Guilford Commencement Address by Chris Benfey

Sunday, May 23, 2004 - 12:00

Commencement Address by Christopher Benfey, Mellon Professor of English, MHC, Guilford College Class of 2004

Greetings, Guilford Class of 2004. And hail to your parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, your sons and daughters! The Development Office is even now checking your addresses and the correct spelling of your last names. Thank you, President Chabotar, and thank you members of the Board of Trustees. And thank you - a thousand thank yous - to the Guilford faculty. When I was growing up in the Quaker triangle -- Philadelphia, Indiana, and North Carolina -- I wanted to be a basketball player or a potter. The one thing I knew I didn't want to be ever was a college professor. Several friends and mentors in the audience today -- Jerry Godard, Ann Deagon, Claude Mourot-Hoffman, Rachel and Ted Benfey -- made me reconsider. These were people who reinvented themselves every few years, founding children's schools and clothing stores, becoming poets and movie actors, changing fields every year like wise farmers. So, I became a professor after all. Two roads diverged and I took the one more traveled by.

My mother graduated from Guilford - she hung out in Mary Hobbs, just as I did - and my father taught here. I was a double legacy at Guilford. Being a legacy is one of a couple of things I have in common with George W. Bush. I forget the other thing.

Well, it's a humbling thing to be asked to give a commencement speech, and a little scary. You know you've got to come up with a big message -- one of those "To thine own self be true" lines. This spring I kept waiting for that big thing to come to me. The sky opens, there's a peal of thunder, and a voice says, "Tell the Guilford graduates to floss their teeth." Well, the sky never opened for me. So, I did the next best thing. I asked my assistant, Abby Ferguson, who graduated from Mount Holyoke last year. Mount Holyoke and Guilford are reliable old schools, both founded in 1837, so I thought a recent Mount Holyoke graduate should know what to say to a Guilford graduate. I said, "Abby, what should I tell the Guilford class of 2004?" Abby didn't hesitate for a second. "That's easy," she said, "Tell them not to panic." So, that's my first piece of advice to you today, "Don't panic!"

Then I asked my mother-in-law, who is dying of emphysema in Virginia. It is good to spend time with the terminally ill; they live in a place we will all visit sooner or later, and they have perspective. This is something I learned in a wonderful course I took at Guilford called "Death and the Imagination," taught by Jerry Godard and Mel Keiser. "What should I tell the Guilford graduates?" I asked my mother-in-law. Sheilah didn't hesitate any more than Abby did. "Tell them not to worry too much about the headlines," she said. "There's much more to life than that. Tell them not to get discouraged." So, that's my second piece of advice: "Don't get discouraged."

There is said to be a Chinese curse that goes like this: "May you live in interesting times." Actually, Bobby Kennedy - who wasn't particularly Chinese - may well have invented this curse. The great Civil Rights warrior first used it in a talk at Cape Town, in South Africa, in June 1966. Kennedy said: "There is a Chinese curse which says, 'May he live in interesting times.' Like it or not," said Kennedy, "we live in interesting times." No one has found the curse in Chinese literary sources, and it's perfectly possible that one of Kennedy's bright, Harvard-educated speechwriters made it up. But there is a Chinese proverb that goes like this: "It is better to be a dog in a peaceful time than be a man in a time of chaos." I asked my dog about this and he said that I had it backwards.

Well, my friends - Chinese curse or not: Welcome to interesting times. The challenge for you is to learn to live in a different world from the one your parents lived in and brought you up to live in. Your parents have a dim memory, dimmer every day, of the last interesting time in America, the 1960s. Someone said that if you remember the Sixties you weren't there. Well, it's not as though the world stopped during the thirty years that followed. South Africa, where Bobby Kennedy gave that speech, got rid of apartheid. Berlin, where Kennedy's brother gave a famous speech, got rid of its wall. The Soviet Union got rid of its empire and its name. People looked around during the 1990s and said, "Hey, it's all over." The United States has won. Capitalism and democracy are triumphant. History has come to an end. Now we can concentrate on really important things like extreme makeovers and the love life of Britney Spears.

"It takes one awful second," said the great German writer W. G. Sebald, "and an entire epoch passes." You were just beginning your sophomore year at Guilford when two hijacked planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. You were just beginning your senior year when a Guilford student, dubbed by the press "The Box Cutter Kid," proved that it could happen again.

There's not much useful advice that I - or anyone else my age - can give you about our uncharted future. In fact, we might be better off listening to you, listening to Lucas, Sunny, John and the rest of you. But I do have three little things you might pack in your backpack, along with your Swiss Army knife, your flashlight, and your copy of The Bible, or the Koran, or On the Road.

