David Foster Wallace

By Sean Carroll | September 13, 2008 9:09 pm

David Foster Wallace died last night. He was found at home by his wife — apparently he hanged himself. It’s a terrible tragedy for American literature.

Wallace’s big, famous book was of course Infinite Jest, but among his other words was a quirky history of the concept of infinity, Everything and More. Like everything he wrote, it was sprawling and inventive and chock full of discursive footnotes. One such footnote now seems especially poignant:

In modern medical terms, it’s fairly clear that G. F. L. P. Cantor suffered from manic-depressive illness at a time when nobody knew what this was, and that his polar cycles were aggravated by professional stresses and disappointments, of which Cantor had more than his share. Of course, this makes for less interesting flap copy than Genius Driven Mad By Attempts To Grapple With ∞. The truth, though, is that Cantor’s work and its context are so totally interesting and beautiful that there’s no need for breathless Prometheusizing of the poor guy’s life. The real irony is that the view of ∞ as some forbidden zone or road to insanity — which view was very old and powerful and haunted math for 2000+ years — is precisely what Cantor’s own work overturned. Saying that ∞ drove Cantor mad is sort of like mourning St. George’s loss to the dragon; it’s not only wrong but insulting.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mathematics, Words
  • http://freiddy.blogspot.com Freiddie

    RIP Mr Wallace.

  • http://formsmostbeautiful.blogspot.com/ Peter Buckland

    My wife will be very sad. She loved his essay collections, especially “Consider the Lobster.” Great post.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    He was a remarkable author and this is an immense loss. I loved Infinite Jest, but found Brief Interviews with Hideous Men even more memorable. I’m not naturally drawn to short stories the way I am to novels, but this was an extreme exception.

  • http://jacobrussellsbarkingdog.blogspot.com Jacob Russell

    Thank you for pointing out that passage… this, perhaps the oldest recorded brain disorder… which has stimulated great creativity, and made for great misery, not only for those who suffered its ravages…

    Once again.. how much it matters–REAL understanding versus mythology, received notions, folk tales …

    I’ve been there.

    My bets are on good science, all the way.

  • Ellipsis

    “Love is simply a word. It joins separate things. Lyndon and I, though you would disagree, agree that we do not properly love one another anymore. Because we ceased long ago to be enough apart for a ‘love’ to span any distance. Lyndon says he shall cherish the day when love and right and wrong and responsibility, when these words, he says, are understood by you youths of America to be nothing but arrangements of distance.”

    from “Lyndon”, in _Girl with Curious Hair_

    That, and “John Billy” from the same collection, absolutely have to be read. As the NYT said, he “succeeds in restoring grandeur to modern fiction.”

  • http://agreatleapinthedark.blogspot.com April

    I am reading Infinite Jest for the 2nd time and loving it even more this time.

  • missvolare

    may he rest in peace.

  • http://thepoignantfrog.blogspot.com The Poignant Frog

    So sad that David could not reverse the torment that finally won over his brilliant mind.He had everything to live for and I wished I could have given him my vision to make him see how life is worth to challenge.So sad. I am in tears.

  • http://urbanist.typepad.com Jarrett

    It would be a good time to reread his story “The Depressed Person,” which first appeared in Harper’s and later in the collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. The story is remarkable because it describes depression from just outside the depressed person’s point of view, in a way that captures both the depressed person’s experience and that of her friends, but all in a clinical tone that evokes how fundamentally tedious depression is. Sometimes, suicide is a response to being bored.

    More on this over on my blog.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    This is a loss. “Infinite Jest” was in some ways prophetic, and written at a time when the craziness of recent decades started.

    L. C.

  • http://www.math.brown.edu/~lubinj Jonathan Lubin

    A friend of mine who knew him said to me in an e-mail this morning, “he was an incredibly nice, humble, and conscientious man.”

  • http://www.sloarchitecture.com Elvisco

    Avenge David Foster Wallace! Avenge the inexorable vortex of his fall scaling a tower just as tall, built on prose, with the mortar of footnotes, the sturdy footings of digression, the illumination of exhortation and the surveillance of exposition — avenge his undoing, all who care, with honesty transcendental and fair!

    Avenge him, holding opposites in arms, as Archimboldo holds the the farms, building a portrait of still-lives at odds, forming chin cheek and jowl after all!

    Come on! Is your tongue frozen to the glass? Get up off your ass! Be Stately as Gately, demure as Lenore! Pettiest Goad of all Texts, draw your face in the trucked-in sands, veil your visage, mirage, escatage — punt on forth and tense!

    Grow infinitely as ectoskeletal feeler-flesh left to propagate, a Bombardini bombardment, cycling shadows of the arc of the celestial day.

  • anon

    Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite
    jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a
    thousand times, and now how abhorr’d in my imagination it is!
    My gorge rises at it.

  • Ryan
  • Pingback: the imbroglio » Blog Archive » Great sadness: DFW eliminated his own map!?()

  • Jeff

    All I can think is, “G*d Dam*it!” I feel like I’ve been kicked in the gut, just as I felt when I heard of Spaulding Gray’s death in 2004. The Shakespeare quote above is beautiful and fitting: thank you. Wasn’t it DFW who said — and I’m paraphrasing, badly — “Perhaps that desperate and unending searching for home is, in fact, our home?” I want to produce t-shirts that say “Pynchon is right!” on the front and, as Elvisco wrote above, “Avenge David Foster Wallace!” on the back. I know DFW escaped most comparisons to Pynchon with Infinite Jest, but I’ll quote from Against the Day anyway: “They will put on smoked goggles for the glory of what is coming to part the sky. They fly toward grace.” Peace.

  • Pingback: David Foster Wallace at Harper’s « Quomodocumque()

  • http://www.dorianallworthy.com daisy rose

    “How come she never got sad?”
    “She did get sad, Booboo. She got sad in her way instead of yours and
    mine. She got sad, I’m pretty sure.”
    “You remember how the staff lowered the flag to half-mast out front by
    the portcullis here after it happened? Do you remember that? And it
    goes to half-mast every year at Convocation? Remember the flag, Boo?”
    “Hey Hal?”
    “Don’t cry, Booboo. Remember the flag only halfway up the pole?
    Booboo, there are two ways to lower a flag to half-mast. Are you
    listening? Because no shit I really have to sleep here in a second. So
    listen – one way to lower the flag to half mast is just to lower the
    flag. There’s another way though. You can also just raise the pole.
    You can raise the pole to like twice its original height. You get me?
    You understand what I mean, Mario?”
    “She’s plenty sad, I bet.”

    –from “Infinite Jest”, David Foster Wallace

  • Pingback: Pullman on Censorship and Religion | Cosmic Variance()


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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