This Is Water - Or Is It? D.F. Wallace & Walker Percy Debate Man

We're just a million little gods
Causing rain storms
Turning every good thing to rust

- Arcade Fire

A few days ago, a YouTube user uploaded a live action video built around an abridged version of David Foster Wallace's 2005 address to the graduating class at Kenyon College. The video already has almost 3 million views.

The description explains that the speech "didn't become widely known until 3 years later, after his tragic death. It is, without a doubt, some of the best life advice we've ever come across, and perhaps the most simple and elegant explanation of the real value of education. We made this video...with the hopes that the core message of the speech could reach a wider audience who might not have otherwise been interested."

As I watched, I was profoundly moved. It's clever and well-produced, and Wallace's words are hilarious, intriguing, and wise.

But I was reminded, as I'm sure many viewers were, of something: that the man behind all this great philosophical advice for graduating students eventually took his own life, too young, in despair. I don't think we can (or should) obsess about why he did it, or try and connect it to his ideas. To paraphrase Wallace's own analogy, it's easy to stand in judgment of a person who leaps to their death from a burning building; but only that person and their maker knew the heat of the flames behind them.

But watching the video, and hearing certain key lines, I wondered: can we ignore it either?

In the speech, Wallace opens with a parable of two fish:

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?"...The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about...

He then connects this story to the miserable drudgery of the rat race - the insanity of work, traffic, and grocery shopping - and the self-centered "default setting":

Please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you're "supposed to" think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it's hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you're like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat-out won't want to. But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently...If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important - if you want to operate on your default setting - then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. 

This is one of the most beautiful and wise passages I've ever read. But then comes the kicker:

Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: the only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

It's here that I see the levee break, the balloon sink, the whole edifice of his speech crumble into sad, noxious utterances. It's the dead heart of an otherwise alive speech.

This key line - Wallace's "theory of man" - reminds me of nothing so much as Anthony Kennedy's infamous declaration: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."

This is the postmodern notion of relativism at work: there is no truth but what we ourselves construct. Phenomena don't reveal themselves to us as what they are - there is no truth about man or the world to discover beyond what science can prove. Instead, the post-Cartesian ego, flapping wildly between fideism and scientism, impresses itself on them. You decide what has meaning, you decide how to see things, you decide what's capital-T true, you decide what to worship. You have your truth and I have my truth and the only captial-T Truth is that there is no truth.

I think very few of us can fully embrace this framework; the implications are too frightening. We pull it off the shelf when it's useful, but can't commit to it full time. Didn't Hitler define his own concept of meaning and the universe? Isn't the increase in young, angry mass shooters somehow related, beyond violent video games and gun access, to this underlying message that the mystery of human life is theirs to define for themselves, even if that definition centers on destruction?

A prime example: Sam Harris, a leading "new atheist," often recounts the following conversation with Nita Faranhay (currently an adviser to President Obama on bioethics):

Faranhay: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?
Harris: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing wellbeing—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human wellbeing.
Faranhay: But that's only your opinion.
Harris: Okay… Let's make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human wellbeing?
Faranhay: It would depend on why they were doing it.
Harris ("slowly returning my eyebrows from the back of my head"): Let's say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, "Every third must walk in darkness."
Faranhay: Then you could never say that they were wrong.

Harris was horrified (and rightly so). But isn't Faranhay being consistent with the relativism embraced by our intelligentsia? Isn't this, if nothing else, consistency? But we quickly move on, embarrassed, continuing to build and pretending our weak foundation is stronger than it is. 

So does Wallace. After this bombshell, he pivots over to true-enough words on man's need to worship something (channeling Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor), and the distinction between two types of freedom - the freedom of self-concern and the freedom of self-sacrifice:

Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship - be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles - is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things - if they are where you tap real meaning in life - then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth...

But Wallace's second truth instantly runs headfirst into conflict with his first ignoble Truth. This is how he chooses to see things, what he gives meaning to. But what if I believe that choosing to worship a deity instead of pleasure and power is too hard, and honestly, just self-deceptive? What if I decide that chasing cash and orgasms and political influence - even if it's at the expense of another's dignity - is a perfectly sensible option in a blank canvas of a world where I'm the painter?

He goes on:

Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom...the really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the "rat race" - the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

What wisdom: the freedom of self-sacrifice is infinitely more noble that the freedom of license and self-concern, and points us toward some infinite thing that we can lose on a hard-wired level of selfishness. But that finite, skull-sized kingdom keeps pulling us back - who cares, if it's only my choice to see this and make it meaningful? Quid est veritas?

