Contents | June 2003
More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | June 2003
Pursuits & Retreats
adies, women, girls, females, males, men, and gentlemen; neuters, transgenders, and teachers; administrators, boyfriends, relatives, and impoverished parents: it is my purpose and honor here today to remind you as graphically and personally as I can just how vital and huge and traditional an ingredient boredom is in Western education. Because it was such a memorable presence in the classrooms, the study halls, and even the dormitory rooms you graduates are leaving behind forever today, it is my ceremonial duty to remind you of its enormous power and stultifying dignity. Boredom is the marble from which great and stately occasions like today's are built. So let us together gather here all the boredom we can. Get into it. Really feel the boredom. Go ahead and twitch. Check your watches. Wish you were elsewhere and worry that this speech will never end and will never get to the point. I know I do.
Sir Thomas Browne, Jorge Luis Borges, y Yo
A commencement address
by William Hamilton
The late, great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story about a page in a particular strange old book on which the print never reached that final corner signaling that it was time to turn it. A page that never ended. Critics, English departments, and other literary officials seem to think that this story was an effort at fantasy—a clever fable from a surrealist's hand. But I remember encountering many, many pages exactly like that during my education. I remember books in which I looked at every word in order from left to right, eyeballs descending stripe of words by stripe of words all the way down to the bottom of the page—and comprehended nothing. Got nowhere. Despite all that eyeballing, I would find myself no further along with the wisdom offered than if the page had been Borges's endless one. I might as well have been reading snow.
Studying such pages often ends with a bang. You do not even realize you have drifted off into a pleasant slumber until that book in your hands suddenly slams face-down onto the floor. Everybody nearby looks up at you from books and note-taking. You blink and smile and reach down to pick up the fallen book as though the crash was not your fault. An accident. Some passing clumsy force knocked it from your hands—just as you were making some real intellectual breakthroughs. Refreshed by your nap and embarrassed by the rush of sudden attention brought your way, you are now perhaps ready to try studying again, this time with some real resolve.
But eventually on this second attempt you realize that you are once again only going through the motions, performing a sort of karaoke of studying. Look at your watch. Nearly two hours have gone by since you seated yourself in the library and opened Sir Thomas Browne's seventeenth-century prose masterpiece, Urn Burial. And where are you? Well, you are on page 34. But, unfortunately, you just exercised the thirty-three preceding pages with your fingers. Your eyes may have been open, but they were as sightless as buttons. All those information-bearing words in this antique of rare and fine very early English prose passed you by like strangers on a busy street. You must start all over again on this vital and important reading assignment.
And this time you really must, and therefore will, concentrate. Your chances of getting ahead depend on it. A good grade in this class will, of course, automatically make the rest of your life rich and impressive and easy, so fifty pages of attentive reading ought not to be impossible. Wouldn't you like to win the respect of your friends and acquaintances, blow the minds of your enemies, triple your parents' love for you, and instantly make up for all your failures and shortcomings? Unpiling less than a half inch of these pages after reading the words on them is all you must do. So will you please just forget about yourself for a little while and read this book here in your hands? Books are the bricks of the educational structure. This is one. Feel it. Shake it. See? It is not an accessory, not a toy. It is not a Prada handbag or a Frisbee. It is a book, a page sandwich that you must consume or die.
The first sentence is familiar. Remember? You have actually read it, or some of it, twice now, so you are really getting to know it. From that capital letter heading it up with so much pride and pageantry almost clear through to the humble little period finishing it off, this first sentence is getting to be as familiar as a pet. Not even the Old English prose can put you off this time, throw you back into that slough of boredom and inattention that knocked you unconscious a little while ago. Well, no wonder it did. This writing is as crude as a cudgel. As medieval as stones. It is very early English prose. Stonehenge stuff. Lord of the Rings.
