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The point here is that I think this is one part of what the liberal arts mantra of “teaching me how to think” is really supposed to mean: to be just a little less arrogant, to have some “critical awareness” about myself and my certainties…because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.

Some weeks ago a friend took me around the well-stocked aisles of Kinokuniya – an excellent book store in Sydney – pointing out several authors that he recommended I read. One of them was David Foster Wallace. I had heard of the Infinite Jest, but had not as yet tackled it. It is unlikely that I will try for the purpose of this blog.

So I tracked down this much smaller work to get a taste for Wallace’s writing.

This book presents a speech given by David Foster Wallace to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College. Opening with a typically gnomic fable about fishes swimming in water – this he confesses is the very stuff of graduation speeches – he expands upon the themes hinted at by his simple parable, addressing the meaning and purpose of a liberal arts education.

Wallace introduces a corrective of pragmatic philosophy to the ‘reach for the stars’, clichés of college commencement speeches. College education is often described as having the purpose of teaching students how to think. Wallace argues that what you choose to think is more important. He presents examples of day-to-day challenges that will face these graduates once they enter the work force. The daily grind of worklife stress, compounded by domestic responsibilities, the rushed journey to the supermarket to buy essential groceries, only to be trapped in a frustrating traffic queue.

Individuals are literally selfish, the centre of their own perspectival universe. Wallace has a wonderful phrase later in the speech – “lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms”. The danger is that over-educated, privileged middle class graduates might feel a certain sense of frustrated entitlement, a resentment of these other people preventing them from finding their foodstuff of choice in perfect time when they rush into the supermarket; or trapping them behind the rear of a gas-guzzling SUV. Even that white-collar post-university profession could become the cause of unremitting resentment, a burden for the martyred solipsist.

What truth Wallace has to offer is that individuals remain free to choose how to think about their circumstances. That one’s thoughts should never be allowed to enslave one. These mental chains are the result of unconscious processes, beliefs, prejudices that we as adults fall into a pattern of living by. While he does not advance any one moral philosophy, or preferred belief system, he does insist upon the importance of belief. Especially the need to believe in something beyond oneself. These are simple truths he is relating and yet his essential message is one that has been confused over time by mealy mouthed metaphors.

The elephant in the room when discussing Wallace is of course his own suicide in 2008. I do not know enough about the man to discuss that. However, his speech to the class of Kenyon College was poured over for suggestions of depression, or suicidal tendencies in the wake of his death and yes, he does mention suicide. Interestingly in relation to the burden of individuality:

“It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms nearly always shoot themselves in…the head.”

What he is addressing in that quote is suicide as a rejection of self, or the individual’s existence as a thinking entity. A gun blast to the head annihilates the very seat of consciousness. I do not know if that relates to Wallace’s own suicide in any particular way that could be said to be relevant.

What remains of the man written here is a soul concerned with compassion and practical intelligence. His speech to the graduates eschews miserabilism, advocating the importance of choosing to think about life as a sequence of opportunities. What interests him is the practical advantages of being ‘truthful’. As individuals we should be true to ourselves, but we must also acknowledge the value of others in our lives also – that they are also important, the kings and queens of their own skulls.

This edition of This Is Water presents each paragraph of the speech as a single page epigram of condensed wisdom. Recommended.


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