Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, June 2, 2011

commencements

Interesting to see both Jonathan Franzen and David Brooks speaking to and about college graduates in ways that suggest an attempt to channel David Foster Wallace’s great Kenyon commencement speech — Brooks in substance only, Franzen in substance and tone alike.

Neither of them work very well. Brooks’s essay, while thoughtful and even wise, comes off as a bit hectoring; Franzen just seems self-absorbed. Ancient rhetorical theory — Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, for example — said that a speaker may persuade by the employment of logos (reasoning), pathos (emotional appeal), and ethos (his or her own personal character). Of the three, ethos is the most mysterious and the least teachable. Wallace had an extraordinary ability, in his written prose but also perhaps in his speech, to be passionately earnest in ways that make people sit up and pay attention — to feel almost cared for, as though words from this person addressed to them are honoring them somehow. It’s hard to explain. But Wallace had it (has it) and Brooks and Franzen don’t.

A commencement speech is an utterly false thing, in that no one is really there to hear a speech: I’m sure Wallace’s address at Kenyon had little or no impact on the vast majority of those who heard it when it was delivered. But here are a few thoughts from Kenyon graduates in the class to whom Wallace spoke. My suspicion is that some of these comments would have been quite different if they had been asked about the speech before it became famous, but I especially like this one: “The one emotion I remember is intensity: he was clear, driving, and inwardly focused. He also didn’t say anything dismissively. Whether it was his technique or his real feeling I have no idea, but he read the speech like he was passing on a message of importance. Sitting here, I picture a guy at a radio in a bunker intercepting a message, then reading it off to someone else, wasting no time and enunciating every syllable.”

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