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November 9, 1928: The Trial of Radclyffe Hall and Virginia Woolf’s Exquisite Case for the Freedom of Speech

“Writers produce literature, and they cannot produce great literature until they have free minds. The free mind has access to all knowledge and speculation of its age, and nothing cramps it like a taboo.”

November 9, 1928: The Trial of Radclyffe Hall and Virginia Woolf’s Exquisite Case for the Freedom of Speech

In July of 1928, three months before the publication of Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking novel Orlando — a classic celebrated as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” which subverted censorship and revolutionized the politics of same-sex love — the English novelist and poet Radclyffe Hall (August 12, 1880–October 7, 1943) set into motion a cultural revolution. With the publication of The Well of Loneliness (public library), the way gender and sexual identities are formulated and articulated was forever changed.

Hall, born Marguerite Radclyffe Hall but known to her loved ones as John, was an out lesbian who dressed in men’s clothes in a society and era when same-sex love was considered not only immoral but legally punishable. In the spring of 1928, encouraged by the success of her previous writings, Hall warned her publisher, Jonathan Cape, that her next book would require a high degree of faith on his behalf, for she was taking a great personal and cultural risk. “I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world,” she wrote to him in a letter cited in Sally Cline’s biography Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John (public library). “So far as I know nothing of the kind has ever been attempted before in fiction,” she added.

Cape, who also published such literary daredevils as Ian Fleming and James Joyce, was willing to take the risk. Hall delivered. The manuscript she turned in was a pioneering inquiry into gender and sexual identity, part social protest against bigotry and part manifesto for equality.

Radclyffe Hall
Radclyffe Hall

She made her heroine, Stephen Gordon, both a lesbian and unambiguously likable: loyal, tenderhearted, often mistreated, and endowed with what Descartes called “nobility of soul,” that most admirable of virtues. Stephen was animated by one central question: “Why am I as I am — and what am I?” It echoed what young Leo Tolstoy in his diary nearly a century earlier: “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” For queer people, this question has always been acutely alive, but especially in eras and cultures where not all answers have been acceptable. The devastation of that unacceptability is found in the damning words of Stephen’s mother: “This thing that you are is a sin against creation.” — words strikingly similar to those with which Oliver Sacks’s mother broke her son’s heart. Hall’s intention was that her novel would “speak on behalf of a misunderstood and misjudged minority” — a minority to which she herself belonged, rendering the book both deeply political and deeply personal.

Many initial reviews were favorable. Some lauded Hall’s countercultural bravery. One reviewer, Vera Brittain, wrote that the novel “can only strengthen the belief of all honest and courageous persons that there is no problem which is not better stated frankly than concealed,” and that “persecution and disgusted ostracism have never saved any difficulty in the world.”

Radclyffe Hall by unknown photographer, circa 1930 (National Portrait Gallery)
Radclyffe Hall by unknown photographer, circa 1930 (National Portrait Gallery)

But the vociferous editor of the Sunday Express, a man named James Douglas, did what critics — especially self-satisfied male critics — do to this day upon encountering art they don’t understand or find personally objectionable: He argued that it was not a work of art but immoral propaganda and wrote that he “would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.” Douglas launched a concerted campaign to suppress the book, which rose all the way up to Britain’s Home Secretary — a man so conservative that, in addition to attempting to ban alcohol and nightclubs, he had opposed a revised version of The Book of Common Prayer.

Despite an outcry by some of the era’s most venerated writers and intellectuals, Douglas’s tireless bullying pushed matters to court and a trial for obscenity began on November 9, 1928. (Lest we forget the gravity of those charges, a generation earlier Oscar Wilde had been sent to prison for his homosexuality under similar charges of obscenity.)

