Up Or Down: David Foster Wallace Does the Deathbed Scene

Robert Cochran

So here it is at last, the distinguished thing.

—Henry James

Endings matter, according to top authorities. “On whatever sphere of being the mind of man may be intent at the time of death, thither will he go,” Krishna counsels Arjuna. Dante concurs, relating in Purgatorio’s fifth canto the blessed end of Buonconte da Montefeltro, redeemed after a violent life ended violently by alertly dying in battle “nel nome di Maria”  (with the name of Mary) on his lips, una lagrimetta (a single tear) of contrition on his cheek,  and arms folded in a cross on his chest. An impressive triple play, given his throat wound and other mortal distractions.

Other exits are less fortunate. Kit Marlowe’s, for example.  Stabbed in the eye in a tavern brawl at twenty-nine, “hee even cursed and blasphemed to the last gaspe.”1  No lagrimetta or prayer to the Virgin here, and it’s clearly suggested that the wiseass playwright (an Elizabethan Joe Orton) is headed for speedy infernal reunion with his infamous stage creation. It’s Marlowe’s Faust, remember, whose mortal body is seized by devils, torn into small pieces, and dumped on a dunghill after a twenty-four-year magus star turn. His final speech describes (redundantly) “adders and serpents” and a gaping “Ugly Hell,” closes not on the name of Mary but of “Mephostophilis.”

Death scenes like these, tableaux of uplift and admonition, adorn literature’s august galleries. For every Thane of Cawdor redeeming traitorous life with brave death accompanied by “deep repentance” (“Nothing in his life/Became him like the leaving it”), there’s a hellbound Ahab hurling his spear: “from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” For the Ivan Ilyich who after days of agony finds at the hour of death the “right thing” (sorrow for his grieving son and wife) and dies in “joy,” there is a matching Emma Bovary, whose dreams of a beautifully romantic death are mocked by Flaubert’s clinically dispassionate prose.  Dressing her body for the funeral, the attendants lift her head to attach her “coronne” only to be horrified when “un flot de liquides noirs” pours from her mouth.

Contemporary works carry the tradition forward. An especially vivid instance distinguishes Denis Johnson’s underappreciated Angels, where Bill Houston, condemned for shooting a guard in a bungled bank heist, spends his final gas-chamber breath on a prayer: “’I would like to take this opportunity,’ he said, ‘to pray for another human being.’” Dante’s working the Pearly Gate desk for this one, Bill hangs with Buonconte among the late repentant, safe in Purgatory and bound for glory.

It’s this elevated company David Foster Wallace joins with “On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, The Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon.” It’s finale extended, this piece, first published fifteen years ago in Tin House’s inaugural issue (Spring, 1999) as “new fiction” but presented on the page as drama, a last-words monologue. It was reprinted in hard covers later the same year (in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men).

From the first it’s a hate-filled rant. “Listen: I did despise him,” Dad opens.  “Do.” The despised “him” is revealed straight off as just-born Baby: “I looked down and saw him already attached to her, already sucking away.”  That by Junior’s unwelcome nativity all is lost is grasped at once by the appalled new Papa. Why, he asks, is the event customarily regarded as blessed:  “Why not tell you the truth? That your life is to be forfeit?” His cherished spouse (“she was the one to have all of me”) is in the instant transformed to “The Mother, her natal face enraptured, radiant, as if nothing invasive or grotesque were taking place.” Hubby is thus launched into a bitter twenty-nine-year exile, mourning for the lost paradise of his marriage and feigning (lest by revealing his resentment he earn Mom’s contempt) love for the serpent child who invaded and destroyed their garden.

Venomous retrospective follows, a chronicle of childhood illnesses and tantrums punctuated by stage directions spelling out accelerating medical interventions as Dad’s systems crash.  Here are two brief samples, first a description of the early, crib-in-the-nursery scene, and second an account of a later tantrum in response to a failed paternal attempt to enforce a no-candy-in-the-living-room policy.

One: “It was all disgusting. You cannot know. The incontinence.  The vomit. The sheer smell. The noise. The theft of sleep. The selfishness, the appalling selfishness of the newborn, you have no idea. No one prepared us for any of it, for the sheer unpleasantness of it. The insane expense of pastel plastic things.  The cloacal reek of the nursery.”

Two: “watching now his mother down on one knee trying to wipe the chocolate drool off his chin as he screamed at her and batted the napkin away. . . .  [W]hen was it determined that this sort of thing is acceptable, that such a creature must be not only tolerated no but actually soothed, actually placated, as she was on her knees doing tenderly.”

