Beating the System
Senior Luncheon, Wellesley College, June 3, 2009
by Thomas P. Hodge, Professor of Russian
The wild geese do not know where they are, but they are not lost. 1
Thank you, Joy, thanks to all of you who worked so hard to organize today’s luncheon, and congratulations to the Green Seniors! I’m very grateful and deeply touched that you chose me to speak to you today.
But let’s hold on a second: What were you thinking? I teach Russian language and literature. Russian novels are long, complicated, moralistic, and full of strange names. By choosing someone like me, you may be asking for trouble, especially since you probably need something light and fluffy after the bacchanalia that was last night’s gala. How’s the hangover, by the way? Cheers.
This is the largest group I’ve spoken to in my entire life, and, frankly, I’m scared. As a few of you know, probably too well, when I’m frightened in front of students, I whimper for a few seconds, then reflexively fall back on condescending pop-culture references. So, when I first began thinking about what I would tell you today, I couldn’t help mentally casting you graduates-to-be in pop-metaphorical roles that would allow me to dispense ever-so-hip-and-relevant advice that might really connect with today’s young people. Here are some of the ideas that came to me:
- “Miley: cast aside the blonde wig, and reach for the stars — you are so much more than Hannah!” Nope, way too young.
- “Padmé: grieve not for your handmaiden, who gave her life to allow you safe passage to Coruscant…” Nope, Star Wars is way too dorky.
Since none of the showbiz stuff seemed right, I thought some real-life heroes might work better:
- “Future Sonia Sotomayors! Your brilliance will shape this country for generations!” Nope, she went to Princeton.
- Casting my gaze a bit closer to home, perhaps I could adopt the rhetorical mode of our own Victor Kazanjian, who is a pro at these graduation events: “BREATHE! You are the vibrant rays of vivacious light whose myriad colors surround us, and penetrate us and bind the galaxy together!” Nope, that’s really just Star Wars again — too dorky.
- Or I could try to channel President Obama: “And where we are met with cynicism and doubt and fear and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of the Wellesley Woman in three simple words — yes, we can.” No, I can’t — I just can’t pull that off like he can.
Before I pass along the life-changing wisdom I finally hit upon, let me take a moment to thank the voters among you for the crucial role you and your generation played in electing Barack Obama president last fall. I don’t mean to be horribly partisan here, so please excuse me if you’re not one of his supporters. But regardless of your political orientation, there is a very great deal to admire about our new president, and his election was the most important and inspiring of my lifetime. Obama’s patriotism reminds me uncannily of the patriotism of Pёtr Chaadaev, an eminent Russian philosopher who was arrested in 1836 and officially declared insane for criticizing Russia in print. He explained his brand of national loyalty a year later in a tract he called “Apology of a Madman”:
I love my country [Chaadaev wrote] more than anyone else does, believe me; I am eager for its glory, I can appreciate the eminent qualities of my nation; but… I have not learned to love my country with my eyes shut, my head bowed, my mouth closed. I think that a man can be of service to his country only if he sees it clearly; I believe that the time for blind love is past, that fanaticism of any sort is out of fashion… I think that if we have made our way after the others, it was to do better than the others, not to fall into their superstitions, their delusions, their infatuations.
Anyway, my pop-culture approaches to the present speech all seemed silly, so I fell back on this sort of thing, on Chaadaev’s sort of thing, on what I know and love: literature. Before I get into that, however, we have to talk about something that I know is on everybody’s mind: the rotten economy, and whether you’re going to be able to find work after Wellesley.
Two hundred years ago, in 1809, the French philosopher Pierre Azaïs published his best-known work, On Equilibrium in Human Destiny,in which he asserted that everything in history ultimately balances out: good and evil, peace and war, joy and sadness, Red Sox and Yankees, and so on. I can’t help thinking that we are now in the grip of an Azaïsian “compensation”: We get Barack Obama, but, to even things out, we also have to take everything from a horrendous world-wide recession, Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford, continued instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, North Korean saber-rattling, and Somalian piracy, to Twitter, sexting, Rod Blagojevich, and Octo-Mom, all sprinkled with a crunchy topping of global swine-flu. Seems like payback to me.
I know you’re worried about money. We’ve lost 6 million jobs since the economy went into freefall this past autumn. After lunch today, you’ll head over to the Academic Quad — the warm bosom of this College — to rehearse the Commencement ritual. Day after tomorrow, though, as you step off that Commencement stage, diploma in hand, you may feel as if you’re plunging off a steep cliff. Onto sharp rocks. Where your remains will be devoured by roving bears… (Sorry about the vivid imagery: please don’t spill your champagne.) President Bottomly looks friendly enough, but, with the economy in the state it’s in, is she, by handing you that diploma, shoving you into the Bear Pit? No, no — a thousand times no. I’ll try to explain.
First of all, you’re smart and you’re tough or they never would’ve let you in four years ago. But beyond that, I submit that you are fortunate to be starting your careers after the conclusion of an era of shameful gluttony in the U.S. You will begin your working lives from a point of reality and moderation, not perched atop the trembling surface of a soap-bubble. This knowledge of the truth is a great graduation gift — at least, I hope that, years from now, you’ll see that it was.
Obsessive pursuit of the truth is what Russian literature is famous for, and truth, so the Russians thought, is smothered and perverted by SYSTEMS. My main advice to you now, here today, is BEWARE OF SYSTEMS, and I don’t just mean credit-default swaps. The famous Russian writers hated systems. One of them, Ivan Turgenev, wrote to the 28-year-old Tolstoy in 1857: “The only people who treasure systems are those whom the whole truth evades, who want to catch it by the tail. A system is just like the truth’s tail, but the truth is like a lizard. It will leave the tail in your hand and escape; it knows that it will soon grow another tail.”
