Enter Death

We know nothing of this going.
It excludes us. Faced with death,
what cause have we to respond
with the fear and grief or even hatred

that twist the features to a mask of tragedy?
On this side of death we play roles.
So long as we seek to please the audience,
death, who needs no approval, plays us.

When you died, there broke across the stage,
through the gash your leaving made,
a shaft of reality: green of real green,
real sunlight, real trees.

Still we keep acting: fearful and solemn,
reciting our script, taking on gestures.
But you, who have been withdrawn from us,
subtracted from our very being,

now and again you overcome us,
showing us the reality we glimpsed,
so that for a while, jolted back, we are life
with no thought of applause.

— Rilke, New Poems

Not really thinking

By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.

– George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

Write for the gladiators

Three in the morning. I realize this second, then this one, then the next: I draw up the balance sheet for each minute. And why all this? Because I was born. It is a special type of sleeplessness that produces the indictment of birth.

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No one has lived so close to his skeleton as i have lived to mine: from which results an endless dialogue and certain truths which I manage neither to accept nor to reject.

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I forgive X everything because of his obsolete smile.

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It is easier to get on with vices than with virtues. The vices, accommodating by nature, help each other, are full of mutual indulgence, whereas the jealous virtues combat and annihilate each other, showing in everything their incompatibility and their intolerance.

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He who hates himself is not humble.

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In certain men, everything, absolutely everything, derives from physiology: their body is their mind, their mind is their body.

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Time, fertile in resources, more inventive and more charitable then we think, possesses a remarkable capacity to help us out, to afford us at any hour of the day some new humiliation.

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I have always sought out landscapes that preceded God. Whence my weakness for Chaos.

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I have decided not to oppose anyone ever again, since I have noticed that I always end by resembling my latest enemy.

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For a long while I have lived with the notion that I was the most normal being that ever existed. This notion gave me the taste, even the passion for being unproductive: what was the use of being prized in a world inhabited by madmen, a world mired in mania and stupidity? For whom was one to bother, and to what end? It remains to be seen if I have quite freed myself from this certitude, salvation in the absolute, ruin in the immediate.

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Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.

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We say: he has no talent, only tone. But tone is precisely what cannot be invented — we’re born with it. Tone is an inherited grace, the privilege some of us have of making our organic pulsations felt — tone is more than talent, it is its essence.

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The same feeling of not belonging, of futility, wherever I go: I pretend interest in what matters nothing to me, I bestir myself mechanically or out of charity, without ever being caught up, without ever being somewhere. What attracts me is somewhere else, and I don’t know what that elsewhere is.

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My vision of the future is so exact that if I had children, I should strangle them here and now.

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In a metropolis as in a hamlet, what we still love best is to watch the fall of one of our kind.

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A disease is ours only from the moment we are told its name, the moment when the rope is put around our neck. . . .

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The ideal being? An angel ravaged by humor.

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Indispensable condition for spiritual fulfillment: to have always placed the wrong bet.

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We have convictions only if we have studied nothing thoroughly.

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I do nothing, granted. But I see the hours pass — which is better than trying to fill them.

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No need to elaborate works – merely say something that can be murmured in the ear of a drunkard or a dying man.

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There is a god at the outset, if not at the end, of every joy.

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True contact between beings is established only by mute presence, by apparent non-communication, by that mysterious and wordless exchange which resembles inward prayer.

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In the deepest part of yourself, aspire to be as dispossessed, as lamentable as God.

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What I know at sixty, I knew as well at twenty. Forty years of a long, a superfluous, labor of verification.

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Even in childhood I watched the hours flow, independent of any reference, any action, any event, the disjunction of time from what was not itself, its autonomous existence, its special status, its empire, its tyranny. I remember clearly that afternoon when, for the first time, confronting the empty universe, I was no more than a passage of moments reluctant to go on playing their proper parts. Time was coming unstuck from being — at my expense.

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If death had only negative aspects, dying would be an unmanageable action.

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Everything exists; nothing exists. Either formula affords a like serenity. The man of anxiety, to his misfortune, remains between them, trembling and perplexed, forever at the mercy of a nuance, incapable of gaining a foothold in the security of being or in the absence of being.

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“In this our life” — to be in life: suddenly I am struck by the strangeness of such an expression, as if it applied to no one.

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Whenever I flag and feel sorry for my brain, I am carried away by an irresistible desire to proclaim. That is the moment I realize the paltry depths out of which rise reformers, prophets, and saviors.

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As the years pass, the number of those we can communicate with diminishes. When there is no longer anyone to talk to, at last we will be as we were before stooping to a name.

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Some have misfortunes; others, obsessions. Which are worse off?

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Thought is never innocent, for it is pitiless, it is aggressive, it helps us burst our bonds. Were we to suppress what is evil and even demonic in thought, we should have to renounce the very concept of deliverance.

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It is not my beginnings, it is the beginning that matters to me. If I bump into my birth, into a minor obsession, it is because I cannot grapple with the first moment of time. Every individual discomfort leads back, ultimately, to a cosmogonic discomfort, each of our sensation, by which Being crept out of somewhere. . . .

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There was a time when time did not yet exist. . . . The rejection of birth is nothing but the nostalgia for this time before time.

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In major perplexities, try to live as if history were done with and to react like a monster riddled by serenity.

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Amid anxiety and distress, sudden calm at the thought of the foetus one has been.

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Endlessly to refer to a world where nothing yet stooped to occurrence, where you anticipated consciousness without desiring it, where, wallowing in the virtual, you rejoiced in the null plenitude of a self anterior to selfhood. . . .

Not to have been born, merely musing on that — what happiness, what freedom, what space!

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There is a kind of knowledge that strips whatever you do of weight and scope: for such knowledge, everything is without basis except itself. Pure to the point of abhorring even the notion of an object, it translates that extreme science according to which doing or not doing something comes down to the same thing and is accompanied by an equally extreme satisfaction: that of being able to rehearse, each time, the discovery that any gesture performed is not worth defending, that nothing is enhanced by the merest vestige of substance, that “reality” falls within the province of lunacy. Such knowledge deserves to be called posthumous: it functions as if the knower were alive and not alive, a being and the memory of a being. “It’s already in the past,” he says about all that he achieves, even as he achieves it, thereby forever destitute of the present.

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If we could see ourselves as others see us, we would vanish on the spot.

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When I happen to be busy, I never give a moment’s thought to the “meaning” of anything, particularly of whatever it is I am doing. A proof that the secret of everything is in the action and not in abstention, that fatal cause of consciousness.

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To stretch out in a field, to smell the earth and tell yourself it is the end as well as the hope of our dejections, that it would be futile to search for anything better to rest on, to dissolve into. . . .

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This craving to revise our enthusiasms, to change idols, to pray elsewhere . . .

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Only God has the privilege of abandoning us. Men can only drop us.

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This very second has vanished forever, lost in the anonymous mass of the irrevocable. It will never return. I suffer from this, and I do not. Everything is unique — and insignificant.

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Self-knowledge — the bitterest knowledge of all and also the kind we cultivate least: what is the use of catching ourselves out, morning to night, in the act of illusion, pitilessly tracing each act back to its root, and losing case after case before our own tribunal?

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Once we appeal to our most intimate selves, once we begin to labor and to produce, we lay claim to gifts, we become unconscious of our own gaps. No one is in a position to admit that what comes out of his own depths might be worthless. “Self-knowledge”? A contradiction in terms.

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At the climax of failure, at the moment when shame is about to do us in, suddenly we are swept away by a frenzy of pride which lasts only long enough to drain us, to leave us without energy, to lower, with our powers, the intensity of our shame.

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More than once I have managed to leave my room, for if I had stayed there I could not be sure of being able to resist some sudden resolution. The street is more reassuring, you think less about yourself there, there everything weakens and wilts, beginning with your own confusion.

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He detested objective truths, the burden of argument, sustained reasoning. He disliked demonstrating, he wanted to convince no one. Others are a dialectician’s invention.

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The mind that puts everything in question reaches, after a thousand interrogations, an almost total inertia, a situation which the inert, in fact, know from the start, by instinct. For what is inertia but a congenital perplexity?

