Saddened to read that David Foster Wallace was found dead on Friday, an apparent suicide. I first encountered his writing during my freshman year at Kenyon and immediately became a dedicated fan. I recall reading his collection of short stories, The Girl With Curious Hair, a minimum of three times that year. It was my first in encounter with a writer who spoke in terms both erudite and accessible, humorous and heartbreaking. Ten years later, Wallace came to Kenyon to deliver a commencement address to the graduating class. A quote from that speech:
Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education—least in my own case—is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me. … 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 I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.
One can only assume that it was this tendency to over-intellectualize that led Wallace to end his life. Readers of his work will know that the struggle of daily life, the real, post-ironic business of how to feel worthy and maybe even proud of oneself, has always been present in Wallace’s fiction. In the last section of Girl With Curious Hair, he writes: “To be a subject is to be Alone. Trapped. Kept from yourself. … You can kiss anyone’s spine but your own.” That story ends with three words that Wallace must desperately have wanted to hear: you are loved.