Listen to a reading of this piece by the author:
The Harry Ransom Center, home of David Foster Wallace’s papers, is quiet and smells like air conditioning; it’s hard to miss the drop in humidity when you enter. Before you’re allowed into the archive proper, a smiling attendant suggests you watch a video first. These librarians are understandably anal about the research collection. After I watched the video, one of the research librarians walked me through the same process, just to make sure I’d understood the protocols outlined, although some of the more insulting suggestions of the video were omitted in person, those being: don’t bring food in, don’t drink anything, don’t write in the collection materials (?!), and don’t erase anything from the materials (!) with the library-provided pencils. Said pencils are uniformly dull.
There is at least one person at every table in the archive proper, and at most tables there are two. The Wallace pilgrims are easy to spot, even before one of them cracks up in the near-silent room: they are no older than their early thirties, wearing tight-fitted jeans and, in some cases, asymmetrical hairstyles. That afternoon they are mostly baby-faced men, cute rather than handsome. The gender split, about sixty-forty, suggests to me that heterosexual women looking for a fling at South By Southwest might try heading over to the HRC. The women wear a minimum of makeup; as far as I can tell, only the librarians and honest-to-god English professors are sporting lipstick.
I mention this to Molly Schwartzburg, the very nice research librarian who orients me around the space with factoids about the HRC’s past and why it collects modern writers, and she laughs and agrees the DFW-acolytes are super-easy to spot. According to statistics kept by the reception desk at the HRC, there were twenty scholars in to look at the Wallace archives during South by Southwest. Ordinarily, the collection gets about four visitors a month. In addition, there was a panel during the Interactive portion of South By, where Molly did a “show and tell,” and some people (around thirty-five) may have chosen to attend that in lieu of coming into the HRC. Plus an exhibition, where there’s no tracking who saw what.
“The average researcher is male, and is in his late twenties or early thirties, from California or New York,” Molly said. “Although a lot of people don’t fit that. We had a woman in her fifties who wasn’t a scholar who came in for personal reasons. But mostly, they do tend to be young people who are interested in Wallace.”
The HRC is unusual in two ways. First, its admittance policy, characterized thus by a grad student friend: “They admit anyone who is not visibly crazy.” (When I mention this to Molly, she cringes and I can almost hear her praying I won’t use this phrase when I write about the trip; she does, however, admit the policy is liberal.) The second unusual thing is its collection, which tends to focus on contemporary writers. The most heavily-used collections are from Norman Mailer, Elizabeth Bowen, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Don DeLillo, and, of course, Wallace. Wallace’s papers are among the most heavily-used, although it’s not clear whether that’s because the archive is relatively new, or because The Pale King just came out, or what. The level of visitors per month has been steadily increasing, Molly tells me. And this is to say nothing of the people who access the collection digitally, through scanned manuscripts.
I had a specific quarry in the archive: a commencement speech given at my alma mater, Kenyon College. It was printed by several major metropolitan papers after Wallace died, and was sold as a pamphlet entitled This is Water. The versions in print redacted one of my favorite parts of the speech, which was, as it turned out, extemporaneous. While we sat in the hot Ohio sun, Wallace got up to the podium, looked around and leaned into the microphone to say, “Feel free to perspire because I— I’m gonna.” And then he wiped his forehead with a bandanna, we all chuckled, and just like that, he had the crowd in his hand. Aside from the occasional rustling of programs and gowns as people crossed and uncrossed their legs, the graduates were silent while he spoke.
Those words marked my conversion moment. Before that speech, I’d written Wallace off; I’d tried to read Infinite Jest at seventeen and failed. When he was announced as the speaker, I shrugged. I understood it to be a coup for Kenyon, but I couldn’t say that I particularly cared. Indeed, if a number of my close friends hadn’t been graduating, I probably would have skipped the ceremony.
