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inventing the pain of others: david foster wallace’s kenyon college commencement speech

with 30 comments

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.

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 27, 2010 at 8:22 pm

30 Responses

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  1. What, no image credit?


    March 27, 2010 at 11:10 pm

  2. So wait is that you? I actually thought it was the famousy one…


    March 28, 2010 at 12:50 am

  3. No, not me, a Flickr user by the name of unaesthetic. It’s a wonderful picture I think – and I can’t stop myself from seeing googly eyes in those two packets in the top shelf of the bottom aisle. Which in relation to the DFW speech is interesting since what’s perhaps most arresting about the picture is that it has no people in it.


    March 28, 2010 at 1:14 am

  4. What’s funny is that I actually thought it was the famous picture that the flickr guy was semi-knocking off that I was using….


    March 28, 2010 at 1:16 am

  5. BTW, I spent my summers as a kid and post-kid stocking supermarket shelves with Nabisco products, which was both educational and determinative…


    March 28, 2010 at 1:17 am

  6. Thanks for the link, I’ll have to read the whole thing.

    I don’t understand how thinking that others might be massively worse off than they seem is a strategy that could make life more bearable, unless one is already pre-committed to the idea that regardless of how bad things are, it’s all worth it (somehow). I understand that such thinking can jumpstart empathy, so I suppose, for the strategy to be successful and not just a temporary moment in the depressive dialectic, that must be enough for some.

    @ Giovanni: there is a man in the lower left of the photo, another man up two rows and to the right, and more people at the very top.


    March 28, 2010 at 2:42 pm

  7. Talk about life-affirming: “There are a million stories in the Naked City, and every single one was written by Raymond Carver.” It’s like choosing to live in an edition of The New Yorker which contains only the fiction, poetry, and Patricia Marx’s nightmarish consumption lists. (Rather than doing the sensible thing and skipping them all.) In compare-and-contrast, it became a cliche of breast-beating science fiction that this sort of “tragedy”-attuned telepathy leads to suicidal despair.

    Ray Davis

    March 28, 2010 at 4:52 pm

  8. hm, I took Wallace’s point to be less “the other person could be having a tragic day” a la literature, as you put it, than “any number of factors other than simple horridness have led to what you are now witnessing in this checkout line or wherever”. That is, it doesn’t require imagining that today is the worst day in that seemingly awful parent’s life, but rather imagining the small stresses that add up to a shitty day or a shitty moment. Remembering, I suppose, the ways we allow ourselves to lose it for a moment, or to just be rude for a moment, even on an otherwise decent day.

    Incidentally, the re-packaging of this address as separate book is a remarkably cheesy move. Collected in a book of essays or miscellany? Yes, do that, it’s worth reading and re-reading. But a separate volume, where at times only a word or two snakes across the page? No.


    March 29, 2010 at 2:43 pm

  9. Shorter Wallace: Imaginative ignorance is bliss.


    March 30, 2010 at 8:24 pm

  10. Yes Richard I agree it’s a really nasty cash-in. What’s worse is that someone’s decided to edit one or two of the more suicide-oriented passages out of the text for the graduation gift version, all in the name of good taste I’m sure.


    March 31, 2010 at 11:28 am

  11. Graduating is death; the ‘real’ world becomes only bearable if we imagine constant personal/individual crises and torment: hell. This serves as the only option if we do not turn back to the structure of the daily routine, which Wallace is able to place with the requirements of labor, and how these factors become the sum total of the equation punctuated by graduation. If the only way to empathize with real people in the supermarket is to imagine a constant state of detriment, we live in a constant state of detriment. I think it says a lot about DFW that his only way out of this set of circumstances was to burrow in further, to fictionalize these real characters, and perhaps in trying to detail all of that info/narrative/data in his final text about the mundane work of the IRS bureaucracy he realized exactly how futile that shape becomes if one seeks to overcome the burden that drove one there.

    “I was looking for a job and then I found a job. / And heaven knows I’m miserable now.” -The Smiths.


    March 31, 2010 at 6:28 pm

  12. Isn’t there a class dimension to this too, considering Wallace must be talking to the future upper middle class? “The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.” Not for people who don’t have time for navel-gazing or for whom employment is entirely optional.


