A GREAT Book Review

On some new publishing of David Foster Wallace’s work.

Here it is.

Don’t believe me? Check this section out:

In the wake of the fame these works brought him, Wallace was asked in 2005 to give Kenyon College’s commencement address. He again focused on free will, but this time he took a radically different approach. The speech—also recently published, as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life—is a masterpiece. It is friendly, fond and very, very funny. In his 2004 essay on lobsters, Wallace had expressed his concern “not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is more like confused.” There, in his speech, and elsewhere his confusion is expressed with rare lucidity. He did not write with what George Steiner once called “the serene malice of age and work done.” He wrote, instead, with the feverish curiosity of youth and of work to be done.

The tone of the address is, as all such addresses must be, avuncular, but the voice is that of the uncle who gets high with you, the uncle who says that your father loves you but that when he was your age he made lots of mistakes and is still to this day a whole lot less sure about things than he lets on. Though Wallace was nearly twice as old as 2005’s graduates, he spoke on their level; he cares and communicates that care. The speech is jocular, disarming, and open; its attitude is you-might-think-I’m-just-a-ridiculous-old-loser-for-saying-this-but-I-actually-believe-it-so-here-goes.

Wallace’s argument—for he has one—is that the goal of undergraduate education, and of all education, is free will. He holds that education’s greatest benefit consists in “being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” The reason he gives is simple and absolutely typical: “Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

Much of his address is thus advice on how not to get totally hosed, which is to say on how to be happy, which is to say, ethics. From Aristotle onward ethics has been about how not to get totally hosed—on the highest level. Learning this is the most desirable thing of all. It is what another great essayist of the twentieth century, Guy Davenport, called “the inviolable privacy” of the mind.

Whereas Wallace’s senior thesis aimed to explain the rightness of something that we knew was right from the outset, the commencement address aimed to explain the necessity of something we think either does not exist or we have long since acquired. He argues that if this ultimate goal of a liberal arts education has been reached, “if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention,” you will have unparalleled freedom. He then broaches the central topics of the novel he had been at work on for several years and was never to finish (The Pale King, to be published in fragmentary form in April): boredom, tedium, and alienation. “It will actually be within your power,” he continues in his Kenyon address:

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.

As we might expect, the goal of such freedom is not personal pleasure, not merely “the freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms,” but what Wallace calls “real freedom”:

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.

That is to say, freedom is not about having as few fetters as possible; it is about leading an examined life. Freedom is being a good person, choosing to be a good person, every day.

See? Told you. Read the rest…

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