May 27, 2003

Holding reality and justice

Seamus Heaney, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature, was keynote speaker for Emory’s 158th Commencement.

It is a singular honor for me to be this year’s Commencement speaker. Emory University enjoys the highest standing in the world of learning. Every faculty, every school, every department has been recognized for its excellence, including in particular, as far as I’m concerned, the excellent Department of English.

And not least among the distinctions of the English department is its longstanding commitment to the study of Irish literature. That commitment, which I have experienced firsthand as a matter of friendship and scholarship of department members, that commitment gives extra significance to my own return to Emory this morning. As does the fact that Emory houses one of the greatest of literary archives. The holdings of the Robert W. Woodruff Library include the manuscripts and correspondence of some of the most significant poets of our time, and I am glad to say that in their Special Collections Irish poets and poetry have enjoyed a privileged status.

So my sense of occasion is high, although I should say that every visit I’ve ever made to this campus has involved some sort of heightened experience. The last time I was here, for example, I saw a comet. The Hale-Bopp comet sailed brilliantly and silently above the summer night while a group of us stood watching it, amazed and grateful, in the company of President Chace and his wife, JoAn. There we were, inhabitants of the space age, takers-for-granted of the technology that has sent men to the moon, and yet our sense of wonder remained as innocent and as wide open as if we had been carried back among the astronomers and astrologers of ancient Babylon.

And the first time I came to Emory, something equally memorable occurred. I had given a poetry reading and was staying overnight with Professor Ron Schuchard and his wife, Keith. Then afterwards, at a small party in their house, a second poetry reading occurred. This was a performance of the lyric poems of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats given by one of Professor Schuchard’s students. This young man was researching Yeats’ habit of accompanying his own poetry readings on a stringed instrument called a psaltery, and he had in his possession a replica of this instrument tuned and ready for use. So at one point he sets the psaltery upon his knees and begins to utter these poems in a high liturgical chant, as if he were a cantor singing the psalms or a widow lamenting a massacre.

It was extraordinary and uncanny, but the uncanniest thing about it was the fact that the student was blind—blind as the poet Homer or the prophet Tiresias. Again, we were in a modern social setting, at a regular social event, but we seemed to have entered mythic time, to be listening to a bard or a soothsayer.

For better or for worse, over the past couple of years, we have all become used to the eerie reality of living at these two different levels. Acts of coldly premeditated terror, such as those of Sept. 11, and carefully premeditated acts of war, such as the campaign in Iraq—these things have had a quality of mirage about them. We experienced them as a matter of course, partly as the undeniable facts of day-to-day life, but partly also as some kind of ominous foreboding, as if we were walking in step with ourselves in an immense theater of dreams.

These have been astounding events, yet I think that each of our consciousness hasn’t quite got the measure of them. Twin towers bursting into flame, human bodies falling like plummets, sorties of black-winged bombers taking off, as terrible and phantasmagorical as black-winged devils of the medieval mind, explosions appearing in the coordinates of a reconnaissance camera, looking as harmlessly white and fluttery as snowflakes. We know these things are real, but it is hard to bring their terrible reality home.

If, however, literature has a virtue, if those works of the human imagination that have been preserved by teachers and librarians for millennia have a virtue, it is surely their ability to make us realize fully and feelingly what is happening to us as individuals and as nations. As human beings, we need this realization, and one of the most observable proofs that we do need it was the quest, in the wake of the Sept. 11 atrocities, the general and urgent quest for, among other things, poems that would be equal to that bewildering moment. Just then, it seemed, people needed interior possessions that would keep standing, as it were, even as the rubble of the outer world kept falling around them. What they required was work that addressed itself to the place of ultimate suffering and decision in each one of us.

That phrase, “the place of ultimate suffering and decision,” was first used by the poet Ted Hughes, the late great poet laureate of England whose papers now enrich the holdings of the Woodruff Library. All true and necessary poems arose from that place of suffering and decision, he said, and I believe that in the wake of Sept. 11, we all knew what he meant. For the strange truth is this: It is in times of deepest public crisis that we are driven deepest into our private selves.

The human condition can be understood as a series of immense climaxes and cataclysms in the historical record, but equally and intimately, the human condition is experienced in the privacy and bewilderment of the individual consciousness. Which, for example, is the most important moment in this morning’s Commencement? Is it the inner newness and strangeness of change that each graduate is experiencing, the sense of standing in a new solitude, at the threshold of a new life—is it that? Or is it the huge consoling familiarity of being together at Emory, of being carried along by a shared companionship, by the pageantry and community and solidarity of it all? Both things are important for a fully lived life and always will be, and the challenge you face in the years ahead is to maintain that balance between the call to be true to your mysteriously essential inner self and the need equally to operate capably and self-respectingly in the outer world of affairs.

Again, Class of 2003, I do not want to unduly darken this brilliant and happy day, but you graduate at a solemn moment, in the aftermath of grave suffering endured on your shores and grave action taken beyond them, and as citizens of this more somber world, you will be faced with the challenge to maintain both balance of mind and quickness of sympathy—to maintain what the poet Wilfred Owen called during the first World War, the eternal reciprocity of tears. Or, to put it more simply, you will be challenged to be wise and to be good.

To use the more commanding words of W.B. Yeats that I always like to quote, you will be challenged to hold in a single thought reality and justice. And when you are so challenged, remember that others have been in the same predicament for millennia, so turn to them, and in particular turn to those among them who offered their answers to the challenge.

Turn, in other words, to the poets and writers and visionaries, who took the strain and held the line and stood their ground in the hard-won, decisive place. And then, Class of 2003, go you in your turn and do likewise.