"This is Water", David Foster Wallace Invites us to Decide the Narrative of our Everyday Lives
This renowned speech by David Foster Wallace invites us to reflect on the thoughts and actions that are truly ours, and those that we borrow from other narratives.
Just as my representation is the world, my will is the will of the world.
What where you doing before you started reading this article? A routine task you wanted to interrupt for a moment, hoping boredom or your everyday monotony would also be interrupted? To a certain degree, it does not matter, because we all do it, because we all, somehow, are part of specific routines, by definition repetitive, and according to some this is why they have a calming effect –– routines that every now and then we get the urge to break or change, when all of a sudden we feel that our days are always the same.
That is one of the minimal tragedies of modern man. As several writers, philosophers, painters, poets and even ‘common folk’ have warned us since the nineteenth century, modern life is characterised by a particular mechanisation of being, for its correct performance it requires that dozens, hundreds, thousands and even millions of individuals do the same thing every day. That, for example, was also one of the favourite motifs of existentialist literature and philosophy. From Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and Ernesto Sábato, among many others, the effect of dehumanisation, which derives from this phenomenon, is evidenced as the consequence of a modern lifestyle.
The latter is made evident with a notable clarity in the first part of the video that is presented alongside this article. The common office clerk (the character that both Dostoyevsky and Gogol made archetypical), who retains the initial force he was pushed into adulthood with and that keeps him in an inertial and automat movement, that takes him from work to his home, to the supermarket and to traffic jams; that force that, sometimes without noticing it, makes everybody behave in a manner determined by something that lies beyond obligation or necessity. Because it is neither necessary nor obligatory to become angry at the cashier that takes too long while dealing with the person in front of us, or is it? And, in any case, it happens.
The video is an extremely eloquent and emotive enactment of a commencement speech that originally is stimulant and reflexive, “This is Water” was first given by the American writer, David Foster Wallace in May 2005 during a graduation ceremony in Kenyon College, Ohio.
Due to the circumstances it was presented in, the speech is a lecture on the life that is probably awaiting the graduating students, as they enter a world full of responsibilities. Because the speech was given by Foster Wallace, this lecture was notably original, and above all, risky, lucid to the point of bordering with cruelty (the signature of many great writers). It is not however, a completely bleak exercise, since Wallace’s proposal contains some of the humanist values, which academic education, education (in the wider sense of the word), use to build a better world.
The educated person —an education that is not, fortunately, acquired exclusively in the institutions we transit through, and which is more a self-knowledge of sorts, of an individual epiphany that we project onto our society— would have to develop the ability to distinguish between authenticity and imposition, among the thoughts and actions that are truly ours and those we repeat mechanically, taking the latter as alternative ways of being, other narratives that are disseminated around the world with purposes that are not those of the subject, nor, on many occasions, of common good. When we honk the horn of our car to attack the driver in front of us, who are we obeying? Is it our own impulse or a will that is not really ours? That is the question Foster Wallace poses and asks us to answer, the decision he invites us to take is: being truly free.
The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.