ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998.


"Commencement", an essay by Ricardo Nirenberg


In June my eldest grandchild graduated from college.  Three more to go.  The way I figure it, the steady hand of a great-granddaughter or a great-grandson will sweetly close my eyes.  Must be my own grandparents, Jews all, who passed on this hope to me, to die like a patriarch, rassasié de jours.

That day the dreaded Chicago weather held its fury, the sun was bright, the Scottish bagpipes sounded their glorious whine, and the faculty in academic regalia proceeded up the road toward the canopied podium.  The color of the University of Chicago is maroon, I’ve been informed, but since professors wear the colors of their own doctorate-conferring institution, the procession was variegated, positively medieval against the gothic edification all around.  This university is quite young as such things go, but it does its best to look old.

There were over a thousand undergraduates in black gowns, and somewhere among them, now sitting on rows of folding chairs, was Alex.  As a senior he had written a paper on Plato’s Republic that made me proud of his philosophic talent, and now he was graduating with a double major in philosophy and political science.  There don’t seem to be many job openings for philosopher kings, but part of a grandparent’s hard-learned discipline is not to show the shadow of a worry about a grandchild’s prospects in the world.  Besides, what do I know about the world my grandson has to deal with?  Next to nothing: almost as little as I knew about the world I was confronted to when I was his age.

The president of the university was conferring advanced degrees, honoris causa or for some other exalted reason, and each time he repeated the ritual formula: “Welcome to this ancient community of scholars.”  Those words moved me to my marrow, somehow, and I asked myself, how ancient?  How tight a community?  What kind of scholars?  Perhaps, I thought, I was so moved because of my Jewish ancestors: Talmudic learning, Sura and Pumbedita, that sort of stuff.  But as far as I know my ancestors were illiterate females and marginally literate males, and I first learned about Talmudic schools from my wife, who counts a respected rabbi among her ancestors.  No, the ancient community of scholars into which those guys were being solemnly inducted seemed to owe more to the Hellenic tradition, and the ill-starred Pythagoric sect at Croton or the long-lived Platonic Academy were likely the ultimate source of my emotion.  Anyway, as I always say, that shtick of reason or revelation and Athens or Jerusalem is just an intellectual fashion: old enough, to be sure, but destined soon to wane.  We’re all Jewgreeks like Philo or Leopold Bloom: all of us, anyway, who take the trouble of trying to figure out what’s potentially going on.

I asked Jared, my youngest grandchild who was sitting next to me, “So what do you think, are you going to apply to Chicago?”  He’s got to apply to colleges this year, and he inclines to a scientific or engineering major.  “Well, I don’t know,” he replied.  “These kids are weird, but not my kind of weird.”

Weird?  My grandsons weird, and of different sorts?  I wanted to find out more, but Jared was not forthcoming, although he tried and volunteered, “I mean, we are differently weird.  That’s it.”  It reminded me of Tolstoy: normal kids are all alike; weird kids come in different kinds.  But I can’t believe my grandchildren are weird.  They seem normal to me, normal in the good sense, bien entendu.  Oh God, that reminds me.  When I was Jared’s age I had a high school mate—not quite a friend, just someone I played craps with; we would go to dancing parties together, he played the guitar and we would sing boleros—this guy Ramón did seem weird.  He had a way of imitating our most authoritarian professors, the sadistic ones of whom there were quite a few, with a relish that made him seem positively crazy.  But none of us kids imagined that he would end up, as he did, a fugitive from the law, a serial killer of women just like Henri Désiré Landru or like Monsieur Verdoux.  Oh God, he and me serenaded my sister when she turned fifteen; he and me were standing before her bedroom that evening, crooning for her, “Tus besos se llegaron a recrear aquí en mi boca…” I put my right hand in my pocket and retrieved Tiger and Toucan, the dear little stuffed felt characters I share with my granddaughter Katie.  After having had them for four months at her college, that morning she had returned them to me.

The keynote speaker that day was a distinguished composer, and the title of her talk was something about why the arts are important.  She began by reminiscing about her childhood.  When read a poem by her mother, she would sing the words to a tune she produced on the spot.  Her mother would ask her how she found a melody so ready made, and she would answer that the melody was already there, in the words.  It reminded me of Richard Strauss’ opera Capriccio, when the poet sings: “Primo le parole, dopo la musica”.  My cousin Alberto Brodesky, to whose pianistic skills I never came close, used to assure me that in Beethoven’s piano sonata “Les Adieux”, just by reading the title of the first movement, “Lebewohl”, he never doubted that the first three notes had to be G, F, and E-flat.  And is it possible that Franz Schubert found the right melody too, impromptu, when he was four or five and someone read to him a poem by Wieland or Klopstock?  There are times when it is easy to believe that some of us —few though— have been fashioned into the likeness of gods.  Then, one day, the speaker went on, she had an eye opener, she discovered how important music could really be.  She happened to meet a woman who played the cello as a hobby and was a professor of rocket science at MIT.  Or maybe it was at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena.  Anyway, this professor was facing a tough problem in rocket science, and she was going nowhere.  Then, on an impulse, she grabbed her cello, sat, and played for an hour, and lo! as she was getting up she realized all of a sudden that in her head the problem was all solved.

Just as the ancient community of scholars had caused in my heart a feeling of elation, now this rocket science bit made me deeply sad.  “How! (I thought).  She’s supposed to speak about the importance of the arts, she an artist, and here she comes up with art being important for the sake of technology.  Today not even artists believe in the independent importance of their work.  And it is here, here in front of my nose that this is going on, this seduction of my grandchildren, and of a thousand others, into a heartless road.”

