Sunday, December 21, 2008

David Foster Wallace Commencement Address

My friend Erin sent me a link to this way back in the middle of October and I just now got around to reading it. (Sorry Erin). It is very interesting, but I am still thinking about it, and have not quite yet landed on anything yet. Here is a sample, which you can click on to read the whole thing:

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.

I find myself now also thinking hard about WHY Erin sent me this link. Is it because I was moved by Wallace's suicide, without actually having read anything he had written? He mentions suicide in the speech, which is kind of evil -- the whole thing rings strangely now, because you get the feeling that his chemicals or whatever prevented him from seeing the world the way he suggested it should be seen -- or he did see it that way and there was something terribly overwhelming in the vision? Because it required some awful strength none of us have? Or did she send it to me because she knows perfectly well that I am a bit obsessed with "the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing." Of course I worship all the wrong things, and suffer the results, as Wallace suggests, but he suffered too, obviously.

I do deeply admire that he discusses, at a commencement address, the dreariness of day to day adult life, and attempts to help. That is frankly an amazing gesture.


FrF said...

Thanks for this link, Geoff.

I suffer extremely under what you aptly call "dreariness of day to day adult life". But maybe I'm just seeing and doing things the wrong way?.

(BTW, I love the blog Overcoming Bias despite its more than subcutaneous libertarianism. Especially lots of Eliezer Yudkowsky's writings are dear to me.)

Le Ted said...

This is, as far as I'm concerned, as good as commencement addresses get. Thank you for linking to it - everyone should read it. It's the best thing Wallace wrote.

However, I don't think it's "kind of evil" to discuss suicide in it - Wallace struggled with depression throughout his life. If he didn't try to kill himself before delivering this speech (and there is substantial evidence that he did), he certainly did after (at least once before he completed suicide in this September of this year, according to the posthumous profile in Rolling Stone ). His suicide, for my money, just hammers his points home - the bullshit can get anyone down, and we need to be even more vigilant than we can imagine if we're going to keep it from crushing us. Did you know that DFW was so afraid of "screwing up" his suicide that he duct taped his hands together first, so he wouldn't be tempted to undo the noose?

Wallace's writing was, for my money, based on a need to demystify his depression. He defined the purpose of all fiction as a means of curbing loneliness and his brilliance was in finding plenty of other depressed and lonely people he could usher/help through their anxieties. With the Commencement Address, he's just honest with these kids and talking to them in real terms (the frustration of the grocery store, indeed!) without coming off as condescending. The most important part of the speech, I believe, is his ending it with "I wish you way more than luck," just because he knows how tough life can be. He balances pragmatism and cynicism in a way few modern writers have achieved (and in a way he fumbled plenty of times before).

I don't know your friend, but could she have been sending this to you because she wanted your insights into her own frustrations/fears? Or your vexations? Could you be fulfilling DFW's prophecy that you are "operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that . . . [you are] the center of the world" by trying to analyze it? Not trying to impugn anyone, just checking.

I encourage you to read "Good Old Neon" from the collection Oblivion and "The Depressed Person" (available here:

Merry Christmas. How weird for you to bring this up the day after Burn After Reading was released on DVD (Wallace killed himself the day it was released in theatres).