Dear Class of 2015,
We have one thing in common: I’m leaving Emory today, too, and may I say that I’ve been coming here a lot longer than any of you.
Emory has been good to me, and I hope you think it’s been good to you too. I’ve made good friends and learned a lot – I learned about that weird skeleton Dooley on my first day and I’m sorry not to see him here. Is he here? Maybe he’ll show up.
Thanks mainly to my students I’ve received an education in the town, I’ve been able to listen to music at Blind Willie’s, and eat tacos on the Buford Highway. Son’s Place, where I was taken for great soul food within days of my first arrival, is closed now, but I’m sure you’ve found other places. On this day a little nostalgia is appropriate, because endings and new beginnings, no matter how exciting, also involve loss, the loss of the past, and it’s right to take a moment and grant the past its due.
OK, now that moment’s over, your work here is done. And I hope you’re hungry, because it’s time to go out there and swallow the world. That’s a great big meal and you’ll need a big appetite.
Here is something Toni Morrison tells her students. “The world is interesting and difficult,” she says. Happiness? Don’t settle for that.” Now I don’t think Toni Morrison is telling you not to be happy – I don’t think so – because after all happiness, or at least the pursuit of happiness, is a constitutional right in America. I think she’s telling you that happiness is not enough.
Because, there it is, out there, the grand and appalling human reality, its elation, its despondency, its danger, its dentistry. Be greedy for it. Grab great handfuls of it and stuff it in your pockets, your mouths, or wherever you most like stuffing things. You too can be like Saul Bellow’s wonderful character Augie March.
“Look at me, going everywhere!” he cries. “Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze.” That terra incognita, that unknown land, spreads out right now from your gaze as well. Augie’s response to the vastness of the unknown is to be larger than life.
That is the best response. If life is, as Toni Morrison says, difficult and interesting, be larger than that. Be more difficult, more interesting, and you’ll be fine. Try not to be small. Try to be larger than life.
One of the things I’ve learned as a writer is voraciousness. The novelist’s art is in many ways a vulgar art, it’s about life as it’s really lived, it’s the opposite of an ivory tower form.
The novelist’s job, as I see it anyway, is to plunge his hands as deep into the stuff of life as he can, all the way up to the elbows, all the way up to the armpits, and come up with the stuff of life: what’s really going on in people’s heads, what music is in there, what movies, what dreams, which Kardashians; and then to deliver his report.
It’s not such a bad plan for life, either. (Apart from the Kardashian part. If possible, avoid that part.) Plunge in. Dive into the deep end. Sink or swim. Well, if possible, don’t sink. If you learned anything at Emory, you should have learned how to stay afloat.
OK, so there’s a problem about being too hungry for the world. The problem might be described as indigestion. We have to think about your digestive tract as well.
The world is full of siren songs luring unwary sailors onto rocks; false promises, fools’ gold; foxes, cats and coachmen luring young people to gluttonous, over-indulging Pleasure Island where, as you’ll know if you’ve seen the movie of Pinocchio, the kids make jacka–es of themselves.
Do not make jacka–es of yourselves.
Let me tell you the tool you need to avoid that fate:
You need to have, and refine, and hone, what Ernest Hemingway said every writer needs: a really good s— detector. He said it. (Once again, good advice for writers turns out to be excellent advice for life.)
The world in which you have grown up is unusually full of crap. In the information age, the quantity of disinformation has grown exponentially. If you seek the truth, beware of what Stephen Colbert unforgettably named “truthiness” or, for those with a bit of Latin, “veritasiness.”
Maybe you’ve come across the famous saying of President Abraham Lincoln. “The internet,” Lincoln said, “is full of false quotations.” Listen to your president. Be skeptical about what you swallow. It’s good for the digestion.
I sometimes think we live in a very credulous age. People seem ready to believe almost anything. God, for example. Sorry this is the controversial bit. Sorry to the theology people over there. Shocking how many Americans swallow that old story. Maybe you will be the generation that moves past the ancient fictions. As John Lennon recommended, imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try. That’s maybe one antique truthiness which perhaps you can finally replace with the truth.
But it’s not just God. There’s also yoga, veganism, political correctness, flying saucers, Birthers, 9/11 denialists, Scientology, and, for Pete’s sake, Ayn Rand. When the Modern Library asked readers to vote for the best novels of all time, books by Ayn Rand came in at #1, 2, 7, and 8, and books by L. Ron Hubbard – I was going to say fiction by L. Ron Hubbard, rather than nonfictional religious texts, but hey, what’s the difference – came in at #3, 9, and 10.
The only real authors that made it into the top ten were Tolkien, Harper Lee and George Orwell. If that isn’t scary enough, opinion polls regularly show that the most trusted news network in the USA is Fox News. The American appetite for bad fiction seems limitless, including very bad fiction indeed masquerading as fact – Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, for example, or Hillary Clinton’s alleged Benghazi cover-up – an inexhaustible appetite for nonsense.
Maybe you will be the beady-eyed generation that starts seeing through the disinformation, the badly imagined blah, the lies. If you can do that, if you can scrape away all the layers of gibberish that are being poured daily over the wonders of the world, maybe you will be the generation that reminds itself that it is, indeed, a wonderful world, and gets rid of the various kinds of snake-oil salesmen who are selling a world they made up for their own benefit.
I hope you are. I hope you are. We, my generation, we have not made such a good fist of our time on earth, and it’s right, I think, that I apologize to you publicly for the mess we are leaving, the whole ecological, fanatical, oligarchic mess, in which one percent of the country gets everything, while kids are being killed daily for the crime of being black; in which religious bigots in this country think Jesus wants them not to sell cupcakes to gay couples, while religious bigots elsewhere think their god approves of sawing off the heads of innocent men.
We thought of ourselves, my lot, as tolerant and progressive, and we are leaving you an intolerant and retrogressive world.
There’s a story by Kurt Vonnegut in which God reveals to the hero of the story that the human race was an experiment that hasn’t worked out very well, and all he can do is say “oops, sorry.” Well, I’m not, God, as you’ll have noticed, on account of he doesn’t exist, but I’d like to say sorry, too.
But it’s a resilient place, the world, and its beauty is still breathtaking, its potential still astonishing, and as for the mess we’ve made, you can change it, and I believe you’re going to. I have a suspicion you’re better than us, you care more for the planet, you’re less bigoted, more tolerant, and your ideals may hold up better than ours did.
Make no mistake. You can change things. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you can’t.
Here’s how to do it. Question everything. Take nothing for granted. Argue with all received ideas. Don’t respect what doesn’t deserve respect. Speak your mind. Don’t censor yourselves. Use your imagination. And express what it tells you to express.
You have been given all these tools by your education here on this beautiful campus.
Use them. These are the weapons of the mind.
Think for yourself, and don’t let your mind run along tramlines someone else laid down.
We are language animals. We are dreaming creatures.
So Dream. Speak.
Reinvent the world.
Happy Commencement Day.
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