A Series of Misremembered Events: A Skeptic’s Guide to Writing an Autobiography
delivered on October 16, 2012 at the University of Calgary
Against Love and Respect
It was brought to my attention yesterday that this talk was being advertised as featuring the “well-loved and respected” Brendan Kredell. I’m afraid I need to take issue with that on both accounts. My quibble with the first point is minor: I am as happy to be loved as the next person, though it occurs to me that whatever goodwill we professors earn from our students tends to dissipate rapidly beginning right around midterm time. As my students from Film History have just finished taking their exam but moments ago, I’m afraid to say I’m not nearly as well-loved as I used to be.
On the second point: I daresay that I hope I’m not yet respected. Despite what this balding head and graying beard may lead you to believe, I’m not yet old enough to be respected. John Huston’s character in Chinatown put it much more memorably than I could ever hope to do.
Suffice it to say that while a great many things have happened to me in my life, and some of them I have even made happen, I hardly think I’m in a position to play the role of wizened old sage here. I’m probably closer in age to Harry Potter than I am to Albus Dumbledore. (And yes, J.K. Rowling pedants in the room, I know that Dumbledore was supposedly in his hundreds, and thus this isn’t a fair comparison – but I’m speaking figuratively here.)
For those of you who don’t know me, however, there is one point on which the advertisement and I can both agree: my name is Brendan Kredell. I teach film studies in the Department of Communication and Culture, and I’ve had the pleasure of having many of the people in this room as students during my brief time here at the U of C. I must admit that I’m a bit befuddled that they’d choose to spend a free night of their time with me – at least those of you who don’t know me can say that you didn’t know better, but these people have no excuse.
In all seriousness, all this self-deprecation is a weak attempt to mask how nervous I am to be giving this talk. It’s a great honor to be invited, and I sincerely want to thank the Students’ Union and the Office of Leadership and Student Engagement for extending that invitation. Camille de Lacy and Jason Morgan are owed a special debt of thanks for putting up with my incessant foot dragging, and for somehow making such a huge crowd appear in this empty space. Finally, I want to thank all of you, students of mine and those who just came out for the evening. It’s been my true pleasure to teach you since I’ve arrived here at the U of C, and this opportunity tonight is one of my proudest moments as an educator.
A Brief Excursion into the Macabre
OK, after that moment of sincerity, perhaps you’ll pardon a brief excursion into the macabre. As my students know, I’m teaching a course on Tim Burton this term, so brief excursions into the macabre hardly seem out of place. I recently received news that a distant relation of mine had died. He was an old man, and had presumably lived a full life, and in truth I did not know him well at all. But there was something about the condition of his passing that struck me as I was thinking about this speech. In going through his papers immediately afterward, his children discovered that their father had written his own obituary.
I became fascinated by this idea of auto-obituary. This was in no small part, I’m sure, because the proposition of delivering a “last lecture” had forced me to consider, at least as an intellectual exercise, my own mortality. I mean really – what if this were my last lecture? What if I were to run off a bridge after swerving to avoid a dog on my way home, much as Barbara and Adam Maitland do at the outset of Burton’s Beetlejuice? Were it that this was indeed the last opportunity I had to impart something upon my students? What on earth do I have to say that rises to that threshold of importance?
The short answer is: nothing. The longer answer is: my best efforts to construct a clean narrative of my life story and present it to you in a straightforward manner in such a way that you might come away from tonight having gained some appreciable life lessons are impeded by one central trouble. I’m continually engaged in a process of revision on that narrative, partly by choice and partly by function of the fact that with age comes a certain fog of memory that reduces all of past experience to an Impressionist’s take on history. So it is that I’ve arrived at the title for today’s talk: “A Series of Misremembered Events: A Skeptic’s Guide to Writing an Autobiography.” With it, I have in mind to inquire after a pair of utterly immodest themes. But my means for doing so couldn’t be more modest: I’d like to tell you a couple of stories, and then explain why I can’t figure out what they mean anymore.
In film studies, we talk about the idea of “high-concept”: it’s a term that describes a kind of film that’s easy to succinctly describe and clever enough to draw an audience. I’m sad to say that for those of you who came expecting a high-concept dispersal of accrued life wisdom, you’re in for a bit of a let-down. In fact, I wouldn’t be upset if you walked out on me now.
