Wednesday, June 7, 2023

On Life And Death

One of the great writers of our time, David Foster Wallace, delivered a highly influential speech in 2005. Three years later, when he was only 46 years old, Wallace killed himself. 

Wallace's masterpiece novel, "Infinite Jest," has been acclaimed one of the best novels of the last hundred years. Wallace and his work are universally lauded. A writing class is taught on his ouvre at Harvard, a literary Society and professional Journal are devoted to his writing and a movie was made about his life. When he was young Wallace tried but abandoned a doctorate program at Harvard because it bored him: Wallace explained that philosophy requires only "50% of his brain" whereas creative writing uses "97%."

So what did David Foster Wallace talk about in his famous speech? He advanced two important positions. The first is that our "default setting," installed at birth, is our natural but mistaken belief that we are the center of the universe. If we consider ourselves and our interests as the sole focal point of all experience, we miss seeing reality outside our heads. Wallace illustrates this and how it leads to distorted, numb existence.

His second position points a way out of this dilemma. "I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about 'the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master'."

French philosopher Albert Camus, of whom I've written in the past, believed the only true question for us is: why not suicide? "There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide." Camus saw the question arising naturally as a solution to the absurdity of life.

Camus, unlike David Foster Wallace and most of us, witnessed the carnage and destruction of World War II first-hand. He fought the Nazis as a member of the French Resistance. If anyone was entitled to be a Gloomy Gus, it was Camus. Horrifying experiences inflicted existential despair on millions of war-time survivors.

Like Wallace, Camus was also widely admired. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Two years later Camus died: he was 46 years old, the same age Wallace was at his death.

I have no urge toward suicide. I confess that on dark days I sometimes lose the will to live -- but that's categorically different from actively extinguishing one's existence. I view life as too precious a gift, even when damaged by injured senses, to go to the Return Counter. I'll exploit my opportunity for experience, as limited as it now is, without moaning What Has Happened To Me? (the default setting Wallace warns us about). Let's see what the future holds for all of us.


  1. Wallace was a brilliant mind and Camus was a hero. I think it's so brave that you're able to share your feelings- even if they're dark, sad, or messy. It's part of life to experience the lows, but there are very few who are able to vocalize them. You're expanding so many by sharing your experience!

    Le Stylo Rouge

    1. Thank you, Ashley. That's very sweet of you to say. I'm doing my best, as I always have, just now everything is harder. Simply crossing a busy street is an ordeal for me.

  2. I can echo Ashley. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, letting us know how you're feeling, even if it is a struggle.

    The world is full of a lot of things and a lot of people. It's hard to challenge your world view and look at it positively when something you always had has been permanently changed.

    I hope with time, you will begin to find joy in the things you love, like a delicious meal, the feel of nylons and heels against your skin, the warmth of sunshine and the smell of crisp autumn air. And of course the words of friends who care about you.

    1. Thank you, Megan. I've been planning to write you a letter and hope to do so today.

  3. I love the phrase, "go to the Return Counter" - it is such a feminine image (being based around a purchase image). I think so many people live unexamined lives, just acting without really thinking, being the centre of the universe. Exploring these ideas and themes is healthy. We never stop learning and growing.

    Big hugs to you, honey.

  4. I didn't know Camus, although I am sure I read your previous post but forgot him!  I'm glad to hear that despite the dark days, you see your life as precious- I have always found you very, very positive and I would hate to think your current and continuing difficulties would change that about you, entitled though you might be to feel that. Indeed, the future is something none of us know for certain but it is there for us, whatever it may be.

    Sending you hugs and a reminder, as always, that you continue to be a big inspiration for me, you amazing lovely!xx

    P.S. sorry, this is my 2nd attenpt at posting a comment as it wouldn't save last time!

    1. Thank you for the lovely, encouraging words. I need them today. I try to remain positive but, damn, this ordeal is testing my stoicism. Best wishes to you.