Tuesday, September 16, 2008

David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

I've never read any David Foster Wallace. I had heard jokes about how long he could take to make a point, but I never stuck my nose in one of his books while he was alive. Clearly, that is a mistake on my part, and I have time to rectify it.

I never read any Jane Jacobs before I read her obituary, but after the fact I read and was very much impressed by Cities and the Wealth of Nations and I'm currently reading her last work Dark Age Ahead, though it is a little slow going because it is so depressingly accurate.

The major differences between Wallace and Jacobs are obvious. Jane Jacobs died from a stroke at the age of 89, an old woman. Wallace hung himself at the age of 46, a young man.

This is a mistake he will not have time to rectify.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll has an appreciation of Wallace in today's column, including this passage from the commencement address Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005.

"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. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. ... 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."


Jess Wundrun said...

What a loss.

namastenancy said...

There's a copy of the whole speech here:


Yes, a real loss.

CDP said...

Huge loss, I also wrote about him on Monday. I hope you'll have time to read some of his work. Thanks to namastenancy for the link to the speech.