First: find a secret pocket for your dreams. Try to remember both your daydreams and your night dreams. Keep a dream journal. Check the inbox of your unconscious every morning. Call it "me-mail," messages from yourself to yourself. Freud and Jung were right about dreams: your dreams tell you who you are. The world is full of people who don't remember their dreams. Don't be one of them.

Second: reserve a compartment in your backpack for those daydreams we call art. Albert Einstein paid a visit to Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1938. The students grilled some hotdogs in his honor, and someone asked him: "Mr. Einstein, which is the most important, art or science?" Einstein, who knew something about science, replied, "No doubt about it in my mind, it's art. Art must always come first, art and feeling." Guilford College has focused on the arts this year and with good reason. We can't do without them. Put them in your backpack in a secure location.

Do download music from the Internet. Call it an act of civil disobedience. Say that you need it to survive. Say that it's your daily medication and is better than Prozac or Viagra. Attach your favorite poems and songs to your mirror and memorize them as you shave or floss or apply your make-up. I learned this trick from the North Carolina writer Reynolds Price and it works. Learn poems of Rumi and Rilke and Langston Hughes. And the poems of Randall Jarrell, who lived down New Garden Road and is buried right across the street from Guilford College.

A third thing for your backpack: Silence. As the great composer and temporary Tar Heel John Cage once put it: "Don't just do something. Stand there." Cage once wrote a famous piano piece called "4' 33." A pianist goes to the piano bench and sits there in silence for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It has to be a really good pianist. I once heard an excellent performance of it in New York. There are also recordings of it, which you can download from the Internet. The Quakers are right about silence. If I stop talking for ten seconds, it's amazing what good things might fly into your head and what bad things might fly out of it. Let's try it.

The events of Sept. 11 made us realize how small the world is, how interconnected we are by the Internet and the jet plane and the cell phone. But I think there's another lesson to be drawn here, and it is this: There are no centers anymore. Copernicus, as I learned in Ted Benfey's history of science course, suggested that the planetary system made more sense if you put the sun, not the earth, in the middle. The math was easier that way. Well, the world makes more sense if you don't put the United States, or New York or Iraq in the middle.

Lately, I've been putting this little corner of North Carolina in the middle. A famous eighteenth-century French traveler called Crevecoeur visited New Garden, the old name for this Quaker settlement that eventually became Guilford College. Crevecoeur thought this place was "bewitching." "No spot on earth can be more beautiful," he wrote. It was a landscape where miracles could happen. One day in 1790, a woman stepped out of the forest "and vanished into it seventeen years later." In her history of Guilford College, Dorothy Gilbert, my mother's favorite English teacher, tells the story of Anne the Huntress, the first teacher of New Garden, and in a sense the first Guilford faculty member:

"A large company had gathered to watch a shooting match, and suddenly there was among them a beautiful young woman carrying a highly ornamented rifle and equipped with shot pouch, belt, hunting knife, and hatchet. She asked permission to take a shot with contesting riflemen; then she stepped to the line, gracefully raised her rifle, took quick aim, and fired. The ball drove the center sixty yards away. And this was the teacher, for Anne the Huntress -- she never gave another name -- lingered happily in the community for years; and as she visited from home to home, she taught the children for her recreation and killed the deer for her livelihood. She particularly objected to careless pronunciation, and young Quakers soon began the use of the final consonant."

I published a book last year about how Americans viewed Japan during the nineteenth century. They thought it was an impossibly exotic place with beautiful art and impeccable manners. They were not entirely wrong. It turns out that during the eighteenth century, British and French travelers viewed North Carolina in much the same way. Eighteenth-century travelers even thought that North Carolina might be a little bit like China. When they found ginseng growing in the Smoky Mountains they thought they were onto something. And then the Quaker potter in England, Josiah Wedgwood, got wind of kaolin deposits near Franklin, North Carolina. Kaolin is the secret of porcelain or fine China. (It is also the secret of Kaopectate -- but that's another story.) So there you have it: if you dig down far enough into the Carolina clay, you reach China.

And that brings me back to that Chinese curse. Nineteenth-century Americans who visited Japan thought everything was upside down, topsy-turvy. Japanese wrote letters from right to left; they blackened their teeth to make them more beautiful. Well, maybe we got the curse a little wrong, too. Maybe the most important word in the curse is "live." "May you live in interesting times." Here is my final word of advice, Guilford grads of 2004. Don't forget to live. No one else can do it for you. The challenge of the real world, the world of J-O-B, out there is that it isn't real until you make it so, by living it. And remember, don't panic!ext