harming meat sacks shot-through with psychic poisons. The America where someone like brainy Dave Wallace can mimic the voices of his inborn self-loathing circuitry and write a big, fat book about junkie house burglars, suicidal sorority girls, stoned solipsists, and a lethal form of entertainment known as Infinite Jest — and the Great American Hype Machine will turn that depressing, somehow spiritually-draining book into a bestseller, on every high-I.Q. kid’s reading list.
That America… perhaps summed up best by the New Jersey physician-poet, William Carlos Williams, who wrote: “America is a pathetic place where something stupefying must always happen for fear we wake up.”[xxxvii]
Here’s what I think: the hectoring voices of our inborn self-loathing circuitry belong to the Archons of America — and their only goal is to fuck us up.[xxxviii]
Of course, you’re free to draw your own conclusions.
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[i] The hour I spent in the emergency room that day ended up costing me $680. For that, I got about five minutes with a friendly young triage nurse and another five minutes with an older nurse practitioner who gave me a prescription for doxycycline ($15.10), and another for extra-strength prednisone tablets ($2.60). I suppose I should be grateful that the ugly red welts faded over the next week and I have health insurance.* If I hadn’t had insurance, my total cost for the E.R. visit would have been over $2200. No shit! Hospital billing departments have you in a hostage situation — they rack up their extortionary charges when you’re at your most vulnerable. It’s like a mob shakedown from a gang of coked up thugs with M.B.A.s from colleges for criminality (like Harvard and Yale). Even the baffled, diagnosis-shy M.D. at my local medical clinic gouged $208 from me earlier that same day for a twelve-minute consultation, at the end of which he told me to go to the nearest E.R. because he thought I might need an I.V. drip in my eyeball or some even more drastic medical procedure. Why do your job when you can just make shit up and charge a thousand bucks an hour for your non-performance? In countries with socialized healthcare — like Canada, Sweden, or France — your good health is considered a right. But here in the hypercapitalist U.S., a firewall of demonic grifters has risen up between healthcare providers and their patients. The grifters see healthcare as just another luxury good to be arbitraged for maximal profits. Their credo seems to be: “Your misery is our opportunity.” When you’re sick or hurt, if you have enough money you might be able to buy back your health (blindly, in the case of emergencies) — otherwise, you’re on your own. Good luck trying to find antibiotics and steroids in the vitamins-and-toothpaste aisle at Whole Foods.
*Regarding my health insurance provider: Even with healthcare costs so wildly overinflated, in a strict financial sense it’s likely I would come out ahead this year — just as I would have come out ahead every year, post-ObamaCare — if I had no health insurance at all and, instead, paid for my medical emergencies and routine checkups out-of-pocket. My family health insurance plan now requires monthly premiums of $1,612 ($19,344 for a full year), and for that we get no prescription drug coverage and only a 70% reimbursement on any costs incurred after we’ve met the sky-high deductible. In other words, I’m paying well over $20,000 a year for a health insurance plan that will leave me bankrupt, anyway, if anyone on that plan ever becomes seriously ill or injured — so what’s the point? Before President Obama’s oxymoronic Affordable Care Act went into effect in 2010, I was paying $11,604 a year for a plan with much better coverage. Since 2010, my New Jersey property taxes have also risen by over $8,000 a year, even though the resale value of my house declined through most of that same time frame (thanks, in a large part, to the Kafkaesque, way-beyond-the-rate-of-inflation rise in my property taxes — over 11% in one year alone). The chiselers are in charge everywhere, as Jim Harrison wrote just before he died. In my state, median household income was pegged at $71,637 as of 2012. I do a little better than that as a freelance commercial artist employed by New York City ad agencies… I’m, like, high-average… but ever since the investment bankers’ financial coup d’état in 2008 (when they looted billions from the economy with impunity, knowing they had TBTF Get-Out-of-Jail-Free cards), my inflation-adjusted annual income has been drifting steadily downward — as it has for almost everyone not in the ranks of the über-wealthy. Which means that extra $16,000+ I have to come up with now for health insurance and property taxes translates into no vacations and no saving for retirement. High-average just isn’t good enough anymore. It’s kind of like finding out you’re high-average according to the Care and Structural Maintenance of Your Penis pamphlet sent out by the Army Corps of Engineers to every American boy on his thirteenth birthday: there’s little comfort in that fact if everyone you know is getting screwed by sociopathic, super-hung porn stars.
[ii] An alleged stand-in for DFW, Hal Incandenza “hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny; he finds terms like joie and value to be like so many variables in rarified equations…” You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud or Jacques Lacan to figure out that Hal has some unresolved issues with his mother: “One of the troubles with his Moms is the fact that Avril Incandenza* believes she knows him inside and out as a human being, and an internally worthy one at that, when in fact inside Hal there’s pretty much nothing at all, he knows. His Moms Avril hears her own echoes inside him and thinks what she hears is him, and this makes Hal feel the one thing he feels to the limit, lately: he is lonely.”
*Avril Incandenza is an alleged stand-in for DFW’s mother, Sally Foster Wallace — a college professor and “militant grammarian” who found her son’s descriptions of Avril profoundly upsetting.
[iii] Another famous dissenter, Harold Bloom, said of Wallace and his magnum opus: “You know, I don’t want to be offensive, but Infinite Jest is just awful. It seems ridiculous to have to say it. He can’t think, he can’t write. There’s no discernable talent […] Stephen King is Cervantes compared with David Foster Wallace. We have no standards left.” However, I suspect that was just some heavy-handed lit-crit blowback prompted by DFW’s japes in Infinite Jest (see page 911 and endnote 366) that mocked Professor H. Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence as “stupefyingly turgid-sounding shit.” Writers are a notoriously thin-skinned lot, and prone to feuding. But Bloom made an interesting point about our Internet Age of mind-manipulating entertainment and attention-span-splintering technology: “It’s sort of a dark time,” he said, following his Wallace takedown. “Imaginative energy […] is very difficult to summon up when there are so many distractions. There’s a kind of Gresham’s Law [at work in literature]; the bad drives out the good.” More about that later….
