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When Do We Look Away?

PUBLISHED: April 28, 2009

In Friday’s New York Times, VQR Contributing Editor Tom Bissell had a nice appreciation of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon Commencement Speech, now released as a book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. Bissell found himself, like others, returning to Wallace’s work upon receiving the shock of the author’s suicide. The central dilemma of such a process is that intensive reevaluation at this sensitive time can lead to a desperate attempt at unearthing signs—clues, they might be incorrectly called—to answer suicide’s ineluctable and unanswerable question: Why?

Bissell also draws attention to Wallace’s invocation of the cliché that the mind is an “excellent servant but a terrible master.” He quotes Wallace: “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master.” Bissell writes that in the print edition of the speech (I have only read the version posted online) this passage has been removed. He explains:

It is not difficult to understand why. Any mention of self-annihilation in Wallace’s work (and there are many: the patriarch of “Infinite Jest” is a suicide; Wallace’s story “Good Old Neon” is narrated by a suicide) now has a blast radius that obscures everything around it. These are craters that cannot be filled. The glory of the work and the tragedy of the life are relations but not friends, informants but not intimates. Exult in one; weep for the other.

I agree that references to suicide in Wallace’s work have been made more potent by what the writer eventually did, and it will likely be some time before such associations fade, if at all. But I think it is a mistake to excise such passages. Removing the passages connotes a value judgment that no one, save Wallace himself, is equipped to give. It is one of the few responsibilities of the reader to treat those two aptly named arenas—the glory of the work and the tragedy of the life—as challenges to be understood separately. It is not, I would argue, the responsibility of the editor to do so for us by removing any references to suicide because that’s the way the author died. (This modification of the text also raises the disturbing prospect that similar deletions would be made in other work by Wallace or that “Good Old Neon” would not be included in a future edition of the author’s collected stories.)

Wallace, like any other artist, deserves to be examined in his totality, while keeping in mind the essential distinctions between the life and the work. References to suicide in his fiction and essays may be craters that can’t be filled, but we must still look at them all the same, just as we would examine a ruined building to understand the cost of war or would establish a commission to fully investigate the Bush administration’s application of torture and learn how it can be prevented in the future. To do otherwise is to imply that we can’t handle what’s right in front of us. It also carries the implication that Wallace was somehow wrong in discussing these issues at all, or that we will only listen to a gifted artist when it’s convenient.

In time, the loss of Wallace’s suicide will not go away, but we will be able, I hope, to look at these unfillable craters as a necessary portion of the larger landscape of his work. It would be a disappointment if he comes to be seen as mostly a “suicide writer,” like Sylvia Plath, but hopefully his work is suitably wide-ranging—and our critical faculties patient and open-minded—to see how much worthy truth is here. Let his editors be sensible enough to respect the author’s intentions by allowing us to grapple with what was committed to the page, however difficult that may be.


Pat Joseph's picture
Pat Joseph · 14 years ago
He quotes Wallace: “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master.” It’s not the least bit coincidental, true, but one doubts it has much to do with “the terrible master.” It’s just the quickest, surest route to ending it all. No?
Tom Bissell's picture
Tom Bissell · 14 years ago
Actually, said the passage had been elided, as in “abridged” rather than completely removed. Most of the passage is still there. Also, the version Little, Brown published, I now know from Dave’s editor, worked off of Dave’s written speech, not the spoken speech he delivered, which was in turn transcribed. The version Little, Brown published, then, does not omit one word from the text as Dave wrote it.

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