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This Is Water

David Foster Wallace on the difficulty – and importance – of living 'consciously, adultly, day in and day out.'

By Alicia J. Rouverol / April 14, 2009

When David Foster Wallace took his own life on Sept. 12, 2008, aftershocks reverberated throughout the literary world. Part genius, part literary icon, and large part social critic, Wallace drew the attention of readers and critics across the globe.

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Hailed as the new Thomas Pynchon – his magnum opus, “Infinite Jest,” was also compared to James Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Wallace’s fiction, short stories, and essays stand among the most important contemporary writing of the past two decades.

His work detailed the ridiculous and sublime, the human and spiritual, and the corporate and political (including higher education) – virtually all dimensions of the American social landscape – with critique, compassion, and dark humor.

This month his publisher is releasing This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, a reprint of the commencement speech Wallace delivered at Kenyon College in 2005.

In this slim volume, Wallace starts little but writes large. The parable he delivers sets out the scope and focus of his speech: Two young fish encounter “an older fish swimming the other way,” and the older fish asks, “How’s the water?” The young fish ask one another: “What the hell is water?”

Wallace claims he’s not “the wise old fish.” But clearly, for these college kids, he would seem to be just that. Water might seem at first blush to be daily life, and Wallace’s use of the word “hell” perhaps a harbinger of what’s to come for these young “fish.”

Wallace goes on to tell his listeners just what post-graduates can expect to encounter in daily life, on the other side of undergraduate education.

But first, he offers another “didactic little story,” that of the religious man and the atheist. The latter prays when lost in a blizzard and is saved by Eskimos. The religious man sees that as proof of God, but the atheist says, “No, man, all that was was that a couple of Eskimos just happened to come wandering by, and they showed me the way back to the camp.”

For Wallace, this represents, “Two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience.” Coming from a liberal arts education, he reminds us, we create no hierarchy between these two belief systems.

“Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief,” he writes, “nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad.”

The trouble, he adds, is that “[W}e also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from, meaning, where they come from inside the two guys.”
Construction of meaning becomes its own choice. Wallace heralds the tedium of daily life, the deadening nature of traffic, shopping, and working.


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