David Rakoff, Essayist and Performer, Dead at 47

Writer, performer, and frequent NPR contributor David Rakoff has died following a three-year battle with cancer. Rakoff was born in Montreal, and lived, variously, in Toronto, London and Japan before settling in New York City, which he called "the great love of my life" and was the subject of much of his writing. Rakoff worked as an actor — usually playing, he later wrote, "Jewy McHebrew" or "Fudgy McPacker" — and in publishing before quitting to become a full-time writer, penning the interview column "The Way We Live Now" for The New York Times Magazine for several years in addition to his work as a freelance journalist and contributor of personal essays to This American Life.

In 2009, while working on his celebration of pessimism, Half-Empty, a tumor was discovered in his arm. He continued to work and write during the illness, which he spoke about in the Daily Show interview reproduced below.

Rakoff wore his pessimism proudly, and explored it expertly and entertainingly, but he was a deeply compassionate and open person whose writing was more likely to inspire (or, at least, cheer up) than depress. From a 2000 column in the Times magazine:

But beneath the surface, the Cornell study touches on a truth far more complex than the notion that it's the idiots who are always most certain they're right. Indeed, what's most telling is the very ease with which the study lends itself to carping zingers about everyone else's stupidity. It speaks directly to our anxious desire to distance ourselves, as loudly as possible, from incompetent people — as if incompetence were subject to that same you-are-or-you-aren't dichotomy as pregnancy. But of course, you can be a little bit incompetent. All of us are. My father often says (in a reversal of the adage), ''If something's worth doing, it's worth doing badly.'' What he means is, there is no shame in being a beginner. There has never been an expert who didn't start out as a rank novice. Without initial blindness to our own ignorance, we'd all be so paralyzed by self-doubt that we would never be able to start any new venture.

Blithe incompetence has its developmental uses too. In fact, there is a vast sector of the population that, though marked by an intrinsically inferior proficiency in any number of arenas, enjoys an unearned sense of confidence. They are called children, and their unearned confidence is the very source of their self-worth. It is also the reason that we protect them; it's precisely why we don't let them drive cars, practice medicine or carry guns. (Well, at least we don't let them drive cars or practice medicine.) The hope, of course, is that with age and experience comes the hard-won recognition of our limitations. The Cornell study demonstrates this as well. Subjects initially overrated their abilities in several areas. But after they received instruction in those areas — that is, after their actual competence rose — their sense of their competence diminished. Education and experience showed them how much more there was to learn.

For the noncertifiable, and that includes Dunning and Kruger's sample, self-deception takes you only so far. But you can't get anywhere without it. Think of Wile E. Coyote, the archetype of delusional persistence, merrily racing off cliffs and out into the ether. It is only moments later, when he realizes his mistake, that he plummets down the canyon and lands in a puff of dust. Certainly the rapid acquisition of insight at 32 feet per second squared is a terrifying thing, and those loony contusions suffered upon impact will no doubt be painful. But how sublime that brief interval before you fall, when it seems as though you can do anything.

The Awl's Choire Sicha has written a remembrance here; Fresh Air has announced they're amending their show to broadcast some of Rakoff's work. (You can also find his This American Life pieces here.)

[image via AP]