Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2007


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How to Live. What to Do.

How to Live. What to Do.
Professor of English John Gordon

Professor of English John Gordon gives advice to new freshman in his Convocation 2007 speech. Read the full text here (excerpted in the Fall 2007 print version of CC: Magazine).

The title of my address comes from the title of a poem, written, as it happens, about 50 miles from here, by a heavy-set middle-aged fellow in a business suit who used to compose while walking the mile and a quarter between his home in Hartford and the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he was a vice president. He was Wallace Stevens, and if he didn´t look like an insurance vice president it was because he looked like a bank vice president, and when I showed his picture to a student in a course of mine studying his poetry and asked her, “Does that look like a poet to you?” she answered, in something like shock, “Oh, God, no! It looks like my father.” So it just goes to show. Wallace Stevens, parental-looking and Connecticutian though he was, was a great poet.

If some of us look like your fathers or mothers or some grand or great-grand version thereof, well — as I once heard yet another poet, this one unsung, reply to a waitress who was scolding him for flirting when he was old enough to know better, “Hey. Just cause there´s snow on the roof don´t mean there´s no fire underneath.”

So, parentally or incendiarilly, I´m going to tell you how to live and what to do. I´m going to pretend this is Commencement. After all, if I´ve learned one thing in my time here, it´s what commencement addresses sound like.
And it is commencement, in a way: a lot of you guys are commencing college. So, there. This is, therefore, addressed to the new students in the house. The rest of you, especially those in front, can listen along if you want; if not just close your eyes and think of England.

I´d like to be, what such speakers almost never are, useful. The hell with high ideals. The most useful commencement address I know of was given by Bertie Wooster, an upper-class British drone created by the great English humorist P.G. Wodehouse. In one story, Bertie finds himself called on to give what the headmistress calls “some little word of advice which may be helpful in after-life” to a girl´s school assembly. After hemming and hawing some, he comes out with this:

“Well, I´ll tell you something that´s often done me a bit of good, and it´s a thing not many people know. My old Uncle Henry gave me the tip when I first came to London. ´Never forget, my boy,´ he said, ´that, if you stand outside Romano´s in the Strand, you can see the clock on the wall of the Law Courts Down in Fleet Street. Most people who don´t know don´t believe it´s possible, because there are a couple of churches in the middle of the road, and you would think they would be in the way. But you can, and it´s worth knowing. You can win a lot of money betting on it with fellows who haven´t found it out.´ And, by Jove, he was perfectly right, and it´s a thing to remember. Many a quid have I …” — at which point the headmistress calls for the school song.

I have nothing of comparable Woosterian utility to pass on, but I thought that I would take this opportunity to tell you some things that might help you in college and afterwards. These are what my maternal grandfather used to called “pointers” — 10 of them. Along with Bertie, my other model here is the novelist Nelson Algren, whose list of pointers began with, “Never play poker with a man named Doc.”

One. This talk is a list. Writing lists is easier than real writing, because you don´t have to worry about transitions, all that “In view of the above we may reasonably conclude that …” stuff. It´s a trick, sure, but a good one. Try it sometime.”

Two. Never go anywhere without a book.

Three. Don´t let anybody tell you that these are the best four years of your lives. I liked college fine, but there have been other times since that I liked better. Anyway, it´s just too depressing to be told that everything is downhill from now on. You´re going to go through a few unhappy times here, like when papers are due the next morning, and you don´t want to make things worse by thinking, “Oh God. This is as good as it gets.” If you want, you´re allowed to start thinking that at around, say, age 55, when life really does have an unpleasant way of looking back at you from the mirror and asking the question that Baltimore Orioles Manager Earl Weaver was once tossed from a game for asking an umpire with whose decision he begged to differ — that question being, “Are you gonna get any better, or is this it?” In the meantime, you´re still rookies.

Of course, compared to high school, this will be the best four years of your lives — but then that would be true of any given four years of your lives, including those spent being dead. College is better than high school. That´s just one reason you can all be glad that this college has no fraternities or sororities. The point of fraternities and sororities is to artificially extend high school into college. Exactly the wrong idea.

Four. Whenever anyone to whom your fortunes are linked begins using the phrase “cash flow,” as in “We´re having a temporary cash flow problem,” run like a rabbit.

Five. This one is stolen from Mimi Sheraton, former food editor of The New York Times. The value of a restaurant, the degree to which it gives quality for money, is inversely proportional to the size of its pepper mills. I read that one day, and the next evening went to a restaurant where the pepper mills could have been used to club seals and the dishes were little colored worm-like squiggles artfully arranged on huge white plates, and I thought to myself, “Well, she told you so.” So now I´m telling you so.