The presentation throughout is roughly chronological—kid grows up as Dad spirals down. The diapered tyrant and sickly child eventually thrives, outgrows his juvenile asthma and bowls over a wide array of school and university mentors.   He’s “so brilliant, so sensitive,” they say in chorus, “such discernment, precocity without vaunt, a joy to know.” These accolades bring Dad no relief: “Began then in blank shock at her side to endure the surreal enraptured soliloquies  of instructors and headmasters, coaches and committees and deacons and even clergy which sent her into maternal raptures as I stood chewing my tongue in disbelief.”  “He’s taken in the bloody world,” Pop concludes.

The “bloody world” of the “taken in” eventually includes a wife and two daughters as well as the professional theater community, as the “’limitless promise’” predicted by mentors is made good by the “acclaimed” Off-Broadway play, evidently a Pulitzer winner.  Dad’s an honored guest at a performance, perhaps the opening, provided with “free tickets” and “airfare to come and applaud.”  He reports “whole rows . . . in evening dress rising, applauding the lie.”  That it is a lie, that all are fooled, from Mom and teachers through wife and daughters to theatregoers and prize committees, Dad never doubts.  He thoroughly vetted the kid, he insists:  “understand I’d read with the boy.  At length, I’d probed him. I’d sat trying to teach him sums.”  “I made it a policy to give my time,” he adds later. The results? “There was not one spark of brilliance in my son.  I swear it.”

Disparaging his son’s achievements, Dad parades his own.  His wide-ranging pomposities include passing name drops (Aquinas, Nietzsche), arcane usages (“extrorse,” “velleity”), Latin tags (natus ad glo, Pervigilium), explanations of medical terms (“Impetigo is a skin disorder”), and short lectures on language (“The Attics called one’s particular gift or genius his techno.  Was it techno?  Odd for ‘gift.’  Do you decline it in the dative?”).  On several occasions he screws these up.  Blasting the son’s “weeks of slack-jawed labor” on a “pablumesque adaptation” of the Oresteia as a university student, the eerily hovering father—“I crept into doorways, alcoves, stacks”—identifies Sophocles as its author.  He later corrects himself, but his little excursus on “techno” (never corrected) is equally flawed—he means “techne” ( τέχνη).  DFW is playing nasty here—surely he’s aware that Dad’s “techno,” having nothing to do with “gift” and being what’s more not Attic but Latin, is nevertheless very close to the Greek “teknon” (τéĸνoν), “child.”  The word Dad calls up for “gift,” irony of ironies, recalls the gift he fails to appreciate.

A similar DFW playfulness surfaces in one of the Latin tags. Securus judicat orbis terrarum, Dad says on the opening page, to a figure addressed throughout as “Father” (sometimes Sister”), as if he’s in a Catholic hospital, nursed by nuns and consoled by chaplains or confessors.  The line, repeated in truncated form on the closing page, comes from Augustine’s attack on Donatist heretics, and despite its obvious flimsiness as argument it made quite a splash in theological circles (for Newman it came as a linchpin moment in his much celebrated denominational shift).  Usually translated as “The judgment of all the world is sure,” it was for Augustine a fundamental principle of ecclesiastical authority.  Heretics were in error (and could justly be forcibly suppressed) not because they offered weak arguments for their positions but simply and sufficiently because they were in disagreement with and opposition to the universal church.  For the dying Dad, the reference constitutes recognition that his idiosyncratic position outside the universal understanding of parenthood as a blessed state and the child as a divine gift is that of a secular heretic who can only be condemned.

From the beginning, of course, the reader senses the story/drama on the page as itself the lauded work of the son who has found fame as a playwright.   In the instant the odious father is revealed as a marionette, his every hateful word supplied by the son. The drama in its entirety may be understood as a play within a story, the story deploying the playwright as the playwright deploys the father.  And there’s more, an additional twist.  At one (and only one) point the father’s monologue is interrupted by another voice, addressing him directly, two lines from a speaker labeled as “You”:  “But Father it’s me.  Your own son.  All of us, standing here, loving you so.”  That’s all, except for a stage direction specifying this expression of love as delivered “cruelly.”

By these succinct moves the reader is cast into DFW’s hall of mirrors, bereft of interpretive traction.  The portrait of monster Dad is elaborated by monster child, the feigned love ascribed throughout to the father enacted at his deathbed by the son. The “cruelly” stage direction might on its face lend support to the father’s position, though the two have long shared a “black intimacy,” each knowing the other’s animus under their scrupulously maintained facades: “I knew that he knew I knew, and he that I knew he knew I knew.”  But it’s himself each one sees, gazing with masked hatred upon the other. Like son like father—as the child begins as an asthmatic troubled by chronic discharges from eyes and nose, supplied with a “little silver bell” to summon help in emergencies, so the father ends amid repeated calls for his own bell, ravaged by a cascading series of afflictions identical in all but fancy name (dyspnea, blennorrhagia, phthalmorrhagia). In the delirium of his end the father loses track of present time, anticipates the son’s imminent arrival after a stage direction notes a nurse’s suggestion of “truncation of visit,” so it’s at least possible that the son, mistaken for an attendant nurse or clergyman, is bedside for Dad’s final maledictions.  Not a pleasant thought.