But that’s not to say there aren’t themes here: no, quite to the contrary! For my cinephiles in the room, this talk is more Tree of Life than it is The Transporter. We’re hunting big game tonight, boys and girls: I have in mind to puzzle over our relationship to the infinite, and how a structural understanding of society interferes with or accommodates a notion of human agency. You’ll agree, I think, that it’s utterly preposterous to try and bag both of these in one evening. But we’re all here, so why not, right?
Restoring the Five Ws
But before I do, I want to reassure you that this isn’t some disquisition on existential doubt. Or at least, not in the main it isn’t. There are a few facts of my existence of which I am absolutely certain, primarily because they are written down on paper, and I’m happy to report them to you. I know, for instance, that I was born in a hospital in a small town in New Jersey. Despite that, I’ve lived most of my life in big cities: Washington DC, Chicago, Calgary, Toronto, New York, San Diego. I am certain that I went to university at Georgetown, and that I graduated with a degree in foreign service. I’ve got the letter in my office that proves that I’m appointed to teach film studies here at the University of Calgary.
All of these kinds of facts are the grist that runs through the obituary writing mill. But knowing these bits of info about me is useful only if I ended up a category on Jeopardy! one day. They reveal little about the person that I am. I’d go so far as to say that it is the very objective truth of these facts that, counterintuitively, prevents them from being very meaningful. Taking account of any person’s life, and especially your own, means critically examining the decisions made by that person and the useful fictions they crafted for themselves. This is a way of thinking less interested in the person that documentary evidence reveals us to be, and much more interested in the life we’ve chosen to perform for ourselves and for the world.
Luckily, cinema’s history provides a way of orienting ourselves for the work ahead. Many in the room will perhaps be familiar with Akira Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon, and the eponymous effect associated with the story first described – to my knowledge – by Karl Heider. The film tells the story of one event – the murder of a samurai in a remote forest – from the perspective of multiple witnesses. Heider seized on this fragmentation when describing how bystanders’ recollections of the same incident could vary tremendously according to their individual perspective.
Here, I propose to merely extend this idea of subjective perspective out along the temporal axis. We’re all comfortable with the idea, I would hope, that our perception of the world around us changes over time, as we grow and accumulate new experiences. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that we ourselves are not only capable of but easily susceptible to a fracturing of our own memory.
I’m afraid I may have my head too far up in the clouds at the moment. Let us pause and return to earth for the time being. I suspect that there may be some of you in the room tonight who feel as if you are still trying to figure things out. You may look around you each day and feel like your peers have their acts together, and you think that you don’t. And perhaps you thought that if you came to listen to a professor talk about his life experience, someone who almost certainly has his act together, than perhaps things would seem a bit clearer.
After listening to everything I’ve said thus far, perhaps a dispiriting truth has already dawned upon you: I don’t really have my act together. Every day I struggle to create some order from chaos, and every night I keep myself up thinking and worrying about the next day in front of me. But to be honest with you, I wouldn’t have it any other way. What’s more, I’m suspicious of anyone that does purport to have figured it all out.
To “figure it out” implies that there’s an answer to the question, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a wizard at the end of the yellow-brick road. I think this is a dangerous way of thinking, and I would strongly encourage you to avoid it. I say this as someone who fell victim to the seductiveness of this way of thought, and only after the fact did I realize – like Dorothy – my mistake.
Despite what the board game may lead you to believe, life does not have a path. More accurately, it has infinite paths which intersect at finite points. (This is actually geometrically impossible. Mathematicians in the room will please pardon me.) The seductiveness of thinking in terms of paths is that it relieves of us of our obligation to constantly concern ourselves with the next move that we are going to make. I offer my own personal experience as a testament: Like, I assume, a good number of you, I began to develop some apprehension as I moved through university about what it was that I would do afterward. I could see myself pursuing any number of careers. I interviewed for what now seems a dizzying array of jobs – one working in finance, another in a support role for the US military, a third as a reporter for the Associated Press, and a fourth as an elementary school teacher, the one I eventually took. (This was another time, were jobs were bountiful and university graduates easily found employment.)