The speech was engaging and earnest. It wasn’t, in Wallace’s words, “a wise old fish” lecturing to us. It was a snapshot of the uncertainties of adulthood, of Wallace trying to drive a final nail in the childhood notion that adults mysteriously somehow always know what to do. He was a compelling speaker, in addition, and every so often would say things like, “skipping some stuff, blah blah blah, you get the point.” I don’t know how to explain it except to say all of the people I talked to after the speech came away with the sense that he was one of us.
There’s another part of the speech that’s usually redacted in print, and it was one of the things that I thought surprisingly honest for a commencement speech. It deals with suicide, so I understand why it’s omitted—I’m sure that to leave it in could seem perverse or ghoulish to those who loved the man. But to leave out this particular section in the Kenyon commencement speech is to miss the point of the speech. Anyway, in the drafts and in the transcript of the live speech, it runs like this: “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.” This passage was so universally omitted in the newspaper reprints that I was almost certain I’d made it up, until I saw it in his drafts.
Again, there are understandable reasons for leaving out this particularly bleak passage in an otherwise uplifting speech, but it does alter the meaning. Altering the speech in this way obscures a warning about the menaces of narcissism, and it does something strange to someone who was clearly aware of the dangers of modern living. It helps to elevate Wallace into a kind of St. Dave, our doomed prophet of the modern age, making him into something purer and less scary than he was. Talking about suicide at a commencement speak is dark.
To request a manuscript, you enter a request into the lines of computers to the left of the bank of librarians. Although the system is automated, it doesn’t tell the research librarians that you’ve entered a request, so you have to hoof it over and do it yourself, although the request apparently comes up for them once they look up your name (“Elizabeth, right?”).
A kind older librarian explains to me for what is the third time that day that she’ll be putting a box on a table, and I can have one folder at a time at my workspace. Due to the rush from South By, one of the folders I want is out. No one else seems to want the Kenyon College commencement address, so I settle in with it.
Wallace’s handwriting is small and neat, with distinctive capital “D”s generally written in one stroke that appears to begin at the bottom part of the straight line, go up, curve back around and release. He corrected a typewritten draft in red pen, green pen, and what appeared to be a blue marker.
A lot of the speech is tightened in this draft, with whole subclauses reduced to a word or two. Some paragraphs are cut entirely. One of the cut sections was an account of Wallace’s own commencement, some of which is overlaid in red ink with the word “stet”:
As it happens, it was exactly twenty years ago this weekend that I sat black-robed and sweaty on an overgroomed quad much like this one and heard my own Class of 85’s commencement speech, and I could not now for the life of me tell you who gave that speech, much less what she said. But I can guarantee you she remembers, the speaker does—because speeches are heavy, meaningful events for exactly one person, the speaker. It’s an egotist’s wet dream: this speech is like a 007-grade license to give advice, and the truth is that when we give advice we’re really (struck out, “actually” in red ink above it), even though we pretend it’s for the benefit of the auditor (struck out, “listener” in red ink supra), which is the reason why almost all of us (struck out, “most” in red ink) like to give advice but almost none of us like to receive (struck out) it.
This speech, in this draft, is clearly not a way to live your life. It is a good speech, which can be boiled down to an erudite version of “Being kind to others is also a way of being kind to yourself.” It wasn’t meant for the audience, either the black-robed graduates or those of us who were celebrating said graduation. It reads to me like a message he wanted to send to himself, maybe sensing that he might be more convinced if his audience was. What kind of personal issues he had that he felt he needed to do penance for, I don’t know. But it sure seems that a lot of people—especially young people, especially the well-educated kind—feel the same need to do penance. Maybe we all have the sense we haven’t been kind enough.
Wallace arrives at the crux of the speech: that we all worship, and the trick is to pick what. There’s a moment of uncomfortable clarity when Wallace describes the worship of beauty, intelligence, power, and so on. And how worship of those things makes you feel lousy. And there’s something else in there, the fact that most people feel pretty bad a lot of the time. If you want to get a feel for how lousy most Americans feel, I suggest you check out the size of the self-help aisle at your nearest bookstore, and then look up the sales on those books.
