The following is based on the commencement address given to the graduating students of the Department of English of the University of California at Berkeley in the Hearst Greek Theatre, May 15, 2005.
When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked for a title. I dillied and dallied, begged for more time, and of course the deadline passed. The title I really wanted to suggest was the response that all of you have learned to expect when asked your major: What are you going to do with that? To be an English major is to live not only by questioning, but by being questioned. It is to live with a question mark placed squarely on your forehead. It is to live, at least some of the time, in a state of “existential dread.” To be a humanist, that is, means not only to see clearly the surface of things and to see beyond those surfaces, but to place oneself in opposition, however subtle, an opposition that society seldom lets you forget: What are you going to do with that?
To the recent graduate, American society—in all its vulgar, grotesque power—reverberates with that question. It comes from friends, from relatives, and perhaps even from the odd parent here and there. For the son or daughter who becomes an English major puts a finger squarely on the great parental paradox: you raise your children to make their own decisions, you want your children to make their own decisions—and then one day, by heaven, they make their own decisions. And now parents are doomed to confront daily the condescending sympathy of your friends—their children, of course, are economics majors or engineering majors or pre-meds—and to confront your own dread about the futures of your children.
It’s not easy to be an English major these days, or any student of the humanities. It requires a certain kind of determination, and a refusal—an annoying refusal, for some of our friends and families, and for a good many employers—to make decisions, or at least to make the kind of “practical decisions” that much of society demands of us. It represents a determination, that is, not only to do certain things—to read certain books and learn certain poems, to acquire or refine a certain cast of mind—but not to do other things: principally, not to decide, right now, quickly, how you will earn your living; which is to say, not to decide how you will justify your existence. For in the view of a large part of American society, the existential question is at the bottom an economic one: Who are you and what is your economic justification for being?
English majors, and other determined humanists, distinguish themselves not only by reading Shakespeare or Chaucer or Joyce or Woolf or Zora Neale Hurston but by refusing, in the face of overwhelming pressure, to answer that question. Whether they acknowledge it or not—whether they know it or not—and whatever they eventually decide to do with “that,” they see developing the moral imagination as more important than securing economic self-justification.
Such an attitude has never been particularly popular in this country. It became downright suspect after September 11, 2001—and you of course are the Class of September 11, having arrived here only days before those attacks and the changed world they ushered in. Which means that, whether you know it or not, by declaring yourselves as questioners, as humanists, you already have gone some way in defining yourselves, for good or ill, as outsiders.
I must confess it: I, too, was an English major…for nineteen days. This was back in the Berkeley of the East, at Harvard College, and I was a refugee from philosophy—too much logic and math in that for me, too practical—and I tarried in English just long enough to sit in on one tutorial (on Keats’s “To Autumn”), before I fled into my own major, one I conceived and designed myself, called, with even greater practical attention to the future, “Modern Literatures and Aesthetics.”
Which meant of course that almost exactly twenty-five years ago today I was sitting where you are now, hanging on by a very thin thread. Shortly thereafter I found myself lying on my back in a small apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reading The New York Times and The New York Review—very thoroughly: essentially spending all day, every day, lying on my back, reading, living on graduation- present money and subsisting on deliveries of fried rice from the Hong Kong restaurant (which happened to be two doors away—though I felt I was unable to spare the time to leave the apartment, or the bed, to pick it up). The Chinese food deliveryman looked at me dispassionately and then, as one month stretched into two, a bit knowingly. If I knew then what I know now I would say I was depressed. At the time, however, I was under the impression that I was resting.
Eventually I became a writer, which is not a way to vanquish existential dread but a way to live with it and even to earn a modest living from it. Perhaps some of you will follow that path; but whatever you decide to “do with that,” remember: whether you know it yet or not, you have doomed yourselves by learning how to read, learning how to question, learning how to doubt. And this is a most difficult time—the most difficult I remember—to have those skills. Once you have them, however, they are not easy to discard. Finding yourself forced to see the gulf between what you are told about the world, whether it’s your government doing the telling, or your boss, or even your family or friends, and what you yourself can’t help but understand about that world—this is not always a welcome kind of vision to have. It can be burdensome and awkward and it won’t always make you happy.
