I hadn’t heard of David Foster Wallace prior to his suicide. I had never read anything he wrote, though among the many recent obits I read, I saw that he had written a book titled Infinite Jest. When I saw that I thought, “Ah so! A man after my own heart.” By which I meant a master of invention and device, of irony – for he was certainly referring to Hamlet’s impromptu eulogy for Yorick, whom we all know so well.
As Hamlet facetiously said while holding Yorick’s skull like a grapefruit and gazing into the empty eye sockets, “Not one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chap-fallen?”
Any writer who would choose Infinite Jest as a title, I assumed, would appreciate Hamlet’s ironic flirtation with madness, the wry comments made to amuse himself and confuse his foes. And indeed, many reviewers say Wallace’s works are full of irony.
But as I read more and more reviews and obits, I found that Wallace, like a former Party official denouncing himself at a Stalinist show-trial, had branded irony (along with irreverence and rebellion!) as “not liberating but enfeebling.”
I immediately thought, “Is he being cute?” Such a broad generalization could never stand up and walk on its own legs. “His poor students,” I thought, as I apologized on Wallace’s behalf to all of our irreverent literary and historical revolutionary heroes and heroines.
Then I made the leap: Wallace had come to the sorry conclusion that Hamlet’s irony was his fatal character flaw. That Hamlet’s unrelenting wit scattered all those dead bodies around the stage. That Hamlet’s irony, irreverence and revolt brought about the tragedy.
Could that possibly be true? Wallace might make a case that Hamlet’s irony drove poor Ophelia to madness and suicide…but I always attributed the carnage at the end of the play to Claudius passing the poison cup to Gertrude, and that mix-up with the swords during the duel with Laertes. I thought things were going a bit slowly, but according to Hamlet’s plan, up until then.
But alas, I think Wallace came to view Hamlet (and himself) as self-emasculating. He even quotes a guy who said of the average ironist, “it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage.”
When I read that, I felt really bad for Wallace. Surely he knew that Hamlet also said, “If I were bound in a nutshell I would consider myself a king of infinite space.”
Wallace! If you can hear me, you could have easily have called your book Infinite Space and argued that irony is liberating.
But you made a bed of bad energy, and now you sleep in it.
Irony is enfeebling, Wallace said, because it “serves an almost exclusively negative function,” and is “singularly un-useful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.”
This is another lame argument at best. To begin, how can anyone project a value judgment on irony, without context?
Without the detachment of irony, the stiff English upper-lip would have sagged into a frown of despair during the dark days of World War Two, when German bombs were raining on London. As anyone who has had his back against the wall knows full well, irony, when all else fails, represents the triumph of will over impending doom.
But Wallace made thee mistake of thinking it is hip to be square. He found irony, “the dominant mode of hip expression,” and thought that gifted ironists are “sort of wickedly funny to listen to at parties,” although it made him feel “empty” and “oppressed.”
Either he didn’t see the irony of his choice of the phrase “wickedly funny,” or something was seriously wrong with the man.
The Sad Search for Meaning in Life
Some people say Wallace was a true original, in the mold of Thomas Pynchon. Other says he was a Pynchon clone. He was certainly depressed. They say he had demons.
Hamlet was probably depressed too, maybe even manically so. Bad enough he had to deal with the recurring vision of his grisly father from hell, shuffling about in chains, demanding revenge for an unproven crime. But Hamlet is a fictional character, after all, and Shakespeare, well, did he really believe in ghosts or was he just being figurative?
And while Hamlet thought about suicide – “to be or not to be” and that entire monologue – at the end he went down fighting, to his everlasting credit.
Wallace thought of suicide too, even making a semi-public plea for help. In speaking to an audience, he resurrected yet another old cliché, saying the mind is an excellent servant but a poor master. He said that it was, like so many clichés, “lame and unexciting on the surface,” but “actually expresses a great and terrible truth.
“It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head,” he added. “They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.”
I would have reminded Wallace of what my old boss, Dave Coggeshall, always used to say (ironically?) whenever my morale was low: “It’s all in the mind, don’t you know?”
Someone in my Qi Gong class said the mind is the master of the body. And I think she had a point. But telling a depressed person to cheer up is like telling someone with a broken leg to walk it off. The mind certainly can’t put a broken bone back in place.
If Wallace had a chemical imbalance, he needed Elavil, not a noose.
“It only hurts when I laugh,” Don Rickles would say.
I imagine Wallace, at the end, would argue that naming things for what they are makes for common sense and keeps us from being more stupefied than we already are. Stick to wicked is wicked and funny is funny. Don’t talk about wickedly funny. And don’t, through the power of persuasion and suggestion, equate War with Peace. Do we have a Bill of Rights or Bill of Goods?
Do we have a need for irony, irreverence and revolution?
I guess Wallace would say, don’t use slang and don’t hide your meaning in words.
I would say to him: what does hipster Bob Dylan mean when he says, “Grandpa died last week and now he’s buried in the rocks, and everybody still talks about how badly they were shocked. But me, I expected it to happen; I knew he’d lost control when he built a fire on Main Street and shot it full of holes.”?
Is Dylan deliberately confounding us? Or is it that some people just don’t get it?
Sad to say, some people get it and some don’t.
For example, girls just want to have fun, but women are serious.
My former masseuse said, in regard to the war in Iraq, “I’m just concerned about being.”
Yeah, being and nothingness, I thought. “It’s about a lot of things,” I said.
“I’m bored,” a friend recently said, to which I replied, “Well, don’t take it out on me!”
He laughed heartily and retorted cleverly.
But when another friend said the same exact thing the very next day (do people get bored around me?), and I replied as usual, she got offended and said I was mocking her.
One friend thinks I’m a compulsive liar because I like irony. Another said to me (with the happy smile of a chess student who finally defeats his teacher) after ten years of pleasant intercourse, “You don’t always say what you mean, do you?”
Because irony isn’t just fun, it lifts us to intellectual heights – sometimes to an inkling of the essential (dual?) nature of existence. Irony is a sort of intellectual synchronicity, wickedly funny, to repeat Wallace’s cliché.
And yes, Wallace, it is perhaps best administered in small doses; but then again, as the Queen of Infinite Jest once said as she wiggled her hips, “I never trust a man who doesn’t drink, too much.”
If I had known David Wallace, I would have told him that we are small, unlike his book Infinite Jest. We are buffeted by fate, hurricanes, earthquakes, the flu, CIA detention camps, clinical depression. There is no secret law of attraction, no Holy Ghost on some universal hard drive; there are only random events and the human urge to control them.
Sometimes I slouch, sometimes I sit up straight, and all this happens while I meditate. And while I meditate about irony, I think there was something fatally sophomoric about David Wallace, like back in college when we wondered what it is that thinks about the mind.
You should have done what we did, David: laughed and gotten drunk.
DOUGLAS VALENTINE is the author of The Hotel Tacloban, the story of his father’s experiences in a Japanese POW camp in World War Two. The Hotel Tacloban is available at Mr Valentine’s websites http://www.DouglasValentine.com and http://valentine.sb2.authorsguild.net