Saturday, June 6, 2009

"Beating the System"

An excerpt from Professor Hodge's [Russian Lit prof] speech to seniors. It was beautiful. My favorite parts are bolded.

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 twenty-eight-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, ninety-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 sixteenth-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.”

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.

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!

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.

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