Pomona College Magazine
Volume 45, No. 1
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Pomona College Magazine is published three times a year by Pomona College
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Editor: Mark Wood
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Trying to Grasp What We've Lost

By Mark Wood

The last time I spoke on the phone with Professor David Foster Wallace, he began the conversation with the memorable words, “You’re going to hate me. All editors hate me.”

The subject was a project we had been discussing for some time that he had decided, abruptly, to pull out of. I was disappointed, to be sure, but certainly I never hated him. I’m sure none of his editors did. How could any editor hate someone who used words so magically? Someone who saw through the most difficult moral and philosophical tangles with such simple, ruthless and yet, somehow, transcendent clarity? And someone who could be so gentle and thoughtful and intentionally provocative, all at the same time.

I’m not claiming any personal connection here. We only spoke on the phone a few times—I never met him in person—but I found that even chatting with him casually at a distance could be a challenging and slightly humbling experience. Intellectually, I always felt a bit like a weekend duffer playing tennis with a pro who was going easy on me out of kindness—and still leaving me gasping. I expected to meet him face to face someday and looked forward to it with a hint of trepidation. Now, unfortunately, that day will never come.

When word of his death reached me last week, just days before this issue was scheduled go to press, I did a bit of Googling and happened onto the commencement address he gave at Kenyon College back in 2005—and was amazed that I’d never heard of it before.

Here is David Foster Wallace as writer and teacher—and something else: practical philosopher, maybe—all brought together in the most striking way. He starts the speech with a joke about a couple of fish, and then in his casual, inexorable, almost painfully self-conscious style, he takes you through an elegant and seamless progression of keen observations and even keener reasoning, leading to understandings about life that feel at once self-evident and achingly profound. By the end, the punchline of that lead-off joke has transmuted into a haunting refrain. I’ve heard more than one student describe the speech as life-changing. In this case, I think it might be true.

I will now quote a few lines from that speech about what it means to be liberally educated, though I caution you that, as with most of his writing, it is impossible to convey the whole with a part. The warp and woof of his reasoning are just too tightly and intricately woven together.

“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. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

Which is, in another context, not far from the way we feel around here these days. Our hearts go out to his wife and family—and to the students who so clearly adored him and are still sounding the depth of their loss.
 

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