THE GREAT ESCAPE
Address at Honors Dinner, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Fall, 2001.
I'm honored to be here to talk with you this evening. I congratulate you and your parents and friends. They are proud, as all of us are proud, of what you've accomplished. You encourage us. God knows, we need encouragement in the present state of the world. You may have heard the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." Well, we suffer the curse. We have been attacked. We aren't out of the reach of violence. We may be on the brink of chaos. We live in interesting times. Yet in spite of everything, our times are not uniquely interesting. The seventy years of my own life have been lived pretty consistently under the curse of interesting times. I was born in the middle of the Great Depression. My high-school years were the years of the Second World War. The threat of atomic war hovered over us for most of my adult life. So I'm just going to take the fact that we live in interesting times for granted and talk about, I hope, more encouraging things.
I have recently become, as some of you know, a professor emeritus. That means I'm retired. The fact that I'm retired means that I'm talking to you from the far end of a journey you're just setting out on. So I'm going to tell you what my life looks like from this end, hoping that what I see from here will be encouraging to you as you look ahead from there.
What my life looks like to me is a great escape. Not because I was ever terribly oppressed. I grew up in Kansas City, with loving parents, brothers and a sister and aunts, uncles, and cousins. But though I was really bored by the end of high school, the temptation was strong to settle in, to pitch camp, to stay where I was, to wait around in Kansas City to see if anything was going to happen. I wasn't at all anxious to break the pattern and leave home. In those days not many did. But because I was bored or for some other reason I took myself in hand, left Kansas City and went off to college--actually a seminary. And that choice, strange as it may seem to you, was my great escape, followed, of course, by a series of escapes. From that time on my life has been, as I hope yours will be, a series of surprises, some of them sad, but many of them wonderful, coming along amazingly at just the right times. I can't take much credit for this, but I take some, and I'd like to talk a bit about that.
What was I escaping from? I didn't know at the time, but later in my life I kept seeing it in others. For instance: I taught high school for a while before I moved on to study for my doctorate. One day during a class discussion of happiness, my students told me that happiness happened in high school--period. After high school happiness was pretty much over with.
I was astonished. "Why in the world would you think that?"
"It's what our parents tell us. Have your fun in high school. Once you're out of high school, it's all work and bringing up kids." Then they looked up and asked, "Weren't your high-school years the happiest years of your life?"
"My God, no! I said. I'm a thousand times happier now than I was in high school."
They simply didn't believe me.
Well that's not the way it's been for you. I've seen the titles of your papers. I've heard a few of them. You didn't settle in to wait around for something to happen. You escaped from the smaller triumphs of high school and came to college. And you've done very well. Most college students don't do what you've done, take on a research project or a writing project of your own, pursue it, complete it, and read it publicly, perhaps even think about publishing. You've gotten a taste of what it's like to take on something big and push on through to the end of it. And now you're out there in the open, ready for new projects, new pursuits. That's what I mean by a great escape.
But you may need to take another look around now and ask if it's time for the next escape. You probably haven't read that early novella of Philip Roth, "Goodbye, Columbus," though it's possible your parents have, or seen the movie. It's the story of a summer romance between two young people, Neil from Newark, and Brenda from Short Hills. The affair was doomed from the start. Neil, among other things, couldn't get over his resentment of Brenda's wealth. But the title of the story isn't about Neil and Brenda. It's the title of a record that Brenda's older brother Ron plays for himself in his room at night. The record is a sort of solemn-high recitation, with violins, of the events of Ron's senior year at Ohio State where he had been a star basketball player. I'll quote the end of it:
"The Voice continued. 'We offer ourselves to you then, world, and come at you in search of Life. And to you, Ohio State, to you Columbus, we say thank you, thank you and goodbye. We will miss you, in the fall, in the winter, in the spring, but some day we shall return. Till then, goodbye, Ohio State, good bye, red and white, Goodbye, Columbus..goodbye,Columbus...goodbye...'"