[iv] According to Jonathan Franzen, DFW was such a hopeless horndog that he once wondered aloud if his only purpose in life was “to put my penis in as many vaginas as possible.” His subsequent deep-dive into porn culture with his journalistic essay about attending the 1998 Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas (see “Big Red Son” in Consider the Lobster) may have been undertaken as a subconsciously-motivated sort of aversion therapy. It so oversaturated Wallace’s hypervigilant senses with the sleazier aspects of human sexuality (so “fried everyone’s glandular circuit-board,” as he phrased it in one of the essay’s many footnotes) that he reported shortly thereafter to Franzen: “I don’t think I’ll have an erection again for a year.” That was hyperbole, of course; I would have bet 1,000 shares of 1998 Apple stock that DFW was flogging his own Big Red Son again within the first thirty days.
[v] The California newspaper I’d been working for, The Cambria Independent, went out of business in 1990 soon after I interviewed the smug, self-satisfied eldest heir to the Hearst family fortune — William Randolph Hearst Jr. — who slipped up and told me about the Hearst Corporation’s then little-known plans to despoil the Cambria / San Simeon coastline with an ill-conceived development project. His simple-minded declaration that the Hearst family intended to “put something like the Holiday Inn out there — a first-class operation” was equivalent, in my mind, to some folksy Midwestern trailer park developer buying a Zen monastery and saying, “We’re really gonna class this place up.” At the time, our drought-starved coastal community had all but ceased issuing water permits for residential and commercial development because the local water situation was already dire, and there was Bill Hearst, crowing about cashing in on the San Simeon tourist trade with his plans for a water-sucking 18-hole golf course and a slew of chintzy motel rooms. Soon after we published the Hearst interview as part of a three-page feature story, environmentalists rallied against the Hearst plans. Largely because of their protests, the California Coastal Commission decided to take another long look at the Hearst development project before approving it. That project has been stalled for over twenty-five years now. I can’t say for sure that the Hearst Corporation had something to do with our little independent newspaper’s advertising revenue suddenly being cut in half after we published that feature story, but it seems likely, doesn’t it?
[vi] I learned from reading Max’s biography that DFW had a fraught relationship with his own mother — not all that surprising for a notorious depressive. Enmeshment with a controlling mother’s psyche and the subsequent failure to individuate — to free the soul from its Oedipal bondage — can bum you out to the max, according to Dr. C. G. Jung & Company. And here’s a little synchronicity for you in a Jungian sense: A week after I started writing this essay, I met Daniel Max for the first time and we traded books — my latest, Crash Gordon and the Illuminati Underground (Three Graces Press, 2016), in exchange for his Wallace bio. As it happens, we both live in Montclair, New Jersey. Also, rather oddly, the word Montclair appears twice in Infinite Jest — once as the hometown of a husky student at Enfield Tennis Academy (“…who should heave into unexpected view but the U.S.S. Millicent Kent, a sixteen-year-old out of Montclair NJ…”), and elsewhere in a cryptic string of words assaulting Big Don Gately’s brain — words he equates to “a sort of lexical rape” — while he’s immobilized in a hospital bed, suffering from a massive gunshot wound to his shoulder and stoically refusing all painkillers due to his prior history as an oral narcotics addict:
Other terms and words Gately knows he doesn’t know from a divot in the sod now come crashing through his head with the same ghastly intrusive force, e.g. ACCIACCATURA and ALEMBIC, LATRODECTUS MACTANS and NEUTRAL DENSITY POINT, CHIAROSCURO and PROPRIOCEPTION and TESTUDO and ANNULATE and BRICOLAGE and CATALEPT and GERRYMANDER and SCOPOPHILIA and LAERTES — and all of a sudden it occurs to Gately the aforethought EXTRUDING, STRIGIL and LEXICAL themselves — and LORDOSIS and IMPOST and SINISTRAL and MENISCUS and CHRONAXY and POOR YORICK and LUCULUS and CERISE MONTCLAIR…”
When reading Infinite Jest I often get the feeling that DFW’s preferred writing method was to throw down on the page whatever weird shit was floating through his overstimulated mind at any given time, no matter how tedious his potential readers might find it — but I’m sure that’s not how he saw it (and I’ve since read that DFW wrote out Infinite Jest in longhand, in its pre-publication entirety, twice before typing the whole thing into a computer for a third complete pass that came in at around 1,600 pages — so the man didn’t quail when faced with revision tasks that required an almost inhuman amount of stamina and concentration). And how are you liking these long, DFW-style endnotes so far? Should I keep them going?
[vii] Ellis has written the literary equivalent of a selfie portrait in the first chapter of his “chilling tale of reality, memoir, and fantasy,” Lunar Park. It really should be read in full, but just to give you a feel for the Didionesque depravity Ellis has lived through, here’s an excerpt:
…I was on display. Everything I did was written about. The paparazzi followed me constantly. A spilled drink in Nell’s suggested drunkenness in a Page Six item in the New York Post. Dining at Canal Bar with Judd Nelson and Robert Downey Jr., who costarred in the movie adaptation of Less Than Zero, suggested “bad behavior” (true, but still). An innocuous script meeting with Ally Sheedy over lunch at Palio was construed as a sexual relationship. But I had put myself out there — I hadn’t hidden — so what did I expect? I was doing Ray-Ban ads at twenty-two. I was posing for the covers of English magazines on a tennis court, on a throne, on the deck of my condo in a purple robe. I threw lavish catered parties — sometimes complete with strippers — in my condo on a whim (“Because It’s Thursday!” one invitation read). I crashed a borrowed Ferrari in Southampton and its owner just smiled (for some reason I was naked). I attended three fairly exclusive orgies. […] Whenever I revisited L.A. over the Christmas holidays I usually chalked up four or five moving violations in the cream-colored 450 SL my father had handed down to me, but I lived in a place where the cops could be bought off, a place where you could drive at night without headlights, a place where you could snort coke while getting blown by the B-list actress, a place that allowed the three-day smack binge with the upcoming supermodel in the four-star hotel. It was a world that was quickly becoming a place with no boundaries. It was Dilaudid at noon.
Here’s another excerpt, which probably leans closer to the “fantasy” part of the “reality, memoir, and fantasy” equation; it’s written as a series of e-mails purportedly sent by Ellis’s “celebrity babysitter” to the publicity department at his publisher, Knopf, while said “babysitter” is accompanying Ellis on a book tour for Glamorama and trying — without much apparent success — to prevent him from snorting heroin before his readings:
E-mail memo #6: “15 miles southwest of Detroit writer was found hiding in back of stalled van on the median of a divided highway, picking at nonexistent scabs.”
