A Pre-Reading Blabfest on This is Water by David Foster Wallace
Written by Gillian Ramos
I’m doing things differently this week, because why not? Usually, I pick a book and read it and figure out what I have to say about it. Today, I’d like to talk about a book I bought because I want to get something very specific out of reading it.
We all have something in our lives from which we draw strength or comfort, depending on what we need. For a long time, I relied heavily on Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of ten letters from German poet Rainer Maria Rilke to aspiring poet and military academy student Franz Xaver Kappus. In his letters, Rilke advises Kappus on all aspects of his inner life, from resolving the need to be a writer to falling in love without losing his mind. Not all of the advice was useful when I was 16, but I’ve read the book at least a dozen times and always find some new little nugget to keep in mind.
I still love the book dearly, but lately have felt like I need something else. Another point of view or a something completely new to chew on. Rilke excels in navigating one’s inner life and now that I’m an adult, at least chronologically, I feel like I need help with the external world. I find other people incredibly frustrating because I don’t feel like we really understand one another. Sometimes, I wonder which one of us is the Martian in Earthling’s clothes.
After a particularly dispiriting week at work and a string of grad school rejection letters, I indulged in some retail therapy. Some girls go for sparkly things, others go for shoes, I go for books. Not that there’s anything wrong with sparkly things and shoes, because I’ll gladly buy those, too. But there’s something I find deeply comforting about bringing new books into my collection – each one is a chance to see the world from another perspective, and I am desperate need of some perspective.
The following is an approximation of what ran through my head during this last purchase.
- It has been nearly 10 years since I first read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. The book was a gift from my high school history teacher. She was one of our class advisers, and my gosh, did I ever need advising. She thought the book would be useful to me for the same reason Rilke wrote the letters in the first place – because when the world around you sucks, you have to create a fulfilling inner life for yourself. In the inscription, she expressed her hopes that the book would serve as a useful guide as I continued to grow into a confident young woman.
- I was a hardcore diary-keeper when I was younger. I still love diaries as objects, but have fallen down on the task of actually keeping one (see also: my much neglected blog). I should get back into it (the diary-keeping; the blog…can be dealt with later) because I think that’s why I didn’t go completely crazy back then. How am I doing these days? Eh, I’ve been better.
- My relationship with myself at 25 is different from my relationship with myself at 16. As it should be. I try to reread Letters to a Young Poet once a year. I like to think that as I grow up, I’ll constantly find something new to take away from each new reading. It’s a ritual that has served me well in determining how I fit in the world. What helped me survive high school was Rilke’s belief that feeling like an outsider wasn’t some kind of cosmic punishment, but an opportunity to be an observer. I took that message to heart in a big way, keeping both a completely private paper diary and an online journal that let me interact with people on my own terms.
- In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave the commencement speech at Kenyon College. You can listen to it on YouTube (part 1, part 2). It was the only time he gave a speech about his personal views on life, etc. In 2009, the speech was printed in book form as This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life. I like that word, compassion. As Flannery O’Connor once said, it’s a word that sounds good on everyone’s tongue. Compassion requires engaging in the world around you. Like, completely and deliberately engaging. Without judging.
- Well, shit. Judgement and snark are cheap and easy (and fun). They’re basically the junk food of human behavior. And that’s fine when you’re a kid and no one expects you to be any better or smarter. Looking back, my history teacher didn’t just expect me to be those things, I think she assumed that I just was and that’s why growing up in a town where everyone had a reputation for being mean and self-centered was hard. Rilke was valuable for learning how to cope with the rest of the world, but I’m starting to feel like there’s a disconnect between his advice on solitude-without-unbearable-loneliness and the maddening buzz and business of the modern world. Letters to a Young Poet was written between 1903 and 1908, and while the needs of the individual have changed very little, society’s demands are vastly different.
- Clearly, I need a new approach. I’ve more or less made peace with myself over the years, minus the occasional episodes of crippling self-doubt and frustration. I’ve come to accept that they’re just part of the human experience. This is a good starting point. After listening to the Kenyon College speech in the car all week, I feel comfortable saying that part of compassion is recognizing that everyone has those days, too, and we have the power – if not the responsibility – to decide how we’re going to respond in those moments.
- In 2008, David Foster Wallace committed suicide. He was 46. His struggles with mental illness have been well documented and analyzed in the years since his death. I’ll leave the Googling to you.
- But this raises the question – why do I want life lessons from a guy who hanged himself? The short answer is that it’s not about the length of one’s life, but rather the intensity with which it was lived. It sounds like a dismissive answer and to an extent, I guess I want it to be one, because this is a tabloid little detail that shouldn’t make one bit of difference about the quality of Wallace’s advice. After all, a good many wise people are dead, and their advice is still relevant. The long answer is that I am so fucking tired of mental illness being talked about only as something a person overcomes so they can re-enter polite society. I have to wonder, if polite society requires us to be basically non-controversial, problem-free beings, maybe polite society is kinda bullshit? But that’s a question for another day.
- The truth is, I’ve read very little of of Wallace’s work up until now. This isn’t a matter of idolizing the guy even though I see no reason to argue with the general consensus that he was a genius. I wish I could come up with some meaningful, coherent response based on just the recording, but it would be so much more useful to separate the words from the occasion. To look at This is Water not just as an address during a ceremony, but as a set of genuinely held beliefs written down so that they may be of use to someone else. In a sense, that’s not so different from collecting five years’ worth of letters and publishing them in the hopes that they will guide some poor mixed-up kid into some manner of adulthood.
- So, we’ll see.