Tuesday, September 16, 2008

David Foster Wallace

Saturday night, standing with some friends outside Brian Kim Stefans’ going-away party, drinking beer, I learned that David Foster Wallace had killed himself. Someone mentioned it, a bunch of us said no way, and then Brian confirmed it for us; and Will and Abbi and I looked at each other, offguard, unsure what to say, and then clearly disappointed as we grasped for an explanation. It was an odd buzzkill – the news was unexpected but so was the fact of its impact – why was this such a buzzkill? None of us knew David Foster Wallace; we’d only read his books. Somehow I must have assumed that Wallace was on my team in some way – and I suppose I do so with many living writers whose books leave a lasting impression on me, regardless of whether or not I’ve met them. It must be that by having invested myself in their writing, unconsciously I imagine we are moving through the same real world together, and because we share the world, because we can see it from similar angles, we will all be here a good while finding our way through it. So of course no one’s jumping overboard; we’re in it together; we’re forever overhead.

I found a transcription of a commencement speech Wallace gave at Kenyon University in 2005 – I highly, highly recommend it. Here’s a snippet of it:

"As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

"This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

"And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out."

Read the whole thing here.