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Graduating with David Foster Wallace

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Tom Bissell's NYT Book Review essay about David Foster Wallace's 2005 Kenyon College commencement address made me think back on -- and want to write an addendum to -- my blog post about Foster Wallace from last month.  Interestingly, in his commencement address, Foster Wallace expounds on exactly the issue I discussed in my blog post: the limitations on human compassion.

In particular, Foster Wallace focuses on the work necessary to cultivate compassion.  Advising graduating seniors on the imperative of seeing multiple perspectives and taking the trouble to imagine the motives of people who are annoying us, or who are in our way, Foster Wallace cautions, "it's hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat out won't want to . . . . It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out."

But if you don't at least try?  Foster Wallace has another word of warning, to the effect that if you don't buoy yourself with ethical principles, the world will erode you: "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."

I read Foster Wallace's commencement speech for the first time today and, frankly, I was surprised that his words echoed my own thoughts -- that our hard-wiring isn't well suited for compassion, that compassion requires cultivation, that that, in turn, requires hard work, that any other course basically leaves you fucked, and that drudgery sacrifice for people we love is as close as we get to the meaning of life.  I hasten to add, lest my surprise sound arrogant (which is not my intent or feeling), that I wasn't surprised because I thought my own ideas were so original or refined, but because in general I don't relate to Foster Wallace's writing, or to his overall conclusions about America and American culture.  Foster Wallace's commencement address reminded me that people who share fundamentals can nonetheless go in completely different directions with those basic concepts.

I was also interested to experience in Foster Wallace's commencement address an illustration of another point I'd raised in my previous blog post: our tendency, when generalizing about others, to project ourselves onto the people around us.  As I wrote previously, this bent impairs our ability to empathize with others.  Even when we exert our wills, determined to see multiple perspectives, and expend the energy to listen or imaginatively embody another's position, what we hear (regardless of what's said) and what we imagine (regardless of the facts that form the springboard for our imaginative leaps) are determined by our own identities.

Knowing this limitation has not freed me from its constraints. 

For me, the worldview that I've adopted -- that correllates with the framework Foster Wallace outlines in his commencement address -- has been a comfort, a resource and a wellspring of strength.  When I have wanted to die (and there have been times in my life, more than I hope anyone experiences), I have received succor from believing in the basic tenets that Foster Wallace articulates in his speech.  As a result, I've basically assumed (very broadly speaking and oversimplifying for the sake of illustrating my point) that people who adopt a similar worldview get similar results: that if you can accept that worldview, then it puts to rest existential crises.

Obviously, I was wrong.  Given my current (limited) capacities for compassion, I'm having difficulty relating to Foster Wallace.  I'm surprised that the man had a similar worldview to me because I have been generalizing about others based on myself, and so my default assumption was that a suicide must have a different set of values.  But the relationship between any individual's (cerebral) world view and (visceral) drives is no doubt more complicated than my assumption allowed.  And, in the absence of any basis for understanding that relationship, I'm still groping for an entry point for understanding an existence that is beyond my experience.

What I wouldn't give for Foster Wallace to be able to elaborate on his ideas in another commencement speech.
In recent months, I've thought a great deal about the limits of human compassion.  We seem hard-wired to relate to individuals and their stories, but our compassion breaks down when we're asked to relate to groups.  We can empathize with one Holocaust survivor; 6 million dead, on the other hand, are a number. 

I was put in mind of another limitation on human compassion as I read D.T. Max's recent New Yorker article about David Foster Wallace.  Wallace, he says, perceived "that America was at once overentertained and sad."  Speaking to Salon in 1996, Wallace said that living "in America around the millennium" was "particularly sad . . . . It's [a] like a stomach-level sadness. . . . It manifests itself as a kind of lostness.

Wallace's experience of the 90's made me gape in amazement.  Sad?!  The 90's?  The Internet boom?  The swinging Clinton years?  When America was good and loved and Whole Foods was becoming mainstream and salaries were rising and everyone was making money hand-over-fist in the stock market?

Of course, Wallace's 1990's included stays in mental asylums, a half-way house, a failed relationship, as well as the pre-Infinite Jest stage in his career, when he was worried that his career had ended before it'd begun.  His diagnosis of the American condition during those years strikes me -- and I say this gently, cognizant of Wallace's suicide six months ago, and feeling that engagement with his ideas is a proper way to honor his memory -- as a projection of his own profound sadness onto the country writ large.

That Wallace felt the need to address the state of the nation is a reflection of his ambition, but whether he could have come to any other conclusion of the world around him -- be it his closest circle of peers or the broadest circle of the globe -- seems doubtful because of another of the limits of human compassion: the tendency to generalize about others based on ourselves. 

For example, my default assumption is that most people value time efficiency; my experience, on the other hand, is that my default assumption is wrong.  Nonetheless, it's difficult for me to restrain my frustration at the Beijing taxi driver who has resignedly driven me into a traffic jam instead of taking a faster detour; unless replenished through conscious effort, my compassion dwindles for people who operate on rules different from my own.

This limitation makes challenging any individual's ability to relate to another person; applied on a group level, it's even more likely to cause distortions ("All Americans want fast services"; "All Beijing taxi drivers waste time").  Wallace was, without question, aware of his pain, but the fact that he detected sadness in himself does not mean that other Americans were aware of their own conditions, sad or otherwise.  Self-awarenes, in my experience, is among the least useful of characteristics to project on others if the goal is obtaining accurate deductions about them. 

Of course, maybe I'm falling into my own trap; my generalizations about the limitations of human compassion could be wrong; I may be completely misconstruing the basis of Wallace's conclusions.  And perhaps Wallace was right about millenial sadness in America (for example, the musical Rent makes the same point). 

The question is whether nurturing such doubts is a means of transcending those limits and expanding the scope of human compassion.  I am hoping the answer is yes.     

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Wallace, David Foster category.

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