The Psychosis of David Foster Wallace

1999 was the last and worst year of my adolescent deep freeze. I was twenty years old, a man, but with no masculine substance to speak of. I was an SAT score, a certitude that real life was elsewhere, a precocious cynicism, a tendency to passivity, a certain facility with language, a terror of sex, a dorm room with plastic bags ironically pinned to the wall, a prematurely stooped back, a mocking pair of gray velcro sneakers from K-Mart, another Friday night spent alone, but there was no center to hold these scraps together. What looked to others from the outside like a college student was nothing but an abstract mentating membrane of sorrow.

In other words, I was the ideal David Foster Wallace reader. Infinite Jest fell into my hands that year and I devoured it. I read all the endnotes, including the math ones. It was long, it was dense, it was recursive, it was hermetic: I loved it. The cynical explanation for my enthusiasm is that the size and impenetrability of the book confirmed to me that I possessed a superior but misunderstood intelligence. The generous explanation is that I needed a book that reflected back to me my own unfulfilled potential in order that I might begin to fulfill it. Novels like Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (which I had read the year before) and Infinite Jest reflected back to me something of this experience of myself. At the time I read them, I needed these books. They allowed me to believe in myself when nothing else could work that alchemy. They were potential novels in the way that I was a potential person. Both books are long, deferred promises of…something. Everything takes place in a state of suspension, of potential energy just waiting to crystallize into some finished form. But it never actually happens. We know intuitively from the first few pages that such a crystallization cannot take place, because frustration and unrealized potential are present in the very syntax and vocabulary that typify the Pynchon/Wallace style. Naturally, only a potential person could stick with such a book, and this is why both authors are above all beloved of young men.

When I learned that D.T. Max had written a biography of David Foster Wallace (Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Viking, 2012), I ran out and read it that day, even though I am no longer interested in Wallace as a writer. My own eagerness surprised me. Perhaps I suspected that it might shed light on the person I had been. What is certain is that Wallace is one of those rare writers who has come to stand in for something larger than himself. He continues to fascinate today because he incarnates better than anyone else a previously nameless wrinkle in the American zeitgeist for which his own name now serves as shorthand.

I recognize much of myself in the portrait Max paints of the teenage Wallace. He was the apotheosis of the type of young man I wanted to be: a precocious smart-aleck with a fondness for intelligence for intelligence’s sake. He corrected strangers when they said “nauseous” but meant “nauseated”. He bragged to girls that he got a perfect SAT score (not true). He was a logic whiz at Amherst, earning a degree in philosophy along with a degree in English literature for an early draft of his first novel. He graduated with a double summa cum laude, and Max suggests that Wallace remains, to this day, perhaps the most decorated undergraduate ever to graduate from Amherst. (Here the resemblance between us ends: I was an inhibited and mediocre undergraduate.)

Following college, Wallace earned an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arizona and published his Pynchonesque first novel, The Broom of the System. In 1989, two years after his MFA, Wallace went back to school for a master’s degree in philosophy at Harvard. He moved to Boston with an old college friend and promptly threw his life in the toilet. His latent drug and alcohol problems exploded into bona fide addictions. A few months after enrolling, he was in a halfway house for drug addicts, where doctors told him that he would be dead by thirty if he kept it up (he was twenty-seven at the time). He spent the next humbling year working as a warehouse security guard and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

His year in Granada House profoundly altered him. During this time, Dostoyevsky came to replace Pynchon as his literary god. Where previously he incarnated postmodernism at its most recursive and ironic, he now began to preach an ethics and an aesthetics of sincerity and humility. He fell in love with a married writer named Mary Karr. Details on this period of his life are sketchy. Max paints a picture of a man whose intense and unrequited love had a definite psychotic flavor. At one point Wallace tried to buy a gun to kill Karr’s husband.

In his early thirties, Wallace left the East Coast to return to Illinois, where he taught creative writing. In 1996, Infinite Jest, a sprawling, baroque, thousand-page novel about entertainment, addiction, tennis, and consumerism with a hundred pages of endnotes was published and Wallace entered the canon.

There is a clear sense in Max’s biography that Wallace’s post-Infinite Jest life was a frustrating twelve-year epilogue marked by an inability to write any substantial fiction. It ended on September 12, 2008, when Wallace, then forty-six, neatly stacked the unfinished manuscript for The Pale King on his desk, walked from the garage to the patio, and hanged himself.

Wallace’s psychological troubles began in earnest in 1982, at the age of twenty, when he suffered his first nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. More followed. In the late 1980’s, after a second suicide attempt, he began taking the antidepressant Nardil, which he would take for the rest of his life. He spent years in psychotherapy, including stints in locked wards and rehab. He attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings sedulously. He underwent electroshock therapy. His life is, among other things, an indictment of the failure of American psychiatry to understand him, a failure that is emblematic of the larger epistemological failure of cognitive-behaviorist psychology.

Scholar Maria Bustillos writes of her astonishment in finding numerous CBT-inspired self-help books among the Wallace archives at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin.

One surprise was the number of popular self-help books in the collection, and the care and attention with which he read and reread them. I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace’s library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully. [1]

It is both touching and pathetic to imagine Wallace reading such literature. One of the great intellectual tragedies of the last forty years is the gradual banishment of Freud from the landscape of American psychotherapy. Why isn’t The Interpretation of Dreams in his library? As I intend to illustrate, Freudian psychoanalysis, and more specifically its Lacanian variant, alone allows us to apprehend the nature of the deep wound from which Wallace’s suffering flowed.

The specific thesis I wish to advance is that Wallace’s psychological problems were not depression or addiction as such but rather compensated psychosis as it is theorized by psychoanalysis. Wallace’s numerous nervous breakdowns indicate that something more serious than depression was going on. For psychoanalysis, psychosis is not a disease but an existential orientation. It is a special kind of relationship with language and the body, one that cannot be “cured”. History is filled with gifted psychotics, from Isaac Newton to Ludwig Wittgenstein to Glenn Gould, whose specific genius is indissociable from their psychosis. Where the neurotic suffers from the limitations imposed by repression, the psychotic suffers from an absence of limits. Psychotic genius is sprawling – as is psychotic suffering.

My goal in this essay is not to engage in the sterile exercise of reducing Wallace to a clinical category. What passes for psychological thought today too often consists of substituting an empty syllogism for an analysis: “X did Y because he is depressed/bipolar/a sociopath.” Rather than advancing understanding, such an operation shuts it down. Difference can only emerge against a background of identity, and an authentic analysis must demonstrate how kernel and shell, architecture and ornament generate each other. My goal in this essay is therefore a properly dialectical one: to make explicit the structure implicit in Max’s biography and illustrate how, like a figured bass, Wallace’s psychosis bent the melody of his life and writing to its exigences.


