The Idea of Place

This week, our readings focused on the idea of “place.”  Oftentimes, when places are described in personal essays, they (the places) become a character themselves.  In a sense, places, or the description of a place, become an extension of the writer.  The way a writer chooses to describe a place often tells the reader what the writer is really thinking and cares about.  In other words, it seems as though you can tell a lot about a person by the way they describe a certain place.

Out of all the readings this week, I felt the best and most interesting example of this was David Foster Wallace’s “Shipping Out.”  The way he describes his cruise experience is very different than how most would describe it.  In his essay about his trip on the the m.v. Nadir, he describes “nearly lethal comfort” and the ship’s goal to “pamper you to death.”  He is overwhelmed by the perfectness of the ship and finds it nearly impossible to find a single flaw – this bothers him.  Instead of relaxing on the cruise, he is stressed.  For example, he describes his cabin cleaning as the “ultimate pampering stress.”  Every single time he leaves his room for longer than 30 minutes, he finds that it has mysteriously been cleaned.  He never once sees the room cleaner and this makes him uneasy about the invisible presence.  The wait staff are constantly trying to help him and do things for him, but he refuses.  He likes to carry his own tray and luggage.  Towards the end, after carefully studying the other guests and the interactions they have with the wait staff and natives of the islands they visit, he becomes overwhelmingly reminded that he’s an American.  He describes this trait as “unpleasant Americanness” – greedy, spoiled, self-absorbed, condescending, appearance-conscious, etc. Wallace realizes that the whole idea of cruise culture is somewhat obscene and in his last line, he says that “real-world life isn’t nearly as bad as a week of nothing had lead me to fear.”

Most people would describe a cruise as “relaxing” and “fun,” but Wallace looks at it abstractly and analyzes what comfort, relaxation and pampering really mean.  It can enjoyable, but it is generally at the expense of others (i.e. wait staff).  Going on a cruise is truly a luxury and he thinks about how being excessively pampered can be perceived as greedy, spoiled and self-absorbed.  The way he analyzes the cruise compared to the other travelers says a lot about what he cares about.  His descriptions of fellow travlers, wait staff, food, activities and his quarters, really give the reader of an understanding of what is really going through his mind.

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One Response to The Idea of Place

  1. What a great take on the essay! David Foster Wallace’s reaction and experiences on the cruise were not at all what a reader would expect, because as you said cruises are associated with enjoyment and relaxation. But Wallace realizes the deeper, insidious effects of decadent luxury. The luxury that people on a cruise experience are at the expense of the porters, crew, and waitstaff whose job is to treat them like like royalty. Wallace associates this kind of submission to decadence and self-indulgence to be indicative of greed, self-absorption and selfishness. I think that there is an even deeper meaning behind this analysis, however. Wallace in fact is trying to convey that self-indulgence is not only greedy, but it is also addictive–like a drug–and like a drug is never quite satisfied. Wallace condemns this passive pleasure, passive in that the recipient does nothing to merit this satisfaction–is used by cruises and luxurious/pampering businesses to keep clients coming back for more. It is harmful to the traditional American ideal of self-determination, merit, and pleasure derived from one’s own hard work, rather than hard work someone else has done. So Wallace is not just condemning self-indulgence because it is harmful to the individual, but also because it is deleterious to American morals and society as a whole.

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