Saturday, April 26, 2014
David Foster Wallace was a writer who wrote for other writers. In this way his fiction is analogous to jazz. It's been said by the musicians themselves that jazz is a concert-level music played by virtuosi for other virtuosi. It isn't, however, necessary to be a jazz musician to appreciate jazz. Nor is it necessary to be a writer to appreciate David Foster Wallace.
But it helps. Critical writing about Wallace's work is laced with academic terms like Post-Modernism and Post-Post Modernism. Professors of literature struggle to place Wallace in a "school" of writing, as if that will make them more comfortable with a literature that breaks every rule of writing yet succeeds in communicating with anyone willing to put a little effort into reading his work.
I suspect that some writers read Wallace without enjoying the experience. They read him just to have read him. To enjoy Wallace is pure delight. Wallace observed human and societal behavior with the skill of a world-class brain surgeon. He was then able to translate his observations into a prose that was fiendishly complex but thoroughly entertaining. The fact that his vocabulary was gargantuan, that his ideas were informed by deep studies in philosophy, mathematics, linguistics and semiotics does not make his prose incomprehensible. It just makes it challenging, and ultimately rewarding.
In my opinion, biographer D.T. Max got it right. He gave us a view of DFW as a human being. He didn't psychoanalyze, he didn't build up the suicide to promote a spurious climax. David Foster Wallace's suicide came at the end, that's all. He was a haunted man and there is no story of childhood abuse upon which to build the scaffolding of his pathology. He had a normal, stable and reasonably happy childhood. He had an illness. It emerged in adolescence and it caused him untold suffering. It eventually proved fatal.
Biographer D.T. Max gives us the impression that if Wallace was haunted by one thing more than anything else it was the failure of a novel to emerge after the hit of INFINITE JEST. Wallace put a lot of pressure on himself; he felt he was expected to produce another masterpiece. He was writing a lot of non-fiction, taking plum assignments from The New Yorker, Esquire and Rolling Stone. His novel in progress, THE PALE KING, accumulated in boxes of manuscript paper and on floppies and computer drives. Hundreds of sheets of paper piled up but never gelled into the novel with which Wallace struggled. It was finally published posthumously, and generally well received.
It is so sad. His suicide seems a matter of bad timing. His psychiatrist had taken him off the medication Nardil and was preparing to prescribe a more 'modern' anti-depressant. This procedure, the flushing of the old medicine from the body, the incremental build-up of the new medication, can take several months. During that time, a patient suffering clinical depression can face a period of intense vulnerability. It seems that David Foster Wallace got caught
in a pharmacological bear trap. He couldn't find a better way out. People who suffer serious depression know this aspect of its manifestation: while it's happening it seems as though it is permanent. And, while it's happening, they will do anything to avoid another five minutes of feeling the way they feel.
The suicide notes are everywhere in Wallace's fiction. One of INFINITE JEST's protagonists, Hal Incandenza, said it best (and here I paraphrase, being without a copy of the book): "If I knew I had to feel this bad some time in the future for even a week, I would kill myself right now."
He was describing a plummet down the slippery walls of a deep dark well, a mood of total despair and emptiness.
D.T. Max wrote a beautiful biography. He enjoyed access to Wallace's family, friends, papers and letters. He was not worshipful. He describes Wallace's life as one in which not much happened outside the events of his literary world. He taught MFA classes in a handful of universities. He got the McArthur Grant, won other lucrative prizes and did not have to worry about money. He was too shy and reclusive to enjoy fame or publicity. He didn't like parties and dreaded interviews and television appearances. He was a private man who was very careful about establishing deep bonds of friendship and devotion. His best friends, it seems, were his dogs. At the time of his death he was recently married. He was only forty six years old. He was just beginning what may have been the best time of his life.
I repeat...it is so sad.
Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Twelve Years A Slave: A Review
The making of this film, TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE, must have been more like a mission than like a job. It brings us a new perception of pre-Civil War slavery and gives us a look into the psychology of both slaves and slave owners. The tragic face and huge eyes of Chiwetel Ejiofor dominate the screen as Solomon Northup. His characerization rings true and brings us to believe in his dignity and his suffering.
The human mind is capable of rationalizing absolutely anything. If an activity or institution is profitable, people will accept grotesque intellectual distortions in order to make that activity seem moral and desirable. People believed ardently in Adolph Hitler. Pol Pot's gunmen cleaned up Kampuchea (Cambodia) in the name of Year Zero ideology. Slavery, genocide, mass rape have repeatedly been rationalized into sweetly benign activities, ostensibly for the benefit of society. American racism is a rationalization. Slavery was a product of that rationalization. The fuel for this rationalization was the staggering profitability of purchasing human beings and working them without mercy for the rest of their lives. Slaves were the wealth of the South. The Civil War was fought to protect that wealth. This film examines the brutality of slavery but it also reveals important aspects of slavery's impact not just on slaves but on those who did the enslaving.
The film TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE intends to shock the audience but carefully weighs the degree of shock to keep the audience from recoiling. It's brutal but tolerable within the story's context.
Solomon Northup was an upper middle class freedman in Saratoga, New York. When he accepted an offer of a lucrative short term job away from home he made a fateful error in judgment. He put himself in the hands of white men that he didn't know. After dinner and drinks at a restaurant, Solomon awoke in chains, stripped of papers, identity, rights, stripped of his humanity. He was shipped south into 1840s plantation slavery. It took him twelve years to find an opportunity to get a message to his friends and family. Twelve years of the most brutal slavery passed before a brave man risked his life to carry Solomon's message.
The ability to read and write was illegal in Solomon's slave world. Any tendency towards intelligence was viewed as insolence. A slave who was too smart risked severe punishment: whipping, torture, even lynching. In order to survive, Solomon had to conceal himself. He was forced to play the dumb "nigger".
The film touches upon the corrosive effect that slavery brought to the owners of slaves. Plantation owner Edwin Eppes and his wife lived in a twilight world of marital loathing. Actor Michael Fassbender plays Eppes with a convincing edge. He's a dangerous man not just because he's the Master but because he's haunted by temptation, guilt and the shadowy confusions of his own hypocrisy.
"Massa" Eppes was obsessed with the slave girl Patsey (played with incredible passion by Lupita N'yongo). He raped her again and again, yet Patsey would rise from her shame and pick twice as much cotton as any of the other slaves. During a clandestine meeting Patsey offers Solomon her life savings if Solomon will take her to the bayou and drown her. Shocked, Solomon refuses. After this exchange Patsey begins to take more risks until she's caught in a minor transgression and is tied to the whipping post. Massa Eppes forces Solomon to whip her savagely, then takes the whip himself and nearly kills the woman. He stops before he beats her to death, saying "Don't push me any further because I like what I'm feeling right now."
This film deftly illuminates the corrosive effects of owning other human beings. In the American South of the 19th century it was a common belief that slavery was good for both white and black, that slave owning was sanctioned by the Bible and was in harmony with the natural order of the world. No one believes that any more but the emotional legacy of such a mindset lingers in the musty attics of our national consciousness.
TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE is more than a good film. It's a necessary film. It won't change anything. Slavery still exists in many parts of the world. The film vividly demonstrates how atrocity can only exist when one group of human beings decides that another group is less than human.
I didn't know what to expect from this film but I was surprised (and relieved) by its pragmatism. Director Steve McQueen admirably got out of his own way and let the story tell itself. Sometimes the transitions were abrupt but I didn't care. The story was told. The performances were beautiful. Lupita N'yongo as Patsey deserved her Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. She was gut-wrenching. When Patsey begged Solomon to commit an act of euthanasia upon herself the film stopped time and delivered its consummate message: a life of slavery is not worth living. I will never forget the crushing disappointment in Patsey's face when she accepted that Solomon would not put her out of her misery like an injured dog.
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