Empathy and the Struggle of Clinical Depression

In his essay “‘Psychotic Depression’ and Suicide in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,” Eric A. Thomas makes the argument that the character of Kate Gompert “exists solely … as a platform for Wallace to detail the physical and mental pain of a particular type of suicide—the clinically depressed” (277).  Thomas is fascinated by Kate’s character, driven by the fact that she has been ignored in nearly every critical work about Infinite Jest to this point or lumped in with other addicts or Ennet House residents, like Ken Erdedy.  The latter is unfair, since Erdedy and many other addicts do not show signs of depression or suicidal ideologies.  Thomas argues that Kate is the vehicle Wallace uses to address the topic of depression and suicide within the novel, going as far as arguing that Kate’s depression, attempted suicide, admission to a psychiatric ward and rehab parallel Wallace’s life, but not so much as to suggest that she is Wallace’s “literary alter ego” (283).

During his life, Wallace attempted to keep his internal struggle a secret.  When interviewers questioned him about the difficulty of his personal life, he gave non-committal answers  and brushed off follow-up questions.  According to David Lipsky, a writer for Rolling Stone who was assigned to profile Wallace, he was ashamed of being on medication for his depression.  Lipsky recalls being disappointed that Wallace did not share that part of his life with his readers.  Thomas disagrees, stating that Wallace shared his personal struggle through his writing of Kate Gompert.  Kate is the embodiment of the pain of clinical depression, constantly seeking a solution that will cause her to stop hurting, which is why she turned to suicide.  Kate’s character demands empathy from the reader, the same type of “Identification” that AA members feel towards other AA members.  Kate’s character is in the novel for us, as readers, to feel empathy towards and to learn empathy for those suffering from clinical depression.

In order to show the overlap between Kate and Wallace, Thomas points to a passage in both Infinite Jest and another piece of Wallace’s writing, “The Planet Trillaphon,” that describes what the “feeling” or “Bad Thing,” i.e. feelings of depression, is like on a molecular level.  The language between the two pieces is similar, using the same image to portray similar feelings—every particle that makes up your being is nauseous to the point of throwing up, but not a single cell can, so the person is trapped in this state of perpetual nausea or sick for a period of time.  In Thomas’s opinion, “Wallace’s personal experience … demands to be read in conversation with Kate Gompert’s character” (283).  Because of the similarity between these two passages in particular, Thomas believes that it is not unreasonable to believe that Wallace has felt the same as Kate and has used his experience to write this section of Infinite Jest.

Reading Kate Gompert’s character as part of the conversation about Wallace’s life is a fair analysis for Thomas to make.  There are parallels, most specifically with both Kate’s and Wallace’s depressions, but Thomas makes an important note when he says that Kate is not a direct reflection of Wallace.  If Thomas were to outright say that Kate was representative of Wallace in the text, it would bring the question of Wallace’s intent into question, which, as we know, is always tricky ground to tread on.  Thomas says that the part of Wallace Kate reflects is his attempt to put the pain of clinical depression into words.  Kate’s struggle to verbalize what she feels corresponds with Wallace’s inability to do the same.  I believe that Wallace used Kate as an attempt to hash out his own feelings and explore what his personal brand of clinical depression was.  The struggle we see in Kate is possibly very similar to the struggle Wallace was facing in his own life.

Thomas brings up empathy and “Identification” at the end of his essay, stating that “[e]mpathy is rare in Infinite Jest” (289).  Thomas goes on to say that it “exist, most particularly in the hero, Donald Gately” (289). I agree that empathy is rare, but I disagree that Gately is the best example of it.  Every character we meet in the novel is suffering from one affliction or another, and few people can look past their own problems long enough to realize that other people are suffering as well.  One of the only characters who shows empathy, in addition to Gately, is Mario Incandenza.  Although I can’t seem to track down the particular passage, I remember reading something someone said to the effect that Mario has a gift for noticing when others are in pain.  Mario, who is physically handicapped and probably has the most difficult time physically, is able to look beyond his own shortcomings in order to see when others are in trouble.

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2 Responses to Empathy and the Struggle of Clinical Depression

  1. mattdice says:

    I side with Thomas when he says that Kate Gompert is overlooked in Infinite Jest. She is actually a very interesting character, but I didn’t really notice her that much. After reading your post, I realized that Wallace must have used his own clinical depression as inspiration many things in this book, especially the Entertainment. It is kind of like anti-depressants: something that just makes you happy, something to take this pain away. It is the opposite of depression. When Depression just pushes the “pain” button for no reason (or doesn’t allow the “pleasure” button to be pressed at all), the Entertainment pushes the “pleasure” button for no reason. There is a reason that Kate Gompert is the only one of the main or recurring cast that is approached to view the Entertainment. She is someone that feels no pleasure otherwise, so when Marathe asks her if she would like to press that p button, we already know what her answer will be. Maybe Wallace wished for something like the Entertainment, to give him pleasure once and for all, but since he is so critical of TV (which awards dopamine for passive viewing) I am not sure if he would actually want something like that.

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  2. mdr50 says:

    I think Thomas is correct in that we should try to relate the characters to Wallace and how he was feeling when he wrote the novel while at the same time also guarding against reading about the characters as Wallace’s “literary alter egos.” (The essay I wrote about actually said something very similar.) I think this is exactly what Wallace is doing. I think he is writing about depression in a more general sense rather than in a biographical sense which allows us to gain an excellent introduction into what exactly depression was like without completely sacrificing our ability to view depression through different means other than Wallace.
    I also really like mattdice’s reply with regards to the Entertainment. I was thinking similar things while reading the blog post and maybe Wallace wanted to experience the reverse of depression. In this sense, maybe Wallace was describing his depression through Himself.

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