David Foster Wallace’s Famous Commencement Speech “This is Water” Visualized in a Short Film

David Fos­ter Wal­lace was a hyper-anx­ious chron­i­cler of the minute details of a cer­tain kind of upper-mid­dle-class Amer­i­can life. In his hands, it took on some­times lumi­nous, some­times jaun­diced qual­i­ties. Wal­lace was also some­thing of a meta­physi­cian: reflec­tive teacher, wise-beyond-his-years thinker, and (trag­i­cal­ly in hind­sight) quite self-dep­re­cat­ing lit­er­ary super­star. In the lat­ter capac­i­ty, he was often called on to per­form the duties of a docent, admin­is­ter­ing com­mence­ment speech­es, for exam­ple, which he did for the grad­u­at­ing class of Keny­on in 2005.

He began with a sto­ry: two young fish meet an old­er fish, who asks them “How’s the water?” The younger fish look at each oth­er and say, “What the hell is water?” Fos­ter Wal­lace explains the sto­ry this way:

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.

Fos­ter Wal­lace acknowl­edges that the anec­dote is a cliché of the genre of com­mence­ment speech­es. He fol­lows it up by chal­leng­ing, then re-affirm­ing, anoth­er cliché: that the pur­pose of a lib­er­al arts edu­ca­tion is to “teach you how to think.” The whole speech is well worth hear­ing.

In the video above, “This is Water,” The Glos­sary—“fine pur­vey­ors of stim­u­lat­ing videograms”—take an abridged ver­sion of the orig­i­nal audio record­ing and set it to a series of provoca­tive images. In their inter­pre­ta­tion, Fos­ter Wallace’s speech takes on the kind of mid­dle-class neu­ro­sis of David Fincher’s real­iza­tion of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.

It’s a dystopi­an vision of post-grad life that brings vivid clar­i­ty to one of my men­tors’ pieces of advice: “There are two worst things: One, you don’t get a job. Two, you get a job.” Or one could always quote Mor­ris­sey: “I was look­ing for a job, and then I found a job. And heav­en knows I’m mis­er­able now.” I still haven’t fig­ured out what’s worse. I hope some of those Keny­on grads have.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Fos­ter Wallace’s 1994 Syl­labus: How to Teach Seri­ous Lit­er­a­ture with Light­weight Books

David Fos­ter Wal­lace: The Big, Uncut Inter­view (2003)

David Fos­ter Wal­lace Breaks Down Five Com­mon Word Usage Mis­takes in Eng­lish

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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  • Abdullah Alnajjar says:

    The speech is a pro­found explo­ration of aware­ness of our dai­ly lives. It encour­ages us to be con­sious of the choic­es we make and to cul­ti­vate a mind­ful pre­spec­tive in nav­i­gat­ing the chal­lenges of exis­tence. The main point I got from the speech is to look beyond the sur­face of rou­tine and find the good things in our lives.

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