Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Book Review: This is Water, Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life (2009) by David Foster Wallace.

This isn't water.

This is genius. It's genius in its profound simplicity (or simple profundity).

Writer David Foster Wallace gave only one commencement address. He spoke to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005. Since he hung himself in 2008, there regrettably won't be any more. However, it's hard to fathom how he could have improved on this one.

Wallace begins with a story about two young fish swimming one way who encounter an older fish swimming the other direction when the older fish asked the younger, "How's the water?" (p. 3.) A little later, one of the younger fish asks the other, "What['s] water?" (p. 4).

Wallace uses this story to illustrate how one can live unaware of "the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities" and these "are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about." (p. 8.)

Wallace posits that education does (or should) teach one how to think, but in a different sense than most understand this "single most pervasive cliche in the commencement speech genre." (p. 12.)

"The liberal arts mantra of 'teaching one how to think' is really supposed to mean: to be just a little less arrogant, to have some 'critical awareness' about myself and my certainties....because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded." (p. 33.)

As his core example, Wallace cites the human default setting of self-centeredness. (pp. 36-41.) He suggests that "'[l]earning how to think' really means learning how exercise some control over how and what you think." (p. 53.) Wallace explains that this control comes from choice. (p. 54.) Those who can't or won't exercise this control are doomed, Wallace argues. (p. 55.) Rather shockingly given what happened later, Wallace transitions directly to speaking about those who commit suicide. (pp. 58-59.)

Wallace states that the real value of a liberal arts education is to keep from going through life "unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out." (p. 60.) Wallace submits that in consciously broadening one's horizons and thinking about others, one can develop the compassion and empathy necessarily to living a well-adjusted life. One can also decide what to worship. (p. 98.) Wallace observes: "In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everbody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship." (pp. 98-101).

In so doing, Wallace gets at something far more fundamental than mere head knowledge. He's getting at real learning. In this sense, Wallace's analogy about water really is apt. It's the substance necessary to avoid dehydration and its final result, death. Whether you are in school, out of school, or about to enter school, this book contains a valuable lesson about life to "hydrate" any learning experience. Highly recommended.

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