In 2005, David Foster Wallace addressed the graduating class at Kenyon College with a speech that is now one of his most read pieces. In it, he argues, gorgeously, against “unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.” He begins with a parable:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
When Wallace died, on September 12th, the water churned. Fittingly for a writer whose work encircled itself with annotations, he will leave a legacy composed not only of his novels and essays, and of pieces written about him—official obituaries, elegies, and scholarly papers—but also of a vast and growing system of Web sites, e-mails, message boards, and blogs—and comments on those blogs, and comments on those comments, ad infinitum. His life has a lot of footnotes:
- A professor at Amherst remembers Wallace, who babysat his kids, and the writer’s virtuosic senior year at the college.
- John Seery, Wallace’s colleague and workout buddy, reveals that Wallace once thanked him for accompanying him to a party otherwise full of gym rats, whom he was afraid might force him to do their algebra homework.
- Wallace, from a 1999 interview with Amherst magazine: “I fluctuate between periods of terrible sloth and paralysis and periods of high energy and production, but from what I know about other writers this isn’t unusual.”
- An ever-growing accumulation of first-person homages on McSweeney’s, including the simple statement “He helped me to stop wrecking my life, showed me how to help other people and why I should bother."
- Pomona students recall their professor, both in the classroom and on the tennis court: “He had a complete game, the kind that comes from years of obsessing over stroke technique and ball location. If there was one sign that he was more than an above-par recreational player, it was the fact that he would employ a relatively advanced tactic, what tennis geeks call ‘taking the ball off the rise.’ It requires sharp reflexes and timing. He did it repeatedly that summer afternoon in 2005."
- A series of responses on Metafilter that accumulate like a snowball rolling down a hill. One of the more recent: “I have felt really alive lately, really engaged in my life to a degree that I hadn’t been for a few years, but this was like a punch in the gut. And the head. And the heart.” The post comes with footnotes.
- Among the best of Wallace’s fellow-writers’ recollections is Ben Kunkel’s, in n+1: “The real grief is in the death of a great artist and a kind man.”
- A skeleton key.
- “The Howling Fantods,” a fan site, memorializes, compiles, and understates: “To say that David Foster Wallace has had a profound influence on my life, the way I think, and the way in which I perceive the world, is an understatement.” (Elsewhere on the site, among numerous links, are Wallace’s uncollected writings.)
- All Wallace listserv e-mails from September.
- A syllabus from Wallace’s Literary Interpretation class, from 2005.
- Wallace speaks.
All of this is, no doubt, just the tip of the iceberg, peeking out of the sea. At Kenyon, Wallace elaborated on his water parable:
The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about....The fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.
And, nearing the end of his speech:
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
This is water.
This is water.
A CARTOON I DREW for The Crimson is helping to establish me as a nationally-known racist.
Last spring, I wanted to draw a cartoon lampooning extremists on the political scene. I imagined a wild-eyed animal lover with faulty judgment; he would declare to the world his heartfelt belief that "animals are people too." The converse of this slogan-- "people are animals too" --came to mind. What is the opposite of extreme commitment to non-human life? Well, cartoons have their own internal logic: for my purposes, it would be extreme indifference to human life, in the form of a redneck death penalty enthusiast. I decided to build the cartoon around this bit of wordplay. (see below)
Under the animal lover, I wrote, "Some of his best friends are laboratory rats," a ridiculous notion that equates experimental rodents with human beings. His counterpart was trickier. Statistical evidence points to racial disparities in the application of the death penalty; if my cartoon redneck were indifferent to human life, he should be most profoundly indifferent to Black life. I wrote, "None of his best friends are young Black men." Both captions were meant to echo the hackneyed, insincere disavowal of racism. "Some of my best friends are Black."
The cartoon was unfair, and unapologetically so. There are, clearly, many principled opponents of animal testing who are not kooks. And it is not necessarily racist to support the death penalty. I drew the cartoon because the lunatic fringes of each movement fits its own caricature, and because unfairness is a cartoonist's prerogative. I allowed for the possibility that I would hear from disgruntled animal rights enthusiasts and death penalty advocates. I had a few susprises coming.
The cartoon appeared in the March 13, 1990 issue of The Crimson. It was then published by the College Press Service, a national syndicate to which more than 600 college newspapers subscribe. About two weeks later I received a call from an administrator at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. My cartoon had run in The Arkansas Traveller, the school paper, and had provoked all sorts of hostility. The paper and the public affairs office had been swamped with calls condemning the drawing's supposed comparison of young Black men to laboratory rats.
