Time and Beauty: Commencement Address at Veritas Academy

Peter Wood

Thank you Dr. Jackson. Mr. Dean, faculty members, parents, family members, and friends of the 2016 graduates of the Veritas Preparatory Academy—and especially members of the graduating class—I am honored to have been invited to address you on this occasion.  This is when the middle name of Veritas Academy, Preparatory, comes to end.  You have had all the pre-paring necessary.  Now it is time to get on the paring itself. 

To pare, of course, is to cut away the outer edges or the skin, as we might do with a carrot.  Or we pare something by cutting it down to size, like paring back Hamlet from a five-hour performance to two-and-a-half. 

To say that your paring begins now sounds a little ominous.  Cutting away the outer edges cannot be fun.  It can even be dangerous.  Let me tell a story—in stages.  I work in the heart of New York City, not far from the Empire State Building.  If I step outside, I am immediately swallowed up by humanity—the hurried Manhattanite, the gawking tourist, the shopping bag-laden suburbanite, and so on.  Naturally, I would like to pare away the crowds, and I can. At every opportunity I repair to my isolated house in the mountains of Vermont. 

Surrounded by miles and miles of thick forest and no people, I take my ax and do a different kind of paring:  splitting logs to fire the wood stove.  Imagine me with ax raised, prepared for the downward arc, and freeze that image for a moment.  We’ll return in due time.

We often talk about education as addition. Adding knowledge.  Acquiring skills. Filling up one’s mind.  Of course, that’s true to a point.  But part of education consists of cutting away the husks. Getting rid of the conceits and illusions. Figuring out what for you will be mere background, and what for you will be essential. 

You are ready for this. You’re prepared. You are graduating.

Fortunately, I’m prepared too. Here is what lies ahead. I’m going to going to say a few things about a perennial commencement topic: the preciousness of time.  Then I’m going to connect that temporal theme with Beauty, which has been your special topic for the last year. But before I do either of those, I am going to give you some advice about college. 

Now remember I am still holding that ax overhead. It is a brand-new ax from Finland, an ultra-sharp, low-friction, high-swing-speed splitter.  Its handle is a little shorter than a typical eight-pound ax, but it is ready to slice through anything.  Including advice.

Advice-giving is an indispensable requirement for commencement speakers, even though it is a truth universally acknowledged that experience is a better teacher.  So here is my condensed version of that advice.

Part 1.  Your mind.

Take courses that require writing.

Take them from professors who read those papers closely and comment on them.

Join the debate club.

If you are talented in math, take it as far as you can.

Take hard courses. Don’t relax into taking only what you are already good at.

Focus on learning stuff, not saving the world.

Read every chance you get.  Read good books. 

Part 2.  Your manners

Learn how to talk like the civilized person you are, not the sit-com character you like best.

Never Tweet in class.  And, for that matter, stop tweeting during Commencement.  Better yet, get off social media and stay off.

Learn how to disagree with your peers without being disagreeable.

If you don’t do well in a course, don’t blame the professor.  Try harder.

Wear your learning lightly.

Help other students graciously.

Don’t cheat.

Don’t correct other students’ papers for them.

Part 3.  Your peers

College these days is an invitation to belong.  You will bring with you anxieties about fitting in and the fastest way to fit in will be to copy the social resentments that are all the rage.

Don’t go there.  If the price of not going there is to be socially isolated for a while, pay that price.  It will be worth it, and you will eventually find friends who have also chosen to be independent of the crowd.

Stay clear of identity groups.

Avoid the hook-up culture.

Don’t be intimidated by student activists and their hipper than thou attitudes.

Don’t conform your views to those of your friends, especially boyfriends and girlfriends.

Stay away from cynics and don’t become one.

Part 4. Your presence

Get really good at asking questions.

Make yourself visible to your professors. For example go to their office hours.

Don’t let extra-curriculars rule your life.

Do meaningful things in the summer.

