David Foster Wallace was one of my very favorite writers; his work was dense, funny, parenthetical, prophetic, kind, brilliantly astute and always a tremendously enjoyable read. While in college at Hampshire, I made a special trip to get the specific copy of his first novel, ‘Broom of the System,’ from the library at his school, Amherst College, only because I imagined it might be the most special copy of that particular book for him. I locked myself up in my dorm room for two weeks to devour ‘Infinite Jest.’ And the long piece on his experience on a cruise ship in ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing’ is easily the most hilarious piece of journalism ever.
And already people are quoting this 2005 Kenyon Commencement speech as some sort of evidence, although honestly there’s never any lack of ‘evidence’ when this kind of thing happens:
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 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.
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. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration.
He will be missed.
1Most alarmingly: if someone this blindingly intelligent takes a look at our world and decides to cash out, what hope do the rest of us have?