It is always somewhat uncomfortable reading something a writer was working on when he died. When I read Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura I wondered about his potential future: what might have been if he had lived to finish it. When I read Kurt Vonnegut’s If God Were Alive Today I thought about his past, and what the book would have become if he had still possessed his old skills right up to the end. David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King made me think of his present, and what was going through his mind as he was writing.
Wallace was working on The Pale King when he took his own life. He had long struggled with depression, and it is difficult not to think of this while reading the book. One passage in particular caught my attention:
And not only that, but everybody who knows me or even knows I exist will die, and then everybody who knows those people and might even conceivably have even heard of me will die, and so on and the gravestones and monuments we spend money to have put in to make sure we’re remembered, these’ll last what – a hundred years? two hundred? – and they’ll crumble, and the grass and insects my decomposition will go to feed will die, and their offspring, or if I’m cremated the trees that are nourished by my windblown ash will die or get cut down and decay, and my urn will decay, and before maybe three or four generations it will be like I never existed, not only will I have passed away but it will be like I was never here, and people in 2104 or whatever will no more think of Stuart A. Nichols Jr. than you or I think of John T. Smith, 1790 to 1864, of Livingston, Virginia, or some such. That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we’re all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to imagine, in fact, probably that’s why the manic US obsession with production, produce, produce, produce, impact the world, contribute, shape things, to help distract us from how little and totally insignificant and temporary we are.
It is fascinating Wallace paraphrases Marcus Aurelius. The Roman Emperor’s book, normally called Meditations, is not a happy little self-help guide, despite some modern publishers’ attempts to market it as such. Marcus was approaching the end of his life as he wrote, and he knew it, and this was uppermost in his mind.
People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too. And those after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out… Everything fades so quickly, turns into legend, and soon oblivion covers it. And those are the ones that shone. The rest – ‘unknown, unasked-for’ a minute after death. What is ‘eternal’ fame? Emptiness.
Marcus Aurelius has achieved ‘eternal’ fame, or at least he is still being read 2,000 years after his death. David Foster Wallace has his own share of posthumous renown, but it remains to be seen if he is as lasting as Marcus. But does it matter? As Marcus wrote:
But suppose that those who remembered you were immortal and your memory undying. What good would it do you?
I would suggest Marcus is completely correct. A posthumous reputation does no good to a writer as she is working. However, a realisation of the emptiness in eternal fame does do something beneficial. It places the mind in a position to create lasting literature. As David Foster Wallace wrote:
One paradox of professional writing is that books written solely for money and / or acclaim will almost never be good enough to garner either.
How’s that for irony?