Don’t gain weight. Eat right.  Exercise.

Part 5. Your family

Stay in touch.

Phone calls, texts, and emails have their place, but occasionally write an actual letter home.

Remember that you are in college because of what your family has done for you.

Keep that in mind as part of every decision you make.

Right Now

Follow those dos and don’ts and college will be splendid for you.  Wander from them, and you will have some painful lessons. To stay on track, you might try using an imaginative benchmark. Think of yourself, perhaps, alone in a forest, with a razor-sharp ax over your head about to swing. You want to pare things the right way.

But let’s come back to where we are right now, your graduation.

All I can say is “It’s about time.” 

I don’t mean that it took you too long. I mean it really is about time. Time spent and time rushing madly ahead. Time washing away what may seem to you now as permanent as Camelback Mountain or Piestewa Peak. 

Mountains

Of course even those Phoenix Mountain monuments are not as permanent as all that.  In geologic time, they are pencil marks to be erased by wind and rain.  But they are also subject to political fashion.  In 2003, when you were about four years old, newly elected Governor Janet Napolitano moved to erase the old name of one of the mountains, Squaw Peak, and to rename it Piestewa Peak after Lori Ann Piestewa, a Hopi woman who was killed in Iraq while serving in an Army support unit.

In fact there is a whole history of claim and counter-claim, tribal, bureaucratic, state, and even national dispute over what to call that particular bit of real estate.  Vainom Do’ag. Iron Mountain.  Swilling Mountain.  The 14 million year old rock hasn’t changed much recently, but cultural fashions change much faster.  So when I say time will wash away what may now seem to you permanent, that’s the first thing to think of.

Veritas

Veritas Academy has given you an education that is head and shoulders above what most of your peers have received.  But in college most of the history you will encounter will be pared from the inside out like a jack-o-lantern.  Not long ago, my colleagues and I published a study titled Recasting History in which we examined all of the freshmen history courses at the two largest public universities in Texas. We found half of the courses at Texas A&M and 78 percent of the courses at UT Austin focused on race, gender, and class. These are only three of the eleven foci we identified for U.S. history courses. Other areas—diplomacy, economic history, military history, the history of ideas, religion, and science—have been left out or pared away. Texas is pretty traditional.  Had we done the study in New York, the figures would have been even more lop-sided.

One of the places where public memory is pared down and erased turns out to be the curricula of both high schools and colleges.  We are, as a nation, in the midst of a vigorous campaign to eradicate certain kinds of knowledge, and even certain ways of knowing.

This means you are graduating with culturally perishable knowledge.  Our culture burns through history and squanders time in a thousand ways. It is as though you have been handed a snowball and told to carry it across the desert to give to someone else. You will have to be pretty ingenious to make that journey.

Look back over your Veritas Academy classes. You have covered an astonishing variety of subjects. Nothing else you will do in your life will come close to this in richness, intensity, and breadth. 

Now you may be wondering what I am going to do with that ax I have been holding overhead.  Here’s what. I am going to bring it down dead-center on the rings of a maple log.  If I land it right, the log will part into two neat pieces.  If I miss? What could go wrong?

College

Most bright, well-prepared high school graduates, think college will be a banquet of cultural and intellectual discoveries.  They are often disappointed.  After the Magellan-like voyage you have enjoyed these last few years at Veritas, a voyage in which the world was crammed with new-ness, you are about to step foot on an island that bears greater resemblance to Disneyland. 

Most colleges attempt to dazzle students with the sheer variety of their offerings.  They flatter students by insisting that they are ready for sophisticated-sounding courses on advanced subjects.  A whole genre of college courses called “first-year seminars” has been created to seduce students into thinking they are in the Big Time.  At one college I know something about, freshmen are offered such enticements as “Music and Race in Latin America,” “African American Children’s Literature,” “Beyond Pocahontas: Native American Stereotypes,”—courses that span the globe.  Not to neglect the West, the college does offer one course on the achievements of our own civilization.  It is titled “Modern Western Prostitutes.” 

