Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘commencement’

21 JULY, 2015

Toni Morrison on How to Be Your Own Story and Reap the Rewards of Adulthood in a Culture That Fetishizes Youth

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“True adulthood… is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of.”

In May of 2004, a decade after receiving the Nobel Prize for her “visionary force and poetic import” and shortly after collaborating with her son on a little-known and lovely children’s book, Toni Morrison was invited to Wellesley College to deliver what is both among the greatest commencement addresses of all time and a courageous counterpoint to the entire genre — Morrison defies every graduation cliché with wisdom at once thoroughly grounding and immensely elevating, striking that difficult but crucial balance of critical thinking and hope.

Her extraordinary speech, included in the graduation compendium Take This Advice (public library), takes the art of the commencement address to the level of masterpiece — an art of taking what is and has always been true, rotating it 360 degrees with tremendous love and intellectual elegance, and coming back full-circle to the old truth that feels, suddenly, new and fresh and invigorating.

Morrison begins with a necessary nod to educators — a profession with a tryingly high risk of burnout:

I would remind the faculty and the administration of what each knows: that the work they do takes second place to nothing, nothing at all, and that theirs is a first order profession.

She then turns to one of the tritest, if truest, assertions of the commencement address genre — the idea that the future is the graduates’ for the taking:

The fact is it is not yours for the taking. And it is not whatever you make of it. The future is also what other people make of it, how other people will participate in it and impinge on your experience of it.

But I’m not going to talk anymore about the future because I’m hesitant to describe or predict because I’m not even certain that it exists. That is to say, I’m not certain that somehow, perhaps, a burgeoning ménage à trois of political interests, corporate interests and military interests will not prevail and literally annihilate an inhabitable, humane future. Because I don’t think we can any longer rely on separation of powers, free speech, religious tolerance or unchallengeable civil liberties as a matter of course. That is, not while finite humans in the flux of time make decisions of infinite damage. Not while finite humans make infinite claims of virtue and unassailable power that are beyond their competence, if not their reach.

Illustration by Giselle Potter from 'The Big Box' by Toni and Slade Morrison. Click image for more.

Although she argues that the past is rife with values “worthy of reverence and transmission” — this, after all, is a foundational premise here on Brain Pickings — Morrison considers the insufficiency of blindly turning to the past in remedying the present:

The past is already in debt to the mismanaged present. And besides, contrary to what you may have heard or learned, the past is not done and it is not over, it’s still in process, which is another way of saying that when it’s critiqued, analyzed, it yields new information about itself. The past is already changing as it is being reexamined, as it is being listened to for deeper resonances. Actually it can be more liberating than any imagined future if you are willing to identify its evasions, its distortions, its lies, and are willing to unleash its secrets.

Chief among these lies and distortions are the ideas our culture purveys about happiness. In a sentiment that calls to mind Ursula K. Le Guin’s devastatingly beautiful meditation on aging, Morrison issues an admonition to graduates, tucked into which is urgent wisdom for any breathing, dreaming human being in our world today:

I’m sure you have been told that this is the best time of your life. It may be. But if it’s true that this is the best time of your life, if you have already lived or are now living at this age the best years, or if the next few turn out to be the best, then you have my condolences. Because you’ll want to remain here, stuck in these so-called best years, never maturing, wanting only to look, to feel and be the adolescent that whole industries are devoted to forcing you to remain.

One more flawless article of clothing, one more elaborate toy, the truly perfect diet, the harmless but necessary drug, the almost final elective surgery, the ultimate cosmetic-all designed to maintain hunger for stasis. While children are being eroticized into adults, adults are being exoticized into eternal juvenilia. I know that happiness has been the real, if covert, target of your labors here, your choices of companions, of the profession that you will enter. You deserve it and I want you to gain it, everybody should. But if that’s all you have on your mind, then you do have my sympathy, and if these are indeed the best years of your life, you do have my condolences because there is nothing, believe me, more satisfying, more gratifying than true adulthood. The adulthood that is the span of life before you. The process of becoming one is not inevitable. Its achievement is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of.

Illustration by Pascal Lemaitre from 'The Book of Mean People' by Toni and Slade Morrison. Click image for more.

With a wistful eye to the damage her own generation has done in instilling these illusory ideals of commodified happiness, Morrison urges the next generation:

You don’t have to accept those media labels. You need not settle for any defining category. You don’t have to be merely a taxpayer or a red state or a blue state or a consumer or a minority or a majority.