E-mail memo #9: “Somehow writer has been teargassed at antiglobalization demonstration in Chicago.” […]
E-mail memo #18: “Cleveland; writer slept until three p.m., missing all morning and lunch interviews; was then found ‘pigging out on junk food’ until compelled to ‘throw up.’ Also witnessed standing in front of hotel mirror sobbing ‘I’m getting so old.’ ” […]
E-mail memo #34: “Miami Book Fair; writer locked himself in bookstore bathroom repeatedly yelling at concerned employees to ‘Go away!’ When writer emerged an hour later he started to ‘freak out’ again. ‘I have a snake on me!’ writer screamed. ‘It’s biting me! It’s IN MY MOUTH!’ Writer was dragged to a waiting squad car while holding on to bewildered young yeshiva student attending the reading — whom writer continuously fondled and groped — until ambulance arrived. His eyes rolling back into his head, writer’s last words — shouted — before being driven off were quote ‘I am keeping the Jew-boy’ unquote.”
I don’t know about you, but I found this genuinely hilarious the first time I read it. I think it was Norman Mailer who said you should never try to please your lady with a dildo that’s bigger than your own prick — and there might be an analogue to that for satirists (Never try to please your reader with a block-quote that’s funnier than your own writing). But I like celebrating another writer’s writing when it’s good, and in this case I’ll freely admit that between the two of us, Bret Easton Ellis probably has (or more likely is) the bigger prick.
[viii] That’s a phrase I picked up from Daniel Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. It’s from his commentary on DFW’s “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” in Girl with Curious Hair. The full sentence reads: “‘Westward’ also represented how seriously Wallace had come to take fiction, how much he believed that in the wrong hands it could demoralize and passify the unwary.” To that I say: Well, sure… maybe Wallace believed that stuff about the power of fiction because he subconsciously knew that his own fiction would soon be deployed as a big, fat, weaponized memeplex to demoralize and passify the unwary. Et tu, Infinite Jest?
[ix] Simpson was the coke-snorting, prostitute-patronizing half of the insanely successful production team, Simpson-Bruckheimer, responsible for such style-over-substance blockbusters as Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, and Top Gun. By 1996, Simpson was dead at 52 from heart failure and general fucked-out party junkie exhaustion, after carving a druggy, erotic swath through Hollywood so lurid and legendary that it would be rivaled only by an elite few, like Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Sheen.
[x] Most writers aren’t so fortunate; in fact, the majority don’t earn enough from writing to make the payments on a used Kia, much less a spiffy new sports car and an upscale home in San Francisco. At the time this essay was coming together, I had six books of my own in print under various pseudonyms (namely: Derek Swannson / Crash Gordon / Darren Westlund), but I’ve never been in any danger of becoming rich or famous. Unlike Chris, I tend to shy away from vulgar bids for attention like requiring my publishers* to place full-page ads for my latest novels in The New York Times Book Review, or arrange for my books to be stacked on the New Fiction tables at every Barnes & Noble on the entire planet. If our careers as authors could be metaphorically compared as music-industry acts, Chris would be like some telepod-fused Cronenbergian combo of Alice Cooper and Jimmy Buffett, playing stadiums, while I would be an unknown autistic protest singer backed by a cloned mariachi band in birdshit-stained sombreros, busking on the less-traveled streets of Seattle and Newark. I’d be lying if I said our socioeconomic disparity hasn’t grated on me at times. You want your friends to be successful, but not too successful, if you know what I mean. When you’re faced with serious money constraints and your old friends aren’t, it pisses you off in a vague sort of way. Their Facebook posts and Twitter feeds remind you that they’re free to express their agency in the world, while you’re walking around in the financial equivalent of a straitjacket, buffeted by a never-ending internal math equation (are hours worked X hourly wage [-% of taxes withheld] > or < the usual monthly bills + surprise expenses [± Visa/Amex/MasterCard® debits/credits]?), along with wince-inducing waves of guilt if you should even so much as contemplate buying an $12 sandwich from Dean & Deluca on your lunch break instead of settling for the usual lukewarm boiled hot dog and a Peach Tea Snapple from the vendor under the blue-and-yellow Sabrett umbrella across the street as Beck sings his sad hipster earworm refrain inside your skull: “Soy un perdedor / I’m a loser, baby / so why don’t you kill me?”
*In light of my 1990 journalistic clash with the Hearst Corporation, it’s interesting to note that Chris’s publishers — Avon, William Morrow, and HarperCollins — all happened to be Hearst Corporation imprints for most of “The Chris Moore Decade,” until those same imprints were swallowed whole in an acquisition by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in 1999.
[xi] To be rigorously honest, Jasun would be better described as an Internet acquaintance, rather than a friend in the Chris Moore sense. We correspond via e-mail, but we’ve never met in person and probably never will, since I live and work in greater New York and my financial obligations are so onerous that I feel too broke to travel, while Jasun lives in a cold part of western Canada and he isn’t allowed into the U.S. due to the fact that, when he was 24 years old, he was asked by U.S. immigration authorities if he’d ever smoked marijuana, and he said he had. Wrong answer. It seems incredible to me now that anyone could be banned from America forever just because they’d smoked a joint at some point, but times have changed. Marijuana has become legal in some states and we’ve had at least three dope-smoking U.S. Presidents between then and now.
The U.S. enforced a similar travel ban, for similar reasons, against Jasun’s somewhat more famous (now deceased) older brother, Sebastian Horsley. The charge against him — “moral turpitude” — was well-earned. Sebastian lived in London as a multimillionaire artist and bon vivant, swanning about Soho in a red sequined Savile Row suit and a Lincolnesque stovepipe hat, doing his damndest to look like Lucifer. He made sweet kinky love to thousands of prostitutes (look up the YouTube video, “Horsley on Whoring,” if you have any doubts), he managed to get himself crucified in the Philippines (there’s a video for that, too), and he did a shit-ton of drugs. He was spending over £100,000 a year on crack before he took up heroin with equal abandon. It’s a safe bet Sebastian was high every time he was interviewed on television. His sporadic attempts to get clean never lasted very long. At one point, he and Nick Cave traveled to “the phantom city of Essaouira with its medieval air… to try and get off heroin.” They failed. Sebastian’s excuse? “Nobody told us that they had opium tea there.”
