David Foster Wallace

By: Amanda French
February 21, 2012

David Foster Wallace

Everything I could write about DAVID FOSTER WALLACE (1962-2008) I’m sure you know already. You know about Infinite Jest and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Oblivion and Consider the Lobster and The Pale King. You know that he was raised in Illinois, that both his parents were professors (Philosophy and English), that he too studied Philosophy and English at Amherst and then Harvard, that he probably did a lot of drugs and underwent electroshock therapy, that he taught first at Illinois State University and then at Pomona College, that he married the artist Karen Green, and that he loved dogs. If you’re a really big fan, you know about the really big fans: the Howling Fantods and Wallace-L and Infinite Summer and Pale Spring and Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself and Calamity Song. You know that his work seemed to fill a void in us that deeply wanted a reconciliation between intellect and compassion. And of course you know about the footnotes.

And, very likely, even if you know very little about all that, you know about the graduation speech he gave at Kenyon College, a short but viral piece later published on its own as “This is Water,” in which he wrote

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing….The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.

The problem with this, as you know, is that Wallace didn’t make it to 50 (though, as you also know, he hanged himself), and frankly I’ve always thought it was on some level because of this very philosophy. Most of us don’t want to shoot ourselves in the head, at least not most of the time. Wallace clearly did truly care about other people and sacrificed for them1 (just read some of the stories his students have told about his generosity as a teacher), but surely we all need to apply a little selfishness like sunscreen just to get through the day. Take me. Other people sometimes bore or annoy me, and so I’m unfairly unkind to them. But I can live with that.

1 While at the same time being clearly a narcissist in ways there isn’t space to get into here: just read “The Depressed Person” and “Good Old Neon,” where he conveyed his own (our own) narcissism better than anyone else could.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Anaïs Nin.

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