David Mamet's Commencement Speech
|By David Mamet
R. 28 May 2004
I was having dinner with my family, the doorbell rang. It was a young man in a hand-me-down suit, selling magazines.
Thank you, I don’t want any magazines, I say. I understand, he says, the point of my visit isn’t really magazines, it’s education. I and a group of underprivileged young people are enrolled in the something-or-other organization, which is chartered as an educational institution. They mean to teach us about success. TO THAT END, we are going into the better neighborhoods, and asking the homeowners questions from which we hope to learn how to succeed. To what do you feel you owe your success.
Well, puff puff puff, and I buy twelve magazine subscriptions off this kid. Home and Garden, Skiing, Golf, things I’ve never done and have no use for. I buy the twelve, and he says if I buy three more, he gets to go to a special motivational seminar in somewhere Colorado, so I buy those three, too. I’m still getting them.
The kid took me down. How dare I go on about “the secret of my success.” What an egoistic fool. Whatever success I have I owe, as does anyone, to a combination of luck, genetics, ambition, and perhaps a slight admixture of application. He, the great conman-salesman, offered me a secret thrill cheap. What was the thrill? That I got to pontificate?
Certainly, but I get to do that anyway, I spent twenty years teaching college. The real thrill, I realized much much later, was this fantasy: that the young actually want to emulate their parents. That they see something admirable in us and in Our Ways. That they want, in effect, “to continue the work we’ve started.” What a bunch of hooey; for they see, and it is perhaps true, that we weren’t, involved in any “work,” but were blundering about, looking for sex, money, fame, adventure and absolution, just the same as they – Your parents, I among them, as I have a daughter graduating from college next week, delude ourselves that you want our help or direction, when a slight application of memory would instruct that you simply want us to get out of your way. Much as we did, when we found ourselves, as the handy phrase has it, “going out into the world.”
We looked around, as you do, and we saw the incredible idiot shambles which was and is the world.
And we chafed, as you will, under the yoke of those who had brought the world to this sorry brink, and scorned them and cowtowed to them for various good things to which it seemed they held the key, and we waited for them to die, and learned how to get along with them, and looked back, as we aged, at our young and deluded ourselves that they could profit from our experience. This delusion is prettified by the term “philosophy,” and one of its attendant delusions was exploited by that young man who sold me “Field and Stream.”
Is there no lesson in that interchange?
Yes. That human beings are weak, and suggestible, and, usually, never wronger than when we recur to a philosophy which casts us in the lead.
I recall I told this young fellow that my great success was due, in large part, to my lack of education; that I, essentially attended no schools, or if I did, I wasn’t paying attention. I think this is true; but as I also thought I was teaching a worthy lesson, and I was actually being conned, must I not consider each part of the transaction suspect, and all my words lies? I think I must.
And, had I actually gotten self-educated, should I not have been able to see through his pretty transparent chicanery? Perhaps it was he who’d gotten the education, and whatever school he’d studied in deserved praise, for it fit him to succeed at that which, for the moment, was his life’s work. It took him (and me) right-ways back to the punch-in-the-nose of life.
My hero is Eric Hoffer. He was born in 1902 in Brooklyn to German parents, his mother died when he was young, he was raised in poverty, he went blind from age eight to fifteen, he never spent a day in school, became a hobo, and eventually washed up in San Francisco, where he worked as a longshoreman for twenty-five years.
He worked on the piers by day, at night he wrote the greatest of 20th Century American philosophy, and I recommend his books to you all. Here is a quote from 1967:
“Thus, as the post-industrial age unfolds we begin to suspect that what is waiting for us around the corner is not a novel future, but an immemorial past. It begins to look as if the fabulous century of the middle class and the middle-aged had been a detour, a wild loop that turns on itself, and ends where it began. We are returning to the rutted highway of history which we left a hundred years ago in a mad rush to tame a savage continent and turn it into a cornucopia of plenty. We see all around us the lineaments of a pre-industrial pattern emerging in the post-industrial age. We are rejoining the ancient caravan, a caravan dominated by the myths and magic of elites and powered by the young.”