Well, poor Ron, listens to that record every night. He has given up his dream of being a coach. He's about to get married and go to work in Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks, his father's plumbing supply house. His father laughs at him, calls him an idealist, but all that remains of the romance and idealism of Ron's college career is "Goodbye, Columbus," the record he plays for himself over and over. It's a master touch, that record. Roth has it echoing sadly through all the tensions of the ill-starred love affair between Neil and Brenda. While you're wondering what's going to happen to Neil and Brenda, you just know there won't be many surprises for Ron. He's the college version of my highschool kids. He's said goodbye to Columbus and walked into Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks, and that'll be it. No escape.
Of course, "Goodbye, Columbus" is fiction. There's a certain perversity in writers of fiction. They like to create characters they can look down on sadly, condemned as they are to the dullness of everyday life. I see the point, but I don't believe it, and I suspect you don't believe it either. Life shouldn't have to be such a dead end. There are skills to master, jobs to find or create, people to meet, houses to buy. Children will come. All of these are surprising and wonderful experiences. I have no children of my own, but when my stepdaughter and her husband and new baby came to live with us, I discovered a completely new way to fall in love. My granddaughter, Lára, was the most wonderful surprise of my life, and she came along when I was sixty.
So why do authors write stories like "Goodbye, Columbus" when life itself is full of so many interesting challenges and surprises? Because writers, some of them, at least, are fascinated with the human propensity to settle in and miss out. The possibilities are there, the adventures, the surprises. But there's always the temptation to pitch camp, to just hang out with the boys or the girls.
As I've said, the college I went to when I left Kansas City was a Jesuit seminary at St. Louis University. I was a seminarian for thirteen years and a priest for another nine. As far as I'm concerned, the most courageous thing I ever did was leave the priesthood to get married. But however difficult that escape was, that's not the primary reason I see my life as the "great escape," or at least it's not the most important one. I come back to it: the real "great escape," the primary one, the one that set off all the others, was my decision to leave Kansas City and go to college with the Jesuits in the first place.
There are obvious differences between going to a seminary and going to college, but there is also a fundamental similarity. They're both places to get educated. And getting a college education was for me the great escape because it's what led to all the other great escapes. In college I discovered how much there was to read and how much I yearned to read it all. I found out how much fun it is to argue, and how liberating it is to be critical. Half of us were fresh from military service in the Second World War, and half of us were fresh out of high school. We learned an immense amount from each other, as, I hope, you have learned from each other. One of my friends taught me how to read orchestral scores and to analyze the forms of classical music. Another gathered a small group of us and, without class or credit, taught us art history. Yet a third, this one from Belize, made me a bird-watcher. Most importantly, my Jesuit seminary education taught me to reflect on my life and to have the courage when the time came, to take my life in my hands and leave my Jesuit friends behind.
Now, here comes the message: what I took from those college years was a huge appetite for reading, a curiosity much too big to satisfy, and an imagination too active for my own peace of mind. Curiosity and imagination, those are qualities you've shown you have and what I'm here to say is that they are qualities you have to keep on developing. Curiosity, I think, is one of the important differences between those who leave adventure behind in college and those who keep finding it throughout their life. Philosophy was my major, but anthropology was a revelation to me. That there were different kinship systems was an amazing discovery. And the fact that cultures had completely diverse ways of dealing with crime, with eating, with poetry. I didn't get very much science, but I remember being blown away by the carbon cycle. I had a genius for a math teacher, a troubled genius but an amazing teacher. He later committed suicide. And, of course, there was psychology. I'm probably out of date, now, but I never got over Erik Erikson and the stages of identity. And that early curiosity about psychology bore it's richest fruit years later, when I read, after the death of my first wife, Ernest Becker's wonderful book, The Denial of Death. Finally, and most importantly, there were the centuries of philosophical reflection to plough through. In my philosophy courses I acquired a real taste for hard reading, for texts you had to wrestle your way through.