In 2007, Sebastian cashed in on his louche lifestyle by publishing a best-selling book about his experiences called Dandy in the Underworld. (There was even some loose talk about turning Dandy in the Underworld into a movie, with a screenplay to be written by British film director Alex Cox, whose previous works include Repo Man, Sid and Nancy, and a contested screenplay credit for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.) Jasun, in contrast to Sebastian, had disinherited a considerable fortune in 1991 (motivated by a lovelorn fit of self-abnegation), and then exiled himself to a beggar’s life on the streets of Morocco. He now works two days a week in a Canadian thrift store (which he owns) and lives in a former crack house (which he renovated in his spare time). I imagine Jasun must have gazed upon his big brother’s ever-increasing celebrity with a jaundiced eye, perhaps wondering to himself (as I, too, have wondered):
Why is that fucking clown catching all the breaks?
But then Sebastian died from a drug overdose in 2010, at the age of 47 — and his lurid run of luck was over. The world had one less fucked-out party junkie to kick around.
Are you beginning to see a pattern here? If not, consider this: why do you think The New York Times used the word naturally in the sentence describing the reception for the new memoir, How to Murder Your Life, from former Condé Nast beauty editor and rampaging, unrepentant drug addict, Cat Marnell: “Naturally, she got a book deal and a half-million dollar advance from Simon & Schuster.” You have to wonder if Simon & Schuster’s secret agenda is to create more human misery and abjection in this world.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. The “I’m-such-a-glamorous-fuck-up” memoir dates back to the publication of Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), if not earlier. (An argument could be made that Jean-Jacques Rousseau and that legendary poonhound, Don Juan, also made contributions to the genre.) It probably seems naïve to ask why books of this sort are so popular, but I’m asking, anyway: Why do confessional tales of debauchery, dissolution, and self-destruction appeal to us on such a deep level? To cite just one egregious example, why is Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano #11 on the Modern Library 100 Best Novels list? (In what is probably my all-time favorite book review — Martin Amis’ “Lowry: In the Volcano” — Amis summed up what he’d learned from reading Gordon Bowker’s Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry: “While most schoolboys dreamt of becoming engine-drivers or cattle-punchers, little Malcolm dreamt of becoming an alcoholic. And the dream came true. Excluding a few dry-outs in hospitals and prisons, and the very occasional self-imposed prohibition, Malcolm Lowry was shitfaced for thirty-five years.”)
In this writer’s opinion, Sebastian Horsley probably gave us the best summation of the whole sordid addiction memoir business when he quipped: “I’ve suffered for my art. Now it’s your turn.”
[xii] There’s more to the story, of course. After I parted ways with the slumming Hollywood socialite (but before I moved from Cambria to Seattle and hooked up with the radio DJ), I spent a few tumultuous years living with a beautiful but hopelessly alcoholic former lingerie model and aspiring lady shaman who, for the sake of discretion, I’ll only refer to by her initials: MM. MM was quite frank — almost cheery — about her long history of substance abuse. Her everyday, base level of zaniness would periodically flare up into really outrageous bouts of craziness — like the time she slipped off her lacy black panties in the middle of a crowded sushi restaurant and not-so-demurely horked up a half-masticated chunk of raw mackerel into the Kotex®-lined crotch of said panties (in lieu of using a napkin, I guess…), or the time she got high on ayahuasca, hoping for a really fun shamanic journey, and, instead, frothily shit the bed (“Woo-hoo! Check it out! My butt-hole sounds like a trombone…. Oh wait — gah! — what’s that smell?”).
In the enforced tranquility that always followed her worst hangovers, MM would dismiss her bad behavior with a glib “I must’ve gone off my meds.” Chris heard MM utter that blithe phrase on more than one occasion — usually while I was recounting her latest screwball imbroglio — and it became a sort of running joke between the three of us. Later, when Chris was working on The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, he decided to create a character named Molly Michon — a manic-depressive former B-movie actress who, on the page, looks, acts, and talks like a parody of my alcoholic ex-girlfriend. When I read the passage where Molly Michon jacks off Skippy the Horny Sea Monster with a weed whacker, I thought to myself: I could easily see MM doing something like that.
Although I’m sure Chris would deny it, I’d even go so far as to suggest that MM was the inspiration for the main thrust of Lust Lizard’s plot. The book starts off in a small coastal town (a barely disguised Cambria) where a well liked psychotherapist decides to conspire with the local pharmacist to take all of her depressed patients “off their meds” (in MM’s parlance) without telling them. The psychotherapist does this for noble reasons, but of course it leads to emotional chaos for the town’s citizens. Chris had read that one of the symptoms of suddenly going off serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitors (like the then-popular Prozac) was a noticeable uptick in libido, while one of the downsides was a resurgence of suicidal ideation. So, basically, you’d have a coastal town full of horny, depressed people whose horny, depressed vibes would, quite naturally, attract the attention of a horny sea monster that feeds on depressed people. And there you have it. I don’t know if Chris ever said thank you to MM — or to Justine and her pal, JayJay — but he should have. Where would he be without my eccentric ex-girlfriends?
[xiii] On that same subject, it’s worth contemplating the words of DFW’s close but competitive* friend, Jonathan Franzen: “David’s fiction is populated with dissemblers and manipulators and emotional isolates, and yet the people who only had glancing or formal contact with him took his rather laborious hyper-considerateness and moral wisdom at face value.” Franzen received a public scolding from irate DFW fans for not being in the unthinking Saint Wallace camp with his 2011 essay in The New Yorker, “Farther Away: ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ David Foster Wallace, and the Island of Solitude.” You could tell he was still kind of pissed at DFW when he wrote:
He was sick, yes, and in a sense the story of my friendship with him is simply that I loved a person who was mentally ill. The depressed person then killed himself, in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed. Betrayed not merely by the failure of our investment of love but by the way in which his suicide took the person away from us and made him into a very public legend. People who had never read his fiction, or had never even heard of him, read his Kenyon College commencement address in the Wall Street Journal and mourned the loss of a great and gentle soul. A literary establishment that had never so much as short-listed one of his books for a national prize now united to declare him a lost national treasure. Of course, he was a national treasure, and, being a writer, he didn’t “belong” to his readers any less than to me. But if you happened to know that his actual character was more complex and dubious than he was getting credit for, and if you also knew that he was more lovable — funnier, sillier, needier, more poignantly at war with his demons, more lost, more childishly transparent in his lies and inconsistencies — than the benignant and morally clairvoyant artist/saint that had been made of him, it was still hard not to feel wounded by the part of him that had chosen the adulation of strangers over the love of the people closest to him.