Every civilization in history tries to prepare its young to leave the nest, or, to put it differently, to live in the world. The terror of separation was traditionally dealt with by ceremonies of matriculation, the boy child was taken forcibly from the mother, and went to live with the men: the girl child was taken from the family and went to live in the women’s hut: the boy went into the military, the girl was initiated into the secrets of sexual or maternal conduct.
In a world filled with awe, the child was forced, say, helped, to substitute respect for fear, to exchange wonder regarding, the tribe, the Gods, the universe, for concern about its parents.
“How do I live in the larger world,” substituted today by: how may I be spared the necessity.
Options include, graduate school, living at home, “Finding Oneself,” and other avenues of prolonged and perhaps perpetual adolescence.
In healthier societies the young were imbued with an awe of “the secret knowledge”: that knowledge was held out, and revealed, at set periods, to the prepared.
We see these ceremonies persist in: the confirmation, the Bar Mitzvah, military graduation, commencement.
Essential to these ceremonies is the proviso: but you can’t come back.
Any ceremony insufficiently strict, whose requirements are other than rigorous, and which permits recidivism, is worthless. I cite, for example, the commitment ceremony rather than marriage – these weak ceremonies do not propel the young towards the pursuit of the secret knowledge. We may call this secret knowledge “God,” or, “The mystery of life and death,” or “How to comport oneself honorably in a troubling and confusing world,” or we may call it marriage, or vocation – but the society which kills, in the young, their desire, their necessity of truly matriculating, is wounding them.
Imagine the baby never encouraged to speak. Why would this child do other than cry?
For what does it cry? For the toy it could have by asking; and for external stringency sufficient to permit it to grow.
Deprived by their guardians, of the quest for secret knowledge, the young cannot respect their elders.
If a society is based on consumption, license, and endless possibility, the young must see their elders as lacking, as they are less strong, supple, and nubile.
There must be inducements to the child, to abandon puerile self-absorption, to matriculate. These inducements are misunderstood as rewards; the true inducement, to the young, however, is not the reward but the task.
These tasks must be capable of accomplishment, but sufficiently stringent to allow the child to complete them with pride.
If he is not tested, he has little reason to abandon the pleasant practices of infancy. Our schools fail, in the main, in being insufficiently rigorous. The latest heresy of education brought on by the mania for testing, is that it is essential for the child to graduate. It has been forgotten that the original purpose of the school was to permit the child to learn.
Here is a test by which an education may be judged: may I now employ that which I have supposedly learned to bring about the result the school advertised.
Will the firebow and socket always produce fire: may I now read Aramaic, play the Mendelsohn.
Much supposed education, instead of imparting skills, exists to blur the distinction between skill and supposition, anaesthetizing the young by an assurance that a) all is within them, or b) things are only what they chose to think of them. I am speaking of a liberal arts education, the worth of which, having been subjected to one myself, is still unclear to me. What is the harm in the jollity of deconstructionist literary “theory”? In self-serving application of the term “perhaps.”
Perhaps all things are equal, and their only meaning is that which I chose to award them.
Perhaps, then, people are truly good at heart, perhaps the world leaders are acting, appearances to the contrary, in accord with some dedicated plan of public service: perhaps the actions of the Palestinians and the Israelis are somehow equivalent, and perhaps OJ Simpson did not kill his wife.
Gibbon tells us that the decadence of Roman lawyers was not that they would equally espouse cause A, or B, and claim that either deserved a hearing, and was neither right nor wrong; their decadence was that they came to believe it.
For the non-matriculated, that person not helped that is, forced to live in the world, to participate in the world which is indeed cruel, but is the only one we have, this person can persist only as one or two things, a child or a victim – for their non-involvement will not survive the first punch in the nose.
And many would avow that even the murderer deserves an endlessly fair trial, unless, God Forbid, the murderer had killed one of one’s own.