The speech is, of course, a cliché. But Wallace took clichés seriously, as the easiest way to pass on accumulated wisdom springing from the test cases of millions of our ancestors, and it is perhaps because he works in cliché that so many people like him. Maybe because we have a sneaking suspicion that clichés are right. Or maybe we’re just hungry for some kind of reassurance.
In some ways it is hard not to be disappointed by the speech, though. Wallace is this spectacular dark visionary, and the speech sounded like self-help. An hortation. It is less disappointing, and easier to understand, I think, if you realize it had been about him telling himself things he needed to believe.
This is borne out in the drafts, where the speech is explicitly addressed to a younger version of himself. At one point, he crosses out the phrase “young Dave in the back row.” This is a pep talk about what it is to be human, a pep talk not meant necessarily for the graduates, as Wallace concedes.
Although Wallace mercifully jettisoned the conceit for the final, spoken version of the address, the sense of being an eavesdropper on a private conversation stayed with the speech. That’s why so many people connect so strongly to it—not just because it’s telling us a bunch of clichés, and testifying to the importance of clichés—but because it’s so intensely personal.
The bond that Wallace’s fans tend to have with Wallace is also deeply personal. Browse through the linked essays on the fan site The Howling Fantods and look at how people write about Wallace. It‘s no coincidence that the sense of eavesdropping on a very interesting person’s conversation with himself tends to cause a strong personal bond with that person.
Every personal essay is a conceit of course, and perhaps Wallace’s naked, vulnerable presence on the page was a construct; I have no way of knowing. It was this “eavesdropping” sense, in addition to the sense of Wallace as someone who was truly awake to what was going on with the media saturation around us and its effects on the human psyche, and this overwhelming insistence on kindness to others that really seemed to strike people. There was a sense, rightly or wrongly, of someone who was immediate and aware and awake.
Irony is a big part of Wallace’s legacy—both in his work and in how his work is described. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve spoken to who failed to understand—or perhaps didn’t want to understand—that Wallace was funny, but he wasn’t kidding.
He wrote about irony and its pitfalls often, in ways that speak to those of us born in the 80’s; we were born into a landscape saturated with the stuff, from the alternative rock scene that spawned Kurt Cobain to the, in Wallace’s words, “ironic 80’s true Angel of Death himself, David Letterman.”
The cultural landscape passes at an accelerating speed. This blueshift is particularly acute in the world of music, where the hip new band can suddenly become “played out” before its debut album is ever released; Tom Ewing has likened this to Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, wherein anything we touch may suddenly dissolve to dust in our hands, no matter how solid it was a moment before. The sort of person who is likely to experience this most acutely is also the sort of person who is likely to attend South By Southwest—the year’s big conference on all things hip, where bands go to be signed, filmmakers hunt for distribution, and start-ups search for investors. It is, in some ways, the mecca of Hip, predicated on art-by-way-of-consumerism, and everyone there is looking for the New New Thing.
All of this is pretty tiring, and so it isn’t a surprise that many people want some kind of emotional break: a medium in which the reader is isolated in her contact with the author, focused specifically on one set of plots that don’t change for however long it takes her to finish the book. When the attention economy is predicated on video clips no longer than five minutes, a 1,000-page book is a serious commitment indeed. And finishing the book is an excellent reminder that there is a great deal of satisfaction to be found in commitment. That’s also, by the way, a cliché.
Wallace never wrote about South By Southwest, commonly abbreviated as SXSW and generally referred to in speech as “South By.” But I’m thinking of him at my first show of the day on Thursday, a National Public Radio showcase. I’m there mainly for the rock supergroup Wild Flag, composed of former members of Sleater-Kinney, Quasi, the Minders and Helium, and so I show up early to stand in line.
