I’ll do my best.
At the end of my Thumbs Up Day, Kenyon’s weekend for admitted students, I, along with my two high school friends Gabe and Vincent, were offered a parting gift from Kenyon’s Office of Admissions. We could choose between a Calvin and Hobbes collection, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, or a printed version of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class, This Is Water. Both Bill Watterson (’80) and John Green (’00) are Kenyon alumni (and have made commencement addresses since). Wallace is not (Amherst ’85), but as the printed version reminds readers, the speech “was the only such address he ever made.” This makes Kenyon feel quite special, especially as a school that reportedly prides itself on its literary tradition. Today, This is Water is considered to be the G.O.A.T commencement address, which also adds to the aforementioned feeling of specialness. I’m not sure if there exists a Kenyon commencement speech since that has not alluded to it in some way.
Gabe, Vincent, and I chose Watterson, Green, and Wallace, respectively, and all read our new artifacts of academia while traveling home. Personally, I already had the CH collection, and had read An Abundance of Katherines, which I found solidly average, due to a passionate recommendation in middle school from a friend who may or may not have had a crush on a girl with said name. So This Is Water was picked from process of elimination. I recall reading the address and feeling like it contained some important capital-T Truth beyond what Wallace identifies as the only one, namely that
The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it (94).
“It” being, most obviously, life itself. Furthermore, I knew I liked the speech since Wallace skewers pomp and circumstance as well as describes a side to adult life I had never really thought about. But I wasn’t really sure what the point really was. This is water? Life is water? Is Wallace just a modern day Thales? Certainly there is a metaphorical lesson here but I didn’t get it at the time. And, despite being a good Episcopalian (if that term is not oxymoronic), I was a bit uncomfortable with the seeming religious themes, especially considering Wallace’s potentially contradictory qualification that
None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death (128-9).
I also felt a bit cheated since the book is a 20 minute speech stretched out onto 137 pages. Vincent definitely got more mileage out of Stars. If anything, I wished that the CH collection was one of the few that I didn’t already own.
The day after the first night I slept in my childhood bedroom as a college graduate, I picked up the book again — it had been sitting on my bedside table since Spring of 2016 when I got all emotional about graduation after missing my senior friends while studying abroad — and read it all the way through once more. In doing so, I realized four things:
- I just bookended my entire collegiate education with the speech. I have an odd fascination with commencement speeches. Part of it must be that I myself gave an address at my high school graduation (yet was completely overshadowed by the valedictorian address by my good friend Will), but another part must be that due to not only my own obsession with academia but also the gravitas of the occasion, I am drawn to believe that the best commencement addresses must contain some sort of essential knowledge.
- The speech was actually quite thematically relevant to some of the deepest questions I wrestled with during my studies in college. My new understanding of both it and of my initial reaction to it was proof that I actually had learned something during my four years.
- That despite my stoic take on graduation — I was dry-eyed through the entire ceremony and throughout the year had responded to the question “How are you feeling about graduation?” with a stock answer of “like the goal of the long-distance runners I recently read an article about on 538, I’ll feel done right at the finish line” — I was actually a bit down since my college days were done.
- That while everyone and their mother agree that This Is Water is the G.O.A.T, not many talk about its “point” when brought up in conversation. Instead, I generally hear talk about how good the speech is, period. To be fair, most of the times I myself have talked about it is when I annoyingly reference it to fellow #LordsandLadies when face to face with the life-sustaining liquid. But even when the lesson is talked about, it is neither completely pinned down nor examined at all.
And so, I come to this project with three main goals:
- To explore the phenomena of this address in an attempt to give it the attention it must certainly deserve.
- To radically reject the fact that I’ve been handed a diploma and kicked off campus and aim to continue my college education in any way that I can.
- To wring out as much from my collegiate experience as possible by critically examining both it itself and my own actions throughout it.
The actual name This Is This Is Water is meant to convey both a commentary on the address itself and my time as Kenyon as a whole, as well as a continuation of my education from both Kenyon and Wallace. I hope you find the project pleasurable. And as one of those lessons was that you just can’t know if you’re right unless you talk to other people about your ideas, please do not hesitate to raise your voice and let me know how I’m wrong through the Contact page.