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.
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.
The point, he writes, is that the “petty, frustrating” aspects of life are “exactly where the work of choosing comes in.”
Wallace, too, makes choices as a writer here and in all his work: He takes the mundane and torques it so that we see it differently. Witness the “fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady in the checkout line,” and the narrative he spins about the possible, more compassionate, scenarios of her life. We get to “choose” how we see her: “it just depends on what you want to consider.”
The point of a liberal arts education isn’t about learning to think but rather what we think about. There’s no such thing as an atheist in our culture, Wallace tells us, because, “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
He lauds choosing “some sort of god or a spiritual-type thing;” because “pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”
It is nearly impossible to read this volume without thinking of Wallace’s life trajectory and his struggle to get past his own “default setting.” He reflects on the challenge of “making it to thirty, or maybe even fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.” Irony threads throughout Wallace’s best work, but this unpremeditated irony is painful to read.
Still, there is much here to inspire: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. That is being taught how to think.”
We read Wallace because he forces us to think. He makes us consider what’s beneath us and around us – like water.
Wallace himself might have had a different response to publication of this book. He might well have been troubled by the recasting of his essay into pithy statements packaged by the corporate publishing world. He most likely would have written long sentences about it, using multiple hyphens and commas and hyperbole to make his point in protest.
But whatever his feelings might have been, this slender book delivers Wallace’s message quite powerfully.
The real value of a liberal arts education, he is telling us, is that it increases our awareness of what is real – a reality that is ubiquitous yet also “so hidden.” That’s what Wallace means by water.
“ ‘These Eskimos might be much more than they seem,’ ” he adds, not as a footnote but within the body of the text. How we choose to view those Eskimos too is our choice. “Your education really is the job of a lifetime,” Wallace concludes, fully acknowledging the cliché. “And it commences – now.”
As a manual for a living “consciously, adultly, day in and day out,” “This Is Water” is a tribute to David Foster Wallace’s own compassionate life.