David Foster Wallace’s Keynote Commencement Address, “This is Water”, given to Kenyon College graduates of 2005, begins with the “didactic little parable-ish [story]” of two fish pondering what water is. Wallace posits to the audience that “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” He addresses the often-used cliché given in commencement addresses that the value of a liberal arts education is that it teaches the student how to think.
But here, he challenges this claim by arguing that it is not so much how to think but choosing what to think about that makes an education meaningful. He also suggests that deep down, everyone thinks they are “the absolute center of the universe.” He illustrates this matter of choosing by considering the scenario of a routine and frustrating trip to the grocery store during rush hour traffic; a trip filled with inconveniences and toil where in the slow traffic he is given plenty of time to think. He considers the entire endeavor with the mindset of what he calls his natural default setting: a blind certainty in his own ideas and judgments which gives him an overly critical perspective in others while giving exception and priority to himself. But he considers the matter again only this time with a perspective of self-awareness and giving others the benefit of the doubt while regarding his own actions with a little less of that blind certainty that comes with the default setting. He emphasizes that this has nothing to do with morality but merely tackles the “Capital T truth that you get to decide how you’re gonna see it.”
In what initially struck me as a somewhat bizarre turn, he suddenly shifts to the idea of worship; that everyone worships and that many things people worship such as power, beauty and intellect “will eat you alive”. Here he argues that the most important kind of freedom is to not worship oneself but rather to serve others in “myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” He presents the alternative as unconsciousness; a frantic eating away at each other as if having lost some “infinite thing.”
This commencement address does not present a direct critique on Infinite Jest in any of its form or content. What it does present, however, is a unique inside look into Wallace’s worldview that manifests itself in subtle ways all throughout Infinite Jest. DFW argues that it is the petty but important clichés that are the most important. We see DFW highlighting the importance of the mind-numbing mantra-like clichés in AA in Infinite Jest as a means to hold on and remain sober one day at a time.
When DFW considers worship in adult life he mentions that worship or belief in a god is compelling because just about everything else will destroy you. I am a bit surprised by the utter lack of moral commentary or religion in Infinite Jest. Regarding the choice of self-awareness, I think DFW may view religion as a means by which people can keep worship off themselves and on something else. While DFW may have other issues with religion, I think DFW illustrates that religion may provide a certain moral capital to society by showing the absolute moral bankruptcy in his characters in Infinite Jest who, except for Mario, choose to worship themselves. We see Joelle van Dyne strongly influenced by her image by wearing a veil in public while Mario, who may in fact be more deformed that Joelle, finds it not only unnecessarily to cover up but even silly. DFW also mentions that our culture has harnessed these objects of worship that destroy us to make a profit. I immediately thought of the Entertainment and the teleputer with its self-defeating logic killed by the constant concern and worry of one’s image viewed by others. DFW portrays Mario in contrast to virtually all other characters who are self-serving and are frustrated and slowly eaten by their objects of worships.
DFW really emphasizes that his address is not a moral sermon or an attempt to teach virtues but I frankly disagree. He presents an issue that he calls our natural default setting and provides a solution: namely to try to adjust oneself and becoming self-aware and less arrogant. I think he prescribes this solution too indirectly in Infinite Jest by constructing Mario’s character as foil to really most every other character: a champion of humility and serving others in a world of ONANites who serve themselves. I think DFW even might suggest that this choice of self-awareness can be contagious: everyone who interacts with Mario displays a sincerity and care for Mario that does not stem from sympathy but rather a selflessness that reflects Mario’s own character. DFW seems to me to be tormented by this self-indulgent natural default setting that is so hard to free oneself of (I’d wager that an analysis of oneself of this depth and honesty may have been at least a factor in his depression, sort of the way that comedians, who are some of the most observant people in our culture, also struggle with depression to a certain degree.)