Commencement, Spring 2013
Friday, April 26, 2013
As my faculty colleagues are aware, my practice at these commencement ceremonies has been to offer our graduates a few words of wisdom based upon insights that I have derived as a professor of English from my many years of reading great works of literature. Since I will be stepping down as provost and vice president of academic affairs after today’s ceremony, this will be my final commencement address. In light of that fact, I think the time has arrived to come clean. Instead of telling our graduates what I do know—or more precisely, instead of alluding to some of the books that I have read—I have decided instead to reveal to them what I have not yet read but without a doubt should have.
As on past occasions I am still taking my inspiration from a work of literature, in this case an academic novel by David Lodge called Changing Places. In this novel Lodge describes a game called “Humiliation” played by group of sardonic English department colleagues who must balance their desire to one-up each other against their own sense of shame. The way one wins the game of Humiliation is not by humiliating one’s colleagues but by humiliating oneself. One does so by confessing to not having read canonical—that is, essential—works of literature, especially in one’s own area of specialization. According to the narrator, “The essence of the matter is that each person names a book which he hasn’t read but assumes the others have read, and scores a point for every person who has read it.” The winner of this particular contest is an assistant professor of the English Renaissance who confesses to having seen the Lawrence Olivier movie but to never having actually read Hamlet. Since everyone else present has of course read what is arguably the single most canonical work of English literature, the assistant professor scores the most points, wins the game, and suffers the maximum degree of humiliation. (He is also, by the way, shortly thereafter denied tenure.)
So what haven’t I read? The list is long, but since I just mentioned Shakespeare I will start by admitting how embarrassed I am about never having read The Merchant of Venice. In fact, when I admitted this once to a former colleague he was kind—or concerned—enough to send me the cliff notes, but I have not read them either. I have read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses more times than I can count but I have never gotten past page one of Finnegan’s Wake. I have read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina but never finished War and Peace. I suspect I am not alone in not having read Spenser’s Faerie Queen, but I expect it will be more surprising to many of you that I have never read Babbitt or Main Street or The House of Mirth or indeed any work or even one word by Sinclair Lewis or Edith Wharton. I have read some, but way too little, Henry James, and while I have read A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises I have never read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. I tried once, while on my way to Spain, but gave up when the plane hit the ground and I turned my attention to more immediate and more mindless forms of gratification. And the list, I can assure you, goes on and on.
I trust you realize that I am engaging in this act of public self-disclosure, this act of public self-belittlement, to make a point. As graduates you are now in a position to flaunt your credentials by way of confirming your mastery of the knowledge you have acquired in the course of obtaining your degrees. Nor would I deny you that satisfaction. It has been hard earned. But what your credentials really entitle you to—or more precisely, obligate you to—are not bragging rights but intellectual honesty. And if you are truly intellectually honest you will acknowledge to yourselves all those areas of knowledge that you did not sufficiently master, that you did not master at all, or that you could not yet master because knowledge will always be newly emergent regardless of your current level of expertise.
Humiliation is no fun, but humility itself will in the long run serve you far better than whatever books you can claim to have read thus far. Play Humiliation, if not with others than at least with yourselves. I can assure you that even as you lose you will win. The corollary, of course, is that you also must commit yourselves to rectifying what you don’t know but should. Indeed, it is for that very reason that, as soon as I finish reading Thomas Mann’s novel Joseph and his Brothers—which I was supposed to read in college but never did—the very next book on my reading list is, at long last, The Merchant of Venice.
Congratulations and good luck.