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Leo Braudy '63

First, congratulations to all the graduating seniors. I don’t remember who received honorary degrees when I graduated in 1963, and in time you won’t remember us. But then the president of Swarthmore was named Smith, and now I am back under the aegis of another president Smith. When Val called me about this great honor, I was first thrilled but then, much to my surprise, I immediately choked up. Full circle.

The commencement speech is a rigid genre, with its generalizations about the future and its aphoristic chunks of dubious wisdom. But, realistically, what can I possible say to you all, not only many decades younger than myself, but also in less quantifiable ways, so different?

I have to admit, though, that I like aphorisms, for their succinctness and their frequent play with paradox. To me, every paradox is a unity imperfectly understood.

I probably tend to think that way because I grew up during the Cold War with its purities and absolutes, its theories of everything. As Sylvia Plath writes in The Bell-Jar, “When I was 19 [in other words the early 1950s], pureness was the great issue.”

But, I would say, purity is a fantasy of people and nations who don’t understand the power or significance of their impurity. And a belief in the need to impose purity upon others has led to more crimes throughout history than has the willingness to be comfortable with confusion.

If I had to summarize my Swarthmore education in a nutshell, I would call it the victory of both/and over either/or. This hardly means detachment or unwillingness to take a position. It means understand context, don’t rush to generalization, appreciate the contradictions.

And so, in my avuncular role today, I would suggest when the world presents you with polarities or contradictions and asks you to choose, consider the complexity of your own presumed oneness, and the variety and contradictions of your time here.

Most will look back on these four years fondly, a few will have hated it, and some will just be glad to escape. Perhaps by some future reunion you will come back out of curiosity and find yourself having a good time talking to people you rarely talked to while you were here, realizing that despite past political, or intellectual, or emotional differences—you had a deep bond created by Swarthmore.  

For the truth is that for all the engagement and activism with the outside world, life at Swarthmore is within a benevolent, wonderful bubble. Like Eden itself, it is a great place to begin from.

I didn’t attend my own class reunions until the 15th. Why not? I had a wonderful time here, I learned a lot, I made friends that have lasted a lifetime. I guess I didn’t come back because I wanted to make sure I had faced the world with all its disparities and disappointments--after four years in a place with such an odd combination of competition and coziness.

At that 15th reunion I also felt deeply the physical setting of Swarthmore. Sure, I knew this was a horticultural wonderland. You might never have known you were allergic to some plant from Afghanistan to Zanzibar until, courtesy of the Scott Foundation, it was here on campus, and I spent many springs carrying around a roll of toilet paper to plug my constantly running nose.

But now I wondered, where did those enormous trees come from? They must have been here between 1959 and 1963, but I hardly remembered them. Alexander Pope in “Essay on Man” calls the world “a mighty maze but not without a plan” and goes on to say he will “vindicate the ways of God to man.” While he writes about the maze part, he’s brilliant, but when he gets to the plan by the end of the poem, all he can come up with is a bunch of capitalized maxims: Whatever is, is right; true self-love and social love are the same. etc., etc. Like Jack Torrance at the end of the movie of The Shining, Pope is frozen in the maze, because he assumes he’s just a minor part of the overall design, even though he created it.

Generalizations are useful when they help us understand connections that might otherwise be submerged. But when they repress difference and variety and fruitful contradiction, they oppress rather than liberate. So my advice to you is be aware of the trees as well as the undergrowth. And be careful of quick and easy generalizations. Including this one.

I should move finally from my historical self to my emblematic self. Giving an honorary degree to someone who studies literature and culture makes a welcome statement about the significance of the humanities, so often under fire as impractical or irrelevant to our contemporary world. But books, I believe, are more flexible than readers. The many different interpretations of a work through time owe less to its contradictions than to its capaciousness.

You’ve learned here an impressive armory of methods and approaches, attitudes and perspectives. But don’t forget that you learned it in a community of others, each with a personal take on everything. At the end of Paradise Lost, the archangel Michael, about to expel Adam and Eve from Eden, tells them that they are leaving only physically, but they will have instead “a Paradise within, happier far.” Let me wish the same to you.

Watch: Commencement 2016 - Leo Braudy '63