Chatham University

Commencement Address

Henry Reese
Keynote address delivered at Chatham University
May 22, 2011

30 years ago, we (Diane, Michael, Barbara, and I) were all having dinner together with a child psychologist from Switzerland. He was studying how children learned by watching them solve toy puzzles that he made. Thinking 4 Americans were about equal to a Swiss child, he invited us to try solving one of the puzzles, which involved moving a metal loop down a pair of tracks.

Diane : She jiggled and jiggled the loop, back and forth, I thought she would make rain with all the shaking. I am not sure her hands ever came off, till she solved the puzzle. She is an experimenter and can make 100 pieces before making the 'right one.'

Michael : He stared at the puzzle, I thought he was going to make it bend like Uri Geller. He never laid a finger on the puzzle and did it right the first time. He solved it by analyzing the mechanics and how it was made.

Barbara : I don't think she tried. She would have solved it by building a toy just like it, only better, and learned by making it.

I : I jiggled the loop back and forth a few times–I had to feel it, like poring over some data, then I stared at it. I jiggled again, thought about it, and abstracted my experience and did it.

So be warned, I will jiggle a little then go abstract.

Like many today, I finished college and went to graduate school, in my case to study literature. I explored how a computer might be taught to recognize that a group of words was a story–and not, for example, a newspaper article or an essay–and how the "same" story is told differently from culture to culture… How the rules of the road vary when we try to make our lives and our world coherent. Or put another way: When and how do we cease acting like robots–the voices of authority–– and start acting like people?

I never did figure that out.

One takeaway from the failure was that I learned that stories were social constructs. That a story was actually "the latest version" of a story that others have already written, otherwise it didn't make sense. What I experience is filtered through what others have already experienced.

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But in a sense, we enter –and tell––all stories in the middle–as part of a bigger context, an ongoing story, a story among stories. The philosopher Emanuel Levinas said this much better, "You are born in situation, before you are situated."

When you read attentively–– whether it's a novel, a poem, a play, a memoir, or a tall tale–you give the work a new life, a life particular as the circumstances of your reading it…but at the same time a life that includes all other readers of the same story, past and present and future. When we read, we keep the text alive for the next generation of readers and writers.

When City of Asylum provides sanctuary to an exiled writer, we think of it as extending hospitality, opening up our home and our community. In commenting on a lecture called "Hospitality "by Jacques Derrida, one of the founders of the COA movement in the early 90's, Anna Duforu-mantelle pointed out that Hebrew word for "invite" also means "to make time." (We have the same confluence of meanings in English–– to "make time" for someone is to "invite them" in to your space.) And she added, in words that never fail to give me goosebumps, "what is this strange understanding of language which demonstrates that in order to create time there must be two of you, or rather there must be some otherness…? The future is a gift from the other, from what is absolutely surprising." ,["like an exiled writer"]

Herman Melville had a beautiful expression for this: He said "Memory is the life without birth."

When you matriculated at Chatham a few years ago, you literally, in the Latin, were put into a "matrix," you were enrolled on a list. You then spent years delving into memories, usually in the form of books and discussion of what is in the books.

Through a confusion of language, the matrix of your matriculation has become the mater of your mother–your alma mater, an artificial womb. Today, you literally have been re-born as Chatham's daughters and sons, beginning, at this commencement, a new life…. Your graduation is literally a first baby step into that birthless life of memory that Melville refers to. We have two biological parents, but the parents of our memory are infinite and randy: in the world of memory we are all related.

And memory, as the Greek myths tell us, is the mother of the arts. As newborns in the life of memory, the future you create depends on making the world safe for the arts. Gravity would have been discovered eventually, even if Newton had never been born. Moby Dick, though, would never have been written if Herman Melville had not written it.

City of Asylum/Pittsburgh defends creative free expression as a basic human right. We are not a political organization and many of the writers to whom we provide safety are not political writers except in the sense that they wrote in a society in violent conflict or under a totalitarian regime and they wrote as artists, as if they were writing in freedom.

The attempt to censor or silence a literary author represents the attempt to eradicate the imagination of every one of us and to wrest control of our future. As Huang Xiang, the Chinese poet who was the first exiled writer in our City of Asylum/Pittsburgh program, wrote–"A desolate heart doesn't hear its echo."

There are still many persecuted writers in the world today. On their behalf I wish to thank you, Chatham University, and –now that I too am an alumnus–"our" President, Esther Barrazone, who has been tireless in her efforts to create a university where literature, global experience, and conflict resolution are centerpieces, to assure that we remember and that our hearts are not desolate. Thank you.

