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This Is Water: David Foster Wallace on Life

Revisiting the tragic literary hero’s only public insights on life.

On September 12, 2008, David Foster Wallace took his own life, becoming a kind of patron-saint of the “tortured genius” myth of creativity. Just three years prior to his suicide, he stepped onto the podium at Kenyon College and delivered one of the most timeless graduation speeches of all time — the only public talk he ever gave on his views of life. The speech, which includes a remark about suicide by firearms that came to be extensively discussed after Wallace’s own eventual suicide, was published as a slim book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (public library).

You can hear the original delivery in two parts below, along with the the most poignant passages.

On solipsism and compassion, and the choice to see the other:

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being ‘well-adjusted’, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

On the double-edged sword of the intellect, which Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Anne Lamott have spoken to:

It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. 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.

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.

On empathy and kindness, echoing Einstein:

[P]lease don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, 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. 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. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

On false ideals and real freedom, or what Paul Graham has called the trap of prestige:

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

On what “education” really means and the art of being fully awake to the world:

The real value of a real education [has] almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

‘This is water.’

‘This is water.’

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime.

In the altogether excellent Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, Tom Bissell writes:

The terrible master eventually defeated David Foster Wallace, which makes it easy to forget that none of the cloudlessly sane and true things he had to say about life in 2005 are any less sane or true today, however tragic the truth now seems. This Is Water does nothing to lessen the pain of Wallace’s defeat. What it does is remind us of his strength and goodness and decency — the parts of him the terrible master could never defeat, and never will.

Complement with the newly released David Foster Wallace biography.

BP

Crescendo: A Watercolor Ode to the Science, Strangeness, and Splendor of Pregnancy

From sesame seed to selfhood, a lyrical serenade to the astonishing process by which we all enter the world.

Crescendo: A Watercolor Ode to the Science, Strangeness, and Splendor of Pregnancy

“Every man or woman who is sane, every man or woman who has the feeling of being a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman,” the trailblazing psychologist Donald Winnicott observed in his landmark manifesto for the mother’s contribution to society. Inseparable from the psychological role of mothering is the biological reality of motherhood — a biology almost alien in its otherworldly strangeness as a cell becomes a being, with a heart and a mind and a whole life ahead.

That glorious strangeness is what Paola Quintavalle celebrates in Crescendo (public library) — an uncommon picture-poem about the science of pregnancy, evocative of Ursula K. Le Guin’s lovely insistence that “science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside [and] both celebrate what they describe.”

Unfolding across lyrical watercolors by Italian artist Alessandro Sanna — who painted the wordless masterpieces Pinocchio: The Origin Story and The River — the story follows the growth of an almost-being inside a mother’s womb over the nine months of gestation. As small as a sesame seed, it soon sprouts the buds that will blossom into arms and legs, grows its first organ — the heart — and develops its first senses, smell and sound.

By the third month, the fetus gets its fur coat, known as lanugo, and the first fragments of its miniature skeleton begin to form. By month four, fingerprints are being carved onto its tiny digits.

Visual metaphors drawing on the lives of other beings — a bird, a horse, a flower, a school of fish — populate Sanna’s watercolor score of Quintavalle’s spare, poetic chronicle of becoming, their geometry cleverly mirroring the curvature of the mother’s belly that frames the story.

What strikes me is that each of us has undergone this absolutely astonishing process, with no conscious memory of it at all, and yet somehow we don’t walk around in perpetual astonishment that this is how we came to be. Perhaps we should. I am reminded of the great poet and philosopher of science Loren Eiseley’s words: “We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”

Couple Crescendo with Argentine artist, author, and singer Isol’s lovely picture-book about the mysterious and mystifying creature that emerges from birth, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s bold open letter to the BBC about the choice to become a mother as a working artist, and pioneering investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens’s playful, profound 1925 meditation on fatherhood.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

BP

Dawn: A Vintage Watercolor Serenade to the World Becoming Conscious of Itself

In praise of the natural optimism of daybreak.

