Thursday, May 23, 1996, 10 a.m.

Address to convocation by Dr. Edward Dawson Ives


Thank you one and all for granting me this honor and giving me the opportunity to visit Newfoundland once again. Let me add that for a folklorist -- and I am a folklorist - the honor is doubled, coming as it does from a university renowned for its folklore program - unquestionably one of the finest in the world. It is now my unfortunate duty to say something, as it is your equally unfortunate duty at least to appear to be listening. Fortunately for both of us, the end follows closely on the beginning, and I will begin without further fanfare.

When I was a child, there were many things I did not understand, while other things seemed quite certain. I knew that trees waving was what made the wind, but that was empirically obvious. More truly puzzling was what was beyond that place I could see from my window where the blue sky met the ridge line at the edge of the world just beyond Ogden Avenue, beyond which I was forbidden to go? That was a stopper, but I knew my father would have the answer.

One summer Sunday after dinner I saw my chance. Since Dad didn't like to see Mother washing dishes, he often chose this time to go for a walk, and just about as often - and usually for just about the same reason - I'd accompany him. But today I had a mission. "What's beyond the place where the sky and the land meet out there?" I asked, pointing towards Ogden Avenue.

"They don't meet," he said. "It just looks like they do," he added when I protested.

"But what would I see if I walked out there?"

"Nothing," he said, "except more sky, maybe, and more land."

"But what if I kept going? I'd have to reach the end sometime!"

"No, you'd never reach it," he said, a little testily, I thought.

"But what if I did?"

"You wouldn't," he said, in a way that suggested I should back off. But I made one more try, coming at it from a different angle. I had recently ventured with him up through the trap door that led to our unfinished attic, and I had seen the backside of my bedroom ceiling, the way the plaster squirted up through the laths. "Maybe it'd just be boards. And plaster maybe, sort of like in the attic?" I said.

That made him laugh. "Maybe," he said. But then he turned serious. "Look here," he said, "don't you get any ideas about crossing Ogden Avenue. O.K.?"

"O.K.," I said, and I didn't. Not for a while, anyway.

Meanwhile, I went back to looking out my window. Just raw plaster and boards? So what was on the other side of them? Nothing? Well, that nothing had to end somewhere, didn't it, and if it did what was there? And what was nothing anyway? And what about the plaster and boards? Supposing they were there, where did they come from, let alone who put them there? Did they run all around, even where I couldn't see behind me, and how did it happen that I was right here in the middle of it all?

I was vaguely troubled by all this, but I had a faith that sustained me: Some day I'd understand. Every day I saw grown-ups doing the things grown-ups do - like driving cars and mowing lawns - with an assurance that betokened untroubled understanding. Wisdom would come with time. Some day all would fall into place. As I say, that was my faith. That I had to believe, else what was the point of growing up at all?

As the years went by and I entered my teens, I also gained the privilege of looking back on my former innocence with amusement - that business about the trees waving, for instance - but while my horizon now went well beyond Ogden Avenue (I had learned about solar systems and light years, for instance) I can't say that I had made much cosmological progress, largely because cosmology was constantly being overwhelmed by more immediate, if no less metaphysical, matters. There was, for instance, my growing awareness that approximately half the people in the world belonged to a sex that was interestingly different from my own, a discovery which brought with it a host of troubling questions and problems, not to mention furtive and fumbling explorations.

Even so, I kept the faith. Mind, it took a beating as I discovered the delights of cynicism, but deep down I held to it: In time I would understand, as I moved along into what I'd been told was maturity.

Well, what went wrong? All my life since, I've been plagued by the same half-formed groping for answers to questions I hardly know how to ask, and since they are probably part of one big question it would be tiresome to tick them off here. But they are there, the same pre-Ogden Avenue perplexities, and whenever I am unprotected by my busyness, I come face-to-face with them. W. H. Auden put it well:

O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you have missed.

The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

What happened to maturity or whatever it is called? Certainly it cannot be ahead of me - if it is it had better hurry up! - and if it is something I passed through it has left no inward mark whatsoever (we won't speak of the outward marks, thank you). Here I am still rooting at the same questions. Clearly maturity has escaped me, and the hell of it is I still see all these others - contemporaries and even juniors now - going about their business in ways that suggest it has not escaped them. They really do know what's going on. Why don't I?

The answer lies with Socrates. When an impetuous friend asked the Oracle at Delphi "Is anyone wiser than Socrates?" and was told, "None is wiser," he found himself faced with two possibilities: either he was the wisest man in Greece, or, since he knew he knew nothing, no one else knew anything either. Quite in character, he opted for the latter - though there is some question, I suppose, as to whether the two were really that different - and his concomitant and continued deflation of those with the answers got him into considerable - and ultimately terminal -- trouble.

Having neither his courage nor his chutzpah, I have not chosen to follow Socrates' outward way nor in conscience can I recommend it to you, but I can take from it two precepts for the inward way. Knowing we don't have a clue to what it's really all about, we can cast a very cold and fishy eye indeed on those who are sure that they do. Maybe they do, but chances are that in the long sleepless watches of the night the crack in the teacup whelms them as it whelms us. Therefore let our distrust of certainties be tempered by compassion. All of us travel the same night.

I don't know that that's much of a charge to give a graduating class, but you can take some comfort in knowing that already you're no worse off than the rest of us, and, so long as you keep your sense of humor, that's not necessarily bad. And having quoted Auden once, let me close by quoting him again in what I can recommend to you as a prayer for our time.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleagured by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

And after all, my friends, it's the only game in town.

Thank you very much.