After working for a time as a schoolteacher, I began to feel as if I were spinning my wheels. I had been conditioned to think while in school that I always needed to be progressing, moving ahead, and while I could feel myself becoming a better teacher, that wasn’t enough. So I decided that I needed to return to graduate school. It represented a clear path with a goal at the end – after all, there’s a reason why they call the PhD a terminal degree. In my naiveté, I assumed that by the time I reached that point, I’d arrive at some sort of moment of clarity. But when I finally reached the end of the road, as they slipped the PhD hood over my head, I must admit to a bit of dismay. I found myself asking, like Peggy Lee, “is that all there is?” I was certainly proud of everything I’d accomplished, and thrilled to have the chance to come teach here at the U of C. But I was looking for something more when I started it all – a set of answers to the question of what I should be doing with my life – and no degree was ever going to be able to answer those.
But in another sense, through that process I did manage to gain a vantage point that may be useful for our purposes tonight. I made this analogy to a student of mine who came to my office to talk about graduate school and career options. I’m not sure that she liked it, but perhaps you will. You are all at an enviable place in your lives right now, with many of the largest decisions you’ll make still in front of you. I imagine each one of those decisions like a room with a set of doors, each leading into a slightly smaller room. Without realizing it, each decision we make about where to go not only affects our present course, but constrains our future decisions. None of these decisions is individually determinative – that is, there will be a number of opportunities you will have to change course midstream, or to take a do-over on an earlier decision.
But in their accumulation, the decisions that we make ultimately determine the sort of life we end up leading for ourselves. I went many years without realizing this; when the situation demanded a decision, I made one, but without any real thought to the long-term consequences. I attempted to set myself on pre-ordained paths as a way of minimizing the number of decisions that I’d need to make for myself. And I think in so doing, I lost control of a precious part of my youth: the ability to self-determine. So my first piece of counsel to you tonight is to never lose sight of the horizon. Be conscious when making decisions about your future about the ramifications that those decisions will have, and continually ask yourself what you need to do to become the person you’d like to be.
Icarus and Daedulus
Speaking of horizons, that brings me to the first story I wanted to tell you tonight. As strange as the setting for this evening seems to me, in truth this ain’t my first time at the rodeo. Almost a decade ago, as I mentioned, I was working as an elementary school teacher in Washington DC. One day, out of the blue, I get a call from my mother, who tells me that she, in turn, had received a call out of the blue from a woman who used to be a teacher of mine in grade 7. That woman, it happened, had now become the principal of the school I had attended, and she was now organizing that year’s graduation ceremonies. Would I be interested, she asked my mother, in returning to my middle school and serving as the commencement speaker that year?
A microphone, a stage, and a crowd of impressionable youth and their parents? You didn’t need to ask me twice. With your indulgence, I’d like to share with you a part of the speech I gave that day. It isn’t long, but hopefully it sets up a larger point that I’m trying to make here today.
The 2003 Speech
Now, our story, like so many good stories, begins with a father and his son. The father, a certain Daedalus, is a really bad inventor living in Ancient Greece. His son’s name is Icarus, and unfortunately for him, he had to follow his father around wherever he went. Now at the time that this story takes place, Daedalus had led Icarus to the island of Crete, where they had been taken prisoner by the king and locked inside the Labyrinth, the terrible maze underneath the king’s palace. Now, being a prisoner on the island of Crete and locked inside the Labyrinth is an absolutely dreadful situation to find yourself in, and I hope that in your travels, Class of 2003, you never find yourself in such a position. But luckily for our heroes, a friend of theirs helped them escape from the Labyrinth, and Daedalus, who you will remember was not a very good inventor, was left with the job of inventing a way of getting them off of the island.
Daedalus did come up with an invention, after all. He stuck some bird feathers into some wax to make wings, and made a pair for himself and a pair for Icarus. His plan was to fly off the island of Crete, and it seemed like a simple enough plan, especially now that they had wings and all. And then, in what your English teachers might call “foreshadowing,” he turned and gave a warning to Icarus. He told him not to fly too close to the ocean, or else the feathers would get wet, and he told him not to fly too close to the sun, or else his wings would melt.
Now, at this point, anyone in the room who has had the experience of working with candles can predict where this story is going to end up. Our heroes are out trying to fly away from the island of Crete with giant candles strapped to their backs, and it just so happens that the day that they’ve chosen to fly happens to be a perfectly beautiful, sunny day. The sun, you’ll recall from science class, is not like the yellow smiley face that my students draw it when I ask them to draw me pictures of things, but instead the sun is really a burning ball of flames, really, really hot, and not at all the kind of place you’d like to fly near with wings made of wax strapped to your back.