Six. I am now about to give you five words which, if you repeat them to yourselves with feeling at the appropriate times, will save you from wasting thousands of hours and will make your lives significantly richer in all ways — financially, romantically, spiritually, physically, and above all intellectually — in short, in all ways. They will also do wonders for your self-respect. Here are those five magic words, to repeat when the occasion merits: “Why am I watching this?” Note: this pointer is not applicable to Red-Sox – Yankees games.

Seven. Don´t invade Russia. This pointer is my attempt to raise the level somewhat, by inserting a lesson of history. Speakers on such occasions are forever exhorting their listeners to learn the lessons of history, because, like the man said, those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Not meaning to offend my distinguished colleagues in the History Department — although not really meaning not to, either — I´m afraid that when I survey history just about the only sure-fire lesson I can come up with is, “Don´t invade Russia.” I know what it´s like, waking up early some morning, full of beans, rubbing your hands and saying, “Today´s the day I´m gonna do it! I´m going to go out there and invade Russia!” Please, let the feeling pass. It´s what history teaches us.

But otherwise, it´s hard to avoid the conclusion that those who do learn from history are condemned to repeat it, too, although maybe in a more roundabout way. This country is currently mired in what history will probably call the Second Gulf War, which was to a considerable extent generated out of the warm afterglow of the First Gulf War, which many of its fans felt had finally banished a defeatist Vietnam Syndrome. The Vietnam Syndrome, in turn, arose in reaction to the Vietnam War, as prosecuted by people determined to show that they had learned the lessons of Munich. As for Munich, that was the work of statesmen who did not want, whatever they did, to repeat the mistakes of the Versailles Treaty. Versailles in turn was in part brought about by people eager to reverse the humiliation of the Battle of Sedan. And so on, back to Waterloo and doubtless beyond. What the Germans call the Zeitgeist has a distressing tendency to be less evolution than ricochet, and what wisdom is possible in history may begin with trying to correct but not overcorrect for its momentum.

That applies to intellectual history too. A hundred years ago, many people at places like this believed in social Darwinism, eugenics and communication with the dead facilitated by the rapid movement of furniture. Two hundred years ago, it was bleeding and phrenology, the hot new science of measuring personality by head size and shape. About 300 years ago, they were burning witches for agricultural mishaps that probably resulted from the Little Ice Age around that time. Four hundred years ago, they were burning more witches for different reasons, along with heretics of all sorts, and the big new political idea of the day was the divine right of kings. And so on.

Now, one way of seeing this succession of follies is what used to be called the Whiggish way, to congratulate ourselves on having been born into the first period of history to be free of all such superstitious. Thank Providence for having made us so much smarter than everyone who came before. And think how much better still things are bound to get. In 1830, The Whig historian Thomas Macaulay wrote an essay describing how much better things had gotten in the last hundred years, and how they were likely to improve in the next hundred years, by 1930. He was partly right — anesthesia and airplanes had come into existence. But, the fact remained that in 1930 the world was in global economic depression. Stalin ran the Soviet Union. Japan had become a militarist state. In America prohibition was law and lynching was commonplace. China was in chaos. The wave of the future, it seemed to many, was the fascism being promoted by Mussolini and that fascinating young up-and-comer Adolf Hitler, and the world in general was dutifully trudging in mid-transit from the second worst war in history to the worst war in history. Nineteen-thirty was not a good year. All in all, 1830 was probably better.

As teachers, my colleagues and I have to be Whigs to some extent, have to believe in the infinite improvability, if not quite perfectibility, of you guys. But we also have to remember Macaulay. Whatever else it is, evolution is really, really slow. Evolutionarily, the years between us and the pyramid builders amount to zero. Scientific and technological advancement have long stood for progress in the minds of many, but right now what some of us want most from science and technology is that they get us out of the fine global mess they got us into in the first place. As for the humanities — my side of the aisle — T.S. Eliot, another poet, had a point when, after first viewing some 30,000-year-old cave paintings, he came up with the three-word conclusion, “Art doesn´t improve.” It changes, in tune with the times, and its changes are fascinating to observe, and it has its ups and downs, but it´s like us. At the end of the day, or semester, we´re all still gonna be, in our DNA, exactly the same hyper-cephalic mammals who used to throw virgins into volcanoes and sacrifice their first-born sons to stone statues of giant fish, and it defies common sense, whether we like it or not, that my generation or yours could be the first in history not to believe in stuff which a hundred years hence — or for that matter a hundred years ago — will or would have stood naked in the public square as obvious rubbish.