To couple this rejection of old paradigms with a constructive reimagining of new and better ones, Morrison argues, requires learning to own your story — a notion nowhere more beautifully articulated than in her lucid and luminous closing words:

You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And although you don’t have complete control over the narrative (no author does, I can tell you), you could nevertheless create it.

Although you will never fully know or successfully manipulate the characters who surface or disrupt your plot, you can respect the ones who do by paying them close attention and doing them justice. The theme you choose may change or simply elude you, but being your own story means you can always choose the tone. It also means that you can invent the language to say who you are and what you mean. But then, I am a teller of stories and therefore an optimist, a believer in the ethical bend of the human heart, a believer in the mind’s disgust with fraud and its appetite for truth, a believer in the ferocity of beauty. So, from my point of view, which is that of a storyteller, I see your life as already artful, waiting, just waiting and ready for you to make it art.

Take This Advice includes thirty-five more excellent addresses, including ones by Meryl Streep, Seamus Heaney, and Nora Ephron.

Not in the book but well worth devouring are Joseph Brodsky’s six rules for winning at the game of life (University of Michigan, 1988), George Saunders on the power of kindness (Syracuse University, 2013), Teresita Fernandez on what it really means to be an artist (Virginia Commonwealth University, 2013), Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life (San Jose State University, 2013), Kurt Vonnegut on boredom, belonging, and our human responsibility (Fredonia College, 1978), Bill Watterson on creative integrity (Kenyon College, 1990), Patti Smith on learning to count on yourself (Pratt University, 2010), John Waters on creative rebellion (RISD, 2015), and David Foster Wallace’s legendary This Is Water (Kenyon College, 2005).

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15 JULY, 2015

35-Year-Old Emerson’s Extraordinary Harvard Divinity School Address on the Divine Transcendence of Nature

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In praise of the sentiment through which the soul comes to know itself.

I have long considered the commencement address the secular sermon of our time — the greatest commencement addresses deliver precisely the kind of well-packaged, eloquent, enchanting advice on what it takes to lead a good life that we used to find in worship services. But on July 15, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson took the podium before the graduating class at what is now the Harvard Divinity School to deliver a powerful and immeasurably beautiful speech that bridged these two traditions — the religious sermon and the secular packet of life-advice — unlike anything before or since.

He was only thirty-five.

Found in his altogether indispensable Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — the source of Emerson’s enduring wisdom on the two pillars of friendship, the key to personal growth, what beauty really means, and how to live with maximum aliveness — the speech is notable both for its substance and its place in time: Emerson wrote it in the midst of a deeply religious era, more than two decades before Darwin penned On the Origin of Species and formulated his theory of evolution, and was addressing a graduating class of divinity students. And yet despite that — or, rather, precisely because of it — what makes his speech so extraordinary is that he extolls a sort of secular spirituality nearly two centuries before our contemporary conceptions of it. Emerson admonishes against superstition and dogma, instead championing a “religious sentiment” — the era’s term for spirituality — predicated on moral virtue, a philosophy of presence, and a reverence of nature.

Emerson writes:

In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature was never displayed more happily. The corn and the wine have been freely dealt to all creatures, and the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward, has not yielded yet one word of explanation. One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world, in which our senses converse. How wide; how rich; what invitation from every property it gives to every faculty of man!

Art by Christopher Marley from 'Biophilia.' Click image for more.

A century and a half before Hannah Arendt made her elegant case for how our unanswerable questions make us human, Emerson argues that these are precisely the kinds of questions sparked in the human mind when we behold nature’s beauty and with with the awe it produces in us:

What am I? and What is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched. Behold these outrunning laws, which our imperfect apprehension can see tend this way and that, but not come full circle. Behold these infinite relations, so like, so unlike; many, yet one. I would study, I would know, I would admire forever. These works of thought have been the entertainments of the human spirit in all ages.

But from this awe, Emerson observes, springs an inquiry far more profound — one that has to do with the meaning of the good life:

A more secret, sweet, and overpowering beauty appears to man when his heart and mind open to the sentiment of virtue… He learns that his being is without bound…

The sentiment of virtue is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws. It perceives that this homely game of life we play, covers, under what seem foolish details, principles that astonish… This sentiment is the essence of all religion.

We now know, indeed, that this virtuous disposition is at the heart of the Golden Rule, a version of which is a centerpiece of all major religious traditions. Emerson considers the deeper moral impulse beneath the teachings of virtue:

The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus; in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted.

