As details emerge about The Pale King, it’s becoming clear that the 2005 commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College is something of a bridge between Infinite Jest and his final, unfinished novel. Michael Piesch, Wallace’s editor, goes so far as to call “This Is Water” (as the commencement speech is commonly known) “very much a distillation” of The Pale King’s major motifs.
But if you look closely, you can see a lot of Jest in that commencement speech as well. Take, for instance, Wallace’s repeated references to our “default settings”:
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth…
Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.
Don Gately reminded me of this quotation, around the time he reverted to his default setting and beat the holy living shit out of them wayward partygoers.
Gately had been portrayed so sympathetically that his abrupt reversion to type feels almost like a betrayal. And in any other novel the transformation would have been shocking. But so much of Infinite Jest (as with nearly everything Wallace wrote) is about our perpetual war with our default settings, that it’s unsurprising that his characters lose a battle once in a while.
And this was not the first time I noticed the “default settings” undercurrent in Infinite Jest. The Eschaton set piece, in particular, struck me as something of an elaborate analogy for civilization’s struggle against primacy. Here stand dozens of teens in close proximity, armed with buckets of denuded tennis balls, playing at negotiation and diplomacy. But you know those tennis balls are eventually going to fly. There’s never any doubt. The reams of rules and elegant complexity and Extreme Value Theorem can stave off the descent into mayhem for a while, but cannot hold it back forever.
Of course the kids really have no incentive not to start lobbing warheads, and one gets the sense that Armageddon is the unspoken point of Eschaton. But in real life the consequences of surrender are considerably more dire (as Gately is presumably going to learn). Wallace makes it clear that the struggle against our genetic heritage–against territorialism and aggression and intoxication and passivity– isn’t easy. But he at least seems to believe that it is possible, if only barely.
And he clearly thinks that it’s something worth fighting for. Perhaps the only thing worth fighting for.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
Hooked: During the roundtable I confessed that, while I enjoy the novel and love reading Wallace’s writing, “I don’t find the narrative to be particularly engrossing”. That is no longer true: I am now dying to know what is going to happen to Gately after his startling metamorphosis. Will he be forced to drift from town to town, letting the world think that he is dead until he can find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within him?
The Stars Are Right: Also during that roundtable, I predicted that the Bostons of H. P. Lovecraft and David Foster Wallace would eventually intersect. And:
‘But on this one afternoon, the fan’s vibration combined with some certain set of notes I was practicing on the violin, and the two vibrations set up a resonance that made something happen in my head … As the two vibrations combined, it was as if a large dark billowing shape came billowing out of some corner of my mind. I can be no more precise than to say large, dark, shape, and billowing, what came flapping out of some backwater of my psyche I not had the slightest inkling was there.”
Yeah, well, called that one.
Lost and Profound: I’m slightly behind because I somehow managed to misplace my copy of Infinite Jest. I’m going to wear a button that says, “I Lost 12 Pounds–Ask Me How!”