Sunday, September 28, 2008

Mod Melancholy

I just read a terribly depressing piece by Elizabeth Wurtzel about the recent suicide of David Foster Wallace....and because I haven't yet read any of Wallace's work, and I could never bring myself to read Wurtzel's Prozac Nation, I can't comment on the writing of either.

It's the New York magazine pieces written in response to Wallace's suicide I'm struggling with...not the feelings of sadness or even the apparently inconsistent expressions of inevability and surprise, but...the hopelessness of Wurtzel's piece, even at the end, and the post-mortem laud of Wallace by Sam Anderson who reflects on him and his work in the Books section of the magazine.

Both Wurtzel and Anderson call Wallace a genious - Wurtzel writes that she was clued in to it at a party partly due to Wallace being particularly taken by the silver lamé leotard she was wearing.

This reference to her own self-named quirkiness is perhaps a good thing meant partially to offset the tone of the rest of the piece, but I'm uncomfortable with her direction toward stylish self in the midst of an homage to Wallace.

But I suppose it lightens her last paragraph:

"So here is the miserable truth that those of us who are given to depression are forced to face when David Foster Wallace commits suicide: It didn't and doesn't turn out well. There is no happy ending to the story of sorrow if you are born with a predilection for despair. The world is, after all, a coarse and brutal and cruel place. It's only a matter of how long you can live with it."

If I'm honest, I have to admit that I'm most uncomfortable with this last passage because I'm afraid it's true...I've felt that way time after time, as recently as last week. I'm angry at her for saying it, but it depresses me more for her opinion of his genious state to have anything to do with his ability to recognize how her party dress makes her hip amongst the burgeoning famous in a Tribeca loft.

And when you get down to it, maybe it's the hip-pifying of despair that feels the worst as I sit here writing this, shoulders drawn up around my ears....the need to self-assert even when contemplating the deepest dark despair one could imagine.

I want it to stop, and I know it won't.

It's the search for what will help us feel better, not just the clinically depressed, but all of us, even the ones who swear that they "can't complain." Sam Anderson characterizes Wallace's 2005 commencement address to Kenyon College, as well as his writing, as "life-affirming, practically Buddhist." The search for relief is universal precisely because Elizabeth Wurtzel stated something true. I can't contradict her when I've watched the news, seen that someone has passed away from an illness or accident and felt envious that he doesn't have to be here anymore - and most importantly, doesn't have to agonize over whether or not to take the manner and timing of his demise into his own hands.

Clearly, whatever David Foster Wallace was doing, didn't work. As Anderson says, his approach was spiritual, "positive", almost Buddhist. But it wasn't enough. And that's what I've found, when the practice of a generalized positive approach based on will is used to cope with depression and despair. I know I sound cynical and angry, and I know it's because I'm sitting at a computer right now, still in my pajamas at 2pm on a Sunday afternoon because I've seen it firsthand. I'll probably always struggle with my own clinical depression, and am recovering from a break-up with someone suffering from depression, anxiety, significant intimacy issues and a need for perfection. Until he virtually broke down, he tried to make things better by reading self-help books, including Pema Chodron's "The Places That Scare Us," and essentially tried to transform himself into a picture of a Buddhist monk living in the big city.

I own "The Places That Scare Us" and have read it, even recently, and it's impressive. I mean it. It's sincere, wise, profound, and moving. I just don't think it's enough, and I'm frustrated. I saw my ex struggle so hard, trying desperately to make himself be and do the things the book suggests, and wonder why he couldn't transform himself...why he couldn't use his own will to achieve a state that takes monks who practice constantly years and years, I presume. And I took particular notice when Sam Anderson writes that he likes to imagine alternate endings to Wallace's life...perhaps joining a Himalayan monastery. My ex talked at times about how he might just not have been meant for this world...that perhaps he should've become a monk...Catholic? Buddhist? He considered seriously that he needed to be extreme in his resignation from this world that hurts so much. I do remember one instance, however, when he conceded that even monks have to live with each other and themselves, and that perhaps it might not be the ultimate retreat he imagined.

Is that what it takes to find relief in this world? Complete removal from virtually everything?

Sometimes I think so, and this comes to me when I read pieces like Wurtzel's and browse through magazines like "New York" and "Philadelphia", and see society and entertainment headlines online or on television. Even Facebook makes me cringe at times.

I don't know that "will" can relieve us of the need to compare ourselves to others, and ruthlessly mark achievements and failures in both ourselves and others...trying to be relevant and smart and cool because the fear of failing in these areas are valid. I've seen people reject friends and acquaintances, current and potential, when they unwittingly reveal their humanity (humanness?) by saying, doing, wearing, writing, or even listening to something that doesn't measure up according to whatever's deemed acceptable. I'm guilty as is everyone, because unfortunately, it's so terribly human. And as most of us know, it's all based on our own fear of being irrelevant, unloved and most awfully, unlovable.

But it's vicious. This constant comparing and assessing might be one of the most dangerous psychic and spiritual crimes out there because there's no way for anyone to win...the measuring stick is a purely subjective tool, and it justifies treating both ourselves and others abominably. Objectification at its worst...seeing others as only mirrors that reflect our own worth. Doesn't this extend to acts of oppression and violence on a global scale?

I think there's violence in being constantly exposed to the onslaught of cultural self-assessment that's out there. And it's so incredibly easy to just jump in and participate, because you have to be interesting, knowledgeable, cool (what does this even mean?), acceptable, and exceptional all at the same time. It's exhausting, and my response is often to withdraw because I can't handle it. At times, it's all I can do to get through a day feeling like I can face the next one. But that need to achieve something of be someone of worth...isn't inherently the problem. It's the reasons why, and what we put ourselves and others through as we continue reinforcing it with meaningless or at least deceptive methods.

Sometimes I lie on my bed and think about being in this room, this house, this city, spinning through the universe and how God doesn't give a good goddamn about who we know, what we listen to, and what we wear. I think God does care very much about our melancholy and despair and wants us not to rely on our own sheer will to feel better about being here...even our spiritual will. Spiritual practice is one thing. But the idea of constantly putting forth, even in the case of trying to receive, can be deceptive. I don't know the exact formula needed to feel worthy and loved especially in the face of what the world offers—which can be a great deal but often seems to fall short. I don't know exactly how to let go as both the Buddhist and the Christian traditions require in the interest of personal and communal peace.

The culture of comparison, though...a human, not a regional, economic or ethnic one...never seems to do us much good unless we look to others with compassion as sources of inspiration. It takes a lot to keep living. Wurtzel and Anderson are both right about that.

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