A Word to Graduates: Organize!
You wanted to hear from a playwright, at least some of you did, at least someone at Vassar did, unless a mistake has been made and you actually meant to invite Tony Kushner the British Holocaust historian. He might have been a better choice, Holocaust with either a big or little "H" being something we all have to think about constantly during these very dark days. If you meant to invite me, and let's proceed from that assumption, then you wanted a playwright, and I have to say what a strange choice, what with Gabriel blowing his trumpet and the Book of Revelation unfolding seal by seal and all; it's as if you'd been warned of years of calamity and famine ahead and in response you anxiously stuffed an after-dinner mint in your pocket. You should have gotten the British Tony Kushner, or maybe Condoleezza Rice, who is I believe actually mentioned in the Book of Revelation--I know Stanford University is mentioned, I know her boss is mentioned, I know John Ashcroft features prominently, and not pleasantly, with batwings and horns; really, you can look it up. This is a time of crisis, and in a time of crisis we all have to focus on getting real, and you, what do you do? You get a playwright to deliver the 2002 commencement speech.
Thank you for inviting me, but I worry about you. Haven't you been reading the papers? Weren't your parents worried when you told them who'd be speaking? Didn't they suggest you go in another direction, maybe get someone who could explain how the new arms reduction agreement Bush and Putin just signed--which seems to me to leave the number of intact nuclear warheads unchanged but allows Bush to go ahead and begin building Star Wars, which seems to me proliferation rather than disarmament--you could maybe get someone to explain how this is good news and an improvement on an actual arms reduction treaty. I would have bought a ticket to Poughkeepsie just to hear someone explain that. Am I some sort of gesture, some louche, trilled cadenza sung while the ship goes under? Am I a symptom of your despair, and if I am, why couldn't you have gone for someone a bit more techno-savvy, someone from the movies, Spiderman for instance? Why someone from the theater, for God's sake--do you want everyone to think you're gay?
Is that it? Is it because I'm gay? Did you hope to shock your grandparents? But you know, since the Bush Administration began issuing those warnings every ten minutes that more terror is on its way and that we apparently can't do Thing One about it, I have been feeling incredibly uninterested in sex. And anyway, I am a very old-fashioned kind of homosexual, or rather sexual minoritarian. I am the kind of homosexual sexual minoritarian who believes that sexual minoritarian liberation is inextricable from the grand project of advancing federally protected civil rights, and cannot be separated from the liberation struggles of other oppressed populations, cannot be achieved isolated from the global struggle for the abolition of the legacy of colonialism, cannot be achieved isolated from the global resistance movement against militarism and imperialism and racism and fundamentalisms of all sorts, the global movement for the furtherance of social and economic justice, the global multiculturalist, antitribalist, identity-based movement for pluralist democracy. I am the kind of homosexual who believes that all liberation has an inexpungeable aspect that is collective, communitarian and also millenarian, utopian, which is to say rooted in principle, theory, dream, imagination, in the absolute nonexistence of the Absolute and in the eternal existence of the Alternative, of the Other, in the insistently unceasingly mutable character of our character. I am an old-fashioned sort of homosexual/sexual minoritarian, and I think if you wanted a gay commencement speaker in this dark day and age you might have chosen one of those newfangled neocon gay people with their own website and no day job.
This is a world in which the Netherlands becomes the latest European country to lurch to the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim right through the offices of a gay politician assassinated by an infuriated vegan, anti-mink-farming, gun-toting lunatic, and I am simply too old-fashioned and maybe just too old to explain to you how we got from Stonewall to Pim Fortuyn. I'm still trying to understand how it is that I pay taxes but can't marry my boyfriend, but I bet you can get the Netherlands and more explained for you on http://www.neocongaypundit.com, and maybe you could have gotten that guy, you know, whatsisname, to come to explicate further the future we face of new crusades and the clash of cultures and how laws against discrimination and hate crimes are actually bad for gay people.
Perhaps you asked me to make this speech because I am a working artist and you are, many of you, graduates-to-be and their parents alike, wondering about the market value of this diploma you're about to get as you contemplate a career in the arts. Vassar has a, well, you know, arty reputation, so I imagine some of you are thinking of careers in the arts and you picked me to come talk to you today to give you advice about making a living as an artist. What I usually say, when asked, is: Go for it, and: Be prepared for the day when the devil knocks on your door. Making a living is much easier than getting a bachelor's degree, and much more of a sure thing than surviving till 2003; but the bit about the devil is the tricky part, and I wonder if maybe you should have asked a rabbi or a minister or an imam, who, had you done so, would probably be standing here telling you that if avoiding doing deals with the devil is important to you, maybe you could find a field somewhat less proximate to the infernal realms than the arts.
What am I doing here is, I guess, my question, and it seems to me that it's a good question to ask in a commencement speech. What am I doing here, or perhaps another way of putting it, Why me. Which is a very useful question, two simple words, which, depending on their inflection, can express everything from dark-night-of-the-soul delving to adenoidal, self-pitying whininess, either one of which is suitable to the occasion of graduating from college. Why me. What am I doing here. Perhaps you invited me to do the speech because you know no one in the theater would have the poor taste to try to answer a question like that.
You could ask your parents Why me, if in asking you mean how did I come to be like this; they, after all, made you, at least some of you. No one will ask them to take responsibility for the whole of you. But if in asking Why me you are inquiring after the specifics of your specificity, Why am I me and not someone else, you could begin by looking into your origins. Some of the answers can be found in your home, and by setting the answers you glean through observation, coercion and psychoanalytic psychotherapy in a dialectical spin with the facts of your place in history, in time, in the world at large, in the culture that is your larger context, in the ideology you have inherited and I hope transformed by living, and that with your psyche is the prism through which your self or your soul is refracted, the light and air baffle that your flame or the smoke from your smoldering traverses to reach the exterior world; by setting the inner and the outer up as combatants on the epic dramatic stage in your head, you will arrive, maybe by the time you're 80, maybe earlier if you work hard at it, at some understanding of yourself. If you don't fear the dark night of the soul you will, and you won't fear it so much as long as you remember that no one is happy, only Bush is happy; the best you can hope for is to be happy-ish. Remember too that the real value of a dark night of the soul is that it's maybe the surest way of ascertaining that you have one, a soul that is. A few rare souls are genuinely native to daylight, but in my experience most of us, if we have souls, have the nocturnal kind; they aren't dark but darkness may be their element, darkness is a comfort to anything so divided against itself. There, see! Who needs a rabbi?