The charm of a cloistered upbringing is that it inculcates a pleasant sense of self-sufficiency. It is easy to feel self-sufficient if everything has been done for one.
I thought about tattoos. I see that, as most important customs, the tattooing of the young occurs spontaneously and irresistibly. What does it mean? That a person, having obtained a certain amount of years, needs to assert autonomy – other examples include enlisting in the military and cracking up the family car.
We cannot escape from ritual, but the sophisticated call it by other names – it often seems the automatic outgrowth of personal choice – the billionaire’s serial polygamy, the new hairdo following the emptying of the nest.
Each step from one state to the next requires ritual, and if the ritual is not prescribed, it will be invented. We can’t come to the phone, but if you will leave a brief message at the tone, we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.
This handy phrase, came into the language as an incantation in response to an immediate overwhelming phenomenon; just as the stopped motorist cannot resist saying, “exactly what seems to be the problem officer.”
Steps from bondage toward freedom must be accompanied by ritual. Why? Because they pass through terror. Ritual distracts or ameliorates terror as love and sex distract from the shock of union. And the tattoo is an unconscious creation of ritual – “I have altered myself and can never be what I was.”
Attempts to escape from the terror of transition, lead to stagnation. As shacking up, rather than preparing one for marriage, makes its state less likely, or, if practiced, less possible – as graduate school staves off matriculation into the wider world, and, rather than preparing for it, rehearses the impossibility of success in it. Much of life is a mystery.
Vietnam, we were told, did not repeat the mistake of Korea, and today we are told that Iraq is not another Vietnam. And perhaps history looking back (as it does) will call it inevitable: given D Day, that the good trick we learned would be repeated until it brought about destruction.
The blessings of a war economy – absent the obscenity of war, were too great to be discarded, indeed impossible to discard. Without a ceremony. What do we value? Sherlock Holmes taught Watson that, to force the lady to take the most precious Stolen Documents from the hidden spot in the house, one need only set fire to the house. She’ll bring the documents out with her.
What things do we value most – the first love note, the child’s first drawing, the marine tie clasp.
These things are the Laurel Crown, more precious than Gold, more precious than anything, as they mark the blessing or a transformation – which is to say, an experience of the divine – the script binder that held the first play, the ribbon which held a diploma, they are the physical mementos of a mystery.
The sophomore basks in his discovery that the world is plain and blunt – that all is self-interest and hypocrisy, that we are born and then we die. The fortunate young person finds a calling, and calls life a mystery.
Later the mystery palls – work or love become formulaic. One trudges on like a misused automaton; one day the world changes again, we rediscover work or love or religion or children – the love of another, of humanity, and we once again feel the proximity of the divine.
Each new re-introduction of the mystery is preceded by, or accompanied by pain – we lose a job, a physical ability, a loved one, our illusions, money, possessions, position, and we rally heaven for an explanation.
How, Lord, have I grown old, grown redundant, lost my belief, my physical capabilities?
Age reveals a pattern: self-absorption followed by the possibilities of change.
This possibility contains two questions, the first why was I born, the second thank God I was born. Both of them bring us closer to the divine.
They are unfortunate who never change – the congenitally privileged, the frightened, the arrogant, act, in business, government, and in the home, in an infantile state, as well they might, for they have never left the nursery. They see the world as does the infant, as a machine which is functioning acceptably only when it grants their every wish.
Corporate malfeasance, Governmental corruption and other crimes are the product of an immature mind, which never underwent transformation, knowing only bloated repletion or rage.
In the infant of every age, power breeds corruption; license leads to arrogance, and, on to crime. For the licensed individual, like Nebucahadnezzar, wants more, and the more he receives the less it pleases, until, at length, he goes mad and eats grass.
Why does this unmatriculated individual lust for more and more? He knows what he has is worthless.
The new marine does not want another tie clasp to signify his or her transformation, the birdwatcher having viewed a pileated woodpecker does not burn to have seen two. Those blessed by change – having passed through trial from stasis to a new freedom, these are transmogrified, they have become something new – shocked and blessed to discover they had the ability to grow, they crave the opportunity to repeat that experience, which, they discover had been one of devotion.
