What the hell is Water?
Written Feb, 2021. Published Jan, 2022.
Spoilers for Soul, obviously. I recently rewatched Soul and remembered that a year ago I had written up the piece below in my journal. I went back to reread it and it was a lot more polished than I remember, so I figured I'd post it.
I've been thinking about the fish from Soul. I finished This is Water a few days ago. If you haven't, go take a read. It's short, won't take you more than 15 minutes.
This is Water opens like this:
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?”
And Dorothea Williams in Soul:
“I heard this story about a fish. He swims up to an older fish and says: “I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.” “The ocean?” the older fish says, “that’s what you’re in right now.” “This”, says the young fish, “this is water. What I want is the ocean!”
The interplay between these is so interesting to me. The latter is an obvious callback to the former, and the line is delivered at such an instrumental part of the movie that I have to wonder if all of Soul is actually a direct response to This is Water.
As a quick recap, the DFW line is a metaphor for how the average individual is blind to the obvious parts of the world around them, the things that are so pervasive and so omnipresent that you cease to even realize that they are there. The older fish, being presumably wiser, is aware of these obvious details. DFW starts by stating that the obvious things are the most difficult to see, and then expands to talk about default settings, about what people worship in this brave new godless world, about seeing with new eyes and new perspectives. DFW is fundamentally pessimistic. He approaches this problem with the expectation that most people will fail most of the time. That most people will end up succumbing to their default settings, that most people will suffer under the gods they have chosen. Nonetheless, he urges the students listening to his speech to consider the gravity of these choices, the importance of choosing, of being intentional, not just about what you do but also how you choose to see the world.
Soul is not so straight cut. The viewer is left to figure out the hidden meaning behind Dorothea's words based on what the movie chooses to show in response. But the moment in which the line is delivered can offer some clues. Joe Gardner has just finished playing the show of his life, something he's dreamt of for his whole life and is the driving force of his motivations throughout the hour-and-a-half-plus of the movie up till that point. And having finally reached the heights that he coveted for so long, he realizes he now feels empty. Is this it? Joe wonders. And Dorothea, hearing this, replies with the lines above. Joe heads home, plays on his piano, and remembers the beautiful moments in his life that make it worth living.
If water symbolizes the pervasive obvious details of life, the ocean (in my opinion) represents one's dreams, the things that drive a little fish forward swimming through the current. So Soul basically comes back at us and says, 'hey, the thing that you're looking for? That dream that you think is so far out there? Just look around. It's all around you. You already have it.' Not exactly critical literary analysis, I know, but I definitely didn't tie this to Dorothea's words so clearly on the first watch through.
I think this becomes interesting as a response to DFW and This is Water.
Joe Gardener is the young fish in Wallace's piece. He is so focused on the little details of his own crap that he misses the great obviousness around him. He never stops to consider the why of his life, everything he does is on rails that he set up as a child and never updated far into middle age. Wallace is pretty cynical about adulthood. He says that everyone worships. Not God, necessarily, today, but worships something. Money, intelligence, beauty — and the thing about worship is that it consumes. Joe worships jazz, or more specifically his dreams of success in jazz. And in the process of getting there he endures eternal drudgery — being yelled at on the train, getting frustrated by his teaching, sitting idly in front of a tv. The statue of his life is him sitting, head in hand, waiting for his laundry to finish. The repetition. Getting up every day just to do it all again. It's no surprise Joe worships jazz, he needs it to keep moving forward at all because the life he's actually living just sucks to actually inhabit.
Except he doesn't need jazz. His obsession with jazz is consuming him too. The story of Soul is about changing one's perspective. Joe is living the life of Wallace's pissed off parent, the person who just wants to get home and make a meal without having to deal with the crap of everyone and everything around. And then he fucking dies. And it takes literally dying in order to realize that he's living in water, that he's living in the ocean. Joe confronts death, and comes out of it with a new appreciation of life. Wallace says that a liberal arts education is enough to do this. I'm skeptical, and apparently the folks at Pixar are too. I briefly toyed with the idea that Soul was actually a pretty depressing movie, that the main takeaway was that it's actually really hard to appreciate life unless you stare down death.
