Saturday, March 21, 2009

DFW and Depression

Max also answers a question about Wallace's depression:

I think of Wallace’s depression as so intense that living, let alone writing, would have been impossible without treatment. As he described it, it had no component of sadness or wistfulness or affectlessness. It was more like an excruciating physical pain, a buzz saw cutting through his body again and again. Who could write under these conditions? In another era I think he would have been called “possessed.” All the same his condition was diagnosed—and I never entirely understood the diagnosis—as depression. And the drugs he took ameliorated but did not completely remove the symptoms, and they added problems of their own. So will he now be classed as one of those writers, like Virginia Woolf, who battled depression and whose work can be partially understood with reference to it? Perhaps, though I think the novelist Jonathan Franzen made a good comment at the memorial service at N.Y.U. when he said that people who thought Wallace died of a chemical imbalance didn’t need the sorts of stories Wallace wrote.

I think Max is right about Wallace's characterization of his depression. It reminds me of the brilliant and harrowing passage in
Infinite Jest about Kate Gompert and her definition of clinical depression (pages 692-98). I've used this passage in class while teaching Kathleen Finneran's The Tender Land, as a way of understanding what suicidal depression might look like, and of encouraging students to sympathize with those who suffer from it. The part I most remember from it is the comparison it suggests to understand suicide: the depressed person who kills herself has not lost the fear of death. It's just that the pain of depression is even greater than the fear of death—as someone trapped in a burning building is more afraid of burning to death than of leaping to death.

And yet I find Franzen's remark unhelpfully judgmental. What does he mean, really? 

To see Wallace's death as a result of a chemical imbalance is, in a sense, a compassionate view, isn't it? And also, in a sense, accurate? In the Kate Gompert passage, one man suffers from clinical depression after he slips on his basement floor and conks his head. Clearly there's some kind of physiological component of depression. And understanding it as a disease that is significantly independent of the will seems like a way of avoiding blaming the depressed person for her suffering, doesn't it?

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