Franzen seems to be arguing here for a more polite way of committing suicide — although I don’t know what that would have looked like. Maybe DFW could have gone the Hart Crane / Spalding Gray route, jackknifing off the side of a big boat and getting himself declared “lost at sea.” A fatal drug binge could have provided the people closest to him with the comforting illusion that he’d mistakenly OD’d, à la Sebastian Horsley. Certainly the Kurt Cobain shotgun-under-the-chin method would appear even ruder than a homely back patio hanging, so that one gets ruled that out. What’s left then? Suicide-by-cop? Defenestration? Dousing himself with Exxon Plus and sitting in full-lotus as his white bandana and dirtbomb T-shirt went up in a shroud of flames? When you’re surrounded by judgmental friends like Franzen, there’s no way to exit this world without being accused of choosing “the adulation of strangers” over the intimacies of those who would tell every reader of The New Yorker that you spent your last moments calculating how “to inflict maximum pain on those [you] loved most.”
So screw it — like Dorothy Parker said, you might as well live.
* How competitive was Franzen? He wrote The Corrections in response to Infinite Jest. Many people (and I’m one of them) consider The Corrections to be the superior book. That’s not a feat just any random jackass could pull off — you have to be a hyper-competitive jackass to surpass a friend like David Foster Wallace and make him look bad. For some, it’s not enough to win the National Book Award and get your semi-handsome mug on the cover of Time magazine next to a “Great American Novelist” tagline — to be truly happy, you also need to see your friends hang.
Okay, I’ll admit that’s a cheap shot and Franzen probably isn’t deserving of it — but it’s not like we’re ever going to hang out and there’s almost zero chance he’ll ever run across this essay, so I’m going to let it stand.
[xiv] That’s not counting some comic pieces Wallace published in the Amherst college humor magazine, Sabrina, which he edited with his friend, Mark Costello. Among those early efforts, there’s a parody of the Hardy Boys mysteries that I’d like to read in full someday. It’s called “The Sabrina Brothers in the Case of the Hung Hamster,” from which Daniel Max quotes the following:
Suddenly a sinister, twin-engined airplane came into view, sputtering and back-firing. It lost power and began spinning in toward the hill. It was heading right for the Sabrina brothers!
Luckily at the last minute the plane ceased to exist.
“Crikey!” exclaimed Joe. “It’s a good thing we’re characters in a highly implausible children’s book or we’d be goners!”
[xv] Wallace was a shameless pussyhound for most of his adult life. (DFW to Rolling Stone journalist, David Lipsky, as a prelude to hitting the road with him for the last leg of the Infinite Jest book tour: “…most of the fame stuff dudn’t matter to me. But I really did think, ‘Maybe I could get laid on this tour’.”) To be fair, I should point out that DFW’s veiny red custard chucker didn’t control his every foray into fornication. The tail stopped wagging the dog when he married the artist Karen Green on December 27th, 2004. The people closest to Wallace believe he remained faithful to Green during the last four years of his life — and he was happy about it — even when he went off Nardil in his final year and became unhappy with just about everything else. “Having been quite feral, he was proud of his domestication,” Green has stated. (But let’s qualify that: after seventeen years of marriage, I can report that domesticity has its own horrors for those prone to depression.) Putting marriage aside — along with its attendant monogamy and monotony — here’s a fun fact: Wallace tried to bang Elizabeth Wurtzel while he was touring for Infinite Jest. If that’s not a deliberate attempt to stick your dick into crazy, then I don’t know what is. Here’s how Daniel Max explains their dysfunctional courtship in Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story:
Elizabeth Wurtzel had continued during the past year to entrance Wallace. One time he had called Franzen from a payphone at 3 a.m. when they were out together to say, ‘I’m with a girl who has heroin in her possession. This is not good.’ Then after the KGB reading, she brought him back to her apartment and took him up to her loft bed, but at the last minute changed her mind about sex. Wallace, suspicious that she had only brought him home in the first place because of his rising fame, grew furious. ‘You’re going to make me drink again!’ he shouted at her. He threw on his clothes and stomped out, ending the friendship.
Personally, I’m not inclined to judge Wallace too harshly for that dick-led lapse in judgment. Looking at photos in Google image search of Wurtzel from her Prozac Nation days — when she was still in her twenties — I had no doubt that, had she graciously provided me with the opportunity, I would have wanted to bang her too (and if I’m going to continue to be candid, in terms of sheer craziness Wurtzel probably had nothing on my two flipped-out exes, Justine the Screaming Eel Skin Queen and MM). As Wallace admitted to Lipsky on their road trip (documented in the book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which became a movie starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg called The End of the Tour), he had a preference for crazy women and had “ended up with lots of crazy ones…” perhaps because he was shy. “Psychotics, say what you want about them,” Wallace joked, “[they] tend to make the first move.” He followed up that observation with another one about domestic companionship that struck me as so funny and true that, again, it probably reveals something unflattering about my own psyche:
“It’s just much easier having dogs. You don’t get laid; but you also don’t get the feeling you’re hurting their feelings all the time.”
[xvi] The Popes of High Culture is necessary shorthand for the vanishingly small number of media executives who make the major decisions about who will be deigned the Important Writers of Our Time — now and in the future. The International Prestige Lit racket, for instance, is currently controlled by a trade book publishing cartel that consists of HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette. Those companies, in turn, are either owned by, or beholden to, less than twenty global multimedia conglomerates that control 90% of the world’s books, newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, movie studios, and web news content: Comcast, Disney, Time Warner, Twenty-First Century Fox, News Corp, Viacom, Sony, CBS Corporation, iHeartMedia, Bertelsmann, Hearst, Vivendi, Televisa, Lagardère Group, Google, and Amazon. (Did I miss anyone?) As the late, great Paddy Chayefsky had Howard Beale describe the situation in Network, those conglomerates function collectively as “…the most awesome goddam propaganda force in the whole godless world” and they’ll tell you “any shit you want to hear” — except the truth, when it’s inconvenient to their soft fascist hegemony.
