I came across these lines while reading David Foster Wallace’s great essay “Ticket to the Fair” about the Illinois State Fair, circa 1994:
The fairgrounds are a St. Vitus Dance of blacktop footpaths, the axons and dendrites of mass spectation, connecting buildings and barns and corporate tents.
If I hadn’t known before that moment, I knew then that I was in the presence of genius, that I could no more write a sentence that good than swim across the Pacific Ocean. I was absolutely certain then that he will be remembered, known, commented on, celebrated for at least the next few decades. As T.S. Eliot says in one of his essays, there is an excitement and thrill that comes from reading the work of one’s contemporaries that usually doesn’t happen when reading words from fifty or a hundred or three hundred years ago; this happens because our peers start at the very same point in time we did, are given more or less the same opportunities, the same tools and idioms, respond to similar events. Wallace was two years younger than I am. As recently as this year he was honored posthumously on the cover of Newsweek. A film about his book tour is now out, based on a journalist’s thoughts. A biography is also available! . . . The crucial question then becomes: How is one to go on in the face of genius, knowing one’s work will amount to little more than a wavelet in a pond next to the tsunami of a gigantic figure like Wallace?*
It is not good to think continually of those who are truly great. One could just give up writing altogether and become a “sensitive reader” (one’s proverbial “aunt”). Or: one can go on, knowing everything and everyone matters, knowing there are no “nobodies,” though the media would have us believe that reality TV stars matter more than lowly Syrians and Afghans risking their lives on the high seas to get to Greece (Greece!). The book Status Anxiety is great on this topic; it’s a book to read and reread.
For those of us who write (or paint, or compose etc.), there is an urgency about the task that’s as necessary as REM sleep. Many wise and smart people (including Edmund White in his Paris Review interview) have poo-pooed the notion of “I must write.” They’re wrong: writing is, for some of us, as necessary as the nightly dream state in order to work through life’s events/vicissitudes, and stay in balance. We have to get something out of our system—even if what we produce is “just” a wavelet. But a wavelet, from the point of view of a guppy, can be as big a deal as a tsunami.
Eliot again, from Four Quartets:
And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
* In this context it is fascinating to contemplate Wallace’s own suicide. (In the 1990s I read his short story “The Depressed Person”; the flippant attitude to depression and therapy put me off, but I was of course not aware of his own state—how could I be?) When the man had everything, when he had a level of validation, attention and celebrity that most of us can only dream of, what could possibly lead him to take his own life? This is a question the “child” in me keeps asking; and the “adult” in me keeps answering that there are many forms of depression. Some are situational, others chemical. The chemical ones wouldn’t have anything to do with his actual life circumstances. But there could even have been a situational component: maybe he thought he was washed up, no more big books in him? What a predicament when he was still so young! With my limitations, I can’t begin to fathom what was going on in his gifted mind. For those despondent about being less than Wallace, his manner of death provides much food for thought. On the other hand, recently I saw William Inge’s play Picnic. Inge too committed suicide. I believe in his case (and I say this knowing next to nothing about the actual circumstances) his state of despair did arise from a lack of recognition for his later work, in spite of a Pulitzer Prize earlier in life. Italian composer Mascagni, another one-hit wonder, wrote a great opera in his youth that no later operas of his could equal: “I was crowned before I was king,” he once said. Thankfully, he died of natural causes.