In 2005, the author David Foster Wallace (best, and most infamously, known for his 1,079-page novel, Infinite Jest) gave the commencement speech to the graduating class at Kenyon College. The speech, is a classic of its type, hewing close to the well-worn conventions of the genre. Wallace opens with a parable. He goes on to state banal platitudes and justify them by saying that clichés are vitally important to navigating adult life—wait for it—because they are true. Wallace coyly avers that he is not there (at a podium, in a cap and gown himself) to give advice or lecture about virtues, but then slips in an ethical framework for the graduates to judge themselves against. He points out that life is about the choices we make. He explains what he believes the real value of a college education to be. And when Wallace ends his speech, he does so by informing the class that graduation is not an end, but a beginning—that their real education now commences.
Since Wallace killed himself last month, at the age of 46 (he had battled depression all his adult life), the Kenyon speech has been making the rounds, excerpted in obituaries and appreciations. The Wall Street Journal even devoted a full page to printing it in near-entirety. One of the reasons for the popularity of the speech, of course, is morbid curiosity. It makes passing reference to suicide, and we are hardwired to look there for the why. Why would an influential writer—prodigiously gifted, revered by his peers, staking out new territory in 21st-century American letters, the man whom Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times described as able to “do practically anything if he puts his mind to it”—want to kill himself? The speech doesn’t say.
The other reason the speech is being so widely referenced is this: It is probably the most truthful and inspiring and funny and useful talk ever given to a graduating class. Wallace manages to walk the windy high-wire between self-help bromides and what amounts to tough-love Buddhism (exhorting the students to minute-by-minute mindfulness) with the finesse of Philippe Petit between the Twin Towers. Call it nitty-gritty positivity, a call to non-self-centered self-consciousness in a grim world still holding the possibility of grace. I have been reading it almost daily since Wallace’s death. It exhibits the guts and sincerity of self-examination that were the hallmarks of his work. While we don’t have the space the run the Kenyon speech in its entirety, I’d like to share the following excerpts. The entire text is widely available on the Internet.
Excerpts from David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College:
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?”