Who tells the storyteller stories?
Hey Taylor, great essay. I think you have a good point when our logic and thinking can only lead us to dangerous places. Peterson makes this point in rule 12. "Thinking leads inexorably to the abyss. It did not work for Tolstoy. It might not even have worked for Nietzsche, who arguably thought more clearly about such things than anyone in history. But if it is not thinking that can be relied upon in the direst of situations, what is left? Thought, after all, is the highest of human achievements, is it not?"
I'm a huge fan of DFW, so I want to give my own thoughts on his struggles and IJ. From what I know about him through his biographies and his works, he wrestled with the specter of suicide and depression from a young age. To me, his writing was his way of dealing with this ghost, working through and around his issues. I see IJ as him dealing with depression/suicide/addiction/ennui, kinda like the Tao is really about treading the path between order and chaos. It's not about the destination. I don't see it as an intentional FU to the readers, just messing with them. I think he did this earlier on, e.g. Westward the course of Empire, where he plays with story structure and metafiction. But even then it didn't feel frivolous, but genuine. Perhaps a bit naïve and childish, but not malicious.
I think DFW believed in fiction as a way to wrestle with the things that we all wrestle with in life. "Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being." It wasn't about winning the battle and finding the answers and coming down from the mountain to tell everybody.
In his works, I've found a reprieve from a lot of my own struggles too. I don't see his end as a failure, but rather an impressive feat: 'All this business about people committing suicide when they’re “severely depressed”; we say, “Holy cow, we must do something to stop them from killing themselves!” That’s wrong. Because all these people have, you see, by this time already killed themselves, where it really counts…. When they “commit suicide,” they’re just being orderly.' The fact that he lasted as long as he did is a testament to his willpower. I think his storytelling is not what ended him, but what saved him from his own mental illness.
I'd love to tell better stories than Wallace, but I honestly don't think I have it in me. The best I can do is try to appreciate and learn from others' stories, where they succeed and fail. And sometimes this involves criticism too. That's what I'm good at. And that's what you're doing here, and I thank you for that.
Keep stirring the pot.