David Foster Wallace and the Dangerous Romance of Male Genius

A recent spate of #MeToo stories serves as yet another reminder of the centrifugal forces of talented men.

David Foster Wallace
Steve Liss / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty

On Monday evening, The New Yorker published yet more proof that the #MeToo moment continues apace: a report containing the testimony of four women accusing the New York attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, of a range of physical and emotional abuses. The story, under the powerhouse co-byline of Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow, was striking—and nauseating—for several reasons, among them allegations of hitting, of threatening, of racism. One of the other reasons, though, was this line: “After the former girlfriend ended the relationship, she told several friends about the abuse. A number of them advised her to keep the story to herself, arguing that Schneiderman was too valuable a politician for the Democrats to lose.”

It’s a common sentiment in politics—the centrifugal forces of “the greater good”—and it is, of course, absurd. Schneiderman, as a matter of policy, may have been a professed ally of women and, indeed, of the aims of #MeToo; that changes nothing about the accountability he bears for his alleged behavior, or about the right of the women to seek a small measure of justice through the telling of their stories. But the absurdity itself was revealing: about the moral compromises so many people are willing to make in the name of broader political progress; about the ways women, in particular, are asked—still, despite it all—to be accommodating and compliant and convenient; about the fickle avenues of our empathies.

Schneiderman, shortly after the New Yorker piece was published—the news cycle is a flat circle—resigned. The notion that the women’s stories about his behavior were somehow a nuisance, though—the notion that things would be so much simpler, macrocosmically, had they kept their experiences to themselves—remains with us. I know that because, shortly before The New Yorker published its story about Eric Schneiderman, the poet and memoirist and essayist Mary Karr published her own story on Twitter. This one was about David Foster Wallace. It was about the writer stalking her and abusing her and, in general, refusing to take no for an answer. As Karr elaborated, in one tweet that reads, in the #MeToo context, as its own form of starkly tragic poetry: “tried to buy a gun. kicked me. climbed up the side of my house at night. followed my son age 5 home from school. had to change my number twice, and he still got it. months and months it went on.”

The added tragedy of all this—kicked, climbed, son, gun, months—is the fact that Karr was not, specifically, making allegations. As Jezebel’s Whitney Kimball pointed out, “The fact that [Wallace] abused [Karr] is not a revelation; this has been documented and adopted by the literary world as one of Wallace’s character traits.” D.T. Max’s 2012 biography of Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, documented those abuses: Wallace, Max alleges, once tried to push Karr from a vehicle. During another fight, he threw a coffee table at her. Karr, in her tweets, was merely repeating the story she has told many times before. A story that has been treated—stop me if this sounds familiar—largely as a complication to another story. In this case, the story of the romantically unruly genius of one David Foster Wallace.

And, so, within the space of a few days, the stories of government officials and prodigious writers tangled together, reminders of the pathological ways American culture approaches power in its many forms. For Schneiderman, it’s political power: the alleged entitlements of one man who claims to serve the higher purpose of the public good. For Karr and Wallace, though, it’s an even more complicated proposition: our insistent fealty to—our implicit faith in—the notion of genius itself. Karr’s #MeToo stories were not so much an open secret as an open revelation. They were not hiding in plain sight; they were, worse, strategically ignored. They were the collateral damage of a culture that prefers uncomplicated idols.

“Talent is its own expectation,” Wallace wrote in Infinite Jest, and he was, of course, correct: There’s a canny tautology to all of this. Genius, a means to godliness and its best evidence, cannot be argued with. Genius cannot be reasoned with. Genius is the answer and the question. It will be heard. It will be respected. Even when it kicks and stalks and climbs up the side of the house at night.

Here is the etymology the Oxford English Dictionary provides for the word genius, imported to English straight from the Latin: “male spirit of a family, existing in the head of the family and subsequently in the divine or spiritual part of each individual, personification of a person’s natural appetites, spirit or personality of an emperor regarded as an object of worship, spirit of a place, spirit of a corporation, (in literature) talent, inspiration, person endowed with talent, also demon or spiritual being in general.”

There’s more, but there’s already so much: genius, by definition a male condition. Genius, a male condition that inflects its maleness on the individual soul. Genius, an object of worship. Genius, perhaps slightly demonic. The derivation isn’t surprising on its own (no one would mistake a typical Roman for a feminist). What is striking, though, is that, millennia later, the biases of the language remain with us, tugging at the edges. Genius itself, the way we typically conceive of it, remains infused with the male gaze, or perhaps more aptly, the male haze: It is gendered by implication. It is a designation reserved, almost exclusively, for men. Guess who the first season of that new show Genius is about? I’ll give you a hint: The first name of the genius in question is Albert. The subject of the show’s second season? Pablo.

These dynamics are unavoidably at play when Mary Karr, the famous and celebrated writer, reminds the world of Wallace’s behavior toward her—reminds the world, indeed, that it needed the reminding in the first place. The horror stories had simply been subsumed into the broader story (the “greater good”) of Wallace’s personal genius: as evidence of his uncontainable passion, of the singular depth of his wanting. He wore his trademark bandana, he once said, not only to keep perspiration at bay, but also because “I’m just kind of worried my head’s gonna explode”; there is a certain romance to the admission. And Wallace has often, indeed, particularly in the popular press, been treated as a rom-comic hero: besotted, helpless, desperate. (Wallace once suggested that the writing of Infinite Jest was a grand gesture meant to impress Karr: “a means to her end (as it were),” he wrote in the margin of a book, seeming to have intended the sexual pun.) There Wallace was, then, raising the boombox. There he was, dropping the cards. There he was, refusing to take no for an answer.