About 120 years ago, Dostoevsky offered the most celebrated Russian condemnation of systematized authority, in a chapter of The Brothers Karamazov called “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.” The tall, wizened, 90-year-old Inquisitor is the embodiment of cynical totalitarianism, the diabolical guru of conformity who has realized that humankind is all too eager to accept a particular, immoral bargain. Dostoevsky, who was a devout Christian, has the Grand Inquisitor explain this bargain — this system — to Jesus Christ himself, who has mysteriously reappeared in 16th-century Seville and been arrested by the Spanish Inquisition:
“We,” the Inquisitor snarls at Jesus, “We have corrected your work and have founded it upon miracle, mystery and authority…. We shall show [the masses] that they are weak, that they are only pitiful children, but that childlike happiness is the sweetest thing of all. … [T]hey will be… ready at a sign from us to pass into laughter and rejoicing, to happy mirth and childish song…. The most painful secrets of their conscience, all, all they will bring to us, and we shall have an answer for all. And they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves. And all will be happy, all the millions of creatures … Peacefully they will die, peacefully they will expire in your name, and beyond the grave they will find nothing but death.” 2
The Inquisitor’s bargain: Give the authorities your freedom, and they’ll give you happiness in return. Relinquish your right to choose freely, and you will rest easy for your entire life. Dostoevsky’s response, in everything he wrote: Reject this bargain, with every fiber of your being. I hope this will be your response as well. The anxiety, the dread you may feel about the future is a sign that you are free.
Idolization of material wealth is a system too, one that’s ingrained in us from an early age, especially in the United States. None of us — including me — is immune to it. But pursuit of riches as an end in itself is just as obscene a bargain as the one offered by the Grand Inquisitor. The splendid prose stylist Izaak Walton had this to say about wealth, about three and a half centuries ago (and please forgive his masculinist language here — the advice applies equally to women):
…[T]here be as many miseries beyond riches as on this side of them [Walton writes]. … God knows, the cares that are the keys that keep [his] riches hang often so heavily at the rich man's girdle, that they clog him with weary days and restless nights, even when others sleep quietly. We see but the outside of the rich man's happiness: few consider him to be like the silkworm, that, when she seems to play, is, at the very same time, spinning her own bowels, and consuming herself; and this many rich men do, loading themselves with corroding cares, to keep what they have (probably) unconscionably got. 3
But Walton was an Englishman, not a Russian, and so, unlike Dostoevsky, he prefers to ask the Almighty for just a little bit of relief from the misery: “…And yet God deliver us,” he goes on, “from pinching poverty; and grant, that having a competency, we may be content and thankful. … Let us, therefore, be thankful for health and a competence; and above all, for a quiet conscience.”
Of course, it’s very simple for me, a tenured professor who makes a good living, to stand before you and tell you money doesn’t matter. And it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to claim that. Money does matter, so, like Walton, I am relieved that you have been offered the intellectual tools here to go out and find what he calls a “competence” — slightly archaic English for “a decent living.” I do wish that for all of you. But be patient: it takes a number of years to find that “competence.” And perhaps, thanks to the sour economy, you won’t slide unthinkingly into a line of work whose only attraction is that it’s lucrative; the struggle you now face may well force you to examine a great deal more honestly who you are and what you want to do.
To conclude, I’d like to switch back to another Russian writer, Tolstoy, and a story he wrote just over a century ago. It’s a short moral fable, and a favorite of my nine-year-old son. The title is “The Three Questions,” and it begins with this sentence:
It once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid; and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.
After a series of accidents, incidents, and false answers to the three questions, the king learns the three true answers, from a wise old hermit. These words of the hermit’s conclude the tale:
[T]here is only one time that is important [he tells the king] — and that time is now. It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary person is the person next to you, for you cannot know whether you will ever again have dealings with any other person. And the most important thing to do is to be kind to that person, because for that purpose alone we were sent into this life! 4
How will you perform this Tolstoyan kindness? I urge you to do it in a thousand ways, of your own devising, large and small, every day, for the rest of your lives. But, to be blunt, I hope that, someday, after you have found your “competence,” you will give money back to this excellent college — that this will be one of the kindnesses you will eventually perform. Whether you know it or not, around half of your education here was paid by the alumnae who came before you — the 36,000 you heard mentioned earlier — and you will help endow funds that will pay half of future Wellesley students’ educations. So, if you think about it, this college is really a giant, benevolent Ponzi scheme, and Kim Bottomly is Bernie Madoff, but a good Bernie Madoff.
So, Friday afternoon, you’ll be standing on this beautiful campus, surrounded by rhododendron blossoms. You’ll have a diploma in one hand and, possibly, a lizard’s tail in the other. Keep the diploma, but throw away any spare reptile-parts you may be carrying. Use that free hand to hug your family and your friends, to remind them that you love them, and to reach for the truth. Throw the Inquisitor’s bargain right back into his face, and never be like the silkworm. Take care of each other, and take care of this precious college that will always, always be yours.
1. James P. Carse, Breakfast at the Victory.New York: Haper Collins, 1994, p. 30.
2. F. M. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. by Constance Garnett, revised.
3 I. Walton, The Compleat Angler, ch. 21.
4. L. N. Tolstoy, “The Three Questions” (1903), trans. by Louise and Aylmer Maude, revised.
to Commencement 2009