But if we´re as silly as they were at their silliest, the good news is that they´re as sharp as we are at our sharpest. Our DNA includes Aristotle along with Attila. And that fact is what makes the liberal arts liberal, and liberating. It vastly enlarges the available landscape and increases our options. All analogies are imperfect, but this one here is pretty good: temporal provincialism is as stunting as the regional variety. Confining yourself to the small sliver of time into which you were born is like confining yourself for life to Danbury, Conn., which I´m sure is a very nice place, but still.

Every age, I´ve said, has its own ways of not getting it, and temporal provincialism, the tribalist adhesion to whatsoever is closest to our own time, is one of ours. It´s like that blind spot in the rear view mirror. Back in the ridiculous sixties, when I was supposed to be growing up, we thought that the music was great, which it was, but didn´t notice that the new architecture going up all around us, and alas still with us today, was really horrible. We got the Beatles instead of, say, Montavani. Good for us. We also got the new Penn Station instead of the old Penn Station. Not so much good. All in all, one for two.

As for our politics back then — you know, in a way, compared to you, we were lucky. Vietnam and civil rights were the two big issues, and hooray for us, we passed. But has any group ever been served up two such big, fat moral softballs? Very few major matters of conscience — none of those facing you, I think — are that easy to call. Anyway, we passed the test and in the process amplified that predilection for unearned self-regard which, if not our worst vice, is certainly our most annoying. “We are stardust, we are golden …” We are awfully, awfully full of ourselves. Our parents drank water and wore blue jeans and spent time with their kids. But not us, no sir, because we are stardust, etc: We drank designer water and wore designer jeans and spent quality time, not just ordinary old time, with our kids, who were special kids because, after all, they were ours. And even when it started out OK, the politics of my cohort had a way of going off the rails. The last student demonstration I witnessed in my grad school days was in celebration of the new government of Cambodia, just established by Pol Pot.

Eight: So, think for yourselves. Don´t think like us. You´re young enough to know better. We screwed up in our way. Time for you to go forth and screw up in yours. I realize that now I´m being like the famous Cretan who tells you all Cretans are liars, but anyway. Try imagining what you and your professors believe right now that will make people a hundred years from now look back and say, “What were they thinking?” Hard to do, and, I´m afraid, especially hard now, at this particular intersection of space and time, an American college campus in the year 2007. Let me quote to you a passage by the British writer Christopher Caldwell, from an essay in The Financial Times of London which I happened to read a couple of weeks ago on a transatlantic flight (because I´d finished my book and there was nothing else). Caldwell is writing about the American sociologist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, who has recently, and regretfully, come to have mixed feelings about the consequences of what we all now call diversity. On the negative side, Putnam worries that it may undermine what he calls “social capital,” the inclination of members of a community to trust and work with one another. On the positive side, he thinks, for instance, that, quote, “diversity (especially intellectual diversity) produces much better, faster problem-solving.” Caldwell homes in on that elision between one kind of diversity and another. “While it is assumed in theory that this [cultural diversity] will bring intellectual diversity in its way,” he writes, “that has not happened in practice. Indeed, a powerful conformism has become the mark of American universities in precisely the decades when they have been growing more diverse.”
Now, you can certainly make the case that in linking the advance of campus conformism with the promotion of campus diversity, Mr. Caldwell mistakes coincidence with cause-and-effect. They may well have nothing to do with one another. But there is no doubt, I´m afraid, about the fact of the former. I´m what´s called a faculty brat, someone whose father and uncle and God-knows who-else were professors, someone who has lived on or in connection with campuses since the age of one. Thanks in part to diversity, many things nowadays are better than they have ever been. Intellectual diversity has not been one of them. On the contrary. This, I think, is our blind spot, our dead zone. To an unhealthy degree, too many people at too many colleges, still vacuum-sealed in that strange 45-year cold war during which history changed hardly at all, think too much alike. It certainly makes for a clubbable kind of niceness — and you will certainly find this a very nice, civil place. That´s fine, but America´s problem is not that it´s not nice enough. America´s problem is that it´s not smart enough. More than ever, we need more of the light and heat of the kind that genuine disagreement over first principles has a way of generating. And it does not help that over the last couple of decades, this and many other educational institutions have chosen to legislate the kind of conformity which, being already so much in sync with the temper of the time, hardly needed any help to begin with, in language which, written 50 years ago, would at least been brave, but which today just amounts to fighting the last war with toy soldiers.

