Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Guest Post: Allen Lee on David Foster Wallace

Allen Lee is a mathy-sciencey guy, not your typical lit geek. Below are his reactions to a commencement speech delivered by lit-geek hero DFW.

I recently surfed onto a transcript of David Foster Wallace's commencement address at Kenyon University in May of 2005. I have some reactions to share and would be interested in any thoughts or potential blogo-discussions. Spoilers from now on.

The two-sentence summary of DFW's message to the graduating body is, "A large portion of the value of education, and in particular your liberal arts education, relates to controlling what you think about and how you construct meaning from experience -- the nature and quality of your consciousness. If you can't control your mind, you are screwed, and as a concrete example of why, I go into some depth about a typical after-work stop at the grocery store for yours truly, acting as a representative for your typical educated working American adult."

I pretty much agree with everything he says, except for the details of the after-work stop. What really surprised me was the apparent energy and passion he had for these ideas -- they make it seem like these ideas are much fresher in his mind than I would expect. Because basically, I don't expect a 43-year-old man to be energized by these thoughts. I would expect these thoughts to be so familiar, so basic, so second nature by the age of 43, that he wouldn't deliver this speech this way. Now I get that the college kids don't have as much life experience, so these ideas are theoretically "useful" for them (of course even the ones who really pay attention probably won't understand without learning the hard way like everybody else), and obviously DFW was a really troubled guy, and maybe this speech foreshadowed his suicide, etc etc. I am not ragging on the guy, just surprised, and wondering exactly how common his mindset is in the general population, because the praise in the blogosphere seemed so overwhelmingly positive.

I found the after-work episode really extreme. My continual reaction while reading it was, "not really dude." I don't think I've ever been that pissed about traffic, Muzak, long lines, SUVs, blah blah; I don't think my "default setting" is to consider myself the center of the universe; I don't get pissed at religious-bumper-sticker-coated V12 pickups driven by ugly people, whatever. Just the framing of the discussion is weird. These are weird things to get pissed about; and the compensating intellectual reactions (e.g., maybe the lady is being rude b/c she was up all night with her dying husband) are also out of proportion and weird. It's a lot of thinking and construction for what I would expect to be complete trivialities for a married, 43-year-old, highly educated, and on top of it all brilliant dude.



  1. I'm not as surprised as you are that a "43-year-old man" finds crowded grocery stores frustrating at the end of the day. Knowing you personally I think you are less inclined to frustration than the average person, and I also think DFW is exaggerating for effect.

    This is the part that struck me as wrong:

    "[T]here is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. [...] 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."

    Huh. Here I really don't know what he's talking about. That is basically my idea of crazy talk.

  2. I think I would suggest that DFW's brilliance, energy, extreme level of frustration/annoyance expressed here and elsewhere, and manic depression are all interconnected. I don't say they're the same: I say they're connected. Frankly I'm sure he felt all the annoyances he talks about. Things others might feel (I hate the late afternoon grocery story) were I bet for him often much more overwhelming. In contrast to Elisa's point about exaggerating for effect (which I agree is part of what he's doing in the passage), it's also possible to say that he's downplaying through careful prose the degree to which these things overwhelmed him. You can see in the passage that there's a tremendous degree of pain that these ordinary moments put him in. His thoughts aren't that different from many people's reactions, but the degree of agony is different.

    Honestly, when I look at his work now, I see manic depression everywhere. It's glaringly obvious to me, although I understand that hindsight is 20-20. But I also see how his feelings tap into my feelings and those of many others. He makes something of them. I'm sure that was compelled by need, but it's remarkable how tightly his prose hones in on making his concerns not just personal ones, but broadly and socially relevant. Still, I don't read him as a wise, objective commentator on the American condition (for instance). I read him as someone who was in a constant, profound daily struggle with it and himself. A struggle that we know by now he was in danger every day of losing.

  3. I did assume that to some extent DFW was exaggerating and being playful (or trying), but like Mark describes, in my reading I saw mostly tremendous pain and frustration behind the words. This is a not just a guy that is tired at the end of the day and wants some peace and quiet.

    Re: the worship passage, I think I do basically agree with that. What's crazy about it? Isn't that mostly folk wisdom?

    I was talking to somebody at work about this speech, and neither of us has read a lot of DFW (me, basically zero), but we did have impressions of threads that ran through his work, and we wondered what DFW tapped into so well, and how, so make such a name for himself. So, like, if I only have time for one DFW thing what should it be?

  4. What who _is_ a "wise, objective commentator on the American condition"? I am all about that.

  5. I don't agree with the basic premise that "everyone worships something," much less that worshiping a higher power is inherently less harmful than worshiping anything else. Lots of people do evil things in the name of God or whomever. And I think it's imminently possible for rational people to reject religion without simply trading that instinct for blind worship of philosophy or intellectualism or whatever, to their own eventual downfall. I mean, what? That's such a black & white worldview, which is I guess is further indicative of DFW's mental state.

    The accepted classic is probably Infinite Jest, but that is a very long book (I haven't read it myself). If time is a constraint, I'd suggest A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. His essays are fantastic.

  6. From this passage, I don't think DFW would disagree that people do evil things in the name of God; that's beside the point. I think he's using "worship" to mean something like a strong belief that guides our actions, or something we "believe in," whether that something be empirical observation or Jesus, and I think he's essentially right. (When he says that all other things we might "worship" will eat us alive, well, that's an exaggeration, maybe to emphasize his point.) When he says, There's no such thing as atheism, I think he's reminding people who reject any kind of spirituality (and who maybe do so while shaking their heads at those idiots in the Bible Belt) that their belief systems, too, rest on faith (the faith, say, that the universe as it is observed by western science is more true than other versions of the universe...). I'm not sure I'm expressing myself clearly here... But the passage made sense to me.

    By the way, Elisa -- I'm glad you have your own blog! No longer limited by P-shares...

  7. Interesting. I would agree that you can't opt out of a belief system entirely; I think it's the framework of worship I object to more than anything else, which makes it seem so blind and crazed. Jonathan Mayhew once said something about how you can't opt out of style or aesthetics, that even anti-style (e.g., jean shorts and Tevas) is a kind of aesthetic.

    Thanks, Chip!

  8. ooh ooh!

    for anyone who's interested, a lot of people, me included, are reading Infinite Jest this summer: http://infinitesummer.org/

    basically everyone reading it at about the same pace more or less over the course of 3 months, june 21-sep. 22.

    i have a head start of about 130 pp. so far. it's a lot of fun. you need 2 bookmarks!