For no real rhyme or reason, I’ve always enjoyed reading commencement addresses. In a timely fashion for all of us graduating in December, David Foster Wallace offered a gem of a speech whose life advice parallels the hermeneutical foundations developed by Heidegger and Gadamer.
For those unfamiliar, reading DWF can be a marathon task. Case in point, his novel Infinite Jest clocks in at a hefty 1079 pages – and 388 endnotes (with some individual entries as long as eight pages, complete with its own set of sub-footnotes). It’s safe to say that DWF expects the reader to be fully engaged in his artwork. As he describes the blurring of the writer/reader relationship in an interview, “this process is a relationship between the writer’s consciousness and her own, and that in order for it to be anything like a real full human relationship, she’s going to have to put in her share of the linguistic work” (McCaffery 137-8). No “passive spectation” allowed!
DWF’s address to the Class of 2005 from Kenyon College seems to diverge from his traditional manner. His pithy, simplistic advice was not reductionist as one would be left to assume from his lack of verbal footnotes, but rather a genuine and warm address from a guy whose been there himself. Structurally, he leads off with a “standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories” (Wallace 1).
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”
DWF wants to convey to the Class of 2005 that such a parable, such Aristotelian mimesis, is less insulting than the traditional liberal arts cliché would lead on, “because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about” (Wallace 1).
DWF rightly describes the difficulty of the defaulted human condition (“Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of”) and stresses the importance of individuals who can adjust such a natural default (“often described as being “well-adjusted, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term”). Without such radical adjustment, the banal days of the impending adult life will be lonely, as we would then stay as “lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation” (Wallace 5).
This speech, this work of art, saved through the magic of a mass-emailed transcript-turned book published in 2009, invites the same engaging work from the listener as of the reader of DWF’s other works. His postmodern challenge for the individual to de-center their subjective self is “unimaginably hard to do” (Wallace 5), but certainly possible. To hermeneutically think outside the “excellent servant but terrible master” (Wallace 2) frees the individual, so that it will “actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down” (Wallace 3).
The capital-T Truth for DWF is simple: about life before death. About freedom involving “attention, awareness and discipline, and being able to truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day” (Wallace 5). About the real value of 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 around us, all the time that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water. This is water’” (Wallace 5).
Larry McCaffery, “An Interview with David Foster Wallace,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction 13 (1993).
David Foster Wallace, Transcription of 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address, May 21, 2005.