[xvii] The NSA isn’t the only taxpayer-funded intelligence agency spying on U.S. citizens. After the publication of Crash Gordon and the Illuminati Underground, the Vault 7 data dump from WikiLeaks revealed that the CIA has been even more aggressive than the NSA in its domestic spying operations, which doesn’t bode well for our future, as a quote in CGIU from former Assistant Secretary of Housing, Catherine Austin Fitts, makes clear:
“When you look at what’s happening with debt, something new has been going on in the last twenty years that we’ve never seen before. We’ve seen debt used as a control mechanism and we’ve seen financial entrapment of nations — and economic hits on nations using debt — for centuries. So that game is as old as the hills. But when you combine digital systems — you know… electronic financial transactions, computer and phone systems, the Internet, smart phones… with, um, artificial intelligence, relational databases, and now the cloud — what you’re talking about doing is being able to run economic hits at the individual level, globally. That’s why Snowden’s revelations were so important, because if you look at them in combination with debt, we’re talking about a much more invasive entrapment system. That system can now literally reach through sovereign nations and start controlling everything from municipalities to households directly.”
The technology for totalitarianism is already in place. It’s only a matter of time before someone — or some thing — turns the key.
[xviii] The Grand Prize was an ivory-ball python. If you live in Florida, I guess it’s always worth gorging yourself on a shitload of bugs for the sake of a cool reptile. (I could make a few jokes here about David Icke’s reptilian fixation that would be understood by about three people, but I’ll refrain.)
[xix] The Gnostics were shamans and seers — sort of the indigent, pot-smoking hippies of their time, only far more radical and less inclined than 1960s hippies to sell out and become yuppies (and, yes, some Gnostics got high on mushrooms, while others espoused and practiced a 2nd century version of free love…). They claimed to get their spiritual info from direct, out-of-body encounters with divine wisdom — or gnosis — unmediated by a meddlesome, tithe-grasping, authoritarian Church. Throughout the past two thousand years, the Church fathers have tried to write off the Gnostics as a bunch of self-deluded heretics, or crackpot mystics, but consider this: Gnosticism was (and still is) the most widely suppressed metaphysical belief system in human history. And usually, when authoritarian regimes attempt to suppress information, it’s not because that information doesn’t contain any truth — it’s because the truth it conveys is important to your survival and dangerous to those in power. The Gnostics knew Christianity was an ideological virus designed to perpetuate the master-slave relationship: All that stuff about turning the other cheek, loving your enemies and doing good to those who hate you, promising you’ll be rewarded in heaven after being persecuted and exploited here on Earth. They thought that was utter bullshit — pious propaganda imposed upon the world’s people by the same malignantly crazy religious and secular leaders who put their seal of approval on Christianity and then waged a brutal campaign to exterminate all Gnostics and make it seem as if they’d never existed.
[xx] You can get a feel for the Gnostic take on reality by watching movies like The Truman Show, Dark City, and The Matrix (Morpheus to Neo: “Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life — that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad…”). The VALIS trilogy of novels by Philip K. Dick will also take you there, as will the HBO TV series, Westworld, which is crammed with Gnostic themes.
[xxi] Archons (Gr. ἄρχοντες) is an ancient Greek word that translates as rulers — or Authorities. For the Gnostics, however, that word has a much more specific meaning: They think of the Archons as minions of the Demiurge (whose secret name is Yaldabaoth). According to Gnostic creation myths, the Archons arose prematurely, before the formation of the Earth, when Yaldabaoth split-off from the Aeon Sophia and jacked-off into the cosmos. The Archons engendered by Yaldabaoth’s cosmic spunkwad are supposedly nonhuman and inorganic. They’re also intrapsychic — meaning they can get inside our minds — but when they assume physical shape they look like aborted fetuses, or those spindly grey aliens that Whitley Strieber wrote about. Their proper domain is the Hebdomad — meaning, the other seven visible planets in our solar system, aside from the Earth — but they come to Earth, anyway, to fuck with us.
I’ve written about Gnosticism and the Archons in several of my books. I’m now of the opinion that the Archons likely specialize (sort of like malignant egregores — or autonomous collective thoughtforms capable of acting with malicious intent). I suspect there’s an Archon of Big Pharma, for instance. An Archon of Addictive Fast Food. An Archon of Petroleum-Based Products (with a thriving sideline in Global Warming). An Archon of Strife-Inducing Propaganda. An Archon of Attention-Span-Splintering Technology. An Archon of Corporate Advertising. An Archon of International Prestige Lit. Et cetera.
But you don’t have to take that specialization idea seriously if it doesn’t ring true for you. That one just comes from me… the Gnostics had nothing to do with it.
[xxii] As reported in The New Yorker by Ryan Lizza on July 27th, 2017, Scaramucci called White House chief of staff Reince Priebus “a fucking paranoid schizophrenic.” He also differentiated himself from the (apparently either super-bendy or monstrously hung) White House chief strategist by observing: “I’m not Steve Bannon. I’m not trying to suck my own cock.” That Italian arch-buffoon, Scaramuccia, used to say similar things right before Harlequin beat him with a stick. With that in mind, it’s worth noting that Anthony Scaramucci’s tenure as communications director lasted for only ten days — long enough to get Reince Priebus fired (and, presumably, for Steve Bannon to experience the brief, salty rapture of autofellatio.)
[xxiii] On the other hand, the Gnostics contend that the Archons are inferior to humans because they lack ennoia — or creative will — and epinoia — or creative imagination. Which means they can only imitate, never create. But they’re really good at fooling us. The classic Sethian Gnostic text, the Apocryphon of John, tells us that the Archons delight in deception. Their preferred method is called antimimon — or countermimicry. In other words, they might not be able to create anything new, but they can copy things that already exist and then invert their original meaning or purpose. It’s like Orwellian newspeak/doublethink mixed up with reality TV. They take something that seems organic and real and turn it into something manufactured and fake — kind of like those genetically modified seeds from Monsanto that sprout once and then go sterile, so you have to buy them again every year. Or the USA PATRIOT Act, which eroded the very liberties that the original U.S. patriots fought for during the founding of this country. Voltaire could have been warning us about the Archons when he wrote: “Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.” And Orwell, of course, could have been doing the same when he wrote, in 1984, what could be considered the Archons’ most famous slogans: “War is Peace / Freedom is Slavery / Ignorance is Strength.”