What’s certain in all the confusion, however, is the hate. If its origins are unclear, if DFW has devoted considerable cunning to the blurring of sources, the tone is nevertheless unmistakable—malice rules, starting gun to finishing tape.  The opening “I did despise him” is sustained throughout, to a closing, last-gasp plea: “Despise him for me.  On my account.”  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it—“for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee”? The son speaks “cruelly” of love, and Dad’s at sea with Ahab, still tied to earth but already speaking from “hell’s heart.” Hideous men, indeed.

What’s unusual in DFW’s treatment is the humor. It’s often hilarious—the punctilious appeals to rationality and justice from a figure so obviously fueled by rage, the clueless application of adult standards to the behaviors of a helpless infant .  The kid stands—no, he can’t stand yet—lies in his crib accused (among other failings) of selfishness, thoughtlessness, evil, greed, abuse of power, “emotional manipulation,” and a “sense of utter entitlement.”  The roots of this dark comedy may be found in Samuel Beckett, where the putative father of “First Love” makes not even the slightest bow to a feigned delight in paternity.  “Abort!” he urges the expectant mother, when she “had the impudence to announce she was with child, and four or five months gone into the bargain, by me of all people.”

This Dad doesn’t stick around for the trials of nursery or toddler years, fleeing on the very birthday, or birth night as it happens, despite the cold weather.  “What finished me was the birth,” he says, emphasizing his own loss by adding that it “went to my heart to leave a house without being put out.”

But this is no suitable ending. Who needs, humor aside, such an unalloyed bummer, deathbed rancor and resentment, a family from (and to) hell?  Narrative endings matter, too, in ways analogous to the ends of earthly lives, and better is wanted at the curtain of this one.  The fancy descriptor in recent scholarship is “proleptic” (though “retroleptic” would seem more accurate).  The way a narrative ends, it’s pointed out, affects a reader’s response to all that comes before.  Here’s a sample:  “the conclusory emotion in a narrative cadence embodies not just how the audience feels about the ending; it embodies how the audience feels, at the ending, about the whole story.”2  A more uplifting exit is surely available, a salutary instance to cleanse the palate after such a run of unremitting malice. That DFW was a dark-minded, mordant author enjoins no matching gloom upon his admirers.










Here’s a beauty, nicely tied to DFW’s tale in its focus on family (and offering as well a tidy return to the nome di Maria).  The title is The Dormition of Mary.  It’s a mosaic from the 14th century, an above-a-doorway adornment in Istanbul’s Kariye Camii, the Church of St. Saviour in Chora.  The figure on the bed is Mary.  The son by her side is Jesus, holding in his hands his Mother’s just-released soul, imaged as a babe in swaddling clothes.  The scene is crowded with worthies (Peter and Paul included); the Holy Mother has many admirers.  Powerful cherubim hover, ready to escort her soul to heaven.

This is a popular scene, variously imaged. Caravaggio and El Greco painted it, the latter more than once.  There’s a also a spectacular ivory icon, even older and likely also from Constantinople, now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.











But what’s the takeaway here, and what bearing might it have upon DFW’s somber scene?  Most obviously, the Holy Family is seen to shift its roles—Mother turns Child, Child acts as Father.  It’s a cycle linking generations, connecting heaven and earth.  At a theological level, Mary is surely portrayed as headed straight to the empyrean.  Dante’s celestial seating chart puts her in la rosa sempiterna’s top tier, with Adam at her left, Saint Peter to her right, and Eve at her feet.3 But an earthly lesson for families is also inculcated.  Maternal love is appropriately honored and reciprocated by the filial love of the son, who cares for her in old age as she cared for him as a child.

This is pretty much unsurpassable. Sound track would be jubilant hosannas, an upbeat rejoinder to the “appalling silence” of the father’s end, the “terrible eye impending” that substitutes the gloating visage of the despised son for the fearsome devils who come for Marlowe’s Faust.  No angels? We’re secular moderns, we can handle that.  But no loving spouse or caring child, our end a spasm of hapless rage?  That is cold.

1 Thomas Beard, The Theatre of God’s Judgements (1597), from Park Honan, Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 352.

2 J. David Velleman, “Narrative Explanation,” The Philosophical Review, 112 (2003), p. 19.  From Joshua Seachris, “Death, Futility, and the Proleptic Power of Narrative Ending,” Religious Studies, 47:2 (2011): 141-163.

3 The seating is from Paradiso XXXII, ll. 4-6 (for Eve) and ll. 121-126 (for Adam and St. Peter); la rosa sempiterna is from Paradiso XXX, l. 124.

Robert Cochran is a teacher and writer living in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He is the director of American Studies at the University of Arkansas.