Radclyffe Hall by Charles Buchel, 1918 (National Portrait Gallery/)
Radclyffe Hall by Charles Buchel, 1918 (National Portrait Gallery/)

Hall’s publisher and his team mailed 160 letters to potential witnesses who would be willing to stand against the censorship. Many never responded. Some gave unimaginative pretexts for why they couldn’t help. H.G. Wells declined, saying he was going abroad; he might as well have claimed to be mounting his time machine. In a letter to her nephew penned eight days before the trial, Virginia Woolf lamented the collective cowardice behind the litany of excuses:

Most of our friends are trying to evade the witness box; for reasons you may guess. But they generally put it down to the weak heart of a father, or a cousin who is about to have twins.

Among the courageous were fifty-seven esteemed writers and scientists, many of whom were ready to defend the novel’s social and political function as a call for equality and freedom, despite doubting its literary merit. Vita Sackville-West — Woolf’s longtime lover and the inspiration for her own censorship-subverting queer classic — went to the trial ready to testify. The Bloomsbury set were particularly troubled on creative grounds. Lytton Starchey, one of Woolf’s dearest friends and a queer man himself, agreed to take the witness stand, but not without noting in a letter to E.M. Forster — also a willing witness — that “the book itself is pretty frightful.”

Woolf herself was reluctantly willing to be a witness on account of the novel’s political significance and her contempt for censorship, but dreaded defending what she considered to be a “pale tepid vapid book which lay damp & slab all about the court” — writing, in other words, afflicted with the malady of middlebrow. So when the magistrate, Sir Chartres Biron, ruled that writers couldn’t testify as experts on obscenity, only on art, which wasn’t permitted as evidence, she was immensely relieved to be dismissed from witness duty.

Woolf captured the larger significance of the trial in her diary:

What is obscenity? What is literature? What is the difference between the subject & the treatment?

A week later, Sir Biron ruled that the novel was obscene, ordering that it be destroyed and that the defendants pay court costs. The decision was appealed in a second trial — in which Rudyard Kipling was summoned and never actually used as a witness — but after deliberating for only five minutes, the five new magistrates upheld the original decision. Across the Atlantic, Alfred A. Knopf, who had acquired the American rights, cowered from publishing a book censored by its country of origin.

In a letter Woolf co-wrote with to E.M. Forster, she once again captured the grim enormity of the implications:

Novelists in England have now been forbidden to mention [lesbianism]… Although forbidden as a main theme, may it be alluded to, or ascribed to subsidiary characters? … Writers produce literature, and they cannot produce great literature until they have free minds. The free mind has access to all knowledge and speculation of its age, and nothing cramps it like a taboo. A novelist may not wish to treat any of the subjects mentioned above but the sense that they are prohibited or prohibitable, that there is a taboo-list, will work on him and will make him alert and cautious instead of surrendering himself to his creative impulses. And he will tend to cling to subjects that are officially acceptable, such as murder and adultery, and to shun anything original lest it lead him into forbidden areas.

And yet The Well of Loneliness made its way into the body of culture. In America, the publishers Pascal Covici (who would later join Viking and become John Steinbeck’s fairy godfather) and Donald Friede took a $10,000 bank loan — around $137,000 in today’s money — in order to purchase the rights from Cape. They enlisted the help of Morris Ernst, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, and set about defending the book against censorship. To protect booksellers from being targeted, Friede reached out to the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and offered to sell him a copy of the book directly. But even before Friede and Covici were taken to court, the book sold more than 100,000 copies in its first year — despite its price point at $5, twofold the average for fiction, proving Neil Gaiman’s insistence that “repressing ideas spreads ideas.”

The logo for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, depicting a book being burned
The logo for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, depicting a book being burned

Eventually, the NYPD invaded the publisher’s New York offices and confiscated 865 copies of the book. But under U.S. federal law, literary merit was allowed as evidence against changes of obscenity, unlike during the U.K. trial, so Covici and Friede assembled a formidable roster of writers to stick up for the novel — including Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Ernst argued for the novel’s value as a protest against intolerance and a tool of social justice. After a series of contentious legal battles, justice prevailed on August 19, 1929: New York’s Court of Special Sessions ruled that Hall dealt with “a delicate social problem,” which in itself didn’t violate the law and therefore merited her novel’s free circulation. All charges were dropped and Radclyffe Hall went on to become a cultural icon.

