24 September 2008

David Foster Wallace

Writer David Foster Wallace died last week, apparently having committed suicide, apparently the culmination of persistent, obviously failed, struggles with depression. His death prompted what seems to me an immense amount of attention. In The New York Times alone you can find a half-dozen discussions of he and his work [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]. I admit that I had neither read, nor even heard of Wallace until he died. So, I wondered whether maybe all this was attention was disproportionate. Eventually, I ran across this appreciation by a young writer, and this one too, and this reflection by a former student. Each is touching and each reveals the impact a person can have - and that Wallace actually did - as a teacher and writer.* I teach at a college and will attest that the sorts of influence these reflections acknowledge is quite rare.

I read this abridged version of a speech Wallace gave as a commencement address at Kenyon College a few years back. It seemed "off "to me But then I came across this transcription of the speech (Thanks 3QD!) and realized that the editors at The Guardian had edited out the point Wallace was trying to convey. Here are some of the lines they eliminated:
"Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I'm supposed to talk about your liberal arts education's meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let's talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think. If you're like me as a student, you've never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I'm going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we're supposed to get in a place like this isn't really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. [. . .]

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too. [...]

Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. [...]

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."
It is easy, I think, to disregard Wallace's claim that he is not talking about compassion or virtue. We have a tendency to moralize everything. And so, one of the appreciations I've linked to above, suggests that Wallace was preaching "empathy" and "moral enlightenment." I think that is too easy. What, then, is he talking about? Broadly political and social analysis that situates our ability to transcend and resist the depredations to which we regularly are subject. Yet another tribute to Wallace directed me to this 1993 interview about contemporary fiction in which he says:
"Look man, we'd probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what's human and magical that still live and glow despite the times' darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it'd find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

I don't think I'm talking about conventionally political or social action-type solutions. That's not what fiction's about. Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being. If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction's job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still "are" human beings, now. Or can be. This isn't that it's fiction's duty to edify or teach, or to make us good little Christians or Republicans; I'm not trying to line up behind Tolstoy or Gardner. I just think that fiction that isn't exploring what it means to be human today isn't art. [. . .]

But we already "know" U.S. culture is materialistic. This diagnosis can be done in about two lines. It doesn't engage anybody. What's engaging and artistically real is, taking it as axiomatic that the present is grotesquely materialistic, how is it that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn't have a price? And can these capacities be made to thrive? And if so, how, and if not why not?"
What Wallace seeks, it seems, - and this in his teaching and writing and personal demeanor - is to prompt us to think, to entertain possibilities, to recognize pressures and constraints, to discover the intentional and inadvertent ways we escape and evade them, and to use that difficult knowledge and insight as models for our lives. A big task, that. A task of the imagination. And a political one to the core.
* There is considerably more evidence of his influence here and here. And you can access a selection of Wallace's shorter writings here at Harpers,

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Blogger Phil Booker said...

You are an articulate writer and I envy the success of your blog. You verge on being too critical with some of your comments, or perhaps too ambitious with your adjectives. Wallace may have been a nobody to you intially, until of course you explored the influences he leaves behind. Evidence I may say that Wallace was a wise man and provoked admiration amongst his followers.
Wisdom and Philosophy

29 September, 2008 16:48  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


thanks for your comment; I am glad you find the blog interesting. I probably am too critical. I view much of what I write as political in the sense that I am trying to push people to be better at what they are attempting, or maybe even persuade them that they ought to try something different.

As for my remark about having never hear of Wallace, I meant that as a reflection not on him, but on me. It turns out I was right!

Best, JJ

29 September, 2008 20:17  

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