Last night I listened to a recording of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address. I know, I know. Wallace is one of these people around whom personality cults form, and its hard to take those people seriously. If it helps, there’s this one guy who is really ticked at Wallace for what must have been some horrible thing Wallace did to him, like having had the temerity to be alive at the same time as he. I also know that Wallace could at times be a rather nasty human being, or so some have reported. That said, the man said some really important and true things which need to be heard again and again.
These things as it turns out, or as I hear them now, in this particular frame of mind that I am in, have everything to do with authenticity. This is not because Wallace is talking directly about authenticity and its discontents, but because he understands, intimately it seems, what it feels like to be the sort of person for whom authenticity is likely to become a problem, and without intending to propose a solution to this problem of authenticity, he does.
Authenticity becomes a problem the second it becomes a question. As William Deresiewicz put it, “the search for authenticity is futile. If you have to look for it, you’re not going to find it.” Authenticity, like happiness and love and probably everything that is truly significant in life partakes of this dynamic whereby the sought after thing can be attained only by not consciously seeking after it. Think of it, and now it is a problem; seek it, and you will not find it; focus on it, and it becomes elusive.
So authenticity is the sort of thing that vanishes the moment you become conscious of it. It’s what you have only when you’re not thinking of it. And what you’re not thinking of when you have it is yourself. Authenticity is a crisis of self invoked by a hyper-selfawareness that makes it impossible not think of oneself. And I don’t think this is a matter of being a horribly selfish or arrogant person. No, in fact, I think this kind of hype-rselfawareness is more often than not burdened with insecurity and fear and anxiety. It’s a voice most people want to shut up and hence the self-defeating quest for authenticity.
What does Wallace have to say about any of this? Well, first, there’s this: “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 centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive.”
This is what he calls our default setting. Our default setting is to think about the world as if we were its center, to process every situation through the grid of our own experience, to assume “that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.” This is our default setting in part because from the perspective of our own experience, the only perspective to which we have immediate access, we are literally the center of the universe.
Wallace also issued this warning: “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. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”
So then, worship authenticity and …
But, Wallace also tells us, it doesn’t have to be this way. The point of a liberal arts education — this is a commencement address after all — is to teach us how to exercise choice over what we think and what we pay attention to. And Wallace urges us to pay attention to something other than the monologue inside our head. Getting out of our own heads, what Wallace called our “skull-sized kingdoms” — this is the only answer to the question of authenticity.
And so this makes me think again of the possibility that certain kinds of practices that help us do just this. They can so focus our attention on themselves, that we stop, for a time, paying attention to ourselves. Serendipitously, I stumbled on this video about glass-blowing in which a glass-blower is talking about his craft when he says this: “When you’re blowing glass, there really isn’t time to have your mind elsewhere – you have to be 100% engaged.” There it is.
Now, I know, we can’t all run off and take up glass blowing. That would be silly and potentially dangerous. The point is that this practice has the magical side effect of taking a person out of their own head by acutely focusing our attention. The leap I want to make now is to say that this skill is transferable. Learn the mental discipline of so focusing your attention in one particular context and you will be better able to deploy it in other circumstances.
It’s like the ascetic practice of fasting. The point is not that food is bad or that denying yourself food is somehow virtuous or meritorious. Its about training the will and learning how to temper desire so as to direct and deploy it toward more noble ends. You train your will with food so that you can exercise it meaningfully in other, more serious contexts.
In any case, Wallace is right. It’s hard work not yielding to our default self-centeredness. “The really important kind of freedom,” Wallace explained, “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.” I know I’ve cited that line before and not that long ago, but the point it makes is crucial.
Freedom is not about being able to do whatever we want, when we want. It has nothing to do with listening to our heart or following our dreams or whatever else we put on greeting cards and bumper stickers. Real freedom comes from learning to get out of our “skull-sized kingdoms” long enough to pay attention to the human being next us so that we might treat them with decency and kindness and respect. Then perhaps we’ll have our authenticity, but we’ll have it because we’ve stopped caring about it.
A transcript of Wallace’s address is available here.