This is Water

by Leandra Medine
May 17, 2013
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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.

REPLIES
  • kirbybee

    Foster Wallace’s words are so so right, so so right. And so is your interpretation.

    I don’t believe his suicide in any way lessons the importance and truth of what he said eight years ago. How can it? Death doesn’t negate your life, it doesn’t erase you or make you irrelevant. If anything it makes his words so much more relevant. I’m loath to make assumptions on another person’s life, or death, but perhaps his unconscious default setting to not make a choice, to feel trapped, shoulders some blame for his death.

    Life is about choices, even when we feel like we don’t have a choice. We have a choice to not feel that way, to not feel trapped or suffocated. We have a choice to be conscious, to be aware. It might be a simplistic way of looking at things, but it’s the way I see it.

    I’m getting a little emotional as I write this, so I’ll sign off before it gets messy.

    Thanks for posting this.

    • http://fashion4ever.pl/ Joanna Julia Sokołowska

      “Life is about choices, even when we feel like we don’t have a choice”
      So true!

  • http://twitter.com/RockandFiocc RockandFiocc

    best post ever!Brava Leandra

  • Lilli

    this was a beautiful enlightening video. Thank you

  • alcessa

    (am going to watch the video after work) Agreed! The reason we “are here”: to consume all the utterances we notice right now, at face value. And let them develop inside us, in a non-esoteric way: once we start thinking (=living), we add thoughts (and experiences and emotions) to our data base and lose control over the developments “down there” to an interesting degree, while things strive to build up a system or a chaos or other useful things. Which then enables us old or new or semi new perspectives later on. Which we have earned. And shouldn’t spoil by too much prejudice and to conformist thinking/reacting/feeling.

    What a post to write, Leandra :-) (let me just … wow … OK, see you)

  • http://www.facebook.com/DidiTooFresh Didi Ramirez

    He had good intention in the beginning of his speech. Wallace tried to come off as insightful and try to delve into the human experience by dissecting some of our most redundant moments in life, but it still was empty to the very end. There were some insightful moments and he organized it well but I’m not sure it was the right speech for a graduation.

    Leandra your mother’s comment was spot on. She is very wise.

  • Reptilia

    Great post Leandra! What you said is so truth!!

    http://www.justreptilia.com

    xx

  • Belén Cavas Hernández
  • Clara

    Thank you Leandra.

  • http://twitter.com/tenyrebecca Teny Rebecca

    Leandra, this is one of the best things you’ve written. I mean…

    “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 moment all that matters is what their current meaning, right now, we’ll be more comfortable people for it.”

    Yep, totally quoting you here — talk about meta!!

  • http://twitter.com/looksharpWI Look Sharp Sconnie

    A practice I first put into place in order to maintain sanity near annoying chewers (“maybe she’s dying and needs the food quickly to survive”),

    it has now infiltrated my everyday life and allowed me a new sort of patience and the ability to make friends in the most unlikely of places.

    • alicake

      Absolutely. Ever since I read this speech for the first time I have completely changed my outlook. We I was once quick to judge, now I see others as complex beings with entire inner worlds of their own, rather than as 2-dimensional extras posing as annoyances in my life. This, for me, was the most important takeaway from the speech, and it’s importance cannot be overstated.

  • Kayla

    I’m here to represent the Cashiers of America.
    I hate this video.
    Now all the business people during the rush are going to be like, “Ooooooh pooooor cashier woman…her life must be so much worse than mine. Listen to the sound of death in her voice. I shall be happy that my l life is not like her’s!”

    NAAAAH FUCK YOU! MY LIFE IS AMAZING.

    Whole Foods cashiers have it made, suckers.

    • Leandra Medine

      You are perfect.

    • The Dandy Diaries

      This video isn’t meant to target “The Cashiers of America”. Everyone gets bogged down by the routine of their life and work, whether you’re a cashier, doctor or in my case a professional broadway enthusiast a.k.a. unemployed. It’s simply saying “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”.

      :)

  • Ellinor
  • http://twitter.com/selenaaponte Selena Aponte

    Foster Wallace captures the true essence of modern day existentialism. Everyone & I mean everyone should listen and learn about the message he conveys clearly and ubiquitously. You need to cover these topics more often. This is my domain of study, so I’m all for it.

  • Sam

    Believing that suicide negates the wisdom of important and well chosen words is just a reflection of the ignorance and prejudice surrounding mental illness in our world.

  • Alicia

    Such an incredible mind. Thank you for sharing.

  • brunetteletters

    Such a great piece. Thanks for sharing

    Brunette Letters Blog

  • http://www.farandwildjewelry.com/ abigail lind

    as eckhart tolle put it, “life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. how do you know this is the experience you need? because this is the experience you are having at the moment.”

    abigail
    http://www.farandwildjewelry.com

  • http://www.ofstrangersensibilities.com/ Joy of Stranger Sensibilities

    i cant sum up DFW better in any other way. props to you!

  • Laura

    Great post, Love David Foster Wallace! I have to say when I read his work I often find myself flabbergasted by how insightful and brilliant he was; then his suicide immediately comes to mind and it makes me think perhaps I should take his words with a grain of salt. I agree with you; I’ve reached the same conclusion many times over and I invite anyone who also feels conflicted about marveling at the wisdom of someone who committed suicide to look back and consider if there was any instance they wished they had followed their own advice. The reason he comes across so convincingly enlightened in his work likely stems from his familiarity with dark mental and emotional landscapes, I don’t think it would be as powerful if it came from some fabricated scenario.

  • http://twitter.com/lisalisathom Lisa Thomson

    ‘Choice’ and ‘choosing’ how to think and how to interpret your situation in the moment is such a simple yet profound message. I’m one of the ignorants who has not heard of this writer and now I’ll be checking out his books you mention. Thanks for sharing this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alejandrina.losasso Angel Andrina

    simplemente, gracias. I´m a family physician and I´ve always tried to pass a similar message to my patients and pupils but this is the first time someone explains it to me in such a “simple” way. Esto es agua y tu blog es espanta hombres. :)

  • Tessa

    With graduation in a week, I need all the advice I can get. My thoughts on the walk to receiving my diploma will officially be, “This is water… This is water…”

  • alicake

    Leandra, Infinite Jest is the site most amazing thing I have ever read. Reading DFW takes patience (yes, you really should read all the footnotes, even the ones that are 4 pages long, because the gems are everywhere). In fact, I think I need to read it again, not because I’ve forgotten it (it has stayed with me in a very powerful way since I ad it, when it first came out) but because I was to relive those moments, relive DFW recounting them to me.
    I recommend D.T. Max’s excellent New Yorker article about DFW’s depression and suicide. It’s horrible to even try to imagine what he must have even going through, but also very enlightening. Depression is no joke, and for some people, suicide is the only way out. Calling people who have killed themselves cowards, or judging the lives they lived in light of their suicides, is seeing life with blinders on. Just exactly the kind of outlooks DFW is fighting against in his speech.

  • http://www.ourwonderlust.com/ Tina@OurWonderLust

    I love this video. My husband shared it with me last week. It’s difficult to keep that positive attitude throughout the day, as Wallace states, we are often “unconscious” moving through our life. This was a good reminder though and gives me a push to stay open.

  • William Bradford

    Thoughtful post. Jonathan Franzen, DFW’s close friend (as close as types like those can get), has a slightly darker interpretation of Wallace’s suicide: basically a demented way of saying “See, I told you I was a bad person.” Seems to me Wallace had problems with epistemological doubt, and that can get dangerous when you have doubts about your character, which all people do. Google New Yorker “Farther Away Robinson Crusoe, David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude” for more info.

    His writing changed my life too. He helped me see a hellish aerobics class as a medium for spiritual transcendence. I also made a pilgrimage to his papers at UT Austin. You might be interested in seeing my blog — I wrote about all that stuff there: http://www.themethodreader.com/tag/david-foster-wallace/

    • Leandra Medine

      Thank you for passing this along, William.

  • http://twitter.com/allure_blog Allure-Allure

    He was brilliant, and so are you.

  • The Dandy Diaries

    I consider this one of your most enjoyable reads, well done!

  • Simona Fiammisday

    So interesting and an amazing Video. A big bog kiss from Florence. Simona and Fiammetta

    http://www.fiammisday.com/

  • Paty

    Love your blog!

    I’m posting looks from Los Angeles and accessories:

    http://www.thegavlaks.com

  • hadley
  • Kyra Lentz

    Well said.

  • Greer Clarke

    This post is fantastic. A stunning, moving, perfectly-sized read. Enough of trying make bad break-ups sound deep, this is what good writing is.

  • A bit of a tangent

    I originally had the same reaction as your mother to Sylvia Plath’s suicide. I was struggling with depression when I read The Bell Jar for school. Despite the pain that Esther experiences, I felt that the end was uplifting and hopeful. To find out after reading the book that Plath committed suicide at first felt like a betrayal. I felt I couldn’t trust the uplifting ending. However, I quickly decided (possibly for the sake of my own sanity) that the hope she wrote about was real. I choose to believe that Plath wanted to leave the world with a message of hope rather than the continued depression she may have been experiencing.