Radclyffe Hall by Howard Coster, 1932 (National Portrait Gallery
Radclyffe Hall by Howard Coster, 1932 (National Portrait Gallery

As Lillian Faderman writes in her excellent book Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (public library), queer women in America came to call Hall “Our Matron Saint” and one mid-century op-ed proposed that the “inelegant word butch” be replaced with clyffe. Today, Hall’s influence can be traced to lesbian icons like Adrienne Rich, Jeanette Winterson, and Audre Lorde, and the cultural significance of her work finds no greater testament than in Lorde’s assertion the “visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.”

BP

On Nonconformity: Artist Ben Shahn’s Spirited Defense of Nonconformists as Society’s Engine of Growth and Greatness

“Without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay.”

On Nonconformity: Artist Ben Shahn’s Spirited Defense of Nonconformists as Society’s Engine of Growth and Greatness

“Society,” Emerson wrote in his timeless treatise on self-reliance and what it really means to be a nonconformist, “is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.” In such a groupthink society, Emerson cautioned, conformity is the most prized virtue, but whoever wishes to be a true person “must be a nonconformist.”

“Life would be dull indeed without experimenters and courageous breakers-with-tradition,” wrote Marie Bullock, the courageous founder of the Academy of American Poets, a century later when she rose to defend E.E. Cummings from his detractors in 1951 — detractors who had attacked the Academy for awarding him their annual fellowship and accused Cummings, now one of the most beloved and influential artists of the past century, for being an “arch-poseur and pretender” and a “disintegrator of language” who had dared to break with tradition, invent new creative forms, and, in sum, be a nonconformist.

Five years later, the great artist Ben Shahn (September 12, 1898–March 14, 1969) made what remains the most elegant case for the transformative power and sheer cultural necessity of nonconformity in one of his six lectures for Harvard’s Charles Edward Norton Lectures, eventually published with original illustrations by Shahn as The Shape of Content (public library).

benshahn

In the fourth of the six lectures, titled “On Nonconformity,” Shahn writes:

The artist is likely to be looked upon with some uneasiness by the more conservative members of society. He seems a little unpredictable. Who knows but that he may arrive for dinner in a red shirt… appear unexpectedly bearded… offer, freely, unsolicited advice… or even ship off one of his ears to some unwilling recipient? However glorious the history of art, the history of artists is quite a different matter. And in any well-ordered household the very thought that one of the young men may turn out to be an artist can be a cause for general alarm. It may be a point of great pride to have a Van Gogh on the living room wall, but the prospect of having Van Gogh himself in the living room would put a good many devoted art lovers to rout.

Shahn illustrates the value of nonconformity as a catalyst of cultural evolution with the story of the tumult that took place in France when officials proposed that one of the pavilions of the prestigious 1925 Paris Exhibition be set up in the space belonging to the Society of Independent Artists — the collective of nonconformists whose annual exhibitions had been setting the tone for modern art since their formation in 1884. It was suggested that these innovators had done their job and there was no further need for their tradition-upending sensibility, so they should relinquish their space to the traditional art establishment.

benshahn_nonconformist4

An art critic appalled by the backward proposition responded with twenty-five reasons why the Independents should keep their space and hold their annual exhibition. The reasons he listed were only names — the names of the most recent winners of the Prix de Rome, the venerated French art award that had been conferred upon promising talents in traditional art since 1663. All but one of those names were by then completely unknown. The critic juxtaposed those with the names of twenty-five artists who had presented at the Independents’ exhibition — artists who, as Shahn points out, “could not by any stretch of the imagination have won such an award [as the Prix de Rome].” Among those were Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, and Cézanne.

