Given my aversion to the word "blog" it's perhaps fitting that convention requires me to use it to inaugurate and label this space of occasional commentary. For this is a space that I would expect to be mostly about words. My general plan is to use this area to post what I might call experiments in micro-criticism. That is, little bits of writing about various texts and events that occupy what's left of my mind at a given time. In specific, I'm thinking of using this for bits of writing about single words that catch my fancy (we might call it, then, a "Wordbook"), or perhaps phrases ("Phrasebook"). More generally, then, a "Workbook."

I've written a few essays here and there about single words, or even single letters. I like writing about small things, and the bits of writing I want to post here will, I hope, themselves be small.

Bound By Words

May 26, 2018

Tags: Commencement, humanities, language, ethics, lying, Montaigne, Henry James

Commencement Talk, Arts and Humanities, UC Berkeley, May 14, 2018

I would like to begin by taking care of one piece of business that needs to be dealt with so that we can move on to talk about more interesting things. We meet here today to celebrate the work of our graduates in the Humanities. It is thus imporant to address right up front relationship between the study of the humanities and the task of earning a living. At every turn these days we are bombarded in the press with stories about how students with degrees in Italian or German will start their working lives earning less money than students with degrees in finance or computer science. This is probably true. But it is just as true that over the length of their working lives humanities majors do very well. The humanities teach important skills: they teach communication skills, writing skills, critical thinking skills, close reading skills, interpretation, creativity, ethics, languages and history. And these are all qualities that, year after year, top companies say that they value. I make a habit of collecting information about this stuff and I can point out that in the past three years alone studies and articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes Magazine, the Harvard Business Review, and the Guardian newspaper, to cite just a few publications, that have provided data--DATA--proving that humanities graduates have what employers want. You might want to check out the recent essay in U.S. News and World Report by an executive at Intuit.com, the Financial Services software people, titled "Don't Ditch that Liberal Arts Degree," subtitled "A liberal arts degree is an asset in Silicon Valley, not a liability." Moreover, within the general category of the Humanities or the Liberal Arts, as they are sometimes called, graduates with serious training in a language other than English do best. Now, obviously, if your goal is to be rich beyond anyone's imagination before you reach voting age, you might have gone into the wrong field. But that's not most people's goal and it's probably not yours. So my advice is: use your training, cultivate your curiosity and unleash your native ambition and you will do just fine.

So that's the first order of business. Now, as I was sitting down to put this talk together I was somewhat uncertain about how to proceed. I'm basically just someone who is passionate about literature, who feels that it is important for the quality of our life to live in proximity the great works of the imagination. In my case the things I like are often quite old and sometimes in languages other than English. So it occurred to me that a good way into today's talk would be to read something old and foreign with you.

I've been thinking about language, education, and community. And for insights on these themes I turned to one of my favorite writers. This is the philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who lived and wrote in France in the 1580s and 1590s. Montaigne is the first great modern philosopher. He lived and wrote during a terrible time of partisan political and religious war in France, when people were literally being burned alive outside his front door. In a period of crisis, dominated by propaganda and fanaticism, he was a rare voice of moderation. And early on in his book of essays, which were called, simply enough, "The Essays," Montaigne writes an essay about liars. He talks about the problems raised by liars for both public life and personal relationships. He calls lying a "cursed vice," a vice from which the young, especially--that's you--should be protected. If we recognized clearly the damage done by lying, Montaigne says, we would not hesitate to punish liars as severely as possible. In the political sphere, he points out, lying undermines our trust in institutions. It renders fixing those institutions almost impossible because it erodes the language that we all share, making it difficult for us to agree on anything. It destroys the customs on which civil society and ethical behavior are based. And lying isn't only a social ill. He notes that lying destroys our dignity. It harms both those those to whom the lie is told and the person telling the lie. And about halfway through the essay, he writes a fascinating sentence that I can't seem to get out of my head, and that I want to share with you today--I'm quoting now: "We are only human, and are only bound together, by the word" So what can we say about this sentence?

Let me read the sentence again, to remind us: "We are only human, and are only bound together, by the word." Now when he says "we are only human by the word" he has in mind the old philosophical debate about what makes humans unique as a species. Montaigne lived in the days before we knew that dolphins and plants and iPhones can talk, so it was conventional to stress that language was one of the tools through which humans were distinct from their plant and animal and digital friends and neighbors. In other words, language is the tool of humans, it is one of the things that we have, that we have invented together, one of the things that makes us exceptional. Through that collective invention we can both describe what is, and what isn't. That means--and here we are truly unique--we can give form to the work of the imagination, to the representations of what is not there, to things that we cannot see because they do not really exist. This makes it possible for us to invent new systems of thought, new stories, new poems, new songs, new forms of political organization, new laws, a better future. Language is the tool through which we understand ourselves as human--through which we are human, as Montaigne says. It shapes and expresses intelligence.

