David Foster Wallace and “the terrible master”


“In 2004, [suicide] was the eleventh leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for 32,439 deaths.” (NIMH website).

Next time you look at a baseball stadium that holds approximately 5,000 people, imagine  6 of these stadiums filled with people – and that’s for 2004 alone.

In 2008, around the world, the number is closer to one million per year.[1]

I was sad to learn that David Foster Wallace committed suicide last Friday.

Quoting from Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon commencement address:

“Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea:

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.” (Kenyon commencement address 2005)

When talking about the “terrible master” Wallace was talking about the importance of metacognition. If you read the entire 2005 address you will note that his speech is focused on highlighting the importance of being aware of how and what you think and how important this is today. It was a warning, both to himself and others.

He is not as blunt as I am when I write that we need to move past the idea that thought is something that “happens to us” – something that is out of our control – or worse, the idea that thought (or our mind) is “our master”.

Well-worn clichés like the idea that the mind is a “terrible master”, tend to metastasize and become cultural truths that people believe without questioning.

I think it’s important to understand that these well-worn beliefs are not necessarily our beliefs – they don’t have to be – and in light of the NIMH 2004 statistic of over 32 thousand deaths – we may be facing a desperate need of re-thinking.

I don’t think that we need to worry so much about our mind being the terrible master – as much as the effect of the cultural belief system – the external mind – has on us. Sometimes our cultures dictate beliefs and truths that need re-thinking.

Quotes from Wallace’s Kenyon commencement address 2005

“…To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.”

“the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.”


[1] World Health Organization

Wikipedia: David Foster Wallace

The New York Times: David Foster Wallace, Influential Writer, Dies at 46

Times Online: Davis Foster Wallace commits suicide

LaTimes online: “David Foster Wallace: Idealistic Skeptic”

Highly Recommended Reading:

Kenyon commencement address 2005

Related in this blog

Has metacognition arrived in popular culture?


UCTV: (University of California Television): Part interview and part reading at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (embedded below)

Related Books

This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life by David Foster Wallace

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays


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