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David Foster Wallace's Advice for Graduates

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Vimeo / The Glossary

In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave the commencement address at Kenyon College. There's a transcript of his remarks and up top he says:

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?"

Over the course of his speech, DFW proceeds to explain the banal water of our American lives. What is water to a new graduate? This man knows. Video producers The Glossary put a portion of the audio from his speech to video, in this touching short film, the advice for living made all the more poignant by DFW's death in 2008. It's well worth your time, even if you're not a DFW fan in particular. Set aside ten minutes and watch:

THIS IS WATER - By David Foster Wallace from The Glossary on Vimeo.

This isn't the first time we've covered this commencement address at Kenyon. Our own Ransom Riggs (along with John Green) went to Kenyon, and wrote about his experience meeting the man in the late 90s.

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Columbia Pictures
8 Creative Interpretations of Groundhog Day
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Columbia Pictures

In the 24 years since Groundhog Day’s original release, fans have spent plenty of time and precious web bandwidth attempting to decode the alleged layers that exist just below the surface. Groundhog Day as metaphor? These eight theories say yes.

1. BILL MURRAY IS OUR SAVIOR.

Among the first groups to embrace the message of Groundhog Day were Buddhists, who were moved by its story of rebirth. As part of a talk at New York City’s Hudson Union Society in 2009, director Harold Ramis spoke about the many people who had been moved by the film—including his Zen Buddhist mother-in-law.

She isn’t alone. In an essay entitled “Groundhog Day The Movie, Buddhism and Me,” Spiritual Cinema Circle co-founder Stephen Simon calls the film “a wonderful human comedy about being given the rare opportunity to live several lifetimes all in the same day. Of course, that's not how the film was marketed but, for our purposes, I believe that concept is at the soul of the story.” In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. Angela Zito, co-director of NYU's Center for Religion and Media, noted that the film illustrates the Buddhist idea of samsara, or continuing rebirth. “In Mahayana [Buddhism], nobody ever imagines they are going to escape samsara until everybody else does,” she noted. “That is why you have bodhisattvas, who reach the brink of nirvana, and stop and come back and save the rest of us. Bill Murray is the bodhisattva. He is not going to abandon the world. On the contrary, he is released back into the world to save it.”

2. PUNXSUTAWNEY PHIL IS JESUS CHRIST RESURRECTED.

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Bill Murray isn’t the only seemingly otherworldly figure in Groundhog Day. In the same New York Times feature, film critic Michael Bronski noted the Christ-like attributes assigned to Punxsutawney Phil (yes, the groundhog) in the film. “The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ, the ever hopeful renewal of life at springtime, at a time of pagan-Christian holidays,” he noted.

3. PUNXSUTAWNEY IS PURGATORY.

In the space between heaven and hell, according to Catholic Church doctrine, is purgatory. And in Groundhog Day, purgatory is the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania itself—a place where Phil Connors must undergo his own brand of purification in order to decide the fate of his afterlife. Blogger Jim Ciscell scoured the Internet to come up with the “Top 10 Reasons Why the Movie Groundhog Day is Actually Set in Purgatory,” which includes Connors’ own assertion in the film that he is “a god.”

4. IT’S A METAPHOR FOR JUDAISM.

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Dr. Niles Goldstein, a rabbi at New York City’s New Shul congregation, sees Connors’ actions as specifically geared toward Judaism, citing the fact that his good deeds beget more good deeds, as opposed to a place in heaven or state of nirvana. “The movie tells us, as Judaism does, that the work doesn't end until the world has been perfected,” Goldstein told The New York Times.

5. IT’S A METAPHOR FOR PSYCHOANALYSIS.

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There aren’t a lot of Hollywood comedies that have gained analytical attention from the psychiatric community—and psychoanalysts in particular. In his talk at the Hudson Union Society, Ramis recalled the number of psychiatric professionals who told him that, “Obviously the movie’s a metaphor for psychoanalysis, because we revisit the same stories and keep reliving these same patterns in our life. And the whole goal of psychoanalysis is to break those patterns of behavior.”

The comparisons have continued. In 2006, the International Journal of Psychoanalysis printed an essay entitled, “Revisiting Groundhog Day: Cinematic Depiction of Mutative Process,” which explained that the film “shows us a man trapped by his narcissistic defenses. The device of repetition becomes a representation of developmental arrest and closure from object relatedness. Repetition also becomes a means of escape from his characterological dilemma. The opportunity to redo and learn from experience—in particular, to love and learn through experience with a good object—symbolizes the redemptive, reparative possibilities in every life.”