Shahn considers the allegorical moral of the incident:

By fulfilling current standards drawn out of past art, the applicants [to the Prix de Rome] had won the approval of officials whose standards also were based upon past art, and who could hardly be expected to have visions of the future. But it is always in the future that the course of art lies, and so all the guesses of the officials were wrong guesses.

benshahn_nonconformist2

The very quality that prevents artists like the Independents from being lauded by the traditional establishment, Shahn argues, is the same quality that makes them capable of shaping the future, unencumbered by the past. He writes:

All art is based upon nonconformity [and] every great historical change has been based upon nonconformity, has been bought either with the blood or with the reputation of nonconformists. Without nonconformity we should have had no Bill of Rights or Magna Charta, no public education system, no nation upon this continent, no continent, no science at all, no philosophy, and considerably fewer religions. All that is pretty obvious.

But it seems to be less obvious somehow that to create anything at all in any field, and especially anything of outstanding worth, requires nonconformity, or a want of satisfaction with things as they are. The creative person — the nonconformist — may be in profound disagreement with the present way of things, or he may simply wish to add his views, to render a personal account of matters.

benshahn_nonconformist1

Shahn notes that while creative nonconformity is sometimes immediately recognizable as intransigence and deliberate rebellion, it isn’t always predicated on sudden and total upending of tradition — it often happens that a series of artists each contribute systematic small steps that eventually add up to an unexpected cultural leap. (Steven Johnson has termed this type of incremental innovation in science “the hummingbird effect.”) And yet all nonconformity — whether it operates on a small or large scale, whether it occurs in an instant or over time — requires a dissatisfaction with the status quo or, at the very least, a disinterest in its dicta. In a sentiment that James Baldwin would come to echo just a few years later in his unforgettable assertion that “the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war,” Shahn writes:

The artist occupies a unique position vis-à-vis the society in which he lives. However dependent upon it he may be for his livelihood, he is still somewhat removed from its immediate struggles for social status or for economic supremacy. He has no really vested interest in the status quo.

The only vested interest — or one might say, professional concern — which he does have in the present way of things rests in his ability to observe them, to assimilate the multifarious details of reality, to form some intelligent opinion about the society or at least an opinion consistent with his temperament.

That being the case, he must maintain an attitude at once detached and deeply involved. Detached, in that he must view all things with an outer and abstracting eye. Shapes rest against shapes, colors augment colors, and modify and relate and mingle mutually. Contrasts in life move constantly across the field of vision — tensions between the grotesque and the sad, between the contemptible and the much-loved; tensions of such special character as to be almost imperceptible; dramatic, emotional situations within the most banal settings. Only the detached eye is able to perceive these properties and qualities of things.

Within such contrasts and juxtapositions lies the very essence of what life is today, or any day. Whoever would know his day or would capture its essential character must maintain such a degree of detachment.

And yet where the artist differs from the scientist, Shahn argues, is in the necessity for feeling things in addition to merely perceiving them. Unlike the scientist, who may exhibit what Einstein called “a passion for comprehension” but goes about pursuing that passion with the cool tools of reason, the artist operates from an intuitive place of deep feeling. Echoing Anaïs Nin’s assertion that emotional excess is essential for creativity, Shahn writes:

[The artist] must never fail to be involved in the pleasures and the desperations of mankind, for in them lies the very source of feeling upon which the work of art is registered. Feeling, being always specific and never generalized, must have its own vocabulary of things experienced and felt.

It is because of these parallel habits of detachment and of emotional involvement that artists so often become critics of society and so often become partisans in its burning causes. And also it is why they are so likely to be nonconformists in their personal lives.

More than a century after Kierkegaard contemplated the power of the minority and why we conform, Shahn points out the paradox of nonconformity, which has only grown more pronounced in the decades since:

It is an amusing contradiction of our time that we do applaud a sort of copy-book nonconformity. Everyone laments the increase in conformity; everyone knows that too much conformity is bad for art and literature and politics, and that it may deal the death-blow to National Greatness. The deadening effects of over-conformity are well understood. Yet, when it comes to the matter of just what kind of nonconformity shall be encouraged, liberality of view recedes. There seems to be no exact place where nonconformity can be fitted in.