Dawn: A Vintage Watercolor Serenade to the World Becoming Conscious of Itself

“In the name of daybreak / and the eyelids of morning / and the wayfaring moon / and the night when it departs,” Diane Ackerman wrote in her wondrous poem-prayer for presence. There is a singular and deeply assuring beauty to the prayerful optimism that daybreak brings. On the darkest of days, the knowledge that the sun will rise is the sole certainty we can hold on to. And when it does rise, it ignites the splendor of a world becoming conscious of itself — the first birdsong, the first breath, the first catlike stretch, the first cup of tea.

That splendor is what the great Polish-American children’s book author and illustrator Uri Shulevitz (b. February 27, 1935) celebrates with uncommon tenderness of heart and brush in his 1974 masterpiece Dawn (public library) — a watercolor serenade to the world as it becomes conscious of itself.

The book opens with a splash of quiet stillness in the final stretch of night.

Under a tree on the shore of the moonlit lake, an old man and a small boy sleep curled beneath their blankets. In spare words and soft watercolors, Shulevitz unspools the new day across the pages. The mountain stands solemn guard over the lake, its reflection shivering under the gentle touch of the breeze.

We see creatures slowly come awake.

Radiating from Shulevitz’s paintings is the aura of absolute, unassailable presence as the old man wakes his grandson and the two begin the quiet ritual of morning — drawing water from the lake, making fire, rolling up their blankets.

With the landscape still blue under the unrisen sun, they push their boat onto the water and row it to the middle of the lake to witness that magical moment when the first rays turn the sky, the mountain, the lake, the whole world from blue to green — the diurnal ignition spark of aliveness.

Complement Dawn, the analog loveliness of which cannot be even half-conveyed on this screen, with Goodnight Moon author Margaret Wise Brown’s little-known vintage celebration of the coming of the new day, The Quiet Noisy Book, then revisit Ohara Hale’s splendid Be Still, Life.

BP

Water: A Stunning Celebration of the Element of Life Based on Indian Folklore

“We need nature — water, sun, air — to survive, but she doesn’t really need us. She is generous to us, but she has some conditions, and we have to respect them.”

Water: A Stunning Celebration of the Element of Life Based on Indian Folklore

“Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me,” the Scottish poet and mountaineer Nan Shepherd wrote in contemplating the might and mystery of water. “Rivers run through our civilisations like strings through beads,” Olivia Laing observed nearly a century later as she launched a lyrical existential expedition along a river. Bertrand Russell, too, saw in rivers a metaphor for how to live a fulfilling life.

For the Indian tribal artist Subhash Vyam, who grew up in a small Gond village without running water, wholly dependent on the mercy of nature, the water of rivers is not a metaphor — it is life itself, suspended between sanctity and survival.

Vyam draws from his personal story a moving universal invitation to reflect on our relationship with water, as individuals and as a civilization, in the unusual, exquisitely illustrated book Water (public library) — another treasure from the South Indian independent publisher Tara Books, devoted to giving voice to marginalized tribal art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on books handcrafted by local artisans in a fair-trade workshop in Chennai, producing such gems as The Night Life of Trees, Drawing from the City, Creation, and Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit.

Vyam’s story, translated into English from the Hindi oral narrative by Tara Books founder Gita Wolf, is part autobiography, part folkloric parable, part meditation on the most pressing geopolitical and ecological questions humanity is facing today — income inequality, sustainability, environmental justice, our responsibility to nature as citizens and as a species.

Looking back from his current life as a migrant worker in the city, Vyam begins by recounting his early life in the village where he was born, at a time little more than “a cluster of houses”:

We were poor and worked hard, but most people didn’t go hungry. We foraged in the forest, caught fish, kept cows and goats, and grew a few crops. We had enough to eat, provided the harvest was good.

But we didn’t have money to spend, and we lived from one day to another.

[…]

We had to work hard, but we had space and lived closely with trees, plants, animals and birds… and I think we understood their ways.