6. IT’S A PERFECT COMPARISON FOR MILITARY BOREDOM.

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Shortly after the film’s release, members of the military began using the term “Groundhog Day” as slang, in reference to the monotony of their days. In 1994, the crew of the USS Saratoga, who were deployed to the Adriatic Sea, nicknamed their post “Groundhog Station” for this very reason. In 1996, while speaking to American troops at Tuzla Airfield in Bosnia, then-President Bill Clinton showed he was hip to the lingo (but in a Commander in Chief kind of way) when he noted that, “I am told that some of you have compared life here with the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, where the same day keeps repeating itself over and over and over again. I'm also told that there are really only two kinds of weather conditions here in Tuzla. When it snows, the mud freezes, and when it rains, the mud thaws. Even the dining hall apparently is in on the act, dishing out the same food every morning and night.” The phrase took a turn for the formal when it was included in The Oxford Handbook of Military Psychology, which contains a chapter on “Boredom: Groundhog Day as Metaphor for Iraq.”

7. GROUNDHOG DAY AS ECONOMIC THEORY.

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In 2006, economist D. W. MacKenzie published an article on “The Economics of Groundhog Day,” noting that the movie “illustrates the importance of the Mises-Hayek paradigm as an alternative to equilibrium economics by illustrating the unreal nature of equilibrium theorizing.” Say what?

“In economic terms the final reliving of the day constitutes what economists refer to as a perfectly competitive equilibrium based on perfect information,” MacKenzie goes on to explain. “With full knowledge of how to realize every possible gain during this day, Connors is able take advantage of every opportunity for gain. The difference between his first time through the day and his final reliving are dramatic. While this is of course only a movie, it does serve to illustrate the wide gulf between the economists' notion of perfectly competitive equilibrium and reality.”

8. IT’S A SELF-HELP BIBLE.

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For motivational speaker Paul Hannam, the key to self-fulfillment can be found in Groundhog Day’s 101 minutes. His book, The Magic of Groundhog Day, forms the basis of his transformative program of self-improvement, which promises to help its users “learn how to unlock the magic of the movie to transform your life at home and at work” and to “break free from repetitive thoughts and behaviors that keep you stuck in a rut.”

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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How Soap Operas Borrow from Aristotle
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Unbelievable plot twists have become a defining feature of soap operas. Whether a character shows up alive after being presumed dead, reveals the existence of a secret (and often evil) twin, or suffers from a surprising bout of amnesia, curveballs have become a standard narrative in daytime dramas.

Soaps still bring in millions of viewers, even though many people consider them to be an inferior form of entertainment. But ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle asserted that plot twists do more than simply shock the audience and advance the plot; they're actually the mark of a superior, complex piece of entertainment. We can see striking similarities between today’s soaps—with their melodramatic plot twists and stunning moments of revelation—and classic Greek tragedies.

In Poetics (335 BCE), Aristotle explains the basics of drama, touching on such topics as tragedy, comedy, plot, characters, rhythm, and narrative. Arguing that a tragedy’s most important element is its plot, he makes a distinction between simple plots and complex ones. Because complex plots contain peripeteia (a sudden reversal of fortune) and/or anagnorisis (the realization of reason behind that reversal), they are better and more advanced than simple plots.

Aristotle defines peripeteia as "a change by which the action veers round to its opposite." While peripeteia (a.k.a. a plot twist) is an unexpected or sudden reversal in a situation, anagnorisis is the moment of recognition when a character discovers a new, essential piece of information and changes from a state of ignorance to knowledge. So in a soap opera, an example of peripeteia would be a character turning out to have a secret, evil twin. And that character discovering that he or she has a heretofore secret, malicious twin would be anagnorisis.

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But all plot twists are neither equally valid nor the mark of a fine drama. According to Aristotle, peripeteia and anagnorisis "should arise from the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action." In other words, plots that contain a plot twist are only strong and satisfying if the plot twist makes sense in the greater context of the story. 

"Within the action there must be nothing irrational," Aristotle writes in Poetics. So he might view the plot twists in some soap operas as forced, ridiculous, and worlds apart from the twist in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, which he cites as the perfect example of peripeteia coinciding with anagnorisis. As Oedipus discovers the true identity of his father and mother/wife, Sophocles masterfully uses both peripeteia and anagnorisis to shock the audience, make them feel pity and fear, and tie up loose plot ends.

Aristotle’s influence on literary and dramatic theory extends much further than soap operas. Our literature, plays, TV shows, and films all have Aristotelian roots, and even movies such as Star Wars and The Sixth Sense make particularly memorable use of peripeteia and anagnorisis.

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