Note: This was originally published on 9/21/08.
Lately, Mary Beth and I have been feeling sad over the death of someone we both admired. David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and others, killed himself on September 12th.
I think his death hit us hard because we both recognized something of ourselves in his writing. Here's how Wallace himself described the phenomenon: "There's a kind of Ah-ha! Somebody at least for a moment feels about something or sees something the way that I do... I feel unalone -- intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I'm in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness."
I think anyone who read Wallace's work and knows the Enneagram would have to say he was a head-triader. To me, he seemed to travel on that line between 5 and 7. Take Infinite Jest, for instance -- one thousand and seventy-nine pages of a complicated, intricate, heavily-endnoted, funny, humor-covering-horror can't stop thinking/talking novel. Having gone on (and on) in different voices (with different dialects, vocabularies, time frames, and perspectives) for 127 pages, it hits a quiet spot on page 128.
This is where Wallace introduces the character Lyle, a guru who lives in the weight room at a tennis academy:
"Sometimes the newer kids who won't even let him near them come in and set the resistance on the shoulder-pull at a weight greater than their own weight. The guru on the towel dispenser just sits there and smiles and doesn't say anything. They hunker, then, and grimace, and try to pull the bar down, but, like, lo: the overweighted shoulder-pull becomes a chin-up. Up they go, their own bodies, toward the bar they're trying to pull down. Everyone should get at least one good look at the eyes of a man who finds himself rising toward what he wants to pull down to himself. And I like how the guru on the towel dispenser doesn't laugh at them, or even shake his head sagely on its big brown neck. He just smiles, hiding his tongue. He's like a baby. Everything he sees hits him and sinks without bubbles. He just sits there. I want to be like that. Able to just sit all quiet and pull life toward me, one forehead at a time. His name is supposedly Lyle."
Every time I read that line "I want to be like that", it just knocks the wind out of me , because I think the voice here is finally Wallace's own. It's like when Philip Larkin (a poet Wallace liked a lot) says "That vase" at the end of "Home is So Sad" and I feel like a string has been pulled and I am unravelling.
To me, this is the space of 5 -- between Zen and that endlessly chattering explosion/ implosion of the mind.
Here's Wallace on some stuff that seems pretty Enneagrammatic, from a commencement address he gave in 2005:
"In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.
They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible -- sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing."