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Roger Federer Killed David Foster Wallace

By anaesthetica in Culture
Sat Aug 22, 2009 at 02:16:46 AM EST
Tags: tennis, federer, dfw, suicide, an hero, footnotes, religion, depression (all tags)

On 14 September 2008, David Foster Wallace's wife, Karen L. Green, discovered the writer's body, hung in an apparent suicide. The conventional story goes like this:

  • Wallace had suffered from depression for over 20 years.
  • He needed antidepressant medication to be productive.
  • However, Wallace began to experience severe side-effects from his primary antidepressant, phenelzine.
  • He began to wean himself from phenelzine in June 2007, right around the start of the 2007 Wimbledon Championships.
  • His depression returned.
  • He tried other treatments, such as electroshock.
  • Returning to phenelzine, Wallace found that it was no longer effective.
  • His depression became even more severe.
  • Wallace committed suicide.

The conventional account bears the semblance of truth. But it is fundamentally incomplete. It is a post-Freudian tale of a man and his psyche only. Freud believed that God was an illusion, but not so David Foster Wallace. Wallace was a believer, and the religious experience is what is missing from the story of Wallace's untimely end. Indeed it was Freud's star pupil, Jung, who divined that one's problems past the age of 35 are fundamentally religious in essence. Herein lies the final piece of the puzzle.

Everyone Chooses Their Own Religion

Wallace outlined his concept of the omnipresent religious experience of human life in a commencement speech given to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College:

Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship…

Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

The Faith of Wallace

What did DFW choose to see, to consciously give meaning, to worship? Tennis. More specifically, it was "Federer as Religious Experience." And it was Rog who ate him alive.

The specific thesis here is that if you've never seen the young man play live, and then do, in person, on the sacred grass of Wimbledon, through the literally withering heat and then wind and rain of the '06 fortnight, then you are apt to have what one of the tournament's press bus drivers describes as a "bloody near-religious experience."

Wimbledon is strange. Verily it is the game's Mecca, the cathedral of tennis; but it would be easier to sustain the appropriate level of on-site veneration if the tournament weren't so intent on reminding you over and over that it's the cathedral of tennis.

Here DFW exposes the sacred in his life, the Ka'bah acting as polar center to his universe, the cathedral whose flying arches meet at a point high above, directing him to the transcendent.

[W]ar's codes are safer for most of us than love's. You too may find them so, in which case Spain's mesomorphic and totally martial Rafael Nadal is the man's man for you – he of the unsleeved biceps and Kabuki self-exhortations. Plus Nadal is also Federer's nemesis and the big surprise of this year's Wimbledon, since he's a clay-court specialist and no one expected him to make it past the first few rounds here.

Federer has so far lost only four matches all year, but they've all been to Nadal. Still, most of these matches have been on slow clay, Nadal's best surface. Grass is Federer's best.

He sets up Nadal as Nemesis, the figure of Satan, a demonic, bellicose presence, a warring contrast to the figure of love, the prince of peace: Federer. Nadal is an outsider to the sacred grass of Wimbledon, specializing in baked clay courts.

The metaphysical explanation is that Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws. …And Federer is of this type – a type that one could call genius, or mutant, or avatar. He is never hurried or off-balance. The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to. …[H]e looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light. This thing about the ball cooperatively hanging there, slowing down, as if susceptible to the Swiss's will – there's real metaphysical truth here. …Your experience, in play, will not be that you possess phenomenal reflexes and speed; rather, it will seem to you that the tennis ball is quite large and slow-moving, and that you always have plenty of time to hit it.

…Roger Federer is showing that the speed and strength of today's pro game are merely its skeleton, not its flesh. He has, figuratively and literally, re-embodied men's tennis…

DFW imagines Federer as a gnostic Christ, the avatar of God on earth, a Neo-like savior with the ability to transcend the constraints of the material world, to return living flesh to the dead.

When God Died

DFW committed suicide by hanging himself in September 2008. It is no coincidence that 2008 was a disastrous year for Federer.

  • Federer failed to defend his Australian Open title, losing in the semifinals to Novak Djokovic, ending his record streak of 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals. It marked the first time Federer failed to reach a Grand Slam final since the 2005 French Open and the first time he lost to anyone other than Nadal in a major since the 2005 Australian Open.
  • He revealed that he had been diagnosed with mono.
  • He lost in the first round to Andy Murray at the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships, the first time Federer had lost in the first round of a tournament in four years.
  • In April, Federer lost to Mardy Fish in the Pacific Life Open, despite Mardy only serving at 34%. He then lost to Andy fucking Roddick in the Sony Ericsson Open quarterfinals.
  • His weakness on clay became aggravated:
    • At the Masters Series Monte Carlo, Federer lost to Nadal, making 44 unforced errors and giving up a 4-0 lead in the second set.
    • At the Rome Masters, Federer lost in the quarter-finals to Radek Štěpánek.
    • Federer also failed to defend his title at the Masters Series Hamburg, losing to Nadal in the final.
  • At the French Open, Federer was defeated in straight sets by Nadal in the final 6-1, 6-3, 6-0, the second-most-lopsided men's final in French Open history and Federer's heaviest loss in a Grand Slam match.

And then, at the crowning event of tennis worship, Wimbledon, Federer's year unraveled completely:

Federer once again played World No. 2 Nadal in the final. A victory for Federer would have meant his sixth consecutive Wimbledon singles title, breaking Borg's modern era men's record and equaling the all-time record held since 1886 by William Renshaw. Federer saved two championship points in the fourth set tiebreak but eventually lost the match 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7. The rain-delayed match ended in near darkness after 4 hours, 48 minutes of play, making it the longest (in terms of elapsed time) men's final in Wimbledon recorded history. It concluded 7 hours, 15 minutes after its scheduled start. The defeat also ended Federer's 65 match winning streak on grass. John McEnroe described the match as "The greatest match I've ever seen."1

Federer limped on, withdrawing early from Masters Series Rogers Cup and Western & Southern Financial Group Masters. Chosen to represent Switzerland in the Olympics, Federer lost in the quarter-finals to James Blake for the first time in their nine match history. Following the Olympics, Federer officially lost his World No. 1 ranking to Nadal after a record 237 consecutive weeks.

Federer would win the US Open on September 13th, but it was likely too late for redemption. God's immanence on Earth had been retracted, the age of miracles was over. DFW was found hung the next day.


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This story should have had:
o Less failure on the part of the author. 38%
o Footnotes. 61%
o Footnotes within footnotes. 76%
o Same subject, but 1000+ page treatment. 76%

Votes: 13
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o David Foster Wallace
o suffered from depression
o phenelzine
o wean himself from phenelzine
o God was an illusion
o problems past the age of 35 are fundamentally religious
o omnipresen t religious experience of human life
o trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism
o Four Noble Truths
o Federer as Religious Experience
o light
o flesh. He has, figuratively and literally, re-embodied
o Neo
o suicide by hanging
o 2008 was a disastrous year for Federer
o losing
o diagnosed
o lost
o lost [2]
o lost [3]
o lost [4]
o lost [5]
o failed
o defeated
o unraveled
o 1
o lost [6]
o lost [7]
o Also by anaesthetica

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Roger Federer Killed David Foster Wallace | 62 comments (53 topical, 9 editorial, 0 hidden)
Tennis is a sport not a religion (1.28 / 7) (#2)
by Armstrong Hammer on Wed Aug 19, 2009 at 09:45:18 PM EST

might as well worship Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Linus Torvalds as  Gods.

Ut oh, someone hung themselves because they worshiped Bill Gates and couldn't deal with the bugs and security flaws in Windows Vista and MS-Office 2007.

Ut oh, someone hung themselves because Mac OSX 10.5 broke some old 10.2 legacy software, doesn't support their expansion cards for drivers, and did too many kernel panics on them.

Ut oh, someone hung themselves because Linux Kernel 2.6 didn't support their wireless card and broker their legacy software and caused too many Kernel panics.

Learn about the true liberal agenda in the United States of America.

Here are some more links that didn't really fit in (2.25 / 4) (#5)
by anaesthetica on Thu Aug 20, 2009 at 02:36:17 PM EST

...this piece, but are topical:

—I'm the little engine that didn't.
k5: our trolls go to eleven

Color me unimpressed (2.75 / 4) (#7)
by Harry B Otch on Thu Aug 20, 2009 at 03:56:26 PM EST

Okay, so he spouts some hippie platitudes in a college commencement address which basically boil down to "you gotta serve somebody".  Bob Dylan said it better, and that was even during his shitty late-70's period.  But I think the real truth is in DFW's admitted man-crush on Federer.

All novelists are upper-middle class closet gays.  Whether they're Ernest Hemingway, John Updike, or Egil Skallagrimson, the truth gets teased out sooner or later.  Wallace just had his epiphany earlier than most, and spared the world from decades of sub-par writing that he would have inevitably produced had he lived.  

In a way he's lucky that it only took a male tennis player in a headband to make him discover the muse he needed in order to serve--or rather "service"--somebody.


The Cornhole - Corn on the cob wrapped in hickory bacon with two hot dogs and two Colby-Jack cheese sticks wrapped in ground beef

I have a fisrt edition hardcover of (2.50 / 2) (#8)
by Korean Loller Blader on Thu Aug 20, 2009 at 03:59:59 PM EST

Infinite Jest, but it has two tears on the flyleaf. However, I am unimpressed with him as a writer. He falls into the Pynchon vein of things and I just could never get into it.

No zazzz, you know?
D'oh! I can't seem to talk to the mod_

What the hell? (2.66 / 3) (#9)
by GhostOfTiber on Thu Aug 20, 2009 at 04:00:21 PM EST

For one, if you're making the argument that everyone has faith in something, then atheism is faith. But atheists in foxholes aren't atheists - they aren't professing that god doesn't exist anymore than mormons are going foxhole to foxhole handing out copies of THE WATCHTOWER.

Atheists in foxholes are nihilists.

SO what happened in Sept 2008?

  • Bristol Palin was revealed to be pregnant. Was he the father?
  • The Iraqi government took over from the US military. Did he think it would be like nam?
  • The south Ossetia war. Did he care about something the world ignored?
  • Tropical storms. EVerywhere.
  • The ACLU sues for something stupid again
  • oh fuck it just read the wikipedia link.

[Nimey's] wife's ass is my cocksheath. - undermyne

It could only be perfecter (2.85 / 7) (#16)
by localroger on Thu Aug 20, 2009 at 06:38:52 PM EST

...if it had a footnote, and in that footnote you found an excuse to mention A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. But it'll do as is.

And that is what is so great about the internet. It enables pompous blowhards to connect with other pompous blowhards in a vast circle jerk of pomposity. -- Bill Maher
Goddamn I hate otherwise intelligent people (2.66 / 3) (#21)
by QuantumFoam on Thu Aug 20, 2009 at 10:00:56 PM EST

that go on and on about sports. Except for Eschaton, all the tennis bits of Infinite Jest were tedious as fuck. It's like when George Will blows a column on fucking baseball...

- Barack Obama: Because it will work this time. Honest!

The spirit of (none / 1) (#22)
by Strom Thurmond on Thu Aug 20, 2009 at 11:18:20 PM EST

Jim Keith lives on with this story.

VEGETARIAN: An Indian word meaning "lousy hunter"

actually, Mr. Hanky killed him (2.66 / 3) (#25)
by N0574 on Fri Aug 21, 2009 at 08:26:29 AM EST

circumstantial evidence ... after the suicide, being highly defensive of DFW's corpus. According to K5 investigators, what transpired was Mr. H became obsessed with making other people believe his favorite scribbler was a "great writer", took matters into his own hands, snuck into DFW's home, and substituted horsecock for his meds. The rest is K5 history.

-0, tennis.


Nice to finally see a (2.50 / 2) (#33)
by dakini on Fri Aug 21, 2009 at 03:27:48 PM EST

story worth reading in the queue. +FP from me.

" May your vision be clear, your heart strong, and may you always follow your dreams."
good riddance $ (none / 1) (#36)
by th0m on Sat Aug 22, 2009 at 03:47:19 AM EST

lrn2english (none / 1) (#37)
by jbs36 on Sat Aug 22, 2009 at 10:20:07 PM EST

People are hanged; paintings are hung.

This was entertaining but, (2.00 / 3) (#40)
by pesfb on Sun Aug 23, 2009 at 10:50:53 AM EST

in essence, was just esoteric nonsense. If the information re Wallace is correct then it is clear he was simply deeply depressed and suicidal and his concept of the omnipresent religious experience merely a product of lunacy.

If sane, Wallace would have understood that there is no inherent drive to worship. Worship is a choice, not a necessity.

Worship is for beta males. (1.00 / 2) (#47)
by JulianConrad on Mon Aug 24, 2009 at 12:41:49 AM EST

When you see men bowing down in worship, especially Muslims an a mosque, how can you not think of beta chimps submitting to the alpha chimp?

Alpha males, by contrast, seem to dispense with worship, though they might go along with the pretense of piety, like good Straussians, to help keep the beta males in line.

More likely due to Sarah Palin (2.66 / 3) (#57)
by scodger on Wed Aug 26, 2009 at 03:56:56 AM EST

If you read the column he wrote on McCains bid against Bush it is pretty clear he had a heap of respect for McCain, if not for his politics, for his genuineness and struggles (he kinds of dotes on the year in the box, and inability to comb his hair). The suicide was 14 September, Palin was announced as the running mate on August 29. Just over 2 weeks is about as long as it took to see what she really was.

Best thing on k5 in ages. (2.50 / 2) (#58)
by humongouspenis on Thu Aug 27, 2009 at 01:28:29 PM EST

But really, was anyone surprised? I think I got the worst depressive episode in my life from just reading all of DFW's work in one long stretch.

I especially recommend "Good Ol' Neon" from Oblivion.

100 days of DFW (2.50 / 2) (#59)
by Vampire Zombie Abu Musab al Zarqawi on Fri Aug 28, 2009 at 12:08:13 PM EST

in German: http://www.welt.de/themen/David+Foster+Wallace/

DFW is fairly forgettable. (none / 1) (#61)
by Korean Loller Blader on Fri Aug 28, 2009 at 04:10:02 PM EST

I predict he will be basically forgotten in a few years. Even faster than Dos Passos, who actually won the Nobel and was prolific instead of revered for being a nerd among nerds.

I have to admit, Infinite Jest was a bad book. Not well executed and only a cursory attempt at experimental lit based on the most conservative structures available. Frankly, suicide made him interesting. And his profuse sweating problem.
D'oh! I can't seem to talk to the mod_

... what? (none / 1) (#62)
by sick puppy on Sun Sep 20, 2009 at 01:12:21 PM EST

Roger Federer Killed David Foster Wallace | 62 comments (53 topical, 9 editorial, 0 hidden)
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