Raw, adjective: 5. crude in quality or character; not tempered or refined by art or taste: raw humor.
There are two things in my life that, were I to die tomorrow, I would be proud to say I have never, ever, ever done. Those are, in no particular order:
1. Had a mani-pedi
2. Gone on a cruise ship vacation
Re: 1. I have no desire to ever have some small Asian woman sit at my feet and shape my toenails, or, alternately, file my fingernails. Something about this reeks of servility and class war and patronizing, disgusting affluence. And it makes me curl up in disgust.
Re: 2. Likewise the cruise experience. I have no desire to ever spend a vast amount of money traveling with other annoying and loud American tourists wearing floral print Tommy Bahama shirts and ill-fitting shorts traversing the wild open seas on a floating juggernaut spewing pollution into the water in which the whole course of the week is all about how much you can eat, drink, spend, sleep, and consume. No no no never no never no.
So, that said: in spite of the mountain of work that is due, oh, right about now, I sat down the other day to revisit David Foster Wallace's famous Harper's essay, "Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise." You might also know it as "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again."
Harper's recently made all of DFW's work available in PDF on its website, in memoriam, and you owe yourselves a few good hours snuggling up with your laptop while you traipse through his alternately hilarious and heart-breaking worldview. "Shipping Out" alone is enough to make a morning.
See, the thing about DFW was, he had this capacity for darkness. A darkness I'm sure we're too painfully aware of now, in the wake of his suicide last weekend. But there's something about this capacity, this awareness of despair, that I very much love. I like it in people, this propensity for darkness; it feels honest. I don't wholly trust, or find much interest in, people who don't carry a hint of it. And DFW's despair, his self-identification as a "semi-agoraphobe," his snarky and sometimes shattering ability to see past the contrivedly Bright and Cheery and Sunshiny world of the luxury cruise, draws me near to him, even in death.
"Shipping Out" is a great introduction to his work. Wallace starts out with The Darkness early, writing that "there's something about a mass-market luxury cruise that's unbearably sad," chronicling the ways in which he feels despair at the vast bodily decay, the desperate sense of avoiding mortality, the "drowning-out" of the death-dread inherent to the whole cruising-boozing-touristing experience.
DFW footnotes frustratedly about the phenomenon of "the Professional Smile," his terror at observing the bovinity of American tourists "waddling into poverty-stricken ports in expensive sandals," and the ways in which, on this supposedly idyllic cruise, "whatever I do, I cannot escape my own essential and newly unpleasant Americanness." He closes with a haunting description of a disinterested hypnotist and his willing subjects that forces DFW into his cabin for the final day at sea, "feeling a little bit dulled but mostly good."
Maybe I loved the essay so much because it thrums with this underlying current of that question that seems to inform so many of my own academic and spiritual and social interests: the wondering, "What is enough??" What is enough wanting, what is enough luxury, what is enough rest, what is enough play, what is enough "pampering" (to use DFW's word), what is enough affluence, what is enough youth, what is enough prosperity.
This question of insatiability, this very Buddhist awareness of "the homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction," the ways in which we simply adjust our desires such that the fluffy towels in our deck-view cruise cabin go from being initially luxurious to not-fluffy-enough in the course of one solo week. The universality of craving, of clinging, of desperate searching for more, better, enough. This is the heart of this essay. And perhaps the reason I feel so drawn to DFW's sad final chapter of his own life.
Do read it. And check out the other archives, linked above. You'll laugh - often, and well.
Shipping Out (Harpers)