Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Crossing the Bar

Today I want to pay tribute to David Foster Wallace, an American writer and professor who died, only 46 years old, last Friday. Before his death, the only writing of his that I'd read is the address that he gave at the commencement ceremony of Kenyon College in 2005, but it immediately interested me in his work. The address very much impressed me, not so much even for its wittiness or the fluency of expression, as for the empathy and the thought that had gone into it, and his refusal to retread the platitudes, or to present any idea or statement that he had not questioned and weighed beforehand. This morning I also went to the website of Harper's Magazine, to which he had contributed eleven articles since 1989. As it has been highly recommended, I read his account of a cruise ship journey, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" (originally published as "Shipping Out"), which is really brilliant in its conciseness and detail and sharp insight.

"Shipping Out" is specifically the tale of a cruise in the Caribbean, which is intended to be a luxurious, stress-free zone but is in a way very stressful, especially if one's skepticism creates a friction with the micromanaging hierarchy and the "philosophy" that pervades the whole. Roald Dahl's stories, like his book The Witches and the tale "The Boys Who Talked with Animals" come to mind, as they similarly depict the unhealthy bubble of the wealthy lifestyle, and the truly obnoxious and solipsist behaviour which they encourage. In any case, the minutiae of the voyage, and Mr. Wallace's reactions to them, are so vividly rendered that it is hard not to feel in the end as if one had undergone the cruise one's self. And it is often extremely funny.

The Kenyon commencement address concerns itself, firstly, with the question of what the real value of a liberal education is intended to be. Mr. Wallace relates this problem to that of the reality that will meet the students after they go out into the world. Here he is conspicuously free of idealism. He speaks of the future largely as a grinding routine, in which one can choose to remain lazily absorbed in one's own self-centered perspective, interpreting and classifying the world as being either convenient or inconvenient to one's self, without any thought or perception beyond that. If there is any value in a liberal education, it is in instilling the ability to rise above this indolent "default setting" and to choose to explore and understand the reality beyond it, without being intellectually and emotionally fettered by egotism. Here are long excerpts (I am posting them on the assumption that the speech is not copyrighted; if it is, I'll take them down again):
[L]et's say it's an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home. You haven't had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store's confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough check-out lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can't take your frustration out on 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.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn't yet been part of you graduates' actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

[. . .]
It is my natural default setting. It's the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. 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.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

[. . .]
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.

[. . ]

[A] real education [. . .] has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time [. . .]

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

* * *

What is peculiar is that, in both of these works, suicide is mentioned. On one of the previous voyages of the cruise ship, a young man had committed suicide by jumping overboard. And, in the commencement address, Mr. Wallace said,
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.

The reason why this is peculiar is that Mr. Wallace himself died by suicide, but in another way it is not peculiar, as it seems that he had already been contending against depression for some two decades. What puzzles me is why someone who did find so much in his surroundings to interest him, and who did have so much sympathy for others, did not find something in those feelings to keep him in the world for a longer time. But given how draining it is to overcome suicidal feelings, and how they do return over and over when one is at one's weakest, it is, I think, no small achievement that he stayed with us as long as he did.

2005 Kenyon College Commencement Address
Harper's Magazine (Links to David Foster Wallace's articles)
An interview with David Foster Wallace (Charlie Rose, 1997; the video, which is 56 minutes long, does take a while to upload, and be careful that it doesn't crash your browser.)
"Foster Wallace is a huge loss," Guardian
Obituary, New York Times

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