More Foster Wallace
On May 21, 2005, David Foster Wallace—by then recognized as one of America’s best living writers—spoke to the graduating class of Kenyon College. Wallace had earned a reputation as a wily postmodernist, but his address that day was straightforward and sweet. It began this way:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’
Last week, the speech was published posthumously as a short book. This Is Water will not be remembered as the pinnacle of David Foster Wallace’s literary career, but it reminds us that, beneath all the virtuosity and above all the footnotes, Wallace was a compassionate humanist. He was not just our generation’s greatest prose stylist; he was one of our greatest spiritual writers as well.
In 2002, when I entered college, I was neither spiritual nor a writer. I was not one of those people who thought that maybe you could change the shape of water molecules by singing to them. I was a hard-nosed skeptic. I saw words like “spirituality,” “New Age,” and “mindfulness” as code-words for religion, and I saw religion as a species of fuzzy thinking.
Back then, I was under the common misconception that there was a world of facts out there, and that my job was to cram those facts into my head. Immediately, from all sides—literary theory, postcolonial history, philosophy—came the same rejoinder: there are no Facts in se. Ideas do not travel in a vacuum any more than fish do. Truth is mediated by the brain.
This made sense to me. If I was to engage in the life of the mind, I figured, I should know something about how the mind—my mind—worked. So I started paying attention to my own subjective experience.
Very quickly, my chauvinism started to crack. Perhaps there was more in heaven and earth than was dreamt of in my materialist philosophy. I found myself straying to the wrong parts of the library, tempted by books like Siddhartha and The Tao of Physics. A friend emailed me an article and I found it informative, even wise, only to find out later it was written by Deepak Chopra. From there, it was a slippery slope to dank Peruvian ponchos and meditating almost every day. I called my atheist parents and whispered into the phone, “I think I’m having spiritual thoughts.”
I felt like a character in an informational video about puberty. Why were these changes happening to me? Would I ever feel normal again?
In a sense, puberty was the right analogy: I was slouching toward intellectual maturity. I was not trying to rebel against my proud secular upbringing; I was simply following my intellectual curiosity. Every smart person, it seemed to me, should care about what happened inside her own brain.
I became acutely aware of the limits of my awareness. How many times had I attended concerts, only to forget to really listen to the music? I decided to cut out my internal chatter. Even at a keg party, shouting small talk over Jay-Z, I would try to pay attention, to Be Here Now. (For some reason, I did not have much luck with the ladies.)
Clearly, I came to realize, I was a weirdo. No matter how many times I reasoned that everyone ought to be gaga over mindfulness, my keen powers of observation told me that no one actually was. If, god forbid, I ever told a stranger at one of those keggers what was actually on my mind, she would give me a pitying look—oh, you’re one of those—and slink off to find more Keystone Light.
If it were not for David Foster Wallace, I might have gone through adolescence convinced I was crazy.
In early 2005, while David Foster Wallace was presumably writing his Kenyon speech, I was in South India, studying Vedic philosophy and trying to figure it all out. (Western philosophy had abandoned its original purpose—the study of How to Live—so I thought I would give another hemisphere a try.)
If I thought the people of India would be more receptive to my quest than girls at frat parties, I was mistaken. Most Indian men said, “You should not worry so much about the mind and the awareness. You should study engineering.” Others had an opposite and equally disenchanting reaction: “Yeah, mindfulness is so far out! If you have, like, a hundred dollars or so, you can come into the hills with me and meet my guru.”
“Mindfulness is not far out!” I wanted to argue. “Mindfulness is simple, immediate, even mundane, and that is why it is of universal importance!” I wanted to say these things, but usually I refrained. No one would understand me, anyway.
Then a friend emailed me Wallace’s commencement speech.
There it was. In conversational, highly articulate English, Wallace put his finger on what I had been struggling to express.
It might be a stretch to say the Kenyon speech is about spirituality. At no point does Wallace utter the word “lovingkindness,” or “bodhisattva,” or “vibes.” But consider these two non-consecutive sentences, which come as close as any to encapsulating Wallace’s thesis:
As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now).… And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious.
I submit that this thesis is relatively uncontroversial, a higher-order version of common sense. It is also exactly the kind of thing the Buddha would have said. The word “buddha,” after all, means “awake”—that is, the opposite of “unconscious”—and the core of Buddhism is the difficult practice of paying attention.
Wallace talks at length about the horrors of daily middle-class life, like grocery shopping during rush hour. We usually see these as necessary annoyances, “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.”
At which point, if this were me talking to a girl at a frat party, the conversation would end abruptly and I would pretend to be really engrossed in the music. But when David Foster Wallace is speaking, this is the point at which his audience begins to understand what he might have meant by the fish-in-water tale. What does not matter is that the fish have learned a fact, the fact that they are in something called water. What matters is whether they deeply understand their situation, whether they can put that understanding into practice in any given moment.
I checked and double-checked to make sure the speech was not actually written by Deepak Chopra. But no, it was by Wallace—certified MacArthur genius; student of symbolic logic at Amherst and Harvard; ad hoc expert on Cantorian set theory; author of a monumental, game-changing tome that all my pretentious peers pretended to have read. Certainly, Wallace was neither a slouch nor a New Age softie. He was a fellow hard-nosed rationalist who paid attention to what happened inside his own brain.
With Wallace as my intellectual guarantor, I could come out of the closet as a reluctant quasi-Buddhist. For the first time since intellectual puberty, I was unashamed.
In 2006, when I was chosen to speak at my own graduation, I tried to read widely in the genre, but I couldn’t stop rereading Wallace. What I came up with was a fairly direct rip-off of the Kenyon speech.
Due to be published next year, Wallace’s third, unfinished novel will dramatize perhaps the only setting more deeply boring than a grocery checkout line: the work lives of low-level IRS employees. Wallace’s intent, if I may be so bold as to guess, is not to romanticize boredom, any more than Buddhists romanticize suffering; rather, Wallace aims to show how the mind, with great effort, can attempt to transcend the human condition.
Tragically, Wallace could not transcend his own condition. Occasionally, traveling in my quasi-Buddhist circles, I am asked if I have a guru. I sometimes reply, “I thought I had one once. He is dead now. But you should really read what he had to say, starting with his Kenyon speech.”