An surprisingly unsurprising quote from David Foster Wallace reduex – unburying the lead

I just ran into a quote by David Foster Wallace that really hit me. It is a short fragment
of a commencement
speech
to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College. The fragment
is short, less than 1/2 a page and it is the best case for spirituality
that I have ever read. It starts out:

Because
here's something else that's weird but 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 the
compelling
reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to
worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or
the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is
that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. 

If
you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning
in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.
It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you
will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die
a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all
know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés,
epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick
is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

He
was so brilliant and I am so sorry that he is gone.

When David
Foster Wallace committed suicide some time ago, I was staggered. It seemed so unlikely. I felt like I knew him from his writing and he seemed so confident. He was incredibly competent but, I guess, not as confident as he appeared. 

Two of my favorite pieces of writing were by David Foster Wallace – and he seems to always be David Foster Wallace, never David, or Wallace – A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Tense Present; Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage.  Both were, IMHO, brilliant: interestingly written, interesting and informative, and great fun. And even though I read them when I was well into my 50's and 60's, I was greatly influenced by both of them.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again was written in 1997 and was about going on a cruise ship. It was a vicious takedown of the Cruise, but in a very funny and gentle way. The two things I most remember about the article was how jam-packed the cruise was – leaving no time to relax or contemplate the day – and the incredible amount of footnotes that were a huge part of the article. One of the footnotes even had it's own footnote1. For months, if not years, my footnote use went way up much to the annoyance of some people who were trying to read what I had written.

But Tense Present; Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage  was the biggest influence on me. It was a very favorable book review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner. But it was also about the the importance of of good grammar and the use of the right word in the right way. It is about the importance of language in our democracy and how language defines class and much more such as why he doesn't like Politically Correct English:

Were I, for
instance, a political conservative who opposed taxation as a means of
redistributing national wealth, I
would be delighted to watch PCE progressives spend their time and energy
arguing over whether a poor
person should be described as "low-income" or "economically
disadvantaged" or "pre-prosperous" rather than
constructing effective public arguments for redistributive legislation
or higher marginal tax rates on corporations….
As a practical matter, I strongly doubt whether a guy who
has four
small kids and makes $12,000 a year feels more empowered or less
ill-used by a society that carefully
refers to him as "economically disadvantaged" rather than "poor." Were I
he, in fact, I'd probably find the
PCE term insulting — not just because it's patronizing but because it's
hypocritical and self-serving.

I bought the dictionary, still use it, and highly recommend it.  

1. He writing about a fire extinguisher in the passageway by his room, he footnoted that the sign said Break glass to access Fire Extinguisher and then footnoted the footnote with Duh! 

3 thoughts on “An surprisingly unsurprising quote from David Foster Wallace reduex – unburying the lead

  1. You should read, if you haven’t already, the profile the New Yorker did shortly after DFW’s death. Also included in the issue was an excerpt of the last book he was working on – a story about a worker for the IRS. His writing and his profile in the NYer make me think of DFW almost as a friend. Still to be tackled is ‘Infinite Jest.’ I started it when work was too busy and I couldn’t devote the required energy; now would be a good time to pick it up again as things are slow. Have you read IJ?

  2. Thank you so much for that comment, Gina. I didn’t read or even know about the New Yorker profile. I just read it – although “just” makes it sound like 5 minutes and it took the greater part of an hour – and all my admiration for DFW – as you call him – came flooding back.
    The article hits the nail on the head when it says “He was one of the few satirists able to avoid meanness; he was moral without being judgmental. He took on the absurdities of modern life in an attempt to understand or to parse them, not to mock them.” I like that and it is exactly how I felt about ASFTINDA.
    No I haven’t read “Infinite Jest” – it always seemed so daunting. In the post I had said that I was waiting for a group of people to read it together and support each other; but, then, I took it out because the post was getting too long and rambleing.

  3. I loved the one book of DFW essays that I’ve read. I J was more of a challenge and I stopped reading but still have the book. I want to read more of the essays. The thing that struck me from the New Yorker story was the suggestion that he sooo wanted be be a great novelist he did not recognize his amazing capacity as an essayist. That left me sad.

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