Each year, the Department Citation is awarded to one outstanding graduating senior who is recognized by faculty nomination as having produced exceptionally high caliber work as an English Major. The winner is honored at the department’s May graduation ceremony.
Here is the speech delivered by Andrew King, recipient of this year’s distinction.
Good afternoon, faculty, my fellow graduands, relatives, mentors, speakers, staff, and friends:
It is an honor and a joy to be here with you today.
When I first came to Berkeley, I was sure that I would major in English. My rationale was this: I loved the aesthetic experience of reading, I was more or less decent at doing it carefully, and I was thrilled—though quietly, so as to not ruin my chances—that in a culture so preoccupied with the acquisition of material wealth anyone could still spend four long years of their short life trying to understand this beautiful and vast and puzzling human tradition.
These were mostly hedonistic, myopic motivations. Thankfully, they were challenged in the four years that followed. I learned that the best literature allowed access to worlds and beings other than our own, to unfamiliar landscapes that took on the patina of reality. And while I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this phenomenon, I was convinced that coming to appreciate it would require, besides the work of exegesis, much self-scrutiny. I could no longer read for pleasure without also reading myself.
C. S. Lewis said that literature adds to the store of reality—it does not simply describe it. I would like to think, and have become convinced, that this is true. The distinction between description and creation is obscure, but my time in the English Department has helped me to make sense of it. On the one hand, great works of literature tell us more about ourselves: they are both mirrors—scratched, of course—and magnifying glasses, instruments through which to look closely at our reflections. On the other hand they are less transparent or reflective than opaque. They stop us in our tracks; they deny us security and comfort and propose brute alternatives to the way things are, or to the way we think things are, and to how they could be.
Of course, these alternatives are only intelligible in terms familiar to us. But that does not stop works of literature from articulating genuinely new possibilities—possibilities for our thinking, for our feeling, and, most importantly, for our living with one another. Literature, as the biologist and humanist Peter Medawar said, “enriches our understanding of the actual by making us move and think and orient ourselves in a domain wider than the actual.”
I am certain that all of us graduating today have had the experience of being captivated and then disoriented by a poem, play, song, novel, or artwork. We have all struggled with artworks that seemed impervious to analysis and explication. But even in these works we recognized a common element. Maybe that element was so tiny it could barely be sensed. But it was what we recognized when we realized that this work of art, too, was fashioned with a purpose; that it was forged by another being who, like us, had hopes and hatreds; that it was the product, that is, of someone’s having something to say.
Even if the study of literature does not teach us that particular propositions are true, it teaches us something else. And this something else is, I think, more important and fundamental than the knowledge of any particular fact. It cultivates in us a method, an attitude, a practice
The practice that the study of literature teaches us, I think, is the art of attention. It is the art of listening. It is the art of empathy. Between any author and reader stands a sea of space and time. The text reaches us like a string tied between two tin cans that spans over that space and time. The author speaks into one can while we hold the other up to our ears. What comes through will almost necessarily be garbled. But we persist in listening, in making of that speech what we are able.
With improved mastery of this art come certain realizations. We realize that humility and an authentically critical spirit are not at odds, but are inseparable. We become aware of the interrelations of aesthetic, ethical, and other forms of value—that they are tied up together in a knot that cannot easily be undone. And in taking part in what Sartre called an act of “pure beholding”—even in paying attention to the words and actions of people who, strictly speaking, never existed—we begin to see our own lives as the radically contingent, but also meaningful, artifacts that they are.
To dedicate any portion at all of your life to an artwork that does not only give pleasure is an act of trust and charity. It is an act of trust because it requires of us the affirmation that, once we reach the conclusion of our reflections, we or the world will be somehow improved. And it requires charity because we understand how fragile communication is, and how often it fails. In giving someone else—an author, a character, or a living, breathing stranger—our time and attention, we acknowledge that we might not receive much in return.
This, I think, is what the study of literature instills in us: a sensitivity to multiple forms of value, and to how that value can be detected by the trusting, charitable, active work of attending to the world and its inhabitants.
At times the sheer amount of text and possibilities for interpretation that we are faced with may make achieving any understanding at all seem like a Sisyphean task. Often it is tempting to settle for the easiest interpretation, to resign ourselves to intuition or custom. But in the past four years we’ve learned how to avoid these traps. In reading we are pressed not merely to stand as witnesses for, but to become, other people. In returning to our own lives afterwards we find that we have been sculpted into better versions of ourselves.
The study of literature can be the study of curious-seeming ornaments, a taxonomy for the purposes of taxonomizing. But at its best it is, I think, rehearsal for life in the fullest sense of that word. It is where we can go to practice being human among other humans, dead as well as living. It is where we can go to consider what the shapes of our own lives look like, and how they and the world in which they unfold might be made more ideal. It is where we can go to enrich and diversify the modes through which we perceive.
To the class of 2015, it has been a pleasure to know you and to read with you. It is impossible from where we stand now to foresee all of the ways in which we will add to the store of reality. But I am confident that we will, and that, with the right amount of labor and modesty, we and the world will be better off for it.
I hope that, wherever we go after today, we take with us the attention, sensitivity, and critical spirit that I have come to associate with the best of our discipline. I hope that all of you find in the chaos of things as you move forwards some beauty—even if, like the authors we have studied, you must make it yourselves.
Thank you. And congratulations.