Friday, November 6, 2015

David Foster Wallace: One from the Vault

It's Friday night. I just pulled a brisket out of the oven, and friends are on the way over with wine. After dinner we're going to watch "The End of the Tour" about David Foster Wallace. So in preparation, I thought I'd re-read my post on a great commencement speech Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon college ten years ago.

Here it is: One from the Vault

Bobbi's out of town, which means the diet turns all bread, butter, and jam, and I get to surf the Internet. This has lead me to You Tube clips of Christopher Hitchens entertainingly painting all religion black, and vile, and stupid, and evil. Which raises the question, what's left of a professional contrarian debater and polemicist after he's gone?

The unsatisfying part of listening to Hitchens parading on the atheist speaker circuit is that his fire-power overwhelms opponents and it's hard to see what the dialogue might be. The problem with polemics in general, of course, is that a debate is never really joined. There is no dialogue or discussion, no real consideration of The Other. Witness our political debates. Peacocks on parade. What's missing is any considered evaluation of what's truly best for the country.

Hitchens would say we should throw out religion and look to Shakespeare instead. The polemical narrow-minded part of him refuses to grant that one can, and most do, also take religion and all of its traditions and approach them in the same way: not literally, but literarily. Hitchens throws up the most literal and extreme interpretation of any religious tradition and says, "Here, this is what you must believe" if you claim to be part of this tradition. Among all the patsies that are thrown up against Hitchens on his militant atheist speaking tours none manage to explain this satisfactorily, or to hold their own. One problem for the religious set is that they are reluctant to concede that religion is a man made tradition, and that it's not metaphysics they are speaking of. Hitchens takes full advantage.

David Foster Wallace has the antidote. I first heard of Foster Wallace in the first chapter of "All Things Shining," by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly, professors of philosophy at UC Berkeley and Harvard. The book is a version of a 5-Great-Books course (the Bible to Moby Dick) that Dreyfus has been teaching at U.C. Berkeley for years. Kelly gussied this up for the popular market by including, among other things, a discussion of nihilism through Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest." (O.K., what were they thinking, really!) I still haven't read Infinite Jest, but it's on the list, if not at the top.

The temperament of David Foster Wallace runs to humility, almost the opposite of Hitchens's hubris. The essayist, author, philosopher, and teacher died of suicide in 2008. But, like Hitchens, he survives on You Tube. I love watching him answer questions in interviews because he genuinely tries to grapple with truth. Check out his interviews with Charlie Rose.

In 2005 Wallace gave a great commencement address to the graduating class of Kenyon College, "This is Water." It's as good a response to Hitchens as you'll likely run across. Everybody worships, says Wallace.

The Parable of Belief

There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."
Where do these different interpretations come from, asks Wallace.
[W]here they come from [is] INSIDE the two guys. ... [H]ow we construct meaning [... is] a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there's the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.
The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.
Wallace goes on to speak of busy lives, work stresses, lack of time, and running into obstacles at the grocery store, in the parking lot, and on the highway trying to get home, and how aggravating, and annoying, and interfering other people can be as we go about this. And how do we perceive this?
[M]y natural default setting is the certainty that [the world is] really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is. ....
You get the idea. ....The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. .... [M]ost days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. 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.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship. ... [I]n the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship--be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles--is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.
They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving.... 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.
It is about the real value of a real 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 all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: "This is water."
This is an answer to Hitchens.

Go listen to Wallace. in full. He's great.