[…]

Without the person of outspoken opinion, however, without the critic, without the visionary, without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay. Its habits (let us say its virtues) will inevitably become entrenched and tyrannical; its controls will become inaccessible to the ordinary citizen.

[…]

Nonconformity is the basic pre-condition of art, as it is the pre-condition of good thinking and therefore of growth and greatness in a people. The degree of nonconformity present — and tolerated — in a society must be looked upon as a symptom of its state of health.

benshahn_nonconformist3

Shahn considers the primary species of conformity:

There is always an impressive number of artists who are overwhelmed by the nearest outstanding figure. They adopt his point of view and mannerisms and become a school; that is one kind of art conformity.

Another kind of conformity is derived from the wholly venal business of catering to a popular market. Still another results from trends and the yearning of artists — an almost irresistible yearning — to be in the forefront of things.

Writing half a century before the filter bubble of the social web, that ultimate generator of groupthink, Shahn adds:

All these kinds of conformity are inevitable and to be expected. But there has grown around us a vastly increased conformity. One could say “conformism” here; for this is conformity by doctrine and by tribunal.

Shahn ends with a timeless and poignantly illustrative parable of the difference in motives driving the various conformists and the nonconformist — a parable a version of which the poet Sarah Kay, a true nonconformist of our time, likes to tell. Shahn writes:

I remember a story that my father used to tell of a traveler in thirteenth-century France who met three men wheeling wheelbarrows. He asked in what work they were engaged and he received from them the following three answers: the first said, “I toil from sunup to sundown and all I receive for my pain is a few francs a day.” The second said, “I am glad enough to wheel this wheelbarrow for I have been out of work for many months and I have a family to support. The third said, “I am building Chartres Cathedral.”

I always feel that the committees and the tribunals and the civic groups and their auxiliaries harbor no misgivings about the men who wheel their wheelbarrows for however many francs a day; the object of their suspicions seems, inevitably, to be the man who is building Chartres Cathedral.

Complement Shahn’s thoroughly invigorating The Shape of Content with James Baldwin on the artist’s struggle for integrity and Teresita Fernández on what it takes to be an artist, then revisit Albert Camus on what it means to be a rebel and the vintage satirical gem How to Be a Nonconformist.

Thanks, Wendy

BP

Making the Impossible Possible: 21-Year-Old Hillary Rodham’s Remarkable 1969 Wellesley College Commencement Speech

“If the only tool we have ultimately to use is our lives, so we use it in the way we can by choosing a way to live that will demonstrate the way we feel and the way we know.”

Making the Impossible Possible: 21-Year-Old Hillary Rodham’s Remarkable 1969 Wellesley College Commencement Speech

“America,” Walt Whitman wrote in his remarkable essay on democracy and why a strong society is a feminist society, “if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without… Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote.”

A century after Whitman, 21-year-old Hillary Clinton, then Hillary Rodham, took the stage at Wellesley College on May 31, 1969, and addressed the graduating class — her own class — in a remarkable commencement speech, later included in In Our Own Words: Extraordinary Speeches of the American Century (public library). It endures as a triumphant testament to idealism unblunted by half a century of fighting on the front lines of the common good, and calls to mind Albert Camus’s insistence that “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”

21-year-old Hillary Rodham, Wellesley College, 1969
21-year-old Hillary Rodham, Wellesley College, 1969

“We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us even understands and attempting to create within that uncertainty,” Clinton tells her classmates as they set out to enter and shape the world in an era of at least as much sociocultural tumult and recalibration as our own. “For too long,” she urges, “our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.” Facing the gap between her generation’s expectations and their reality, young Clinton celebrates it as a source of “divine discontent,” that supreme creative fuel, rather than cynicism, that the magic of real human communication, Clinton leans on the poetic to make her political and humane point: “Words have a funny way of trapping our minds on the way to our tongues but there are necessary means even in this multimedia age for attempting to come to grasps with some of the inarticulate maybe even inarticulable things that we’re feeling.”

