Reflections on the Costs of Evolved Self-Awareness: Comparing Trajectories of Davids—Foster Wallace & Insurgent


Dave Insurgent (By Sailorsoul2846 [CC BY-SA 3.0 ])

I’m going to be writing on the costly implications of self-awareness in a forthcoming book & was walking around listening to Reagan Youth on Spotify & David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest on Audible when some parallels occurred to me. I’ll be writing about the relationship between marijuana & heroin addition. The general public, I think, does not consider marijuana addiction in the same league of seriousness as heroin addiction, but they both have at their roots depression, which is a biopsychocultural overweening self-focus (unpack that!).

David Foster Wallace was considered, I think, the most famous fiction writer of his generation & Infinite Jest is already considered a classic. Or it should be. I’m late to the DFW fan club but only because I found reviews of his work at the time of his life & death off-putting & academic & pretentious-sounding. (I should have recognized myself in those analyses.)

In Infinite Jest, DFW chronicles 12 Step Recovery with an eye toward paralleling the experiences of alcohol, narcotic, & marijuana addiction, which indicates to me he had some personal knowledge of all their roots in depression & self-obsession. I don’t know if he was a marijuana addict, but I can tell from my own experiences in NYC Marijuana Anonymous & AA that DFW (in writing about Boston recovery groups) knew something whence he wrote. And he wrote a lot about addiction, depression, & suicide. And then, despite his enormous successes, he committed suicide at, really, his intellectual & career height.

"David Foster Wallace headshot 2006" by derivative work: Pabouk (talk)The_best_people_you_will_ever_know.jpg: claudia sherman - The_best_people_you_will_ever_know.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

David Foster Wallace (claudia sherman [Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0])

On the other hand, Spotify suggested I listen to “Degenerated” by  Reagan Youth, which is raw & sloppy & not at all the blitzkrieg speedfest aural kronk of so much of later hardcore that I have never been much a fan of. So I went down a rabbit hole of Reagan Youth & found that lead singer Dave Insurgent (née Rubinstein) had parents who were Holocaust survivors, that he became a heroin addict & dealer, & that he was beaten into a coma over a drug debt within hours of finishing vocals for the last Reagan Youth tracks of that era & had to have a lobotomy to relieve the brain trauma. He would never recover from that beating, &, despite relative success of RY over a 10-year period, they were financially busted when Reagan left office in 1990 (& ended the relevance of their political peace-punk schtick) & broke up.

Rubinstein started dating a fellow addict who prostituted on Houston St. to support their habits & was ultimately picked up & slain by infamous serial killer Joel Rifkin (you can find your own links about him—they’re all disturbing). It was, in fact, Rubinstein’s description of the vehicle that picked her up—familiar among Allen St. prostitutes & junkies—a high speed chase of Rifkin’s vehicle by police, & the smell of her decomposing body in his vehicle that led to Rifkin’s arrest. A week or so later, Rubinstein committed suicide.

Rubinstein’s decline & the arrest of Joel Rifkin happened the year after I moved to NYC. I didn’t grow up on Reagan Youth, but they were a CBGB’s fixture & broke up right before I moved to there  & started going, working, & playing at CBGB. I have several stories about CBGB’s & the seedy streets of that neighborhood (the infamous Bowery, which is rather sanitized these days). The first involves the beating I took right out in front of the place on my very first night in NYC. Basically, I was drunk & tried to distract some meatheads from messing with Brent, but, in my drunkenness I laced subtlety. So they turned their attention to me & were waiting outside the club when we came out & gave me a beating right there on the sidewalk while characters like you see below (Reverb Motherfuckers are out on the same spot, essentially) looked on. Later, the first time I smoked crack was when Brent took me to a spot a block from CB’s to score it (but discovered he’d forgot his wallet back on the bar, so I think we smoked some on the street with the dealer then couldn’t actually buy any—lucky we didn’t get another beating).

So I worked & played in this area & very well may have crossed paths with these people. The Bowery area (Bowery becomes Allen below Houston St.) was a seedy, grimy area of NYC from the days when an elevated train ran above it & blocked out the light. I had learned all about it as a punk rock fan intrigued by the history of CBGB’s, from listening to music & reading about their lives, &, before that, the stories of Jack KerouacJim Carroll, Henry Miller, &, a little further back, Herbert Asbury‘s Gangs of New York, which tread much of the same ground. I can visualize it perfectly.  One of my favorite bands before moving to NYC was the Lunachicks, & you can see the griminess of that part of NYC at the beginning of this video & a sense of the…I dunno…precariousness of life down there from the attitudes of these characters. I say precariousness because not everyone made it out. Some of them are still performing, some are alive & doing other things. Some are not.

The death of rock stars & artists & the mixture of drugs & depression can be charted back over time with no end in sight, but they resonate most, I think, when they are people active & inspiring YOU in YOUR LIFE & then they die. I missed the boat on DFW, but Infinite Jest is the book my high school best friend & lead singer of my NYC band, Brent Colyer, would have written had we the moxie & chops. We had a writing group at one point that always dissolved into blind drunkenness, but professional writers is what we both wanted to be. I have never related so much with a book as I do with Infinite Jest, so it is startling even in retrospect that DFW killed himself & that I cannot have a conversation with him (‘cuz, you know, I chat with famous people all the time…). And because Brent also suffered mental health problems & essentially pulled a Leaving Las Vegas & drank himself to death, I cannot talk with him about DFW as I would like to.

Less than one year after Dave Insurgent killed himself, I was shocked when mega-rich superstar, heroin addict, & clinical depressive Kurt Cobain committed suicide. I was 22, working at Tower Records in NYC & playing music; & Nirvana were a tidal wave of success. The shock of his death cannot be understated. Nirvana were not my favorite band, but they were a band of my generation. I was an early member of the Sub Pop Singles Club when I was an 18-year-old college freshman at Indiana University, & I bought Bleach right around the time it came out. Frankly, I preferred Mudhoney, but I have a poignant memory of planning to drive with my friends to see Nirvana play at either Bogart’s or Murphy’s Pub in Cincinnati, since not much of note came to Bloomington, IN in those years. However, we never made the drive because we could not score any weed for the drive & could not face the prospect of a cold turkey 2-hour drive each way. I was already a marijuana addict, as it was obviously impairing my normal functioning & resulting in shame—straight-up definitions of addiction. The only consolation was that, as I recall, Nirvana cancelled the show at the last minute because they were having delays in the studio working on their next record, which would turn out to be “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

And the rest is history…

Take-home lesson:

Self-awareness can be costly, so we look to blinder it. That doesn’t always work, but we find our culture in the details.

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he founded the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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