[xxiv] I identify with DFW to such a degree that I can’t help thinking that he might have been happier (or at least more determined to stick around) if he’d embarked on a deep exploration of Gnosticism, augmented by Jungian psychoanalysis. It worked for me. It’s the overthinking writer’s way out of severe depression — intellectually stimulating enough to make life interesting without playing side-effect-roulette with random psychopharmaceuticals — which, if you’re lucky, will only bludgeon you into a bovine stupor, or make you so limp-dicked that you’ll experience the true meaning of Kurt Cobain’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” refrain about his libido and a mosquito.
Judging by the writing he left behind, DFW chose not to go the Gnostic / Jungian route. Instead, he had some weird ideas about achieving satori via excruciating boredom, which obviously didn’t pan out. He did, however, use the word demiurge in The Broom of the System, and he’d circled Gnosticism in his dictionary (along with acephalous, Osiris, recrudesce, and glans penis, among others), so I’m assuming he was at least familiar with the ideas of that loose collective of cognitive dissidents known as the Gnostics. But I wonder if he knew that the town he chose to die in was, in a sense, Ground Zero for the Gnostic Revival in the West.
Two books are generally credited with the resurgence of interest in Gnosticism among English-speaking people in modern times: The Nag Hammadi Library in English, published in 1977, and The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, published in 1979. Pagels couldn’t have written her best-selling book without the ten years of work put in by a team of translators and editors on the Nag Hammadi Library — a treasure trove of mostly Gnostic codices, written in Coptic, that had been found inside a 4th century earthenware vessel uncovered by two brothers digging for fertilizer in the sands of Egypt in 1945. Those thirteen codices — with their papyrus pages, numbered and bound — are now considered the world’s earliest extant examples of books. (Some Sumerian cuneiform tablets are thought to be older, of course, but we’re talking about hunks of dried clay there, not books.) And where, you might ask, did this heroic feat of Coptic Gnostic translation take place? Within the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont Graduate University — a member of Claremont Colleges, which includes Pomona College, where DFW had been teaching until he decided to leave Claremont and “good old Earth”* for
*”Good old Earth” is a phrase found in Wallace’s literary career debut, “The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing,” a story that ends, like the paragraph above (and like The Broom of the System) without the final word. I suspect Wallace might have found that sense of circularity satisfying when applied to the story of his own life’s end, although it may be a literary trick he outgrew.
[xxv] That’s a quote from Chalcidius’ translation of Plato’s Timaeus, which I discovered via my reading of Nick Tosches’ In the Hand of Dante. That’s the beautiful thing about reading: you never know exactly where a good author will take you, but you’re always sure to learn something new along the way.
[xxvi] Although let’s not rule out the possibility that artificially-created substance abuse problems might just be crude weapons in the Archontic arsenal for fucking with us.
[xxvii] In fact, a federal judge said that Dow AgroSciences and their ilk don’t even have to reveal the names of the pesticides that are showing up in the bloodstreams of Kauai citizens. Larry Ellison, the multibillionaire CEO of Oracle, owns about 97% of nearby Lanai, so he could probably do something about the poisoning of the Hawaiian Islands, if he wanted to, but you can bet he won’t. When you’ve made billions of dollars by being a jerk, you know better than to interfere in the evil genius schemes of other billionaire jerks. No one wants to be a class traitor — especially when their class consists of well-heeled bandits, distinguished purveyors of environmental toxins, and a broad spectrum of tech-savvy psychopaths.
[xxviii] Over a span of several months, I’d been making five to ten grand at a pop by buying market-timed calls on high-flying Internet stocks like CMGI — which was just as insane as anything the surgeon had been doing with his Dell calls. The difference was that I held my calls for less than a week and I was making money, rather than losing it, so I thought I knew what I was doing. I’ve since come to realize that I’d had no clue. Like a kid running through a fireworks factory with his hair on fire and making it out alive, I was just lucky. And high-frequency trading algorithms were about to wring that sort of luck out of the market, for me, forever. I’ve never been able to repeat that options trading feat since my move to New York — but if I’d had the good sense to put all my cash into long-term Apple calls, instead of blowing it on a leased penthouse and a wedding, I would have done all right.
[xxix] Suicide isn’t always about litost and the inversions of revenge. Sometimes it’s just a way to end unbearable pain and mental torment when the malevolent voices inside your head have been telling you that you’re a burden to others and no one will ever find a way to help you.
[xxx] About those ramped up stress levels: sudden reversals in fortune, poor job prospects, a plunge in social standing, or the absence of human warmth and kindness can make people more likely to seek solace in drink, food, or drugs. We know that. But what I didn’t know — or even think about until I read an article in The New York Times by psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman titled “What Cookies and Meth Have in Common” — is that modern humans (or perhaps those pesky Archons) have been designing the perfect environment for food and drug addiction in America.
Americans have been getting fat and fried in increasing numbers. According to the article: “In 1990, no state in our country had an adult obesity rate above 15 percent; by 2015, 44 states had obesity rates of 25 percent or higher.” Something similar has been going on with drug addiction; The New York Times “estimated that more than 59,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016, which represents the largest year-over-year increase ever recorded.” I’ve read other news articles that claim there are now as many opioid prescriptions written annually in the U.S. as there are adults. And the U.S. consumes 80% of the world’s opioid production, even though we only represent 5% of the world’s population.
So what the hell is up with that?
Professor Friedman thinks it has a lot to do with the rise and fall of dopamine receptors — or D2s — in the brain’s reward circuitry. Which brings us around to monkey brains again. Some white-jacketed lab guys with a lot of time and cocaine on their hands have discovered that monkeys tend to become raging coke fiends when you stress them out. However, if you give those same monkeys lots of grooming and elevated social status and some hot monkey lovin’ — in other words, turn them into the monkey equivalents of Richard Branson, Jennifer Aniston, or Elon Musk — then the pampered elite monkeys don’t go after the Bolivian Marching Powder with quite so much determination. (Monkeys in the middle probably just do bong hits and become sullen masturbators, but the article made no mention of that.) Anyway, this is all tied up with D2 receptors. A body of research now proves there’s a strong correlation between D2 receptors and environmental stress levels: The more well-off a monkey feels, the more D2 receptors its brain develops. The higher the number of D2 receptors in a monkey’s brain, the higher its natural level of pleasure, and the less it feels the need to seek out hardcore drugs or comfort food to compensate. It’s a virtuous cycle.
