Jan 05, 2024, 06:28AM

Teaching and Living This is Water

Looking over lessons from long gone David Foster Wallace.

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Let me tell you a Tolstoy story. Once upon a time three hermits lived on a deserted island. They could neither read nor write. When, at last, the Bishop went to see them, he was astonished by their ignorance.

It took the Bishop a long time to teach them the Lord’s Prayer, and the verses from Scripture, and to arm these men formidably for lives of holy devotion and prayer, like His life was.

When he was satisfied with their progress and believed them capable of pursuing their own soul’s salvation, he departed on the same boat that had brought him. There, looking idly backwards, he saw something. Tolstoy describes it like this: “The Bishop could now see plainly what it was—the three hermits running upon the water, all gleaming white, their grey beards shining, and approaching the ship as quickly as though it were not morning. All three were gliding along upon the water without moving their feet. ‘We have forgotten your teaching,’ they cried, after drawing near. ‘We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again. ‘Your own prayer will reach the Lord,’ the Bishop said. ‘Pray for us sinners.’”

I’m currently living in a small town on Vancouver Island, on Canada’s West Coast. It’s not an ignorant place, or an isolated one; people come here all the time, from all over the world, to find their way back to trees and water.

If there’s one essay that gets taught, more than any other—not just here, but everywhere the English language overpaints older tongues—it’s a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace called “This Is Water.” In his speech, which begins with a ludicrously long (and symbolic) frame tale, Wallace warns us against becoming slaves to the petty emotions of daily life.

That was basically David Foster Wallace’s job. He warned people away from becoming slaves to bad stuff. (He was like a very, very talkative crossing guard, with a mystical streak.) In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, he warned people away from money, which can be a giant headache. In Infinite Jest, he pretended to warn people away from recreational drugs. Meanwhile, his real firepower was aimed at television, movies, and other pictures of things that ain’t, you know, real things. (The book, to the extent it’s about anything, is about a magical piece of dangerously addictive soft porn. I’m not even joking.) Wallace’s only real break from warning us against things everybody likes came with The Pale King, a book that’s very sweet, and sympathetic, about what it’s like to work at the Internal Revenue Service. I guess he figured you’d have to shut off your phone, throw out any liquids or chips, and give up a big percentage of your money once you got to the IRS. In other words, it was a kind of DFW safe space.

Here he goes in “This Is Water”: “Teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean… [having] just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.”

It’s not a matter of virtue, Wallace insists, just to see if anyone older than 40 will contradict him. “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.”

And as I was watching copies of this speech sort of sprint their way through our copier—and regretting the day, two weeks earlier, that I’d assigned it myself—I suddenly felt a twinge. It brought me up short. I forced myself to remember everything that had happened to me the day before.

I remembered buying milk. In the checkout line, a woman asked me what kind of aftershave I used. She wasn’t flirting; her boyfriend, also standing there, just didn’t know what to do about his face.

“Well, I don’t use anything,” I said. This was pretty obvious from my actual beard, which is modelled on the beards of survivors, from islands. But I kept at it: “One day, I decided I didn’t need a chemical to slap me, for 10 solid minutes, just to punish me for shaving. That’s when I stopped using it.”

“Oh, that’s so great. You don’t even have to use it!” He said this. Then I revealed to him, his girlfriend, and everybody else—for I felt we were all in this together—that I put a really, really hot facecloth on my face, before I shave. Then I pretend a barber is coming to do everything.

His girlfriend went over to pay for her groceries, which they were buying separately. She counted out each dollar, very slowly, like old Americans do at drugstores. We waited on her, not upset. This was a ritual; everyone understood that.

Fine. Then I had an exchange with the checkout lady. She stopped what she was doing, turned to face me, and had a serious conversation with me about a bag. Which, in fact, I needed.

Then I went to the pharmacy. I’ve seen a few of these little time vampires—pharmacies, I mean—and they’re all the same. About 200 people, none of whom are there, have prescriptions waiting. Every other filled prescription crawls out, like an alligator, to sun itself in some huge blue plastic basket that’s not connected to anything else. There are prescriptions sliding off the back shelf. There are six bags next to each phone. It’s like a really slow, possibly French film, starring white paper bags. And you will get your prescriptions after they figure out which giant blue bike basket thing your order floated into.

Here’s what happened this time, though: I walked in, and three people working the counter instantly figured out which prescription was mine. They all knew my name, and my wife’s name, and they had those bags cornered. One woman brought everything up to the counter, for the other one, because she happened to be free.

That was all that happened. I bought some milk, filled two prescriptions, and talked about shaving to a couple I didn’t know. What I didn’t feel, at any point, was “unconscious, a slave to your head and your natural default setting of being completely, uniquely, imperially alone.”

The truth is, I like David Foster Wallace and his glum way of running around, arms waving, trying to keep everyone from slipping. I do that kind of thing myself. It’s the closest an American intellectual can get to being patriotic. But it’s a little funny, here on Vancouver Island, to hand out copies of Wallace’s speech.

“Do you think we can change the default setting in our heads, like the speech says? So that we can tune more into how each other are doing.” That’s how I talk, when I’m in class, and I’m more than a little bit exhausted.

Here’s how my students usually respond, out here: “Sure—do you, though?” Then they go back to the text, looking for its secret. And looking. And looking—without expecting me to say anything else, at least for a while. Because I don’t have to.


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