One time, Karr recalled, Wallace arrived at a pool party she was attending with her family with bandages on his left shoulder. She thought perhaps he had been cutting himself; it turned out that the wounds being hidden had come from a tattoo Wallace had gotten: her name, and a heart.

“Wallace did not hear subtle variations in no,” Max notes in an excerpt of Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story; “he knew only one way to seduce: overwhelm. He would show up at Karr’s family home to shovel her driveway after a snowfall, or come unannounced to her recovery meetings. Karr called the head of the halfway house and asked her to let Wallace know his attentions were not welcome. Wallace besieged her with notes anyway.”

In another section of the book: “A month later, in May 1992, Wallace packed up what little he had and drove to Syracuse,” Max writes. “He had rented a first-floor apartment in a house around the corner from Karr and a few blocks from the main campus. It was in a typical graduate-student neighborhood, full of warping clapboard houses and semi-kempt lawns and right across from the food co-op. But being near the woman he loved made all the difference.”

At the release of Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, The New York Times conducted an interview with Max. One of the questions was this: “What was it about his feelings for her that created such trouble for Wallace?”

That created such trouble for Wallace. This is the bias at work. Here, once again, is the male genius emphasized while the female genius is relegated to the margins. Karr is there, as a slight character, in Max’s biography of Wallace; she’s there, too, as a kind of human predicate, in interviews about him, in assessments of his literary contributions, in effusions about his great talent. And often, too—the world can be so myopic that it can fail to see the genius sitting right in front of it—she is directly asked about him: what he was like. What it was like. How it was to have had, for a brief time, the privilege to spin around such an axis. “Sometimes people go on and on about David Foster Wallace,” Karr noted last year. “As though my contribution to literature is that I fucked him a couple times in the early ’90s … Everybody in America owes me a dollar who read Infinite Jest.”

This is the thing we do to women in a world of biased idolatry. Women’s stories get treated as one of Wallace’s trademark footnotes might be: decorative, dexterous, whimsical, trivial. Pretty afterthoughts. Optional. (The book, after all, is already so long.) Meanwhile, the less heroic elements of the male stories—the fact, say, that David Foster Wallace referred to the female fans who attended his book tours as “audience pussy,” or that he wrote in a letter to a friend of a day spent “unpacking, trying to write, chasing tail,” or that he pushed Mary Karr out of a vehicle—get lost in the fog of genius. And in the blunt transactions of fetishized talent. “It isn’t that I doubt that Wallace uttered the sexist remarks attributed to him in any literal sense,” one fan of the author put it. “Rather, I cannot bring myself to believe that Wallace’s interpersonal cowardice comes close to overshadowing his many acts of monumental literary courage.”

Nor can many people. Genius, after all, is a powerful force. (Talent is its own expectation.) A fealty to genius is its own kind of faith: in transcendence, in exceptionalism, in the fact that gods, still, can walk among us. And genius, itself, is its own kind of infrastructure. We have organized our art around its potential; we have organized our economy around its promise. We have oriented ourselves according to the light of its stars—and so when they flicker, even momentarily, we lose ourselves. And: We defend ourselves. We delude ourselves. We choose not to question the makeup of the firmament. It’s so much easier that way. “Something I’ve noticed since Wallace’s suicide in 2008,” Glenn Kenny wrote in The Guardian a few years ago, “is that a lot of self-professed David Foster Wallace fans don’t have much use for people who actually knew the guy. For instance, whenever Jonathan Franzen utters or publishes some pained but unsparing observations about his late friend, Wallace’s fan base recoils, posting comments on the internet about how self-serving he is, or how he really didn’t ‘get’ Wallace.”

I’ve noticed something similar—not only with Wallace, but also with other members of our flawed fraternity of acknowledged geniuses. Last week, I wrote about Roman Polanski’s ouster from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, on the grounds that the director long ago pled guilty to the drugging and raping of a 13-year-old girl. (Many more women, since the plea, have come forward to say that he abused them as teenagers, as well.) My inbox was instantly flooded with bitter indignation, with angry defenses of the status quo: But his movies are so good. Could you make movies like that? Don’t you care about art? Bitch.

The genius-bias is a strong one. The male haze is so very hazy. It’s been there with Polanski. And with Norman Mailer. And with J.D. Salinger. And with so many, many more: writers, athletes, actors, directors, thinkers, artists, the people who take it upon themselves to tell us who, and what, we are. It is everywhere. It is there in our literature and our businesses and our music and our soft entertainments. It is there in our habits of thought. It is one more thing that is, as has been said, water.

In 2012, four years after the death of David Foster Wallace, Mary Karr wrote of him—and his loss—in her poem “Suicide’s Note: An Annual.” Wallace was not fully gone, the poet suggested; he could not be. He was too big, too much, too present. He—his words, his life, the transcendence of his genius—had inscribed themselves into the world’s very physics. Karr’s lines went, in part, like this:

I just wanted to say ha-ha, despite

           your best efforts you are every second

alive in a hard-gnawing way for all who breathed you deeply in,

     each set of lungs, those rosy implanted wings, pink balloons.

Her poem concluded: “We sigh you out into air and watch you rise like rain.”