George Saunders’ year of wonders, which began with a New York Times Magazine cover story and has gone on to include a bestselling book and a much-discussed graduation speech, will extend into 2014: Random House has announced plans to publish an expanded version of the speech, Congratulations, by the Way, next spring. (The book should brighten the otherwise execrable Dads & Grads offerings at checkout lines, both real and virtual. Dads! They like baseball! And beer! And barbecue! And nothing else!) As the New York Times notes, Saunders’ book deal has elicited comparisons to David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water, the 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech that Little, Brown published, posthumously, in 2009. Several days ago I promised to map some connections between the two authors and the two speeches. Here goes.
In a 1996 Salon interview, Wallace was asked to discuss his contemporaries. “The person I’m highest on right now,” he said, “is George Saunders, whose book CivilWarLand in Bad Decline just came out, and is well worth a great deal of attention.” A dozen years later, at Wallace’s memorial service, Saunders spoke to the assembled mourners at NYU’s Skirball Center:
Dave—let’s just say it—was first among us. The most talented, most daring, most energetic and original, the funniest, the least inclined to rest on his laurels or believe all the praise. His was a spacious, loving heart, and when someone this precious leaves us, especially so early, love converts on the spot to a deep, almost nauseating sadness, and there’s no way around it.
It’s easy to think of Wallace, with his T-shirt, his bandana, as being much younger than Saunders (whose daughters have already left for college). In fact, the writers were separated by only three years. (Saunders was born in late 1958, Wallace in early 1962.) Their work is full of overlapping concerns: the tragicomedy of late capitalism (compare Wallace’s “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment” in Infinite Jest with Saunders’ “suddenly out-thrusting Cybec Emergent Screens” in “My Flamboyant Grandson”); the squirminess of American English, especially as used by men (compare almost any of Wallace’s Hideous Men with, say, the lab technician Verlaine in “Escape from Spiderhead”: “‘Is she dead?’ I said. ‘Well, she’s not the best,’ Verlaine said”). All of which leads to the old Tolstoy question: What then must we do?
In his graduation speech at Syracuse University, Saunders explained what we must do: err in the direction of kindness. “Why aren’t we kinder?” he asked.
Here’s what I think:
Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk—dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure—for you, but not for me).
Now, we don’t really believe these things—intellectually we know better—but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.
So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?
Well, yes, good question.
Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.
In his Kenyon speech, Wallace posed similar questions, with fewer jokey asides. How does one guard against arrogance, against unmindfulness, against received thinking?
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.
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted,” which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.
Reading Wallace’s words—or, better, listening to them (as one might listen to an urgent messenger from beyond the grave)—is to be called to attention, to be shaken awake. “The really important kind of freedom,” said Wallace, “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 little unsexy ways every day.” It’s a thrillingly alarming message. Saunders paid tribute to it at the end of his NYU eulogy:
So the pledge and the prayer is this: we’ll continue to love him, we’ll never forget him, and we’ll honor him by keeping alive the principal lesson of his work: mostly we’re asleep, but we can wake up. And waking up is not only possible, it is our birthright, and our nature, and, as Dave showed us, we can help one another do it.