But that's not quite right, is it? It's not death that causes Joe to see the water. He dies and successfully comes back and still can't see the water. He's still worshipping jazz. And he plays his show, and he still can't see the water. And that's when Dorothea says her line. It would be so easy for the near death experience to be the thing that shocks Joe back to life. But this isn't an easy movie, it tricks the viewer constantly by subverting expectations. Joe isn't born to be a teacher, this isn't a movie about what you're born to be at all, and death isn't what helps Joe see the water. It's 22.
Wallace spends a solid half of his speech talking about viewing the world from different perspectives. He gets at this a half dozen different ways — from eskimo atheists to angry drivers — in order to drive home the idea that sometimes you need to put yourself in another person's shoes in order to really see the water (thus the beauty of the liberal arts, which is all about understanding and embodying other people across space and time). Soul takes this idea and runs with it, literally putting 22 into Joe's body (and Joe into a cat). And in Joe's body, 22 is able to see the water. 22 is a blank canvas, with no expectations. She literally has no default settings, no prior experiences to bias her on what the world will look like. So when she's inside Joe, the water is crystal clear. She sees the sun, she loves walking, she enjoys the small leaves drifting down on the wind. And 22 recognizes these for what they are: not just water, but the ocean. All around, constantly present, majestic and beautiful and profound. When Joe finds himself back in his own body, it's not his near death experiences, or his love of jazz, or anything else that saves him. It's 22, and more specifically 22's memories. Joe watching 22 go through his life in a literal out of body experience, and then being able to relive the memories himself from 22's perspective, is enough to make him appreciate the ocean for what it is. When Joe is finally ready to go to the great beyond, he does so with release. He has lived and died and seen beauty, thanks to 22.
Soul has a lot of lessons. But as a response to This is Water, I think it says something more than just 'be appreciative of the little things'. Soul is about finding solace in what you have through the support of others. It's a reminder that being close to other people who are different from you, perhaps wildly incredibly different from you, is vital for one's personal growth and personal appreciation. And it's a story about hope, about optimism and joy in an otherwise miserable, tragic, unforgiving year — both at the global level, but also at the personal, me-and-you level.
The lessons of Soul are so profound to me. I think I've been on a tear, writing pages and pages about things I am grateful for. So much of this has come from putting myself in other people's shoes, either implicitly or (while I was depressed) explicitly, and imagining what life would be like for them. Thinking about the things that I have right now, that I would have to give up. When I was in middle school, I had a saying: you can't be jealous of just one thing in a person's life, because that's not fair; you have to be jealous of the whole package, their entire life, all the goods and bads that come with it. And this helped me kill jealousy from a very young age, because even though someone may have beaten me on a test, or smacked me down in a swim meet, or gotten a new video game that I really wanted, it didn't matter. I would never, ever give up what I had — my entire life, my friends, my family, my personality, my career — to live in their shoes. Two months ago, I was remarkably, incredibly depressed. And what put that to rest was remembering that in the fundamental luck of the universe, there are people who have winning hands and losing hands as the game continues round after round, and no matter how this specific trick went out I wouldn't give up my stacked deck for anything. I'd rather be myself, in this moment. And even in the darkest depths of depression, I would still rather be myself. I saw the beauty around me, and that pulled me out.
David Foster Wallace tells his listeners that the task of an educated adult is to be aware of the water -- to pay conscious attention to the defaults of society, to the drudgery and misery of other people, to the ways in which the patterns and routines of adulthood drag you and everyone else down. Wallace never really indicates whether recognizing the water is even a good thing — he kinda leaves it unsaid, in fact implying that knowledge of the truth of the world requires constant vigilance and work. I think Soul is a thunderous rejection of this fatalistic premise. There is so much good, so much to enjoy, so much in all of the little things, and we have an easy mechanism to access that joy through the help of those closest to us. At the end of the day, this isn't just water. It's the ocean. And we should all live like it.