Anyone who is friends with me on Facebook has probably seen me share this video about a dozen times already. “This is Water” is one of my favorite speeches of all time. The essay below mostly talks about the rhetoric of the speech, specifically using Aristotle’s appeals, means of persuasion, ethos, logos, and pathos, or whatever you want to call them, used throughout the speech by Wallace. The video below, hosted on YouTube by Howard Koepka, shows a shortened, edited version of “This is Water” along with a video that illustrates Wallace’s point perfectly. Even if you don’t read the essay below, at least watch the video. You won’t regret it.
Edit 12/27/16: The original video I had on here must have been taken down, so I replaced it with a YouTube mirror for now.
David Foster Wallace: Rhetoric in “This is Water”
David Foster Wallace delivered his commencement speech for the Liberal Arts graduating class from Kenyon College in 2005. As was expected from the author of complex post-modern novel Infinite Jest, which later was named by Time magazine as one of “100 Best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005”, the speech was full of his usual captivating genius and brilliant rhetoric. Wallace himself says that even though the speech doesn’t sound “fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound”, it will later become ‘grandly inspirational’ to these soon-to-be graduates because what he is telling them is “the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away”. The commencement speech, later dubbed “This is Water”, is chock-full of persuasive techniques such as ethos, logos, pathos, and myriad other rhetorical devices used to emphasize his points and to build a rapport with his audience. The way in which he communicates the value of higher-education, of being truly aware of ones surroundings, and how to avoid ones inner “default setting” to his audience using these rhetorical techniques and literary figures of speech are what allows “This is Water” to flourish. It is also what allowed it to shift in medium from commencement speech, to written transcript, to mass internet chain-mail attachment, to short film, to a book published by Little, Brown and Company called This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered On a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life. In the age of forgettable gimmicky commencement speeches, “This is Water” is set apart from the rest as an incredibly effective and inspiring speech about overcoming the importance of life’s daily annoyances and becoming an aware and conscious being in a world of boredom and cynicism.
The kairos of “This is Water” is essential to the way in which the audience interpreted the speech. It’s important to understand that Kenyon College is a private Liberal Arts college in Gambier, Ohio, so it’s not unrealistic to say that a lot of these students were English majors (as was Wallace), and that they probably were already familiar with David Foster Wallace’s works. He was an authority of his field at this time, especially with the success of his novel Infinite Jest. Bruce Weber of nytimes.com said Wallace was “prodigiously observant, exuberantly plotted, grammatically and etymologically challenging, philosophically probing,” and that his “culturally hyper-contemporary novels, stories and essays made him an heir to modern virtuosos like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo”. Unfortunately, Wallace committed suicide three years after the speech in 2008. For readers who are only now reading the speech transcript, the knowledge of his death will definitely impact their interpretation of the speech in a different manner. Wallace says toward the end of his speech, “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger”. Whether this ironic statement was originally foreshadowing his own death, unfortunately we’ll never know, but the fact remains that the way we interpret the speech has indeed changed over time. It’s to be expected that the students counted on a profound speech from a world-class writer, but maybe not one with a message they could take home and live their lives by. In this particular case, the kairos, meaning the opportune occasion for the speech, isn’t as important as who he’s talking to, and how he gets his point across.
One of the defining characteristics that David Foster Wallace bears, both in text and in speech, is that he comes off as humble, soft-spoken, and human. When he starts the speech off with “If anybody feels like perspiring, I’d advise you to go ahead, because I’m sure going to”, he’s already using ethos to build a rapport with his audience, as if to say: It’s okay. I’m not here to lecture you or belittle you, or to tell you how to live your life. I’m here to show you what life is really about. He begins with revealing the gimmicky genre of the commencement speech by fulfilling a “standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories”. His story is as follows: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”. By saying “I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about”, he is downplaying his authority. In reality he is the “wise old fish”, so saying he isn’t is an ironic understatement. Wallace uses ethos yet again when he says “I’m not getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues”. He knows how boring commencement speeches are, and he uses ethos to keep their attention on him rather than on their phones or on something else because what he has to say is important.
Wallace uses logos as well to persuade the audience by use of reason. The aforementioned parable with the fish asking “What the hell is water?” is one example, and so his another story in which an Atheist and a Christian are arguing about the existence of God. The Atheist gets caught in a blizzard and cries out “Oh, God…I’m lost in this blizzard” and the Christian uses reason to deduct that he must believe in God because he’s still alive and able to tell his story. The Atheist rolls his eyes and says “No, man, all that was was a couple of Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp”. We can conclude using logic that people have different belief systems, and that everybody has their own “belief template” that we use to get meaning from our experiences. He furthers his logos with “Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad”. He’s persuading the audience that we need to talk about where our beliefs come from. The logical approach is saying that our experiences are just “hard-wired… As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice” and that if somebody is automatically certain of what they believe without questioning why they believe it, then they’re being arrogant and unaware. Just like the nonreligious guy’s dismissal “of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help”. If we are automatically certain of anything, we’re going to end up closed-minded people. This is logos.
The use of pathos is apparent in the speech toward the end. Sometimes it’s intertwined into the logos, as it was in the story of the Christian and the Atheist, but other times the emotional appeal is blatantly obvious. In this tedious, boring, frustrating life of work and schedules, we fall into the unconscious “default setting” of adult life. Wallace switches into the second person point of view and uses heavy and harsh language when he says “You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line” because he knows that we all have thought this way about people. Switching into the second person seems to place the blame on them, but he almost immediately switches it back to himself when he adds “Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way”. He says we don’t have to look at people this way, and in fact they may have lives that are more boring, more tedious, more frustrating than our own. To further the emotional response he says “Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer”. He makes the reader understand that our lives are frustrating and it’s easy to become cynical and to hate everybody, but that’s just our default setting. This use of pathos and the hypothetical are effective in appealing to the reader’s emotions.
These “rhetorical niceties” that Wallace tucked away in his speech don’t stop at ethos, logos, and pathos. He uses a mix of literary devices and figures of speech to convey his meaning to the audience or reader. Again, the parable with the fish and the story of the Christian and the Atheist aren’t just stories. They are crafted to make the reader think about what surrounds us, how we should be conscious about the decisions we make and how we think about things, and he alludes back to the stories multiple times throughout the speech. In fact, “this is water” is a metaphor in itself. We have to keep reminding ourselves of the fact that “this is water…this is water”. He uses exaggeration or hyperbole when he says “you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death”. He is also personifying death in this sentence, that is giving the inanimate death a human characteristic. Wallace admits to using hyperbole when he says “And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out”. All of these literary devices are embedded in the speech, not just because he felt like putting them there, but because he knows they will keep his reader’s attention. He knows that they will listen to him and they will take what he says to heart.
David Foster Wallace proved with “This is Water” that he is a master rhetorician in his own way. His manner of speaking is down to earth and humble, but what he has to say is not. The message that we should be conscious beings and not succumb to our default setting is a lesson that stays with the reader forever. Literary devices like irony, hyperbole, metaphor, and other tropes are strewn across the speech transcript like eggs on Easter Sunday, as if he knew somebody was going to write an analysis on it. Being an English major himself, he probably did know that it was bound to happen. His use of ethos, logos, and pathos are effective in getting his point across, and unfortunately even more so after his suicide in 2008. Through his own battles with depression and anxiety, he tells us that when life becomes dull and uninteresting, we should look around and be aware and conscious that “this is water”.