Friday, 11 July 2008

David Foster Wallace -- 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address -- Commonplacebook

Something to start the day with -- from David Foster Wallace's Commencement Address to Kenyon College (as delivered on May 21st 2005):

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. 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.

And if you dig that, go read the whole thing!

Possible objections to this speech: it's written in David Foster Wallace's typical smart-ass style, it could be seen to put forward the notion that it takes higher education to bring you outside your own head, and it comes perilously close to advocating a form of "enlightened self-interest" (don't do this for moral reasons, do it for yourself!, etc).

Reasons I don't care: I'm a big fan of David Foster Wallace's better works (Infinite Jest, his articles and essays), it's a graduation address so of course it's going to place value on education, and it scoots right through the everyday Harvey Pekar style frustrations and onto a level of engagement with the world outside yourself I normally associate with the end of Grant Morrison's The Invisibles. Except, y'know, with less Gnostic rapture and superspy intrigue.

Of course, if I was really taking all this to heart I'd probably have to write a mini-essay explaining why you (the reader!) might be able to find value in the essay. Self-centered coward that I am, I've got nothing, except to say that it all strikes me as being so obvious but still so true (this cliche being one of the running topics of the address).

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