Anyway, what’s music now?  Bigger bang for the buck, as Eisenhower used to say.  In this mood, I could pay no more attention to the musician’s speech.  I looked at Katie and Jared: they were busy with their i-phones.  That’s just as well, I thought.  But was it?  They have more mega-garbage per minute per square inch, those hide-nothing screens so exquisitely sensitive to the touch.  Kim Jong-Un, bless his soul, may have a point after all.

It was the turn of the students.  Three of them spoke, each for an eternity or so.  Theirs was confused, confessional rhetoric, just as there is confessional poetry: their ME was at the center, their ME loomed enormous.  Except that they felt no need for grace of style or spark of wit to convey that enormousness: the fact that they were there, up in the canopied podium, risen like la crème de la crème, was supposed to be proof enough: the proof was in the cream puff.  One of those students went so far as to bring up her working-class parents, unenthusiastic about her attending a first-rate school, in spite of which she studied so hard she got a good scholarship, and so la voici: here she was!  She was like those athletes who, upon winning a set, or a race, or whatever, raise a fist and scream to heaven as if challenging the Olympic gods.  I could never understand such stupid arrogance.  It is like naming Titanic a transatlantic, or Challenger a rocket to outer space.  It’s asking for it, if you ask me.

You’ll say I sound like an old, grumpy fart, and I do, I know I do.  But why should not old men be mad? 

I turned my eyes on the black-gowned crowd and tried to locate Alex.  Rows of faces, young and mostly alert, boys and girls from all regions of the world, and suddenly, out of the blue, I felt an all-encompassing sympathy: I felt as if all those kids were my grandkids.  I wasn’t born here, nor were my parents: we were born and raised antiscians, in the land where shadows and ideals are reversed; their parents and grandparents came from the Ukrainian shtetls.  In none of those lands could one’s identity expand, hemmed in as it was by fear, cultural baggage, and the evil eye.  And now, in this June Chicago morning it is granted me to experience that I too am large and contain multitudes.

And those three speaker kids, and the elderly musician, with their ME-ME- MEs, they were and are celebrating themselves, and in so doing they celebrate all, since they do contain all.  Their ME is enormous because, as Euclid assures us, the whole is greater than the part.  It shouldn’t make us sick, it should make us awed.  Whenever my soul expands – meine Seele spannt weit ihre Flügel aus – I think of my cousin Alberto, who should have fled his house — instead, he killed himself, perhaps because he couldn’t resist his homosexual drive.  And I think of Sviatoslav Richter in the 1998 documentary film by Bruno Monsaingeon.  After an hour of clips from Richter recitals that revealed unsuspected, sublime possibilities in familiar and not-so-familiar pieces of music, the film ends with the great Russian pianist’s confession: “I do not like myself.  That’s it.”

A deep silence in the shape of an impassable ditch follows Richter’s words “That’s it.”  What could be said after that?  Nothing, and there the film ends.  What could be said after Jared’s explanation of a few moments ago: “We are differently weird, that’s it”?  Well, perhaps I should have remembered that at the end of Plato’s dialogue Protagoras, where the big question is whether or not virtue can be taught, Socrates says that both he and Protagoras, the two interlocutors, are weird.  And I bet that if the dialogue hadn’t ended there, only a couple more questions and answers would have been enough for the two of them to agree that they were differently weird.  Jared –who knows?– might one day read Plato and read this, and his thoughts might then be stirred to find a new, revealing aspect of his own weirdness.

Right then, after those thoughts, I felt a great impatience that the commencement ceremonies should end, not because of the hot solsticial sun, but so I could confer with Alex.  For an obvious idea had dawned on me, and no one was better suited to hear about it and to either concur or dissent than my eldest, graduating grandson, who had written the essay on Plato that warmed and expanded my heart.  It had dawned on me that Book Seven of Plato’s Republic, the one that begins dramatically with the shadow marionette show in a gloomy cave, is the paradigm and grand commencement of all commencement speeches.  Like the more ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, it is a guidebook for emerging forth into the light, that is, out of the cave.  “Education” means, in Latin, a guiding or conducting out of — into something else, presumably from gloom up into light, and Book Seven of Plato’s Republic pretends to tell what education must be, and what subjects should be taught.  I wanted to tell Alex how funny it was that when Socrates and young Glaucon talk about the teaching of astronomy, whether it should be mandatory, and Glaucon says that it should, because it was useful for agriculture and navigation, as well as for the military arts, then Socrates tells Glaucon, “You’re an amusing guy, you seem to be afraid that hoi polloi will think you might be recommending useless studies.”

And Alex, no doubt, would recognize that I was thinking of the distinguished composer who in her keynote speech had spoken of music being useful for rocket science.  And then I would add another turn on the screw, by noting that Socrates seems to have forgotten that a few moments earlier he had prescribed arithmetic and geometry not only because they teach eternal truths but because they are important for officers and soldiers.  Which goes to show.

Show what?

That we should be indulgent to the distinguished composer and to all speakers at commencements.  For not even Socrates could get it right.

The undergraduates were being called in alphabetic order, and they were advancing in a row toward the canopied podium, where they would get their diplomas.  I placed myself close, and when Alex went by I gave him a high five.


Ricardo Nirenberg is editor of Offcourse

Return to Offcourse Index.