David Foster Wallace’s Famous Commencement Speech, “This is Water,” Gets Animated on a Whiteboard

Author David Fos­ter Wal­lace titled his famous address to Keny­on Col­lege’s Class of 2005 “This is Water,” a ref­er­ence to its open­ing joke — self-mock­ing­ly framed as a “didac­tic lit­tle para­ble-ish sto­ry” that is “a stan­dard require­ment of US com­mence­ment speech­es:”

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?”

Mark Wood­ing, founder of After Skool, a YouTube chan­nel “com­mit­ted to find­ing the most pow­er­ful con­tent and deliv­er­ing it in the most engag­ing way pos­si­ble” gave his white­board ani­ma­tion of the speech a dif­fer­ent title: “Your Mind is an Excel­lent Ser­vant, but a Ter­ri­ble Mas­ter.”

It’s the “old cliche” Wal­lace invoked mid­way through, not­ing that “like many clichés, so lame and unex­cit­ing on the sur­face, (it) actu­al­ly express­es a great and ter­ri­ble truth:”

It is not the least bit coin­ci­den­tal that adults who com­mit sui­cide with firearms almost always shoot them­selves in: the head. They shoot the ter­ri­ble mas­ter. And the truth is that most of these sui­cides are actu­al­ly dead long before they pull the trig­ger.

Wal­lace him­self died by sui­cide a lit­tle more than three years after deliv­er­ing the speech, prompt­ing author Tom Bis­sell to write in an essay for the New York Times that “the ter­ri­ble mas­ter even­tu­al­ly defeat­ed David Fos­ter Wal­lace, which makes it easy to for­get that none of the cloud­less­ly sane and true things he had to say about life in 2005 are any less sane or true today, how­ev­er trag­ic the truth now seems:”

This Is Water does noth­ing to lessen the pain of Wallace’s defeat. What it does is remind us of his strength and good­ness and decen­cy — the parts of him the ter­ri­ble mas­ter could nev­er defeat, and nev­er will.

We braced a bit won­der­ing how Wood­ing would han­dle this por­tion of the speech.

It would have been a good time for one of his more abstract flights of fan­cy.

In truth, some­times Wooding’s dry erase draw­ings clut­tered our head­space unnec­es­sar­i­ly, dis­tract­ing from Wallace’s mes­sage. Isn’t that iron­ic? A large part of the speech deals with choos­ing what to pay atten­tion to, and how to pay atten­tion to it.

In an attempt to fol­low Wallace’s advice and push back against the “basic self-cen­tered­ness …that is our default set­ting, hard-wired into our boards at birth”, we’ll con­cede that Wood­ing’s ani­ma­tion may help the speech land with those who’d give a pass on lis­ten­ing to an audio record­ing or read­ing a tran­script.

As Wood­ing told the San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cle, “Some peo­ple are visu­al learn­ers, some learn by hear­ing things, some have to do it… what I’ve tried to do with After Skool is com­bine every style of learn­ing to make the ideas as acces­si­ble as pos­si­ble, to take ideas that are kind of com­plex and make it so that an eighth-grad­er can under­stand it.”

The wick­et grows a bit stick­i­er when Wood­ing delves into the long pas­sages where­in Wal­lace unleash­es a tor­rent of grouchy self-serv­ing thoughts born of bore­dom, rou­tine and pet­ty frus­tra­tion… as an “exam­ple of how NOT to think”, he says in an aside.

Wal­lace pre­sent­ed this unvar­nished ugli­ness as a set up, some­thing to throt­tle back from — an illus­tra­tion of how our lizard brains’ snap judg­ments need not get the final word:

… if you’re aware enough to give your­self a choice, you can choose to look dif­fer­ent­ly at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the check­out line. Maybe she’s not usu­al­ly like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights hold­ing the hand of a hus­band who is dying of bone can­cer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehi­cle depart­ment, who just yes­ter­day helped your spouse resolve a hor­rif­ic, infu­ri­at­ing, red-tape prob­lem through some small act of bureau­crat­ic kindness…If you’re auto­mat­i­cal­ly sure that you know what real­i­ty is, and you are oper­at­ing on your default set­ting, then you, like me, prob­a­bly won’t con­sid­er pos­si­bil­i­ties that aren’t annoy­ing and mis­er­able. But if you real­ly learn how to pay atten­tion, then you will know there are oth­er options.

We wish Wood­ing had leaned out rather than in when Wallace’s bad mood makes him view the peo­ple suf­fer­ing through traf­fic jams, crowd­ed aisles, and long check­out lines with him as “repul­sive”, “stu­pid”, “cow-like”, and “dead-eyed”.

Know­ing that Wal­lace was wind­ing up to reveal these knee jerk assess­ments as the fab­ri­ca­tions of a testy, self-absorbed mind oper­at­ing on autopi­lot, the illus­tra­tions might have bet­ter served the mes­sage had they been a step or two ahead of the mes­sen­ger. Doo­dles depict­ing these peo­ple as far more neu­tral look­ing than the delib­er­ate­ly vit­ri­olic por­trait Wal­lace was paint­ing could have added some dimen­sion.

It’s impor­tant to remem­ber that these visu­als aren’t ani­mat­ed in the tra­di­tion­al sense. They’re manip­u­lat­ed time lapse draw­ings. Unless Wood­ing breaks out the eras­er and dou­bles back to make mod­i­fi­ca­tions, they’re fixed on the white­board and in our minds.

This may explain in part why the fed up mom in the check out line appears to get a fair­er shake in The Glos­sary’s live action adap­ta­tion of excerpts from the same speech, below.

If you’d rather not gild the lily with white­board ani­ma­tion, you can lis­ten to Wallace’s speech and read the tran­script here.

Relat­ed Con­tent

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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