A Complete Privilege

David Foster Wallace, a great essayist and critic himself, once visited Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to try to get at why they were so effective. He pointed out that during the meetings people passed around bromides and platitudes to encourage each other and build each other up. But, he said with evident surprise, it worked.

Or, as he expressed it in his commencement address to the Kenyon 2005 graduating class,

The fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.

I’ve thought about this a lot lately, for many reasons. For one, I have three children in college now, so each of them is in the company of people who advance in their fields only by discovering something new, or stating something in a new way, and in outsmarting those around them. There is no room in a college paper for the “banal platitude.” As so many college students do, and as Caliban did in Shakespeare’s Tempest, they are probably “learning to curse,” or at least being taught to do so. More surely, they are being taught how to treat others with contempt, especially others who haven’t been to college.

I value the works of the intellect. I love to read Shakespeare as much as I love to do almost anything else. Let me climb one step in Dante’s Purgatorio, not to speak of flying one orbit in the Paradiso, and my mind can feed on the joy for a week.

But I hate when I find myself thinking I have attained something by reading Dante or Shakespeare. The only good of great literature that is sufficient in itself is when it increases the capacity of our souls to love. It has many other goods, but when we place any other of them above the that one only good, the others are corrupted and corrupting. Literary criticism and literature itself – indeed, all the arts, disintegrate when they are severed from love.

And that, my dear reader, is a banal platitude.

May God deliver me from ever doing anything original. May He simply give me eyes to weep when I see what should be wept over.

Like this, which I know you have already seen, but to which I can add nothing:

Well, I guess I can add this:

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