The key irony about "This Is Water" might not be water. Anything inspirational Wallace says might be more "mystical stuff" that's "not necessarily true." It all comes back to that key statement. I might, in the grocery store, see in this harried mother with three whiny kids a grieving, suffering soul; I may see in free choice an invitation to unsexy self-sacrifice; I may look around lovingly and say about the world, "this is water, and it's all good." We may think we glimpse incredible truths with a captial-T...but then that inviolable background voice surfaces:

One article, which interviews Kenyon graduates about what they remember about the speech, concludes: "Depending on who you ask, the speech is the clearest distillation Wallace ever gave of the themes that run through his fiction, or it is a powerful practical guide for how to live a good life, or—in the way the speech has been marketed since—it's an example of how a vibrant, challenging artist can be packaged for mainstream consumption. Or it's a chilling precursor to Wallace's suicide."

What the author is referring to, I would think, is Wallace's explicit reference in the speech to suicide - to "making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head." But if there is a real precursor (there may not be), I think it's at this deeper level of what the truth of the world is and what it's worth. Camus once wrote that the only philosophical question is suicide - by which he meant, why live? Some of us never ask that question until it's too late; some of us answer it too hastily, without much thought. Wallace did neither - he asked it readily, and answered with stunning thoughtfulness. His answer was that, with a good education and an open mind, we can construct meaning and value, and choose to see things in a brighter way - the default-setting rat-race notwithstanding. The question is, is that finally enough?

Walker Percy - whose father and father's father both committed suicide with a shotgun - had this to say about the matter of suicide and depression in Lost in the Cosmos:

Suppose you are depressed. You may be mildly or seriously depressed, clinically depressed, or suicidal. What do you usually do? Or what does one do with you? Do nothing or something. If something, what is done is always based on the premise that something is wrong with you and therefore it should be remedied. You are treated. You apply to friend, counselor, physician, minister, group. You take a trip, take anti-depressant drugs, change jobs, change wife or husband or "sexual partner."

Now, call into question the unspoken assumption: something is wrong with you. Like Copernicus and Einstein, turn the universe upside down and begin with a new assumption.

Assume that you are quite right. You are depressed because you have every reason to be depressed. No member of the other two million species which inhabit the earth - and who are luckily exempt from depression - would fail to be depressed if it lived the life you lead. You live in a deranged age - more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.

Begin with the reverse hypothesis, like Copernicus and Einstein. You are depressed because you should be. You are entitled to your depression. In fact, you'd be deranged if you were not depressed. Consider the only adults who are never depressed: chuckleheads, California surfers, and fundamentalist Christians who believe they have had a personal encounter with Jesus and are saved for once and all. Would you trade your depression to become any of these?

Percy wouldn't; and he died a natural death at the age of 74, this very day 23 years ago.

For him, to become an "ex-suicide" meant to become a castaway on an island - to comb the beach of the world in awe. But it meant something else too: flipping the standards of relativism and scientism upside-down and searching for a new way. Percy sought the truth of postmodern man with a capital-T; and man, he saw, always has been (and always will be) a labyrinthine mystery. Treating him as an animal specimen, or ghost in a machine, or economic consumer, or polled opinion-haver, was not enough - it wouldn't do. None of these theories of man was complete, least of all the one that said that men and women are whatever you make them.

But he saw more; he saw that man's mysteriousness was made whole (and wholly mysterious) by signs that we're willed and loved into existence - signs that "the God of the Cosmos...took pity on your ridiculous plight and entered the space and time of your insignificant planet to tell you something."

To discover this from the ground up wasn't to discover one truth among many - it was to discover the rock that grounds Wallace's mystical longings. Because if God took pity on my ridiculous plight and cares enough about me to tell me something, then he did the same for everyone - and the schlubs in Shop Rite getting in my way have an eternal dignity, moving me to look at them with awe and treat them with love.

Wallace himself once asked this very Percy-like question:

Why are we – and by 'we' I mean people like you and me: mostly white, upper middle class or upper class, obscenely well educated, doing really interesting jobs, sitting in really expensive chairs, watching the best, you know, watching the most sophisticated electronic equipment money can buy – why do we feel so empty and unhappy?

A great question. Is the answer in therapy, medication, attitude, Oprah-Choprah spirituality, getting saved, finding religion, self-help techniques, Dr. Oz's good advice, satisfying needs, or indulging wants? In some fundamental way, might that emptiness really come down to something bigger? Could it be that our art, education, politics, culture, and religion all revolve around a growing philosophical chasm?

We all turn our nose up at that "automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world," and focus on more inspirational, empathetic ideas - but when push comes to shove, do we contradict ourselves? We deny the tyranny of the skull-sized kingdom, where the only truth - the deadliest falsity - is that there is no truth. But there it is.


  1. Matthew & Wesley:

    I'm not sure which one of you (maybe both?) wrote this, but I want to congratulate the writer(s) on a very thoughtful, well-reasoned, and indeed poignant piece. Thank you. I can't remember when I read something both so philosophically substantial and so entertaining on the Internet.

