"The ads promise that you will be able—finally, for once—truly to relax and have a good time, because you will have no choice but to have a good time.” — David Foster Wallace
“In the cruise brochure’s ads, you are excused from doing the work of constructing the fantasy. The ads do it for you. The ads, therefore, don’t flatter your adult agency, or even ignore it—they supplant it… The ads promise that you will be able—finally, for once—truly to relax and have a good time, because you will have no choice but to have a good time.”
From “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” by David Foster Wallace
Row, row, row your boat…
One of David Foster Wallace’s most famous essays is his ninety-six-page phenomenological account of life aboard a seven-night luxury cruise. The very title, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (originally titled "Shipping Out" in Harper's, 1996) broadcasts that Wallace is clearly no fan of cruises, but we would be mistaken if we read this piece as simply, or even primarily, about the experience of cruising. Because what really concerns Wallace is the thought that the ways we think of life on the ship have become the ways that we think of life off the ship.
"... reentry into the stresses and demands of quotidian landlocked real-world life wasn't nearly as bad as a week of absolutely nothing had led me to fear."
Gently Down the Stream…
There are many aspects of life on the ship that Wallace suggests will tell us something about the problems of life in general—the exploitative dependency of consumers upon employees, the way in which ever-increasing choices and options create the conditions of anxiety.
Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily…
But Wallace’s biggest concern is how we abdicate our agency by accepting the ship’s utterly shallow constraints and what looks like a myriad of possibilities. So many possibilities, in fact, that we might feel a deep anxiety at the prospect of not being able to try enough of them. These “possibilities” are in fact small variations within a severely curtailed vision of human agency. Life on the ship, and we can infer, life on land, is organized around two ways of orienting and exercising our agency: self-improvement and self-enjoyment.
Life Is But a Dream…
And all of the ship’s options and activities boil down to either self-improvement or self-enjoyment. In the dream of finding happiness on a pleasure cruise, it’s worth asking the question: Is this all that life on or off the boat really amounts to? Becoming better or becoming satisfied?
Over and over again in the essay, Wallace asks, “Is this enough?”
“At the time,” he writes, “it didn’t feel like enough."