I stand for perhaps half an hour and when I finally get in, there are two people at the door. One is repeating, as each guest comes in the door, “Do you love NPR?” and handing out a little flier suggesting I donate to NPR. The other is repeating, “Do you like beer?” and handing out a little card that entitles the holder to one Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Both people sound bored and tired and cranky and I would be surprised if they liked or loved anything in the world right then.
It didn’t occur to me until later what had actually transpired. Pabst, famously, doesn’t advertise, which lends the brand credibility with the hipster, too-cool-for-overt-advert set. What it does do, however, is sponsor events—“cool” events—where it aligns itself with the young people who’ve OD’d on advertising and gives them free beer.
There was also the NPR advertisement, which struck me as both more complex and more interesting. The entire time the bands played, NPR’s banner was behind them; their sets are available for listening on the NPR website and were probably actually broadcast to someone’s radio somewhere. Like many people my age who live in urban areas, I don’t actually own a radio—I have no car, my cell phone is my alarm clock, and all of my music is played on my computer or my iPod. If NPR wants to reach me, and people like me, a potential next generation of listeners, they need to pursue the same path as Pabst, hosting events that have a legitimate draw.
But with NPR, in addition to advertising, the organization is creating content that will allow it to draw material in another medium—two others, actually: the radio and the web. The advertising is the content, exactly what we are there to consume. There’s something weird and gross about art being used to sell NPR and PBR, even consumer-oriented art like pop music. Of course advertising people are smarter and cannier than I am, and have been turning advertising into content since the old radio soaps, when they actually produced the content themselves.
To wit: I want to see this show and I want to care about these bands, and they are genuinely great, all of them. One in particular, a Malian group led by Khaira Arby, is radically joyful to listen to, and after having stood in line for half an hour to get in, and walking for about an hour before that, my feet stop hurting. In between songs, I glance around and the crowd has lost the glazed-hipster look and seems to be really listening to Arby. There’s a real sense of communion here, of connection, and we’re all enjoying it.
Only of course behind Arby is the NPR banner. So that if anyone takes a photo of her performing, everyone will know where she was, and that NPR was involved, and while it doesn’t take away from the joy of Arby’s performance, it does hurt a little. It hurts in the way that all advertisements hurt, in a way that Wallace talks about in “Up, Simba,” his article about John McCain. Sure, Arby’s performance is wonderful, but there’s a silent salesman banner back there, and “a little part of you always knows that what the salesman’s ultimately after is something for himself. And this awareness is painful… although admittedly it’s a tiny pain, more like a twinge, and often unconscious.”
I don’t think I can do better than that at explaining. I’m relying on Wallace to do it because in the twenty-one years between when Wallace was born and when I was, the world changed. That pain is everywhere now—look at the product placements in movies or TV or music videos, which are actually also advertisements for music, so we’re now placing advertising inside advertising. It’s hard for me to explain this in the way Wallace can because so few things in modern life are without that pain.
Take, for example, Facebook. More than half the U.S. is on Facebook, and advertisers get some of your aggregate information. Facebook is supported by advertising, so it looks free because you don’t pay money to get on it. But it isn’t free, not really—the price of entry is being exposed to advertising. Take Google’s email, Gmail. Take the NPR show. Take whatever example you like. None of this costs money, but I’m not sure it’s free.
For what it’s worth: I’m writing this for Kenyon Review Online, which is given away. Although I am told by the editors this is intended as a gift, a way of sharing art, I admit I am skeptical. To me it seems not only possible, but entirely likely that the online content here is intended as a kind of sample for the magazine, to lure you into subscribing. So this, too, is an advertisement of sorts, if you think about it, where the content is the advertisement. Maybe you shouldn’t trust me too much. Maybe I’m selling something too.
Or it could be even worse than that. Frequently when something is free, I have the sense that I’m the goods being sold to someone else. In the case of Gmail or Facebook—both free—my attention is sold not only with side-bar ads, but also as an aggregated set of behaviors that make me easier to target for—of course—more advertising.