English guys' hair seems to cut differently from American guys' hair. The English guys have it long in a different place or something—bowed up in front like a croquet hoop. They are very good with hedges in England too. Maybe cutting their famous topiary gardens taught the English some secret, guild-protected tricks that they employ in their barbershops. But the English are an uncertain people now, always asking your opinion or for your approval. Every sentence they utter ends with a request for a little pat on the back: "Lovely day, don't you think?" "He's a right bastard, isn't he?" It's as if English people need constant reassurance. They must have lost some national confidence when they lost all those colonies. By the way, are you here in the library to think about the living English or to read the ancient wisdom that one of their writers left to civilization? What was his name? You don't even remember it! That's how well you are doing. Better check the cover. Urn Burial, by Sir Thomas Browne. Of course. What a depressing title. But it might make a good name for a band—Urn Burial. Excuse me, please? Will you get back to reading the book?
Now something very weird is going on down there on the old page—kind of a hallucination. The paper itself, the white part of the page, has somehow captured more of your interest than the crawly little black words. Good Lord. The white has begun to move, to descend through the clusters of letters, those inky impediments, like drops of rain running down the window of a stalled train. The writing just sort of hovers in meaningless clogs and clumps as the magnificent white field gathers momentum and streams majestically by beneath. Does it remind you of skiing? Whiteface? Aspen? Austria? Wouldn't it be fantastic to ski Austria? Snowboarding! The insane confidence of downhill racers! They must think their bones are made of spring steel! Meeting people on the lifts. Roaring fire in the lodge. Good God. Do you call this reading? Or read-boarding—careening down the pages in a blank blur? All of us who have ever gotten to this streaming-white-page stage of study boredom know that in his story of an endless page Jorge Luis Borges was only describing what many of us call homework.
knew Jorge Luis Borges—not as well as I might have liked, but at least well enough to have his great and academically significant name to drop here today. Our acquaintance was confined to an elevator ride, which, because he was not only famous but also blind, I probably remember a little more vividly than he did. It was in New York's Hilton Hotel. I had just been to see my Hong Kong shirtmaker, Mr. Takly. If you think you are bored here today, listening to a meandering and pointless commencement address, think for a moment about how bored touring Hong Kong shirtmakers can get. Mr. Takly was on the last leg of a six-month, fifty-city tour of hotel rooms in which he laid out all his shirt samples on one bed and sat on the other one watching cartoons on TV while he waited for customers—customers whose language he did not really even speak beyond a vocabulary of cuffs and collars and fabrics. When I saw him, he was not as fresh as he must have been at the beginning of his trip. He was lonely. It was soon poignantly obvious to me that Mr. Takly desperately wanted to talk to another human being about something besides shirts. Maddened by isolation and boredom, jumpy from Road Runner reruns, the exhausted traveling salesman could do no better in the way of communication in English about matters other than cottons and collars than to finally cry out, "Everything crazy!"
At which I nodded in agreement. So he said it again. And I nodded again. We tried it one more time. I decided that a fourth exchange wouldn't deepen our mutual understanding of the world situation, so I concluded my business and got out of there.
The next thing I knew, elevator doors were sliding open to reveal Jorge Luis Borges. I was stepping from a surrealistic scene into the presence of a surrealist. Should I speak to him? Tell him about Takly? In English or Spanish? Borges was gripping a tall, spindle-turned, silver-topped cane or staff. His hair was as white as a page, and his remarkable, blind eyes were on me. He seemed impressed by my height, scoping me up and down. Next to him stood a beautiful young woman whom I took to be charged with guiding the old genius around town. From the way his big, cataract-glazed, sort of fried-egg-looking eyes were running over me, I guessed or maybe imagined that he could see at least a little bit. The intense, gorgeous brunette at his side seemed to sense that I had recognized him. She smiled and nodded encouragement: Go ahead, say hello to Jorge Luis Borges.
Besides the three of us there were three American salesmen, wearing nametags on their suits, who sounded more like they were communicating over two-way radios than directly talking to each other. Like Mission Control and Apollo:
"Three-oh-three out of Akron pretty full?"
