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  • Rainey Knudson

The Fish Joke (244 words)

There’s an old joke about a fish not knowing where he is. (Spoiler alert: the joke is a metaphor.)

David Foster Wallace told a version of the joke in his famous “This is Water” commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005:

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?”

The recent Pixar movie Soul tells a different version, delivered by Angela Bassett. The hero of the story has just achieved his life’s dream by playing with Bassett’s jazz quartet at a club, and he feels deflated and anticlimactic afterwards. Like Wallace, she launches into the fish joke without any setup, although her version of the joke is less jokey:

I heard this story about a fish. He swims up to this older fish and says, “I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.” “The ocean?” says the older fish, “that’s what you’re in right now.” “This?” says the younger fish. “This is water. What I want is the ocean.”

In summary:

This is water.

This is the ocean.

The thing you want is all around you.

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.


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