inventing the pain of others: david foster wallace’s kenyon college commencement speech
I was recently led back to David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College by Alex Abramovich’s post at the LRB blog. What a strange piece of writing it is. And how strange, in a way, that it’s been repackaged as a sort of fully giftable edition, appropriate to amazon off to any graduating senior that you know and love. The other day, at the end of my last tutorial with a student in her final year, I emailed her the link above only to realize immediately afterward that I was more than slightly uncomfortable with what I had just done, even if I wasn’t quite sure why this was. I’ve been trying to figure it out over the past few days, so here goes…
In order to understand what I’m going to try to say about the address’s weirdness you should probably just go read it yourself before continuing, but just in case you can’t be bothered, I’ll lay the terms of the piece out quickly. (Correction – actually I’ve quoted a ton of the piece below… Forgive me for the long, citey post… You still might want to go read it first anway…) DFW’s first major move is to welcome the graduates to the adult world of “boredom, routine and petty frustration,” and illustrates his introduction with a vivid little set-piece about going to the supermarket after work:
By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.
But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.
There’s lots to say about this echt-pomo vision of hellish banality, but let’s leave it be for now. What’s more interesting to me, and where the strangeness comes into the piece, is in DFW’s proposed response to such situations or to our situation in general as bored, tired inhabitants of the late capitalist wonderland of shit. Despite the fact that adult life is full to the brim of such situations and “many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides,”
that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.
So boredom and solipsism become two faces of the same coin. Fair enough. But it’s the proposed solution (if that’s the word) to this issue that Wallace proposes that seems to me at once problematic and revelatory in a subtly devastating way. The answer, as it turns out, is a fundamentally literary answer, even a novelistic one.
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.
I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.
Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.
But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
So the answer to the soft brutal boredom and disgust that comes of the alignment of individual solipsism and consumerist alienation is the deployment of a kind of continuous fantasy that the individuals you encounter are immersed in all sorts of worst-case scenarios and household devastations. Everyone’s just been diagnosed with terminal cancer or been left by their wife, every car is full of the injured and diseased rushing for care that will come too late if at all, every whining child has just lost a sibling or a parent, every impatient adult is impatient due to economic or psychological collapse.
Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. As Wallace admits, the operation that he proposing requires something more than suspension of disbelief – something that I think more resembles a particularly perverse and perversely secular sort of Pascalian Wager. The world is unbearable if other people simply are this hideous without cause, so one places a bet, choosing to fantasize tragedy everywhere instead, which at least renders the hideousness comprehensible and therefore somehow more bearable. The final line of the talk – “I wish you way more than luck” – is in the light of the strange probabilistic casuistry of the piece an appropriate place to end.
It should be clear by now what’s strange and disturbing about the speech, and why it makes a less than appropriate gift for your favorite graduating niece or nephew. Though it’s tempting, I’ll avoid writing here about the clearly infernal logic of his argument and how it comes to seem itself like a last-ditch attempt to maintain operational sanity when one’s coordination is off and systems are failing generally. But in addition to all of this, it points us back to one of the central problems of the relationship between literary representation and ethics or politics.
One of the basic ethico-political use-values of literature has ostensibly been that it allows us access into the lives and minds of others – that we learn empathy and understanding through these experiments in otherness. Well and good. But there is something troubling about this basic value that comes across in Wallace’s address. No matter how hard it tries, literature kicks against the representation of others in their average everydayness, in their quotidian normality. It loves to take its quarry on the worst day of its life, the days of dramatic action and traumatic suffering. It definitely not that it’s impossible to write otherwise, but that’s the way the gradient runs and resistance to the affectual mandates implicit in the form leaves the work haunted by what’s not there. Is this normal day actually the worst day? (Think for instance of Mrs. Dalloway, which plays out this haunting quite literally…) Like the depressive logic of Wallace’s after-work drive to the supermarket, even the seemingly ordinary is luridly tinged by what we might call literature’s all-encompassing tendency to crisis.
Whatever the life-logic advocated in the commencement speech, Wallace’s wider work of course displays a disturbingly deep awareness of this very problem. While it may be overly-broad and somewhat self-indulgent to think so, what the speech nonetheless communicates is a basic incompatibility (or is it an over-compatibility?) of the literary perspective and a healthily coherent personal perspective on life.