I’m on a DFW kick. David Foster Wallace.
Discovered several of his pieces I hadn’t known about before. Including a short story called “Suicide as a Sort of Present,” which demonstrates to shocking effect his deep grasp of Alice Miller’s theories of fucked-up narcissistic mothering on children. Best to hear him read it himself. Only takes five minutes.
And then there’s this beautiful address called “This Is Water” that he gave to the 2005 graduates of Kenyon College, an excerpt of which was published in the Wall Street Journal just after his death.
Did you know that David Foster Wallace had been to rehab? Several times. He got sober in the early 1990s in upstate New York, where he met Mary Karr in the “rooms.” They dated for a while. I don’t think the word “dated” is really the most accurate term, but it’s the term that Wikipedia uses to describe their relationship. Read her most recent book, Lit, a memoir of her alcoholism and recovery, for her story about their 13th-stepping, including a stellar row in which Wallace destroys her coffee table.
After rehab Wallace switched from pot to cigarettes; eventually, because he was also something of an athlete and liked to run, he gave up smoking to protect his lung capacity and started sucking on smokeless tobacco, a habit he tried to quit several times. Like many addicts, he never managed to quit nicotine. He’d come to class (he was a professor of English) lugging a stack of books, a towel, a tennis racquet, and a coffee can into which he spat the juice while he was teaching.
Throughout Wallace’s writings readers can find references not only to suicide (a spooky reality: it even crops up in his address to the graduates) but also to his efforts to understand how to control one’s own mind—in other words, his attempts at mindfulness—as well as his comprehension of the divine. “God.” The “universe.” Whatever. It’s interesting to hear this prodigiously smart guy talk about how atheism doesn’t exist, how we all worship something.
Here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble truths or some intangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
One thing I love about Wallace (apart from his beautiful voice; not all men have beautiful voices but Wallace had one; reading his words and hearing him speak them are two different experiences, and I encourage you to take the time to click on the links above and below that will let you enjoy his voice) is his commitment to investigating the most commonplace aspects of life and finding their extraordinary qualities. It’s not the epiphanies and huge achievements and Life’s Great Orgasms that Wallace thinks offer the most important truths. The ordinary parts of our days—the grocery shopping, the endless standing in line, the fighting traffic—are the moments when we are most “ourselves,” when we bang into our intractable questions and problems. It’s in those moments, Wallace basically says, that we can learn life’s most valuable lessons.
It’s also, he says, in the interactions with the people we love. Sitting down to dinner with them, negotiating who will buy the food, who will cook, who will wipe the crumbs from the table; what to talk about, how to fight, how to resolve conflict—all that stuff most of us think of as life’s detritus. For godsake—another trip to the supermarket, another dinner to cook, another set of dishes to wash, how can I survive under the burden of all this mundane crap?—is usually how my thoughts run, anyway.
Wallace’s point is, we can choose how we think about our ordinary experience, and what meanings we assign to our experience. “Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life,” he tells the kids,
you will be totally hosed.
Exercising that choice is Real Freedom.
What his essay made me realize is, in the end, my choice is Mine. It’s not about finding someone else who can endorse it for me. I get to choose my thoughts, and as Wallace notes, that’s real freedom. (Not having loads of money, or drugs, or attention, or sex, or beauty, or power.)
It’s Real Sobriety. He never used that word, but for me that’s what he means. My addiction was slavery, and my sobriety is freedom.
I think Wallace believed in community, in its most basic sense—from the Latin communis, the word means sharing: time, space, resources. Ourselves. Living with other people. I suspect Wallace was a tough person to live with, but apparently he was never happier than when he moved in with his wife. It supposedly goes against current trends (a recent Time magazine story, on “the 10 ideas that will change our worlds,” reports as the Top World-Changing Idea the trend that increasing numbers of Americans are choosing to live alone… Awesome!! Let’s measure the health effects in 15 years time). His address to the younguns comes straight from his experience of living in community.
Life is a tough thing, man. It’s a hard place to spend decades of time. And it’s even harder to do it all by oneself. I spoke at my local women’s shelter yesterday and heard stories of women being forced to have sex when they were kids, women who’d seen their sons shot up, women who don’t know how to protect their kids from the real-life physical and psychic shit that goes down in their worlds every day. “Mama,” one woman’s 11-year-old daughter asked her about her future boyfriends, “when they hit me, do I call you or Daddy?” I was speaking with my friend Lucy, and we told the women that nobody gets sober alone and nobody gets away from an abusive bastard alone (I know this from experience)—and, frankly, nobody does life alone.
Tempting to isolate, though, because then we don’t have to negotiate anything with anyone. We can, as Wallace notes, be “the lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms. … This freedom has much to recommend it,” he says.
But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.
What would happen, I wondered, if instead of paying so much attention to having enough money or achievement or security, I worshipped more consistently that real freedom?
A life experiment to try.
My choice to try it is part of the real freedom. Hmm.