Devotion brings blessing. We like to think, in our weakness that blessing resides in power, comfort, accumulation, conquest. This is just our good human trick of naming the lesser road the higher, the easier task the more difficult, coupling self-delusion to self-indulgence.
We repeat habitually, those experiences which are un-enjoyable. Cigarette addiction, serial monogamy, international arrogance.
The world has changed, and we search for the perfect country to invade, hoping its discovery might bring us back to the glory of D-Day, as we hope that endless compulsive dating might help us find the perfect mate – the fault in each, however, lies not in the lack of cooperation of the external world, but in our delusion.
For in geopolitics, as in sex and the city, we always find, magically, there is a fatal flaw – our intended has not read Trollope, or the invaded country, magically, has its own ideas of destiny. Just when everything was going so well.
How do we wean ourselves from the pattern of repetition, of addiction? It requires a shock. This shock, administered by society-at-large, used to be known as ritual. Which we see before us, here today. The ritual of Graduation means, in effect, “Get out.”If it does not mean “get out,” what might it mean?
Some, understandably, both in the School, and among the students, get addicted to the pleasant process, and wish to prolong it indefinitely, like combatants recovering from honorable wounds who have, unfortunately become addicted to opiates.
The opiate is difficult to kick, and how may the individual remind him or herself that the pleasant and drowsy interlude of collegial license evolved to dull the difficult transition from adolescence to independence, which is to say, responsibility.
The marriage ceremony, much as it celebrates a union of The Two, might be said, also, to enforce a division: of the groom from the best man, the bride from her retinue, the couple from their parents – the ritual proclaiming to the community, LEAVE THEM ALONE.
If we search for the overlooked in the ceremony, the unacknowledged there we will find, perhaps, its true meaning. The true meaning must be hidden – or it cannot be operative. If it is conscious, it must be rejected.
(The ritual of tattooing, I suspect, owes much of its popularity to the pain it entails, the actual tattoo image, perhaps, merely a visible sign that the wearer has undergone pain.)
EG: A first, adolescent date, which, in my day ran: would you like to have a soda, which must be translated as: I understand if I am to enjoy your company I must feed you – the ritual at the drugstore taking us back to Neanderthal times. And what of the graduation ceremony? What is the hidden, the overlooked element?
It resides, in one place, in this speech, which, operationally, might mean: I will listen to this boring drivel Just One More Time, my demeanor proof that I have learned, in four years of college, to put up with the bombast of the aged. ONE MORE TIME, and then I’m done.
Ritually, in effect, the ceremony is debased, for even my prosing is insufficiently painful to drive you forever from the protection of academia. In a better ritual, you would have to drag your diploma, that is, your quittance, from a burning pyre, to scar yourselves, to prove that you could Never Come Back. Which, of course, is just what you, wiser than we, have done in getting tattooed.
The ten plagues recorded as visited upon the Egyptians were, in truth, plagues upon the Jews. It was, psychoanalytically, they who were afflicted with Blood, Frogs, Hail, Vermin; they remained unmoved, until God wearied of their comfort in slavery and killed the firstborn, when they finally fled; and, yet, again they wanted to turn back – Pharoah came after them, and God interposed before them, the Red Sea; Death behind and Death before, and that brought about the miracle of the exodus, and only that.
What was the miracle? That the Red Sea parted?
The Svas Emess taught that the parting of the sea was, to the creator of the universe, nothing at all. That was no miracle. The miracle was that the people went into the sea – and not until they walked into it, up to their noses, did it part. They did not go until they went in terror, and, once having gone, they were changed.
Eric Hoffer wrote in THE ORDEAL OF CHANGE, that the greatness of America was that the immigrants had to undergo the ordeal. They had to leave their customs, their possessions, their language, and begin anew. Having done that, they found that they could accomplish anything.
They had escaped from the Comfort of the Known.
