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Posts Tagged ‘David Foster Wallace’

12 SEPTEMBER, 2012

This Is Water: David Foster Wallace on Life

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Revisiting the tragic literary hero’s only public insights on life.

On September 12, 2008, David Foster Wallace took his own life, becoming a kind of patron-saint of the “tortured genius” myth of creativity. Just three years prior to his suicide, he stepped onto the podium at Kenyon College and delivered one of the most timeless graduation speeches of all time — the only public talk he ever gave on his views of life. The speech, which includes a remark about suicide by firearms that came to be extensively discussed after DFW’s own eventual suicide, was published as a slim book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (public library).

You can hear the original delivery in two parts below, along with the the most poignant passages.

On solipsism and compassion, and the choice to see the other:

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness 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 centre 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.

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. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being ‘well-adjusted’, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

On the double-edged sword of the intellect, which Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Anne Lamott have spoken to:

It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). 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.’

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.

And I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

On empathy and kindness, echoing Einstein:

[P]lease don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. 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.

On false ideals and real freedom, or what Paul Graham has called the trap of prestige:

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.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

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. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. 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.

On what “education” really means and the art of being fully awake to the world:

[T]he real value of 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, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

‘This is water.’

‘This is water.’

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.

In the altogether excellent Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, Tom Bissell writes:

The terrible master eventually defeated David Foster Wallace, which makes it easy to forget that none of the cloudlessly sane and true things he had to say about life in 2005 are any less sane or true today, however tragic the truth now seems. This Is Water does nothing to lessen the pain of Wallace’s defeat. What it does is remind us of his strength and goodness and decency — the parts of him the terrible master could never defeat, and never will.

Complement with the newly released David Foster Wallace biography.

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04 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Words David Foster Wallace’s Mom Invented

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Because language is a living organism and creativity the sum total of our life experience.

D. T. Max’s highly anticipated Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (public library) is out this week, and though it lacks the captivating prose of a great biography, it has a certain encyclopedic quality that is sure to galvanize DFW fanatics.

As a lover of unusual words, I was delighted to find among Max’s factoids one about words invented by Wallace’s mother, an English professor, which went on to permeate DFW’s own writing — no surprise, given how we construct the patterns of our creativity:

No one else listened to David as his mother did. She was smart and funny, easy to confide in, and included him in her love of words. Even in later years, and in the midst of his struggle with the legacy of his childhood, he would always speak with affection of the passion for words and grammar she had given him. If there was no word for a thing, Sally wallace would invent it: ‘greebles’ meant little bits of lint, especially those that feet brought into bed; ‘twanger’ was the word for something whose name you didn’t know or couldn’t remember. She loved the word ‘fantods,’ meaning a feeling of deep fear or repulsion, and talked of ‘the howling fantods,’ this fear intensified. These words, like much of his childhood, would wind up in Wallace’s work.

And, indeed, it did. From Infinite Jest:

Orin’s special conscious horror, besides heights and the early morning, is roaches. There’d been parts of metro Boston near the Bay he’d refused to go to, as a child. Roaches give him the howling fantods.

And again:

Unit #4, more or less equidistant from both the hospital parking lot and the steep ravine, is a repository for Alzheimer’s patients with VA pensions. #4′?s residents wear jammies 24/7, the diapers underneath giving them a lumpy and toddlerish aspect. The patients are frequently visible at #4?s windows, in jammies, splayed and open-mouthed, sometimes shrieking, sometimes just mutely open-mouthed, splayed against the windows. They give everybody at Ennet House the howling fantods.

And yet again:

He really does have to sit right up close to listen to ‘Sixty Minutes +/— …’ when he’s over at the HmH6565 with C.T. and sometimes Hal at his mother’s late suppers, because Avril has some auditory thing about broadcast sound and gets the howling fantods from any voice that does not exit a living corporeal head…

And then some:

Joelle scrubbed at the discolored square of fingerprints around the light-switch until the wet Kleenex disintegrated into greebles.

From the posthumous The Pale King:

He could not understand why he was so afraid of people possibly seeing him sweat or thinking it was weird or gross. Who cared what people thought? He said this over and over to himself; he knew it was true. He also repeated—often in a stall in one of the boys’ restrooms at school between periods after a medium or severe attack, sitting on the toilet with his pants up and trying to use the stall’s toilet paper to dry himself without the toilet paper disintegrating into little greebles and blobs all over his forehead, squeezing thick pads of toilet paper onto the front of his hair to help dry it …

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18 MAY, 2012

5½ Timeless Commencement Speeches to Teach You to Define Your Own Success

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The great and terrible truth of clichés, why success is a dangerous bedfellow, and how disappointment paves the way for originality.

It’s that time of year again, the time when cultural icons and luminaries of various stripes flock to podiums around the world to impart their wisdom on a fresh crop of graduating seniors hungry to take on the world. After last year’s omnibus of timeless commencement addresses by J. K. Rowling (“Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is something on which to pride yourself. But poverty itself is romanticized only by fools.”), Steve Jobs (“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”), Robert Krulwich (“You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back. This is the era of Friends in Low Places.”), Meryl Streep (“This is your time, and it feels normal to you. But, really, there is no ‘normal.’ There’s only change, and resistance to it, and then more change.”), and Jeff Bezos (“Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice.”), here are five-ish more packets of timeless wisdom.

Across them runs a common thread of what seems to be as much a critical message, the message, for the young as it is an essential lifelong reminder for all: No social convention of success should lure you away from or could be a substitute for finding your purpose and doing what you love.