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Having lived in fear of being surprised by the worst, I have tried in every circumstance to a get a head start, flinging myself into misfortune long before it occurred.

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Imaginary pains are by far the most real we suffer, since we feel a constant need for them and invent them because there is no way of doing without them.

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O to have been born before man!

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The most effective way to avoid dejection, motivated or gratuitous, is to take a dictionary, preferably of a language you scarcely know, and to look up word after word in it, making sure that they are the kind you will never use. . . .

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As long as you live on this side of the terrible, you will find words to express it; once you know it from inside, you will no longer find a single one.

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To realize, in rage and desolation alike, that nature, as Bossuet says, will not long grant us “this morsel of matter she lends.” — This morsel of matter: by dint of pondering it we reach peace, though a peace it would be better never to have known.

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Paradox is not suited to burials, nor to weddings or births, in fact. Sinister — or grotesque — events require commonplaces; the terrible, like the painful, accommodates only the cliche.

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The Aztecs were right to believe the gods must be appeased, to offer them human blood every day in order to keep the universe from sinking back into chaos.

We long since ceased to believe in the gods, and we no longer offer them sacrifices. Yet the world is still here. No doubt. Only we no longer have the good luck to know why it does not collapse on the spot.

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Think about those who haven’t long to live, who know that everything is over and done with, except the time in which the thought of their end unrolls. Deal with that time. Write for the gladiators. . . .

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Moral disintegration when we spend time in a place that is too beautiful: the self dissolves upon contact with paradise. No doubt it was to avoid this danger that the first man made the choice he did.

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We had nothing to say to one another, and while I was manufacturing my phrases I felt that the earth was falling through space and that I was falling with it at a speed that made me dizzy.

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Years and years to waken from that sleep in which the others loll; then years and years to escape that awakening . . .

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A task to be done, something I have undertaken out of necessity or choice: no sooner have I started in than everything seems important, everything attracts me, except that.

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Erosion of our being by our infirmities: the resulting void is filled by the presence of consciousness, what am I saying? — that void is consciousness itself.

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The substance of a work is the impossible — what we have not been able to attain, what could not be given to us: the sum of all the things which were refused us.

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Gogol, in hopes of a “regeneration,” journeys to Nazareth and discovers he is as bored there as “in a Russian railroad station” — this is what happens to us all when we look outside ourselves for what can exist only inside.

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Kill yourself because you are what you are, yes, but not because all humanity would spit in your face!

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Why fear the nothing in store for us when it is no different from the nothing which preceded us: this argument of the Ancients against the fear of death is unacceptable as consolation. Before, we had the luck not to exist; now we exist, and it is this particle of existence, hence of misfortune, which dreads death. Particle is not the word, since each of us prefers himself to the universe, at any rate considers himself equal to it.

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When we discern the unreality of everything, we ourselves become unreal, we begin to survive ourselves, however powerful our vitality, however imperious our instincts. But they are no longer anything but false instincts, and false vitality.

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If you are doomed to devour yourself, nothing can keep you from it: a trifle will impel you as much as a tragedy. Resign yourself to erosion at all times: your fate wills it so.

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To live is to lose ground.

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To think that so many have succeeded in dying.

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Impossible not to resent those who write us overwhelming letters.

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In a remote province in India, everything was explained by dreams, and what is more important, dreams were used to cure diseases as well. It was according to dreams that business was conducted and matters of life and death decided. Until the English came. Since then, one native said, “We no longer dream.”

In what we have agreed to call “civilization,” there resides, undeniably, a diabolic principle man has become conscious of too late, when it was no longer possible to remedy it.

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Lucidity without the corrective of ambition leads to stagnation. It is essential that the one sustain the other, that the one combat the other without winning, for a work, for a life to be possible.

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We cannot forgive those we have praised to the skies, we are impatient to break with them, to snap the most delicate chain of all: the chain of admiration . . . , not out of insolence, but out of aspiration to find our bearings, to be free, to be . . . ourselves. Which we manage only by an act of injustice.

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The problem of responsibility would have a meaning only if we had been consulted before our birth and had consented to be precisely who we are.

