Friday, September 19, 2008

David Foster Wallace, RIP

David Foster Wallace, one of my favorite writers, died last Friday, an apparent suicide. I wish I could say I was surprised, but I'm not and am, at the same time. He was an immensely talented writer. Sometimes the immensely talented bear a burden we the mortals don't understand. I can't say that I've loved everything that he wrote or that everything he wrote was really great -- I didn't, and it wasn't. What it was, to me, anyway, was incredibly (post)modern and of this moment yet so seemingly old-fashioned and absolutist. I saw a quote, in one of the many obits that I read bout Wallace, that called him a fiercely moral writer, and I agree with this. From his writings you got the sense that he didn't approve of what he saw and expertly skewered. He couched his observations in irony (that vestment of modernism) but beneath the veneer laid a strict moralist, an old fashioned guy who knew right from wrong. A friend sent me a link to an excerpt of his Kenyon Commencement Speech 2005 in the WSJ. I quote the last paragraph and a half. The penultimate line about water refers to a story about two young fish who don't realize that they're swimming in water until told by an older fish.

Would that Wallace had been able not to choke out his life at age 46, and heeded his own advice to be aware of what is everywhere, and essential, and simple -- though he does admit that it's hard to do so.

But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race" -- the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don't dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness -- awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, 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, day in and day out.

1 comment:

FreeArtist said...

I read this aloud to Mrs. FA last night in the car, choked up at the words, "But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then...it will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow consumer hell type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars, compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things."

This essay is as much DFW as I've read, but he must have been a deeply religious writer, in his way.