The biggest difference between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and David Foster Wallace is that by the time cardiomyopathy took Coleridge’s life in 1834, at the age of sixty-one, the consensus was that he had died too late. It’s not that no one engaged in rueful speculation about the masterpieces that would go unwritten, it was just that they’d done it years before, when it became clear that addiction and lack of professional discipline had made further serious literary output from Coleridge unlikely. He lost his gift for poetry a full thirty years before his death, and eventually lost his grip on prose too. At the end, the only role he seemed capable of playing was champion table-talker, holding court at the home of his caretakers, the Gillmans, for the benefit of whatever admirers, friends-of-friends, or tourists turned up to hear the great man monologize. Coleridge wanted to be a writer, and he ended up a sage and a celebrity.
That’s essentially the same failure Wallace faced, and it was an ironic failure for the same reason. Both men lived in times when literature was under pressure to set its sights lower—either from people like Wordsworth, who thought poetry should restrict itself to the language of the common man, or from cultural forces like television, which reduced art to entertainment—and both men took a more exalted view, loudly. They believed that literature can be genuinely transformative, that creating good art demands a high level of technical craftsmanship, and that these two things have something to do with each other. They were lonely voices speaking in defense of high standards. It was distressing to them that the public seemed more interested in the voice than the standards.
Of course, setting impossibly high standards and then giving up when you can’t meet them is something most addicts do (hence the corrective mantra “one day at a time”), and addiction is obviously the main point of similarity between DFW and STC. Coleridge began using laudanum—a mixture of opium and alcohol—in his teens and twenties, and after decades of binges and relapses he settled into a regular dosage sufficient to maintain his equilibrium, and the doctor with whom he lived kept him from exceeding it. It was almost like Wallace with his Nardil—and, in fact, after he hit middle age and moved in with the Gillmans, Coleridge only ever had really bad patches when he tried to get off the drug completely.
They were two great writers who were also famous addicts, and from that basic similarity flow many others:
There’s the physical resemblance, which is partly accidental and partly a result of alcoholism, the fleshy face especially.
There’s the long and embarrassing obsession with an unavailable woman (Sara Hutchinson/Mary Karr) whose fondness for the mad genius never quite turned to love, possibly because she realized the obsession wasn’t actually about her.
There’s the humiliating experience of hitting bottom, which happened to Wallace in Boston at 27 and to Coleridge in Scotland at 30. The whole Scotland trip was a nightmare—so much so that Coleridge was forced to abandon his traveling companions William and Dorothy Wordsworth because “I was so ill that I felt myself a burden on them”—but here is one representative night: After leaving the Wordsworths, Coleridge proceeded on his own, on foot, to a place called Fort William, where he collapsed at a public house in “an hysterical Fit with loud and long weeping . . . to the unutterable consternation and bebustlement of the Landlord, his Wife, children, & Servants.” At which point, in the words of his biographer, Coleridge was “overcome by diarrhoea,” possibly at a toilet and possibly not, he doesn’t say.
There’s the fascination with bureaucracy, a side-effect of the old addict’s (and, for that matter, writer’s) habit of fantasizing about what life as a normal person would’ve been like. Wallace described it as a feeling of “I’ve made a terrible mistake with my life, I need to be selling insurance in Oshkosh,” and it was a big part of his decision to make the IRS the subject of The Pale King. Coleridge actually got to be a government bureaucrat for a year: Soon after arriving in Malta in 1804—where he had gone for much the same reason Nicolas Cage’s character went to Las Vegas in 1995, namely to find an out of the way place to die—he was scooped up by the governor to be his secretary and second-in-command, in which position Coleridge proved surprisingly competent.
These sorts of biographical parallels are interesting, but not as interesting as the psychological ones. Any two addicts will see similarities in their life stories—that’s one of the reasons AA works. But with two writers, it’s less fruitful to look at the results of their addictions than at the mental quirks that produced the addiction. Part of this fruitfulness is just that a writer’s internal states are more well-documented, but equally important is the fact that, in each of these two cases, the writing and the addiction had their roots in the same internal sources, and in many ways proceeded along the same lines.