"You got that right."
The floors were puffing by like calendar pages indicating the passage of time in an old movie. I was trying to think of the right thing to say. Borges was still studying my adjacent stature. The beauty was smiling and nodding at me, Go ahead. Say something to him. Right! Talk to Jorge Luis Borges! But what about? What should I say? Spanish? Would my Spanish be good enough?
"Buenos días, maestro. Tanto me admiro su obra"? Wait a minute. Is it la obra or el obra? In general, Spanish words ending in a are feminine, but there are exceptions—like el día. El problema. La obra or el obra? Not to mention the possibility of screwing up the verb admirarse, which just happens to be as reflexive as a boa constrictor. It would be particularly ludicrous to show off in poor Spanish to one of its greatest users. Say something in English? "Hello, Mr. Borges"—no, "Hello, maestro. I've just come from a surrealistic scene that might amuse you. My shirtmaker ..." It really might amuse him. I could describe Mr. Takly on his shirtmaker's honeymoon in fifty hotels—Takly on one bed and his bride, in the form of a thousand swatches of shirting, on the other. The image might appeal to Borges. It would certainly be too demanding a story for my Spanish.
Wait a minute! I admonished myself. Borges is famously fluent in English! Learned it as a child. Writes in it. Okay, say whatever you are going to say in English. Maybe, in honor of his nationality, throw in a little Spanish for seasoning: "Mr. Borges, what an honor it is to find myself descending with you in this elevator. Descendiendo. Un poco como Dante a los infiernos—¿no es verdad?" No, that sounded ridiculous. Muy pretencioso. Well, what should I say?
Perhaps he would be amused to learn that I was a cartoonist. Or, reminding myself that he was blind, I reckoned perhaps not. My favorite of his stories was the macabre one about two men with neighboring plots of land who developed a hatred for each other. They tormented each other in myriad ways until they found themselves conscripted together in a Uruguayan revolution. The Whites against the Reds. They were Whites. Fought side by side for two years, only to be captured by a sadistic officer of the Reds from the same home town who remembered their notorious enmity and staged a foot race for them to see who could run the farthest after having their throats slit. Or should I mention how much I had enjoyed his famous bestiary of fantastic chimeras? Or just get right into a literary discussion?
"Maestro. What an honor. By any chance was Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial the inspiration for your story about an endless page?"
It might be the beginning of an important friendship. But just then, just as I was finally about to say something, the damn elevator doors opened. The ride was over. The astronaut-sounding salesmen were getting off. Jorge Luis Borges and his beautiful assistant were suddenly washing away before my eyes—passing downstream into time and space. Before they entirely and forever disappeared, she threw me an unforgettable disappointed glance. Oh, heartbreak. I can still see it.
Traditionally, like triumphal arches, the pyramids of Egypt, and all those books full of wisdom lining the walls of your school's great library, commencement addresses should loom and warn as well as bore you. Commencement addresses are for the grave and mighty duties of farewell. Your years of education are now over, almost a memory already, even though you are still here. I hope you will remember the time as wonderful and boring and a failure and a success—a time when you could have and should have done a little better, if only you had the perspective you get afterward, when it's too late.
I never did actually read Urn Burial, by Sir Thomas Browne. But if I had, I might not remember it as vividly as I remember not reading it. As for Borges —well, graduates, as you ride life's elevators, don't overthink your options. All you really have to say when you find yourself being looked up and down by a blind world figure with a beautiful assistant is something simple and obvious, such as "Did you ever get a Nobel Prize? You certainly should have, ¿no es verdad?" Or even a friendly "¿Qué tal?"
William Hamilton draws cartoons for The New Yorker and The New York Observer. He has written five plays and four novels.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 2003; Sir Thomas Browne, Jorge Luis Borges, y Yo; Volume 291, No. 5; 112-118.