Commencement, Summer 2011
Friday, August 5, 2011
While I am fully appreciative of the fact that a graduation ceremony is a celebration of closure, I wish to speak with you for a moment not about what lies behind you but about what lies ahead. There is a way in which finishing is far easier than starting, because the former is scripted whereas the latter is not. Demanding as it may have been at times, you knew what you needed to do to satisfy your degree requirements. You knew with precision the location of the finish line and you had people standing behind you and in front of you to make sure you would reach it. But now you must start anew in an adventure without mentors, sequential courses, academic roadmaps, advisors, or neatly delineated syllabi.
Daunting as the prospect of beginning might be, I think positive inspiration is to be drawn from the world of literature. Consider, for a moment, that every author in the history of literature had to confront the same blank page that you faced every time you sat down to write an essay and that in essence you are facing in an even more consequential way now that you have finished your education and are about to leave that script behind. However, while a blank page might seem like a world of infinite possibility, in a significant way that is not true, not because the page isn’t blank but because an author him or herself is not blank. To make this point concretely, I wish to offer you the first lines of three different works of literature.
Here is the first:
“Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.”
And the second:
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
And the third:
“Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth.”
The first quote, as I trust many of you recognize, comes from Homer’s Odyssey. While Homer stands at the very start of the Western literary tradition, Homer himself was actually part of a longstanding tradition of itinerant oral poets or “singers of tales” who produced their epics for audiences already familiar with the stories that these poets transformed into performances.
The second quote is admittedly more obscure. It is the first line of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, which is the Latin name of Odysseus. And indeed, as wildly creative as Joyce’s novel is, on one level it is simply a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey albeit transferred to early twentieth century Dublin.
The last quote, finally—lest you think I read only literary classics—is the first line of Thomas Harris’s intensely disturbing novel The Silence of the Lambs. On the face of it this novel might appear to be unrelated to the works of Homer or Joyce. But it is worth noting that like Odysseus and his latter day counterpart Leopold Bloom, who journey respectively into Hades and Night Town, Clarissa Starling, the heroine of The Silence of the Lambs, frequents an office “half-buried in the earth” in preparation for her own ritual descent into the underworld where she will confront and dispatch the demons that dwell there.
My point is that, while each of these lines, like the first lines of every novel or poem or play that ever has been written, is utterly unique, each also draws deeply upon literary tradition, and thus, when Harris, Joyce, and even Homer sat in front of their blank pages (or, in Homer’s case, the expectant silence of his audience) they did so not alone but in the spectral company of the myriad other authors who preceded them. In that sense the beginning of every new work of literature, as Edward Said elegantly put it, “is a project already underway.”
I hope my analogy serves to affirm that, while the next page might as yet be blank, the narratives of your lives are already “projects under way.” But where Homer, Joyce, and Harris invoked and perpetuated their literary forebears, you will be bringing to bear all the knowledge, skills, and values that you acquired in dialogue with the faculty and staff of UNF and that will mark you as graduates of the University of North Florida. In that sense, we who remain behind will be like authors from your past, forever looking over your shoulders, because as you write your own stories you inevitably will be extending UNF’s story as well. I have every confidence that you will do yourselves and us proud.
Congratulations and good luck.