Of Totems and TaboosCommencement Address
Amid our jubilation today, it’s easy to overlook the relatively small ceremony that took place yesterday morning, when six students, three of them from Wofford, were commissioned as Second Lieutenants in the United States Army—making a commitment for which, in effect, they subordinate their own ambitions and desires to the greater good of the whole community. It’s almost equally easy to ignore the fact that, amid our plans for well-earned vacations and work or further study, we are citizens of a nation at war. To point that out here and now may seem as grimly obtrusive as reminding you that as mortal beings we’re all under sentence of death, that even the sun may one day go out, and that, during the last few months, the keepers of the Doomsday Clock (whoever they might be) have offered to bet even money the human race won’t be around anyhow by the year 2100, a scant 93 years from now—we’ll have “graduated” into oblivion. To which you members of the Class of 2007 might well be inclined to mutter, “Well, whoop-dee-doo! Let’s toss all our hats in the air! This guy knows how to celebrate!”
Besides, the same might have been said at almost any commencement—if only because both violence and aggression seem so inseparable from human character, a supposition we’ve been exploring throughout your senior year in our “War Year Symposium”. . . and, of course, an ongoing dilemma that you’ll inherit along with your diplomas. “Give us peace in our time, O Lord,” pleads a prayer that’s been answered so seldom because, of course, its fulfillment depends on us—an acknowledgement that begs some crucial questions: What is it about us humans that makes us prize swords over ploughshares? Can we only respect ourselves by disrespecting others? Are bitterness and pain prerequisites for joy?
The 20th-century Italian poet Giuseppi Ungaretti was only a little older than you graduating seniors when he found himself conscripted into what was already being called the First World War, engaged in a conflict that would change the world and his view of it forever. “Un’intera nottata. . . A whole night long,” he wrote in one of his most striking poems, describing his experience in the trenches,
a un compagno
massacrato. . .
thrown down beside a friend
who’s been slaughtered
with his mouth
at the full moon,
with the convulsion
of his hands
reaching into my silence,
| ho scritto |
lettere plene d’amore. . .
| I have written |
letters full of love.
| I have never been |
attached to life.
Non sono mai stato
attaccato alla vita
That poem and the conflict that inspired it, a brutal and irrational debacle in which many thought they glimpsed the death-spiral of civilization, had been preceded a year or two before by a book by Sigmund Freud—who, incidentally, was born in the year Wofford College conferred its first degree. In that work, entitled Totem and Taboo, Freud, the Viennese psychiatrist, had tried to explain our apparently irrepressible tendency to define ourselves in opposition to each other. Why, he asked, when we all want the benefits of peace and prosperity, do we find it so tempting to separate ourselves into tribes, ethnicities, nations at odds with those who are different? Why do we brood so corrosively on ancient resentments and feuds. . . persist so viciously in rituals of exclusion. . . seek scapegoats we can blame and, cloaked in self-righteous rhetoric, relentlessly conspire in hatred and meanness of spirit?
Those were big questions, and Freud’s somewhat over-simplified answer was implicit in the subtitle of his work, Resemblances between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics. Few today would insist that he got it all right in detail, but almost everyone agrees there is in each of us something savage and something neurotic—for that is Freud’s basic premise, announced in his famous opening sentence: “Prehistoric man, in the various stages of his development, is known to us through the inanimate monuments and implements he left behind. . .” Inanimate, note. . . which is to say, not only in legends, myths, and fairy tales but in “the relics of his mode of thought which survive in our own manners and customs.” In short, Freud maintains, we ourselves have primitive reflexes of which we’re hardly aware, revealed most especially in rituals and behavior whose origins we’ve forgotten.
Take this event, for instance. As elders of the Terrier Tribe, here in this sacred precinct, I and my fellow officers of the college, supported by patriarchs from the Class of ’57, have gathered today to commission you newly trained recruits for the Army of the Just. You young warriors for the truth may think you need no such certification. You may chafe at the uniforms you’re wearing or at the very idea of further obligations. But we elders are here nonetheless to vouch for your readiness. . . to assure the world you’re entitled to its respect, to testify to the fact that, for all the differences among you, you share certain traits with our tribal totem. For, small though that mascot may be, it’s conspicuously brave, loyal, intelligent, energetic, and, yes, downright quintessential—all of which we applaud with sophisticated amusement. But is there something more going on, some further explanation for all this pageantry and tradition, that Freud might help us to discover?