Bewildered, I explained the intent of the cartoon: that it was, in part, a condemnation of the death penalty; that the "provocative" placement of the captions was a device to compare two sort of extremists, not to compare Black men and rats (did this really need explaining?); that it was an anti-racist cartoon, and that I had never imagined it would be interpreted otherwise. My friend in Arkansas was satisfied. He now had an explanation for the angry students organizing in protest.
A week later, I received a call from the editor of The Tulsa Collegian, the student newspaper at the University of Tulsa. Apaprently, my cartoon had provoked a storm of controversy over its arbitrary comparison of Black men and rats. A sit-in at The Collegian's offices was threatened; copies of the paper had been burned and race relations on campus had been set back considerably by my white supremacist views.
I once again explained the meaning of the cartoon, and swore to the purity of my intentions. I submitted to a brief interview concerning my views on the death penalty. This hopefully reassured my friends in Oklahoma that I respect Black people somewhat more than they thought.
The issue lay dormant until last December, when I became aware of a controversy at the nearby University of Lowell. My cartoon had run in the school paper, The Connector, and had provoked a now-familiar outcry. According to a front-page story in the February 12, 1991 Los Angeles Times, "black students didn't find the cartoon funny and neither did university officials... The editors found themselves facing university sanctions that included six months' probation and 30 hours of community service and removal from the newspaper's staff."
The story aptly noted that "campus humor can be a risky business these days."
In February, after consulting its attorneys, the University of Lowell announced that it would drop charges against the student editors. Apparently, the cartoon's racial insensitivity did not outweigh the students' right to publish as they saw fit. Or perhaps the administration just lost its nerve. In the current climate the Connector staff should greet this triumph of sound judgment with relief.
THIS IS NOT an isolated incident. Cartoonists are often criticized for the way they portray minorities. Even the most delicate cartoon on racial issues has the potential to offend someone. Newspaper readers do not often linger over subtleties of meaning in cartoons. The mere discussion of controversial issues, when met with the suspicion of racism, serves as a call to arms for many readers.
It has been said that to avoid a fight, one should avoid all discussion of race, religion and politics. Editorial cartoonists make their living discussing politics, and by discussing race and religion as politics. Racial attitudes especially loom large in our society as a fit subject for debate and an irresistible topic for satire. Yet cartoonists should proceed with caution.
The American media has a long and sad history of racist stereotyping. This legacy has left traditionally reviled groups--Blacks, Jews, occasionally Catholics and Muslims--understandably wary of the way they are characterized in the press. No group has been as routinely abused in print as American Blacks. No group has as much right to be wary of its image in caricature. In the highly charged atmosphere of today's campus politics, this may lead to complete misreading of cartoons. In my case, it did not matter that no Black person was actually portrayed in the drawing. The text was viewed as unflatering, and this served as the functional equivalent.
OTHER GROUPS have similarly misinterpreted my work. Several years ago, I drew some politicians for a community weekly in Manhattan. All the politicians are Jewish. All are reputable public servants, although none are raving beauties. Caricature is a malicious art, and I couldn't halp but note that one man was heavy-set, and that another had a terrible haircut. None of the cartoons had traditional elements of anti-Semitic caricature. Yet a letter to the editor condemned them as reminiscent of German cartoons from the Nazi era.
And last February, my Crimson cartoon condemning the Palestinian Liberation Organization's support for Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war solicited an angry letter to the editor. Its author accused me of "portraying them [the Palestinians] as two-faced hypocrites, demanding the annihilation of Israel in one instance and negotiating toward a two-state settlement in the next."
This was my point exactly, and I was impressed by such perceptiveness. Yet the letter went on to accuse me of insulting "all people in the region who are living under the threat of war and destruction," and, even worse, of promoting "the Orientalist attitudes of Western peoples who think they know the wishes and thoughts of the Arabs better than they do themselves."
Arabs are another group that has been wronged by the media. Since the 1973 oil embargo, their ancient civilization has been reduced to a caricature world of terrorists and greedy oil sheiks. Like Blacks, Arabs have earned the right to be sensitive. Yet the PLO is hardly beyond criticism; opposing their support for Saddam does not make me a sinister Orientalist any more than criticizing the death penalty makes me a white supremacist.
On the other hand, maybe I should avoid drawing about politics, race and religion. I'm already marked as a racist, anti-Semitic Orientalist, and I'm still waiting to hear from those death penalty and animal rights advocates.
Paul Tarr, a third-year Law School student, draws "TARR" for The Crimson.
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