“Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different.”—C.S. Lewis
“It was just that sometimes reality, the same little reality that served to anchor reality, seemed to fade around the edges, as if the passage of time had a porous effect on things, and blurred and made more insubstantial what was itself already, by its very nature, insubstantial and satisfactory and real.”
-Roberto Bolano, 2666, 582
I came to realize that if I had, in my theatrical expression, shattered form, space, the relationship between actor and spectator, I had not yet attacked time. In Mexico, I invented what I called the “ephemeral panic,” which consisted in staging a show that could be presented only once. It had to be accomplished by introducing perishable things: smoke, fruits, jelly, live animals….It had to do with accomplishing acts that could not ever be repeated. In summary, I wanted the theater, instead of tending toward the fixed, toward death, to return to its uniqueness: the instantaneous, the fugitive, the only moment forever. This way, theater is made in the image of life where, according to a saying by Heraclitus [of Ephesus], one never bathes in the same river. Thus, to conceive the theater was to carry it to the extreme to go to the paroxysm of this art form. Through the happenings, I rediscovered the theatrical act and its therapeutic potential.
-Alejandro Jodoworsky. Psychomagic: The Transformative Power of Shamanic Psychotherapy.
“Perfect purity is possible if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood.”
- Yukio Mishima, Runaway Horses
Greetings, thanks, and congratulations to all UC Berkeley graduating English majors of 2013. We have made it to a place much more confusing yet stylistically-charged than when we started in 2009.
On May 21, 2005 David Foster Wallace delivered an inspiring commencement speech to Keynon College where, as Wikipedia posits, he covered such looming topics as “the difficulty of empathy,” “the importance of being well adjusted,” and “the essential lonesomeness of adult life.” The speech, later entitled “This Is Water,” was met with such acceptance and celebration that it was transcribed online, turned into a short book that can be purchased for $14.99 on Amazon, and uploaded as 14 different versions in both wav. and video format on YouTube. Heralded as “brilliant” this speech can accurately be labeled as a success.
Being skeptical of large crowds that tend to agree on a set of ideas or beliefs, I have to admit that I was hesitant. Flashbacks of my friend’s mom reading “The Secret” on her sofa and images of a girl, who I had a crush on when I was 15, reading “The Alchemist” scared me away from DFW’s speech. There is something innately absurd about trends and something even intrinsically appalling about literary trends, otherwise known as “best-sellers.” Groups of people connecting at an airport over a John Grisham novel or women in pantsuits squirming over their Kindle version of “50 Shades of Grey” has always troubled me. I think it has something to do with the transposition of writing into a marketable commodity, which glorifies a certain type of book charged with “meaning” and the perfect finality of a story. Such books fit tight, are compact, and provide the reader with a generalized sense of affirmation and inspiration.
The very coziness of such books is what perpetuates an unimaginative culture. It leaves the reader charmed and delighted about their disposition and in general propels them to feel “happier” or “better off” for having read such a book. I am here before you today to remind you, as you already know, that literature is not meant to be an existential placebo nor is it meant to act as a form of placid entertainment. Rather, it is meant to radically alter the states of our consciousness and question the very nature of how we perceive this day-to-day existence. It is also meant to illuminate our shallow colors of articulation and aesthetics.
Ezra Pound once said, “Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.” Whenever I read this quote I’ve always imagined Professor John Campion in a dark room singing a Spanish love ballad to a hovering crystal ball. There’s something very soft and mystical about that image.
As it is, being an English major has been a constant battle of trends and commodified objects thrown at us and a struggle to reassemble our views on any given thing or concept presented. As freshmen we learned what exactly Free-Indirect Discourse meant and we were forced to question whether or not there were homosocial traces between Romeo and the Montagues. As sophomores we were taught that close reading should be approached as a god figure and that Pynchon’s notions on entropy should not be directly applied to practices of alcohol consumption. As juniors our professors introduced us to Ford Madox Ford, which left us still, calm, and entirely confused by a lack of structure and movement in plot. And now, as seniors, having slithered our way from Beowulf to Cormac McCarthy, and having finished a thesis so specific and culturally irrelevant that we don’t even want to spend the $3.50 in order to have a hard copy, we are now greeted with the parental talons of employment, career options, and the unpoetic prospect of sleeping in a closet found on craigslist that is shared with a Norwegian Engineer who hardly sleeps and incessantly watches Game of Thrones in French.
We, now, no longer observe commodified objects because we are expected to become one. Questions no longer float, but stab us: Which job can we apply for that will increase our use-value? What job can maximize profits while at the same time maximize our social capital? How can we make money in order to perpetuate the mediation of objects? As I have applied to various fellowships and jobs this year, one of which was a content analysis position at YouTube that after three rounds of interviews I was greeted with an email that informed me that my “creativity and intellect could be put to better use for another company,” I have laid supine on my couch and thought about David Foster Wallace’s speech.
He begins with the “deployment of [a] didactic little parable-ish story,” which most of you have heard but bears repeating: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’” There are two things that I am immediately confronted with upon hearing this parable. The first is, as a terrestrial being I find it entirely difficult to comprehend the existence of aquatic creatures. The second is, that we are continually presented with social, philosophical, personal, and financial pressures that tend to dilute our surroundings. We are in constant battle to impress others and improve our financial worth.
But when we are in the proverbial thick of it, and we are submerged waist deep in the throes of chaos and worries about our future, we tend to ignore the fragility of existence. Let me reiterate: we are continually distracted from the slow and credible mechanics of day-to-day life. We continually lose context of everything. Pockets of childhood memories or the lyrics of a song that a friend once sang while she flung her arms through the wind as you and her drove to a lake—these moments of ineffable beauty and purity evaporate in the thick heat of practicality. They are lost and replaced by pressures that we will never quite learn how to control.
And yet, amidst all of this, there is poetry and our ability to choose what to do with our limited time here on earth. As Nabokov once said, “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” As I think about my time here at Berkeley and how I am going to spend my time after today, I can’t help but remember what David Foster Wallace said to me during one of his classes I attended in Spring 2008 at the Claremont colleges’ admitted students day. As my mother and I entered a small classroom that was flitting with laughter and excitement, he looked me in the eye and said the prophetic word that I will never forget: “Hello.” And so I leave you all today not with a conclusion but with a simple “Hello” to all that we may confront and experience.
Thank you for your time and I wish you all the best.
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