In the second half of May, colleges let out, and graduation ceremonies are held—it’s commencement speech season. I’ve long had a particular interest in this genre of essay, if it can be called that, in large part because, like wedding toasts or newspaper columns, commencement speeches seem inherently doomed by the nature of their format (in this case, by their lack of focus and specificity): they’re not about anything in particular—they are life advice, words of inspiration and wisdom.
But what is wisdom? I ask, in the ponderous tone of a commencement speaker. It strikes me, possibly, as something one must arrive at within one’s own brain and body, the ability to make sense of one’s particular life and its context within the broader world and to find comfort and peace within the process of living: a destination toward which the knowledge and writings of one’s elders may helpfully propel one—but not quite so directly as through the sharing of explicit precepts on how to live. It seems clear that, insofar as life advice is ever valuable at all, it has to be tailored to its specific recipient, based on a detailed understanding of his or her problems, needs, and sensitivities—and even then it’ll in most cases turn out to be useless. What hope does a commencement speaker have of offering guidance that will apply—that is, make any sense whatsoever—to every unknown student in a graduating class of thousands?
My father has been a professor at Rutgers University since 1990 but never bothered to attend the general graduation ceremony until this year: he wanted to see President Obama, the commencement speaker on the school’s 250th anniversary. Obama has apparently given nearly two dozen commencement speeches over the course of his presidency, but this May, for the first time, I was tempted to glimpse him in cap and gown by tuning in online. It wasn’t bad—the parts dissing Donald Trump went viral—but it felt a little too much like a political stump speech for young people, preaching the importance of getting out there and voting, only partially engaging the wistful impracticability of the commencement mood.
For a few decades, the most famous commencement address at an American university was John F. Kennedy’s 1963 speech at American University in Washington, D.C., but far more so even than Obama’s discourse, it’s virtually unrecognizable as a commencement speech by today’s standards, focusing primarily on the possibility of peace with the Soviet Union rather than the basic human dreams and anxieties of the graduating class.
Nowadays, the two standard models for commencement speaking are Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford address (for industry leaders) and David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College address (for artsy types)—life-advice discourses that became iconic almost instantaneously and have become even more popular as a result of the premature deaths of both speakers. I’ve watched, listened to, or read each of these perhaps a dozen times, looking for weaknesses (of course), and in the end, even though I’m an artsy type rather than an industry leader, I find Jobs’s speech more uplifting by far than Wallace’s.
In a truly fantastic imitation of humility, Jobs chronicled the ways in which the great good luck of his life rewarded him at various crucial junctures where he’d chosen to follow his heart and curiosity instead of accepting some more practical or obvious path. To some degree, it’s just the gloating of a billionaire, but it’s also an oddly touching story of how things can go right sometimes, even it seems like they shouldn’t. Ultimately, without making any promises of similar good fortune, the speech makes a persuasive case for choosing the course of love—of pursuing one’s passions and inclinations, personally and professionally—and for the possibility of receiving some mysterious gifts from life along the way. It works even if you know what a jerk Steve Jobs was in real life.
Wallace’s Kenyon College speech, on the other hand, just gets worse every time I look at it. Written with the author’s usual sharp wit and informal yet intellectually urgent diction, “This is Water”—a 2,368-word text—became so beloved that it was somehow republished as a stand-alone book after Wallace’s death. It advocates living in a state of deliberate, effortful awareness of the broader world, instead of remaining stuck, shortsightedly, within the prison of one’s own ego and needs. I guess it’s a good message, but the extent to which the public responded to Wallace’s particular phrasing strikes me as kind of inexplicable, since the author is so clearly writing from the perspective of a suicidal, depressed person (and yet acting as though his illness-derived perspective were universal). He posits food-shopping, of all things—a task that most people actually enjoy, at least relative to other errands—as an exemplary chore of “adult life” that, if you aren’t capable of stepping outside your own irritations and impatience, will make you want to blow your brains out. Unfortunately, his mental practice of sympathetically fictionalizing the private lives of his otherwise repugnant fellow shoppers in order to stop himself from detesting them seems, in the long run, unworkable.
The truth, of course, is that most people simply possess a healthier brain chemistry than Wallace did and so will never have to face the to-be-or-not-to-be question as often as Wallace’s speech implies, or even at all. His desperate need to find a spiritual solution for the trauma of everyday existence (“in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism”) suggests a person in unusually dire straits—but perhaps that’s why people like the speech. It dramatically ups the ante, turning our inner lives into a battleground: we must monitor ourselves not in order to live marginally better lives but in order to survive at all.