So it is with sadness in my heart that I am to tell the end of this story to those of you who do not already know it. And I hope those of you in the crowd who already know the ending haven’t spoiled for the person sitting next to you yet. Here’s how it happens: Icarus and Daedalus jump off and start flapping their arms like mad, and before you know it, they are cruising through the air like birds. They are flying, and lo and behold, one of Daedalus’ inventions finally works! The two of them haven’t been zipping around long before Icarus realizes the chance he’s got to really soar, and takes off to fly as high as he can. Well, the higher he gets, the more excited he gets, and the faster he flaps his wings, which of course makes him fly even higher, which makes his arms flap faster, which makes him fly higher, which makes him more excited, which makes his arms flap faster…you get the drift.
The problem is, the higher he flew, the closer he got to that sun, sitting up in the sky like a giant ball of flames, and sure enough, that ball of wax on Icarus’ back started to melt. Before he or his father could do anything about it, before he even realized what was happening, his wings were falling apart, and he fell into the ocean, never to be seen by his father again.
Sad, I know. Of course, I wanted to tell you a happy story, since this is such a happy day, you all having worked so hard to get here, for so long. But I chose this story to tell you for a few different reasons. First of all, parents have told this story to their children for centuries, and after they finish, they always tell their children the same thing. “See, poor Icarus would have been alive today if he would have just listened to his dad and not flown so high when his dad told him not to.” Parents think that the moral of the story of Icarus is that kids should listen to their parents more.
Well, I’m here today to tell you today that maybe there is another moral or two to be had in the sad story of Icarus. Class of 2003, you should shoot for the stars, every time out, no matter who or what is standing in your way. Given a pair of wings, and the chance to fly, you should aim to soar as high as you possibly can, in whatever you end up choosing to do. Don’t waste those wings by simply gliding along, avoiding the water below and the sun above. Fly as high as you possibly can. We call this ambition. And if you are going to be successful in what you do, Class of 2003, then ambition is half of what you need. Icarus had ambition.
But ambition alone isn’t enough. Where you’ll succeed, and where Icarus failed, is that you’ll have intelligence. What Icarus didn’t have, and what you all will have, Class of 2003, is a strong education. Before Icarus jumped off the island of Crete, he had no idea what he was getting himself into. He had no idea that the heat of the sun would make his wax wings melt. He was not making informed, intelligent decisions, because he had not educated himself. You can learn from the story of Icarus. Share in his ambition. To aim for the sun every time you jump is a good goal – but know what you are getting yourself into before you take off. The only way to do that is to continue to educate yourself, both in school and out, and by relying on the help that your parents, teachers, friends, and family can provide. An ambitious, intelligent person is guaranteed to succeed. Shoot for the stars, but make sure your wings won’t melt on the way up.
Here’s the thing, though. I’ve come to be very circumspect about the advice I gave to that group of students almost a decade ago. Don’t get me wrong – I’m under no illusion that a single word of what I said was remembered by anyone in that room other than me. Trust me, I’ve been to enough commencement speeches to know better. But my concern is that I myself have misread the Icarus myth. It’s not that I disagree with myself, per se. I still think the facile reading of the story as a cautionary tale for why you should always listen to your parents is a bunch of nonsense.
But as I’ve gotten older, the other common reading of the Icarus myth, as a story about the dangers of human hubris, has interested me more. Not in that I’m overly concerned with hubris. In fact, in small doses I’d say that a little hubris can actually be good for you. But the concern over hubris points to a larger truth at work in Icarus.
The Part where Nietzsche Arrives
Please let me be clear here about a couple of things. Firstly, I am hardly a professional philosopher. I’ve never even played one on TV. But I’ve come to read the flight of Icarus as emblematic of the constant struggle between the bounds of convention and the horizons of the infinite. For help explaining what I mean, let me turn briefly to a real professional philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, for help. Nietzsche famously declared God dead in Book Three of The Gay Science, killed by human beings. Nietzsche explained the consequences of this action through the analogy of a small boat set adrift on the ocean. I’m quoting him here:
We have left the land and have embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us – indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us. Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure, it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you will realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that felt free and now strikes the walls of this cage! Woe, when you feel homesick for the land as if had offered more freedom – and there is no longer any land.
