Monday, May 20, 2013

This Is Water

Sometimes a school is very lucky and this year a magnet high school in Nashville had Michelle Obama as its commencement speaker. Some graduate in the winter and have the dean of the Penn State College of Health and Human Development as their speaker. This year's speakers run the gamut from Oprah at Harvard University to the very lucky University of Virginia with Stephen Colbert. President Barack Obama spoke at Ohio State University and Morehouse College and will speak at the United States Naval Academy.

David Foster Wallace
Some commencement speeches are more memorable than others and one of the more memorable is a speech David Foster Wallace gave to Kenyon College in 2005. Known today by the final line the speech is a discussion of issues that literally consumed Wallace and at times reads like some macabre suicide letter. This is the first and last paragraph of the speech, a link to the full text follows. Three years after he gave this speech Wallace hung himself at the age of 46.

"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?"

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don't dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness - awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: "This is water, this is water.""

"This Is Water" by David Foster Wallace, text and video of full speech.

I first heard the speech years ago but recently a video interpretation of it went viral. The video, by audio-visual marketer The Glossary, only uses half of the speech and makes no note of Wallace's death. It just seems somehow wrong.

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