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David Foster Wallace's Kenyon commencement speech


The Wall Street Journal has printed the speech David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College's commencement in 2005. Widely circulated in a transcribed form, this version has cleared up previously garbled portions of his address.

The speech was notable for its grim portrayal of graduates' future lives. "There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches," Wallace said. "One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about." He goes on to describe a post-work visit to the grocery store, with all its little angers and resentments.

But he reaches for a kind of grace, a grace in attention to others, to the world outside "our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms."

... there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. 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.

It is easy to over-read the possible connections between a speech delivered three years ago and David Foster Wallace's recent death. But in the speech he did speak of suicide, more than once; he did reveal a distaste for the " 'rat-race' — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing." If there is some hope in his speech, there is also sadness, a feeling that being alive is a responsibility, and a difficult one at that.

It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: "This is water, this is water."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.

— Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: Eric Chu

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David's message is what the Buddhists call
mindfulness and compassion:"Be Here Now."

I am in my 39th year of Buddhist concentration
(a better term than "meditation"): it is indeed the path to freedom: from obsession, compulsion,
sleep. It restores "Being" and opens the doors
to life and "dreaming while awake."

"All doing is folly. Not doing is magic!" (Castaneda)

Miserable in life, miserable in death. His writing reveals all the many things that he did not understand about human existence and reality— the things that he was unable to understand due to his choice of philosophies.

Is he really better off now that he is dead? Or is suicide not the release that he thought it would be? I think in retrospect he would consider his suicide to be a failing.


What philosophy did he choose? I ask because your casting judgment on his choice presupposes that you know what it is. I think that you don't (I don't either), and that you are looking at an end result (his suicide) and making snap observations.

I suspect very strongly that he considered his suicide to be a failing while he was carrying it out. Suicide is an act of capitulation, not one of victory.

Best regards,

hey gregory,

default setting!


I'm closing my eyes and furrowing my brow, trying desperately, as David Foster Wallace urges, to imagine how you could possibly be so hardened against the author, against depression, against the final renunciation of life's blessings....but I'm coming up blank. Clearly I don't have the imaginative powers of DFW.

For crying out loud man, he suffered enough. Why suffer him a second death?

I have enjoyed the thoughts, but having just discovered David Foster Wallace in my RS today I find his death a jolt leaving a gap in the world of fellows he could have been. The words of his speech ring with a Truth that I can only hope to project to my students as I address their mindfulness.
Carry on!

I still can't read DFW's commencement speech without being deeply moved. He was an amazing voice of insight and depth. That that wasn't enough to save him from taking his own life is proof that understanding alone is not enough to live successfully. His thoughts on how we all worship may provide the most important clue to the tragedy of his suicide. He recognized the need for worship, but perhaps he never discovered how to plug into any source of authentic power himself. It is instructive to read Wallace's wise words and then to read The Last Lecture by Carnegie Mellon professor, Randy Pausch who died of cancer at about the same age and time that David Wallace took his own life. Pausch explored many of the same issues that Wallace did but what one comes away with is the sense that Pausch, even while facing certain death, maintained a joy that eluded David Foster Wallace even with his monumental talent, success and apparent health. It is worth noting that one, in the midst of his joy, lost his life while the other, in the midst of his life, lost his joy. God bless them both for all they left for us to ponder.


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