This has always been one of my favorite passages of Nietzsche’s, because it points toward the essential contradiction of our experience of the infinite. The horizon of the infinite is, as Nietzsche describes it, at once awe-inducing and terrifying. On one hand, he recognizes the allure of the boundless horizon, the feeling we have when we realize that the world is truly in front of and around us, and that we are capable of moving in any direction we choose through it. There is certainly something genuinely thrilling about this feeling – Icarus’ frantic wing-flapping as he got closer and closer to the sun, by this reading, is a recognition of the enduring appeal of the great beyond.
Yet at the same time, Nietzsche recognizes how utterly terrifying this experience can be for us. We not only depend on the conventions and mores of society to bring order to our lives, but we rely on them to mitigate against the potentially horrifying experience of the infinite. It isn’t until we strike out onto the sea that we realize how much we depended on the land, how hopelessly lonely one person adrift on the sea is, and how the constraints of society that felt so oppressive before are a necessary condition of its existence, and actually something to welcome.
All of which is to say that I don’t know what to make of the story of Icarus anymore. Obviously, this story was invented by humans for their own purposes: in our terms today, to police the norms and conventions of social behavior. But there is a wisdom to this story that I simply wasn’t ready to concede the last time I told it. “Shooting for the stars” sounds very nice as advice to a middle school graduation, but the truth is that you all are too smart and too old for such platitudes. Let us take for granted that you should shoot for the stars – if you weren’t, you’d be sitting at home playing video games tonight rather than sitting here listening to me.
The marker of success that Icarus offers us, I think, is that the horizon and the here-and-now are always in tension with one another, and we need to respect that. We need to be mindful not only of the possibilities that exist in the great wide world, but of the rules of the game that determine the conditions of our existence from day to day.
I want to be careful to underscore that I’m not simply suggesting you accept the rules of the game as it’s played today. It’s that kind of hidebound conventionalism that I’m actually trying to discourage here. If you never challenge authority, you’ll always be a subject of it – thinking what someone else has taught you to think, doing the work that someone else has forced you to do, laughing at the right jokes on The Big Bang Theory because the laugh track reminded you to laugh there.
But at the same time (and here my inner punk rocker is turning over in his grave), be mindful of the fact that Icarus ended up dead in the ocean at the end of his story. Blindly raging against the machine and shooting for the stars might be a good way to achieve short-term satisfaction, but not a very healthy recipe for long-term success.
This brings me to the second story that I wanted to relay to you all this evening. It may be that this one is slightly less well-known here than it would be in the States; it concerns a famous figure of American folklore whose exploits, I suspect, haven’t traveled widely across national borders. How many people in the room tonight are familiar with the legend of John Henry?
After listening to me drone on for so long, I hope you can appreciate that I’ll need to take a breath before plunging into another story. So I thought a better approach might be to show you a clip from a film that recounts the John Henry legend.
But first, some background information: according to legend, John Henry was a former slave who had been freed after the American Civil War. In the years following the war, he worked as a steel-driver – in different tellings of the story, he was either responsible for tunneling through rock or driving spikes through rails during the construction of the railroads that were criss-crossing the United States during this era. Henry was reputed to be the best steel-driver there was, a legend for his physical abilities alone. But the railroad owners sought to replace Henry and his coworkers with machines, investing in steam-powered hammers to do the same job that Henry would do faster and more efficiently.
The film I want to show you here is Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat, a biopic about Jean-Michel Basquiat, the American painter whose meteoric rise to international prominence in the 1980s was matched only by the swiftness of his tragic fall. He first came to the attention of the art world in 1981, and by 1988 he had died of a heroin overdose. Here, in this early scene, a friend explains to Basquiat the John Henry myth.
Just in case you couldn’t make out Benicio del Toro’s accent there, the basic outlines of the story are these: Henry, frustrated with this attempt to displace the workers, challenged the steam-powered hammer to a race. The man and the machine battled furiously against one another overnight, with neither side taking a clear advantage. Finally, as the race approached its conclusion, Henry is said to have pulled ahead with a superhuman burst of effort, arriving at the other end of the tunnel first and vanquishing the machine. Despite emerging victorious, the story of John Henry is always remembered for what happens next: he dies on the railroad, hammer in hand, moments after the crowning achievement of his life.
Reading John Henry
Part of the enduring appeal of the John Henry myth lies with what we would call its multivalence. That is, many different audiences have seized upon the story over the years since Henry’s purported victory – and death – to champion him as a figurehead for their cause. At various times, John Henry has been held up as a civil rights icon by African-Americans, a tireless worker and ur-common man by labor groups, and a proto-anti-modernist by those who bemoan the increasing automation (and atomizing) of contemporary life.