He turns to truth as the ultimate moral beauty:

Speak the truth, and all nature and all spirits help you with unexpected furtherance. Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there, do seem to stir and move to bear you witness.

From this moral aspiration, Emerson argues, springs what we call spirituality:

The perception of this law of laws awakens in the mind a sentiment which we call the religious sentiment, and which makes our highest happiness. Wonderful is its power to charm and to command. It is a mountain air. It is the embalmer of the world. It is myrrh and storax, and chlorine and rosemary. It makes the sky and the hills sublime, and the silent song of the stars is it. By it, is the universe made safe and habitable…

This sentiment is divine and deifying. It is the beatitude of man. It makes him illimitable. Through it, the soul first knows itself.

Illustration from 'You Are Stardust.' Click image for more.

In an admonition particularly poignant and timely in our era of divisive dogma, Emerson argues that spirituality cannot be taken on faith, as it were — it is not the result of preaching or dogma absorbed from the outside but a sentiment to be cultivated on the inside, a private “conversation with the beauty of the soul.” Emerson writes:

Whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.

Once again, Emerson astonishes with his capacity for holding duality — the hallmark of the truly enlightened mind. Here he is, delivering an address at the world’s foremost divinity school, and yet advocating for what is essentially a proto-version of the critical thinking Carl Sagan championed a century and a half later in his famous Baloney Detection Kit.

Emerson was well ahead of his time — and perhaps even of ours — in more ways than one. More than a century before Alan Watts began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West, he argues that these spiritual-moral values are best cultivated, and have been for millennia, “in the minds of men in the devout and contemplative East.” With an eye to these Eastern traditions, Emerson envisions a new spiritual movement that integrates these ideas into Western life:

I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty, which ravished the souls of those eastern men … and through their lips spoke oracles to all time, shall speak in the West also. The Hebrew and Greek Scriptures contain immortal sentences, that have been bread of life to millions. But they have no epical integrity; are fragmentary; are not shown in their order to the intellect. I look for the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.

Emerson’s Essays and Lectures, it bears repeating, is a magnificent and existentially necessary read in its hefty totality. Sample it further with Emerson on why we resist change, the true measure of friendship, and how beauty bewitches the human imagination, then complement this particular meditation with a contemporary counterpart: Sam Harris on how to cultivate spirituality without religion.

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23 JUNE, 2015

John Waters’s Spectacular RISD Commencement Address on Creative Rebellion and the Artist’s Task to Cause Constructive Chaos

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“Refuse to isolate yourself. Separatism is for losers.”

Joining the greatest commencement addresses of all time is John Waters’s spectacular 2015 RISD graduation speech on creative rebellion and the artist’s task to cause constructive chaos — annotated highlights transcribed below, please enjoy:

On letting your life speak and finding your bliss:

Somehow I’ve been able to make a living doing what I love best for 50 years without ever having to get a real job. “But how can you be so disciplined?” friends always ask when I tell them my job is to get up every day at 6 A.M. Monday to Friday and think up insane stuff. Easy! If I didn’t work this hard for myself, I’d have to go work for somebody else.

On not fearing rejection (for creative history is strewn with testaments to the importance of tenacity in its face, from Henri Rousseau’s heartening story of success after a lifetime of rejection to Joan Didion’s extensive collection of rejection slips to the bittersweet wisdom from Janis Joplin’s final interview):

Remember, a “no” is free — ask for the world and pay no mind if you are initially turned down. A career in the arts is like a hitchhiking trip — all you need is one person to say “Get in!” and off you go. And then the confidence begins.

On mastering the art of observation — which is as important in science as it is in art — and finding the necessary yin-yang of observation and participation:

You must participate in the creative world you want to become part of. So what if you have talent? Then what? You have to figure out how to work your way inside. Keep up with what’s causing chaos in your own field.

If you’re a visual artist, go see the shows in the galleries that are frantically competing to find the one bad neighborhood left in Manhattan to open up in.

Watch every movie that gets a negative review in The New York Times and figure out what the director did wrong.

Read, read, read!

Watch people on the streets — spy, be nosy, eavesdrop.

Decades after Susan Sontag’s piercing meditation on courage and resistance, Waters makes a more playful and irreverent but no less profound case for the necessity of countercultural bravery and constructive dissent:

Today may be the end of your juvenile delinquency, but it should also be the first day of your new adult disobedience.

