David Foster Wallace on suicide and the moral life

David Foster Wallace’s postmodernism was always about morality.

Whatever anybody said, all the Great Big American Novelists of our lifetimes have shared that itch. But for Wallace it must have been a fever. Morality was never below the surface of his art — even though the art was usually so dazzling that some people couldn’t see anything else.

To cheer me up after his wretched, untimely death, here is some advice he gave about literal and figurative suicide, from his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon.

The full speech doesn’t betray Wallace’s trademark floridity, the habit that’s going to be talked up in all this morning’s papers. Instead, it’s flat almost to the point of crassness. It’s a slap in the jaw. It’s worth a full read.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

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. …

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. … Awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

“This is water.”

“This is water.”

– posted by Mike

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3 Responses to David Foster Wallace on suicide and the moral life

  1. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Thanks for sharing, Mike — and for posting twice this week.

    Please add specific search terms as tags to this post — I think there will be a lot of WordPress readers out there searching for something like this today.

  2. Mark says:

    Thanks Mike! It’s a sad day and a terrible loss. When are we going to change this world? Here’s some (attempted) uplifting tech art that you and others might enjoy (www.markdotzler.com).

  3. Mike says:

    Here’s a relevant passage from today’s terrific Slate roundup of postmortems by Wallace’s peers. It’s by his friend and sometimes editor Charis Conn:

    “He was a person who drew—unironically—little happy faces beside his signature on letters and was prone to uttering the syllable “awwwwww,” also unironically, at anything he found adorable. He once made this sound over a drawing I did of his dog Jeeves, and it seemed to me at the time perfectly eloquent. Because when someone like David chooses this simple sound, among all his vast array of things to say, and ways to say them, it is reborn as a true expression of humanity.”

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