Freud qualified psychosis as a narcissistic disorder because the psychotic’s libido, instead of being directed outwards, is directed inwards. Narcissism and solipsism are themes that run through Wallace’s life and oeuvre. He constantly veers between megalomania and melancholy. In their psychotic variant, what these two positions have in common is a sentiment of radical exclusion from the community of others. Wallace’s narcissism was not the banal narcissism of the conformist, but rather the desperate performative narcissism of the nameless pariah. Psychotic narcissism functions above all as a manic defense against its dark twin, melancholy, the conviction that one is a stain on humanity – a conviction that no amount of cognitive-behavioral re-education can touch. Although psychotic melancholy superficially resembles depression, the underlying logic is different. Depression, the affect of our times, is an inhibition of libido and as such it is a moral issue, not a psychiatric one. In melancholia, however, libido cannot be mobilized and cathected.

The following passage from The Pale King, typical of a certain strain of Wallace’s writing, illustrates this turning-in of libido:

Obetrolling didn’t make me self-conscious. But it did make me much more self-aware. If I was in a room, and had taken an Obetrol or two with a glass of water and they’d taken effect, I was now not only in the room, but I was aware that I was in the room. In fact, I remember I would often think, or say to myself, quietly but very clearly, ‘I am in this room.’ It’s difficult to explain this. At the time, I called it ‘doubling,’ but I’m still not entirely sure what I meant by this, nor why it seemed so profound and cool to not only be in a room but be totally aware that I was in the room, seated in a certain easy chair in a certain position listening to a certain specific track of an album whose cover was a certain specific combination of colors and designs – being in a state of heightened enough awareness to be able to consciously say to myself, ‘I am in this room right now. The shadow of the foot is rotating on the east wall. The shadow is not recognizable as a foot because of the deformation of the angle of the light of the sun’s position behind the sign. I am seated upright in a dark-green easy chair with a cigarette burn on the right armrest. The cigarette burn is black and imperfectly round. The track I am listening to is “The Big Ship” off of Brian Eno’s Another Green World, whose cover has colorful cutout figures inside a white frame.’ Stated so openly, this amount of detail might seem tedious, but it wasn’t. What it felt like was a sort of emergence, however briefly, from the fuzziness and drift of my life in that period. As though I was a machine that suddenly realized it was a human being and didn’t have to just go through the motions it was programmed to perform over and over. [2]

Wallace’s prose style is immediately recognizable. Here is the restless, digressive, self-deconstructing voice in our heads. In Wallace’s writing, this voice is never far away. Note that what Wallace describes in this passage is not “self-awareness” at all. What I see in this passage is a hemorrhaging subject using phenomenology to stanch the bleeding. By doubling every impression that enters his field of perception and naming it, he temporarily extracts himself from some pre-symbolic nameless miasma. The word kills the thing, and by naming things, he names himself. This radical uncanniness of the world, such as Sartre describes in Nausea, is the paradigmatic experience of psychosis. The psychotic subject is someone for whom Being has been incompletely domesticated and who always risks being sucked back into its maw. The boundaries that shared language imposes on the world rupture and it becomes the site of a swarming, undifferentiated presence that must constantly be re-deadened. Wallace described The Pale King as a book about boredom. I believe that his goal here was to use language against itself, in other words, to make his writing so boring that it would bore language itself and starve the undead lamella that persecuted him from between the words.

Note as well that from doubling to paranoia there is only a short leap. The paranoiac’s delusional system – which can be very subtle – is an attempt to exorcise this terrifying uncanniness by containing it in some more or less extravagant totalizing explanation. Like his early hero Pynchon, Foster’s writing is full of paranoid conspiracies (he even finds a way to work one into his famous essay on cruise ships). For example, The Pale King includes a character who suffers from “RFI”, Random Fact Intuition:

Tastes a Hostess cupcake. Knows where it was made; knows who ran the machine that sprayed a light coating of chocolate frosting on top; knows that person’s weight, shoe size, bowling average, American Legion career batting average; he knows the dimensions of the room that person is in right now. Overwhelming. [3]

Every discrete piece of reality risks infecting and overwhelming the paranoid subject, who is forced, robotically, to catalog every single impression that hits him (in order to neutralize it), rendering him a slave to his delusional cognition. Anyone who has seen a schizophrenic speaking frenzied gibberish to himself can recognize the infinite, inhuman quality of language that has been unmoored from intersubjectivity. The schizophrenic does not speak; he is spoken like a puppet. Wallace, of course, was supremely gifted when it came to rendering this voice that could not be stopped or slowed down (see “The Depressed Person”), for the simple reason that he was tormented by it his entire life. Wallace at his most obsessive is a man holding on by his fingernails, caught between the Scylla of the disintegrating body and the Charybdis of imposed language.

The inimitable Wallace voice is composed of three component parts. If the first of these is the pure schizophrenic syllabic flow, the implacable language machine in his head, then the second might best be described as the specific chattering of the American consumerist superego. Max depicts Wallace as a writer who was obsessed with theorizing and understanding American life. I suspect that his fascination with American particularism derived from the knowledge that the voice in his head was not his but rather the voice of America, one against which he was incapable of defending himself (just as he was incapable of refusing the charms of television).

The superego is above all a literal voice, one that does not belong to us. To belong to a society is to internalize its injunctions and prohibitions. In a certain sense, the schizophrenic has a more authentic relationship with this voice than the non-schizophrenic: he alone is capable of recognizing its fundamentally alien, imposed essence. Where the hypermodern American superego differs from the traditional paternal superego is that, instead of telling us no, it cheerfully enjoins us above all to produce and consume.

In 2014, Stanford researcher Tanya Lurhmann compared the hallucinations of schizophrenics from India, Ghana, and the United States. She was surprised to discover that the nature of the relationship between psychotic subjects and their voices differed greatly from culture to culture. Whereas many of the Indian and Ghanaian subjects reported having friendly relationships with their voices, all of the American subjects studied were persecuted by them. [4]

I believe that the explanation for this phenomenon lies in the inhuman voracity of consumerism. It is not just an economic system; it is a terrible God, and it speaks in our unconscious. The inane, restless voice that Wallace so brilliantly captures is neither “his” voice nor some hypothetical eternal superego voice. It is a direct transcription of the frivolous, harrying voices of capital and publicity themselves. The clarity with which Wallace renders this voice is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness as a writer. Wallace writes like Americans talk today: with plenty of likes, kind of’s, and pretty much’s. One of his favorite tricks is to curate these down-home sentences with selections from his enormous private lexicon (“as big a vocabulary as anyone in the Western hemisphere”, according to Jonathan Franzen). On the one hand, this colloquialism gives his writing a tremendous immediacy and accessibility. On the other hand, it leaches poetry from his message. As Hegel recognized, form cannot be abstracted from content. The very form of certain dialects prevents them for serving as a vehicle for authentic thought or poetry. Heidegger famously claimed that true philosophy could only be done in Greek or in German. The world that generated Ancient Greek epic poetry was a world of myths and heroes. The world that generated Wallace’s American English (and mine) is a world of Big Macs and marketing cant. Living in France for ten years has opened my ears to how ugly most American voices are. American capitalism excels at creating a scintillating, infinite variety of glittering new forms, but they come at a heavy price. The world consumerism creates is one in which nothing is sacred, a world in which everything is equivalent. Life in late-capitalist America is inherently banal and meaningless, and the very rhythms and syntax it generates are ideal vehicles for this corruption. The only way to introduce meaning and poetry into such a universe is by repudiating the very substance of such a dialect.

