But this may be too facile: my diagnosis, after reading a couple of books of interviews with DFW and a terrific piece by Maria Bustillos, is that DFW may have been doomed from childhood: too much genius, too much self-consciousness and depression. In the last year of his life he tried to get off Nardil, which he'd been on since a suicide attempt, around 20 years before. Nothing else worked, he spiraled down, even with the resumption of Nardil and 12 rounds of electroconvulsive "therapy," and hung himself in Claremont, California, September 12, 2008.
In one interview he said he did LSD and "a fair amount of psilocybin in college," and smoked pot from age 15 or 16 until he got out of grad school. Why did he stop smoking pot? "I just, it wasn't shutting the system down anymore. It was just making the system, it was just making the system more unpleasant to be part of. My own system." (See Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, pp.137-139.) Wallace also had had a major alcohol problem, but "I was a sort of joyless drinker..." (op.cit, 142, and italics in original)
I cannot relate to the idea of smoking pot or drinking as a way to "shut down" my "system." I am nothing if not a joyful drinker. DFW is such a compelling figure to me that I will always know that there are people far smarter than me who are nonetheless haunted, and nothing from Big Pharma will allow them to feel unalloyed joy in simple things.
One of the many things I grapple with when I think of DFW is this feeling of the insistent, constantly surging intelligence coupled with what seems to me a horrifying level of self-doubt. I heartily refrain from armchair dipshit psychoanalysis here; in other words: I won't speculate further on the deepest levels of the source of DFW's misery.
Both DFW and Tom Robbins will be found in fat books that talk about "postmodern" American writers. Both used surrealist elements in their prose to engage their readers. Robbins was born 30 years before DFW, and perhaps many of you know about DFW's "puritan" backlash regarding Irony in our culture. (The seminal statement is probably his essay on TV, "E Unibus Plurum," collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.) Although I don't see TR as an ironically-minded writer, I do see him as a psychedelic writer. DFW too, oddly, for reasons touched on above.
DFW thought irony had become toxic to our culture, but while it had been an effective mode of rhetoric for authors from the 1960s in their attacks on post-WW2 assumptions about social relations, class, conformity, and "reality," by the early 1990s it was so pervasive that it was like the old fish-don't-know-they're-in-water thing: the educated young were so ironic and hip and miserable they couldn't even see that in their constant resorting to irony, they were crying out, in effect, "I'm trapped! Help me out! This is miserable!" (5 Second clip from The Simpsons for the win!)
I consider both DFW and Tom Robbins (TR) as novelists of ideas. TR imagined a character who was so well-defined as a mouthpiece for radical environmentalism and the dangers of rampant technology that the FBI questioned him in the Unabomber case before the G-Men caught up to Ted. DFW dreamed up a character that ran an academy for tennis-playing excellence, and he was a fascist. The character jumped off the page and ran around my house, in one ear, out the other.
TR put in with unalloyed Tibetan-tinged "crazy wisdom" long ago, even before he met Joseph Campbell and toured Mexico and Central America and later even more far-flung regions of the globe. He still celebrates July 26, 1963 - the day he first did LSD - as the most important day of his life, so much so that it actuated him to quit his job by "calling in well" and saying he was staying home, and that prior to that day he had been ill.
I am holding back on willy-nilly speculations about naivete, "belief" and especially, the albatross of Ego...
I'm not sure if DFW ever got out of the country, much less his own head. And yet: he seemed to believe some of his characters had come alive and spoken to him. I believe he had tremendous capacity for empathy. Certainly DFW's forays into psychedelics did not bring about any sort of psychic "breakthrough" that they had for TR, whose overall prose style seems to represent a form of mimesis of the mind on psychedelics.
While a recurring line in TR, "The world situation was dire, as usual" doesn't indicate a non-engagement with world politics, TR still seems one of the foremost exponents of change-yourself-first in order to change the world. I see his novels as literary LSD. The difficulty, the incommensurability of this is: I see DFW's novels (and much of his non-fiction) as psychedelic too. This may have to do with the sheer burst of information-per-page encountered in DFW, and let us recall Aldous Huxley's image of "normal consciousness" as a firehose with a crink in it, so water only comes out in dribs and drabs, while on psychedelics, the crink is undone and the brain is flooded by the hose, gushing full-on, overwhelming, consciousness-expanding.
Meanwhile, DFW thought something like Freud's Pleasure Principle was a threat to Unistat minds. TV and other media and "low art" were so effective and polished and easy - giving us a constant stream of comfortable, predictable shows that didn't challenge us but still felt really good that we've become divorced from "reality" and are setting ourselves up for fascism. He was saying this in the early 1990s. In the mid 1990s he predicted ever-better viewing situations, ever-better shows - by then he'd said the commercials were better than the shows, as far as sophistication of knowing the viewers' desires - and he predicted something like Netflix. In his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, there's a film that's so entertaining - called "Infinite Jest" - that people literally cannot stop watching it, and they become comatose, and figuratively lobotomized. And Quebecois terrorists want the film to use as a terror device, but I digress...
DFW could be hilarious. TR makes me laugh out loud, too. Their innate temperaments, or dispositions, or the happy and sad exigencies of their lives larded on top of those predispositions...makes me feel the personalities of the two seem quite far apart. I find I love both men's writing, and have an idealized picture of how each guy "really is" (or was) and that I like both personalities quite a lot. I don't expect to get to know TR, who is 82 this year; I never knew DFW. I know I cannot read DFW without knowing he was always in pain, and that he killed himself at age 46. Suicide haunts the background of every reading of DFW for me. This just makes me sad.
I may be pissing some DFW fans off here, but I assert that, while he considered himself a sort of avant-garde fiction writer (who wished to redeem avant-garde too-cool-fer-skool exercises with a sort of earnest and non-ironic spiritus) first, and a writer of non-fiction pieces second, he was a better non-fiction writer. And his fiction is marvelous. NB: while he was in grad school he was smoking pot, watching tons of TV, and doing psychedelics, all the while producing his first novel, The Broom of the System, and a Philosophy thesis that had to do with Wittgensteinian ideas titled "Richard Taylor's Fatalism and the Semantics of Physical Modality." What a freaky, wonderful, genius (MacArthur "Genius" Award 1997)! What a loss!
TR thought a good TV show would be "Queer Eye For the Fungi":
DFW thought the logical endpoint of our involvement with "reality" TV shows would be something called "Celebrity Autopsy," where we watch a coroner eviscerate an actual celebrity who died, while above his/her friends and family talk about the kind of person the celebrity really was.
I end this ramble - and let's face it: it's one - with a restatement: the goofy-wise joy behind TR is infectious and makes me love life. And academia pretends he's not serious. DFW did...all that (I did not mention he wrote a math book on Cantor's transfinite sets, which led to Godel...) In premature death, young academia acted like their own Kurt Cobain figure died, and maybe that's an apt analogy. But I do think the overall worldview and tone and sentences and ideas of TR deserve more nuanced reading in this, our year of the NSA 2014CE. But they won't. And so: why? Perhaps the serious Mind of our Academy considers a brilliant, "absurdly educated" (DFW's phrase) as one of their own; TR's offerings of ways Out still just seem silly, outre, irresponsible?
It could be that something in TR's overall project may be something like the "redemption" that DFW was looking for, for us. Or not. Or...sorta? (Maybe?)
Incommensurability. I'm not sure if DFW and TR would've liked each other. I like to daydream that they would hit it off.