Thursday, August 30, 2012

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.

Today is August 30th, the day that DT Max's biography of David Foster Wallace hits bookstores. The book, titled Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, chronicles the life of the late author and professor. If you've never read any of Wallace's work and have about ten minutes, I suggest starting out with This is Water. 

Photo credit: Publishers Weekly
This is Water is a commencement speech Wallace delivered at Kenyon College back in 2005. The essay was then published as its own work, and if you read through it you can understand why. TIME Magazine called it "The Last Lecture for intellectuals" and it was reviewed by everyone from the New York Times to the Christian Science Monitor. It's just one of those works of literature that makes you feel every possible emotion at the same time; it gives you chills. And in honor of the release of Every Love Story is a Ghost, I've decided to pay homage and dissect a few of the most powerful quotes from This is Water. Obviously, it pales in comparison to actually reading or listening. If you'd like to do either one, and I suggest both, you can read it here (it is reprinted in London so a few things are spelled different). I have also embedded Youtube links of Wallace reading the speech in two parts (22 minutes total), and they're at the bottom of the page. 
"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 education, 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." 
This points out the difference between real freedom and what we think is freedom. Many times we get so caught up in our default settings that we don't realize that which is freedom. Freedom is, in its most basic existential form, the ability to think and feel. If you can free yourself from the default setting of thinking you are the center of the universe and the God of your own self, then that is the only point in which you can truly think outside and feel outside and be disciplined enough to think about things other than yourself. As Wallace points out, nothing in our experience as humans argues against the fact that we are the centers of our own universe. We are in control of every action, we see everything from a first person view, and we see everything that goes on from our personal perspective. From a philosophical standpoint, we feel like Gods in a universe that revolves around us. It is only when we gather outside information that we discover we are, in fact, not Gods, not centers of any universe, and we are in fact much the opposite. But personal experience tells us that we are the most important person in our own existence. It is hard wired in our heads. And in some regards, like health and well-being, we are the most important person in our own existence, because it is our job to take care of ourselves. But what I think what Wallace is really pointing out is that even though we've never had an experience which we weren't the exact center of, we aren't always the most important force in our existence. When we allow ourselves to consider the exigent factors that play roles in our existence, we obtain freedom. We stop chugging along and learn how to think consciously about the world around us in a way that doesn't always put our own existence first. We lose the default setting and the rat race, but we gain compassion and happiness.
Photo credit: New York Magazine

Wallace circles back to this idea when talking about the importance of education and the freedom education affords. He explains that the freedom of a real education is that you "get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship." So that means making your own decision. Not being programmed and hard-wired and being born into some kind of belief or disbelief system. A real education affords the student the ability to make such a big decision because it "teaches you how to think," a topic in which Wallace goes in great detail. He adds in that "The only thing that's capital-T true is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it." In other words, you get to make your own independent decision on what to believe in regard to anything. Be it religion, politics, culture, you get to decide how you're going to see every single thing around you because you've been taught to break from a programmed mold and find answers for yourself. Maybe they'll be the answers you guessed all along or that your parents told you about? You have to find out for yourself. But the "Capital-T" true idea doesn't just mean in philosophical issues, it can be anything in the world. Wallace's anecdote is a trip to the grocery store, and how one could find it both meaningful and captivating just to see even the smallest little nuances of your environment. This goes back to the freedom Wallace initially talked about which he said involved awareness. Awareness of surroundings makes it much easier to generate meaning and postulate a captivating experience.

With all of that said, I want to add in a small point about Wallace's thoughts on religion and how he works belief systems into his essay. One of the interesting points DT Max makes in the biography is that Wallace belonged to a church wherever he lived. He never talked a whole lot about faith in a particular God but he always belonged to a church, which I find fascinating. The quote is rather lengthy but necessary to encompass everything Wallace speaks on, and it goes as follows:
"[H]ere's something else that's weird but true: in 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."
Anything else you worship "will eat you alive." Dissect that for a second. Wallace was never particularly a religious advocate because he spent a great deal of his live writing about what it meant to be human. But here  he seems to offer up why it is people choose to worship a God or deity. The notion that everybody worships something and that there is no such thing as atheism is, to me, absolutely true. Christopher Hitchens might have a different take. Whether you're on board with Wallace's idea or not, it is interesting to think about. What do you worship? Do you worship multiple Gods? Is something you worship gnawing at you? Can a relationship with a spirit eat you alive as well? That's something Wallace doesn't touch on.

At the very least, This is Water makes you think about things that might seem rudimentary; basic thought processes, values, and a real education. But you end up realizing these are very grand things, because they control not only your outlook on life but the way you approach and react to every daily occurrence. And for me, it reminds me that putting faith in certain things will get me eaten alive. It reminds me to quit focusing on the petty little aesthetics and to remember to think freely. And I think that's what Wallace would have wanted.

So go pick up a copy of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. If it's half as interesting as Wallace's 22 minute speech, I assure you it won't be a disappointment. 

Part One:                                                 














Part Two:

6 comments:

  1. "But what I think what Wallace is really pointing out is that even though we've never had an experience which we weren't the exact center of, we aren't always the most important force in our existence. When we allow ourselves to consider the exigent factors that play roles in our existence, we obtain freedom. We stop chugging along and learn how to think consciously about the world around us in a way that doesn't always put our own existence first. We lose the default setting and the rat race, but we gain compassion and happiness."

    Yes, exactly. Well said and right on the mark.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. I really appreciate it. I am happy that you exist.

    Love,

    SB


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  2. I forgot to mention I am reading Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story currently. So far, I am making my way through it very slowly. It's not a hard read at all, just pretty saddening. I think Josh Radnor resurrected DFW (as Dean) in his movie because he wished he could have "saved" Dave. Who didn't?

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    1. I'd have to agree with you. He had the chance to save Dean and took it, because he wished he could have saved Wallace in real life.

      I'm also reading the book and you're right, it is saddening and fascinating at the same time. I feel like this is the first real intricate look at his life because he really seemed to keep a safe distance from everyone.

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  3. Loved this, thanks for sharing!

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  4. Hi, I love your post. I'm very interested of Ghost Stories. I use to have a pitbull that slept in my room with me when i was living alone sometimes il wake up to him growling and he'l be staring at the wall for awile his head would move as if he was watching something or someone.thanks!

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