    Since I first began dipping into David Foster Wallace's writing and the interviews I found with him on YouTube, I was struck by how close in many ways his sensibility was to that of Walker Percy. Both of them were struck by the drama and the dilemma of the pilgrim self lost in a cosmos that has forgotten what a self is and what it's for. The difference between him and Percy, however, as you so eloquently point out, is that Percy's faith allowed him to see in the "water" we are immersed in signs of our being wayfarers on pilgrimage to another country. As far as we know from his writing and speeches, Wallace didn't get as far as Percy's insight--though it's not ours to judge the final state of his soul in regard to God. But given what we do know from his work, Wallace didn't have the philosophical, much less theological, tradition behind him that might have helped him see and read those signs.

    But on this anniversary of Walker Percy's death, let us pray to him and to Our Lord for the repose of the soul of David Foster Wallace. God bless him: he was onto the search, and there's an honor in that.

    Let's pray, too, that the length Wallace did go on the search will have a positive influence upon those who are attracted and influenced by his work, and leave them open to a richer understanding of truth and of the Truth.

    Thanks so much again for this beautiful and moving post. I'm going to enjoy passing it around my networks.

    Daniel McInerny

    1. Daniel - Thank you so much for your reply and your kind words. I wrote the article and I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

      A friend recommended "Infinite Jest" to me a few weeks ago - my confession is that I've yet to read it or much of Wallace's work at all. (My hope was that this would make me impartial in tackling "This Is Water" on its own ground; my fear was that I would misunderstand Wallace in some crucial way.) But the little I have read fascinated me. He was evidently a very thoughtful and sincere man (and I think, actually, philosophically trained), with so much to say about digital-age alienation and man's quest for meaning, "the search." As you said, there is great honor and dignity in that - many authors would just as soon skip over that whole life and death business - and I very much look forward to reading his work. I think he'll have quite a lot to teach me.

      I also began to notice that Walker Percy connection, particularly in that quote about privileged, successful, and unhappy people. The author of that linked article even asks whether Wallace might have recently read "The Delta Factor" before giving that interview. There seems to be an uncanny alliance between their thought, as well as their temperaments - especially since suicide and depression plagued both men. But I hope I showed that the heart of "This Is Water," Wallace's theory of man, is incomplete and even pernicious, while Percy's existential anthropology (an explicit rejection of scientism and postmodern relativism) is philosophically more compelling - and that perhaps, without presuming to judge Wallace's heart and soul, these differing outlooks affected their fate in the world.

      I join you in those prayers, and thank you again for the kind words and support!

      - Matt

      PS - The Walker Percy video is "A Theory of Man" and is on our YouTube channel:
      The clip is from the documentary by Win Riley, which, if you haven't seen it, is absolutely fantastic. You can buy it here:

  2. P.S. What's the title of that Walker Percy video on YouTube?

  3. Matthew,

    Thanks for these great thoughts. Reading them and watching the video had me considering the parallels between This Is Water and Life of Pi.

    In both works, the audience is initially presented with an undeniably compelling vision of the world, then presented with the possibility that it's all false. In the end, we are asked to choose between the two, and the right choice is obvious.

    In both works, it seems the author wants us find the "mystical stuff" so compelling that we're willing to avoid the truth question altogether--to convince us that we can live in light of the "mystical stuff" even if we don't believe it is "necessarily" true.

    You rightly ask "is that finally enough?" At best, it ends up being a noble lie we tell ourselves to save us from our depression. Of course, that's a self-help medication that won't go down easily when the schlubs in Shop Rite are at their schlubiest.

    What's sad, it seems to me, is that DFW is so close to the truth. This Is Water and Life of Pi do not present the empty relativism that is the by-product of naturalism. Instead, they admit the existential power of "compassion, love, and the unity of all things."

    If only, rather than saying that the "mystical stuff" is so compelling that the truth of it doesn't matter, they were to say that the "mystical stuff" is so compelling that it must be true.

    Then, "embrace the mystical stuff" begins to look less like relativistic self-help advice and more like a call to a Kierkegaardian leap of faith--built on the idea that "an objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, is the truth, the highest truth there is for an existing person." (Concluding Unscientific Postscript).

    1. Cameron - Thanks for your comment! I couldn't agree more, well put. You've summed up what I was trying to say with this article really well. (Also, love the Kierkegaard quote, which is definitely relevant!) The video went viral so quickly (now almost 4 million views), but I felt like it was that noble, quasi-mystical inspiration of the speech that was getting noticed - the harried grocery store, trying to be a good person, stuff the everyone relates to - not that metaphysical relativism at the core, which undermines every last flowery sentiment and inspirational nudge. But as you noted, that position on truth isn't brash and in the open, but quiet and shaky, even ripe for replacement - yet thrown out as a kind of insurance policy against bad taste.

      I haven't seen "Life of Pi" yet, but note Wesley (comment below) is currently working on a lengthy article on that film and "The Grey." Should be up soon. Thanks again!

  4. Upcoming article on the Life of Pi film! Be on the lookout for it! Been trying to get it done, but have been busy lately!

  5. Upcoming article on the Life of Pi film! Be on the lookout for it! Been trying to get it done, but have been busy lately!

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