You might be immune to these blandishments, but many of your peers will not be, and you will have to reckon with their tastes and interests too. 

Anti-Foundations

Colleges used to offer survey courses that went from Plato to NATO.  These have been replaced by the new micro-topic boutique courses. Colleges explain this by saying that students learned the big picture in high school and are ready to specialize.  For the vast majority of students that is plainly false. You will be among the few who actually have some basis to judge.  The narrow-gauge courses never add up to a comprehensive overview.  Pile mole hill upon mole hill and you have, not a mountain, but a bigger molehill. “Beyond Pocahontas” and “Modern Western Prostitutes” together will not give you any greater capacity to understand the sweep of Western history from Alexander to Actium, or from Aristotle to Oakeshott. 

Many colleges now disdain the idea that there is a coherent order to human knowledge.  In this view, all we have are fragments and we might as well embrace fragmentariness. 

Colleges have, in effect, been paring away, splitting, and re-splitting their curricula.  They haven’t been doing that in a good way.  There’s paring that is good, and paring that is disastrous.  The ax comes down with a satisfying swish. 

The challenge you face is to make good use of what college has to offer when college is trying hard not to offer much that is good.  Take heart. It can be done.  But you have to approach it as a self-conscious effort to escape the intellectual trivialities that masquerade as the latest and most sophisticated lines of thinking. Take your paring knife with you and pare away, relentlessly. That is the only way you will get a good education at a contemporary American college.

Aesthetics

I have been urging you in various ways to be good stewards of your time, and suggesting you pay particular attention to just how fast it moves. But let’s now turn to the topic that you have been examining this last year, the nature of Beauty.  Time and Beauty.  No one can say that a Veritas Academy graduation comes up short in the department of grand abstractions. 

Perhaps before proceeding, I should get on with the next chapter of that story about the ax.  I brace myself and bring down the ax in a beautiful arc six inches short of the log. It swings past my leg and buries itself in the sod.  Whoops.  Near disaster.  Sigh of relief.

As it happens, a central theme of Shakespeare’s sonnets is the relation between Beauty and Time.  In many of the best-known sonnets Shakespeare boasts that his art can preserve beauty forever. 

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

So ends Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, which has indeed lasted some 420 years since Shakespeare quilled it.

Shakespeare, haunted by the thought that time was racing away from him and leaving destruction in its wake, offers three ways to redeem beauty from “winter’s ragged hand.”  First, get married and have children.  You may wish to take a moment to thank your parents and grandparents for sharing Shakespeare’s sentiment in favor of large and fruitful families. Second, hold on to those you love.  Even in his darkest moments, Shakespeare wrote:

 But if the while I think of thee, dear friend,

All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Third, he entertains the conceit that his writing will itself somehow instill new life in “beauteous and lovely youth.”

We have just passed the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Few poets in any language and none in English have a better claim to having defied “Devouring Time.”  So was Shakespeare right?  Does beauty in some important sense escape time and mortality? 

He benefited, of course, from the invention of the printing press and hungry publishers such as Thomas Thorpe, who got his hands on a manuscript of the sonnets, and without permission, put them into print in 1609.  The Great Books on which Veritas is based come to us through such checkered histories.

Incidentally, after that near-miss with the ax, I’m beginning to feel a little light-headed.  Adjusting my stance.

Bach

Beauty covers a great many matters not between the covers of books.  But reproducibility is always important. Last week, I gave up my Wednesday night boxing class to attend a performance of Bach’s Partita #6 in E minor and other works on period instruments, a gut-strung harpsichord and a 13-string lute, which between them required the intestines of half a dozen horses.  Boxing or Bach:  a hard choice.  Boxing is beautiful, but so is Bach, so I skipped the 1-2-3-2 combination in favor of the seven-part Partita.

