By now, the most-read piece by David Foster Wallace must be the text of the speech he delivered to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005, where he stressed the importance of staying “conscious and alive in the adult world”. Alluding to the cliché of the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master, he went on, “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 a sad and a cruel irony, then, that the talented, Pynchon-inspired and footnote-obsessed 46-year-old author succumbed to his own terrible master last week.
Wallace’s father has said that his son had been bedevilled by depression for a few months before the end. In fact, study after study indicates that it’s those in creative professions, notably writers, who are more susceptible to mental illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorder. William Styron, who described his own battle with the mind’s savage gods in Darkness Visible, once wrote, “The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone’s neurosis.”
The neurosis that creates art is also the affliction that leads to suicide. Some, such as Graham Greene, play Russian roulette and survive; others, more determined, go ahead and write their own premature final chapters.
Age doesn’t play a role here. Sylvia Plath was 30 when she placed her head in a gas oven; Virginia Woolf was 59 when she walked into the River Ouse; Ernest Hemingway was 61 when he aimed a shotgun at his head; Hunter S Thompson was 67 when he yielded to his fear and loathing; and Sandor Marai was 88 when he doused the embers.
If it was Albert Camus who commented that there was but one truly serious philosophical problem and that was suicide, it was Japanese writer Yukio Mishima who contemplated this problem more than most. Reports suggest that he planned his ritual disembowelment for a year before he performed the act, but not before delivering a prepared speech exhorting the primacy of the Japanese emperor from a balcony to a troop of soldiers below.
One would imagine that writers taking their own lives would pay careful attention to the wording of their suicide notes; but such notes aren’t all that common. Understandably so, come to think of it, because those acting on impulse and in the grip of hopeless melancholy clearly have other things on their minds.
Yet, parts of Virginia Woolf’s last missive to her husband Leonard are heartbreaking: “I feel certain that I'm going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time.” The poet Hart Crane, more terse, was heard to yell, “Goodbye, everybody!” as he jumped off a cruise ship. Another American poet, Vachel Lindsay, proved to be as laconic by writing, “They tried to get me — I got them first!” before swallowing a bottle of disinfectant.
Mental illness and dire circumstances apart, one of the reasons writers are driven to terminal despair could well be because of their struggle to make sense of the world by using the inadequate medium of words. As Gustave Flaubert — also possessed of an unstable temperament — wrote, “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”
Those among you who imagined that writing was a safe, non-threatening pastime involving lounging about in pyjamas all day will simply have to take up an alternative occupation.
Sanjay Sipahimalani writes on the literary blog www.antiblurbs.blogspot.com