Good to know if you’re starting at the bottom as the monkey junkie equivalent of a crack whore, right? Because this D2 stuff cuts both ways: Increased stress lowers D2 levels, leading to a brain that craves Frosted Chocolate Fudge Pop-Tarts and OxyContin just to feel normal again. But then when you start eating the Pop-Tarts and popping OxyContins like aspirin, your D2 receptors dry up, leaving you more susceptible to irritation, physical discomfort, and thoughts about malicious Archons running the show here on Earth. It’s a downward spiral, as opposed to a virtuous cycle.
American ingenuity has contributed to this problem by making food and drugs more addictive than ever. As Richard A. Friedman (Dick A Fried Man?) explains:
What happened is that cheap, calorie-dense foods that are highly rewarding to your brain are now ubiquitous. […] The processed food industry has transformed our food into a quasi-drug, while the drug industry has synthesized ever more powerful drugs that have been diverted for recreational use. We extracted opium from the poppy and quickly discovered how to make opiates that are a thousandfold more potent and addicting. Not content with just smoking cannabis, we bred super-potent strains of the plant, extracted the active cannabinoids and moved on to dangerous synthetic versions. The list goes on. […] Even the most self-disciplined can fall prey to a food or drug addiction under the right mix of adversity and stress.
It doesn’t really matter if it’s Archons dicking us around or just corporate profit-takers running amok — Americans, collectively, will be getting more fat-assed and drug-addled if this trend continues. You can see it happening in real time if you routinely visit Wal-Mart stores in Pennsylvania or northern Michigan. If you’ve ever wondered why Europeans regard most North Americans as blubbery scum, this is at least a part of the answer. As for the rest of the answer, I’m sure it doesn’t help when we, as a nation, go tromping through other countries acting like loud, brash, war-happy Masters of the Universe after electing obviously incompetent leaders like George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
[xxxi] It’s true, I can be an incommunicative lout at times — especially when I’m writing — but I mean well.
[xxxii] Update: On July 22nd, 2017, I moved into a third floor walk-up with exposed brick walls, high ceilings, nice hardwood floors, and no hint of diarrhetic, pinecone-munching Yeti smells (so far, at least…).
[xxxiii] (Although you might want to recall from endnote xxii that the Archons delight in deception and their preferred method is called antimimon — or countermimicry. If the acronym fits, the Archons can wear it.)
[xxxiv] For details, you can read their new book, National Security Cinema: The Shocking New Evidence of Government Control in Hollywood (INSURGE INTELLIGENCE, 2017). One of the illustrations in that book is credited to me, I think (Matt still hasn’t sent me the paperback copy he promised me in exchange for the illustration, but I’m sure it will show up any day now…).
[xxxv] Advertising can do that too, I realize… I’m not exactly guilt-free in that regard. To live in the world is to be implicated in its evils. There seems to be no escaping that — especially if you have to earn a living in New York City. As both an ad agency pro and a covert author of anti-authoritarian Deep State satires, I’ve led a semi-schizoid existence — somewhat like Bob Arctor / Agent Fred in Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. I mean, let’s face it: advertising, generally, exists to get people to buy stuff — often junk products that no one really needs (think cigarettes, booze, fast food, and candy, just to start). Most ad agencies don’t seem to care whether their clients’ products are doing good things or bad things to the world at large. And I help create the advertising images for those companies, which in our increasingly post-literate world is what really sells their products. I’ve never had to create an ad for a product I wouldn’t feel okay about using (I enjoy a nightly beer or vodka-and-tonic, so I’ve done plenty of images for Heineken and Stoli, but I draw the line at cigarettes). But I wonder, now, how I’d handle it if I were offered a lucrative contract to work on some product that I found morally or ethically reprehensible. One of my favorite ad agencies, for instance, recently took on News Corp, Wells Fargo, and AIG as clients — companies that I believe exploit the general populace in particularly egregious ways. Would I work for them? I honestly can’t say. But I’m convinced it’s a thought experiment worth undertaking for everyone (painful though it might be):
How does your life make you complicit in the conspiracies against humankind?
Meanwhile, I’ve been writing paranoia-tinged passages like the following (which I put into the mouth of a black-ops bagman for the CIA who was addressing a carload of snarky teenagers on a road trip to Big Sur back in 1983): *
“Let’s think for a moment about how the egregores of corporations operate, since the Reagan administration seems so determined to hand our country over to them…. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that corporations are immortal soulless entities that take as much as they can and give nothing in return. Their primary goal is to keep increasing productivity and earnings in an all-devouring, endless cycle. Corporate egregores exploit their workers, pollute the environment, and turn vast quantities of the world’s irreplaceable natural resources into disposable junk products, all just to show a quarterly profit. They steal from the poor and give to the rich, creating enormous concentrations of wealth in the hands of just a few thousand elitist assholes. If Reagan and Bush get their way and all that money and power isn’t redistributed — via a system of fair taxes and the checks and balances built into our Constitution — then America’s liberal, democratic society will soon be looking a lot more like a corporate-sponsored fascist police state. And that will be because, quite simply, the egregores of unchecked capitalism tend to penalize those who would better the lot of humanity, while at the same time rewarding the relatively few unbridled sociopaths who take advantage of anyone and anything that they can.”
So — a slight internal conflict there, obviously.
- Excerpted from Crash Gordon and the Mysteries of Kingsburg (Three Graces Press, 2007).
[xxxvi] Literary prowess, like beauty, tends to fade with age — as Wallace himself pointed out in “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think,” his scathing review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time.
[xxxvii] At a February 1981 meeting with newly elected President Reagan, CIA Director William Casey must have been thinking pretty much the same thing when he said in front of multiple witnesses (including Barbara Honegger, who shortly thereafter reported it to Senior White House correspondent Sarah McClendon, who made it public): “We’ll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American public believes is false.”
[xxxviii] See endnote xxi, if you missed it.