When I heard that David Foster Wallace had killed himself I erupted in a fit of violent, derisive laughter. A hard-hearted reaction, I know, but give me a chance to explain my lapse of compassion.
I don’t know if it’s an involuntary urge to prove myself as the cast-iron anti-hipster, but I tend to catch on late. So my discovery of the author I now consider to be the turn of the century’s greatest came a bit later than those of my clued-in contemporaries. In fact, I was utterly ignorant of his existence until the day after he died. Had I read even one of the man’s sentences prior to September 13, 2008, there is no way in hell I would have responded so flippantly.
I had just been mocked as an English department cliché for responding that my favorite book was Catcher In the Rye and my pride was out for blood. I was drinking with a blatantly hip blonde girl from Georgia who was purportedly too embarrassed by her name to disclose any part of it beyond the first letter. J was the type who asks such a question, but has no answer of her own—of course. Her unique understanding of literature made it impossible for her to choose. But she did have a favorite author.
“He killed himself yesterday,” she said, and I lost it. It struck me as hilarious that the suicidal artist thing wasn’t a cliché to her.
Not long after, however, I purchased my own hefty copy of Infinite Jest and spent the next two and a half months being pleasantly proven wrong. Here was an author that was anything but cliché.
That profusely underlined and margin-scribbled masterpiece currently resides 1,500 miles away in my parents’ garage in Texas, and is too thick a tome to adequately comment on in the brief word allotment I have anyway, so I set my sights on a shorter work of his for this piece. After years of slacking, I finally read “This Is Water”, the commencement speech Wallace gave at Kenyon College in May of 2005, and was once again stunned by the man’s ability to make me ponder—only half in jest—if he knew that I was going to read those words at that exact moment in my life. (This is, of course, as ridiculous as the poor deluded hippie who showed up at Tittenhurst Park convinced that John Lennon was communicating directly to him when he sang “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight a long time,” and totally contrary to the point of Wallace’s speech, as well. But I digress.)
Notions of metaphysical connections with the dead aside, I could not ignore the coincidental fact that “This Is Water” is a brilliant discourse on our “skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.” I can’t say that I was surprised that it showed me—in addition to a voluminous lexicon, unequalled wit and a tirelessly nomadic imagination—another aspect of DFW’s genius: his courage to look a cliché right in the face instead of readily accepting its worthlessness. What’s more: the bounds (or lack thereof) of his curiosity, with which he was able to examine its underlying truth and present it to us as discovery. By the speech’s end I was burdened with a number of realities about myself that I had hitherto taken for granted. And that’s a good thing—I think.
The main cliché he takes apart and reassembles for us in “This Is Water” is that of a liberal arts degree merely teaching students “how to think.” Such an education is not just a long lesson in how to theorize on the arcane junk in the postmodern attic, it is a framework for applying meaning to every single experience in one’s life—yes, even the slug-slow time of the supermarket line. He, obviously, said it better:
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. [Italics mine]
As a possessor of such an education, I’ll keep this in mind the next time I’m convinced the whole world is conspiring to manipulate me into presenting myself to it as a complete asshole. It’s highly possible that I’m just being a genuine asshole. There is a certain comfort in being made privy to such a dark aspect of my personality: I’m sure everyone around me would take a bit more joy in their existences if I were less of a curmudgeon.
It may seem oxymoronic to draw hope from a man who undid himself with a noose, but “This Is Water” is undeniable proof of his belief in humanity to be something other—something better—than the automated “lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of creation.” He had faith in us to use our capacity to choose how we think in such a way that we are able to “experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things.” I for one am grateful to have such a man in my corner.
In an effort to absolve myself of such messianic diction (I guess he’s right: “There is no such thing as not worshipping”), let me say that I’m sure Wallace would argue that we owe him nothing, and ultimately he would be right. We owe it to ourselves to read what he carried back from the dank, dark ossuaries of human thought and experience, the places most of us aren’t brave enough to dispatch our own conscious reflection. But be prepared for some self-discovery, to be faced with the sometimes dreary truth of your own mechanical platitudes. As for me, someone for whom it would be a pinnacle of achievement if he could write just one fucking sentence that hits as hard as “Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out”—if I’m going to be as honest with myself as reading his words makes me want to be, I might be jarred by how threadbare and layerless my insides really are. But I’d rather be aware of that fact than continue waiting for a stroke of genius that never arrives.
Originally published in Spanish in Pez Banana
Cody Copeland’s short stories, essays, travel memoirs and embarrassing web content pages have been published in a number of international journals and sneaky gold dealers’ websites, in both English and Spanish. At the moment he is not on speaking terms with the incessant little voice in his head that in the past was able to convince him to write daily, and is taking a break from the process. He currently teaches bilingual first grade in Austin, TX.