Friday, 17 June 2011

Pomp and Circumstance

'tis the season! Or it was last month when I started writing this, anyways. Robes and mortarboards, friends and families gathered 'round, speeches and hors'douvres and farewell nights of revelry. It's a lovely time of year, and I'm especially sorry to be missing it now, with several beloved cousins and friends taking their well-earned, triumphal marches to their respective graduation podiums. (Instead, I sit here in my pajamas listening to the sounds of the year's first typhoon - spooky, humbling, and strangely comforting.) Sincerest congratulations to all those in Amherst, Oberlin, Brown, and elsewhere.

In honor of the occasion, here are some commencement-related readings:

The first is an article from the NY Times about American colleges and income inequality that prominently features recently ex-president of Amherst College Tony Marx. I sincerely hope that Amherst continues (and expands) the wise and generous policies that he championed, which allowed me and so many others to benefit from a great, horizon-widening education and graduate (relatively) unencumbered by debt. 

The other two are commencement speeches by two novelists, David Foster Wallace (a fellow Amherst alumnus!) and Jonathan Franzen. Both are certainly worth the five minutes it takes to get through them, and will hopefully be of interest even to those for not receiving diplomas this spring. I found them thoughtful in a sends-tingles-up-your-back kind of way. I read somewhere that Wallace's speech has actually been published in book form, one sentence per page. Silly to pay for what one can get for free, though.

I know that Wallace's speech has been in wide circulation for a while now, especially since his suicide three years ago, so it may not come as a revelation to many of you. Having just finished his mammoth novel Infinite Jest, though, I found myself rereading the speech and finding it just as interesting the second time around. His words on the effort it takes to go through one's daily life with presence of mind, not allowing familiar mental habits to cloud the immediacy and profundity of our existences, feel especially poignant in the (sometimes) grinding midst of the Japanese school year.

 At college, it sometimes seems as if sheer intellect holds the key to all life's great questions - that all problems will yield if one simply thinks hard enough about them, that humanity's most persistent quandaries simply await someone with the brilliance to break through them by sheer force of thought.  Infinite Jest both alerted me to this assumption I didn't know I still had and shattered it. One comes away from the book impressed by Wallace's singular, self-conscious brilliance. A man of both encyclopedic knowledge and vocabulary and the urgent need to show it off. There is real wisdom in that book, especially in some of the parts portraying the main character's struggle to overcome his addictions, but there are also large helpings of solipsism, nihilism, and fatalistic pessimism as well...

....But before I ramble on too much about the book, let me get to the point - Infinite Jest gives one the distinct impression of someone trapped inside their own head, struggling to control the internal cycles of their fears and neuroses. That Wallace could convey this so well leads me to think that he probably experienced a great deal of this himself. His speech addresses this issue head-on, showing his characteristically productive self-consciousness, and he sounds almost buddhist in his exhortations to mindfulness. That Wallace ultimately lost the battle against his inner demons (which apparently included debilitating clinical depression, among other things), only adds another, terribly sad and poignant note to the speech.

Franzen's speech is a fine example of what a friend of mine likes to call the luddite argument against our increasingly 'plugged-in' lifestyle. He means this disparagingly, saying that Franzen doesn't acknowledge the mutability of human connectedness, but I think the point stands: Facebook, iPhones, Twitter, etc. etc., abet our congenital human narcissism, that this impedes the love of things outside ourselves, and that, somewhat ironically, it is by giving ourselves over to people or causes beyond ourselves that we attain happiness and satisfaction for ourselves.

That Franzen would probably include this blog as a part of that love-killing technological apparatus is an irony that does not escape me.

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