Laboring for Change
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On occasion, we select stories from the archives that still resonate today. "This is Water" is the title of the speech author David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon's 2005 Commencement. Sixteen years later, it remains one of the most searched stories on Kenyon's website, and a frequent subject of literary analysis.
The 2005 Kenyon Commencement address by the venerated novelist David Foster Wallace lives on in popular consciousness, in social media, and in print, years after its delivery and the suicide of its author. This proliferation of the speech in multiple forms has had a collateral effect for Kenyon, amplifying the College's name in quarters where it might not otherwise be heard. Elizabeth Lopatto '06, attending the ceremony to see friends graduate, was among the speech's original audience. Like many others that day, and since, she found that the speech stuck. She has researched the speech in the Wallace archive at the University of Texas, Austin, and written about it in Kenyon Review Online.
David Foster Wallace was wearing his trademark bandanna and a white shirt with a Nehru collar when Christopher Bench '05 and Meredith Farmer '05 met him. Spread in front of him were the pages of the Commencement address he was about to give, occupying most of the table in the Sunset Cottage seminar room. They were covered in ink; he was still revising-cutting, mostly. Also scattered around the room were cups of spit, from the tobacco he'd been chewing. When Farmer told him she'd been the one who nominated him to speak at their graduation, he said, "F*** you, I'm not old enough for this. I'm not my father!" and laughed.
Then, upon hearing Bench was from Allentown, Pennsylvania, he began making the synth noises from the Billy Joel song of that title, which Bench described as both mortifying and endearing.
Wallace didn't wear the bandanna when he gave the speech, though he did wipe his face with it a few times while he spoke. And sometime between the graduation ceremony on May 21, 2005; Wallace's suicide on September 12, 2008; and now, the text of the Commencement address became so well known that writer Tom Bissell, a friend of Wallace's, complained of having it e-mailed to him from his aunt, a woman who "would not know David Foster Wallace if he fell on her."
Wallace's 2005 Kenyon Commencement address quickly took on a life of its own, carrying Kenyon's name with it. Reprinted in venues from the Wall Street Journal to O, The Oprah Magazine , it has been recognized as one of the best commencement speeches, either in the past twenty-five years or of all time, by Time , Slate , and Elle magazines, and such newspapers as the Washington Post and USA Today . It was published in book form in 2009, after the author's death, as This Is Water: Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life . References to the speech, or quotations from it, come up frequently in Internet and social media searches for "Kenyon College."
Numerous people interviewed for this article reported a similar phenomenon: after mentioning their alma mater, the next comment from an interlocutor is, "Oh, isn't that where the David Foster Wallace speech was delivered?" Several people spoke of having the speech recommended to them by friends and family.
How does a commencement speech come to have this kind of afterlife?
That David Foster Wallace's advice would garner rare attention should not be entirely surprising. Wallace is widely considered among the most important writers of his generation, a reputation dating at least from the release of his tour-de-force novel Infinite Jest in 1996. A deeply funny, deeply sad novel, Infinite Jest examines the American pursuit of happiness through addiction at the expense of our ability to connect with other people. By 2005, the novel and its author had achieved a kind of cult status, inspiring readerly devotion and giving rise to Internet fan sites and e-mail discussion groups.
The speech was transcribed at least twice, once by Kaelin Alexander '07, from what he recalls as a VHS tape, and once by Devin Thompson, a Wallace fan and student at the Nazarene University in Mount Vernon who came to Kenyon to hear the address. Alexander was asked to make his transcription by the alumni affairs office for a pamphlet containing the Baccalaureate and Commencement addresses. That wasn't the version at large on the Internet, though. The most widespread version, until the publication of This Is Water , was Thompson's. Thompson had recorded Wallace's delivery of the speech on a Hi-8 camera and made a transcription of it as a favor to Wallace-l, an e-mail list devoted to the author. Unlike Alexander, Thompson included pauses, verbal tics, and extemporaneous remarks such as Wallace's introductory aside-"If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I'd advise you to go ahead, because I'm sure going to. In fact I'm gonna" (and Thompson here includes Wallace pulling out his bandanna to wipe his face)-and his on-the-fly self-editing ("et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony"). Thompson wore out the tape transcribing the speech, then sent it to Wallace-l in May 2005. The text went wide.
"I thought that speech was priceless and sent it to everyone I know," wrote one member of the list in reply.
"I can't decide whether this is uplifting or wrist-slitting," another list member wrote of an address that widened expectations of what could be done in a commencement speech. The speech was more candid about the challenges of adult life than usual for its genre and addressed dark issues like suicide. At the same time, its honesty permitted a genuine connection between speaker and listener (or reader), a common sense of humanity that comforts and inspires.
"Based solely on my subjective internal applause-o-meter reading, it was pretty well received," Thompson wrote in reply. "Is it standard practice to give a standing-o to the commencement speaker?"
Bill Stillwell posted an HTML version to his blog, Marginalia.org. The address was also adapted and published in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006. The speech essentially hunkered down quietly on the Internet, being spread through e-mails and Facebook postings, until Wallace's death.