The musicians worked from copies of Bach’s original notation which is nothing like musical staffs showing the pitch and duration of notes. Bach used something called tablature, which tells the lutenist which frets to use to produce semitones. Tablature is a bit like a guitar fingering chart or some jazz notation, and it is arresting to realize the kinship of high Baroque classical music with the improvisational looseness of jazz.

There is a flutist at Great Hearts who is also an Early Music performer and I’ve heard that the connection to jazz has been noted by others here.  It is a good way to remember that tradition is not something we mechanically repeat but rather something we dive into in the spirit of finding what is vital.

Bach’s lute and harpsichord compositions are astonishingly beautiful but rarely heard today in original form.  The instruments are difficult and temperamental, and so soft they have to be performed in an intimate space to small groups.

But the music industry—note how easily we say that word—is large, and it is all about the immense ease with which we now reproduce sound.  Hearing Bach’s Partita #6 a few feet from the performer differs because the live performance is unique to its moment—to its exact time and place—in a way the recording can never be.

There is nothing wrong with reproducibility in art.  After all, Bach wrote down his compositions so that the music could be reproduced. But we have to choose exactly what to reproduce:  the sounds or the experience? 

As for experience, I’ve just realized that my ultra-sharp Finnish ax is better at paring than I realized. When I missed the log, it neatly sliced through my jeans and the side of my boot. I am now standing in pool of blood, miles from nowhere. Time is of the essence.  The beauty of the forest is a little less impressive than it was a few moments ago.  O, for the crowds of Manhattan!

Living Within Time; After Time

Our longing for the Beautiful is about our need not to escape the ravages of time but to live gracefully within time, even as it slips away. And yes, I have on at least one occasion felt it slipping away.  But never mind. Salvaging Beauty from Time is now your calling.  This is part of what Veritas prepared you for.

I’ve evoked Shakespeare and Bach as my stand-ins for Beauty.  But Beauty bestows her favors in many places, and I am sure in the last year you have reckoned with her many-ness.  I mean only to draw your attention to her momentariness.  Without her readiness to escape in the next moment, beauty pales. 

Because she is so of-the-moment, beauty doesn’t always tell the truth.  She promises one thing and provides another.  She promises to stick around.  She leaves. She promises to tell a secret. She is silent.  She promises life.  Don’t count on it.

Plato, of course, offers us a metaphysical alternative, as does Western theology.  Beauty may be evanescent in this world, but perhaps that is because we are only seeing or hearing or touching beauty through a veil. Among the Forms or in Heaven, beauty truly is eternal. It is beyond our mortal reach, but not beyond the soul’s immortal reach.  If beauty is transcendent in this way, we need not lament that it runs like water though our fingers.  It is we who are limited, not beauty.

These are not the only consolations.  We age and the flourish set on youth disappears, but we don’t necessarily age into ugliness.  Your grandfather may rightly see even more beauty in your grandmother than when she was young and untried by life’s vicissitudes. 

Knowledge often becomes more beautiful the longer you hold it.  Becoming a better person is beautiful, though perhaps in saying so I’m transgressing on the boundary with the Good, which is not our topic this year.

And we have opportunities to revel in the momentariness of beauty. My wife, Jody, likes to stop certain moments in their track and freeze them in her memory.  It is a good trick.  Let’s try the experiment right now. Freeze this moment.  Look at each of the people sitting next to you.  Look up and around, and down the floor. Take a deep breath.  You can capture this instant in your memory better than any photograph and keep it for life.  We don’t often interrupt the flow of living to do that, but we really can and it is a marvel. 

I should finish that story about my ax-cident. As you have deduced, I made it out of the Vermont woods. A driver at the General Store got me to the hospital. No lasting damage. I still split wood on my land in Vermont; Vermont is still beautiful; but I now have a cautionary tale about shaving. How do we pare the things that need to be pared without impairing ourselves?

