Prachi Naik (’13) was chosen to speak at the English Department’s 2013 Commencement Ceremony. She recently finished an honors thesis entitled “Divinations from the Bottom of a Cup of Chai,” which used the making of a cup of chai—from the immersion of the tea leaves in hot water, to the mixing of spices, to the adding of milk, to the extraction of the tea—as a conceptual counterpoint to the making of the Anglo-Indian immigrant in contemporary British fiction. Naik also completed a second major in political science and a minor in education. Next year, she will teach English in Turkey on a Fulbright. What follows is the text of her address.
In his short story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Jorge Luis Borges describes the curious phenomenon of the hronir. On the fictional planet of Tlon, the hronir are objects brought into being by thought; they are the physical manifestation of immaterial ideas, desires, expectations. Borges gives the example of two people intently searching for the same lost pencil. “The first finds it and says nothing; the second finds a second pencil, no less real, but closer to his expectations.” Through the magic of the hronir, two pencils now take the place of one.
The concept is a fascinating one and has, I feel, special relevance to us gathered here today. As objects symbolizing the creative power of thought, the hronir speak not only to our University’s history, but also to our present moment on the threshold of our commencement.
In 1855, New England Congregationalist Minister Henry Durant began inspecting a farm located five miles north of Oakland. This parcel of land, adorned with a magnificent view of the Bay and ribboned by a charming creek whose water was rumored to taste like strawberries, was to become, in Durant’s vision, the new site for the College of California. Envisioning the development of a vibrant intellectual community, college trustees decided to name the campus and its surrounding areas after the 18th century philosopher George Berkeley.
I think it might be safe to assume that everyone here is familiar with the archetype of the “idealistic college student”—an archetype that, arguably, lives on here at Berkeley more than anywhere else. Fittingly in our case, our University was founded in the spirit of a man most remembered for championing the very theory of idealism: the view that reality consists exclusively of minds and their ideas. His most famous quotation: esse est percipi (aut percipere) — to be is to be perceived (or to perceive.)
Things exist because we perceive them to exist.
Borges takes the idea further and asks what it is that our perception can bring into existence. It’s a simple question, really; but we could spend the rest of our days contemplating it. What can our thoughts produce? If reality depends on our perception of it, all of a sudden we become the creators of reality– we get to insert ourselves into the very stuff of it.
Borges’s hronir were born out of this tradition of Berkeleyan idealism, and though we may first encounter these strange objects in the pages of a fictional story, on the surface of a made-up planet, who’s to say that the hronir do not exist in the “real” world? Physical objects brought into being by thoughts, desires, ideas? I ask you: What else is the diploma each of us is gathered here to receive?
On its egg-shell tinted, card-stock surface, it is just a piece of paper with ink markings notifying the world that we had the remarkable audacity to read stories for the last four years. We will set it in a frame with a nice mahogany finish (understated, but refined) and our parents might occasionally glance upon it with a kind of resigned bewilderment. Those people not affiliated with this glorified book club of ours might not understand that this piece of paper was our invitation to Clarissa Dalloway’s dinner party; it was Quentin Compson’s suicide note; it was a page out of Gulliver’s travel journal.
Then again, I wonder how translatable any of this is. As this current moment in higher education never fails to remind us, shrilly and incessantly, what we study here in the humanities might not “make the cut.” Because we chose poetry over pipettes, we might somehow be less hire-able, have less to contribute to the market. It’s not enough that we’ve enlarged ourselves through the hugeness of human empathy that reading literature requires, or that we’ve sharpened our words, our vocabulary, our rhetoric so that we can excavate, along with so many who came before us, what it means to be fully human.
I want us to engage in a thought experiment:
What if we were to see our diplomas as hronir? I think that if we were to perceive of our degrees as the materialization of the tremendous work we have done in our hearts and [our] minds as students of literature, we receive the gift of possibility; of a liberating agency with which we might leap beyond this flat piece of parchment and into the messy and important and glorious construction of the realities that await us.
I chose to speak to you about hronir and the story of Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius as a way of paying my respects to the connective tissue of our world, that glimmering lattice of convergences located beneath it all, which, I find, is made most brilliant, most visible through literature. I don’t know how any of this graduating business is going to go. I’m quaking beneath this tent of a gown, and it terrifies me that things might not end as well for me or any of us as how I hope they might. I’m afraid I might stop empathizing or understanding or feeling the way I do now; that I might never resurface from what David Foster Wallace called the day-to-day trenches of adult life; I’m scared of finding I’m not as smart as I think I am, that one day words might fail me. I can’t speak that standard commencement address cliché that “the future is ours” and actually believe it.
But here is what I can do. I can take this moment to meditate on a short story written seventy years ago by a madly inspired Argentinian and marvel at the way it connects all of us here today. Not only to each other, but to our Berkeley campus’s history, to the beauty of what we have achieved in our undergraduate careers and to the mystery and enormity of what we have left to do.
We are, after all, no strangers to the sensation of vaulting off a page and into the world. This is the work that the fiction we read demands of us. This is what we are here to do today.
Posted by Jeffrey Blevins