In his later prose, Coleridge fell in love with footnotes. “A blessing, I say, on the inventors of Notes!” he wrote to his son. “You have only to imagine the lines between the ( ) printed in smaller type at the bottom of the page—& the Writer may digress . . . without any breach of continuity.” He also made abundant use of parentheses, asides, assumed voices, and long digressions, especially in the Biographia Literaria, which is one reason that opus comes across as such a hodge-podge. But, like Wallace, Coleridge insisted that he did not overstuff his books out of any lack of discipline. “Those who use five hundred words more than needed to express an idea—that is not my case. Few men, I will be bold to say, put more meaning into their words than I or choose them more deliberately and discriminatingly.”
Contemporaries were skeptical of Coleridge’s protestations, just as many people today are skeptical of Wallace’s, but anyone who criticizes them should first think why it makes sense that a man who overuses footnotes would also become dependent on drugs and alcohol. Coleridge and Wallace were both acknowledged as having immense native brainpower—a friend of DFW’s described him as receiving more frames-per-second than most people—and both of them were great readers with great memories. Coleridge was nearly a child prodigy, reputed to be able to recite long passages from books he’d read only once.
These men could not have a thought without twelve sidebars, citations, and quibbles popping up from their mental recesses. The result: footnotes and digressions. The other result: an overwhelming desire, when the stimulation became too strong, to power down the machine for a while. “He once said to me that he wanted to write to shut up the voices in his head,” Wallace’s best friend told a reporter. “He said when you’re writing well, you establish a voice in your head, and it shuts up the other voices.” And alcohol shuts up all the voices.
The last and most important similarity between DFW and STC is that they both became famous too early, before their thinking was fully formed. Early fame is always an invitation to drug addiction, but early literary fame more so than other kinds. On top of the basic child-star problem—which is essentially that you’ve satisfied your desire to be extraordinary and foreclosed the possibility of being ordinary, leaving nothing left but to kill time as efficiently as possible until you drop dead—early literary fame involves the added burden of guilt.
Young writers become celebrities because the public sees something appealing in their worldview, or, to use a less grand word, their opinions. But no amount of precocity can make up for the fact that the opinions of a twenty-four-year-old who hasn’t done much living yet are worthless. When the writer grows up he realizes this, and he feels like a pied piper. That’s something child actors don’t have to live with. Christian Bale may feel so embarrassed by Newsies that he pitches a fit when interviewers ask him about it, but he doesn’t actually believe that that film made the world a worse place to live in.
For Coleridge, the false gods of his youth were democracy and revolution. Before the Lyrical Ballads and long before “Kubla Khan,” he had made a name for himself as a radical lecturer whose political themes were democracy and the abolition of property and whose religious themes were Unitarian (in the words of a contemporary, “to shew that our Saviour was the real son of Joseph and that the Crucifixion was a matter of small importance”)—all in his mid-twenties. For Wallace, the false god was cleverness, the “manic patina over emotional catatonia” that comes with a certain type of avant-garde fiction.
In both cases these men later became convinced that the ideology they had embraced in their youth was not just misguided but at serious risk of bringing about a cultural apocalypse—England seeing a revolution like France’s, or American culture being completely cannibalized by irony. One way to deal with this was by embracing the opposite extreme, conservatism in Coleridge’s case and sincerity in Wallace’s. But that didn’t do anything to manage the guilt. Wallace tried to wear his burden lightly, with laughing comments like “Twenty-five-year-olds should be locked away and denied ink and paper,” but to an addict’s mind—which is already inclined to blame itself for all manner of things—the idea that he had done anything to hasten the cultural development he most dreaded must have been excruciating. Coleridge, too, became so concerned with making up for past sins that he wrote letters to the Tory prime minister outlining the best ways to make his administration more reactionary. All because the world made the mistake of paying attention to anything a twentysomething says.
Cyril Connolly wrote that those whom the gods would destroy, they first call promising. This of course was a take-off on the ancient proverb “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” Wallace and Coleridge were both called promising and both made mad, and then, in what must have seemed to them like the final cruelty, the universe declined to destroy them. That task, unfortunately, was left to them. Given that Coleridge died of complications from his addiction, the most we can claim for his way is that it was slower than Wallace’s.