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2. A Death in the Family

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The recently late David Foster Wallace said to students
graduating from Kenyon College
in 2005, "[I]t is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head.." Right after that he said some things retrospectively painful about suicide... tragic irony is the water we are born to live in... or (in other words not his) the inability to imagine yourself not dead, which point comes to a lot of us. And for some at that point, the imagination will not be revived... not “cannot” but “will not” (I choose carefully, but with my eyes closed)... which can be followed by all the perfectly ordinary and mechanical details of managing to die, pretty much like fixing a crappy lawnmower or wiring an electrical outlet, with straightforward stuff that has to be done in a certain way and with tools to achieve the result that the engine turns over, the blades cut, the kid’s computer turns on without sparks or the smell of burning plastic. But this specific failure of the imagination and the efficiencies that followed are for Wallace’s wife and his family.

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I had wanted to talk about the queasy uncertainty of L.A. Septembers, not grief and not someone else’s. But I was overtaken by events walking home from the office. Wallace’s worry over the allure of the interior monologue led to a longer than usual wait before I crossed South Street (mid-block, but I look both ways.) “Imperially alone” made him anxious, makes me anxious, and I stopped to let the traffic thin to nothing, listening only, the blurred disks of headlights right and left at the extreme ends of the street. Empty, but anticipatory. Solitude is like that, but it’s not being “imperially alone.”

Wallace went on talking to the students in 2005, making main points about the imagination and what he called worship. (However, see the 20th century for what the imagination and worship have done together. Both are in need of schooling; Wallace emphasized this.) Some examples of the ameliorating imagination were given the graduating students, replacements for the supermarket-check-out-line-DMV-office- dead-eyed-stare that makes the day-in-day-out of living appear so insufferable. (Except it is. It is sufferable.) They were a novelist’s substitutions that... and this is hard... that mistakenly inflated apparently insufferable ordinariness by imagining that it is either pitiable or therapeutic. (Middle-class sentiment has come to this.) Pitiable or therapeutic rather than beautiful and terrible, more Jonathan Franzen than William Blake. But Wallace was right about paying attention to what is right in front of you, only it’s not a question of paying attention the way a novelist pays attention. Then again, I don’t write novels.

I’ve reached my front door. It’s dark. And the conversation has turned morose. There’s been a death in the family. That explains it.

Photo credit: Keith Bedford; Getty Images

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