In a piece this week discussing the secular sainthood of David Foster Wallace, New York’s Christian Lorentzen makes a few observations about that Kenyon College commencement speech which helped so much to advance the campaign for Bandana Man’s cultural canonization.
Wallace apologizes at the start for delivering “banal platitudes,” then asserts their “life or death” importance as he delivers a message about overcoming self-centeredness. It’s all breathtakingly obvious, as Wallace keeps pointing out. And then he gets to an example of one of the adult challenges this virtuous thinking will help you overcome: an unpleasant after-work trip to the grocery store. “And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cowlike and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.” The horror! Perhaps I’m an outlier, but I’ve mostly enjoyed my visits to grocery stores over the years. In any event, it strikes me that there are more difficult things about adulthood than navigating the express-check-out line, and more that it demands of us than overcoming self-centeredness and reflexive sourness. What Wallace describes as a universal rite of passage into maturity seems more to me like the daily struggles of a serious depressive, which he was.
Now I am perhaps not the most cheerful and life-loving fellow trudging through God’s great green earth, so maybe I am wrong to take exception here, but is this really a reaction confined to those who are always a little sad about things? Do the rest of you actually stand on line at the bodega behind a bunch of your fellow shoppers and think, “How wonderful everything is!”? Is it truly possible that the general state of the species is to float through even the most banal of circumstances untroubled by minor annoyances? Let’s not go so far as to discuss whether you are able to get through a transaction at an automated teller machine without somehow secretly intuiting the sorrow and loneliness and lack of hope that hurts the hearts of everyone else around you — I realize that magic power of tragic transference is a special gift only few of us have been chosen to live with. All I want to know is if everyone else is really having a good time in our nation’s checkout lines. Because maybe that explains why none of you seem in any particular hurry to have your money or cards ready to go when your turn finally comes with the cashier. Sweet Christ, it’s like you’ve got the rest of your lives to bathe in that bad lighting next to the snack cake display and you’re pleased as punch to spend that time with the rest of us, regardless of what we’re trying desperately to rush off to. Or maybe you’re just so dispirited by the idea of going back your empty, loveless hole of heartbreak that you want to prolong the few seconds of contact you have with any other human being? God, I’m crying just thinking about it.