This Is Water

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"This Is Water" is the title of a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College on May 21st, 2005. Wallace spoke about the benefits and uses of a liberal arts education, and touches on the same major themes he often writes about, including

  • The difficulty of actually living by the same clichés we find so banal
  • The importance of awareness
  • The fact that we all worship something, and that being a mature adult means deciding what to worship
  • What freedom really is
  • Overall, what it means to be human; and more importantly, a conscious, adult human

A full transcript of the speech can be found at http://www.marginalia.org/dfw_kenyon_commencement.html.

Selected quotes:

"if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning."
"And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out."
"The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing. "

The themes from This Is Water are deeply ingrained in nearly all of Wallace's fiction, particularly Infinite Jest.

Reception and Criticism

Tom Bissell's New York Times review