But then, in the second part of the sentence, Montaigne goes on to say that it is words the bind us together. In the original French this is particularly beautiful, he says, "nous nous tenons les uns aux autres." It means, literally, "we hold to each other" through words. In Spanish we might say, "nos tenemos, los unos a los otros"--we have each other through words. Here, of course, we are touching on the social dimension of language. We are only social beings to the extent that we can communicate. And of course communication also implies moments of miscommunication. As all of you students graduating today know, it is often when we cannot communicate --when we struggle with meaning, that the power of language to both separate us and bring us together asserts itself most dramatically. Without language--without the languages that you students have studied and mastered in your time at Cal--we as humans cannot, as Montaigne says it, "we cannot hold to each other, we cannot hold on to each other." And yet--and here is the beautiful paradox about language--even when we struggle with each other to understand what we say, the bond between us as humans is built and strengthened. When we give up our identities and our prejudices to try to understand each other, language draws us out of ourselves and shapes us into a community. And, conversely, it is when we stop trying to understand each other, when we give up on dialogue and translation, when we give into lying, that we are no longer able hold to each other.

I want to conclude my little bit of literary analysis by thinking a bit about the end of the phrase I've been studying with you. I'll read it again, "We are only human, and only bound together, by the word." Now, the French have two different ways of saying our English word, "word." The French are tricky that way. They have one word, the word mot, which just means any old word, the words of everyday life, of the tribe. Montaigne, however, uses the word parole. Parole is a word that carries a sense of moral and ethical weight. We are bound together by our parole. This means that we are human, and we are bound together by our ability to use language ethically, honestly, responsibly. Montaigne was an aristocrat, so he might have had in mind the aristocratic idea of having a word of honor. We still carry that meaning today when we speak of someone being let out of jail on parole, it means, basically, on their honor. So Montaigne says that we are humans and bound together by our words, and by our words of honor--by our ethical commitments to each other in and through language.

Ok. That's enough of my professorial literary analysis. A little bit of this stuff goes a long way, as I know very well. But I thought it might be useful to turn to Montaigne, the great sage of the Renaissance, to help us grasp the implications of the work that you, our students, and today our graduates, have undertaken in your studies of language, literature, and culture at UC Berkeley. We live, I think it is fair to say, in very strange and dangerous times. Our democracy is at risk, not only because of bad policies coming from Washington or Sacramento. Policies come and go, and we either like them or not, depending on our own values. But there is one thing that none of us can deny, no matter what our politics. This is the fact that our language is being degraded. We seem to have slipped into an age of linguistic cheapness. We categorize each other and call each other names. Important conceptual words that should lie at the center of our communal experience--words that should bind us to each other in a common language and a common story, words like community, duty, generosity, patriotism--have become cheapened or stolen by one side or another of the political spectrum. Our very words, our paroles, as Montaigne would say, are increasingly hijacked by lying, political spin and branding, to such an extent that we can scarcely use them in common discourse. The great music of American speech, with its harmony of accents and grammars, its mixing of Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Russian, Creole, Norwegian, and even Latin, is in danger of losing its vitality, of sinking into jargon and labeling. This phenomenon should be of great concern to all of us, and espcially to you graduates, who are students of languages and culture.

This is something, I think, that we can all feel in the atmosphere of this particular moment.

The Nobel Prize winning Czech novelist Milan Kundera, who grew up under the yoke of Soviet totalitarianism once wrote that, as a young man, he felt he owed a great debt of gratitude to the French language. Not to France, where he had never been, or to the French people, but to the language itself. This was because French had freed his imagination. It was the vehicle through which he had read the playful and sophisticated writers--writers such as Rabelais and Diderot--who had showed him the importance of humor and irony as tools of political critique. And it was French that had shown him a way of formulating ideas that was different from the rigid, propagandistic world that he lived in when he spoke his native Czech. Now, it matters not whether Kundera found his emancipation from reading French or reading English or Norwegian. What matters is that language, another language, can become the tool of a transformation of the imagination. It can free you from oppression and show you your own voice.

The present moment, at which our language is being cheapened, is a moment that you, our graduates, know from your own work how to counter and resist. For you know from experience that the most powerful and enduring forms of meaning and value are generated, not through slogans, but through the nuances and subtle turns of phrase that convey ideas and emotions beyond our cognitive grasp. This is the province of imaginative writing. You have grappled in your studies with the dense mystery of the great works of the imagination, with the poetry of Baudelaire and Dante, the stories of Kafka and Lispector, the plays of Chekhov, Ibsen, and Lorca. You know that to read deeply in another language, is to place yourselves in another space and time, to take on virtually another body, a different set of gestures, of sounds and shapes that structure how you pronounce your words, formulate your ideas and say your own name. To have mastered another tongue, to have roamed about in the language space of another culture, is to have gained an important new vision of what it means to be human, to be held together, as Montaigne says, by words. You have brought back from your travels new skills, new names for things, new ways of thinking about time and space. It is these intellectual tools that have trained you to make the humanities a way of life, a practice of reading and thought, of approaching problems with imagination and creativity, with delicacy and generosity. If you do this, you will be fine.