And I ask you, as you enter the world of memory and the future, please read books, visit museums like the Mattress Factory, protect artists and support the arts. The life you save will be your own.

In the newspaper, when I was a kid, they used to run a quote of the day at the bottom of the front page. A favorite was one from Alexander Dumas, "All generalizations are dangerous, even this one." So let me quote from an authority, the opposite of Vince, the psychiatrist Jacques Lacan, whose obscurantism is legendary, from a paper called "Of Structure as an Inmixing of Otherness Prerequisite to any Subject Whatever" [The good thing about obscure authorities, unlike Vince, is that you can make them say whatever you want] This may be the only clear paragraph he ever wrote.

"Many people talk nowadays about messages everywhere, inside the organism a hormone is a message… and so on; but the message in language is absolutely different. The message, our message, in all cases comes from the Other. The unconscious has nothing to do with instinct or primitive knowledge or preparation of thought in some underground. It is a thinking with words, with thoughts that escape your vigilance, your state of watchfulness. The question of vigilance is important. It is as if a demon plays a game with your watchfulness…"

That is, inside our heads we shelter a whole library of writers at war with what we might impose on them. And they don't agree with one another.

One reason is, I think, that we live our lives in an analog way–our sense of self has continuity and our experience of life is as a flow. Yet in many important respects.

Like many today, I left college and went to graduate school, in my case in literature. I explored how a computer might be taught to recognize that a group of words was a story and not, for example, a newspaper article or an essay, and how the "same" story is told differently from culture to culture….how the rules of the road vary when we try to make our lives and our world coherent. Or put another way: When and how do we cease acting like robots–the voices of authority–– and start acting like people?

I never did figure that out.

The stories I studied were buried treasure stories and they were stories about socialization.

One takeaway from the failure was that I learned that stories were social constructs. That a story was actually "our version" of a story that others have already written. What I experience is filtered through what others have experienced. So what I told you earlier, don't listen to authority when it calls, is actually impossible.

On the one hand, Vince was right: Everything is OK. You have a degree from an outstanding university in a society with the material wealth and freedom at the apex of human history. On the other hand, something is rotten in the state of Denmark–jobs are scarce, there are two wars going on, and the world is in a tumult.

What Diane said about making the most of what you have, that possibility is everywhere, if only you pay attention to the details and not listen to those who tell you what you should find interesting or important…it's how the world is….or at least how it can and should be. And this space between " is" (the voice of authority) and "should-be" (what you are inspired to try to make real) is the space we inhabit in life. To quote someone with more pedigree than Vince, the philosopher Emanuel Levinas, "We are born in situation, before we are situated."

The corollary to (details) is that everything is interesting. The professor who inspired me most in college was a polymath who was uncontrollable: He had invented a medical implant from plasma when he was in high school, he wrote on number theory, medieval French, was friends with all the most famous structuralists, from derrida to lacan, acted in student movies, had a library that now has over 70,000 books, and I only got a glimmer of what he was saying, like a vision of the promised land, or listening to someone speaking a foreign language that you don't speak but has a few cognates. He was like a prophet confronting the chaos of everything, except he spoke joyfully. His example served me well: My brother and I developed a slew of businesses in areas that people found boring and uninteresting.

For example, one of the businesses we started was a coupon book called "Coupon Power!" We decided we wanted to make the least expensive, most valuable, best–selling coupon book in America. And the way we did it was to look at every detail and study it as if it were the most interesting thing on earth (and it actually was when we were doing it). So we invented something called the 'combo coupon" where we put 6-8 non-competitive businesses on the same coupon, like pizza shops in different areas of the city, which reduced the cost of producing the book by 70%. Then we redesigned the coupon book dimensionally, the type of paper, and the color to look like nothing anyone had ever seen before. And we invented a whole new pricing method, where bulk buyers could return any unsold merchandise for credit, and we pre-printed pre-gummed return labels as an integral part of their invoice, to make returns friendly and easier (this was in the 70's, long before the Internet and Zappos). We even did color–coordinating with fashion trends, thanks to Diane. Etc. Etc. And I am happy to say we succeeded.

2nd corollary is that we all have been given a few problems to solve and we find these problems everywhere, the problems change, the answers change, but each of us tends to see solve things in ways intimately related to our experience.

DIS : jiggled and jiggled….can make 100 pieces before making the 'right one'

I : jiggled a few times (had to feel it, like poring over some data), then stared at it. Jiggled again, thought about it, and abtracted my experience.

M : stared at end, never laid a finger on it. And solved it.

B : don't think she was there, but if she had been, she would have built one just like it and learned by making it.

So City of Asylum/Pittsburgh is a new initiative. But it draws on everything that has always always interested me and everything I have learned.