For a psychotic subject, such a repudiation is difficult, not to say impossible. The psychotic subject is porous in a way that the non-psychotic subject is not. He lacks adequate defenses against the various drives that hector him, from the inane voice of the superego to the mute cravings of the body. The principal defensive weapon that the non-psychotic possesses and the psychotic does not is the symptom. Non-psychotic subjectivity is always structured around some symptomatic bellybutton which simultaneously quarantines and gives body to the irreducible presence of intrapsychic conflict. Whereas the conflict hidden by the neurotic symptom can be accessed and metabolized, the conflict hidden by the psychotic pseudo-symptom is lost, banished, destroyed – in Lacan’s language, foreclosed. In its place there is nothing but a hole in the psyche, one which risks swallowing up the subject. Hence the “pseudo” character of the psychotic symptom: unlike a neurotic symptom, it cannot be healed hermeneutically. As the great British psychoanalyst Donald Woods Winnicott observed, there is no way to know what kind of deep conflict even the most benign symptom conceals, and one must proceed with caution when analyzing it: a simple pain in the wrist might function as the thread that, once pulled, risks unraveling the patient’s psyche completely. A competent psychotherapist knows when to attack a symptom, when to ignore it, and when to shore it up.

The symptom is above all signifying in nature. Jacques Lacan famously states that “the unconscious is structured like a language”. Our bodies are not only made of flesh, they are made of language as well. What the psychotic lacks is the keystone that would hold the unconscious and the body together and guarantee him a minimal subjective consistency. Where the neurotic unconscious runs in sterile circles around the surface of this sealed sphere, the psychotic unconscious spreads out in every direction in search of a limit – Wallace’s doubling, Newton’s calculus, Yayoi Kusama’s infinite dots, Henry Darger’s 15,000-page novel. This hole in the chain of unconscious representations might be compared to an invisible aneurysm that risks rupturing under certain circumstances, namely a traumatic symbolic encounter.

Lacan calls the plug that is missing in the psychotic unconscious the Name of the Father, which must be understood as the proper name that guarantees its bearer an unshakable place in the symbolic structure of reality as well as the signifier that puts an end to the ravages of language unbound. It is the Plymouth Rock, the ehyeh asher ehyeh of the unconscious. The schizophrenic lacks the operator that would fuse this infinite, acephalic stream of language to the body by submitting it to a common law. Language did not evolve to transmit information; that was a later exaptation. Language evolved to express emotion. Only the Name of the Father is capable of transforming language from a form of masturbatory, autistic enjoyment into a means for encountering another subject on the level of signification.

Psychosis is thus a paternal deficiency in both the abstract and concrete senses. A father is someone who intercedes between the child and his mother, preventing incestuous fusion. In the classic Freudian reading of the Oedipus complex, the father signifies to the (male) child: “You cannot have her, but if you emulate me, one day you will have one like her.” The forced sacrifice of the singular object of sexual desire offers access to the fungible object and with it the possibility of symbolic exchange. The psychotic refuses this offer: for him, only the real thing will do. Whereas Freud saw the father as a strictly biological instance, Lacan saw him as a symbolic function, hence the name of the father. Anything that draws the mother’s desire away from the child can thus be considered “paternal” in a symbolic sense inasmuch as it introduces a third dimension to the original incestuous mother-child dyad. This signifier of the mother’s desire can then begin to function as a vector for the child’s own desire, which can only flourish against a background of prohibition. Here is the structuralist Lacanian reading of the Oedipus complex: by offering the child a metaphor for the mother’s desire, the father offers the child the means of safely committing incest, which is to say symbolically and not in reality.

Inasmuch as the paternal signifier opens up the dimension of desire and sexuality, it can also be referred to as the phallic signifier, phallic in that it stands at the crossroads of language and the (sexual) drives and allows them to meet. Here is the missing link between the language troubles of schizophrenics and their body troubles, a link that American psychiatry refuses to theorize.

The absence of the phallic signifier can manifest itself in a number of ways: from flamboyant hallucinations to malfunctioning organs to compulsive rhyming. A psychoanalyst’s first diagnostic task when consulting a new patient is to determine whether or not the phallic signifier is in place. Wallace illustrates one of the clinical tells of psychosis in his first published story, “The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing”, written after his second nervous breakdown in 1983:

I began to suffer from what I guess now was a hallucination. I thought that a huge wound, a really huge and deep wound, had opened on my face, on my cheek near my nose….Right before graduation – or maybe a month before, maybe – it got really bad, such that when I’d pull my hand away from my face I’d see blood on my fingers, and bits of tissue and stuff, and I’d be able to smell the blood, too….So one night when my parents were out somewhere I took a needle and some thread and tried to sew up the wound myself. [5]

Psychoanalysis recognizes in the psychotic fantasy of a hallucinated bottomless wound (Freud’s patient the Wolf Man was also certain that there was a hole in his face) an imaginary figuration of symbolic castration. What is missing is not the penis as such but rather the phallic signifier that would hold together body and language. Since it cannot be perceived directly, the only way we can represent this hole in the unconscious to ourselves is via a hallucinated hole in the body. It is impossible to know how autobiographical the story is, but what Wallace describes here is not a nervous breakdown, it is a psychotic break.

The case of Wallace’s relationship with his friend and rival Jonathan Franzen is also illustrative here. Both men published first novels in the American Paranoid style in the late 1980’s: Broom of the System in 1987 for Wallace, The Twenty-Seventh City in 1988 for Franzen. Franzen had this to say about his first novel in an interview with the Paris Review in 2010:

The Twenty-Seventh City is one big mask. I was a skinny, scared kid trying to write a big novel. The mask I donned was that of a rhetorically airtight, extremely smart, extremely middle-aged writer. To write about what was really going on in me with respect to my parents, with respect to my wife, with respect to my sense of self, with respect to my masculinity—there was just no way I could bring that to the surface. […] I see a 25-year-old with a very compromised sense of masculinity. There was a direct transfer of libido to the brain—this was my way of leaving the penis out of the equation and going with what I knew I had, which was that I was smarter than most people. [6]

Franzen, of course, was later able to pull off what Wallace tried to accomplish but never could: the move from Pynchon to Dostoyevksy (if not on the level of content, then at least on the level of style). Crucially, the operator that allowed Franzen to make this transition was his phallus. When the time came to leave behind the pseudo-paranoiac style of his juvenile first novel, there was only one way forward: by calling upon the words that could reconcile body and signifier, “penis and brain” in Franzen’s language.