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE AT KENYON COLLEGE (2005)

In 2005, David Foster Wallace addressed the graduating class at Kenyon College with a remarkable speech that revealed in equal measure his singular, potent, wildly eclectic mind and his wounded spirit, peeling the curtain on the triumphs and tragedies of being David Foster Wallace. When Wallace took his own life in 2008 in a way referenced from the podium, the address took on a whole new layer of meaning for those who revered, mourned, and tried to understand the beloved writer. In 2009, the speech was adapted into a short book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.

It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). 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.”

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.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

Full transcript here.

ELLEN DEGENERES AT TULANE (2009)

In 2009, the great Ellen DeGeneres — icon, notorious happy-dancer, and one of my big heroes — sent off the graduating “Katrina class” at New Orleans’ Tulane University with a hurricane of a speech that swirls you into a whirlwind of wit and humor, shakes you up with its humility and deeply personal candor, and puts you back down with a new understanding of

As you grow, you’ll realize the definition of success changes. For many of you, today, success is being able to hold down 20 shots of tequila. For me, the most important thing in your life is to live your life with integrity, and not to give into peer pressure. to try to be something that you’re not. To live your life as an honest and compassionate person. to contribute in some way. So to conclude my conclusion: follow your passion, stay true to yourself. Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path, and by all means you should follow that.

AARON SORKIN AT SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY (2012)

Earlier this week, Aaron Sorkin took the stage at Syracuse University and addressed the graduating class with equal parts wit, wisdom, and disarming candor. His remarks about how the government failed to address the dawn of the AIDS epidemic because a disease that affected mostly homosexuals didn’t seem worth the trouble, and how misguided that was in retrospect, make one think of the recent momentous strides forward for LGBT rights and wonder with what mix of bewilderment and shame we might look back on the days of government-sanctioned bigotry in a few decades.

Develop your own compass, and trust it. Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt. My junior and senior years at Syracuse, I shared a five-bedroom apartment at the top of East Adams with four roommates, one of whom was a fellow theater major named Chris. Chris was a sweet guy with a sly sense of humor and a sunny stage presence. He was born out of his time, and would have felt most at home playing Mickey Rooney’s sidekick in “Babes on Broadway.” I had subscriptions back then to TIME and Newsweek. Chris used to enjoy making fun of what he felt was an odd interest in world events that had nothing to do with the arts. I lost touch with Chris after we graduated and so I’m not quite certain when he died. But I remember about a year and a half after the last time I saw him, I read an article in Newsweek about a virus that was burning its way across the country. The Centers for Disease Control was calling it “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” or AIDS for short. And they were asking the White House for $35 million for research, care and cure. The White House felt that $35 million was way too much money to spend on a disease that was only affecting homosexuals, and they passed. Which I’m sure they wouldn’t have done if they’d known that $35 million was a steal compared to the $2 billion it would cost only 10 years later.

Am I saying that Chris would be alive today if only he’d read Newsweek? Of course not. But it seems to me that more and more we’ve come to expect less and less of each other, and that’s got to change. Your friends, your family, this school expect more of you than vocational success.

BARACK OBAMA AT WESLEYAN (2008)

Philosopher Daniel Dennett once offered his key to the secret of happiness: “Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.” In his 2008 address to the graduating class at Wesleyan University, Barack Obama put it just as eloquently: “[O]ur individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition.”

[S]hould you take the path of service, should you choose to take up one of these causes as your own, know that you’ll experience the occasional frustrations and the occasional failures. Even your successes will be marked by imperfections and unintended consequences. I guarantee you, there will be times when friends or family urge you to pursue more sensible endeavors with more tangible rewards. And there will be times where you will be tempted to take their advice.

But I hope you’ll remember, during those times of doubt and frustration, that there is nothing naïve about your impulse to change the world. Because all it takes is one act of service — one blow against injustice — to send forth what Robert Kennedy called that tiny ripple of hope. That’s what changes the world. That one act.

CONAN O’BRIEN AT DARTMOUTH (2011)

Count on Conan to hit on the Big Truths with his signature blend of irreverence, self-derision, and keen cultural observation.

For decades, in show business, the ultimate goal of every comedian was to host The Tonight Show. It was the Holy Grail, and like many people I thought that achieving that goal would define me as successful. But that is not true. No specific job or career goal defines me, and it should not define you. In 2000 — in 2000 — I told graduates to not be afraid to fail, and I still believe that. But today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.

BONUS: RAY BRADBURY (2001)

Though not technically a commencement speech, this remarkable keynote address by Ray Bradbury at The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea is brimming with the kind of invaluable wisdom you wish someone had pinned to your mind in your early twenties, so you could laminate it for the rest of your life.

I want your loves to be multiple. I don’t want you to be a snob about anything. Anything you love, you do it. It’s got to be with a great sense of fun. Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it. Ignore the authors who say “Oh, my God, what word? Oh, Jesus Christ…”, you know. Now, to hell with that. It’s not work. If it’s work, stop and do something else.

Now, what I’m thinking of is, people always saying “Well, what do we do about a sudden blockage in your writing? What if you have a blockage and you don’t know what to do about it?” Well, it’s obvious you’re doing the wrong thing, don’t you? In the middle of writing something you go blank and your mind says: “No, that’s it.” Ok. You’re being warned, aren’t you? Your subconscious is saying “I don’t like you anymore. You’re writing about things I don’t give a damn for.” You’re being political, or you’re being socially aware. You’re writing things that will benefit the world. To hell with that! I don’t write things to benefit the world. If it happens that they do, swell. I didn’t set out to do that. I set out to have a hell of a lot of fun.

I’ve never worked a day in my life. I’ve never worked a day in my life. The joy of writing has propelled me from day to day and year to year. I want you to envy me, my joy. Get out of here tonight and say: “Am I being joyful?” And if you’ve got a writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject.

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