David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace just committed suicide. I had been meaning to read him. I had passed his books by so many times at the stores – Infinite Jest – is one that comes to mind. I picked it up and put it back so many times after reading the back cover. I wanted to read it but at 2.6 pounds and 1,088 pages it seemed really daunting to someone who only reads during the daily commute to work and is usually overloaded with other heavy things, tangible and intangible.

But I read about him constantly. This is a speech he gave at Kenyon College, Ohio. I wish I was in the audience there listening to him give this speech. It has made the most sense of all things I have come across recently.

Whenever I’ve been stuck in traffic or in long checkout lines or when I find that people are just in my way I’ve tried to take a step back and think about how much of a downward spiral that line of thought really is. Such thoughts often lead to others, as thoughts often do, and after a long chain of summoning, rejecting, whittling and chiseling only one idea or notion remains: doing something for someone else, living outside of oneself. For me these are idle thoughts. Reality usually intrudes in many discordant overtones and I go right back to being a self-centered and self-absorbed person. I know someday I’ll be a better human being; where there’s a will there’s a way and still a lot of years ahead of me.

But this is why the speech struck such a chord. Especially this:

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible 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 own 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 plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are 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 world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the 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 to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. 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 real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

Next stop is the bookstore. Now I am really hungry for more. RIP – David Foster Wallace.


  1. Pragya, I did not know David Foster Wallace until he died. The depths of my ignorance! But the little I have read of his thoughts and work on various blogs blew me away. I can understand why the speech moved you so much. I myself have for several months now, perhaps years, been struggling with my own feelings of discontent, which come from my perception of what life and the world owes me. This speech gave me such a different insight.

  2. Yes, Batul, the more one reads of him the more blown away one is…and Infinite Jest has been sold out in the two places I have checked so far.

  3. Very timely Pragya. More tributes here:www.mcsweeneys.net

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