The new biography of David Foster Wallace published last year. The first biography of DFW, as it claims, which kind of struck me as something. Poignant? Suggesting there will be more? I'm not sure. Recognizing the historical significance of his character preemptively? Did the first biography of Lincoln recognize itself as such?
Anyway I'm 2 chapters in, just to the point where a collegiate DFW rounds off an all A's education at Amherst (briefly interrupted by two stints of withdrawl from school, counseling, and serious depression) with twin theses in philosophy and writing. The writing thesis was the 500 page Broom of the System, which wasn't great but was basically a draft for Infinite Jest, which was great. I should emphasize, this was his undergraduate thesis. He interviewed at Oberlin before settling on Amherst, I took a lot of philosophy, had intended to major in it but lost interest. There are some parallels that I guess make it obvious why I like his writing so much. It also makes me want to read Pynchon, who was a big influence on him and I guess who a fractured, postmodern sense of trying to convey the enormity and chaotic instability of the world come from.
It makes me think about ambition primarily. What is it that drives someone to achieve like that? To study all the time and get A's and pour so much into an outcome. Whereas he came out of school and obsessively wrote until he was famous, I drifted out of school and basically never wrote again. I'm always curious about what drives people, because at the root, that seems like the only thing worth talking about. The Why rather than the What, because who really cares about the What - everything we do is in some way just the wind passing by, but who we are and why we do it is something else. After the existential angst I think everyone goes through in their teens, you realize nothing is ever going to just slap you in the face and be God's Truth the way the world is (if, in my opinion, you're critical/honest enough to push through your own sense of comfort with an easy solution) and so the world becomes something you just have to take a position on, right? And then you just act out that position and try to revisit first premises as infrequently as possible. So what is it that drives some people to exhaust and extinguish themselves with the result of accomplishing something great, or lasting, or consequential?
In some ways, I think architecture is a response to writing. A counterbalance, maybe. I still feel that I am a writer practicing architecture, and I find a number of things annoying about the architecture world (that everyone has the latest iPhone, the complete phobia of reading and writing and anything other than visual communication, the lack of interest in the complexity of the world, or in asking larger questions). But architecture is the most concrete creative process there is, right? You can't doubt that it exists, or has an effect. It's all very practical and straightforward and organized and suggests a world in which cause and effect are intact and physics and psychology entwine and you simply proceed down the path. I don't know what that means about me, or where I'm headed (something I've never been able to catch a glimpse of). When someone writes my biography in some alternate future universe where I've become famous, will this be the moment of finding my calling, or a kind of tangential exploration of an idea made concrete? I'm still curious about the ambition piece of it. It seems like the only way to become really good at something is to be completely and utterly obsessed with it, sacrificing pretty much everything in your life to fuel this pursuit. When you read about these really famous people, they often have horrible relationships and homelives, but we still revere them without ever really asking what the cost of their achievement was. Why is that? It seems awfully short-sighted of us as a culture. What would it mean to realize you don't want to make the sacrifices it would take to achieve something great? (Whether you have the talent or not is another issue entirely, of course.) What follows from this other path?
The thing that is coming to mind for me is balance. Equanimity. No one ever made a Hollywood movie about that, did they? (which raises the question I meant to work in a while back, to what extent are my own impressions of success colored by what may be an enhanced cultural trope: sacrificing everything to achieve something great. I'm so annoyed that in our movies and stories, we never get the full picture. Why learn about something if you only ever have an incomplete fiction to compare yourself to?). Halfway through college I stopped taking philosophy classes and started taking religion, so that I ended up with a minor in each, split evenly between my sophomore and junior year. Where philosophy seemed so masturbatory and pointless, religion seemed like it was really trying to understand what it means to live in the world and be an individual. That's a difference with DFW. It seems like he clung to philosophy as a way to try to impose his need to have a grasp on reality on the world, I'd guess related to his severe issues with depression. I still feel like I'm exploring, like no matter how grounded in reality you become and how much you learn about the economy and what it takes to succeed in life and how to get a mortgage and all the adult stuff, it still feels like an experiment, like this thing that's only real if you choose to believe in it, and that you just sort of try on and move through for a while. Or maybe forever. But the point I guess is it's never quite convincing, and I'm too thorough with things to settle for that. So what do you do with a life you are in fact by God living yet don't quite believe in or haven't committed to enough to be great at? Is there anything else?