Thursday, September 18, 2008

"This Is Water"

I saw the news on David Foster Wallace last weekend, like everyone else, and was shocked and saddened by it. As someone who does battle with words on a daily basis - the right ones, the wrong ones, the simple ones, the transcendent ones - his brilliance was manifest, and unattainable.

I'm just one of the many, many people who bought, was blown away by and did not finish Infinite Jest, but I think I read page 15 about 100 times, years ago, and actually remember laughing out loud - repeatedly - at the lines, "The integrity of my sleep has been forever compromised, sir," and "We witnessed something only marginally mammalian in there, sir." I don't know why I didn't get all the way through, my attention span was fleeting back then, I guess. I'm older now, and it's still here. There is hope.

A friend sent me a link to a commencement address Wallace delivered at Kenyon College a few years ago, and it was beautiful to read, all of it, but I was particularly moved by this:

"Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there 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, be 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. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

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. They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

And 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 ... 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."

What a mind. What a loss.


Blogger Gervy said...

A very thought-provoking commencement address - thank you so much for sharing it.

7:36 AM  

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