Does anyone else feel this lonely?
Dear David Foster Wallace:
Having just finished Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, I wanted to write to you. Of course, I realize you’re dead and therefore will either get this message immediately (via whatever angel-in-cloud spy network is set up so the infinitely-bored deceased can spy on us) or never get it at all. So, yes, I’m writing to you in the abstract—but I can’t shake the feeling that this is about more than the abstraction of you.
There’s this phrase in my head lately: You can’t decide who you’re related to but you can decide who your family is. Is it arrogant to say I feel like you’re a sort of big brother to me right now? Is this trying to pick up on some reflected glory? (When I wrote “reflective glory” just now, was that a typo or did I mean your penetrating way of looking into the world and yourself?)
You’ve done what I’ve tried to do, what I’m trying to do: Ask the hard, human questions unflinchingly, or at least with an awareness of one’s own flinching. I admire your moral rigor, the cynical awareness of your own cynicism, and the willingness to jump into the anomie and try to turn the whole thing inside out—seeking to build a world where connection is possible on more than a commercialized level. To see you doing this makes me feel more courageous and less alone.
My admiration for you is not based on your talent with the writing craft. It’s not that there are no strengths to admire. Your dry wit is excellently executed (“The [Academy Awards'] notorious commercialism and hypocrisy disgusts many of the millions and millions and millions of viewers who tune in during prime time to watch the presentations.”) You know how to turn a phrase (“Several of the outfits defy very basic precepts of modern physics”). You’re able to use juxtaposition with your own academic tone to draw out the power of colloquial expressions (“It never once occurs to him, though, that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole”). You choose fascinating details to paint a scene (“Even a sort of half-collapsed house down the street that everybody thought was abandoned has one of the little flags on a stick in the weeds by the driveway”).
And you have your weaknesses. You choose inflated language for no apparent purpose; why say senescence when “aging” means the exact same thing in this context? Why “sedulous” instead of “dedicated”? Why “lugubrious” instead of “dismal”? And, seriously, why say “fungiphagic” when ten times as many readers will understand “mushroom-eating”? You even resort to some cliches. “Her rise was meteoric”? Really, David? That’s the best you could do?
But the minutia of your writing is not what makes me feel connected to you. It’s that you’re willing to ask hard questions—ones I’ve been asking myself, quietly, while no one else seems to even recognize that these questions exist. It is not how you write I admire but what you use your writing for.
You say things that resonate with me. “A peculiarly American loneliness: the prospect of dying without ever once having loved something more than yourself”; “the horror of the Horror was knowing, deep in my heart, that whatever America the men in those planes hated so much was far more my America [...] than it was these ladies’”; “it is only a matter of time before you start believing deep down that everything is sales and marketing, and that whenever somebody seems like they care about you or about some noble idea or cause, that person is a salesman and really ultimately doesn’t give a shit about you or some cause but really just wants something for himself.”
But there’s something specific you talk about that really hit hard. “Is the real point of my life simply to undergo as little pain and as much pleasure as possible? My behavior sure seems to indicate that this is what I believe, at least a lot of the time. But isn’t this kind of a selfish way to live? Forget selfish— isn’t it awful lonely?”
Lonely. That’s it. I’m lonely. And sometimes I want to scream out into the void, just say, “Does anyone else feel this lonely?” Not in the personal, wishing-I-had-someone-to-hold-onto way, but in that way that wants to make holding on to someone mean something more than a collision of wax bodies. Not in wanting to avoid being at home, alone, but in the way that craves a community, a broader and more honest home to be a part of.
I see myself in the middle of a schism. My generation—Generation Y (or can I get away with putting it as Generation Why?)—seems to take one of two routes. Those on the one side have spent their lives listening to advertisements, have learned about the commercialism of the world. In response, we have mastered the art of sarcasm. Give us anything, anything, and we can deflate it in an instant. Our lives are dedicated to deconstructing every piece of meaning someone tries to sell us. And why wouldn’t we? If we can’t laugh at it, what else can we do? Because we go on and on like this, and after a while death doesn’t even feel like a joke. It just feels like the punchline.
And then there’s the other half. These people I see who are willing to step forward. People like you. People who put themselves under a spotlight and say, “I don’t know if I’m the only person here who’s feeling this, but this is me, and this is what seems real.” Who don’t just wander the void but choose to grapple with it. “Does anyone else feel this lonely?” Who tell the truth for themselves, no matter what, so they know at least one person out there isn’t lying. “This means something. I choose to make this mean something.” These are the people who are seeking authenticity and community, bearings and meaning within this white-washed world of anomie, and have been awakened to the fact that no one else is going to do it for them. That it’s our job to make that world now.
But that’s a heavy world to shoulder, isn’t it? I’m writing to tell you I admire you and I feel like we’re kindred hearts in some way. But you’re not here to hear me. You bowed out early. You felt you couldn’t keep fighting. Can I? Can this Generation Why find an answer to their questions? Can we build something worth protecting?
Reading your work has helped me as a writer, not because you have radically changed the way I approach the craft but because you have shown me how putting these simple words on the page can help other people realize that they’re not alone. Maybe my reason for writing is selfish, but that’s okay; I’m writing because this struggle for authenticity is worth it. It’s worth fighting to feel a little less lonely. I am impelled to write because I don’t see another way.
I’m sorry you can’t write on, David. I feel the loss of you with an unearned intimacy. But I wish I could sit down and have a conversation with you. I wish I could just see you there and we could nod to each other and know that, no matter what else is different, we see—we seek—the same world.