But Wallace could never get there:

In July, 2005, he wrote an e-mail to Franzen: “I am tired of myself, it seems: tired of my thoughts, associations, syntax, various verbal habits that have gone from discovery to technique to tic.” [7]

His wife echos this concern:

I think he didn’t want to do the old tricks people expected of him. But he had no idea what the new tricks would be. [8]

A writer who spends ten years writing dozens of pages a day and destroying them the next, a writer who commits suicide because of his inability to translate the center of his suffering into words, is not a writer who suffers from ordinary writer’s block. Where the crucial signifier linking body and language should be, for Wallace there was nothing but a hole. [9]

Wallace himself illustrates this inability to integrate the symbolic dimension of the paternal phallus in a wonderful short story in which the narrator, a teenager, suddenly recovers a bizarre repressed memory: when he was nine years old, his father stood over him, pulled out his penis, and aggressively waggled it in his face. Wallace describes the narrator’s father’s reaction in a way that suggests that the event never actually occurred. One could hardly imagine a clearer illustration of the Lacanian formula of psychosis: that which is foreclosed returns in the Real in the form of a hallucination. The title of the short story, Signifying Nothing, is even more eloquent: the refused paternal/phallic signifier returns in the Real, where, shorn of its symbolic dimension, it is reduced to a meaningless, waggling, hallucinated penis.

This refusal to accept the mystery of the phallus – the hieratic dimension of the Word – would have to be considered an ethical failure on Wallace’s part if he were not psychotic. His postmodern tricks are so many dodges, so many evasions of the Kantian imperative inherent to language itself: you must speak (the truth). Wallace’s occasional long, sterile, unconvincing demonstrations of the impossibility of empathy and communication illustrate above all a refusal of the truth, namely that the Word does in fact offer access to intersubjectivity, and that a writer’s first task is humbly to accept the ordeal of speech. The truth exists through language. It is not a tool that we use for our amusement; it is a sacrament before which we must genuflect.

What is tragic here is that Wallace knows this better than anyone. He just can’t do anything about it. Three quotations from 1992-3 illustrate how acutely he understood the problem:

[To Franzen]: If words are all we have as world and god, we must treat them with care and rigor: we must worship. [10]

[To his editor Michael Pietsch]: Brains and wit and technical tightrope-calisthenics are powerful tools in fiction, but I believe that when they’re used primarily to keep the reader at arm’s length they’re being abused – they are functioning as defense mechanisms. [11]

[To Larry McCaffery]: Really good work probably comes from a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you really feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. And the effort to actually do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage that I don’t seem to have yet. [12]

He knows – but intellectual knowledge alone is impotent when it comes to effecting deep psychic change. In a certain sense, this impotence gives Wallace’s writing a paradoxical kind of power. He shows us, again and again, that he cannot get there. Where an author like Balzac disappears entirely into his characters, Wallace never vanishes. Every tentative step into the ocean is followed by a return to dry land. Our heart breaks for him as we watch him try, over the course of Infinite Jest’s thousand pages, to disappear into his characters without ever quite making it. For an intelligent young person skeptical of the world’s hypocrisies and terrified by the sacrifices that will soon be demanded of him by an indifferent and cruel society, Wallace’s Hamlet-like indecision resonates deeply (the title of the book is a reference to Hamlet). Infinite Jest is not about Gately or Incandenza so much as it is a performance of Wallace’s inability to commit himself fully to metaphor. Unreadable passages such as the following therefore serve a precise function in his writing: they are necessary if we are to feel the pain of psychosis.

And as InterLace’s eventual outright purchase of the Networks’ production talent and facilities, of two major home-computer conglomerates, of the cutting-edge Foxx 2100 CD-ROM licenses of Aapps Inc., of RCA’s D.S.S. orbiters and hardware-patents, and of the digital-compatible patents to the still-needing-to-come-down-in-price-a-little technology of HDTV’s visually enhanced color monitor with microprocessed circuitry and 2(√area)! more lines of optical resolution – as these acquisitions allowed Noreen Lace-Forché’s cartridge-dissemination network to achieve vertical integration and economies of scale, viewers’ pulse-reception- and cartridge-fees went down markedly; and then the further increased revenues from consequent increases in order- and rental-volume were plowed presciently back into more fiber-optic-InterGrid-cable-laying, into outright purchase of three of the five Baby Bells InterNet’d started with, into extremely attractive rebate-offers on special new InterLace-designed R.I.S.C.-grade High-Def-screen PCs with mimetic-resolution cartridge-view motherboards (recognizably renamed by Veals’s boys in Recognition ‘Teleputers’ or ‘TPs’), into fiber-only modems, and, of course, into extremely high-quality entertainments that viewers would freely desire to choose even more. [13]

Wallace cannot write a straight novel. If we were to take out passages such as these, nothing would remain of Infinite Jest but a clunky, forgettable realist novel about an addict and a tennis player. It is only by including this kind of paranoid rambling that he can compensate for his shortcomings as a writer and elevate the whole into meta-commentary greater than the sum of its parts.


Max also produces a number of biographical clues that support a diagnosis of psychosis. The first is Wallace’s relationship with his mother. Max draws attention more than once to the connection between Sally Foster Wallace’s mania for correct grammar and syntax and the complex syntactical structures Wallace employs in his own writing. According to Wallace, whenever he or his sister Amy made a grammatical mistake at the dinner table as children, his mother would pretend to suffocate until they corrected themselves. As Bustillos reveals, Wallace’s own margin notes in Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child show the extent to which he held his mother responsible for his psychic suffering. Max: “Thinking back on all his failed relationships, in the margin of Bradshaw he blamed them on his ‘fantasy bond’ with his mother.” [14] Infinite Jest is, among other things, an attempt to metabolize Sally Foster Wallace. Avril Incandenza, the “seductive puppetmaster” [Max] of Enfield Academy, is a thinly disguised portrait of her. The mysterious titular video so entertaining that it transforms anyone who watches it into a catatonic vegetable – an excellent figuration of the Lacanian concept of deadly, incestuous jouissance – features a maternal imago (in the book, the actress is named Madame Psychosis; the character was based on Mary Karr, the older woman with whom Wallace had a violent, fusional relationship after his breakdown in Boston). After leaving Karr and moving back to Illinois, Wallace stopped talking to his mother for years on the advice of his therapist. These were the years during which he was writing Infinite Jest. The only exception to this silence was when one of Wallace’s writing students posed him a particularly difficult grammar question, at which point Wallace would call his mother to ask for her help (!).