  • Janeathan

    Thank you for an excellent post. I love and am well-read in David Foster Wallace’s work AND I am a Manrepeller addict too. I am glad to know we are together swimming in the same water.

  • Eliza

    Thank you for this post, Leandra. Simply true words. I love this. x

  • http://twitter.com/oxfordshoe Perry

    A mixture of my social-psychology course with social justice and peace studies course.

  • http://twitter.com/affecteepar Anna Guseva

    This is beautiful. Like that you`ve mentioned “fancy liberal arts education” .
    I am studying Art History and totally annoyed by “you`d better chosen biological engineering” comments.

    http://www.affecteepar.com

  • SEMIREPELLER

    This is rad; thank you

  • http://twitter.com/christamelonae c.

    my english teacher assigned this speech as a reading this year. It took me a while to appreciate DFW, but he’s great.

  • Sarah McCarron

    Leandra, this is a really wonderful post. So many artists, particularly great writers, feel so much from life. Consequently, we feel more alive when we read their work, regardless of whether their lives ended in suicide or not. David Foster Wallace is strongly associated in my mind with Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. Certainly your mother wouldn’t object to a commencement speech made by Virginia Woolf? What about Hunter S. Thompson or Hemingway? These people arguably lived and felt a lot more than most of us ever will.

  • Aliké

    Sooooo, Ms. Leandra, do you talk the way you write? I can only imagine what a conversation, in person, with you may be like! God help us! No judgement, either way. At worst, it’s really just a taunt at my own verbal proclivities. Just when you think you’re actually smart, there’s always someone else who is… (you can come to your own conclusions). Mad Libs anyone???

    Any-whoot, I love your blog – it’s photos, videos, musings – no matter how (overly) articulate.

    If nothing else, know that you keep me coming back for more, knowing that I will have to open up the pre-installed ibook dictionary app, or that I mya have to re-read a sentence, or paragraph. You portray your life vividly!

  • Sophie

    This is like, the BEST POST EVER! Thank you thank you thank you leandra!

    View my blog:

    http://thecallagirl.wordpress.com

  • Gaby D.

    though i appreciate your insight into his speech and reflection on what it was that mr. wallace was grasping at, i don’t agree with your thoughts on there being “no other value option.” if we do accept things as “face value,” failing to dig below the surface and subsequently evoking emotions and ideas in us that would otherwise have been superficially brushed upon, this leads us to a rather shallow existence. one that does not question, intellectualize, nor reflect on what it is that we are actively “consuming.” in the end, however, i guess this coincides with whether one would rather live a life of comfortable consumption or one of painstaking philosophizing on how, what, or why it is that we are consuming to begin with.

  • zoe_whip

    Bravo for this post. Not many bloggers would take a break from the norm to put out such an important message but then I shouldn’t be surprised, Leandra. This blog is offbeat (in a great way). Watching the video made me quite emotional. I will be seeking more reading from DFW. Thank you.

  • Joel Harris

    Himalayan goose bumps through the whole thing.

    And admitting the fact that I may have misread your own meaning in parts of the above, I would still say the messenger in question did, in fact, take his own advice (by /choosing/ to take his own life, which, frankly is a real human option; Hunter S. Thompson did it, too…just a bit later in life, and perhaps for similar reasons, I have no clue, really. But good on them both if that’s what they most desired). This isn’t to say that I’m an ardent supporter of that option by any means, but it is to say that I recognize it as such.

    Anyway, I’m stopping cause I’ll go off on a hideous metaphysical jaunt if I don’t and that would not only be a real chore to read/endure but it would also spoil my main point which is that I found the fragment that you shared, from Mr. Wallace’s speech, to be sublimely beautiful and inspiring (I also really liked the design work from the video production cast and team, very excellent).

    Thanks for that…

  • mascootz

    Too bad the DFW literary trust chose to take this wonderful video down. Fortunately I was able to download it and I watch it every morning before work. Its very inspiring and it definitely has made me a better person and employee. Shame on Bonnie Nadel, Wallace’s literary agent, and the Hachette publishing group for not supporting this wonderful video of their clients work, Wow what idiots they are to miss an opportunity to draw attention to his work. Free advertising like this is worth much more than a hand full of mean spirited dollars they could have earned from the copy-write fee. I will not buy another book from that group thats for sure. I hope everyone stands up and calls these greedy people for what they are. Its easy to look up Hachette group’s web site and google David Wallace’s literary trust. You can send bonnie nadel an email and let her know what a greedy person she seems to be. Obviously she does’nt read what Wallace has said in his writings. If she did there is no way she would have taken this action.