Looking for a gift for a friend, I tripped over a small booklet by novelist David Foster Wallace titled This Is Water.
I’m quite late to the game here. The volume is an only slightly cleaned up transcript of a commencement address Wallace delivered to Kenyon College in 2005 and “went viral” on the Internet long before we had a term for it. Wallace killed himself in 2008 and This Is Water was published posthumously.
It’s a morbid interest of mine to see what writerly suicides had to say about ending it before they ended it. “No I don’t have a gun,” sang Kurt Cobain, but it turns out he did.
In the Kenyon speech, Wallace speaks of suicide. It is hardly a coincidence, he said, that most “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.” (Though when the time came, he personally reached for the noose.)
Wallace used suicide as a pivot, telling the students that the “real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone…”
He didn’t suggest religion as a remedy, but he came close, telling the crowd “there is actually no such thing as atheism” in a practical sense. “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
He nudged them further. “The compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles,” he said, “is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”
Exhibit A: “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.”
Exhibit B: “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.”
Exhibit C: “Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear.”
Exhibit D: “Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”
There’s more but, as I said, I’m late to this. Very well done and sad to digest this only after Wallace, a life-long severe depressive, finally chucked it all. You can read a transcript here or there’s always YouTube: