“This is Water.”


a speech


David Foster Wallace

(02/21/1962 — 09/12/2008).


Greetings and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005. 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?”

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story [“thing”] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but 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.

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about “teaching you how to think”. If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your scepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.'” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”

It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, 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. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

Turn to Page 2.

12 thoughts on ““This is Water.”

    • Wallace is such an amazing fucking writer, and on a personal level I feel like I understand the man. Based on the interviews I’ve read about him/all the things he wrote about himself, Wallace to me is like my long-lost older brother, from thought patterns to our mutual struggle with depression. I figure that’s the reason I react so strongly to his work, including this speech.

      R.I.P. David

      • I agree with you 1000%. He was truly, truly gifted in so many ways. Thus, he was also haunted (perhaps ignorance really IS bliss). I relate to his writing, interviews, speech and thought pattern, depth… I find that it takes one to know one in regards to my affinity and affection for DFW. I was so happy to find your post. Again, I read this speech often. In fact, I just posted another line from it on my Facebook this morning (one of my many posts that most of my “friends” do not understand). Take it easy. And thanks again 🙂

      • Talk about relating: “The persons we young fiction writers and assorted shut-ins most study, feel for, feel through are, by virtue of a genius for feigned unself-consciousness, fit to stand gazes. And we, trying desperately to be nonchalant, perspire creepily, on the subway.” E Unibus Pluram

      • It’s probably stupid of me to ask, but have you read Infinite Jest? I went through it a second time not too long ago and I caught much, much more — which I guess is true of ALL books, but I.J. in particular seems to have an endless supply of new riddles and hidden scenes. It reminds me of Ulysses: you could read it 1000 times and miss half the book each time. It’s fucking magic.

      • Yes, I’ve read it – it changed my life. Seriously. And yes, I want to read it again. I will read it again. I recently, and somewhat reluctantly, started D.T. Max’s biography. When I am done with that, I will probably read The Broom of the System (it makes me sad that I haven’t read it yet!). I am a voracious reader – I am also trying to work-in every author and book that D.F.W. ever loved – in addition to my own general reading list (my “Books to Read”).

      • Hahahaha, the infamous “To Read” list. I’ve got one a few pages long at the moment, but I’m tackling two right now: TEAM OF RIVALS (which is what the new Spielberg movie “Lincoln” is based on) and I’m finally starting to dig in to John Updike’s work, starting with RABBIT, RUN.


      • I love John Updike. Probably my favorite Updike is either A Month of Sundays or Couples. Two books at once…I TOTALLY relate! 🙂

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