Cunningham was all right. I had read nothing of his except his most prestigious claim to fame. I enjoyed the book for its overlapping narrative and the intertextual connections to Virginia Wolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. In fact, I taught the book for a handful of semesters in my intro to fiction class. The book was good; Cunningham was all right—unremarkable. Honestly, with four years between then and now, not much of his talk sticks with me.
It’s funny how something so insignificant, so overlooked, can reach out of the past and tap you on the shoulder years later.
Until this day, I thought nothing of that night four years ago. It’s returned today, though, and it has nothing to do with Cunningham, or librarian small talk, or Illinois authors, or surprisingly good coffee. Rather the night has returned to me because through the fog of seemingly insignificant detail something has emerged. While clinking spoons and sipping coffee that night, and being mildly bothered by the elitist, arrogance of Michael Cunningham, my friend Eric made an offhand remark: “This is no ‘This Is Water.’” He told me about a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005 with the title “This Is Water.” Eric took a class under Wallace at Illinois State and seemed to have a special fondness for his work. I hadn’t heard of this talk, but because of Eric’s enthusiasm in mentioning this speech and Wallace, I told myself I’d look it up later. I never did, and four years went by.
Just recently, though, through surfing some random internet wave, I stumbling upon said speech and Eric’s small, offhand remark reached out of the past and tapped me on the shoulder once again . Here is David Foster Wallace’s speech “This Is Water.”
Wallace has a way of articulating a simple and terrible truth that I have been feeling for some time now but have not or could not quite put to words. He asserts that we must learn to override our default setting of being completely, utterly self-absorbed long enough to choose to see things differently. In discussing what he calls the cliché of a liberal arts education being about “learning how to think,” he suggests we look past the “lame and banal” platitude to consider the “great and terrible truth” that lies beneath. He reminds us that learning how to think really means “exercis[ing] some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious…” We get to choose what we pay attention to and how we “construct meaning from experience”—that is, if we can override our default setting of being the center of our own universe long enough to see things differently.
And I submit that this is what the real, no-shit 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.David Foster Wallace
Wallace strikes a beautiful balance in this piece between intellectual abstraction and the hard-hitting concrete detail of daily life. He pairs away the “rhetorical bullshit” and delivers his message with such urgency. It is not “fun and breezy,” but it is the truth.
In listening to the recording of the speech he delivered and in reading the text of the speech published by Little, Brown and Company, I am struck by a couple small but significant differences. As Wallace talks about the adage of the mind being “an excellent servant but a terrible master,” as he makes a reference to adults who commit suicide by shooting themselves in the head, and then asserts “most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger,” one can’t help but think of the circumstances of Wallace’s own death which would come by his own hand three years later. In his speech, Wallace says, “The capital-T truth is about life before death.” In the written manuscript alone, he adds, “It’s about making it to thirty, or maybe even fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.” For whatever reason, he chose to omit this latter line from his speech to the Kenyon graduates. Perhaps, in the moment, he found this line to be even too much capital-T truth for him.
Another small but remarkable difference between the speech and the written text comes right at the end. Early in the piece he conveys what he calls a “didactic little story” about a religious guy and an atheist talking about their divergent worldviews. He talks about how the atheist tried out religion when stuck in a blizzard. He prays to be saved, and then comes along a couple of Eskimos who guide him back to camp. Later, the atheist rejects the notion that this was some sort of divine intervention but was rather mere luck of circumstance. Wallace uses this story early in his talk to make a point about how we each individually will construct meaning differently based on our individual belief templates. Fair enough. The interesting addition at the end of the written piece, though, is when Wallace writes, “These Eskimos might be much more than they seem.” Interestingly, this addition (omitted from the spoken version) created a religious overtone, amplified given the emphasis of placement at the end of the piece.
Wallace talks about another truth towards the end of his speech: the truth that we all worshop. The only choice we have, he says, is what to worship. He speaks about the dangers of worshiping money, power, beauty, intellect, and so on. He tells us our culture would have us worship these things and give us “the freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.” But this is not real freedom.
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. This is real freedom.David Foster Wallace
I am glad that Eric’s offhand remark so many years ago led me to Wallace’s “This Is Water.” It has left an indelible mark on me. It reminds me that each day, I have the freedom to choose what to think and to create meaning from my experience. It reminds me of the work I have to do to remain aware of “what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain site.” To be present. To be mindful. To consider how infinitely small I am in the grand scheme of meaning, and yet to know I am not alone.