“It may be what in the old days was called a spiritual crisis or whatever,” says David Foster Wallace (as played by Jason Segel) at a key moment in The End of the Tour, James Ponsoldt’s poignant film about the brilliant late writer. He continues:
It’s just the feeling as though the entire, every axiom of your life turned out to be false, and that there was actually nothing, and it was all a delusion. And that you were better than everyone else because you saw that it was a delusion, yet you were worse because you couldn’t function.
Anyone who has ever read David Foster Wallace knows that the man behind the propulsive prose must have had demons upon demons. If reading Virginia Woolf is like eating chocolate and reading Toni Morrison is like drinking wine, reading David Foster Wallace is like taking drugs. One gets an inexplicable high from reading his writing; like an intensely flavorful amphetamine, it keeps readers coming back to his peerless prose again and again.
The man himself, the twentieth-century’s literary Mozart behind the bandana, suffered throughout his abbreviated existence from such a severe form of depression that he eventually took his own life at the age of forty-four. The tragedy of his life is that he was never able to escape the very same demons that may have inspired him to create his incomparable brand of extremely addictive writing.
Jason Segel portrays the famed writer with the correct amount of candor and reserve, sprinkling in Wallace’s palpable existential anxiety at strategic moments while never losing track of his acutely self-aware way of analyzing every encounter. The premise of the film, which recounts Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky’s (Jesse Eisenberg) five-day interview with Wallace at the end of Wallace’s 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest, seems simple. But with Wallace, nothing was ever simple. Lipsky eventually wrote a bestselling book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, based on his interviews with Wallace. In addition to any ironic or existential meaning it holds, the book’s title, which is taken from a Wallace quote, turns out to be an apt description of Jesse Eisenberg’s performance in this film (and in nearly all of his films), where he usually ends up playing a version of himself.
The real revelation is the excellent screenplay of Donald Margulies. The film has an intimate, theater-like quality to it. It almost seems that the movie might work better as a two-man play; it is thus not surprising to learn that Margulies has written for the stage. The other real surprise is Segel, who depicts Wallace as a man consciously and subconsciously crying out for meaning in his life. Segel portrays Wallace as a man who had experimented with so many ways of living and so felt as if he had exhausted them that by the age of twenty-eight he was already waging an inner war with himself—a war that eventually led him to end his life.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Wallace’s life is that—for all his brilliance—he could never find a means of filling the dry void in his life with the waters of meaning. According to rabbinic legend, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro experimented with every manner of idolatry and religion then available before finding the faith of Moses. Like Jethro, Wallace experimented with an infinite number of ways of life, but he never seemed to find the way that would have saved him from himself.
Loneliness, Suicide, and Religion
Long before the alienation and ennui that afflicted Wallace’s Generation X, the acclaimed sociologist Émile Durkheim diagnosed the ills that were plaguing his own generation in the late nineteenth century. Nearly one hundred years before the publication of Infinite Jest, Wallace’s epic novel about loneliness and alienation, the French-born founder of the modern discipline of sociology produced an epic study of suicide.
In his 1897 work, Durkheim found that suicide rates were higher among Protestants than they were among Catholics and Jews. Durkheim’s interpretation of this disparity was startling. In his view, Protestants tended to commit suicide in higher proportions because their faith fostered a greater sense of individualism. This, in turn, led to higher rates of the crippling side effect of loneliness—or, as Durkheim termed it, “anomie” (transmuted into French from the Greek anomos, “lawless,” and defined as “the lack of social or ethical standards in an individual or group”). Durkheim posited that Catholics and Jews committed suicide less frequently because their faiths placed a greater emphasis on communalism and unity, which engendered among their adherents a sense of togetherness and belonging. Catholicism and Judaism ensconced the individual within a communal web of care and concern, making troubled individuals feel as if they were never truly alone.
Like many sophisticated individuals today, Wallace may have considered himself too intelligent to bother with belief or accept the doctrines of a religious tradition. To many intelligent people, certain core religious beliefs can seem absurd: a divine revelation in the desert that happened before the eyes of three million people? A virgin birth? A resurrection of the Son of God? A resurrection of the dead during the end of days? An all-seeing omniscient being who watches over us and records our every act? These beliefs can seem more fantastic than the most incredible science fiction.
Yet the societies wherein these beliefs emerged created communities of concern in which every individual is cared for and made to belong. In these communities of concern, individuals are given a sense of meaning in life, and are embedded in networks of love and support. As Alain de Botton argued in Religion for Atheists, atheists are wrong to reject religion in totality simply because there are certain creeds that they cannot accept. According to de Botton, even atheists should acknowledge that religionists have been geniuses at creating communities and generating meaning; atheists have much to learn from how religion has served humanity’s most profound psychological and existential needs for thousands of years. And the secular world has yet to create anomie-reducing alternatives the likes of which religion carefully created and developed over scores of generations.
Is the Universe Tragic or Comic?
At one point during Lipsky’s interview, Wallace affirms his belief that human beings cannot truly change. Clearly, Wallace wasn’t only a tragic writer. In his real life, Wallace himself was a tragic character who believed that we cannot escape our character, that “in the end we end up becoming ourselves.”
This view is fundamentally at odds with the Judeo-Christian tradition, which at its core maintains the hope that we can all change, that we can all purify our coarse characters and merit redemption and salvation. How we merit this salvation—whether by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior or by accepting the yoke of the six-hundred-thirteen commandments—is the subject of doctrinal dispute. Yet what is agreed upon, not only by Christianity and Judaism but by most religions, is that metaphysical, social, and psychological mechanisms exist whereby we mortal human beings can alter the course of our destinies, transcend fate, and achieve—either in this life or the next—inner peace.
Wallace’s belief in the futility of human beings’ attempts to escape themselves and transcend their natures, and his view that personality is determinative of destiny, suffuses Infinite Jest with a tragic sensibility that is closer to the Greek view of human nature than the Judeo-Christian perspective that “every human being has the capacity to be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jereboam,” as Maimonides wrote in the Mishneh Torah. In a key passage of his magisterial Infinite Jest, Wallace writes:
The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. . . . You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win . . . You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again. (emphasis added)
Perhaps the true tragedy of Wallace’s life was that he was never given the tools to access a religious tradition that would have given him the means to treat the spiritual crisis from which he so acutely suffered. He was never given the spiritual keys that would have unlocked for him the treasure house of a wisdom tradition. Thus, he was always trapped inside his own animating limits, killed by his own hand and mourned by us all.
Daniel Ross Goodman, a writer and rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) in New York, is editor-in-chief of Milin Havivin, the YCT Journal of Jewish Studies.