But one crucial element continually darkened this hard-earned contentment: water. Without plumbing and a water source, the village was entirely dependent on rainfall — for putting food on the table by sowing and harvesting crops, for drinking, cooking, and bathing. They supplemented the rains with water from a lake a couple of kilometers away — the girls and women of the village would trek to it and carry the water home in enormous heavy vessels. Vyam sometimes accompanied his sisters on these expeditions, both trying and joyful in their way. He recounts:

I remember how happy I was as a child when I took our cow to bathe in the lake.

The summer months, when the lake dried up, were especially difficult — the girls and women would walk for hours to fetch a tiny bit of water, which would barely last a day before they had to set out again.

Over the years, people in the village came up with ways of harnessing the water from the lake and the river that fed it. They dug small canals that led water to their fields. Eventually, the first well was dug — a momentous occasion for the village.

Then the first hand-pump came:

It seems like a small thing now, but it was a real boon for women. We didn’t have running water, but the government had dug a deep tube well, and now with a hand pump, even a small child could pump out water. It was like a miracle.

When the first pump was installed, the whole village came out to watch, and all the children lined up for a turn at it.

Around that time, Vyam migrated to the city to look for work. Although he earned more, he was still poor. He had relinquished the trees and the birds for a tiny flat which still suffered water shortages, not far from lavish mansions with lawns and swimming pools. He recounts:

I discovered that you could buy water, if you had money. I never understood where this water came from.

One day, Vyam received a troubled message from his mother, asking him to return home urgently. When he did, he found out that the village headman had made an important and confusing announcement about water — the government was planning on building a dam across the river that fed their little lake and flowed down their local hills. The dam would generate electricity for the city. Everyone in the village was filled with trepidation about what this would mean for their lives: If the river was blocked, water would go from being scarce to flooding their fields and their homes.

Terrified and hurt by the injustice of the city’s greedy, unthinking plans for the river, Vyam was suddenly reminded of a folk tale his mother used to tell to the children when they complained about the daily task of fetching water. It is the story of seven sisters, dispatched by their parents to find water. After walking all day up and down hills, they finally came upon a lake — but it lay deep below them, unreachable. Witnessing their struggle and dejection, the lake took pity on them and made them an offer — it would rise up if they would give it their most precious possession.

Willing do anything for water, the sisters agreed, and the youngest slipped a beautiful ring off her finger and threw into the lake below. The water promptly rose up, the sisters filled their pots, and left overjoyed.

But just as they were heading home, the youngest sister began to cry, mourning her sacrificial ring. She wanted it back. Her sisters insisted that they had made a bargain with the lake and must honor their end, but there was no reasoning with her. She refused to walk. Unwilling to abandon her, the other six women reluctantly began looking for the ring. One by one, they climbed down into the water, waded into the dark, and disappeared, never to be seen again — the lake had swallowed them for having broken their promise.

The mercilessness of the myth had always troubled Vyam as a child, and now he wondered why he had remembered it all these years later. From the vantage point of the present predicament — the village’s profound dependence on nature, the reckless greed of the rich and powerful in the city — he suddenly saw in it a new meaning. Echoing marine biologist, author, and pioneering conservationist Rachel Carson’s insistence that “the real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” he reflects:

We need nature — water, sun, air — to survive, but she doesn’t really need us. She is generous to us, but she has some conditions, and we have to respect them.

The ring in the story stands for a bargain that the sisters made with the lake — a promise they then broke. When you go against a bargain and become greedy, nature punishes you, like the lake did with the sisters. Her laws are very strict.

You can’t exceed your limits, or take more than what is due to you.

With its dam plan, the city was taking more than its due — a microcosm of the larger civilizational greed that is savaging this Pale Blue Dot.

Vyam ends the book with a gentle, heartfelt invitation for us to continually consider what it means to keep our bargain with nature, echoing Lewis Thomas’s beautiful long-ago meditation on our human potential and our shared responsibility to the planet and to ourselves.

Complement Vyam’s gorgeous and timely Water with Waterlife — a complementary illustrated meditation on marine life based on Indian folklore — then revisit Rachel Carson on the science of why water is blue and two hundred years of literary meditations on the elemental color of our precious planet.

Illustrations courtesy of Tara Books

BP

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