These days, everybody wants to be an outsider, politically correct to a fault. That’s good. I hope you are working to end racism, sexism, ageism, fatism. But is that enough? … Maybe it’s time to throw caution to the wind, really shake things up, and reinvent yourself as a new version of your most dreaded enemy: the insider — like I am.

On applying Blaise Pascal’s method of persuasion:

You need to prepare sneak attacks on society. Hairspray is the only really devious movie I ever made. The musical based on it is now being performed in practically every high school in America — and nobody seems to notice it’s a show with two men singing a love song to each other that also encourages white teen girls to date black guys… Hairspray is a Trojan horse — it snuck into Middle America and never got caught.

You can do the same thing.

On the power of humor:

Listen to your political enemies, especially the smart ones, and then figure out a way to make them laugh. Nobody likes a bore on a soapbox. Humor is always the best defense and weapon. If you can make an idiot laugh, they’ll at least pause and listen before they do something stupid … to you.

On cultivating an identity that honors the expansiveness of the human spirit, one that is inclusive rather than exclusive:

Refuse to isolate yourself. Separatism is for losers. Gay is not enough anymore. It’s a good start, but I don’t want my memoirs to be in the gay section near true crime at the back of the bookstore next to the bathrooms. No! I want it up front with the best-sellers. (And don’t heterosexual kids actually receive more prejudice in art schools today than the gay ones?) Things are a-changin’ — it’s a confusing time.

A sidewise wink at the absurd aberrations of political correctness:

This might be time for a trigger warning… I’ve heard [that] you’re supposed to warn students if you’re going to talk about something that challenges their values — I thought that’s why you went to college. My whole life has been a trigger warning!

On living wholeheartedly in an unfeeling universe:

There’s no such thing as karma. So many of my talented great friends are dead and so many of the fools I’ve met and loathed are still alive — it’s not fair, and it never will be.

On the single most important task of parenting, which psychologists have also confirmed:

My parents made me feel safe, and that’s why I’m up here today. That’s what you should try to do to your children, too — no matter where you get your children these days.

On the artist’s task not only to bear witness to the universe but, as James Baldwin argued half a century earlier, to poke holes in it for new light to shine through:

Contemporary art’s job is to wreck what came before — is there a better job description than that to aspire to? … Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully… Horrify us with new ideas. Outrage outdated critics. Use technology for transgression, not lazy social living… It’s your turn to cause trouble — but this time in the real world, and this time from the inside.

For more of the finest commencement addresses of all time, see Teresita Fernandez on what it really means to be an artist (Virginia Commonwealth University, 2013), Joseph Brodsky’s six rules for winning at the game of life (University of Michigan, 1988), Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life (San Jose State University, 2013), Kurt Vonnegut on boredom, belonging, and our human responsibility (Fredonia College, 1978), Bill Watterson on creative integrity (Kenyon College, 1990), Patti Smith on learning to count on yourself (Pratt University, 2010), George Saunders on the power of kindness (Syracuse University, 2013), and Anna Quindlen’s undelivered Villanova address on the overlooked secret to a happy life.

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19 MAY, 2015

Beware the Rise of the Pseudo-Intellectual: Tom Wolfe’s Boston University Commencement Address

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“We live in an age in which ideas, important ideas, are worn like articles of fashion.”

Few things bypass our culture’s codified shell of cynicism more elegantly and powerfully than the commencement address — that singular mode of intravenous wisdom-delivery wherein an elder steps onto a stage and plugs straight into what Oscar Wilde called the “temperament of receptivity,” so elusive in all hearts and doubly so in the young. History’s greatest commencement addresses — masterworks like Joseph Brodsky’s “Speech at the Stadium” and David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” — deliver not vacant platitudes but hard-earned, life-tested insight into the beliefs, behaviors, and habits of mind that embolden us to live good, rewarding, noble lives.

That is what celebrated writer Tom Wolfe (b. March 2, 1931) delivered when he took the podium at Boston University in 2000 with a magnificent address included in Way More than Luck: Commencement Speeches on Living with Bravery, Empathy, and Other Existential Skills (public library).

Tom Wolfe by Henry Leutwyler

Wolfe begins by putting in perspective the value — the gift — of an education:

As someone who grew up in the Great Depression of the 1930s, I know that a commencement is a family triumph. Forget money. Aside from love, the cardinal virtues, and time, there is no greater gift parents can give a child than an education.

