December 4, 2015

The Same Force that Made the Stars

I have my students listen to David Foster Wallace's, "This is Water" speech, the commencement address he gave to Kenyon College in 2005. It's a wonderful speech about the value of a liberal arts education, its ability to train the mind in awareness and imagination, and also the value of cultivating these qualities. After meticulously describing an ordinary trip to the grocery story in all of its horrible banality, Wallace makes this assertion:

If you really learn how to pay attention, then [...] it will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

This is lofty, even bathetic. And Wallace strikes a diminished, embarassed note after this moment of mania: "Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true." I love that. For me, Wallace is doing something very compelling here: he is presenting the absolute singularity and glory of the cosmos as an ordinariness, as a boring and even self-evident idea. For me, universal and enduring strangeness and contingent ordinariness are intimately associated, and in this speech we have a surprising moment where these qualities blur.