This unusual detail sheds considerable light on the specific coordinates of Wallace’s Oedipus complex. Syntax was, literally and figuratively, the interface that simultaneously offered Wallace access to his mother and protected him against her, and in this it functioned as an artificial Name of the Father for him. The third key component of Wallace’s writing style can be derived from this detail. His long, convoluted sentences are like cords pulled to the breaking point across a maternal chasm. The promise of infinite sexual enjoyment incarnated by the prohibited maternal body is ultimately a metaphor for an even more primordial form of incest: fusion with the infinite dimension of language as such. Wallace’s syntactic tight-rope act allows him simultaneously to move towards incestuous merging with pure language and yet remain within signification. Here is the crucial, tenuous element that prevents Wallace from losing himself in pure schizophrenic word salad. For the reader, there is something simultaneously troubling and exhilarating about the way Wallace perverts syntax to keep his sentences going infinitely. By eternally deferring the end of the sentence, Wallace postpones the moment when the paternal period severs one sentence from the next. Every time he commits a short sentence to the page, he turns around and annuls it by adding a footnote, an interpretation, a clause, a gloss, and so on. On a libidinal level, Wallace’s Formula One, surge-stop-surge writing style allows him to play a high-stakes game of chicken with jouissance. I believe we can see in this privileging of the Deleuzian comma, this refusal to accept the authority of the paternal period, an avatar of Wallace’s insatiable thirst for the chemical incest of drugs and alcohol. Like all of us, Wallace was caught between two mutually exclusive psychic needs: make the sentence infinite in order to prolong the prohibited caresses, and end the sentence with an axe-stroke to prevent them.

When we add this component to the other two, we have the Wallace style. First, the infinite imposed running commentary of the schizophrenic. Second, the specific rhythms and tics of a language generated by consumerism. Third, the complex, nested syntax generated by his relationship with his mother. To this list we might add a fourth component: the fragile voice of straight realism which is so often pulverized by the first three.

I imagine Wallace floating on a little raft in the ocean. The water in which he risks drowning is language, and the raft is syntax. It is the artificial symptom – the sinthom [15] that alone stands between Wallace and the hole where the paternal signifier should have been, and for this reason he could never abandon his raft, even though he knew it was ruining his writing. There was simply no alternative.

Wallace’s father James even feels absent in Max’s biography. We never get a real sense of their relationship, and indeed we learn little about him other than his profession, philosopher. Even for a Freudian this is almost too perfect. On the one hand, Wallace’s mother was a grammarian for whom syntax guaranteed meaning. On the other hand, James Wallace was a philosopher whose goal, as D.T. Max suggests, was to go beyond language and touch the Real at its heart:

Wallace’s father thought little of the discipline [symbolic logic], objecting that logicians tended to replace important questions – free will, beauty – with technical discussions about the language behind those questions, but this was work of the sort that made Wallace’s mind hum. It replaced the ambiguity of actual life with clarity. And as he would later tell an interviewer, highly abstract philosophy gave Wallace both the pleasure of being in his father’s field with the “required thumbing-the-nose-at-the-father thing.” [16]

Wallace’s early attempt to use the paternal signifier – philosophy – has a formal, rote character. He is capable of manipulating the symbols, but incapable of using them to enact the synthesis his father alludes to.

There is an important dialectical insight here. Not only does Wallace’s attraction to analytic philosophy unveil something important about him, it unveils something important about the enterprise of analytic philosophy itself.

Like Wallace, I studied philosophy as an undergraduate. At the University of Texas at that time, there were two warring camps in the philosophy department: the old tenured guard of so-called continental philosophers, whose focus was on the larger metaphysical questions, and the younger, more recently hired analytic philosophers, whose focus was on language and symbolic logic. Hegel and Nietzsche on one side; Carnap and Quine on the other. The latter was the kind of philosophy that Wallace specialized in. I specialized in avoiding it. I took nothing but continental philosophy classes, with one accidental exception. My senior year, I made the mistake of signing up for a seminar called “Truth”, not realizing that its metaphysical-sounding title was in fact an Analytic Trojan horse. The first few weeks of class were spent discussing whether or not “the grass is green” was a true proposition; we never came to a solid conclusion. I learned quickly that the formal or potential intelligence of a philosopher was valued more highly than any concrete philosophical content. My favorite continental philosophy professors (T.K. Seung, Robert Solomon, Louis Mackey) all gave the impression of having performed the difficult alchemy of decanting something of life into language. In other words, they were poets. Their very bodies and voices seemed to bear the scars of their encounters with the truth. My “Truth” professor, on the other hand, seemed like a frightened, quasi-autistic obsessional neurotic, a classic math nerd who kept anything resembling life at a safe distance. His pedagogical goal appeared to be emptying out the concept of truth until it no longer meant anything – and therefore no longer functioned as an ethical call to arms. His eyes twinkled in admiration when he evoked an English philosopher who had written an 800-page tome demonstrating once and for all that tables had five legs. In his esteem, the ability to prove, with the utmost logical rigor, that something nonsensical was true was the gold standard of philosophical intelligence. The kind of philosophy he practiced seemed more like a cross between masturbation and castration to me.

One day, this professor mentioned that he considered Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 to be one of the great novels of the English language. Something about this avowal bothered me. As I looked at his ugly clothes, his weak, submissive smile, his bad posture, his little paunch, his baby turtle face, I realized whom he reminded me of: a middle-aged version of the teenage me. And I had nothing to learn from myself. I knew enough about castration and masturbation already. I needed to learn how to fuck. I had already begun to suspect that Pynchon was fundamentally a young man’s writer, and my professor’s admiration for him proved it.

Pynchon is the empty form of literature in the same way that analytic philosophy is the empty form of philosophy. In Hegelian terms – and there is no thinker more reviled by analytic philosophers than Hegel, nor any thinker more authentically liberating – Pynchon is a vanishing mediator, an incomplete moment in the dialectic of literature. More specifically, Pynchon – who is only read seriously in the United States – is a product of a specifically American refusal of the dialectical identity of form and content. His paranoia – remember that Freud qualified paranoia as a parody of a philosophical system – represents a sterile dead end for thought, a narcissistic developmental moment that demands to be surpassed. In this particular he is comparable to Ayn Rand, another gateway author for precocious young men.

The philosopher that most occupied Wallace was Ludwig Wittgenstein. I suspect that Wallace recognized a psychosis similar to his own in the Austrian philosopher. Max states perspicaciously that “late Wittgenstein was Wallace well; early Wittgenstein, the author depressed.” [17] His philosophy may be summarized as follows: the early Wittgenstein of the Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus concludes that there is no world beyond language; the late Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations concludes that there is, in fact, a world beyond language. The terminus of his philosophy is the silent finger pointing to that which lies beyond language: in other words, metaphor. Wittgenstein has never appealed to me. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I always found the conclusion of the Tractacus to be idiotic and castrating (“about what one cannot speak, one must remain silent”), the conclusion of Philosophical Investigations to be obvious, and both books to be superfluous to anyone who can read a poem. His refusal to use language to engage with ethics  in other words, to conjoin language and life – is symptomatic of the sterility of his reflections. True thought starts where Wittgenstein ends, and time spent lingering inside the locked box of his skull is time lost to doing the real work of poesis. 

Analytic philosophy is a ready-made system for refusing metaphor and with it, life. Both Heidegger and Lacan recognized that all authentic thought is in the last analysis poetry. Just as my Truth professor used analytic philosophy to defer eternally the moment when he would have to apply his logical perpetual motion machines to the concrete ethical business of living life, the young Wallace used it to postpone the moment when he would have to go out on a limb and say something instead of just nesting dependent clauses in brilliant fractal designs. That moment came towards the end of his undergraduate studies, as it did for me.

The discipline [logic] suddenly seemed lifeless and pedantic to him; and his amazing grade point average was just an evasion, a reflection of his fear of dealing with living people as opposed to dry equations. “The same obsessive studying that helped me come alive,” he would later explain to an interviewer, “also kept me dead.” [18]

Indeed, Wallace himself later ascribed his first nervous breakdown to an inability to continue doing academic philosophy. Wallace’s disarray was, I advance, qualitatively different from a “normal” young man’s typical disillusionment: like Wittgenstein he was capable of going all the way to the pointing finger (his undergraduate philosophy thesis ends on a similar note) but incapable of going beyond it, which is to say to metaphysics, which is to say to poetry. Or rather: he was occasionally capable of going beyond the pointing finger, but not without looking back over his shoulder and making sure the finger was still there. This gives us possible insight into the nature of Wallace’s collapse when he attempted to go to Harvard to study philosophy a few years later. One of the consequences of the foreclosure of the phallic signifier is that any attempt on the psychotic subject’s part to assume a paternal identification must necessarily fail, inasmuch as the unconscious representation that would allow such an identification to succeed cannot be called up and used. Lacan suggests that it is precisely when the latent psychotic encounters the enigma of paternity that the hole where the phallic signifier should be is most likely to emerge and cause a psychotic break.

Here we see clearly the gulf that separates the psychotic from the non-psychotic. Where the neurotic Franzen was able, after much difficulty, finally to pick up the Excalibur of the phallic metaphor and use it to accede to a new relationship with language and the body, the psychotic Wallace could not, despite his ardent desire to do so. His attempts to follow in his father’s footsteps by practicing philosophy thus made brutally visible, on at least two occasions, the psychic aneurysm that might otherwise have remained hidden. Faced with the impossibility of this identification and its horrifying existential consequences, Wallace collapsed. When the psychotic break occurs, a short circuit takes place in which the essentially incestuous object of desire that could not be attained through the mediate Symbolic register (through paternal identification) can only be attained in the Real, which is to say in a hallucinated form. In Max’s biography, this is the moment in Wallace’s life when his drug and alcohol abuse exploded. When the unconscious begins to unravel and disintegrate, the psychotic subject has no choice but to “plug in” to the Real in a completely non-dialectical, non-symbolic way (by smoking it, fucking it, or shooting it).


In 2005, three years before he died, Wallace gave a commencement speech at Kenyon University in which he lays out his ethical system. It has become one of his most well-known texts. It too offers us a clear view of his psychosis, if we know how to read it. Wallace’s message can be reduced to the two following ideas.


This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship. [19]

In other words, we are free to choose our cognition.


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. [20]

In other words, we must try to feel compassion for others.

As attractive as the sentiments expressed in this commencement speech are, I believe we must not only repudiate them but recognize that they helped Wallace hang himself a few years later.

The first belief, namely that we can choose our cognition, constitutes the brittle cornerstone upon which the entire edifice of cognitive psychology rests. How simple life would be if this were true. But it is not. As Freud discovered, we have an unconscious, and what cognitive-behaviorist psychologists refer to as “cognition” might better be described as ex post facto rationalizations and justifications of unconscious impulses. We do not choose what we think about, as Wallace’s writing makes clear (!). Our thoughts are a diffracted image of our drives, an attempt to satisfy them through translation. They are secondary and not primary phenomena (which is why, when questioned about neurochemistry, Lacan responded that he thought with his feet and not his brain).

What Wallace defends here is the cognitive-behaviorist technique of self-conditioning, which amounts to willing yourself to get better through thinking different thoughts. Such techniques are dangerous not because they don’t work, but because they do work…sort of. They can succeed in making the presenting symptom disappear. However, they leave the underlying conflict intact. Once the symptom, which is always a manifestation of a deeper, unrecognized subjective truth, a call to translation, has been double-repressed by cognitive conditioning, it simply migrates somewhere else or sinks back into unconsciousness where it can continue to wreak silent havoc.

We might here address Wallace’s long dependence on the antidepressant Nardil. After taking it for twenty years, he decided to change drugs because of Nardil’s many unpleasant side effects. According to Max, this was the moment things began decisively to unravel. After a series of new antidepressants did not work, Wallace tried to go back to Nardil, but found that it no longer worked. Weeks later he killed himself.

As we have seen, what the psychotic lacks is a symptom. Perhaps what Nardil provided Wallace was not symptomatic relief but, on the contrary, symptomatic consistency, in the form of the many side effects and lifestyle modifications that Nardil created, notably those concerning drugs and alcohol.

Here is D.T. Max on Nardil:

Nardil…was an older antidepressant, a 1960’s and 70’s staple that came with many dietary prohibitions. He would no longer be able to eat chocolate or drink coffee, nor should he drink alcohol or take drugs. Smoky cheeses and hot dogs were also out, and he was supposed to avoid aged or fermented food in general, as well as liver. If he slipped up, the result would be fierce headaches and potentially dangerous spikes in blood pressure. [21]

These restrictions have the structure of a set of artificial phobias. Lacan called phobia the “revolving door” of neurosis and suggested that children necessarily pass through a phobic stage on their way to maturity. The phobic object allows the subject to quarantine, in an external object or practice, the anxiety that would otherwise remain without representation. By externalizing this anxiety, the phobic subject can modulate his distance from it, slowly metabolizing it into the field of reality.

Many psychotics rely on such phobic/obsessional symptoms to hold themselves together. As an intern, I once observed a schizophrenic patient who had a curious hobby: disassembling and reassembling his PC every day. This inane activity prevented him from total psychotic collapse and the psychiatric team, quite rightly, encouraged it. Perhaps the reason Wallace collapsed when he stopped taking Nardil was not because his symptoms came back, but rather because they disappeared.

