Songs from the Cage

“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?”

This joke is from David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College, “This is Water”, in which he gives a stark but powerful portrayal of life after college. In it, Wallace finds a way to bring mundane human life into a more powerful context than it seems. In short, he explains what the hell water is. Wallace says elsewhere in the speech, “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.”

Towards the end of last semester, I showed one of my friends his commencement speech and her response surprised me. She said, “He sounds like he is looking for something and he doesn’t know what it is.” This statement threw me for a loop. I had never imagined Wallace’s analysis of the human condition to be lacking. Yet in that short conversation, a seed of doubt about David’s world was planted in me, which I could not shake. What was it that he was looking for? This essay is an attempt to look for the language that Wallace sought.

As many who have read Wallace will know, he writes in a way that can seem cynical towards the human race. Often his writing drips with a hilarious satire that captures almost too perfectly the curiosity that is human life. For example, he describes a grocery store thus:

“You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day-rush…”

This is strikingly akin to our own experiences. It is easy in places like this to despair about the state of human affairs. But Wallace was always careful to remain genuine rather than become jaded toward the human experience. Indeed, if Wallace had been ironic, his works would have lost the power that they have. In another essay of his, “E Unibus Pluram”, Wallace has some words of his own about cynicism in the modern era:

All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.”

Wallace was a man stuck in a world that could only speak with irony and cynicism, and desperately wanted to find a new language that could redeem what was wrong. He tried in his writing to reveal the fundamental beauty in human nature, despite what it may seem. His satire and mild skepticism presented a human life that was real, and he sought to build that into redemption and goodness for the world. But he never could quite bring himself out of the weary postmodern world. His literature speaks of a desire for sincerity, yet he could not quite find the language to push his own desire forward into actuality. Now Wallace is gone, but the problem of irony and old, cynical language is still quite relevant.  

Let me briefly say that irony and cynicism are not all bad. As Wallace says, “irony and cynicism were just what the U.S. hypocrisy of the fifties and sixties called for. That’s what made the early postmodernists great artists. The great thing about irony is that it splits things apart, gets up above them so we can see the flaws and hypocrisies and duplicates.” According to Wallace, irony can provide a healthy, often amusing, skepticism that can bring conversations back to reality, and it often tends to paint a more realistic picture of the world than that of naiveté.

Last year, though, I had a conversation with a graduating senior who gave me some good advice about irony. She told me that irony would be poison to my college experience. As school went on, it seemed to her that every class below her was worse than the one before and it took her a lot of work to fight that mentality. This advice, which came from one of the most genuine seniors I knew, made one thing clear to me. We cannot build off of irony and cynicism. If we are to build and heal the world today, we must depart from them and find a new way to speak.

Here is an example. I was scrolling down my Facebook feed recently and came across a post by a public figure named Matt Walsh. From what I can tell from research about him, he is well read, frequently quoting C.S. Lewis and the like. He is politically conservative, pro-life, and a very outspoken Christian. His post contained a picture of a man carrying his wife who was carrying their child to safety, presumably somewhere in the range of Hurricane Harvey. What he had to say was this, “Woman cradles and protects child. Man carries and protects both. This is how it ought to be, despite what your gender studies professor says.”

Without getting too politically charged here, it is clear where this falls short. Everything in that sentence is great, except that last little clause. Walsh’s statement fills the situation with irony and, as Wallace mentions, does not work toward redeeming anything. It did not destroy the truth of the statement by any means. Of course a man should protect his wife and child. But when I read Walsh’s stuff, it does not build anything. His statement about the picture turns admiration into cynical criticism and a sly attempt at a joke. Instead of straightforward admiration, it shows a lack of faith in the world around him. The end result is that Walsh tears things down just as much as the postmodern culture he is trying to fight against.

So what do we do? How do we speak with conviction without sounding condemnatory? Maybe David Foster Wallace has a proposal for us:

“The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of “anti-rebels,” born oglers who might dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point, why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things.”

So perhaps we have here the resources to become these new literary rebels. If we are to escape irony and cynicism, perhaps we must be willing to carry the great tradition on our own shoulders. Indeed, what makes the truth powerful is the persistence and passion of its representation through the ages. Perhaps we must not be afraid to begin again, to repeat ourselves, to start from scratch. David Foster Wallace himself loved clichés and often tried to point out the simple truths in them. Maybe our job is to build off of the most sincere realities and bring truth to what might be considered cliché.

The challenge will be legitimately difficult. It is hard enough to talk of truth, beauty, and goodness without at least feeling like they are platitudes. But we must remind ourselves that we are excited about something that is real. Sincerity and goodness are forces to be reckoned with in the world, and the fact that we get older and learn more does not take away from the power of those first feelings of excitement. We can accomplish this by taking to heart Wallace’s hope for the anti-rebels and speaking with persistence and passion. We cannot let accusations of sentimentality and naiveté deter us. When we take those accusations seriously, we become bogged down, tired, and wearily ironic.

David Foster Wallace says at the end of his speech, “[Truth] 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.’” Wallace saw the opportunity for a rebirth of sincerity in today’s world, and it is unfortunate that he is no longer here to begin building on that opportunity. In a culture of weary postmodern ironists, Wallace spoke the language of sincerity. Now it is for us to try and use that language to redeem this world.


Dietrich Balsbaugh is a sophomore studying English and Mathematics.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s