The irrepressible John Towne tells us what he really thinks of higher education. Something to offend nearly everyone. I want you to know I share your disappointment that nobody you really care about and wanted could be here to make this speech. Sorry that Gary Hart is indisposed. Alan Alda was too busy and so was Gloria Steinem. As for all the others, I am almost as sorry as you are that you couldn’t get Klaus von Bulow or Jean Harris, Jody Foster or Brooke Shields, Mother Teresa or Maya Angelou, the Refrigerator or James Baldwin, Gordon Liddy or Gordon Lish, Fawn Hall or Donna Rice. I am especially sad you couldn’t get yourselves a Norman—Norman Mailer or Norman Podhoretz or Norman Lear, singly or as a kazoo trio. Believe it or not, there just aren’t enough famous people out there to be everywhere these days. Same old faces in People and W. . . .
Whoever came up with the idea of inviting a fictional character is either an inspired genius or a Woody Allen copycat. Anyway, here I am and I’m glad to be here, free for a while from the printed pages of a minor novel. I am not Joe Bob Briggs. Joe Bob is out on assignment. And some of you may already have guessed, on account of my preppy, slightly down-at-the-heels WASP appearance (actually, appearance-wise, if you’ll pardon the expression, I am a dead ringer for the brilliant young novelist Madison Smartt Bell) that I am not Nathan Zuckerman. Sorry about that. The odd thing about Nathan is, all things considered and not excluding the success of the books he gets to live in, that he and his author get along pretty well. You can’t even invite one without the other, and you can’t afford either of them, anyway.
My name is Towne, John Towne, and I don’t get along at all with my author. We aren’t speaking to each other, not since he exposed me to outrage and ridicule in a novel called Poison Pen. Boy-oh-boy, the critics! Here’s how they described me to potential readers (if any): Publishers Weekly—”a vulgar scapegrace”; New York Times Book Review—”a low-life crank”; National Review—”a coke-befuddled redneck”; Book World—”a full-time con artist, misanthrope, and lecher”; Chicago Tribune—”a lecherous, misanthropic, failed academic”; Village Voice—”an exceptionally sleazy picaro”; and, best of all, Fred Chappell’s description of me in the Greensboro News, “a loathsome, racist, crude and gruesome creep.” Enough stuff like that could eventually hurt a guy’s feelings, you know? Anyway, I’m pleased to be here with you instead of back in that book hiding from critics. Thanks for thinking of me.
First thing, I want to congratulate all of you who have managed to win prizes and awards. I hope you enjoy them to the fullest, if only because irrefutable statistics prove most of you will never win another blessed thing as long as you live. For most of you, this is it. The rest of you, the huge majority who didn’t win anything, aren’t going to change your luck out there. And no amount of weeping and wailing, praying and fasting, goals, guidelines, and Affirmative Action is going to change the odds against you very much. Relax. We are all mostly destined to be losers together. I lose; you lose; he, she, it loses. Call it a conjugation for clowns, syntax for suckers. Then try to think positively about it. Chances are you will always have next to nothing to lose. No Book of Job for you. When Death comes knock, knock, knockin’, early or late, you’ll be about half glad to unlock, unbolt, and open the door. And if the Idiots start trading off missiles and nukes, well you don’t have to worry about all your trophies and medals melting down. There are advantages to being a nonentity, a nobody, as Emily Dickinson pointed out a couple of times.
Of course, the great anxiety is that you can never be perfectly sure that you won’t be recognized, sooner or later, and spoil your record. My (pardon the expression) author looked like a sure thing, a shoo-in to avoid and escape every known prize and award. He never figured They would go out and invent one just for him. Who would have guessed that the silly little parody magazine, Poultry: A Magazine of Voice, Second Series, No. 2 (Fall 1986), p. 6, the selfsame page whereon poet Dave Smith received his richly deserved Pullet Surprise and Charles Simic was named winner of the National Duck Award, would present Poultry’s First Annual Forgot to Duck Award to my author?
One other thing. A lot of people criticize my bad language. I don’t know where they get off bad-mouthing me. Mostly they complain about my constant use of the F-Word. Well, here I am almost halfway through this address, and I haven’t used the F-Word one time yet. And I don’t plan to, either. Except in that precise form. If I have to, I will use some variation in the euphemism, itself As in: “F-Word you!” Or “Who invited this F-Wording guy to speak at my graduation?”
Where are we? Well, you probably know where you are, anyway. Sitting out there in your rented cap and gown getting ready to graduate. Real life is waiting. Like a cop behind a tree or a billboard. About 15 minutes, on average, after you turn in your cap and gown, it’s going to start to dawn on you. How you have spent a whole lot of money, yours and other people’s, and, minimum, four years of precious time, to acquire a rolled up piece of paper that won’t buy you a beer or a cup of coffee. F-Worded again! And bear in mind that this isn’t the last time you will hear from the folks here. This institution has already targeted you as a source of funds for the future. Your name is already in the computer.
How are you ever going to earn enough money to be able to afford to give them some of it? If you are rich already, then just don’t worry about it. Statistics prove conclusively that, barring the Nuclear War, which will change everybody’s luck and numbers significantly and looks like a more attractive prospect every day, you will most likely stay rich or end up even richer. Numbers also prove that most of you will stay pretty much the same as you are. You will never quite realize it because you will be earning more dollars. But those bucks will always be worth less and will buy less. In the end you will be very lucky if you make as much as your old man whether he went to some college or not. Unlike him, you stand a good chance of never being able to own your own house. You will, however, make out a little better, in the long run, than if you had not attended college. Let that truth cheer you up every spring at Tax Season. And you can take some consolation in the fact that you will be supporting at least one other guy (more if the F-Wording Liberals come back in fashion) who may or may not have been to high school or college, but who never cared if school kept or not. Who is perfectly happy to take your money and use it to F- Word a whole lot more than you have time or energy for, to drink, to smoke Mexican Mary Jane and snort Columbian snow, to sing and dance, play the banjo, and then, for serious fun and games, to go out and yoke and mug your old, crippled grandmother. Try to be positive about this. It helps to think of the fellow (or fellows) you are supporting as being, in a real sense, your own more ethnically interesting other half or shadow self When things get really dull, when hard labor and drudgery are all, you can pause to think of him and what he is up to, relishing the vicarious experience of it all.