Change this. Think for yourselves. Go against the grain. Fight the power. Question authority. Not just George W. Bush. Us. All those bumper sticker slogans: take them seriously. They need taking seriously, more than at any period in my remembered lifetime. Time was when you could say things on campus that you couldn´t say on TV. Now if anything it´s the other way around. Time was, 1964, to be exact, when what was called the Berkeley Free Speech Movement demanded the right for students to use about a dozen naughty words, previously verboten. How many words, sentences, volumes of words and sentences would go on that verboten list today, here and at Berkeley and elsewhere? Time was when one point distinguishing high schools and prep schools from colleges and universities was that the former had speech codes for students and faculty and the latter, being a place for grown-ups, did not. That was then. Time was when loyalty oaths were usually associated with right-wing forcers of conscience. Now we have one, just recited by you guys, centering on that blind spot, no-thinking-allowed word “diversity” — in my time the word was “relevance” — engineered by the same kind of legerdemain pioneered by the right. The trick is to require assent to some noble, unexceptionable sentiments, which turn out to carry a certain spin. Who could be against the Patriot Act? Don´t you believe in acting patriotically? And how about pledging allegiance to a flag standing for, among other things, “one nation, indivisible?” Or, while we´re at it, “under God?” Except that “indivisible,” in the late 19th century when the pledge of allegiance was introduced, was a poke in the eye to secessionists of the old Confederacy, and “under God,” added in 1956 at the behest of the Reverend Billy Graham, coerced Americans into declarations of faith of the kind that constitutionally were none of the state´s business. That, in an avowedly free society, is necessarily the disingenuous nature of such pledges. Either they are declarations of the obvious, in which case they´re pointless, or there´s a little hook in there, in which case they´re coercive. Ours is a bit of both.

As Americans we are, again, natural Whigs, inclined to believe that, if only because it is lucky enough to have us in it, the present must perforce be better than the past. I´m sorry, but in the realm of intellectual diversity, the changes instituted at this and at most other colleges and universities in the 27 years since I came here have been the opposite of progress. But hey, as I´ve been pointing out, and as another bumper sticker kind of puts it, it happens. The good news, again, is that history doesn´t march; it staggers. One step one way, one step another. And all that´s necessary is for you people to think for yourselves, and to insist on being allowed to. Give us the business.

Nine. Try to worry less than you probably do about doing things the memory of which may later make you feel embarrassed, even mortified. Try to worry more about doing things that may later make you feel ashamed.

Ten. One final line of poetry, this one from W.H. Auden´s “In Praise of Limestone.” The good thing about a limestone landscape, according to Auden; is that, because it´s so soft and irregular, it discourages uniformity of action on a large scale. It´s no good for marching armies on, or for building Ozymandian monuments, and its short distances are inhospitable to the kinds of desert or mountaintop visions on behalf of which prophets and tyrants hunger to transcend the merely human. Which is why, hurray, its inhabitants may be glimpsed climbing “up and down in twos and threes, —at times / Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step.”

John S. Gordon, professor of English, is the recipient of the Nancy Batson Nisbet Rash Faculty Research Award for 2006. He earned a B.A. from Hamilton College and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. A member of the Connecticut College faculty since 1980, he has taught generations of students the joys and challenges of close readings of medieval and 18th-century British literature as well as poetry of the post-modern period. In addition to the introductory courses he has recently taught courses in Modern Poetry, Contemporary Literature, and most recently, Modernism and Its Discontents.

One of the leading experts on James Joyce, he has published three widely cited books on the subject including Wake: A Plot Summary and a monograph, Notes on Issy. He has also published some 30 articles and notes on Joyce and delivered numerous papers and reviews. In 2004 Syracuse University Press published the professor´s latest book, Joyce and Reality: The Empirical Strikes Back. The National Library of Ireland also recently published his monograph, Almosting It: Joyce´s Realism. He is at work on a book on Charles Dickens, tentatively titled Subliminal Dickens. Another work in progress is Summa Contra Boring, a college writing guide based on a document of the same name, which he distributes to his lower-level English classes.

Professor Gordon´s book, Physiology and the Literary Imagination, examines the medical component of the works of English and American authors ranging chronologically from William Wordsworth to Sylvia Plath.

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