Sunday, September 14, 2008

R.I.P. David Foster Wallace

Novelist, MacArthur "genius" and postmodern wunderkind, David Foster Wallace, was found dead in his home on Friday night after hanging himself. He was only 46.

I know that just a week ago I was poking fun at the cult-status of Wallace's Infinite Jest. I feel bad about that now. So, let me say for the record that one of the things that I most admired about Wallace was that he somehow managed to find and maintain that delicate balance between a skeptical, disillusioned and exceedingly-academic nihilism on the one hand, and a probative, resilient and thoroughly genuine belief in the inherent meaning and meaning-making genius of humanity on the other hand. Wallace was exactly the sort of "postmodern" with whom I am the most sympathetic, and about whom the right-wing critics of postmodernism understand nothing-- that is, the sort of guy who believes wholeheartedly that "the Emporer wears no clothes" and yet still recognizes that Emperors are people, too, and it must really suck to be caught out there in front of everybody all naked and vulnerable like that.

From a commencement address that he delivered at Kenyon College in 2005:

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 what 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.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.


This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

2 comments:

Kyle said...

Hey Leigh, this is Kyle Shepherd, Melanie's little brother (a title with which I have always had a love/hate relationship). There is absolutely no reason for you to feel guilty about making some snarky comment about Mr. (Dr.?) Wallace shortly before his death. A snarky comment is a single sentence deconstruction. The whole point is that we should deconstruct everything, relentlessly. The beauty of the postmodern is that all the sacred cows have been turned into yummy sacred hamburgers, and we a free, if we allow ourselves to be, to question authority without turning the lead questioners into untouchable authorities themselves. You would have been doing yourself, your students, and Mr. Wallace himself a great disservice if you had allowed yourself to treat him with reverence.

anotherpanacea said...

Sorry I quoted the same paragraph: I hadn't seen yours yet.