• Email
  • Print

A Commencement Oration

Perhaps there are moments of awakening,
Extreme, fortuitous, personal, in which

We more than awaken, sit on the edge of sleep,
As on an elevation, and behold
The academies like structures in a mist.
—Wallace Stevens

Today is Commencement Day. Last night, going home through these streets, I felt as if I were walking through an early Andy Hardy movie: neighbors talking over a white fence, the Roths’ kid playing the piano, and in the house opposite, someone struggling with an old Harry James number on the trumpet. The Commander of the US Second Fleet has handed out commissions to the ROTC cadets, and, for balance, Richard Falk has spoken to the alumni on “Government Secrets and the Public’s Right to Know.” Fine weather has made unnecessary the long green caterpillar erected annually beneath my tower window by the Eureka Tent and Awning Company. It runs from the library to the chapel. I run from it all. If this be sanity, I find it not to my taste. I shall go mad, as follows.

When the Academic Procession has formed (“Candidates for Higher Degrees, on the walk between East Pyne Building and Cannon Green, facing north, at 10:20 AM”—Weekly Bulletin), I shall walk naked across the roof of East Pyne Building to the tower opposite, just above the Higher Degrees, facing east. And when I have the attention of that solemn assembly—hurrying a bit before the proctors, those wardens of sanity, reach me—I shall deliver them such an oration as to write a new page in the history of American, or at least Princetonian, eloquence. That ought to do it. I am feeling a trifle mad already.

[Notes for the oration. Be brief, like Woodrow Wilson, and’ if possible, just as stuffy.]

Trustees forming in the Memorial Room promptly at 10:30 AM! Outgoing President Goheen! Incoming President Bowen! Students! Mothers and fathers! Nextdoor neighbors of students, or of their mothers and fathers! [Getting a bit long?] Alumni. Benefactors of the University. Collectors of rare jade. Collectors of human ears. Fellow destroyers of hamlets and ricepaddies. [Thought I would never get to it.] Doctors of napalm, and of deforestation. My fellow countrymen! [End of exordium. Clear throat. Act natural.]

In the brief time now left me [where are those proctors?] I should like to draw your attention to events that are far away from this happy scene and this proud, proud, proud, not to say suffocating, occasion. About the events themselves I am none too clear. Which is odd. Considering what it is costing me, you would think I could get the exact number of laserbeam-guided bombs that our proud, etc., airmen dropped today on Vietnamese factories, harbors, hospitals, munitions dumps, barbershops, airfields and soccerfields, railway trestles and cricket cages, split-levels and gamerooms, wash-o-mats, bus stops and boutiques…Forgive me. I digress.

But, dear Recipients of Honorary Degrees, facing each other, do I alone digress? Is there not, Faculty, facing the music, a sense in which today we all digress, or deviate? [More on this: getting off track of national dream, losing way, etc., etc. The proctors have reached the wrong roof! Good old proctors! Over here, faithful proctors!]

From what, it will be asked, have we departed? To answer this question I shall quote briefly from an address delivered on this very platform, or rather on that one down there exactly fifty years ago, and just composed by myself. It goes as follows:

Prosper, dear class of 1922!, as you go forth from these ivied halls of learning and so on, to take your place in this great country of ours! Not for nothing, as the world is shortly to learn, does our college shield bear the motto: Princeton in the Nation’s Service. Or in the beautiful Latin version: Dei sub numine viget!

Four joyful years we have labored together—you, my beloved students, facing north, and I, if the truth were told, your even more beloved professor, winner of the Nobel Prize for Indiscretion [here, proctors!], decliner of three Festschrifts, punctuator of term papers, harmless drudge…[less modesty, more pride]

And now it is in the spirit of that proud—proud, proud!—motto that you go forth into what has been called, in the happiest of phrases, “this great country of ours.” What will you, Christian gentlemen that you are—not overlooking, to be sure, the occasional Jew—what, I say, will you now take from dear Princeton to that Nation in whose Service you are soon to be?

But enough of that quaint blague. Laying it aside, I wish to put the answer to the last question in terms of the present—digressionary and deviant—day. [Valedictorian! Pay attention to this praeteritio, my favorite rhetorical shtik! Positively Ciceronian!]

What will you take? I would not dare to say [here it comes: praeteritio], I will absolutely forbear to suggest, that you will take with you the intellectual underpinnings of the war in Vietnam. Not for me to use Orwellian words like Doublethink to describe the cultivated, the quintessentially Princetonian—and Harvardian, Yalean, down the line—habit of mind, that can read all of Thoreau, get stoned at the Senior Prom (“Dillon Gym in case of rain”), and read the morning paper in perfect peace. Nor will I quote Hitler, that sage of modern statecraft, to the effect that you can always depend upon the professors to explain things afterward. Hi there, Henry Kissinger, mon semblable, mon frère! You remember Hitler, Henry? No, professor that I am, or recently was, I should blush to acknowledge the rightness of that. Nor shall I….

Here the proctors reach me. A great pity, I had so much more to say.

  • Email
  • Print