The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

The Music Must Change

Posted: July 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: blogosphere, Culture, Theology | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

If you subscribe through a reader you may not have noticed, but there have been several theme changes as of late. The last theme (I Like Content) was nice but slow to load so I have switched to a cleaner, quicker theme appropriately named Clean Home. Though I may tinker with the colors and such (the orange is a bit much, no?) this theme may stay for awhile. The layout is very open and doesn’t crowd either the main text or the sidebar.

One of my favorite features of the theme is the blurb section just under the title. The plan is to occasionally switch it up and put different quotes or sayings that strike my fancy. Right now, as you can see above, it reads: “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The quote is taken from either Infinite Jest p. 445 or this speech given at Kenyon College’s 2005 Commencement or this WSJ article adapted from the commencement address.

The commencement address is the best graduation speech I have ever read (even better than Conan’s 2000 address at Harvard) and the WSJ adaptation is especially haunting after his death in 2008, but the occurrence in IJ struck me more than its other versions. Here’s the passage (Warning–Adult language ahead):

“This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, ‘What the fuck is water?’ and swim away.”1

On its own, this parable is fairly insightful meaning, of course, that the young fish are wholly unaware of the life-giving substance all around them. We, like the fish, are quick to ignore incredibly important and obvious elements in our lives because they are too obvious. In his speech, DFW uses the parable to encourage the graduating students to remain conscious in the real world. He admonishes them to, instead of taking the easy route and assuming they are the single most important part of their story, consider that others are important too; consider that the guy who cuts you off in traffic may have a very literal emergency that is causing him to drive maniacally. His point is potentially life-changing for many young people (my hand is raised here), but taken within the narrative of IJ, the parable takes on a new and–for me–more important meaning.

The context: Gately, an enormous recovering alcoholic/drug-abuser, is just slightly more than a year sober and growing more and more active with his AA group. While “getting active,”2 he confesses that he still cannot wrap his head around the concept of the higher power to whom he has been praying to for delivery from his addictions. On this outing, his group was speaking to the TSBYSCD Group.3 At the end of the meeting, a massive and tough-looking biker from the TSBYSCD Group called BOB DEATH wheels his motorcycle over and “tells Gately it was good to hear somebody new share from the heart about his struggles with the God component.” After brief chatter, BOB DEATH asks Gately if he had heard the one about the fish then goes on to tell the story.

At the risk of sounding like Jules Winnfield, let’s discuss who represents what in the parable. DFW is adamant in his graduation address that he, the speaker, is not the old fish and that the students are not the young fish. He is not there to dole out moral advice on what to do to be a good person. In the parable’s context in IJ, the fish represent people at various spiritual stages of development (or their place in the progression of AA) and the water that is so there that it is ignored must the presence of “the God Component.” The water of human existence is the ubiquitous spiritual component of our existence.

A spiritually searching character, such as Gately, is not surprising for DFW. Raised as an atheist, he had twice failed the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults in an effort to become a Catholic.4 The same interview reveals that he failed the second time because he made a reference to “the cult of personality surrounding Jesus” which, one can imagine, the priest did not cotton to.

As a doubter, perhaps David Foster Wallace would have identified with the prayer I have heard attributed to St. Teresa of Avila:

“God, I don’t love you and I don’t want to love you. But I want to want to love you.”

This is water.

This is water.

[Image by Flickr user David Reece / Creative Commons licensed]

  1. Infinite Jest p. 445 []
  2. traveling from group to group in Boston sharing his story and identifying with their members []
  3. Tough Shit But You Still Can’t Drink []
  4. David Streitfeld, 1996 http://craigfehrman.com/2010/05/05/details-1996-profile-of-david-foster-wallace/ []