The Morning After
This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the writer David Foster Wallace. He died of an apparent suicide in 2008 and his final, unfinished novel The Pale King is being released on April 15, so the interwebs have lately been abuzz with DFW talk. I didn’t know him, and I haven’t even read all of his books. I saw him speak several times; I’ve read a lot of terrific interviews and talks he’s given. And I think it’s pretty clear to most people, whether or not they love his writing, that his was a singular, clear-eyed voice that will only grow in influence over time.
So, to put it bluntly, I’ve been thinking about dead artists, especially artists who kill themselves. And I’ve been thinking about the ways in which early death can render an artist’s work legendary by the fact of it, in a very real and personal way for those of us who receive that art. In some ways, with an already legendary artist, an early death changes the way their audience feels about their work. The work becomes sadder, certainly, and it also takes on an amplified heartfelt value because we know it exists in a finite supply. The relationship between fans and artist also can take on a perverse sort of inverse trajectory the more an artist is though to have suffered. We knew we loved you; then you broke our hearts, and we loved you even more for it.
Personally, I’d rather have a living human than a dead genius any day. But historically this is sort of a thing, the suicided artist. The sensitive “genius” who dies a young, violent death. The reasons for dead young artists are many, and often taboo. (We also happen to live in a very violent culture, and violence can be a very common side effect of addiction and disease as well as of crime and punishment). Call it disease, tragedy, preventable, outrage, whatever; suicide is always a surprise. It can also feel like a mystery for those of us who are alive. It can be hard to understand, truly taboo. What we can say for sure is that humans often suffer, and a lot of humans take their own lives.
Artists often perceive the human experience more vividly–more acutely and in a more intentional, active, and confrontational way–than non-artists. It’s their job. So while suicide is always a surprise, and always unwarranted, and death of any kind fundamentally sucks and is often frustratingly lacking in “meaning,” it’s not tremendously illogical to expect that artists experience the horror of violent, self-inflicted death at a rate that is at least equal to that of non-artist people.
And to write about it, to approach this super wrong yet undeniably extant phenomenon, is almost impossible without veering rapidly into handwringing and hero worship and cliché.
Listen, I was hesitant to bring this all up. I don’t really want to talk about suicide. What I want to talk about is people, and how they sometimes are here and then not-here, and how art makes us feel their absence acutely on the one hand and bask in their continual presence indefinitely on the other.
In my own experiences of dealing with death, I think it’s true that sometimes you “feel” the “presence” of the person who is dead. It’s not a ghost thing, or a God thing– it’s perhaps a thing we don’t know much about in terms of our daily experience as humans who are not dead. But I do know that from time to time I have experienced a tremor of a dead loved one, a hint of their past existence.
It can happen in large or small moments: you encounter a thought or a phrasing or a situation in which you are for an almost ungraspable instant drawn back into a reality in which the dead person who you loved is viscerally, deeply remembered. For me this feeling can be a flash of intense grief, anger, or a wry, smiling acknowledgment of the way in which a dead friend might react to a moment in my day. Or it can take a less conscious state: it’s my sense when I wake up that the clouds this morning are thick and low enough to touch, crackling with humidity and history and … carbon. And if the dead are literally whispering songs in your ear while you experience this, then you might understandably feel a great sense of loss for a relationship that nurtured you, even if you never met the person on the other end of that relationship. Cliched tributes or phrases like “too soon,” “tragic,” and the other things that people say about brilliant artists who kill themselves may understandably be all we can summon in order to describe that sensation. This is what we know: A human suffered, and then disappeared, and sometimes I can still hear him talking to me.
Elliott Smith (1969-2003) was a singular artist who merited respect from even those who weren’t particularly “into” his style of music. He was a perceptive and deeply self-revealing songwriter and a quietly seductive singer and guitarist who always seemed to look sad when I saw him playing a show or, “in real life,” sitting in bars in New York or Portland. Like Wallace, Smith suffered from depression and died violently and young.
Both these men always appeared to me to be truly genuine– transparent– much more than cultural celebrities often are. Both were humble, perhaps overly so; thoughtful; shatteringly honest in both art and public personae; and observant without being judgmental. They lacked ironic distance, and they were better loved for it. As artists and, from what we can tell, as men, they both appeared deeply invested in and deeply troubled by their personal relationships to the world around them– what people sometimes call “the human condition.”
And they made beautiful things. And then they broke our hearts. And we miss them.
But we still have the things. Please. Keep listening to the things.