    March 31, 2010 at 8:42 pm

  13. I don’t think he’s really saying we should switch over to believing a positive fantasy that everyone is good at heart and is doing the very best they can as an alternative to the negative fantasy that everyone else is just some uncaring, thoughtless, selfish person. I think he’s just saying that you can use a positive fantasy as a tool to break yourself out of a negative one. It’s not about believing in that new fantasy, it’s about constantly recognising that you were fantasising, and you could have just as well fantasised the opposite.

    This is the ability to think creatively that allows us to continually escape the fantasies that our own laziness and the world at large would be happy for us to forever sink down into.


    April 3, 2010 at 1:45 am

  14. Yes Richard I agree it’s a really nasty cash-in. What’s worse is that someone’s decided to edit one or two of the more suicide-oriented passages out of the text for the graduation gift version, all in the name of good taste I’m sure.


    April 3, 2010 at 3:15 am

  15. Thanks everyone for all of the thoughtful responses. I’m going to have a lot more to say about DFW in the coming months…


    April 4, 2010 at 10:24 pm

  16. But sandwiched between the outrageous, improbable, terrible horrible no-good very bad days Wallace imagines one might imagine for one’s fellow supermarket patrons (and its employees) and highway users is this: “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.”

    Hardly impossible; on the contrary, quite likely, if one is a successful novelist. I haven’t read the whole address, only what you’ve quoted, but isn’t it possible that the placement of this suggestion between two stretches of hypothesized worst days an acknowledgment that there’s something amiss about taking this perspective to others? Yes: you could imagine that so and so’s only being so annoying because s/h has much worse things to worry about than you do and courtesy to you is correspondingly not at the forefront of h/h mind. This would be to spin a kind of ridiculous tale for your own distraction and would exempt you from considering anything about what’s actually going on around you. Or, you could think about the others who beset you so as people more or less like you, if (in Wallace’s case at least and presumably in the cases of Kenyon’s graduates) probably at least a little worse off materially. These actual people are bored, angry, frustrated, whatever.


    April 5, 2010 at 7:01 am

  17. For people who talk about class dimensions, there’s a class dimension to everything, normally one that excoriates, with poorly concealed jealousy, people ‘for whom employment is entirely optional’.

    The problem is that these members of the leisure class are as fictional as the idealised workers ‘who don’t have time for navel-gazing’.

    Wallace worked as a teacher.


    April 5, 2010 at 7:27 pm

  18. Wow. I don’t know so much about class, echt pomo(?), or strange probabilistic casuistry, but I guess the subtleties of this address escape me as currency through well worn pockets. Oh well. I thought this address had something to say about the quality of attention that a person can devote to someone, something, other than themselves, and the spectre of the speculative, calculative faculties of the mind. You lost me.


    April 10, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    • Yes. Scott that was what I got from DFW’s message too. It inspired me more than depressed me. Finding true freedom in helping and loving others.


      October 14, 2011 at 5:03 pm

  19. Im not sure there could have been a more arbitrary section of the whole speech to take and criticize. Consider the fact that empathy is not an easy concept, for any age, but especially not for young people. So how do you translate the idea? use over the top examples of what other people may be going through. Remember his audience. If you can get them to give a crap about other people going through tragic events, you can begin to get them to except that they are not the center of the universe, that every one feels bored and frustrated, and without thought most people believe the world has it out for them (as if the world gives a crap). The brillance of the whole speech is that it wakes us all up to a concept that is right in front of our faces at all times. Go ahead and raise your hand if you don’t think 99% of the people you know are aholes, and that if people would just agree with everything you said/believed, the world would be a better place. Now, hes not saying that some viewpoints or actions arn’t better or prefered than others, but rather to acknowledge that by defeniton your viewpoint is biased. and thats not your fault. its the only viewpoint your ever really going to get. But if you walk through your everyday waiting for “yet another ahole to get in your way” your destined to be miserable. and remember your role as speedbump in the eyes of…everyone else.


    June 2, 2010 at 2:44 pm

  20. I don’t think it’s a very “arbitrary” moment in the speech. In fact, I think it’s just about the central “move” of the speech – the payoff point. The fact that you yourself are making so much of it sort of proves the point.

    Look, I’m not saying I don’t understand the basic point that DFW is trying to communicate, not do I think it’s a horrible thing to communicate to people. I do think, however, that it’s very strange – strange in a banal sort of way. And strange in a way that maps pretty easily on to some issues of empathy, sentimentality, and the like that are themselves question at the heart of fiction.

    But I’m not sure what else to say other than reiterate my points above. But the passage is hardly an “arbitrary” choice…


    June 3, 2010 at 2:42 am

  21. You may like to call it novelistic fantasizing or “strange probabilistic casuistry” but in the context of the rest of the speech, this tactic DFW offers us ends up being a very pratical sort of existentialism.

    “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t…. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness”

    You offer some great insights here, but take a few steps back and give the speech a second read. I’d argue the take away is compassion and mindfulness, not necessarily cute, little mind tricks of melodramatic self-delusion.


    July 7, 2010 at 2:49 am

  22. Well, that’s the ultimate take-away, but it’d be a pretty banal one if that were the centerpiece of the talk. I think what’s more interesting, as I discuss, is the thought-process that informs the choice of compassion and mindfulness, or to put it another way, what exactly the mind is full of, in this case, when it’s compassionate.


    July 7, 2010 at 4:52 am

    • Banal it very well may be. In the speech, DFW made it obvious that he was acutely self-aware of the clichés but I can’t help but agree with him that human truths often end up sounding very unsexy and bathetic. Yet, somehow, there is a very small and simple beauty in that. The idea that the greatest minds all arrive at this tiny, tender thought that unconditional compassion makes the world go round is arresting, if not heartbreaking.

      Alas, maybe I’m just a closeted romantic who’s a sucker for treacle.


      July 29, 2010 at 1:07 am

      • “The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “oh how banal!.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama.”
        -E Unibus Pluram

        I quote this because you are overusing the word banal. Also, sentimentality and re-affirming simple truisms and peeling them away from irony are in some sense DFW 101. Read up, son.


        March 17, 2011 at 7:11 am

      • Yes, and I’m free to appreciate yet disagree with DFW 101. Think up, son…


        March 17, 2011 at 11:22 am

  23. I think you misinterpreted the speech.

    Kid In The Front Row

    July 18, 2010 at 6:01 pm

  24. Hello. I just listened to it today, and found Wallace to be.. a bit more complex and more full of (/potential) contradictions, now that I’ve come to this page and read the responses of ‘others’.

    In many ways, that is the central problem or ‘mindless default setting’, isn’t it? That something / someone called “The Self” actually exists – and therefore the “Other” also seems to. Seems to..

    Jumping ahead, perhaps we might need to be fully aware that the only real ‘water’ of which all fish are totally unware, is the fictional water of “Self” itself..

    That is to say, I’ve had the hunch that the “Self” does not really exist / only exists in the same way a mirage ‘exists’ – for some time now.. that it’s some kind of self-generating, sustaining & self-bootstrapping illusion, an Emergent process.. and that Awareness – especially as philosopher and educator J. Krishnamurti describes it – is the key to waking up out of its matrix (except of course, there’s nobody that wakes up, if you know what I mean.. 😉

    Anyhow some light snax for calm thought between pushing one’s angry trolly down isles full of latte sipping liberal arts students and paying teh bill$
    Henry Swanson

    Henry Swanson

    July 28, 2010 at 11:57 am

  25. Interesting post.
    My only ‘encounter’ with Wallace, if you can call it one, is the bulk-some, humongous edition of Infinite Jest i have lying next to my bed, imposing and burdensome yet pleading for a good reading.
    Shall i give it a go?
    Excerpt Reader –


    September 7, 2010 at 4:27 pm

  26. I’m somewhat confused. If DFW’s point was to use banality to reflect a banal truth, it appears as if he’s succeeded, especially since it’s a one sentence, mindful suggestion which definitely is of some use. Especially considering that DFW wanted to approach the situation in as micro-systemic fashion as possible.

    Not that I think the point is wrong at all, it is fascinating to read considering that I am not as educated. I also wonder if DFW was frightened to give the speech.


    October 7, 2010 at 9:20 am

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