She speaks of what it means to have “integrity, the courage to be whole, to try to mold an entire person in this particular context, living in relation to one another in the full poetry of existence.” And she ends with an exquisite poem by the unduly forgotten poet Nancy Scheibner — a poem ablaze with astonishing prescience, with lines like “My entrance into the world of so-called ‘social problems’ / Must be with quiet laughter, or not at all. / The hollow men of anger and bitterness / The bountiful ladies of righteous degradation / All must be left to a bygone age.”

May this recording, courtesy of Wellesley College and Clinton’s official With Her podcast hosted by Max Linsky, remind us of the bygone age and the hollow men we must most urgently leave behind as we make the impossible possible.

I find myself in a familiar position, that of reacting, something that our generation has been doing for quite a while now. We’re not in the positions yet of leadership and power, but we do have that indispensable element of criticizing and constructive protest and I find myself reacting just briefly to some of the things that Senator Brooke said. This has to be quick because I do have a little speech to give.

Part of the problem with just empathy with professed goals is that empathy doesn’t do us anything. We’ve had lots of empathy; we’ve had lots of sympathy, but we feel that for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible. What does it mean to hear that 13.3 percent of the people in this country are below the poverty line? That’s a percentage. We’re not interested in social reconstruction; it’s human reconstruction. How can we talk about percentages and trends? The complexities are not lost in our analyses, but perhaps they’re just put into what we consider a more human and eventually a more progressive perspective.

The question about possible and impossible was one that we brought with us to Wellesley four years ago. We arrived not yet knowing what was not possible. Consequently, we expected a lot. Our attitudes are easily understood having grown up, having come to consciousness in the first five years of this decade—years dominated by men with dreams, men in the civil rights movement, the Peace Corps, the space program—so we arrived at Wellesley and we found, as all of us have found, that there was a gap between expectation and realities. But it wasn’t a discouraging gap and it didn’t turn us into cynical, bitter old women at the age of 18. It just inspired us to do something about that gap. What we did is often difficult for some people to understand. They ask us quite often: “Why, if you’re dissatisfied, do you stay in a place?” Well, if you didn’t care a lot about it you wouldn’t stay. It’s almost as though my mother used to say, “You know I’ll always love you but there are times when I certainly won’t like you.” Our love for this place, this particular place, Wellesley College, coupled with our freedom from the burden of an inauthentic reality allowed us to question basic assumptions underlying our education.

Before the days of the media orchestrated demonstrations, we had our own gathering over in Founder’s parking lot. We protested against the rigid academic distribution requirement. We worked for a pass-fail system. We worked for a say in some of the process of academic decision making. And luckily we were at a place where, when we questioned the meaning of a liberal arts education there were people with enough imagination to respond to that questioning. So we have made progress. We have achieved some of the things that we initially saw as lacking in that gap between expectation and reality. Our concerns were not, of course, solely academic as all of us know. We worried about inside Wellesley questions of admissions, the kind of people that were coming to Wellesley, the kind of people that should be coming to Wellesley, the process for getting them here. We questioned about what responsibility we should have both for our lives as individuals and for our lives as members of a collective group.

Coupled with our concerns for the Wellesley inside here in the community were our concerns for what happened beyond Hathaway House. We wanted to know what relationship Wellesley was going to have to the outer world. We were lucky in that Miss Adams, one of the first things she did was set up a cross-registration with MIT because everyone knows that education just can’t have any parochial bounds anymore. One of the other things that we did was the Upward Bound program. There are so many other things that we could talk about; so many attempts to kind of – at least the way we saw it – pull ourselves into the world outside. And I think we’ve succeeded. There will be an Upward Bound program, just for one example, on the campus this summer.

Many of the issues that I’ve mentioned—those of sharing power and responsibility, those of assuming power and responsibility—have been general concerns on campuses throughout the world. But underlying those concerns there is a theme, a theme which is so trite and so old because the words are so familiar. It talks about integrity and trust and respect. Words have a funny way of trapping our minds on the way to our tongues but there are necessary means even in this multimedia age for attempting to come to grasps with some of the inarticulate maybe even inarticulable things that we’re feeling.

