Hey yo, my name is Hirasawa Yui! You may know me from the hit Kyoto Animation show, K-ON!. It’s a fun, cute anime about me and my friends learning how to play rock music while we eat scones. Everyone should watch it! Anyway, I got invited to write on this blog and I was thinking we should start off みみドしま’s 12 days of anime blogging with a bang. So I wanna talk about David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water”!
Ms. Ellen Baker, as you may know, is one of the most cultured people on the planet and also my favorite English teacher. She can recite any poem by Robert Frost and do an interpretive dance of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I respect her so much I don’t eat cake in front of her. She is showing me works by this weird dude named David Foster Wallace. Infinite Jest and all that big stuff. She’s a fan of the guy and then shows me his commencement speech and you guess it: it’s “This is Water”.
This commencement speech is given to Kenyon College. It’s so popular it got its own book. A 4-paged speech printed into a small 138-paged book! That’s kinda crazy, you know. Ms. Baker is showing me the YouTube video and the speech at the same time. I’m excited what he is going to say.
So the speech begins with him giving a weird fable:
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?”
Typical commencement speech stuff, I think. Starting with a fable, I mean. And then, he stops. Wallace assures everyone that he is not going into that route.
The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude — but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.
Instead, he calls the fable “abstract nonsense”. That’s when I got curious and confused. What is he doing then? And why does he think life is filled with “banal platitudes” whatever that means?
Let’s listen further:
A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter 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 center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.
What is this?
I don’t understand what is Wallace is saying.
Is he saying he is like Sonic the Hedgehog in that good rockin’ song, “His World”? You know, that chorus where Crush 40 starts talking about what’s in his world? In Sonic’s world where life is strong and life’s an open book? And where compromise does not exist? That’s my favorite song about solipsism by the way!
But really, I don’t understand what Wallace is trying to say. He talks about how we’re not really in the center of the universe as if it’s a big thing!
Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea.
I am trying to think about it. And I consider myself a good thinker! This feels really confusing, but Ms. Baker always has good taste. So I guess we should continue?
But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or 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.
I am not so sure what he means by virtue. It sounds like a bad, artificial thing. But I don’t think that’s the case!
When I think of virtue, I think of Kotobuki Tsumugi. She is a virtuous girl and a virtuoso too! She is kind and friendly to everyone. I think she’s the most perfect woman in the planet. Especially because she has large eyebrows. Big ones! They remind me of pickles and I love pickles!
That reminds me: she knows how to massage my hair with a towel. She tends to do it a bit more than my little sister Ui would. She is the perfect picture of what virtue symbolizes. Tsumugi is Virtue herself! The Six Virtues! Pāramitā!
And all her acts are “matters of virtue”, so I guess I have to disagree with his negative view on virtue. I think we can all do great acts of virtue and wisdom!
But let’s continue:
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.
Well adjusted? That’s a strange term to describe people. But okay, let’s go on:
Probably the most dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what’s going on inside me. As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head.
Ah, so he’s talking about adjusting to college settings and afterwards! The different “settings” in our lives! The people who can adjust themselves to these settings, despite their confusion, are considered well-adjusted people. Normalizing! I think that’s the term, right?
Now, I haven’t attended college yet. Our director Yamada Naoko decided to not put us into college and instead made us stay in high school to be with Azunyan. I think the director is stalking some market and shapes of voices? Anyway, I can kinda imagine that college is a very weird setting. And people my age like to think a lot! Maybe too much? So I can agree with this.
I like to go on in my head with monologues at least. There’s many things in my head. For example, Azunyan.
“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.”
That’s weird. I love to think about Azunyan. Why is it so important to learn how to stop thinking about Azunyan? Azunyan is so small and cute. And she sometimes has cat ears that pop up and I think that’s moe!
But I also think about her because she doesn’t want any one of us to graduate. Us leaving her will devastate her to the very core! I can’t help but worry about her. Maybe I care too much about her, but I have elected to care about her.
Because she matters to me!
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.
Okay, this is kinda weird. So if I think about Azusa so much that I start getting headaches, I feel like I need to shut myself up to the point I may need a gun in my head? That’s absurd. No matter what kind of problems, that just seems so unlikely!
This is going to sound a bit grim coming from me, but there are many reasons why people would shoot themselves in the head over any other body part. People who shoot themselves in the head just want to be unconscious immediately. Shooting yourself at the heart, for example, will only cause you to bleed to death. And that will be painful!
