This Week’s Article

In David Foster Wallace, Matt, Tuesday's Article on August 31, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , , , ,

Thoughts on David Foster Wallace (amended title)

3rd Installment (previously simply David Foster Wallace)

“Commencement in the Midst of…”

One of the ways Wallace described infinite space between individual conscious beings, and what I posit can be applied in the same way to literature i.e., the separation between the author and reader (or readers, since it’s not clear cut whether the supposed connection achieved in what Wallace denoted more than once as the “magic” of writing/fiction is two-way or more broad and manifold) was with the metaphor, water.

It was in a speech he gave at the commencement of the 2005 graduation ceremony for Kenyon College. The speech is now famous, was famous, viral inasmuch as an academic address can be viral, revered before his suicide, and since published posthumously.

In it, he draws from a part meta-, part didactic joke:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?””

I should point out, for the sake of maintaining trust, that it’s not really a funny joke. But apparently not all jokes have to be.

The blunt implication is that the water is the reality that we, like the fish, move through and don’t recognize because it engulfs us. But more important for our question of what it says about how Wallace was able to write the way he did, as David Lipsky described it

“…with eyes and a voice that seemed to be a condensed form of everyone’s lives…the stuff you semi thought, the background action you blinked through at super markets and commutes…”

it implies an answer that is practical rather than philosophical, but seems to nullify any significant difference between the two denotations. That not only is it something we constantly move through, but that, as we do, we breathe it. That writing, communication, is a fourth-dimensional skill and understanding, or communion, has everything to do with constant motion (which, aside, can also be reminiscent of an oppressive creed rashly dictated by fathers to their sons).

Further in the speech, Wallace evokes common experience battling frustration and boredom at supermarkets that set us up to be “hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head” and concludes that clichés and “banal platitudes” are not necessarily true but “can have a life or death importance” by reminding us, prodding us, to become engaged with “what we choose to pay attention to” and, fuck it, commence quotes…

“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 “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master”.”

“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.”

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

“That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

You get the idea.

Wallace comes off like the father who teaches you how to ride a bike by running behind you, holding it up, helping you balance, then lets go without telling you.

He leaves us, consistent with its message, with questions out of which we can continue to construct meaning. Not the least pertinent of which is How on earth can Wallace explain his suicide?

-Keep tuning in for future installments of Thoughts on David Foster Wallace

-This is a video of a graduate of Kenyon College (I assume who actually heard the speech live, but without real reason). It’s only half of the speech, but “part 2” is linked. I like the running scroll of instant messages next to him as he reads. I think it goes along nicely.

-Here’s another, apparently produced by Kenyon College, or an affiliated group designated vaguely as “videos by students”. You can see the speech being used as a commercial. But it is Wallace’s own voice.


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