I don’t want to get into a taboo subject like politics, but I feel I should point out that much which you learned here is, well . . . inapplicable. Don’t take my word for it. Read America in Perspective by (no kidding) Oxford Analytica. They claim that political parties. Democrats and Republicans, Dixiecrats and Progressives, Commies or Nazis, don’t mean much any more. What we have really comes down to is Right-Wing Rednecks and Liberal Pussies. Nothing in between. The RR’s are invincibly ignorant and darn proud of it. They can’t (or won’t) find places like Liberia and Nigeria on a printed map. They can’t pronounce the capital of Honduras. They are adamantly unpersuasive, and they don’t care. That’s a very large part of their charm. The LP’s, on the other hand, are usually very persuasive (partly because they own all the means of persuasion), and their charm is just charm. Their chief domestic goal is to take all of your hard-earned money and give it to that shadowy fellow you have been supporting all along. Whether he will then share it back with you or blow it all on a Mercedes remains to be seen. Judging by the example of his (excuse me) Third World kinfolk, he will go for the car. LP’s believe in national defense without resort to deadly force, and they are prepared to negotiate about anything. They like to give things, especially other people’s things, away. High on the LP giveaway list are Florida and Alaska. The only thing RR’s and LP’s have in common is the desire to F-Word you and me and anybody else they can catch in the missionary position.
Speaking of which, I guess I better at least mention Feminism and The Sexual Revolution. Feminism has been a huge success. It put the women to work so guys can goof off more and don’t have to pay as much alimony and child support when we move on to greener grass and younger stuff. It has also worked out that most of them can’t ever make enough money ever to feel free and secure. If and when we want them back, they have a very powerful incentive. As for sex, the basic stuff, well, let’s face it, the great advantage of the feminoid, on-top position is that they have to do most of the work.
Of course, the collapse of The Sexual Revolution is changing everything. The leaders, those who haven’t had strokes or been shot or something, are praying night and day that somebody will come up with a quick and easy miracle cure for Herpes II and AIDS. Good luck to them! But, cure or no, it looks like serious masturbation is here to stay. Never mind, it’s one thing that most of you kids are really good at. Cultivate a full rich fantasy life and try to behave yourself. Being an integral part of someone else’s fantasy life, maybe that’s the modern definition of true love. . . . Where does all this leave us, except almost out of time? Since this is a (pardon) commencement, we need to end on an uplifting note. In a few minutes I am going to have to climb back between the pages of my book. At the same time you are going out into the Real World. I don’t envy you. I believe there is some kind of a natural law (probably a matter of hydraulics) which keeps the level of corruption just about the same in every given area of human endeavor. No matter what you do or don’t do, the natural depravity quotient will remain roughly the same. The Arts are an exception, attracting more than an average share of scumbags. But please remember we are an open, free society. And one good working definition of freedom is they can’t make you be an artist and you don’t even have to pretend to appreciate Art. Be careful, though. Best to keep your aesthetic contempt to yourself.
Let me conclude with a few words about Freedom. Since the economic aspect of the American Dream is long gone, except to people coming here from Latin America or other places like (pardon) Bulgaria, Freedom is the main thing we have got left. Enjoy it. We have fairly free speech. You can say pretty much what you want to, including the F-Word, provided you do not openly or seriously question any of the assumptions which grease the cogs and wheels of our society. I wish 1 had time to discuss some of those assumptions with you. But you know them all already or you wouldn’t have come this far. You have learned a thing or two. You know how to watch what you think. That’s where all serious trouble begins, with unmonitored thinking.’ At this late stage of your development, while you are as good-looking and healthy (even though plenty of you are as plain as pig tracks and probably feel lousy a whole lot of the time) as you ever will be, it will not occur to you to question anything important. And even if it does occur to you, not to worry and never mind, you won’t know how.
Maybe you are wondering where a fictional character, a truly bookish guy, gets off making big fat generalizations like that. I mean, here I am, about as alien as ET, trying to tell you things about yourselves that you don’t even know. You want to know what some other aliens, smart and legal ones and not a bit fictional, have said? Here’s Solzhenitsyn and his notorious 1978 commencement address at (pardon) Harvard: “Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership, because newspapers mostly give emphasis to those opinions that do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend. . . . Nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally, your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day.” Well, you can shrug that off. He’s a Rusky who never went to college and spent more years in the Gulag than I have in my book. They didn’t even have TV in Siberia. No wonder he can’t tell Kiwi from Shinola. . . . Well, then, here’s another who, even though he’s a foreigner, too, had a better (British) education than any of you did. Here’s V.S. Naipaul, in 1979: “The young people at the university, the ones you try to talk to, are really like old men. Their minds are closed, by television discussions, by newspapers, by their own successes.” Get it? Good, but don’t worry about it. Always remember that being happy is the best F-Wording revenge. Always remember the handydandy, accurate definition of happiness—the state of being well-deceived. And I hope you will all live happily ever after.
Thanks for your kind attention. May the good Lord bless and keep you all.