Given the weirdly ambivalent best-friendship between Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, it’s sort of a strange choice to invite Franzen to give this year’s Kenyon College commencement address, the 2005 edition of which seems destined to be the essay of Wallace’s that stands in the popular imagination as a portrait of the man himself. (Not without reason. And if you haven’t read it, then maybe do that instead of continuing on with this somewhat small-minded blog post.)
Franzen’s essay is good, but I thought he made a mistake in one place:
If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).
Surely the joke is much stronger without Trump, or the parenthetical: “You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or running for president.” Then, instead of going for Leno-style yuks, he’s actually gently reminding the high-achieving students at a fancy liberal-arts college that an unreflective drive to achieve, and to win, is second cousin to corrosive melancholy. That would have been a good nod to Wallace. And it still would have gotten laughs, while gently turning the knife.
Instead, Franzen talks bird-spotting, reiterating the similar material in his much-discussed New Yorker piece on Wallace and solitude. This part didn’t sway me. Jonathan Franzen likes birds, we get it. Not all enthusiasms have a lesson to teach.