Storyteller Turned Philosopher: David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water”

By June Seong '19


This is Water

By David Foster Wallace

137 pp. Little, Brown and Company. $10.25


As the school semester enters its thicket, I find myself often questioning the value of my education. Apart from questioning the value of miscellaneous information I am asked to know, my real questions are about value of learning.  What is learning? Should it be limited to the classroom? Alongside my slew of questions runs a corrugated path of minute observations that attempts to place value on this education. I am left with a hunger for a single answer. In this pursuit, I realize that my peers and those educated around me are also confronted with this same search. Rather than realizing the value of our education, the real goal is to actualize its value in our day to day lives. After all,  what is the value of a realization of one’s purpose if the purpose is not put into action?

At Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace gave his commencement speech, “This is Water.” In it he addresses the vast multitude of the educated in society. In attempting to define the value of education, he speaks of the “banality” of adult existence. Questioning the connection between knowledge and acclimating to the “banalities” of adult life is, as Wallace defines it, what defines our consciousness; “how to keep from going through your life dead, unconscious....and to your natural default-setting of being...imperially alone, day in and day out” (3). In this sense, education means survival as a conscious being in a banal world. In gaining an education, you obtain the ability to “adjust”- to be critical of your own vastly deluded assumptions and to chose a conscious, engaged life.

This connection between aloneness and the value of an education that Wallace makes is especially poignant to me. In the morbidity of my own corporeal self-centeredness, I realize that an education takes me out of my “skull sized kingdom.” (7) I am able to transcend my own limits through knowledge. I find myself here and there turning to “This is Water” for consolation. Consolations in the face of my ego, that tells me I am either superior or mediocre.