We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us even understands and attempting to create within that uncertainty. But there are some things we feel, feelings that our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living. And so our questions, our questions about our institutions, about our colleges, about our churches, about our government continue. The questions about those institutions are familiar to all of us. We have seen them heralded across the newspapers. Senator Brooke has suggested some of them this morning. But along with using these words—integrity, trust, and respect—in regard to institutions and leaders, we’re perhaps harshest with them in regard to ourselves.

Every protest, every dissent, whether it’s an individual academic paper or Founder’s parking lot demonstration, is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age. That attempt at forging for many of us over the past four years has meant coming to terms with our humanness. Within the context of a society that we perceive—now we can talk about reality, and I would like to talk about reality sometime, authentic reality, inauthentic reality, and what we have to accept of what we see—but our perception of it is that it hovers often between the possibility of disaster and the potentiality for imaginatively responding to men’s needs. There’s a very strange conservative strain that goes through a lot of New Left, collegiate protests that I find very intriguing because it harkens back to a lot of the old virtues, to the fulfillment of original ideas. And it’s also a very unique American experience. It’s such a great adventure. If the experiment in human living doesn’t work in this country, in this age, it’s not going to work anywhere.

But we also know that to be educated, the goal of it must be human liberation. A liberation enabling each of us to fulfill our capacity so as to be free to create within and around ourselves. To be educated to freedom must be evidenced in action, and here again is where we ask ourselves, as we have asked our parents and our teachers, questions about integrity, trust, and respect. Those three words mean different things to all of us. Some of the things they can mean, for instance: Integrity, the courage to be whole, to try to mold an entire person in this particular context, living in relation to one another in the full poetry of existence. If the only tool we have ultimately to use is our lives, so we use it in the way we can by choosing a way to live that will demonstrate the way we feel and the way we know. Integrity—a man like Paul Santmire. Trust. This is one word that when I asked the class at our rehearsal what it was they wanted me to say for them, everyone came up to me and said “Talk about trust, talk about the lack of trust both for us and the way we feel about others. Talk about the trust bust.” What can you say about it? What can you say about a feeling that permeates a generation and that perhaps is not even understood by those who are distrusted? All we can do is keep trying again and again and again. There’s that wonderful line in “East Coker” by Eliot about there’s only the trying, again and again and again; to win again what we’ve lost before.

And then respect. There’s that mutuality of respect between people where you don’t see people as percentage points. Where you don’t manipulate people. Where you’re not interested in social engineering for people. The struggle for an integrated life existing in an atmosphere of communal trust and respect is one with desperately important political and social consequences. And the word consequences of course catapults us into the future. One of the most tragic things that happened yesterday, a beautiful day, was that I was talking to a woman who said that she wouldn’t want to be me for anything in the world. She wouldn’t want to live today and look ahead to what it is she sees because she’s afraid. Fear is always with us but we just don’t have time for it. Not now.

There are two people that I would like to thank before concluding. That’s Ellie Acheson, who is the spearhead for this, and also Nancy Scheibner who wrote this poem which is the last thing that I would like to read:

My entrance into the world of so-called “social problems”
Must be with quiet laughter, or not at all.
The hollow men of anger and bitterness
The bountiful ladies of righteous degradation
All must be left to a bygone age.
And the purpose of history is to provide a receptacle
For all those myths and oddments
Which oddly we have acquired
And from which we would become unburdened
To create a newer world
To translate the future into the past.
We have no need of false revolutions
In a world where categories tend to tyrannize our minds
And hang our wills up on narrow pegs.
It is well at every given moment to seek the limits in our lives.
And once those limits are understood
To understand that limitations no longer exist.
Earth could be fair. And you and I must be free
Not to save the world in a glorious crusade
Not to kill ourselves with a nameless gnawing pain
But to practice with all the skill of our being
The art of making possible.

Thanks.

Complement with Adrienne Rich on the political power of poetry and John F. Kennedy’s timeless address on poetry and power — one of the greatest speeches ever given.

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Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated