DFW Tributes and My Essay on His Kenyon Speech

More literary reflections on David Wallace’s life and contributions to the American scene are starting to roll in. I’ve linked to and excerpted a few below. Here is my spur of the moment reflection at 1 AM last night.

If you haven’t read Wallace I would recommend not starting with Infinite Jest, but one of his non-fiction essay collections such as Consider the Lobster or A Supposedly Fun Thing That I’ll Never Do Again. Here some favorite nuggets of mine from Infinite Jest. Here’s my post on his Best Essays introduction.

Also, many of remembrances reference his 2005 Commencement Address at Kenyon College. It is indeed worth reading. Below the fold on this blog post I include portions of an essay I wrote a few months ago on the speech, summarizing and analyzing it.

To the remembrances….

Here’s Michiko Kakutani in the NY Times:

For that matter, much of Mr. Wallace’s work…felt like outtakes from a continuing debate inside his head about the state of the world and the role of the writer in it, and the chasm between idealism and cynicism, aspirations and reality. The reader could not help but feel that Mr. Wallace had inhaled the muchness of contemporary America — a place besieged by too much data, too many video images, too many high-decibel sales pitches and disingenuous political ads — and had so many contradictory thoughts about it that he could only expel them in fat, prolix narratives filled with Möbius strip-like digressions, copious footnotes and looping philosophical asides.

Here’s David Gates in Newsweek who spends a little more time on the suicide references in DFW’s later writings. Elsewhere Gates writes:

True, Wallace was a head case, but in the sense that we’re all head cases: encased in our skulls, and sealed off from our fellow humans, we have worlds upon worlds of teeming, unruly sensations, emotions, attitudes, opinions and-that chillingly neutral word-information. "What goes on inside," Wallace wrote in "Good Old Neon," is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at a given instant.

Here’s Laura Miller in Salon who says Wallace made us feel a little less alone:

Every author wants to sell books, to please his or her publisher, to reap critical accolades and to bask in the admiration of colleagues, and Wallace did want those things, at the same time that he was more than a little embarrassed by such desires and acutely aware of the fact that none of it could make him happy. However, all great writers — and I have no doubt that he was one — have a preeminent purpose: to tell the truth. David Foster Wallace’s particular vocation was to allow us to see just how fraught and complicated, how difficult yet how necessary, that telling had become — not just for him, but for all of us. What will we do without him?

Here’s Christopher Hayes in The Nation:

Wallace’s project, which he lays out pretty clearly in this 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, was empathy. And as a hyper-brilliant mind, the path he took towards it, in his writing, was to use his raw intellectual horsepower to achieve a kind of moral enlightenment. There was, in this way, a merging of form and content: his writing worked because he was able to achieve this kind of brilliant, self-conscious, painfully self-aware, but nonetheless robust and heart-breaking empathy for his characters and subjects. And as a reader, the prose itself made one feel a similar kind of soul connection to both the writer and the people the writer described. He felt close. His characters felt close. And reading him I found that the prison bars of my own embedded subjectivity, my own selfish "default setting" was shaken, bent, expanded just enough to be able to glimpse something eternally, capital-T True. Something sublime.

Speaking of that speech, below the fold, a summary and analysis.

His speech is about, in a word, self-awareness. A fish doesn’t know it’s swimming in water, he says, and while this is one of those hated banal platitudes, “in the day to day trenches of adult existence banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.” He endorses but then adds to the liberal arts cliché of “it’s not about filling you up with knowledge but teaching you how to think” with “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.” This is another example of Wallace knowing his audience and the moment: he addresses liberal arts graduates’ anxiety about the usefulness of their education by seeking to clarify the most pervasive yet ambiguous line fed to liberal arts students.

In his first 400 words of a 3,800 word speech, Wallace has succeeded rhetorically on a three key levels: He has shown he knows his audience (college students), knows his moment (anxiety-ridden liberal arts majors on the verge of entering the so-called real world), and he has presented a clear stasis which aspires to clarify and beef up a cliché often directed to his target audience. Having oriented the audience, his next task is to illustrate and further explain his point about what it means to choose what to think. He does this by positing two types of worldviews: the “default” view and what I would call the “self-aware critical thinking” view. The default view assumes, for example, that we are the absolute center of the universe:

We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

By viewing the world so intensely through the lens of self, we tend to leave our beliefs unchecked (in other words, see them as indisputably right) and walk through life unwaveringly trusting our inner-monologue as it makes sense of the world. What’s wrong with this? The arrogance of this certainty leads one to discount the perspectives and beliefs of others. Wallace illustrates this with an example that’s Wallace-esque in its amusing attention to detail. It is a run-through of a typical, annoying adult task (getting groceries after a long day at work) and having to deal with the petty inconveniences and rude shopclerks that such a mundane task entails. The whole task ⎯ from the SUV who cuts you off on your drive over to the supermarket, to the “one crazy wheel” of the shopping cart that “pulls maddeningly to the left” ⎯ is a pain in the ass, but very much part of normal “day in, day out” adult existence for those working white collar jobs after college. Most of us, he says, respond to these events with disgust at the overweight clerk who can’t give correct change, annoyance at the car that cut us off even though we were in a hurry, and so on. But consider a different perspective:

In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

He gives more examples in this vein, and then says:

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

It is, then, an argument for compassion and understanding for your fellow man. The rhetorical brilliance is in how Wallace arrived at a fairly common plea. Instead of preaching as a wise-man with the right values, he grounded this in a vivid example (driving to a supermarket) and didn’t prescribe the right way to think about the situation, just that one ought to think about it. That is, make a choice about how to think….

So Wallace’s first big example/explanation is around the default view versus a concerted one. This leads him into big point number two which is that “there is no such thing as atheism” because we all “worship something.” The key is to choose what we worship, what we think:

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you….Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

If the idea of self-awareness – of choosing what to think – is not pushed to the fore of daily consciousness, the result will be values and beliefs like money and power which can destroy us. Except we won’t know it’s destroying us. It’s a liberal arts education, perhaps, that can teach us how to be active and skeptical thinkers, full of our uncertainties, appreciative of others’ existence….

What’s remarkable about this speech is its lack of flourishes. No cataloging, or serious repetition. There is only one sustaining metaphor – fish in the water, as a way to express the ease with which we forget our most basic assumptions – but it’s not used to excess, and the speech certainly doesn’t introduce a new metaphor every paragraph, as some commencement addresses are wont to do. Plainness rules. Wallace even says that his speech is the “capital-T Truth [at least as he sees it] with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away.”…

Commencement addresses so often rehash boring life lessons, or excessively pander to parents, or condescend to students, or are too ambitious (be ethical! and love your wife! and serve the public!). Wallace re-introduces a simple concept as actually a hard and complex one, and does so with clarity that few speeches in this genre ever attain.

6 comments on “DFW Tributes and My Essay on His Kenyon Speech
  • This is indeed a sad day. For whatever reason I keep thinking of that Hemingway quote: “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”

  • Maybe he gave this speech on this topic because he himself was stuggling with the main points he made. Why would he commit suicide if he was appreciative of others’ existence?
    Although saying that is kind of redundant because obviously he was struggling with self-awareness as everyone in the world is.

    I did not know about Wallace until reading this blog, so I’m just going off a hunch.

  • Ben, thank you for doing this. I am not as familiar with Wallace’s work as I wish I could claim, but of what I read, I enjoyed immensely. It is the Kenyon College speech that I know the best, and your analysis does it due justice.

    Wallace’s death is a terrible loss, but I am glad to see people have been so quick to pick up the torch to ensure his remembrance.

  • There was much revealed about the general state of Wallace’s mind in that commencement address.

    When I read the words “…the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college,” I felt sorry for a man who still couldn’t get outside his head, even when he speechified about it.

    I suppose a person working such a tedious job to pay for his courses at the local college wouldn’t be pleased to call his work meaningless, but such a banality seems to have been beyond the magister’s imagination.

    David Foster Wallace may have lost his heart and soul in this life but I feel confident he sees the Light now.

  • I just read the speech after it was sitting in an open tab for a while.

    I agree, this was a brilliant speech.
    I used to think Brilliance was an immense intellectual feat reveling in intellectual spheres beyond my ability to comprehend. But my understanding of Brilliance has changed. I now regard Brilliance as the exploration of an idea with immense clarity and simplicity. Brilliance lies in the act of stripping away all of the bullshit and ‘niceties’ that generally cloud the territory. There is no superfluity, just the essence of capital T Truth, that others failed to capture.

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