Stevens

The poet Wallace Stevens achieved early fame with his blank verse “Sunday Morning,” which might be described as a lament for the prospect that heaven is unchanging.  The recurrent line, “Death is the mother of beauty,” runs through Steven’s tablature of the sensual delights of this world, “comforts of the sun,” pungent fruits, and bright, green wings; “gusty emotions on wet roads on autumn nights.” The heroine of the poem longs for some “imperishable bliss,” but only in the all-too-perishable present can she find beauty.  Beauty, alas, requires mortality. It is Death who “strews the leaves of sure obliteration on our paths,” but she also makes “the willows shiver in the sun,” and “causes boys to pile new plums and pears on disregarded plate.” 

I can’t say exactly why we need those shivering willows and picnicked plums and pears, but Stevens convinces me we do.  And he convinces me to pack these things away in my memory.  Beauty is, all by itself, an education, though she never sets out to teach.

Her lessons are, in effect, all about disappointment. 

What Lasts

Let me pile onto that plate of disregarded items. Most of us find that nothing we read after high school stays with us quite so vividly.  Whatever you have packed away from Mark Twain by age 17 will still be yours at age 70; but even if you love Mark Twain, or Montaigne, or Stephen Crane above all others and read their every word twice over, they will never provide the same indelible experience. 

Time will rob your future self of its capacity to find delights equal to these first experiences, but it will let you keep much of what you have now.  Take that to the sessions of sweet silent thought.

From now on, the world gradually flattens out. It isn’t all to the good. Consider music.  What you like now will go out of fashion, but it will stay in your head. One day you will be in a nursing home humming Kanye West tunes or reciting the lyrics of Nicki Minaj’s greatest hits.  The play list at your wedding will include The Weekend’s Kissland.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  There is only One Direction, and as Wallace Stevens concludes Sunday Morning, it is “downward to darkness on extended wings.”

Back Up to the Light

Well, Commencements are meant to be happy occasions and I don’t want to leave you pondering such dark immensities.  You can, if you choose, pare them away.  In truth, the situation is not grim at all.  We just have to have to stay in time, which means among other things, building our lives in full recognition of our mortality. 

To avoid mishaps with a sharp ax, aim well and test your swing.  Do not be in too great a hurry. 

Veritas has shown you that you possess a better, truer self—one that is courageous, strong, and creative, ready to put aside self-obsession.  It has brought the good, the true, and the beautiful within reach, and taught you as well that all three can be either fleeting or unreachable.  What that means is that you must cultivate a certain attitude, compounded of gratitude, patience, and impatience.  Gratitude for the opportunity to touch such goodness, truth, and beauty that come within your reach; patience with how much changes and changes so quickly; impatience with your own time, which even now is, like as the waves, making towards the pebbled shore.

Those great books you have been reading?  You are about to discover that most of your college classmates haven’t read any of them and many will not even recognize the titles.  The civilization that you have been immersed in is, Dover Beach-style, in the midst of “its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” Loud as that roar will sound to you, you will be among peers who can’t even hear it. 

Your commission is to—not in a boastful spirit but in humility, bring what you know to others who know it not. You are among those who will bring to college the mind and spirit to carry civilization forward.  Notice I don’t say, “to preserve” it.  You are not taxidermists.  Your job isn’t to memorialize Virgil or Shakespeare or Milton.  They live only through you and only to the extent that you make them part of a well-lived life. 

And the challenge is to do that--not in Matthew Arnold’s day but right now, knowing what we know, seeing what we see.  Time is, of course, running out. Race against it.  Run it down. 

Your time at Veritas has provided you an encounter with Beauty, and now you have the opportunity to carry that knowledge into the world--a world only vaguely familiar with your understanding of Beauty.  These past years have prepared you well.  Now offer your knowledge to a world and a society in desperate need of ‘some shape of beauty’ that will speak to your time.

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