Here’s a suggestion: Imagine an archaeologist, some 5000 years from now digging about in this vicinity and discovering. . . what? The effigy of a terrier (snarling and wearing a cap), a Barbie doll with platinum hair and matching pink luggage (non-bio-degradable), and a notice from the Sandor Teszler Library (moldering but legible), indicating that a book by Sigmund Freud (it’s Totem and Taboo) is now 4,999 years over-due. How does that archaeologist begin to interpret his treasure?
The terrier comes first, which, knowing something about our savage and neurotic age, he assumes to be a totemic guardian. There’s no more Wofford College, of course. In fact, there’s no more education at all of the sort we’re here to celebrate. Mnemonic transplants have long since replaced medieval modes of learning. But archival computers are happy to dredge up what humans have forgotten, and the archaeologist deduces there was once an institution of higher learning named Wofford that apparently pitted small dogs of a sort that no longer exists (a so-called Boston Terrier) in some sort of aggressive activity against other animals also extinct (tigers, roosters, bulldogs) as well as apostate Baptists on horseback. After a further search, the archaeologist learns even more: legend has it there was once a neighborhood dog named Jack. The story sounds apocryphal, but Jack is said to have intervened in a contest involving clubs and horsehide-covered missiles, preventing a rival tribe from defeating the Terrier Clan. There’s a confusing photograph purportedly of Jack posed with a group of young tribesmen, but the computer insists that the dog in question is not a Boston Terrier but an American Pit Bull Terrier—an animal as likely to tear an opponent’s leg off as to strut in symbolic defiance. It was, in short, a vicious totem, and even its successor, the Boston Terrier, had been bred expressly for the purpose of dog-fighting and, prized for its pound-for-pound ferocity, had been introduced in the 1870’s in the city-state of Boston (known primarily for beans and for colleges and universities much inferior to Wofford). As a totem, however, the breed transcended its barbaric origins and became associated in the public’s mind with any plucky underdog (like David versus Goliath. . . or two heroic if largely forgotten figures from that distant time named Chaplin and Gandhi). The effigy found by our archaeologist is perky and cartoonish, suggesting that, at some point in the Terrier Tribe’s bellicose evolution, its brutish behavior was sublimated into sport—not just to practice for war, but to offer a sort of ritualized alternative. Nevertheless, a troubling question remains: Why were people of that time so quick to resolve disputes with clubs and missiles? And why did they define their loyalties so narrowly, ignoring the desperate need of so many in their midst? What were their human aspirations?
Aware that totems were often artfully packaged and exploited for commercial purposes, the archaeologist turns to his second artifact: the curious representation of a female mutant with platinum hair and garish accoutrements. The archival computer informs him that, though both were ultimately German in origin (that is, derived from an ethnic and linguistic group remembered primarily as the mother-culture of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach) there was no known connection to a heinous war criminal of the time named Klaus Barbie. Persuasive evidence confirms that the prototype of the Barbie cult was originally discovered by the wife of an American officer in post-World War II Hamburg, where it served as a souvenir for patrons of a bordello.
The statuette’s extravagant if improbable proportions not only make that part of its history plausible but help explain why when, only slightly modified, it was introduced on the other side of the Atlantic as a totem for female children, many accustomed to more traditional dolls rejected the goddess-figure Barbie as alien and obscene. Adult females were especially inclined to object, possibly because before that time totemic figures presented to female children had almost invariably been diminutive representations of the little girls themselves—which is to say, make-believe infants requiring nurturing and attention. . . and, in a larger sense, providing training for the future role expected of girls as mothers and housewives. In that respect, apparently, the Barbie cult conveyed a radical message. For, in the parlance of the time, Barbie was not so much a baby as a babe, a big sister who needed no nurturing—or a fantasy projection of what a little girl herself might become as a liberated adult. For such Barbie-rized women, meaning was less likely to lie in becoming a wife and mother than in being a chic, slender, buxom, self-reliant blonde in high heels and ponytail.