Since we meet here today to celebrate a graduation and a commencement, we might also take a moment to remember where we are, that it is the University itself--this clumsy, chaotic, and exuberant institution-- that has provided you with a space in which to develop your talents. When Montaigne notes that we are humans because we are bound together, he had in mind the ideal of conversation, of give and take in dialogue. In our own context we must remember the importance of the classroom, as a space of discussion and inquiry. It is in the classroom--no less than at the Free Speech Cafe or the Bear's Lair-- that you have mastered language, learned to hear the voices of your friends, to listen to the wisdom of the past, of literature, philosophy and history. It matters very much, I think, that this dialogue has taken place within a public university, an institution grounded in the promise to students from all backgrounds to come together and learn from each other. Because Berkeley is a public institution we come to the classroom, not to rattle our jewelry or recite our dogmas, but to listen, to work toward new ideas and the generation of new knowledge. This we do through the exchange of words, bound together by the ethical use of the language that we learn and practice in the beautiful confines of Dwinelle Hall. The process of learning the nuances of language, of the generosity of spirit and the delicacy of judgement, as you know very well, can only come about when we are challenged in our classes, by our teachers and by each other. It is at that moment, when we bring our ideas to class only to find them redefined by what we learn in seminar, that we find ourselves rethinking what we do. We learn to refine our judgement, which, in the end, is the most important skill of all.

The great land grant colleges that were started in 19th century America, of which UC Berkeley is one, were built in the name of public service.
Everyone in this room has benefitted from a university that was founded and nourished by the residents and citizens of California, for them and their children. Like most gifts, however this gift comes with a responsibility. Since you, our graduates, will soon be alumni, I remind you that the promise of Berkeley will be only fulfilled if you, as alumni, and we, as faculty, make sure that the next generation sitting in your seats includes students from every social group, from every race, class, and orientation.

And let me add that, as a first generation college graduate, I have experienced the transformative power of public higher education in my own journey.

I've spoken a bit about language and community, and the humanities, and the University, but I should say something, perhaps, as I move toward my conclusion, about students. This part is especially for you parents. You parents know very well how exceptional your children are. But you might benefit by hearing the faculty's point of view on this, since we've seen more than a few students, and can make a comparison. Many times I have found myself in conversation with one of my Berkeley faculty colleagues who is struggling with the decision of whether to stay at Berkeley, or take a job offer at some other university, usually with a higher salary, better sabbaticals, bigger offices and a cooler faculty club. Inevitably, when my faculty colleague turns down the tempting job offer from another school, she or he mentions that the deciding factor is the students. If I were to try to encapsulate the faculty-eye view of the Berkeley students, I think I would say that what separates them from the rest of the world is that they are intellectually fearless. They will take on any challenge, study any theory, read any text, write any paper, seemingly without batting an eye. This is no small thing. It never ceases to amaze us. Our hope for you students is that you will nourish that fearlessness when you leave here, that you will draw on your work at Berkeley to challenge yourselves, to be lifelong readers and learners, students of what Montaigne called la parole, the good use of language and the fostering of community.

It was fifty years ago yesterday, on May 13, 1968, that the humanities students of the University of Paris took possession of their own college as part of the famous May 68 student protests. Those protests were inspired in part by the earlier Free Speech movement at Berkeley, and in turn helped inspire similar events in Mexico City, Tokyo and elsewhere. When you students study the work of such writers as Foucault and Derrida, Poniatowska and Habermas, you are heirs to a tradition of critical thought that came in part from that moment. In France the student protests transformed the educational system and even ended up forcing out the government. We may not want to go that far today, but we can at least remember that one of the phrases scrawled on the walls of the university of Paris during that moment was the slogan, "Be realistic, expect the impossible." We are all the heirs to that expectation, and your intellectual fearlessness, matched with your skills as scholars and citizens, prepares you, in our own strange moment, to seek out the impossible realism promised fifty years ago.

You graduates have completed something extraordinary. You have zoomed effortlessly through years of study. You have written brilliant papers. You have given stunning presentations. You have aced all your exams. You have taken on the burden of scholarship, and mastered language and literature, writing and culture. This is no small thing, and we offer our sincere congratulations. And since I began this talk by quoting from a work of literature, let me leave you with another quote. This one is from the great novelist Henry James, who was asked to write an essay about the art of fiction. He spent pages discussing plot, character, and point of view--all the techniques of writing that we have studied together in our classes. But he ended his essay, somewhat surprisingly, with a reflection on the morality of the artist, on the ethical demands placed on whoever works with language, with la parole. He ends his essay on the art of fiction with a phrase that sticks in the mind: Take this down now, because I'm quoting Henry James. He ends by saying: "Be generous, be delicate, and pursue the prize." That about sums it up. Thank you for your attention.

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Selected Works

In Progress
A list of forthcoming articles and of books I'm writing.
Literary History/Political Theory
Literary Criticism/Diplomatic History
Fiction/Translation
A translation of selections from the writings of the heretic, scientist and libertine Cyrano de Bergerac.
Literature/Philosophy of History

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