It had been awhile, so I decided to check the happenings on the Howling Fantods site. I came across this article on the “New to DFW” page. While it gave me new insight into the tragedy of DFW’s life and death, it was a quote in the first paragraph that most caught my attention. It is those few sentences that I wish to focus on in this letter.
Dear Mr. Wallace,
I am eagerly anticipating the arrival of my copy of Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky. Only eleven days until it is supposed to arrive on my doorstep. I look forward to reading his account of the time the two of you spent on the road together. That being the case, I was excited to stumble across his Rolling Stone article “The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace.”
Although I was not introduced to your work until after your passing, and the only video I will ever see will be via YouTube, I felt myself on the borderline of grief as I read of your skyrocketing success that was followed by the tragedy of your death. Lipsky penned it so eloquently when he wrote “[Your] life was a map that ends in the wrong destination.” I can’t even begin to imagine the hell you suffered during your years-long battle with depression.
Coming to the end of his article left me sad, and yet inspired by your words throughout the piece. The quote I kept coming back to was in the first paragraph when you said you wanted to write “stuff about what it feels like to live. Instead of being a relief from what it feels like to live.” Although I have read maybe a tenth of your writing, I see this goal carried out in all that I have read. There is a sense of Truth to your writing, Truth of what it means to be alive and to be human. And that Truth is never romanticized; it is extremely raw and real, often tormented and empty, but always human. You had two unique gifts: the ability to see people and situations for what and who they really are, and the ability to articulate those observations using exactly the right words. In both your fiction and non-fiction, you captured life as it truly is.
Your words spurred further thoughts on a theory I have been developing over the last year or so. I have been a high school English teacher for nearly ten years now, and a student of writing and literature for about fifteen, but I feel that it has only been in the last year or so that I am truly “getting” what literature is and how it works. Reading Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor sort of solidified this understanding of the functions and rules – or grammar – of literature. And an understanding of how literature works led me to realize the purpose of literature: in your words “what it feels like to live.”
Foster keeps coming back to this idea of there is only one story, and all of literature is an expression of that one story. He refers to this idea in the sense of intertextuality, or the idea that all literature comes from or alludes to the literature that preceded it. All these stories weave a giant web of narratives and characters and themes and symbols, each work adding a new strand.
But it is not simply intertextuality that he refers to; he asserts – and it seems that both you and I agree – that there is only one story: the story of what it means to be human. It is through story that we make sense of the world around us. We always have. The ancient Greeks told myths about gods to help them understand the natural phenomena that they witnessed, as did just about every ancient culture. Aesop used fables to illustrate virtues of patience and compassion. Jesus spoke in parables to make the spiritual tangible for the masses. All throughout human history, men and women have used the tool of narratives to better understand the truth of the human experience and to communicate that Truth to others.
Being human is a complicated undertaking; one full of complexities and conflicts and challenges, as well as joys and elations and blessings. Many of these… things (for lack of a better word) are so abstract and ambiguous. To fully understand them, especially if one has not experienced them firsthand, these abstractions and ambiguities must be brought into the realm of the physical and tangible. Enter the narrative. It is through stories that we better understand and vicariously experience things like love, hate, jealousy, joy, and redemption. It is through stories that we better understand what it means to be human.