Discovering Wallace

Recently deceased author David Foster Wallace offered honest guidance in troubled times

The Daily Pennsylvanian
October 09, 2008

A few weeks ago, a man named David Foster Wallace took his own life at the age of 46, ending a protracted battle with depression.

This fall will surely be remembered as when the financial sector began its collapse - or, assuming the rosiest scenario, survived a convulsive restructuring. It may well be remembered as a turning point in American political history.

Yet for all their global import, I submit that these events are, in a strange sense, far less significant than the tragic interaction between a rope and one of our generation's greatest thinkers on Sept. 12.

Bear with me. If the sentence above rings false, that's because it is - or at least partly is. I confess that I was ignorant of Wallace (author of the celebrated novel Infinite Jest, recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" grant and respected essayist and teacher) until after his death.

I was lucky enough to discover Wallace's writing in the outpouring of elegiac tributes over the past weeks. I'm not alone - judging by the run on Wallace's books at local bookstores and even Van Pelt - proving, perhaps, that you often don't know what you have until it's gone.

Wallace matters because he was moral. Or, to put it differently, the foundation of his literary achievement and intellectual wizardry (both of which deserve more credit than I can bestow here) was a profoundly engaged and probing ethical sense.

This Tuesday, the Kelly Writers House hosted an informal, organic gathering of Wallace's fans and friends. About a dozen people spoke - most reading from his work, a few sharing their personal memories. English professor Paul Saint-Amour described his former colleague's quirks and ethos of "radical attentiveness."

Writers House staffer John Carroll followed with a moving reading from Wallace's address to Kenyon College graduates in 2005: "Think about it: There is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real - you get the idea."

This idea is unpleasant to confront and seldom communicated, especially in a commencement speech. That's reason enough to ponder it. Back in May, Michael Bloomberg told Penn graduates that "I've always felt that tomorrow will be even better. I have no doubt that, for the great class of '08 that will be true, too. That tomorrow, you'll embark on an unforgettable adventure ... you'll help build a better world."

Such talk is like Vicodin for the soul. Two things seem clear: First, tomorrow is not better an uncomfortably high percentage of the time and second, an honest person would admit that building a better world is hard and frequently opposed to our own short-term interests.

In contrast, the Kenyon speech hits home with Sermon-on-the-Mount like impact: "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."

In the end, it's about empathy - an empathy that implies and dare I say requires the slow strangulation of one's own interests, desires and inclinations.

Despite the overwhelming spiritualism of our day, we're impoverished for this kind of thinking. You don't find it at Penn, and you'll look long and hard before you can find it in our national discourse. (Imagine how the presidential candidates would squirm if they were asked to apply the Golden Rule to people from other countries or even the other party!)

Maybe this just means we're looking in the wrong places. Maybe attentiveness needs to begin each morning at the moment we wake up - with the first person we meet, with the first hello.