Curiosity, then, comes first, and next, imagination. Like most Americans I hadn't been brought up to put a high value on imagination. But strange as it may seem, in the seminary, I was taught to reverence imagination. I had a teacher who made the beauty of poetry into something almost religious. Under him, I stopped asking what good it was to be able to read poetry, and just read it. And novels. I was astonished that there were so many important ones I needed to read. It wasn't till much later that I figured out for myself how crucial imagination is and why my teachers had placed so much emphasis on it. It's the very foundation of our ability to live together. It's imagination that allows us to understand and feel what's in someone's mind when she talks to us. Reading literature is an endless exercise in imagining what it's like to stand in another's shoes, to see as he sees, to feel as she feels. Without that kind of imaginative empathy for others, we can't even begin to respond to them, or to understand our moral responsibilities in a densely social world. So college was the first and greatest escape. A great big world beyond Kansas City and beyond the seminary opened out for me. A world I was curious to learn about and a world I had been taught to use my imagination to understand.
Of course I had to specialize to get a doctorate. But the Jesuits had, in a way, spoiled me for specialization. Specialization, necessary as it is, can be a trap. It can be as deep a trap as Kansas City, as Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks. A specialty can turn out to be a swamp, a hideout from the world. In those seminary years I discovered Nathaniel Hawthorne, the novelist of The Scarlet Letter. I read everything Hawthorne wrote, and I wrote both my masters thesis and my doctoral dissertation on Hawthorne. But there was one thing about Hawthorne that I was conscious of right from the beginning: he was dead. He had lived then, and I was living now. I remember telling one of my teachers, as we walked down Lindell Boulevard in St. Louis, that neither Hawthorne nor his novels were going to be the point of my life. I might do a dissertation on Hawthorne, but I wasn't going to spend my life as a Hawthorne scholar. I wouldn't have time. There was all of American literature to read. And there was French poetry, and Dante, and Don Quixote. And there were all those books of philosophy I wasn't going to stop reading. I knew from the beginning I wasn't going to pitch my tent in the field of literature and let the rest of the world go by.
One of the strange things I hear students say, occasionally, is something like this: "I'm in math, I don't know anything about poetry. Or, I'm in sociology, I don't know anything about physics. It's as though they need to find a field to hide out in. It's a kind of intellectual security blanket. But colleges are not the places to go if you need to hide out. Or at least they shouldn't be.
Of course you have already specialized. And you will have to work your field. But just as it's important not to be a person of one book, or a person of one author, it's equally important not to let yourself be completely defined by one field, one profession. Because even the most exciting profession can become Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks if you let yourself forget that every field exists to contribute to a larger field of human learning. The business of a specialist is to contribute to the larger conversation about how to live that is going on in our time.
Maybe you're protesting to yourself, "But he's telling us how to live the life of an intellectual." Yes, I am, and I understand that most people don't aspire to live the life of an intellectual. And, of course, even intellectuals don't live an exclusively intellectual life. However, what I'm convinced of, and what I'd like you to understand, is that every life needs the virtues of the intellectual life, the virtues of curiosity and imagination. It takes a lot of openness and curiosity and imagination to love someone over the span of a lifetime. And if it takes openness and curiosity and humility to love someone, it takes even more openness, curiosity, and imagination to deal with the startling realities that are going to be revealed to you by your children.
So: Don't settle in and don't miss out. Be curious. Keep your imagination alive. You may not have it all, as they say, but you can have a lot more than you think. And it's even possible that the most rewarding surprises will be the surprises you didn't look forward to or even want to have. Like loss. My first wife died of cancer twenty-two years ago, in the eighth year of our marriage. She went through her three-year-long sickness almost triumphantly. She kept on teaching right to the end, and one day she told her students--she taught Yeats and Chaucer at Fordham--that before she died she was going to have a holy card printed with her picture on it. She was going to be sitting in royal robes with a halo around her head, her right hand lifted, the middle finger up, and the caption was going to be, "Fuck you world, you got me at last!" It was a wrenching time for me, but I wouldn't have wanted to miss out on going through it with her.
Retired as I am, I'm going to conclude with a few lines from one of my favorite poets, William Butler Yeats. He is summing up his life. The poem is "A Dialogue of Self and the Soul." These are the last lines of the poem:I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.
So my young intellectual friends, don't settle in, don't miss out. Escape. Follow your curiosity, feed your imagination, live well. May you be blest by everything, and may everything you look upon be blest.