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The energy and virulence of my taedium vitae continue to astound me. So much vigor in a disease so decrepit! To this paradox I owe my present incapacity to choose my final hour.

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Children turn, and must turn, against their parents, and the parents can do nothing about it, for they are subject to a law which decrees the relations among all the living: i.e., that each engenders his own enemy.

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In a Gnostic work of the second century of our era, we read: “The prayer of a melancholy man will never have the strength to rise unto God.” . . . Since man prays only in despondency, we may deduce that no prayer has ever reached its destination.

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He was above all others, and had had nothing to do with it: he had simply forgotten to desire. . . .

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No one exclaims he is feeling well and that he is free, yet this is what all who know this double blessing should do. Nothing condemns us more than our incapacity to shout our good luck.

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To have failed in everything, always, out of a love of discouragement!

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The sole means of protecting your solitude is to offend everyone, beginning with those you love.

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A book is a postponed suicide.

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Say what we will, death is the best thing nature has found to please everyone. With each of us, everything vanishes, everything stops forever. What an advantage, what an abuse! Without the least effort on our part, we own the universe, we drag it into our own disappearance. No doubt about it, dying is immoral. . . .

*

— E. M. Cioran
(probably from The Trouble with Being Born)

A matter of perspective

But it wouldn’t have made you a fraud to change your mind. It would be sad to do it because you think you somehow have to.

It won’t hurt, though. It will be loud, and you’ll feel things, but they’ll go through you so fast that you won’t even realize you’re feeling them (which is sort of like the paradox I used to bounce off Gustafson — is it possible to be a fraud if you aren’t aware you’re a fraud?). And the very brief moment of fire you’ll feel will be almost good, like when your hands are cold and there’s a fire and you hold your hands out toward it.

The reality is that dying isn’t bad, but it takes forever. And that forever is no time at all. I know that sounds like a contradiction, or maybe just wordplay. What it really is, it turns out, is a matter of perspective. The big picture, as they say, in which the fact is that this whole seemingly endless back-and-forth between us has come and gone and come again in the very same instant that Fern stirs a boiling pot for dinner, and your stepfather packs some pipe tobacco down with his thumb, and Angela Mead uses an ingenious little catalogue tool to roll cat hair off her blouse, and Melissa Betts inhales to respond to something she thinks her husband just said, and David Wallace blinks in the midst of idly scanning class photos from his 1980 Aurora West H.S. yearbook and seeing my photo and trying, through the tiny little keyhole of himself, to imagine what all must have happened to lead up to my death in the fiery single-car accident he’d read about in 1991, like what sorts of pain or problems might have driven the guy to get in his electric-blue Corvette and try to drive with all that O.T.C. medication in his bloodstream — David Wallace happening to have a huge and totally unorganizable set of inner thoughts, feelings, memories and impressions of this little photo’s guy a year ahead of him in school with the seemingly almost neon aura around him all the time of scholastic and athletic excellence and popularity and success with the ladies, as well as of every last cutting remark or even tiny disgusted gesture or expression on this guy’s part whenever David Wallace struck out looking in Legion ball or said something dumb at a party, and of how impressive and authentically at ease in the world the guy always seemed, like an actual living person instead of the dithering, pathetically self-conscious outline or ghost of a person David Wallace knew himself back then to be. Verily a fair-haired, fast-track guy, whom in the very best human tradition David Wallace had back then imagined as happy and unreflective and wholly undaunted by voices telling him that there was something deeply wrong with him that wasn’t wrong with anybody else and that he had to spend all of his time and energy trying to figure out what to do and say in order to impersonate an even marginally normal or acceptable U.S. male, all this stuff clanging around in David Wallace ’81’s head every second and moving so fast that he never got a chance to catch hold and try to fight or argue against it or even really even feel it except as a knot in his stomach as he stood in his real parents’ kitchen ironing his uniform and thinking of all the ways he could screw up and strike out looking or drop balls out in right and reveal his true pathetic essence in front of this .418 hitter and his witchily pretty sister and everyone else in the audience in lawn chairs in the grass along the sides of the Legion field (all of whom probably already saw through the sham from the outset anyway, he was pretty sure) — in other words David Wallace trying, if only in the second his lids are down, to somehow reconcile what this luminous guy had seemed like from the outside with whatever on the interior must have driven him to kill himself in such a dramatic and doubtlessly painful way — with David Wallace also fully aware that the cliché that you can’t ever truly know what’s going on inside somebody else is hoary and insipid and yet at the same time trying very consciously to prohibit that awareness from mocking the attempt or sending the whole line of thought into the sort of inbent spiral that keeps you from ever getting anywhere (considerable time having passed since 1981, of course, and David Wallace having emerged from years of literally indescribable war against himself with quite a bit more firepower than he’d had at Aurora West), the realer, more enduring and sentimental part of him commanding that other part to be silent as if looking it levelly in the eye and saying, almost aloud, ‘Not another word.’