The possibility of change.
The Necessity of change.
We age, our body, our mind, our soul goes through transformations. The necessity of change will always feel intrusive, unpleasant, and dealing with it will always feel artificial, and unnecessary. That is why we have ritual.
On June 5th, 1944 thousands of American paratroopers jumped into Normandy. Four men refused the jump. Can you imagine, can anyone imagine the rest of these men’s lives? What prodigies of self-excuse, rationale, or repression they must have had to employ? Their lives, in effect, ended the moment they refused to leave the plane. As would the lives of the Jews, had they refused to go into the sea. As will yours and mine, and as they do in part, we each refuse the opportunity to change – we stagnate and perform ever greater prodigies of repression and hypocrisy, to explain to ourselves why we don’t immerse ourselves in the mysteries of life. We all die in the end, but there’s no reason to die in the middle.
You’ll be, through your life, asked to renounce your petted excellences, your physical prowess, beauty, power, time – if you have children – and eventually you will have to renounce your life itself.
In addition to pain, these transitions offer, as they did to the paratroopers, the possibility of glory – not in accomplishment, but in surrender, as they bring one closer to a mystery.
What is this mystery?
A woman at my synagogue spoke up and said: Rabbi, I don’t believe in God. The words were almost torn from her, and came out broken and anguished.
He said we have been told that God is a proposition. There is such a thing as prepositional theology: God is: (pick all or some) good, bad, human, formless, male, female, sexless, vengeful, et cetera.
Various sects, various religions compile a list of propositions and state to their adherents: accept these, that is what it means to believe in God, to believe in these propositions. But, the Rabbi said, God is not a mass of propositions. God is unknowable. Why are we here, what formed the world, how will it end, how can evil exist, what is sin, what is expected of all of us, these are all part of a mystery – the desire to draw close to the mystery, is the belief in God. That is all it means.
Well. The mystery can’t be lived with constantly. It presents itself to you, in admixtures, and at intervals. Sometimes you look for it, and sometimes, it comes looking for you. Sometimes the summons will be joyful and sometimes not.
Periods of self-sufficiency will be followed by periods of doubt, of disbelief, as life changes around you, and, as part of the mystery, periodically, change or die.
The journey from this summons to the next, unknowable state, must pass through ordeal, as the Jews at the Red Sea, as Christ at the Cross, or Buddha at the Po Tree. Perhaps, as you today.
The forces of parenthood, of education, are driving you out and perhaps the world does not want you.
Today you are comfortably ensconced in an experience of what you will later name as “childhood,” and what is that dark unknowable land before you?
It is good, it is bad, it is kind or cruel, pointless or tendentious, whatever it is, it is legitimately for me and your parents and teachers no less than for you, it is a mystery whose trials, and you will discover, whose delights are beyond foreseeing.
Ask anyone up here if they would trade places with you, and we might open our mouth to speak, with assurance, and then, whatever our answer was to be, say “I don’t know.”
Eric Hoffer wrote:
“No country is good for its juveniles. Like newly arrived immigrants the juveniles will adjust themselves to the status quo when they age given unlimited opportunities for successful action – for proving their adulthood.”
It is as difficult for my generation to overcome its fear of the power of the young, to temper its reasonable assessment of your inabilities with a grateful concern for your development, as it is for your generation to control its ambition, and outrage at our inabilities, and corruption.
This passage, this graduation recapitulates, and, in fact, is a pagan ceremony, a return to the prehistoric ritual of two groups separated by a campfire. I wish that I could forge for you that ritual which would make your transition, not easier, but more final – you have already, many of you, taken that step, in getting yourselves tattooed.
Go further. Find a quiet moment. Take a drop of blood from your finger, press it to a sheet of paper. Set fire to the paper and watch it burn.
Perhaps that was your childhood. It’s over now. You can’t go back. Here is what my generation wishes you:
May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord lift up Gods countenance to you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord cast Gods light upon you and grant you peace.
A speech for UVM
© 2004 by David Mamet