David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon commencement speech


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The Wall Street Journal has printed the speech David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College’s commencement in 2005. Widely circulated in a transcribed form, this version has cleared up previously garbled portions of his address.

The speech was notable for its grim portrayal of graduates’ future lives. ‘There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches,’ Wallace said. ‘One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.’ He goes on to describe a post-work visit to the grocery store, with all its little angers and resentments.


But he reaches for a kind of grace, a grace in attention to others, to the world outside ‘our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms.’

... there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.

It is easy to over-read the possible connections between a speech delivered three years ago and David Foster Wallace’s recent death. But in the speech he did speak of suicide, more than once; he did reveal a distaste for the ‘ ‘rat-race’ — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.’ If there is some hope in his speech, there is also sadness, a feeling that being alive is a responsibility, and a difficult one at that.

It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: ‘This is water, this is water.’ It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.

— Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: Eric Chu