NPR is far from the only entity advertising itself at SXSW. There are the branded parties. The “Fader Fort,” a promo for a music magazine. The Brooklyn Vegan party, sponsored by a blog and some terrible tea-flavored vodka. The Pitchfork “Offline” party, promoting the website. The huge posters on buildings that advertise bands’ singles. And also: two separate cigarette companies. One of them, Camel, has a large sign prominently displayed at the gateway, below its logo. It reads, “WARNING: This product can cause mouth cancer.”
This omnipresent advertising at South by Southwest creates, at least for me, a kind of hunger for something higher.
There’s this other thing about South By Southwest: the unabashed elitism of the festival. The spotting of the New New Thing.
Elitism plays a role in Wallace’s readership, too, although almost no one who’s in the club likes to acknowledge it. Perhaps that’s because the elitism that accompanies a book as formally odd and structurally difficult as Infinite Jest flies in the face of St. Dave.
It seems as though Wallace himself had a conflicted response to elitism—being happily snobby on grammar points and attempting (with middling success) to access “a Democratic Spirit, one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the conviction of others.”
Wallace makes his Democratic Spirit points in a usage essay. I get the sense he’s reminding himself that his elitism won’t serve him, that there is another valuable way of approaching the world, and that way is better than what he refers to in the Kenyon speech as his default mode. I’m not sure who first called him a reformed smart-ass, but that strikes me as right for the penitent tone.
And maybe that’s also why there are so many people in the HRC. Maybe, as attractive as the elitism that goes along with the music scene is, we’re seeking something else. But we don’t want to be lectured by just anyone—by some poor dork. We want to be brought to the light by the best of the best—we are, after all, elitists. And if we’re going to have a “come to Jesus” moment, we want to have it from someone we connect with. Someone else who’s clearly struggling with figuring out how to worship something outside himself.
I called my friend Andrew right after the news broke that Wallace was dead. Andrew was one of the graduates at the commencement speech, and a longtime Wallace fan, the one who had, in fact, convinced me to rethink my teenage-Infinite Jest-debacle stance against him and his doorstop of a book. Andrew had always admired Wallace’s moral thinking.
“Well,” Andrew said. “If he can’t do it, does that mean we can’t, either? Does that mean it’s impossible?”
I didn’t know then and I don’t know now; I told Andrew what I did know, which was that Wallace was a human we’d never really met and would never really know. That as close as Wallace seemed in his essays, that was part of the narrative voice, a trick meant to keep us engaged as readers, which may or may not represent who he really was. I listed off gifted writers and essayists who were flagrantly bad people, who had whole secret lives that only their biographers ever properly dug up.
But sometimes I think that Andrew’s right, that the St. Dave figure a lot of readers my age seem intent on worshiping set an impossible standard. That the moral standard set out in the commencement address by Wallace for (really) Wallace was pure, brutal solipsism. That the idea that you could personally choose how to see and feel the world was in some ways wrong and nihilistic and anti-human. That the idea that you can choose what world you live in fits right in with the world of endless music choices and endless TV choices, endless choices of reading material, all personalized for what you like, a world that is All About You. That’s the real appeal of St. Dave: the idea that you are so important that you can shape your world and environment to suit you using the power of your mind. And that by doing so, you can achieve enlightenment.
St. Dave isn’t who Wallace was, I think. The man himself must have been more conflicted and more interesting than that caricature. I guess I imagine him as being similar in spirit to Nic Offer, frontman of !!! (pronounced “chk chk chk”). At that performance, one of the last I attended at SXSW, Offer jumped into the crowd to dance with us. To lock eyes with those of us in the crowd and make his way through. To join us for a few minutes, so we could all be part of something larger than ourselves. But even then, we knew and he knew that he would get back on the stage. That he was performing, and that pretending to be part of his audience was part of the performance. That the stage was where he belonged.