I think I became a writer in part because I found that yawning difference between what I was told and what I could see to be inescapable. I started by writing about wars and massacres and violence. The State Department, as I learned from a foreign service officer in Haiti, has a technical term for the countries I mostly write about: the TFC beat. TFC—in official State Department parlance—stands for “Totally Fucked-up Countries.” After two decades of this, of Salvador and Haiti and Bosnia and Iraq, my mother—who already had to cope with the anxiety of a son acquiring a very expensive education in “Modern Literature and Aesthetics”—still asks periodically: Can’t you go someplace nice for a change?
When I was sitting where you are sitting now the issue was Central America and in particular the war in El Salvador. America, in the backwash of defeat in Vietnam, was trying to protect its allies to the south—to protect regimes under assault by leftist insurgencies—and it was doing so by supporting a government in El Salvador that was fighting the war by massacring its own people. I wrote about one of those events in my first book, The Massacre at El Mozote, which told of the murder of a thousand or so civilians by a new, elite battalion of the Salvadoran army—a battalion that the Americans had trained. A thousand innocent civilians dead in a few hours, by machete and by M-16.
Looking back at that story now—and at many of the other stories I have covered over the years, from Central America to Iraq—I see now that in part I was trying to find a kind of moral clarity: a place, if you will, where that gulf that I spoke about, between what we see and what is said, didn’t exist. Where better to find that place than in the world where massacres and killings and torture happen, in the place, that is, where we find evil. What could be clearer than that kind of evil?
But I discovered it was not clear at all. Chat with a Salvadoran general about the massacre of a thousand people that he ordered and he will tell you that it was military necessity, that those people had put themselves in harm’s way by supporting the guerrillas, and that “such things happen in war.” Speak to the young conscript who wielded the machete and he will tell you that he hated what he had to do, that he has nightmares about it still, but that he was following orders and that if he had refused he would have been killed. Talk to the State Department official who helped deny that the massacre took place and he will tell you that there was no definitive proof and, in any case, that he did it to protect and promote the vital interests of the United States. None of them is lying. I found that if you search for evil, once you leave the corpses behind you will have great difficulty finding the needed grimacing face.
Let me give you another example. It’s from 1994, during an unseasonably warm February day in a crowded market in the besieged city of Sarajevo. I was with a television crew—I was writing a documentary on the war in Bosnia for Peter Jennings at ABC News—but our schedule had slipped, as it always does, and we had not yet arrived at the crowded marketplace when a mortar shell landed. When we arrived with our cameras a few moments later, we found a dark swamp of blood and broken bodies and, staggering about in it, the bereaved, shrieking and wailing amid a sickening stench of cordite. Two men, standing in rubber boots knee-deep in a thick black lake, had already begun to toss body parts into the back of a truck. Slipping about on the wet pavement, I tried my best to count the bodies and the parts of them, but the job was impossible: fifty? sixty? When all the painstaking matching had been done, sixty-eight had died there.
As it happened, I had a lunch date with their killer the following day. The leader of the Serbs, surrounded in his mountain villa by a handful of good-looking bodyguards, had little interest in the numbers of dead. We were eating stew. “Did you check their ears?” he asked. I’m sorry? “They had ice in their ears.” I paused at this and worked on my stew. He meant, I realized, that the bodies were corpses from the morgue that had been planted, that the entire scene had been trumped up by Bosnian intelligence agents. He was a psychiatrist, this man, and it seemed to me, after a few minutes of discussion, that he had gone far to convince himself of the truth of this claim. I was writing a profile of him and he of course did not want to talk about bodies or death. He preferred to speak of his vision for the nation.1