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DF Wallace said, ‘This is Water’

  • Published at 06:36 pm October 13th, 2021
DF Wallace
A sketchnote of DF Wallace's commencement address. Drawing by Stefan Imhoff

Personal essay

David Foster Wallace Died on September 12 in 2008. It’s been thirteen years. 

Three years before his death, at Kenyon College, he was invited to give the commencement address to the graduating class of 2005, who all received a liberal arts education. He started with a story.

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

It was not some “banal platitude” that David Foster Wallace was going for, he was pointing out how sometimes the most obvious realities are the hardest to see and talk about. It is really astonishing how underrated the obviousness of our shared realities is. In his address, he didn’t make up cliches, parables, or myths to form a sense of false optimism that relies on hyperbole or abstract nonsense. In his words, these are the naked truths of our existence told with “a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away.”

When he talked about an average American adult day, I imagine at that time, in 2005, our country still had time left, and didn’t fully awaken to the rush of life that the free market and the mouth-watering capitalism promises to bring. Back then I was a kid in the afternoon reading the wondrous tales of Professor Shonku. I had time left. But now, as the world is becoming eerily identical and Americanized, when Wallace speaks through my mind, I can easily see myself as that average American person. I’ve been to those “hideously, fluorescently lit” supermarkets with corporate Muzak, my groceries in the “creepy flimsy plastic bags,” everybody in the world standing in my way whether I am stuck in traffic or the long checkout lines, watching how nonhuman everybody looks. The growing rage inside me shouting in silence, boiling over how personal and deeply unfair this is!

David Foster Wallace talked about our collective ease and automatic response to those average days, the days that consist most of our lives, recycling the same boredom, routines and petty frustrations. Where we spew over our mundane miseries and blame others in a way that doesn't have to come from a choice. Because we are not even aware enough to give ourselves a choice, we are arrogantly assured what the reality is, and who and what is important. And we must have to be at the absolute centre of the universe. Every experience is our own, so “immediate, urgent, real.”

Watch: This Is Water by David Foster Wallace Full Speech

I too received a liberal arts education and learned very little while I was at the university. The classes were more similar to the checkout lines in a way that I cringe every time I think about them. Not just because the process of learning and interacting with fellow students were so banal, but because my response to that was exactly what Wallace was talking about. In a truer sense, he talked about liberal arts education as something having actual human value instead of just material pay-off, which is a far-off dream from where I stand. It is supposed to teach one how to think and not what to think. But he added, like most things obvious, the dubious importance of what to think loses its much-deserved urgency.

Constructing meaning from experience is as diverse as people are, and we leave what to think to our immediate responses, which, it should be admitted, are reckless. Most of us go about life with views and notions automatically absorbed from the culture. Despite the comfort of slipping into the default settings of our brains, Wallace said, we can walk towards a personal choice and identify our arrogance and blind certainty, and grow more susceptible to love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down in the day-to-day trenches of adult life.

“There is no such thing as atheism, and everybody worships,” he said. Be it money, things, beauty, power, intellect, all the things that’ll never be enough to make us whole. We want to be the lords of our “tiny skull-sized kingdom” and as a result, oftentimes we miss the universe that awaits. We can be aware of our choices or we can join the rat race, “the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost some infinite thing.” So the true purpose of teaching is, he said, “to be just a little less arrogant”—where we don’t operate from the default settings, and consciously choose what meaning we are going to create. This is not about religion, morality and dogma; nor is it about acquiring virtue. It’s all about trying to get out of our default, hard-wired setting, learning how to exercise some control over how and what to think.

The value of a real education has “nothing to do with knowledge”, but everything to do with “simple awareness”. Also, it is not about some abstract intellectual argument or getting lost in one's head. It is about choosing what one pays attention to. He quoted the lines about the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master. He talked about suicide and how almost all the people in the USA commit suicide by bringing a gun to their head. They shoot the terrible master. But the truth is: in this dazed world of tediousness and traffic jams, with the jobs that we hate, people that we loathe, they are dead long before they pull the trigger. Wallace was talking about the life before death with the kind of honesty that is rare in this adult world.

It always makes me a little sick seeing how in popular culture the struggles writers go through are romanticised, especially their suicides. Yes, Wallace committed suicide, but I’ll try some of that conscious choice-making he was talking about, and think about his life instead, where he fought hard. He fought hard against the world that was and still is reactionary, his life where he wrestled against his own mind and the darkness it conjured up even on the sunniest of days. This address of his got published in book form by Little, Brown and Company in 2009, a year after.

He finished his address saying it commences now, the education that is really the job of a lifetime. So when I get stuck in this loop of both self-loathing and narcissism, hating the other nonhuman figures blocking my way, ruining my day, I try to remember this address of his, and the purpose of true education. I try to stay conscious in this adult world. I try to grasp that something which is more truthful than my mind. I know he said after telling the story at the beginning, that he was not the wise old fish, and that it was not a sermon he was giving; I know he was probably saying it to himself too. But whenever I am overwhelmed with my life, like a line from a scripture I whisper under my breath, “This is water.”

Sumaya Mashrufa is Staff Writer, Dhaka Tribune.

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