— David Foster Wallace, “Good Old Neon”

Life has time to flash like neon

One clue that there’s something not quite real about sequential time and the way you experience it is the various paradoxes of time supposedly passing and of a so-called ‘present’ that’s always unrolling into the future and creating more and more past behind it. As if the present were this car — nice car by the way — and the past is the road we’ve just gone over, and the future is the headlit road up ahead we haven’t yet gotten to, and time is the car’s forward movement, and the precise present is the car’s front bumper as it cuts through the fog of the future, so that it’s now and then a tiny bit later a whole different now, etc. Except if time is really passing, how fast does it go? At what rate does the present change? See? Meaning if we use time to measure motion or rate — which we do, it’s the only way you can — 95 miles per hour, 70 heartbeats a minute, etc. — how are you supposed to measure the rate at which time moves? One second per second? It makes no sense. You can’t even talk about time flowing or moving without hitting up against paradox right away. So think for a second: What if there’s really no movement at all? What if this is all unfolding in the one flash you call the present, this first, infinitely tiny split second of impact when the speeding car’s front bumper’s just starting to touch the abutment, just before the bumper crumples and displaces the front end and you go violently forward and the steering column comes back at your chest as if shot out of something enormous? Meaning that what if in fact this now is infinite and never really passes in the way your mind is supposedly wired to understand pass, so that not only your whole life but every single humanly conceivable way to describe and account for that life has time to flash like neon shaped into those connected cursive letters that businesses’ signs and windows love so much to use through your mind all at once in the literally immeasurable instant between impact and death, just as you start forward to meet the wheel at a rate no belt ever made could restrain — THE END.

— David Foster Wallace, “Good Old Neon”

Pointing at shadows

For no, if the therapist really wanted the truth, the actual “gut”-level truth underneath all her childishly defensive anger and shame, the depressed person had shared from a hunched and near-fetal position beneath the sunburst clock, sobbing but making a conscious choice not to bother wiping her eyes or even her nose, the depressed person really felt that what was really unfair was that she felt able — even here in therapy with the trusted and compassionate therapist — that she felt able to share only painful circumstances and historical insights about her depression and its etiology and texture and numerous symptoms instead of feeling truly able to communicate and articulate and express the depression’s terrible unceasing agony itself, an agony that was the overriding and unendurable reality of her every black minute on earth — i.e., not being able to share the way it truly felt, what the depression made her feel like inside on a daily basis, she had wailed hysterically, striking repeatedly at her recliner’s suede armrests — or to reach out and communicate and express it to someone who could not only listen and understand and care but could or would actually feel it with her (i.e., feel what the depressed person felt). The depressed person confessed to the therapist that what she felt truly starved for and really truly fantasized about was having the ability to somehow really truly literally “share” it (i.e., the chronic depression’s ceaseless torment). She said that the depression felt as if it was so central and inescapable to her identity and who she was as a person that not being able to share the depression’s inner feeling or even really describe what it felt like felt to her for example like feeling a desperate, life-or-death need to describe the sun in the sky and yet being able or permitted only to point to shadows on the ground. She was so very tired of pointing at shadows, she had sobbed. She (i.e., the depressed person) had then immediately broken off and laughed hollowly at herself and apologized to the therapist for employing such a floridly melodramatic and self-pitying analogy.

— David Foster Wallace, “The Depressed Person”