In his own words

This morning we had a small moment of silence for David Foster Wallace in class. It was just a bunch of writers heads bowed over the first page of a rather exquisite fiction piece he wrote in which he delivered Marlon Brando from a somewhat brutish interpretation to that of a poignant, multi-dimensional one and it was breathtaking. We sat in silence and read in silence until our professor finally said something: “Perhaps writing is a dangerous thing.” And then: “I do not know why I feel this loss of David so much. I miss him.” So all day I just wanted to get home so I could reread his commencement speech at Kenyon College because in it he is wise and honest, and it got me thinking how profound and lovely a gesture any speck of honesty is these days. Here is what he says towards the end:

“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 and [unintelligible — sounds like “displayal”]. 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.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

“This is water.”

“This is water.”

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.”

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  1. says

    bits of that remind me of the line in “to the lighthouse”: [i paraphrase]

    “one wanted to know at once, ‘this is a chair. this is a miracle.'”

    what a tragedy his death is, for someone who said that Truth is life BEFORE death, and then to choose death? ah, it’s so hard to swallow.

  2. says

    amy. i think there is a certain magic about commencement speeches, and what one chooses to inspire or de-spire the audience with. i love his honesty, and it makes me so sad that when he died he was alone.

  3. says

    oh my gosh -this is exactly my thoughts, haha, well, obviously WAY less eloquent, since i’m living again abroad and feel loneliness like no other and live off the scarps of kindness people offer. and i’m saddened by how superficial even the genuine SEEMING people are. I put things in caps because i’m in a hurry and don’t kow how to italicize…

    i love your blog amy.

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