Of course, all of these readings are correct: the beauty of a myth is that we can adapt its meanings to whatever purposes best suit us, and in that I am no different. I’ve always been fascinated by Henry’s story, although the reasons for that have changed. It used to be that I had the same sort of fatalistic attraction to the character of John Henry that I did for Icarus. What was it that Neil Young said? That it’s better to burn out than to fade away? He was already an old man by the time he sang that, but I suspect the sentiment has the most appeal for people still in the spring of life. I know I heard a certain wisdom in his words when I was in university. I remember watching Basquiat soon after it was released – that should date me – and seizing on this scene in particular. On this question, my sympathies were entirely with the artist: so what that John Henry died at the end of the race? Boom – he beat the machine. Even in death, Henry left behind an accomplishment that would endure for time immemorial, such that we are talking about him tonight some 150 years after the events of this story are purported to have taken place.
Needless to say, my perspective on this story has changed considerably since then. The debate between Basquiat and his friend now seems a false binary to me – why should we accept the idea that the only outcomes of this story are that (a) John Henry wins, and dies; or (b) John Henry loses, and survives? If he had been beaten to the final spike by the machine, and still died with the hammer in his hand, would we find his story nearly as interesting?
Re-reading John Henry
Instead, as I’ve gotten older, I find myself thinking about the world around me more and more in terms of structures of power and organization. In my younger days, I had an unshakable faith in the efficacy of human action. I took that job as an elementary school teacher in part because of this: my students were poor, their test scores didn’t compare favorably with peers in more affluent districts, many had challenging situations at home, and the school was under-resourced. Nevertheless, I believed in the credo of the organization – Teach for America – that placed me in the job: that one day all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. And I thought that I could have the most impact on making that happen by becoming a teacher myself.
The experience of teaching called that belief into question, though. The forces aligned against my students were considerable. To be born poor and black in the United States is to constantly be batting with two strikes against you: it’s certainly possible to still reach base safely, but it’s a lot more difficult. In the starkest terms, the average life expectancy for one of the boys in my classroom was more than 14 years less than a girl in the same grade who just happened to be white and live across the city limits in the affluent suburbs of Maryland. The reasons for this profound disparity are many and varied, and the solution to this problem is not at all obvious. But I became convinced that the only way to truly “solve” the problem of unequal education was actually to effect systemic change, to think in much more structural terms about how it was that society was organized and how power was reproduced through those systems of organization. My students are now your age, and I know some of them have gone on to university. Their families would celebrate this by saying that their sons and daughters have “made it out,” which is to say that their pursuit of higher education is seen as a way of breaking a recurring cycle of poverty. They are right, in a way – both my wife and I are here tonight because we “made it out” of our upbringings, and I expect many of you can say the same. But the truth is that things won’t genuinely improve until we make it such that students don’t need to make it out – equality means that a student shouldn’t have to leave her community just to have a chance at success.
So what does this have to do with John Henry? I’ve come to rethink the Henry story as a cautionary tale about agency and structure. For Basquiat, the allure of the Henry myth is that the steel driver wins out in the end. That in death, he makes a contribution to our culture that lasts for time immemorial. That’s a very romantic idea of what a strong-willed human can achieve, but it’s not one that I myself am inclined to believe. After all, Henry’s was the ultimate Pyrrhic victory – he died as soon as he won the race, and in death, it wasn’t as if he staved off the eventual triumph of the machine. He proved a point: that through super-human effort, it is occasionally possible to triumph over the systems of power. But that point was proven at great personal cost.
A more productive reading of the Henry myth, I’ve come to think, is one that locates his protest in the tradition of generations of protests by the dispossessed against the power structures they feel alienated from. Henry’s feat to was demonstrate, through sheer force of will, that the power of the people is not lost. But we err in trying to replicate his example. After all, if we all went to our deaths trying to do rage against the machine, then who would be left to do battle? Instead, I think we ought to look to Henry as inspiration: it’s essential that we hold on to our subjectivity and individual agency, but at the same time we need to recognize that even when the machine loses, it wins. The choice we face here is not, as Basquiat would have it, between winning and losing, but rather between accepting the rules of the game as they are presented to us, or working to change the rules of the game in our favor.
