Sunday, April 03, 2011

More placeholding

Just a couple of things I thought you might be interested in seeing while I wait for time to clear to post something of (relative) substance:

**Ta-Nehisi Coates has made a terrible mistake that will sound familiar to many of you: When he really should be reading something else, he instead picks up something else to look at, just out of curiosity . . . and now cannot let it go. Coates' culprit: King Lear. He couldn't even make it halfway through the first scene before he was hooked. Here, by the way, is his second post on Lear, in which he raises the interesting topic of the value of either the artist's or the audience's having a knowledge of the vocabulary of that art form in order to make it or appreciate it.

Coates is a joy to read, anyway, no matter his subject. He knows what he knows and what he doesn't, and is clear about both; he's not afraid to call a fool a fool, and/but it has the ring of truth when he does; but he's hooked on Lear because he loves language, and he's not afraid to tell his readers that he's not sure why a certain passage is beautiful--he just knows that it is.

**My long-time online friend Pam of Tales from the Microbial Lab has up a post on camellias . . . and, oh, by the by, their caretaker, a 92-year-old man named Skip (whose chosen name, of course, knocks a good 30 years or so off his actual age). Beautiful images of beautiful flowers and, through those images, the beauty of the man who grows them.

**UPDATE: I've just run across this review by Leland de la Durantaye of the two most recent books (posthumously published) by David Foster Wallace: his senior honors thesis in which he argues for the existence of free will; and his much-praised 2005 commencement address given at Kenyon College, in which he makes the case for what, ideally, one must do with that freedom.

The review is lengthy but worthwhile for fans of his fiction who, like me (as I tried to but didn't say very well here), see in Wallace's fiction a genuine moral seriousness--not just exploring and exploiting the dynamics of our postmodern condition but attempting to equip his readers with the tools for genuinely thinking about them. Wallace seeks not just to entertain his readers, but also empower them.

This is most overt in the Kenyon College address, whose argument De la Durantaye discusses:

Wallace’s argument—for he has one—is that the goal of undergraduate education, and of all education, is free will. He holds that education’s greatest benefit consists in “being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” The reason he gives is simple and absolutely typical: “Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

Much of his address is thus advice on how not to get totally hosed, which is to say on how to be happy, which is to say, ethics. From Aristotle onward ethics has been about how not to get totally hosed—on the highest level. Learning this is the most desirable thing of all. It is what another great essayist of the twentieth century, Guy Davenport, called “the inviolable privacy” of the mind.


As we might expect, the goal of such freedom is not personal pleasure, not merely “the freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms,” but what Wallace calls “real freedom”:

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 to say, freedom is not about having as few fetters as possible; it is about leading an examined life. Freedom is being a good person, choosing to be a good person, every day.

Yes indeed.


R. Sherman said...

The Wallace speech is one to be remembered for a long time. I think he nails the root problem with current society, specifically the idea that freedom is somehow uncoupled from responsibility. It's one thing to have a myriad of choices. It's quite another to be willing the consequences of those choices and acknowledge that ultimately, the buck stops in one's own soul.

This is why the more "determinative" philosophies are so appealing. They remove responsibility from the equation.

I have a lot more thinking to do about this.


John B. said...


Yes (and thanks for dropping by, as always). The Kenyon College address regularly inspires and challenges me on at least two levels: thinking about my obligations to myself and to others as a human being; and how, as an instructor, to give my students some practice in how to think--to teach them that the real value of an education is not knowing stuff but in learning and practicing how to think about the stuff you know.

To read Wallace now is still bittersweet, even almost three years after his death. I suspect it will be for a long time. But I know that that bittersweetness has its source in my being grateful for this man's life and the work he produced.