Our editor Lorin Stein writes a letter to the New York Times editor regarding Paul Elie’s essay “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?.”
|—||D.T. Max, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story|
Last night Harvard hosted a stimulating conversation between the literary critic James Wood and David Foster Wallace’s biographer D.T. Max. Despite my own dyspeptic ambivalence about Infinite Jest, I seem to have an endless appetite for smart people saying smart things about Wallace’s life and art, and there were a great many smart things said last night.
While Wallace’s upbringing, his intermittent struggle with depression, and his literary influences were all discussed in depth, I was surprised to learn that neither Wood nor Max could place the Kafka line that Wallace had posted to his bedroom wall in high school: “The disease was life itself.” It’s a haunting sentence, both in connection to the undeniably grim elements in Wallace’s own work, and the even grimmer conclusion to his life. It’s no surprise that this detail of adolescent wall decor made it into David Lipsky’s 2009 Rolling Stone account of Wallace’s last years, and thence into Max’s biography, tracing a wide circle across the DFW-based interweb in the meantime.
But perhaps the reason that neither Wood nor Max could recall the original Kafka sentence is because Kafka never wrote it. (A search through one database of Kafka’s works turns up no results for the phrase or its variants.) The line, according to Wallace’s sister Amy, was clipped from a magazine article on Kafka — and sure enough, in 1983 Time magazine published a review of a Kafka story collection under the headline, “The Malady Was Life Itself.” The clipped line, however, was not Kafka’s own but the invention of Time critic Stefan Kanfer:
‘Not all the sickness was psychosomatic. Kafka succumbed to tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of 40. But he regarded even real disease with paranoid suspicion: “My brain and my lungs must have conspired in secret.” He believed in “only one illness, and medicine hunts it blindly like a beast through unending forests.” The malady was life itself.’
Does it matter that it was Kanfer, not Kafka, who Wallace clipped, or that the key word was “malady,” not “disease”? Probably not. (In fact neither Lipsky or Max positively affirm that it was Kafka who wrote the sentence, although that seems to be the prevailing assumption, both at last night’s talk and around the internet.) At some level this is an even more trivial piece of literary minutiae than an account of how Raymond Chandler got his first bicycle.
Does it matter that because the article didn’t appear until July 1983, Wallace couldn’t have tacked it to his wall in high school, but sometime after his sophomore year at Amherst College? Probably not, either, although it might prompt a few tiny revisions in the chronology of Wallace’s adolescent and post-adolescent depression, and the way that depression swirled around DFW’s turn towards literature in his early twenties. After all, Max’s closing argument in last night’s talk was that Wallace, never much of a writer in high school or early college, embraced literary art (rather than philosophy, mathematics, etc) as the only possible intellectual remedy for existential despair. The malady, as Kafka never said, might be life itself, but the medicine was reading Kafka — and writing like him.
In the end, Lewis more-or-less turned his back on self-scrutiny. He ceased to find himself interesting as a subject for reflection — something his friends often noted about him.
Lewis thought of this loss of interest in the Self as a gift that emerged from his religious conversion: in his autobiography Surprised by Joy he wrote, “If Theism had done nothing else for me, I should still be thankful that it cured me of the time-wasting and foolish practice of keeping a diary.” The connection between Theism and the abandonment of a diary may not seem obvious, but apparently Lewis thought that once one believes in God, then God becomes the chief proper object of one’s contemplation; and if one believes in the Christian God, then one’s neighbor becomes the second proper object. People occupied in the hard task of loving God and neighbor don’t have much time left over for constant self-scrutiny. (So Lewis believed; many committed journal-keepers will no doubt disagree.)
All of which leads me to think: how sad it was for Wallace, trapped in those endless “loops” of self-consciousness, and struggling most of his life between faith and unbelief. There’s a chicken-egg question here: Did he get caught in the loops because he couldn’t find his way to secure faith? Or was he unable to achieve such faith because he was caught in the loops? Presumably each experience fed and strengthened the other — it is one of the more vicious of all vicious circles.
DFW Notebook from TPK Archives
I asked him why Wallace gets to be this icon, rather than another writer.
“Part of it is that he just had the look: the bandana, the long hair, like literary rock’n’roll. And part of it’s the backstory: prodigy, drugs, suicide. But the main part of it’s in his body of work: He wrote about our world, the world that our generation actually lives in. He wrote about TV in a serious way that didn’t condescend, drugs in a serious way that didn’t romanticize. He took our world for what it was, and then, he animated our world. It was like, he wrote through a gaze circumscribed by self-consciousness, and for the rest of us, self-consciousness is a self-defeating, deadening force. But not for him. Wallace’s writing was alive, invigorated, like he found a way to take that crippling, paralyzing, awful affliction of self-consciousness and redeem it, make it something new, something that enlivens rather than deadens.”
I observed that eventually self-consciousness, along with other factors, did kill Wallace.
“Well see that’s the tragedy.”
Elaine Blair, “A New Brilliant Start”
a review of d.t. max’s david foster wallace bio
“Why did he choose to send me a postcard? Simply because it’s a few cents cheaper than mailing a letter in an envelope? Was it just sitting around when he was looking for something to write on? Does he buy stacks of these postcards for the express purpose of responding to random fans? And worse, does he write this same prepared response to every letter?” Frank Cassese on hearing from DFW.
Everything I write for TNI is about Realness.