If these claims sound like the typical objections of an unscientific discipline which has lost its privileged place at the table, here is Harvard professor Irving Kirsch expressing astonishment at the chemical ineffectiveness of antidepressants in his groundbreaking meta-analysis, Antidepressants and the Placebo Effect:

It simply does not matter what is in the [antidepressant] medication – it might increase serotonin, decrease it, or have no effect on serotonin at all. The effect on depression is the same. What do you call pills, the effects of which are independent of their chemical composition? I call them “placebos.” […] All antidepressants seem to be equally effective, and although the difference between drug and placebo is not clinically significant, it is significant statistically. This leads to the obvious question: What do all of these active drugs have in common that make their effect on depression slightly, but statistically significantly, better than placebo? One thing that antidepressants have in common is that they all produce side effects. [22]

In other words, it is not the drug itself that treats depression, it is the existence of noticeable side effects “proving” that the drugs are working which leads patients to believe in their curative properties.

As an example of another such phobic/obsessive symptom, Max mentions several times, without going into much detail, Wallace’s bizarre rituals around sweating, showering, and toweling off. Wallace’s houses were always full of drying towels spread over every surface. Wallace himself mentions his own sweating at the beginning of his Kenyon commencement speech. His trademark article of clothing was the bandanna that he wore around his head, tied almost down to his eyebrows. After reading Max’s biography, what originally appeared to me (and probably many) as a hip affectation begins to look more like imposed behavior. If this is true,Wallace’s sweating/showering/toweling routine was not just a personal idiosyncrasy but an important symptomatic practice that partially compensated for the absence of the stabilizing paternal signifier.

In his senior year of high school, he began carrying a towel around with him to wipe away the perspiration from anxiety attacks, and a tennis racquet [sic], so that no one commented on the towel. [23]

The delusional flavor of this practice is striking: Wallace carried around a tennis racket to “trick” the gaze of the mysterious others he imagined were looking at him and who risked seeing…what, exactly? Seeing some truth about him that he wished to conceal. Wallace constantly alludes to his fear that others might figuratively “see through” him. I believe we must take this fear more literally than he takes it himself. Not only is the psychotic incapable of defending himself against the voice of the Other, he is incapable of defending himself against its penetrating gaze, one which emanates from Being itself. What Wallace fears more than anything else is the terrifying hole inside him. Here he is only a small step away from a full-blown paranoid delusion. Seen in this light, his constant internal battle with his desire to be gazed at, admired, and recognized takes on a different valence. He is not a garden-variety narcissist; he is a paranoiac. The (hilarious) chapter in The Pale King narrated by a teenager whose uncontrollable sweating makes his life unbearable amply supports this thesis. I suspect that Wallace’s sweat glands effectively functioned autonomously of him. His compulsive showering and toweling may have constituted an attempt to deaden an organ that, unbound by the phallic signifier, had split off from his body and functioned as a terrifying parasite, a hole in his endocrine system comparable to the hole in his early character’s face. Here is the difference between a banal hysterical symptom and a properly psychotic symptom. Whereas the hysterical symptom constitutes a message to be deciphered, a psychotic pseudo-symptom can only be understood as a hole in signification. This hole can take many forms. I remember a consultation with a severely schizophrenic woman during which she began urinating uncontrollably. When my colleague brought it up, she replied that she always urinated on herself when she felt nervous around somebody. Her bladder had never been integrated into the signifying system of her unconscious, and her enuresis is structurally comparable to Wallace’s hypersudation.

Lipsky reports the following anecdote:

After Amherst, Wallace went to the University of Arizona for an MFA. It was where he picked up the bandanna: “I started wearing them in Tucson because it was a hundred degrees all the time, and I would perspire so much I would drip on the page.” The woman he was dating thought the bandanna was a wise move. “She was like a Sixties lady, a Sufi Muslim. She said there were various chakras, and one of the big ones she called the spout hole, at the very top of your cranium. Then I began thinking about the phrase ‘Keeping your head together.’ It makes me feel kind of creepy that people view it as a trademark or something — it’s more a recognition of a weakness, which is that I’m just kind of worried that my head’s gonna explode.” [24]

We must take his words at face value. In a certain sense, there really was a hole in his head. Here we see him employing one of his favorite tricks, one that he uses to devastating comic effect in his hilarious essays: transforming his delusions and anxieties into jokes to hide how cruelly true they were.

A delusion does not need to be flamboyant to be a delusion. Wallace’s belief in the power of cognition was, I believe, rooted in another delusional belief.

In 2005, Wallace wrote in his notebook, “They’re rare, but they’re among us. People able to achieve and sustain a certain steady state of concentration, attention, despite what they’re doing.” [25]

Chapter 46 of The Pale King introduces a character named Shane Drinion, a nerdy IRS bureaucrat whom Wallace portrays as having attained something resembling enlightenment. He is capable of losing himself so completely in his audits that he levitates from his seat without realizing it. Drinion is one of Wallace’s least convincing, most abstract characters. He is a self-help/Business Buddhist/CBT unicorn, a pure product of a fraudulent ideology, and the inherent falsity of the belief system that led Wallace to conceive of such a character translates to tedium on the page. Not only is Drinion less believable than the hideous men of Wallace’s short story collection by that name – these characters all ring suspiciously true, as Franzen observed – he is even less likable.

Drinion and his tribe have the same status for Wallace as the New Man for Stalin or the comet-riding aliens for the Heaven’s Gate cult members. Behind Wallace’s belief in the powers of focus and “awareness” lay a delusional belief that he, Wallace, could achieve transfiguration – levitate – escape psychosis – if only he tried hard enough. As every millenarian cult illustrates, behind the desire for transfiguration always lies the desire for death. Seen in this light, the Kenyon speech is a crypto-suicide note.

This belief in the secret existence of a small number of elusive elect leads us to the second main argument in Wallace’s Kenyon speech, namely that we need to show compassion to “real” people. Like his first argument, it is delusional and symptomatic of his psychosis. Regardless of the validity of the ethical injunction of compassion in itself, for Wallace this belief had a pathological status. As Max illustrates, “real” people – which is to say, non-intellectuals – played an important role in Wallace’s life. He treasured his friendships with the ordinary people he met in AA and repeatedly vocalized his belief in an ethics of ordinariness.

I believe that Wallace’s need to believe in the existence of “real” people living lives unpolluted with obsessive cognition was a direct result of his own psychotic inability to escape this kind of cognition himself. Wallace’s humble AA friends might be seen as the imaginary talismans of humanity and authenticity that he had to surround himself with physically precisely because he could not introject what they stood for: resigned submission to some paternal ideology, the eternal hallmark of “ordinary” people. Upon close examination, it is another disguised form of Wallace’s psychotic narcissism. In an attempt to rid himself of his terrifying, uncanny exceptional status, he tried to pass himself off as one of the guys, something like Superman pretending to be Clark Kent. [26] He even sacrifices grammar to this end: note that in the second sentence from the Kenyon speech excerpted above, Wallace splits an infinitive in an attempt to sound more common. It feels forced and inauthentic in his mouth.

