wallace

I’ve given it a week to settle or to slink off. But it just won’t. The profile of David Foster Wallace in last week’s The New Yorker has taken a front row seat, kind of like a big and slightly smelly guy, and will not move to the back. Hats off to D. T. Max, to the deft hand with which David Foster Wallace’s story was laid out. It was respectful but clear-eyed about the tragedy of his suicide. It portrayed an exceptional talent who still had to deal with the same every day issues all the rest of us have to deal with too.

But more than anything I am haunted by one word: Relentlessness. I can still taste that bitter edge of the essential tension DFW lived with, having been given an effulgent gift to write but a mental/physical vessel too vulnerable to sustain it. I may be overidentifying with his struggles right now given my own creative deadline woes and difficulties. But it isn’t often that an article sticks in the caw as fiercely as this one has.

I’m still not a DFW literary fan. His agility I get but it’s the decibel level of his voicing that makes it hard for me to stay with it too long (if it’s too loud, you’re too old…ouch.) But the story about him, the maker. That’s one I won’t forget anytime soon.

Thank you also to Janet Ellingson for posting a link to DFW’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College in a comment on this blog. The transcript of that speech is posted on Go Ahead. See If I Care. It’s worth the read. Here are a few excerpts from that speech:

As I’m sure you guys know by now, 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.

And this:

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 center 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.

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