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
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.