This is Water
In the wake of graduation season, there’s no time like the present to reflect on the brilliance of David Foster Wallace.
When I showed my parents this clip from David Foster Wallace’s now ubiquitous commencement speech, delivered in 2005 at Kenyon College, titled This is Water, they had no idea who he was.
I couldn’t judge them (and if you don’t know, I certainly won’t judge you either). Frankly, the only reason I am familiar with the prodigious writer is because my parents are the very people who afforded me the opportunity to earn the precise “fancy liberal arts education” that Foster Wallace mentions and re-mentions through the duration of his speech.
Underneath the YouTube clip of this video, which is a fairly new, highly produced short-film-esque version of the original speech, a small note reads “David Foster Wallace died tragically in 2008.” This, of course, prompted my mother to ask me the inevitable:
“You want me to take advice from a man who died tragically? How did he die anyway?”
“He hanged himself,” I explained, to which she shut her laptop and asked that we change the subject.
I tried to explain to her (and perhaps myself) that his suicide was an obvious testament to his clinical depression but perhaps even more importantly to his untrammeled awareness and understanding of life on earth.
I’m not sure that I should continue here — my cognition of suicide is rudimentary. Frankly, I hope that insight never has to forgo its current status. But my point is simply that the knowledge Foster Wallace has bequeathed me in various collections of his work: Consider the Lobster, Girl with The Curious Hair, and even the fragments of Infinite Jest that I have been able read, has never felt tainted by his death.
It had never even occurred to me that taking life advice, no matter how powerful, astute, otherworldly brilliant, from a man who effectively chose his own death, deliberately over life, might register discordant. Whether the messenger was capable of maintaining his own advice, harnessing the energy he emanates in his prose and essentially feeling the way many writers can’t–like after he’d let it all out, shared everything he could, and edited ad nauseaum, he wasn’t utterly empty–seems irrelevant when put up against whether we can accept the advice at face value.
When supposing “face value” in conjunction with advisement and the grand philosophical, non-platitudinous “meaning of life,” I think it’s in our best interest to assume that there is no other value option. There are no guarantees on earth and if we don’t function presently, consuming (which does not necessarily mean agreeing with) the utterances we’re offered as they come — without calculating what they might mature to mean because in the real-time-moment all that matters is their current meaning — we’ll be more comfortable people for it. Think about that and comfort and what comfort really means for a moment.
After watching the above video — which comes in the wake of graduation season — you should know that none of this means anything if you can’t take it for what it is: insight that millions of people have come upon, but that is catered to you and for you, igniting an evocative relationship indigenous to just yourself and the words.