Leland de la Durantaye on David Foster Wallace’s senior honors thesis and later 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, newly published in Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will:
Much of his address is thus advice on how not to get totally hosed, which is to say on how to be happy, which is to say, ethics. From Aristotle onward ethics has been about how not to get totally hosed — on the highest level. Learning this is the most desirable thing of all. It is what another great essayist of the twentieth century, Guy Davenport, called “the inviolable privacy” of the mind.
With this in mind:
[O]ur aim should be to see the world, to attend to everything that is the case around us. We should imagine our way into the lives those around us lead, to reflect on what wild contingencies led to our state and to theirs, to reason our way into their beliefs and imagine our way into their fears. To not get totally hosed is to see that the cashier in the consumer-hell-type situation has this soul-crushing job not because it is in the cashier’s character to have a crappy job, in the same way that Leibniz thought it was in Alexander’s character to conquer Darius and die by poison. It is not divine ordinance that has put things in these places. That this person has a dreadfully boring job while you might have an interesting one is not because that is the right and true order of things in this, the best of all possible worlds, but because of contingent, crooked reasons that no logic — formal, modal, or other — will straighten.
At dinner this evening, our server brought me pepper for my gnocchi and swiveled away before grinding some for my partner. Pfft, she said, pouting into the pasta. “What if she fell in love last night?” I looked across the table. “What if she just received a text, a call from her mother, her son, before she came to the table regarding some terrible thing?” I pointed out. Pepper was not the point. The point is to choose to be human.