This much should be clear to our archaeologist of the future: Though born, in a sense, of sexual exploitation, the Barbie cult had little to do with aggression and much to do with heightened self-esteem.. But our scrupulous scholar, knowing how elusive and ambiguous the meaning of totems can be, will doubtless deduce a further possibility. For, he’ll suspect, the marketing genius behind the Barbie cult must have lain in the fact that, though the effigy itself was cheap, a bare-forked Barbie, unlike a naked baby doll, was useless. One needed to acquire accessories—not just luggage, it seems, but, judging from other archaeological sites, outfits, handbags, sporting goods, cars. Barbie’s appetites were endless and insatiable, extending even to the company of Ken, a man-doll whittled down to manageable proportions. A mere accessory himself, Ken was clearly subsidiary to material goods in Barbie’s self-fulfillment. . . which lay in the realm of gimme-gimme-gimme. Liberated she might have been, but only as a slave to rampant consumerism.
Is that all they’ll make of us, those inhabitants of the future who, trying to fathom what we were, see only what we see when we look back at the past—aggression and appetite? Greed and self-indulgence? Will they ponder the connection between these random totems, the Terrier and the Barbie? Or will they turn to that other artifact, the library notice with a name atop it? Sandor Teszler, who was he? The answer will depend in part on what their archives can retrieve, but also in part on what we choose to articulate and remember, which is why I’ll take five minutes more for a different sort of totem.
During my first seven years at Wofford, there was on this campus a living embodiment of much that I’ve been working towards. Like Sigmund Freud, he was born a Jew in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like Chaplin and Gandhi, he was diminutive in statue but immense in intellect and courage, too modest to regard himself as someone set part but too brave to truckle under to bullies and demagogues. The story of how he managed to save himself and his family from their Nazi tormentors, emigrate to this country, re-build his fortunes, and, when the Ku Klux Klan became resurgent in the wake of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, say “I have heard this talk before” and become the first textile leader in the region to integrate a notoriously segregated industry. . . is a tale of truly mythical proportions.
Sandor Teszler adopted us—in a manner that, with sentimental exaggeration, we might compare to Jack the Terrier and that Wofford baseball team of long ago. In time, we learned to call Mr. Teszler “Opi,” which is Magyar for grandfather, and, shortly before he died, the faculty of this college honored ourselves by honoring him with the title of Professor. Inasmuch as we sometimes, deliberately and with wisdom aforethought, choose our own archetypes, it strikes me as the peculiar glory of this little upstate Methodist college that an elderly Hungarian-American Jew should have become this institution’s presiding spirit. Several weeks ago, we celebrated that association by awarding the second Sandor Teszler Award for Moral Courage and Service to Humankind to Dr. Paul Farmer, whose life-saving mission has been directed as much to Haitians, Russians, Peruvians as to his fellow Americans.
We are what we do, and we become what we choose to espouse—that is surely the escape clause from the pessimistic conclusions of Totem and Taboo. Between the savagery of the past and neuroses of the present, there is another way, and it happens to correspond to the ethos of this college. . . which to my mind was best defined by Sandor Teszler himself not long before he died. “You know, Doktor,” he said, reproaching me gently for a cynical diatribe, “human beings are fundamentally good.” I vowed to myself at the time that until that man, with so much cause to think otherwise, told me he’d changed his mind, I wouldn’t presume to differ. He didn’t, and now he won’t—so for me, at least, the issue is settled.
For you seniors, though, starting out on this morning in 2007, no matter how bleak the landscape may seem, you have choices to make. Like Aeneas leaving Troy, you can’t take everything. I urge you to take what will serve you best among your totems and taboos, finding something better to indulge than resentments or appetites. Those of you who’ve accepted military commissions have made such a pledge already. But my suggestion for everyone would be to take the terrier and leave the Barbie behind. That, of course, is up to you, though I suspect, in the end, you may find the example of Sandor Teszler of greater value than that of Sigmund Freud, great though Freud was.
Setting out today, you might as well reflect that, in the course of thousands of years whatever you do will be largely forgotten. . or, if remembered, almost certainly distorted and confused. In the ultimate annals of time, few are likely to distinguish a good life from a bad—though I’d like to think there will be somewhere in a future scarcely imagined by the keepers of the Doomsday Clock, in some high-tech equivalent of the library of Alexandria, the memory of all the good and decent men and women who have ever lived and that one of the largest files will be labeled simply “Wofford.” I trust that, among whatever differences there may be, all of us hold that hope in common.
Finally. . . Giuseppi Ungaretti’s most famous poem is not the one I quoted at the outset. It’s a two-line two-word poem entitled simply “Morning”:
I am filled with the light
I wish as much for you.