David Foster Wallace’s (in)famous commencement speech was an essay prompt two years ago. Here’s how I felt about it back then…
While reading David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech for the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College, I realized that I was reading a persuasive argument. The persuasive speech Wallace gave was about how you should choose to experience consciousness. His speech was peppered with supporting statements (meta-commentary). I wholly agree with none of the points that Wallace made in his meta-commentaries. Wallace would have given a more persuasive speech if he had said less. I say “wholly agree,” because I do partially agree with some of his points. In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to persuade you that Wallace’s supporting arguments are inherently flawed, and that meta-commentary was not an effective strategy for him to employ in this particular instance.
In the third paragraph of his speech, Wallace is explaining the concept of personal experience of reality by relating, “other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real…” He then asks the audience not to worry, that he is not going to preach, and that his speech if not about matter of virtue. Here is the first instance where Wallace has effectively deflated his own argument before he ever makes his point. He continues on to state that rather, his reality is about, “a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered…”
Wallace chooses to “do the work” but then reveals himself to be “deeply self-centered.”. By being candid, Wallace is letting us know he is honest – and to that end I give him credit. However, it also is indicative of his unabashed involvement in his own neurosis. Simply stating that you are naturally self-centered is not a free pass to be self-centered, nor does it qualify everyone else’s inner life as self-centered. This is why his meta-commentary becomes less effective.
For any of Wallace’s speech to hold water, you must share his headspace. In the fifth paragraph he relates to his intended audience of graduates with an anecdote about how the most dangerous thing about college education in his case was that it enabled his tendency, “to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on right in front of me.” He then states, “as I’m sure you guys know by now…” before he continues on about the difficulty of being alert and not constantly monologuing your life. By using the words “as I’m sure you guys know,” he is subtly convincing you to share this opinion with him. You probably would have fallen for it, were it not executed in such a hamfisted manner. After this point, I continued to read with apprehension to the underlying construction of his speech.
What if you are not the type of person who over-intellectualizes “stuff” and you are capable of successfully navigating the inside of your own head? When Wallace reveals these facts about himself he becomes an unreliable narrator. How can you relate to a person whose experience of reality itself is unlike your own? I feel that Wallace is well-aware of this counter-point and thusly inserts his line, “as I’m sure you guys know…” to keep you interested in his train of thought. I have only read Wallace’s speech, and not listened to it. Taking into consideration that Wallace was a man of academia, much attention was likely paid to syntax.
The final example of meta-commentary comes after Wallace details an “everyday” scenario where the narrator makes a trip to the supermarket that becomes increasingly troublesome. Absolutely every step of the way; from the parking lot to the cars people drive, to the people themselves, each and every noun is assigned a negative personality adjective. His point was to describe how tiring menial tasks in life can be (with a negative worldview). Then, Wallace states, “the point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in.” He is getting at the main point he expresses in his conclusion, yet his tendency to couch all of his statements with doubtful language removes any impact they would have had.
The bulk of his speech detailed this shopping experience. I do not want to summarize, but I do want to expound on why this portion may not be effective. To buy into the premise of a sad, selfish, person who is angered by everyone else’s selfishness at the market, one must have the life experience of only serving their own needs. I highly doubt that this is the case with a large percentage of the world. Many people are born into families with siblings, and learn how to do things for others – including shop for groceries. Grocery shopping may be a daily routine for the head of a large household. You must realize that Wallace did not have the broadest audience possible in mind when he wrote this speech. Of course, I am generalizing and I only have my own experience (not data) to support my claims.
When I re-read this David Foster Wallace speech on the Wall Street Journal’s website, I discovered that I had unconsciously ignored the subheading. I had strong feelings against the version of life that Wallace was presenting, and I also felt this was the writing of a severely depressed individual. I shuddered at the mention of suicidal ideation throughout his speech. When I read the previously bypassed subheading that explained how Wallace was recently deceased of apparent suicide at age 46, the tone of his speech made complete sense to me. At the conclusion of his speech he declares his main point that life, “is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.” and it feels that deep down he knew he would never make it to 50. I can not find the meta-commentary of a man who took his own life to be effective. Is it inappropriate for me to think such a morbid thought? Perhaps that says more about me than it does about Wallace. Of course, this is all just my interpretation.