It just feels like an edgy metaphor, you know? To shoot yourself in the head to shut yourself up?
I think at this point I saw this commencement speech as something weird and different. Not of my world at least. Like I think it’s directed not to people like me but someone else.
Because soon he talks about how life is extremely boring afterwards. How dull our lives become after graduation and that our greatest dreams become nothing more but dreams. We’re just driving from our homes to the grocery store. And then, we queue forever and get stuck because the cashier is kinda bad. And then, we drive home and a SUV is taking its own sweet time to drive in front of you.
And this routine is done over and over again.
And this time waiting in queue or a traffic jam gives you time to think. You can choose to think about how the cashier looks terrible or how the driver in front of you is terrible. That’s the default option everyone picks.
Or you can do what Wallace elects to do instead: Think in their shoes. The person behind you in the queue, you imagine, hates your guts for being in their way. They have the same problem as you do. The SUV driver in front of you probably has a car accident that makes him go for the extra safe SUV instead. That’s why the SUV is blocking the road.
Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re 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 lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.
We can change the “settings” we’re in if we want to. This lets us empathize better. Our college education — the liberal arts especially — trains us to make better conscious decisions to switch gears and see people in a different light. That’s why we read literature to understand other people’s pains and miseries. To understand all the different settings there is in life. We are free to worship whatever we want. Power will show us how weak we are. Beauty will show us how ugly we are. And so on. They are myths, parables, religions, memes — the default settings. And we are trained to be aware of them.
Our awareness of these settings and worships can help us be free. Because all there is to life is life. We just have to tell ourselves, “This is water. This is water. This is water.” And to be conscious of this fact — what we’ve all be trained for — is “unimaginably hard”. But that’s why we have gone to college. To be conscious. To be conscious of the abstract nonsense and understand the bigger picture. Consciousness is reality, which is empathy. So you have to repeat to yourself to focus on the water and not everything else.
After listening to this speech with me, Ms. Baker asks me what I thought. She is smiling at me and expects me to say something interesting.
“I don’t know.”
The world Wallace is painting is a cruel world with ironies blowing into your face. It just sounds sad and depressing. If I care about my friend Akiyama Mio and she trips to the ground, it is out of the fact that I see her suffering and empathize with her because I have tripped before and it hurts. And when Tainaka Ritsu comes along and tries to help her up, that’s because Ritsu sees herself in Mio’s shoes.
Friendship exists between people because we are all empathizing through a shared setting. We look down on each other’s pain and think about it.
I know Ritsu and Mio are childhood friends. They’ve been friends since kindergarten and they share so many great memories together. They grow up together and I remember feeling envious from those two.
So is that not real then?
Are they thinking of sharing the same setting when they were kids?
Is that not water?
Is that how society works?
I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”
Did everything I do become nothing at the end? All these memories that aren’t actually real? We’re just here to tolerate each other?
I’m thinking of the memories I have playing in Houkago Tea Time. The afternoons every one of us spent learning how to play. Feeding our cute turtle. Our trip to London together. Graduation. All of that.
I can’t. I just can’t.
I look at Ms. Baker and say, “Fun things are fun.”
“Fun things are fun?”
“Yeah, fun things are fun. I don’t know what’s real or fake and that’s probably a bad thing. I don’t really understand what Wallace is trying to say either. But he is all about the real and I don’t think I can do that. It’s too sad. I don’t want to be sad and realistic. I like fun things. Fun things make more sense to me. I know what is fun and what isn’t. And life is fun, not realistic. So fun things are fun.”
I turn my back around and walk out the office, so I don’t know what Ms. Baker thought.
I don’t know if I did the right thing, but I treasure the memories I have together with my friends. They are my last resort in a world that will get harsher in the future. They are not real, but I think they are important somehow. I think there is a place for the fake — fiction — in our world.
To dismiss them because they don’t exist or are puffed up by romanticism makes life harder than it should be.
Hehe, I ended up writing more than I thought. I’m not sure why I wrote this and how it had anything to do with anime. I guess I just wanted to tell myself that fun things are fun just one more time.
Tomorrow, Araragi Koyomi from the Monogatari series will come on this blog to talk about deconstruction and how it’s misused in today’s criticism. I think it will be interesting! I hope everyone looks forward to the posts in this wonderful 12 Days of Anime Blogging event!