I am mourning David Foster Wallace, one of the most brilliant writers of his generation, who hanged himself Friday in his Claremont, California, home. His wife discovered his body.
I've never read Wallace's epic novel, Infinite Jest, but I was a huge fan of his essays, which I read in Harper's magazine and in a book-length collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. The title essay, which recounts Wallace's experiences on a weeklong Caribbean cruise aboard the m.v. Zenith (which Wallace, naturally, rechristened the Nadir)—surely one of the most improbable pairings of subject and chronicler in the history of journalism—delivers in digest form all the stuff that Wallace fans adore (and Wallace detractors hate): the dizzying alternation between baroque elegance and pop vernacular, the curious punctuation, the obsessively observant eye, the morose yet hilarious self-awareness. And the footnotes—my God, the footnotes. One hundred thirty-seven of them in 95 pages, including one (#32, if you want to look it up) that spans four pages.
And prose like this:
I have seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. I have smelled what suntan lotion smells like spread over 21000 pounds of hot flesh. I have been addressed as "Mon" in three different nations. I have watched 500 upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide. I have seen sunsets that looked computer-enhanced and a tropical moon that looked more like a sort of obscenely large and dangling lemon than like the good old stony U.S. moon I'm used to.
I have (very briefly) joined a Conga Line.
But Wallace is probably best known for two pieces of writing. One was his 2000 profile of John McCain—a fan letter, really—which originally appeared in Rolling Stone and later was published as a book, McCain's Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express With John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope. The book was savagely critiqued, in a parody of Wallace's style, footnotes and all, by Bill Wyman in Salon. And I can't help wondering whether, given the subsequent arc of McCain's career and the events of the last couple of weeks, Wallace had fallen into bleak, self-lacerating remorse.
But that's just speculation.
The other famous piece of writing was Wallace's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, which opens with a story about two young fish who meet an older fish who nods and says, "Morning, boys. How's the water?" The young fish continue swimming until one finally says to the other, "What the hell is water?"
I went back and re-read the speech after I learned of Wallace's death. It's long and rambling, alternately crazy and blazingly coherent, and it gave me chills. Especially this:
Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.
This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. 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, toward the end:
I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don't just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.
It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple 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."
You can read the entire speech here. There's a brief obituary at the Los Angeles Times website; readers are leaving comments and condolences. Wallace's colleague at Pomona College, John Seery, has written a touching remembrance for the Huffington Post.