On the Great White Shark of Pain
There are many things to love about the novel Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. There are probably just as many things to hate or to be irritated by. A friend once told me that this book is kind of like that uncle of yours that you really, really like but are loathe to take to parties because he always gets embarrassingly obnoxious before the night is through. After that description, I kept waiting to get fed up, but I didn’t. I was momentarily puzzled by the ending and frustrated by the many unanswered questions and loose ends, but I ultimately enjoyed reading this enormous tome bit by bit, sip by sip, one exquisite and excruciating sentence after another.
I realize I’m not exactly selling this book to you, Dear Reader. The purpose of this post is not to try to do that. The purpose of this post is to try to begin to tell The Rest of the Story, to which I referred in the previous piece. Alas, there is no more to report of the interaction I had with Big Publishing, but there is much, much more to relate about the other, more unpleasant topic from yesterday.
I will have to step into that topic bit by bit. I’m not sure at all that I’m ready to share some or even any of what has come before this moment. For now, I’m content to set the stage and leave you with a passage from the aforementioned ginormous book. The paragraphs below resonated through my soul and my past, leaving me simultaneously cold with dread and limp with relief. Watching unspeakable torment unfold in simple printed words has rendered it a human experience, one more thing that I share with other people, which somehow makes it less scary and easier to live with. Easier to let go.
Hal isn’t old enough yet to know that this is because numb emptiness isn’t the worst kind of depression. That dead-eyed anhedonia is but a remora on the ventral flank of the true predator, the Great White Shark of pain. Authorities term this condition clinical depression or involutional depression or unipolar dysphoria. Instead of just an incapacity for feeling, a deadening of soul, the predator-grade depression Kate Gompert always feels as she Withdraws from secret marijuana is itself a feeling. It goes by many names — anguish, despair, torment, or q.v. Burton’s melancholia or Yevtuschenko’s(1) more authoritative psychotic depression — but Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.
It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like(2) and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself, so that an almost mystical unity is achieved with a world every constituent of which means painful harm to the self. Its emotional character, the feeling Gompert describes It as, is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.
It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed. There is no way Kate Gompert could ever even begin to make someone else understand what clinical depression feels like, not even another person who is herself clinically depressed, because a person in such a state is incapable of empathy with any other living thing. This anhedonic Inability To Identify(3) is also an integral part of It. If a person in physical pain has a hard time attending to anything except that pain, a clinically depressed person cannot even perceive any other person or thing as independent of the universal pain that is digesting her cell by cell. Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution. It is a hell for one.
The authoritative term psychotic depression makes Kate Gompert feel especially lonely. Specifically the psychotic part. Think of it this way. Two people are screaming in pain. One of them is being tortured with electric current. The other is not. The screamer who’s being tortured with electric current is not psychotic: her screams are circumstantially appropriate. The screaming person who’s not being tortured, however, is psychotic, since the outside parties making the diagnoses can see no electrodes or measurable amperage. One of the least pleasant things about being psychotically depressed on a ward full of psychotically depressed patients is coming to see that none of them is really psychotic, that their screams are entirely appropriate to certain circumstances part of whose special charm is that they are undetectable by any outside party. Thus the loneliness: it’s a closed circuit: the current is both applied and received from within.
The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.
But and so the idea of a person in the grip of It being bound by a ‘Suicide Contract’ some well-meaning Substance-abuse halfway house makes her sign is simply absurd. Because such a contract will constrain such a person only until the exact psychic circumstances that made the contract necessary in the first place assert themselves, invisibly and indescribably. That the well-meaning halfway-house Staff does not understand Its overriding terror will only make the depressed resident feel more alone.
2 – throughout the novel, Wallace uses the word “map” to mean “life.” To be “demapped” is to be killed. Not sure if this is a reference to that convention.
3 – one of many references to the language and lingo of Alcoholics Anonymous, at least as it’s represented in the novel.
You may have heard that David Foster Wallace killed himself in 2008. Anyone who’d experienced clinical depression and who had read Infinite Jest was likely not surprised. The splintered-glass details of the book could only have come from the experiences of depression, addiction, withdrawal, even psychosis. You can’t make this shit up is the way I thought of it.
I hope that someone, somewhere takes comfort in the fact that, even though we lost Mr. Wallace (Mr. Foster Wallace?), his pain has helped someone else.
- DFW interview from Salon.com
- “The Unfinished: DFW’s Struggle to Surpass Infinite Jest” (New Yorker)
- DFW’s Kenyon College Address: Great and Terrible Truths (NYT)
- Lost Years and Last Days of DFW (Rolling Stone)
- The Howling Fantods! a news and fan site
- Infinite Jest wiki, including an impressive compendium