Although Wallace was obviously not wrong to presume the existence of a fundamentally different relationship with cognition than his own in others, his logic was nonetheless delusional. His authentic people were not real at all but imaginary products of his need to believe in the existence of a humanity whose realness was in inverse proportion to his own fakeness. Wallace’s inability to become “real” himself, despite his continued engagement with “real” people, “real” suffering (which is to say, external and not internal suffering [27]), and “real” literature, is an index of the quixotic falsity of the belief in a chimerical, incestuous Real Thing existing somewhere out there. Hegel refers to this kind of opposition as external, which is to say an opposition in which the two terms (self and other, fake and real) are posited as existing in a sterile formal opposition in which no synthesis is possible. This inability/refusal to see the properly dialectical relationship between himself and the world structured the tragedy of Wallace’s life, one that is observable at every level: his inability to marry the word and the world, philosophy and literature, syntax and signification, Pynchon and Dostoyevsky, Incandenza and Gately, Harvard and the halfway house. Psychosis is a broken dialectic.

So, attractive as the sentiments in Wallace’s Kenyon speech may be, we must see it as a pathological text, one that illustrates two of the corners that Wallace had painted himself into over the years. The compassion that Wallace enjoins us to practice is particularly problematic. [28] Why? Because behind his compassion is a fundamentally mortifying reduction of the other to the status of “real” person, which is to say, a person who is condemned to living as a puppet of his external circumstances and not as a freely desiring subject. Here we see why the discourse of self-help, with which the speech is saturated, is not only fraudulent and idiotic, it is dangerous.

After reading Wallace’s biography, I found myself wondering if Wallace would have survived had he not been so impregnated with an ambient materialist epistemology of late capitalism that gets everything wrong. Of course, had he not been so impregnated, he would not have been David Foster Wallace. The discursive world in which he lived was the world of American ideology: a world in which the unconscious does not exist, in which cognition is all-powerful, in which mental illness is chemical in origin, in which external suffering is seen as authentic and internal suffering as counterfeit, in which people are only real if they are riveted to the material conditions of their lives, in which language has lost its sovereignty. I believe that this is one explanation for the specific weakness of Wallace’s attempts to theorize and criticize culture. His phenomenology is peerless, but his attempts at broad synthesis are often unconvincing. His psychotic inability to escape the prison of his own skull makes it impossible for him to understand the fundamental dialectical unity that exists between all phenomena, including, crucially, the phenomenon of his own subjectivity. Ultimately, what the psychotic cannot accept are above all his own drives. And the line of thinking that runs through his writing, from Infinite Jest to the non-fiction essays to The Pale King to the Kenyon speech – that the United States is a nation of people in thrall to their appetites, and that freedom lies in refusing these appetites – is less the statement of an objective truth than the projective alibi of a man incapable of metabolizing his own appetites.

In other words, Wallace comes to the right conclusion, but for the wrong reasons. Our civilization does push us into a pathological relationship with our appetites. Although the insatiability of Wallace’s particular appetites was, as I hope to have demonstrated here, more a result of structure and biography than television and consumerism, the question his case raises is an important one: where do structure and discourse meet? How far can we as a civilization deteriorate before everyone becomes psychotic? Where is that fatidic tipping point beyond which environment overwhelms structure? Might Wallace have found a way to overcome his demons if the society he lived in had been just a little less fragmented?

David Foster Wallace is a symptomatic figure of our times, a man whose fate is indissociable from that of the late-consumerist society he criticized. Wallace knew that there was something wrong, but he didn’t know what it was. Perhaps if he was so eager to theorize hypermodernity, it is because he knew that the secret to his own impossible psychic integration lay somewhere in the disintegration of the external world as well as language. His misdiagnosis reveals that we live in a world whose inner logic is increasingly delusional, paranoiac, even schizophrenic: a world in which things are no longer called by their proper names. Could Wallace have matured into the American Samuel Beckett if the world in which he lived had been able to offer him the center that he and his writing lacked?

We will never know.


[2] The Pale King 182

[3] The Pale King 121


[5] Max p. 36



[8] Ibidem

[9] The case of Samuel Beckett provides certain interesting parallels here. Like Wallace, Beckett was a precocious youth more interested in athletics than literature. His early writing was dominated by the influence of a psychotic maximalist (Joyce to Wallace’s Pynchon). He had great difficulty transcending the brilliant but precious and affected style of his first novels. He suffered from crippling mental illness and underwent hospitalization. His mother figured ominously in his unconscious. He was an alcoholic. He mistrusted his narcissism and cultivated relationships with “ordinary” people. However, unlike Wallace, Beckett was able to break out of the prison of his own mind and begin writing truly universal fiction thanks to what he himself qualifies as an “epiphany” at the age of thirty-nine and which resembles, in psychoanalytic terms, a late assumption of the phallic signifier. Why was Beckett able to integrate where Wallace was not? Following this thread would lead us too far afield, but several hypothetical explanations are worth advancing here: Beckett’s two-year psychoanalysis with Bion, an analyst of genius; his access to a foreign language and a foreign land; the experience of war, which forced him to risk his life for an ethical ideal (he joined the French Resistance and was nearly captured); the fact that he lived in a world in which the austerity of language and life had not yet been rendered entirely frivolous by capitalism.

[10] Max, p. 166

[11] Max, p. 172


[13] Infinite Jest, pp. 527-8

[14] Max, p. 170

[15] At the end of his life, Lacan confronted the question of psychosis and literary production by examining the case of James Joyce. He uses Joyce to illustrate what he calls the “sinthom”: the artificial, external symptom that functions as a prosthetic name, a prosthetic symbolic place in reality for someone who is lacking the ready-made symptom that is the Name of the Father.

[16] Max, p. 25

[17] Max, p. 45

[18] Max, p. 32


[20] Ibidem

[21] Max, p. 52


[23] The Unfinished

[24] Conversations with David Foster Wallace, Edited by Stephen Burns, 2012, University Press of Mississippi, p. 167

[25] The Unfinished

[26] Incidentally, the whole Superman story is an allegory for schizophrenia.

[27] Our materialist epistemology refuses to recognize that internal suffering is not only just as real as external suffering, it is even more real, inasmuch as external suffering is often “just” an unconscious compulsion to externalize and, in so doing, treat an internal suffering.

[28] Rather than attempt to model his behavior on a compassionate morality that could only alienate him (and, secondarily, those around him) from the truth, Wallace could have affirmed the “monstrous” truth of his own experience of life, namely that other people were not real for him, that he was not even real for himself. Here is where Joyce succeeded in a way that Wallace did not. Joyce allowed himself to pursue his psychotic inhumanity, translating it into an endless, meaningless sentence that didn’t need to finish.

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>