That's when The Economist's More Intelligent Life posted it as "In Memoriam" on September 18, 2008, writing that the best tribute to Wallace's life and spirit "is the one he wrote himself." On September 19, the UK newspaper the Guardian adapted and ran the Kenyon speech, as did the Wall Street Journal. Its popularity with readers led to the book This Is Water.
The versions of publication vary. Some-not all-newspaper reprints include the line, "It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger."
So that's how the speech took on a life of its own. The other obvious question is why.
"The speech itself has universal appeal, I think, because it explores the kinds of tedium many people experience every day, and at the same time offers some sound advice to deal with, or overcome, these experiences," said Nick Maniatis, who runs the Wallace fan site The Howling Fantods. The site saw increased traffic as the speech spread, perhaps because people were looking up Wallace and his work, Maniatis wrote in an e-mail.
Biographer D.T. Max, whose book Every Ghost Story Is a Love Story (2012) tracks Wallace's life, said the speech was an ideal starting point for people new to Wallace.
"One of the things that's so striking is the gentle tone," Max said. "You can ignore this if you want, I'm not here to make you take your medicine." The speech is simpler and more direct than most anything else Wallace wrote, perhaps because his sometimes-baroque syntax and frequent footnoting are meant to be read on the page, not aloud. It's a pretty simple speech: don't worship false idols, they will consume you. Do your best to be kind. The world is what you make of it.
The moral code he espoused at Kenyon in 2005 is what Wallace learned in Alcoholics Anonymous: just because something is clichéd doesn't mean it isn't true. Clichés are accumulated human wisdom, and their being worn smooth from repeated use doesn't mean you won't be gauged by their accuracy.
A major theme of Infinite Jest is choosing how to worship and how to love. The premise of the novel is that a video exists that is so entertaining that people lose interest in anything but watching it over and over again, withering away to their deaths. A Québecois terrorist organization wishes to unleash the video, to make it clear to the U.S. citizens that they do not know how to choose life, that at some point they forgot how to choose what to love and what to worship, and now worship only their own entertainment.
Choose your temple, Wallace said at Kenyon in May 2005. Worship something that won't destroy you. Though the speech is unassuming, its wisdom seems hard-earned, implying there was a lot of pain in learning the lessons Wallace was trying to impart. The darkness in the speech is what gives it weight.
"I was realizing I had never seen people on the edges of their seats at a commencement address," said Meredith Farmer, one of the Kenyon seniors who had met Wallace in Sunset Cottage. "People were so totally focused. They were rapt."
When Farmer nominated him, she wanted someone who understood Kenyon's values, she said. She and Jackie Giordano-Hayes '05 shepherded Wallace's name through the nominating process for the junior class committee, figuring that as someone who taught at Pomona College, he would understand Kenyon's atmosphere.
"I'm not sure I got all the potential levels of meaning in that speech right away," Giordano-Hayes said. "Everything in your life is changing, and it's huge turmoil sitting there. I didn't realize until after that it was exactly what we'd wanted."
The rhetoric of kindness in the speech extended into Wallace's behavior on campus, said Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, a professor of English who served as Wallace's host. When students came up, starstruck, Wallace was unfailingly gracious.
"He showed an unwillingness to assume distance," Lobanov-Rostovsky said. "After the speech we walked up Middle Path, surrounded by people wanting to say how great it was. And he was really nice about it, he seemed human."
Christopher Bench, the other senior who met with Wallace in Sunset, was immediately impressed with the speech. "There's the whole sentimental reality of, um, it's my commencement speech and it's also bigger than that," he said. Now a teacher, Bench recalls students who, "when they find out I'm from Kenyon, they ask ‘Were you there for the Wallace speech?' And I get to be like, ‘Oh yes, I was,' and look real cool for thirty seconds."
Giordano-Hayes has been e-mailed by the speech's readers to ask what it was like to hear it in person, and she once saw someone with a "This is water" tattoo. She's had the book recommended to her in bookstores, she said.
Wallace's suicide reified the speech, said David Lynn '76, editor of the Kenyon Review, endowing it with a kind of material existence it otherwise might not have had.
"I don't think any of us expected it to have the afterlife it did," he said. "It rings very true. It's clearly what was preoccupying him at the time, ways of controlling your life as you move forward."
After his death, many people went back to the text of the Kenyon oratory. "Learning to exercise some control over how and what you think," as Wallace puts it, to decide what kind of meaning you will draw from your life, is a non-trivial pursuit. In drafts, Wallace addresses the ghost of himself at his own commencement, trying to tell his younger self the things he had to learn the hard way, through addiction and recovery. Though the "young Dave" conceit is cut from the address, one might wonder who the real audience for the speech was. It was almost as though Wallace thought if we believed him enough, he might eventually believe what he was saying, too.
"This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living" can be purchased from the Kenyon College Bookstore.
Elizabeth Lopatto '06 founded the Kenyon Review blog and currently writes about health and science for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
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