Some More Prosaic Advice
In closing, I thought I’d take the opportunity to offer some perhaps more prosaic advice. Everything I’ve said up until now isn’t exactly concrete wisdom, and I don’t really have the gift for writing aphorisms that would be useful in a setting like this. But there were a few things I figured I could share:
You live in a moment that’s been called the Information Age. While I think this is a silly name (what, there wasn’t information before the internet?), it’s undeniably the case that the ease of access to information in our cultural moment is a defining characteristic of modern life. You have no excuse not to consume that information voraciously. Not only does this make you a good cultural citizen, but it breaks down the artificial boundaries between disciplines, or careers, or lifestyles, that we construct for ourselves. In the course of preparing this lecture I re-read Nietzsche and the myths of Icarus and John Henry. But I also read some articles about Bayesian probability, advanced baseball statistics, film theory, political science and game theory, not to mention a healthy dose of obituaries. Most of that never found its way into the talk. But the process of knowledge acquisition is never-ending, and ultimately I am nothing but the sum total of my experiences, knowledge, and beliefs.
Get Out of Your Car
I once knew a guy who was fond of quoting Oscar Wilde as having said “reality is a ride on a bus.” I’m fairly certain that Wilde never said anything of the sort, but he – like Mark Twain and Winston Churchill – occupies that rarified position of eminent quotability where it’s easy to believe that he could have. All the same, there’s wisdom to this fictitious Wilde quote. You’ll literally watch your life passing you by if you spend it inside of automobiles. I’ve done more learning on streets and on trains, buses, and planes that probably all the years of school put together. Take the bus. It’s better for the world, and you’ll be a more interesting person for it.
Invest in a good mattress
There are several reasons for this. When you are young, you don’t have much money, and you’re tempted to cut corners wherever possible. By all means, buy your clothes at thrift shops, eat rice and beans every night, only go to the movies on Tuesday nights. It’s a time-honored tradition. But don’t skimp on a mattress. For one, your back will inevitably fail you as you get older – there’s a reason why everyone you know over thirty complains of back pain. Hold that day off for as long as possible. Secondly, you never know when you’ll need to share your bed with someone. Having a comfortable mattress increases the chances that s/he will want to come back.
Wear interesting undergarments
A corollary of this last point is that you should always endeavor to wear at least one interesting undergarment each day. It’s important that we preserve a sense of mystery about ourselves, the kind of mystery that manifests itself in oddly-patterned socks, or unexpectedly bright undershorts. Most of the time, this will be your little secret from the world – here I am giving a speech to a bunch of people, and I’ve got bizarro socks on. But every now and then, you find yourself in the unexpected position of revealing your undergarments to another person, and the mystery is only enhanced.
The converse of the above. There will come a point in your lives when you are simply too old to stay in hostels any more. No one tells you this, but one day you’ll show up and realize that everyone is looking at you uncomfortably. Before that day comes, though, take advantage of the ability to travel cheaply. Home will always be there, but the opportunities to see the world beyond won’t, and as the years go by and responsibilities mount, you can’t simply pick up and take a cross-country bus trip whenever you’d like.
Demand the best from yourself, and expect the least from others
Steve Jobs’ marketing genius was in under promising and over delivering – by keeping the audience’s expectations at bay and then surpassing them, he was able to cultivate an almost magical air about himself. Applied to our daily lives, I find that expecting nothing out of the people around me is the only reliable way to ensure that I’m continually impressed with humanity’s generosity. If you navigate a path through life that depends on the kindness and generosity of others, you will occasionally find that not everyone shares your sensibility. Not only will this be a tremendous disappointment, but it will also be a real impediment to your success. If, instead, you cultivate a strong self-reliance, then the assistance of others will be a welcome surprise, and the occasion for much thanksgiving.
Conversely, don’t be the kind of person who isn’t forthcoming with kindness and goodwill. It’s a lot easier to try and understand what another person is thinking when talking with them than it is to try and convince them that they ought to think about something the same way you do.
I think that should about do it. I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve had spending tonight with you, and I want to thank the Students’ Union and the Office of Leadership and Student Engagement once more for sponsoring the talk. I also want to thank everyone here for being such a patient and attentive audience, and I’m happy now to take some questions and listen to you explain to me why everything I’ve just said is totally wrong. Thanks, everyone, and good night.