Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘David Foster Wallace’

17 FEBRUARY, 2014

David Foster Wallace on Leadership, Illustrated and Read by Debbie Millman

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“A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily.”

“Leadership” is one of those buzzwords — like “curation” — whose meaning has been forcibly squeezed out of them by regurgitative overuse and relentless overapplication to things that increasingly dilute the essence of the concept the word once used to capture. In a culture that calls pop culture celebrities “thought-leaders” and looks for “leadership ability” in kindergartners, we’re left wondering what leadership actually means and questioning what makes a great leader.

The best definition of the essence beneath the buzzword comes from David Foster Wallace, who would’ve been 52 this week and who, even amidst heartbreaking and ultimately fatal personal turmoil, was able to distill the meaning of life with crystalline poignancy. In his 2000 essay “Up, Simba: Seven Days on the Trail of an Anticandidate,” found in the altogether fantastic Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (public library), Wallace considers the leader.

In this beautiful addition to the Brain Pickings artist series, Debbie Millman — who has previously illustrated memorable words by Anaïs Nin, Edith Windsor, Herman Melville, and other beloved writers — captures an abridged version of Wallace’s timeless wisdom in a painstakingly handcrafted felt-on-felt typographic art piece, created as a poster for the 2014 How Design Live conference. The artwork is available as a print, with 100% of proceeds benefiting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

It is just about impossible to talk about the really important stuff in politics without using terms that have become such awful clichés they make your eyes glaze over and are hard to even hear. One such term is “leader,” which all the big candidates use all the time — as in e.g. “providing leadership,” “a proven leader,” “a new leader for a new century,” etc. — and have reduced to such a platitude that it’s hard to try to think about what “leader” really means and whether indeed what today’s Young Voters want is a leader. The weird thing is that the word “leader” itself is cliché and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn’t cliché or boring at all; in fact he’s sort of the opposite of cliché and boring.

Obviously, a real leader isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. Think about it. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with “inspire” being used here in a serious and non-cliché way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in certain really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you “looked up to” (interesting phrase) and wanted to be just like. Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a supervisor in a summer job. And yes, all these are “authority figures,” but it’s a special kind of authority. If you’ve ever spent time in the military, you know how incredibly easy it is to tell which of your superiors are real leaders and which aren’t, and how little rank has to do with it. A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.

In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.

As the host of the National-Design-Award-winning podcast Design Matters, it is only fitting that Millman would bring Wallace’s words to life in this gorgeous reading, recorded exclusively for Brain Pickings:

Get the print here. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays is a remarkable read in its entirety. For more of Millman’s own illustrated typographic essays, treat yourself to her Self-Portrait as Your Traitor, one of the best art and design books of 2013.

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12 SEPTEMBER, 2013

David Foster Wallace on Writing, Death, and Redemption

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“You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness … has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.”

On May 21, 2005 David Foster Wallace took the podium at Kenyon College and delivered the now-legendary This Is Water, one of history’s greatest commencement addresses — his timeless meditation on the meaning of life and the grueling work required in order to stay awake to the world rather than enslaved by one’s own self-consuming intellect. It included this admonition:

Think of the old cliché about “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.

Three years later, on September 12, 2008, Wallace murdered his own terrible master — not by firearms, but by hanging himself. Several months prior, frustrated with the disorienting side effects of the antidepressant he had been taking to alleviate his 20-year struggle with depression, he had attempted to wean himself off the medication. His personal tragedy was soon inscribed into the modern-day literary canon, turning him into a kind of public patron-saint of the Tortured Genius archetype.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace (public library) — an essential, the essential, collection of 22 interviews and profiles of the beloved author — reveals with empathic granularity Wallace’s conflicted relationship with life and death, and its slow, subtly menacing evolution.

In an interview by Larry McCaffery, originally published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993, 31-year-old Wallace appears already remarkably aware of the mortality paradox, the exorcism of which he sees as the highest achievement of fiction:

You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are like sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of real art-fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.

This dark whimsy is what lends literature its mesmerism, and in it Wallace sees both redemption and remedy for our existential dance with anxiety:

If you’re going to try not just to depict the way a culture’s bound and defined by mediated gratification and image, but somehow to redeem it, or at least fight a rearguard against it, then what you’re going to be doing is paradoxical. You’re at once allowing the reader to sort of escape self by achieving some sort of identification with another human psyche — the writer’s, or some character’s, etc. — and you’re also trying to antagonize the reader’s intuition that she is a self, that she is alone and going to die alone. You’re trying somehow both to deny and affirm that the writer is over here with his agenda while the reader’s over there with her agenda, distinct. This paradox is what makes good fiction sort of magical, I think. The paradox can’t be resolved, but it can somehow be mediated — “re-mediated,” since this is probably where poststructuralism rears its head for me — by the fact that language and linguistic intercourse is, in and of itself, redeeming, remedying.

Later in the conversation, Wallace considers, with his typical sharp self-consciousness and meta-awareness, the terrifying joy and vulnerability that great art necessitates and the courage creativity calls for:

The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet. … Maybe it’s as simple as trying to make the writing more generous and less ego-driven.

How wistful to consider that, fifteen years later, Wallace took his young self’s advice all too seriously, too literally, too extremely — for isn’t suicide the ultimate, most tragic, and most permanent denial of the ego?

But perhaps most prescient of all — most heartbreaking, most humbling, most harrowing — is something Wallace said to one interviewer particularly preoccupied with the root of the author’s genius:

That was his whole thing. “Are you normal?” “Are you normal?” I think one of the true ways I’ve gotten smarter is that I’ve realized that there are ways other people are a lot smarter than me. My biggest asset as a writer is that I’m pretty much like everybody else. The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever almost made me die.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace is revelational in its entirety. Complement it with his timeless wisdom on why writers write, the original audio of that mythic Kenyon commencement speech, and Wallace’s animated advice on ambition.

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09 MAY, 2013

David Foster Wallace’s Timeless Graduation Speech on the Meaning of Life, Adapted in a Short Film

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“The real value of a real education … has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness.”

On May 21, 2005, David Foster Wallace got up before the graduating class of Kenyon college and delivered one of history’s most memorable commencement addresses. It wasn’t until Wallace’s death in 2008 that the speech took on a life of its own under the title This Is Water, and was even adapted into a short book. Now, the fine folks of The Glossary have remixed an abridged version of Wallace’s original audio with a sequence of aptly chosen images to give one pause:

UPDATE: The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust exemplifies everything that’s wrong with copyright law. What a shame, this travesty of cultural legacy.

The most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude. But the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life-or-death importance.

Hear the full speech in its sublime entirety, along with transcript and highlights, here, then wash it down with Wallace on ambition and why writers write.

Thanks, Matt

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.