And yet much of the true value of education, Wolfe argues, is being eclipsed by what he calls “pernicious enlightenment” — our idea-fetishism, continually fueled by the challenge of finding wisdom in the age of information, which leads us to mistake surface impressions for substantive understanding. Wolfe writes:

We live in an age in which ideas, important ideas, are worn like articles of fashion — and for precisely the same reason articles of fashion are worn, which is to make the wearer look better and to feel à la mode.

He examines the role of the middle class in the dissemination and uptake of ideas:

The truth is that there is a common bond among all cultures, among all peoples in this world … at least among those who have reached the level of the wheel, the shoe, and the toothbrush. And that common bond is that much-maligned class known as the bourgeoisie — the middle class… They are all over the world, in every continent, every nation, every society, every culture, everywhere you find the wheel, the shoe, and the toothbrush, and wherever they are, all of them believe in the same things. And what are those things? Peace, order, education, hard work, initiative, enterprise, creativity, cooperation, looking out for one another, looking out for the future of children, patriotism, fair play, and honesty. How much more do you want from the human beast? How much more can you possibly expect?

I say that the middle class around the world … is the highest form of evolution. The bourgeoisie! — the human beast doesn’t get any better! The worldwide bourgeoisie makes what passes today for aristocrats — people consumed by juvenility who hang loose upon society — look like shiftless children.

Perhaps with an eye to Virginia Woolf’s legendary rant against the malady of middlebrow, Wolfe notes:

We writers spent the entire twentieth century tearing down the bourgeoisie! … We in the arts have been complicit in the denigration of the best people on earth. Why? Because so many of the most influential ideas of our time are the product of a new creature of the twentieth century, a creature that did not exist until 1898 — and that creature is known as “the intellectual.”

The true enemy of the assimilation of substantive ideas, Wolfe argues, isn’t the middlebrow person but the pseudo-intellectual or, even, the “intellectual” — for anyone who describes himself as an “intellectual” (to say nothing of a “public intellectual”) already implies the “pseudo” by the very act of such self-description. (You know the type — perhaps he has an exaggerated “European accent” of unidentifiable Germanic origin, perhaps he quotes Voltaire excessively, perhaps he slips one too many French words into ordinary speech where a perfectly good English option exists.) Wolfe makes an important distinction:

We must be careful to make a distinction between the intellectual and the person of intellectual achievement. The two are very, very different animals. There are people of intellectual achievement who increase the sum of human knowledge, the powers of human insight, and analysis. And then there are the intellectuals. An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others. Starting in the early twentieth century, for the first time an ordinary storyteller, a novelist, a short story writer, a poet, a playwright, in certain cases a composer, an artist, or even an opera singer could achieve a tremendous eminence by becoming morally indignant about some public issue. It required no intellectual effort whatsoever. Suddenly he was elevated to a plane from which he could look down upon ordinary people. Conversely — this fascinates me — conversely, if you are merely a brilliant scholar, merely someone who has added immeasurably to the sum of human knowledge and the powers of human insight, that does not qualify you for the eminence of being an intellectual.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'And the Pursuit of Happiness.' Click image for more.

Having often thought about the role of cynicism in our culture — how we use its self-righteous hubris to mask our insecurity and vulnerability — I find myself nodding vigorously with Wolfe’s observation about the use of “moral indignation” in public discourse:

One of the things that I find really makes it worth watching all the Academy Awards, all the Emmys, all those awards ceremonies, is to see how today’s actors and television performers have discovered the formula. If you become indignant, this elevates you to the plane of “intellectual.” No mental activity is required. It is a rule, to which there has never been an exception, that when an actor or a television performer rises up to the microphone at one of these awards ceremonies and expresses moral indignation over something, he illustrates Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “moral indignation is a standard strategy for endowing the idiot with dignity.”

Wolfe leaves graduates with a clarion call for cultivating the critical discernment necessary for making up one’s own mind in the face of such wearable intellectualism:

You’re not going to find many traditional judges who can lead you any longer, since they now wander helplessly, bemused by the willful ignorance of that bizarre twentieth-century organism, the intellectual. You’re going to have to make the crucial judgments yourselves. But you are among the very handful of those who can do it.

Way More than Luck, which also includes advice from Bradley Whitford, Debbie Millman, Nora Ephron, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Safran Foer, is an elevating read in its entirety. Complement it with this evolving archive of the greatest commencement addresses of all time, then revisit Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking.

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