"Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.
This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger."
-- David Foster Wallace, in a 2005 speech to Kenyon College
I was shocked to hear on NPR last night that David Foster Wallace passed away from an apparent suicide. DFW was one of my favorite contemporary writers and he was, and this is not hyperbole, a fucking genius. Within reading the first four sentences of any book or essay he wrote I felt like an illiterate imbecile. The way he structured sentences and argument was absolute artistry, sometimes complex and difficult to work through, but artistry nonetheless. But what set DFW apart was his humor. Even when tackling the most intense, dark, moody subject matter, the guy was hilarious.
What kind of world do we live in that we couldn't keep this guy alive? I'm heartbroken.
This is a loss to the tennis world as well because DFW was a big tennis fan. He played competitively (and was quite good) when he was young and remained a fan through adulthood. In 2006 he wrote a famous piece for the New York Times called "Federer as Religious Experience". Here is a choice excerpt:
A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.
One thing it is not is televisable. At least not entirely. TV tennis has its advantages, but these advantages have disadvantages, and chief among them is a certain illusion of intimacy. Television’s slow-mo replays, its close-ups and graphics, all so privilege viewers that we’re not even aware of how much is lost in broadcast. And a large part of what’s lost is the sheer physicality of top tennis, a sense of the speeds at which the ball is moving and the players are reacting. This loss is simple to explain. TV’s priority, during a point, is coverage of the whole court, a comprehensive view, so that viewers can see both players and the overall geometry of the exchange. Television therefore chooses a specular vantage that is overhead and behind one baseline. You, the viewer, are above and looking down from behind the court. This perspective, as any art student will tell you, “foreshortens” the court. Real tennis, after all, is three-dimensional, but a TV screen’s image is only 2-D. The dimension that’s lost (or rather distorted) on the screen is the real court’s length, the 78 feet between baselines; and the speed with which the ball traverses this length is a shot’s pace, which on TV is obscured, and in person is fearsome to behold. That may sound abstract or overblown, in which case by all means go in person to some professional tournament — especially to the outer courts in early rounds, where you can sit 20 feet from the sideline — and sample the difference for yourself. If you’ve watched tennis only on television, you simply have no idea how hard these pros are hitting the ball, how fast the ball is moving,how little time the players have to get to it, and how quickly they’re able to move and rotate and strike and recover. And none are faster, or more deceptively effortless about it, than Roger Federer.
Seriously, people. If you haven't ever read DFW please take the time to give him a try. Pick up A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again (for his famous essay on his experience on a cruise ship), Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, or if you're feeling ambitious, Infinite Jest. The essays are interesting, well-reasoned, and beautifully argued. The stories are just so vivid and carefully told. Fantastic stuff. And I promise you you will never look at a footnote the same way again.
RIP, DFW. Rest assured, you moved us all.