Planet Trillaphon and the Bad Thing

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This short story by DFW is the account of a (semi?) fictional narrator who lives on another planet, Trillaphon. Trillaphon being based off of the name of the narrator’s anti-depressant drug, Tofranil, he was forced to take after The Bad Thing.

The story recounts the narrator’s struggles with depression, and how he is “better” after he was forced to take Tofranil. Parallels to DFW’s life notwithstanding, I found the story very interesting as a piece of his early work. I found myself thinking that this was a very approachable piece of work for an author known for being not approachable. Perhaps this was just because the vocabulary he used seemed a bit tempered.

But, many of the classic DFW tropes are there: the wordplay, the repetition, the callbacks. Though they did feel a bit more pedestrian in general, I got a kick out of seeing them in their early form.

Speaking of Wallace tropes, obtuse references were also found in Trillaphon. The one that I dug into a bit was when the narrator was likening being depressed to being underwater:

I don’t know how apt It is to say it’s like being underwater, but maybe imagine the moment in which you realize, at which It hits you that there is no surface for you. that you’re just going to drown In there no matter which way you swim; imagine how you’d feel at that exact moment, like Descartes at the start of his second thing…

Descartes’ second thing refers to his second meditation. A very good excerpt from (what appears to be) a very good book by Jon Baskin explains in a bit more detail:

The “second thing” refers to the “Second Meditation,” which begins with Descartes’s [sic] admission that “yesterday’s meditation has thrown me into such doubts that I can no longer ignore them, yet I fail to see how they are to be resolved. It is as if I had suddenly fallen into a deep whirlpool; I am so tossed about that I can neither touch bottom with my foot, nor swim to the top.”

The whirlpool metaphor gives a clue to why the comparison might have recommended itself to Wallace- he has just compared the feeling of depression to being “under a body of water that has no surface”

[…]

Art in general, and Wallace in particular, has at times been associated with a challenge to Descartes’s [also sic] seemingly limiting conclusion that we are “thinking things.” This is not, however, the assumption that Wallace contests in his fiction; he does not, that is, propose that faith, or affect, or blind obedience to something bigger than ourselves represent ways of proceeding that are superior to “thinking”. What he does contest is Descartes’s [you get it] assumption that the same kind of thinking that threw the boy into a whirlpool of doubt will prove capable of rescuing him from it. For Descartes, the way to assuage doubt is to arrive at the knowledge of “something certain.” One achieves this knowledge by reasoning one’s way to the right theory, which means a theory that corresponds to a “true” state of affairs. And this reasoning involves … the theoretical redefinition of certain words and concepts, such as “seeing” or thinking,” for otherwise the investigator may be “deceived by the ways in which people commonly speak.”

Ordinary Unhappiness – Jon Baskin

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I’ll save some of it for later. But suffice to say that Baskin believes that Wallace, in likening being depressed to Descartes’ second, is tacitly taking issue with his, Descartes’, idea that one can assuage doubt simply by knowing something certain (“I am thinking”).

From the point of view of Wallace’s narrator, who clearly is doing a lot of thinking, that’s not enough. Thinking is what is causing him to drown, and he needs to escape to another planet with a funny-sounding name to begin breathing air, albeit martian, again.