Read Jeffrey Brown's 2018 Classics commencement address!

Monday, June 18, 2018

We were delighted to welcome Jeffrey Brown (Berkeley Classics BA, PBS NewsHour) back to the department to deliver the commencement address at the Classics/AHMA ceremony this May. For those who could not attend—and also for those who did and would like to repeat the pleasure—here is what he said:

Berkeley Classics/AHMA Commencement – 5/15/18

Thank you for the invitation to be here -- to celebrate the study of classics, the scholarship and teaching of your professors, to celebrate this great university.

Most of all: to celebrate YOU and your accomplishments. The hard work. The long and late hours. The doubts and fears overcome. The Greek verbs – and their principal parts. The conjugations, the declensions. The particles in their proper places. The phrases and sentences parsed. The meter analyzed.

On and on: I get exhausted thinking about it, remembering it. But you did it! Congratulations!

I’m here to tell you I know something of this. And also to tell you that there is life after all this – a life enriched by what you’ve done here.

I must tell you first how strange this is for me. I’ve been on live television for many years, spoken often enough in public – with no particular sense of unease.

But this! This is different. When I received an email from the department chair asking me to give a commencement address I was tickled, kind of giddy. To come here where so many things began for me, in this new way. To be able to address you as you face the world anew. To be part of this community that I so value – I was thrilled.

But other emotions crept in. Little things, like: the chair signed her name as “Nelly”. What? I couldn’t call the chair of the Berkeley classics department ‘Nelly’!  I suddenly realized that when you put me in this situation part of me reverts to being 20 years old again.  “PROFESSOR OLIENSIS” – thank you.

And I felt big things, too. For standing here I realize that I am of course not 20, that a life has been lived, that so many things have happened that I could not have imagined when I sat where you are. This then becomes a closing of a circle, pushing me to see who I was and who I am now.

And, something more bittersweet: as I realized that most of the professors I studied with are now retired, or gone. My wife and I – for this is where we met, another part of the story that I will come back to – laughed about this invitation and said to one another, ‘maybe Professor Bulloch will finally return those papers we did for him in 1980’. Indeed, we took a class with him, wrote what were no doubt groundbreaking papers that changed the course of Hellenistic studies. He gave us A’s, we were happy. But we never got the papers back, never saw his notes expounding on our brilliance. And this became a kind of trope in our married life, an internal joke – oh, yeah, I’ll rake the damn leaves, just as soon as Bulloch returns our papers. And then we learned that Anthony Bulloch died not long ago. Bittersweet, indeed.

I tell you this not to be morbid in the slightest. I tell you this precisely because of another emotion that hit me in coming back here – that the study of classics, of history, of literature was one of the things that allowed me to see this circle, the connections of lives and ideas, of the past and present. The humanity that lives on even as we pass. People here taught me something about life in the large sense, about what one can do with a life, even as they were teaching us Greek prose composition or how to read The Bacchae.

And I want to say out loud my thanks, to Anthony Bulloch, to Thomas Rosenmeyer, to Erich Gruen, to many others. To all who are here now. These people don’t remember me, by the way. I’m reasonably sure of that. But I remember them.

And you, too, I feel sure, will remember and want to thank the professors who’ve inspired you.

How did we get to this moment? How did YOU get here? What combination of decisions and blind luck brought you to this accomplishment? It is a moment to reflect. And to consider what lies ahead.

Part of my own ‘creation myth’, if you will, took place in a classroom down the coast, at UC Santa Cruz, which I attended first. I was a rather wayward, unsettled, uncertain student and young person. A friend told me about a popular class and professor. On the first day of that class, called “Classical Mythology and European Poetry,” that professor, Norman O. Brown, turned his back on us and wrote something on the blackboard. He turned around and asked, rather gruffly in my memory: “Who can tell me what this says?” No hands went up. None of us had a clue. Because he’d written a line in Greek – the famous line by Heraclitus, usually translated as “War is the Father of all Things.” He then proceeded to spin a lecture the likes of which I’d never heard: about how that first word, ‘polemos’, was better translated as ‘strife’ or ‘struggle’, and that this was one of the great themes of literature through time. And he showed us how poets like Byron and Shelly had picked up on it and then how past ideas and knowledge and stories come down to our own time.

And the lines are not straight for me – as they won’t be for you – but I tell you that that moment led to Dwinelle Hall and all over the world to right here today.

What will stay with YOU? What will you take with you? My time here was a great awakening.

I remember working very hard, the rigor, the standards to which we were held. That prepared me for much that was to come. It has prepared you, too.

I remember the beauty and power of the poetry and plays. That opened me up to world literature and made me a lifelong reader and learner. It has done that for you.

I remember studying the history of Athens and Rome – the politicians, speeches, tyrants petty and dangerous. A pretty good preparation for being a journalist in Washington. It has prepared you to understand things behind and beyond the headlines, to make you a better citizen.

But in the end it is not the declensions and historical dates that changed me and have changed you. My wife and I loved Deniston’s book of particles – yes, we were really into it! But it’s not the knowledge of particles or Pericles that is most important for me and for you.

It is the larger connection we made to our fellow human beings through time, in the long history of pain and pleasure, war and peace, ideas and art. It is the empathy we learned to feel for our fellow travelers in that history, past and present.

I seriously considered but ultimately did not pursue a life as a scholar. Sometimes, especially in the summer when professor friends of ours are at the beach, that looks like a big mistake. But it worked out. It was a risk, a turn, a path not taken. You will have those, many of those perhaps. The question is, what will you do with them.

I became a journalist, a daily news journalist, in one way the opposite of that life as a scholar. Not the 5th century BC, but today.

But in another way, it doesn’t seem such a stretch after all. I became a journalist devoted to bringing the arts and culture into the daily news. It’s an odd thing, actually, an unusual thing in the world of journalism. But I have spent much of a career bringing the faces and voices and words of leading writers and musicians and filmmakers and other artists onto a news program, into the news itself – to say, implicitly, by example, that artists and historians and thinkers tell us about the daily world in which we live just as much as politicians and generals and CEOs. And that we do well to listen.

I learned that here. YOU, I think, have learned that here. What will YOU do with it?

The world you enter is depressing, divided, vulgar. It is also filled with beauty, brilliance, intellectual and artistic energy.

While you have been studying difficult and long texts, much of our political life has been taken over by tweets. (I wonder what Socrates would do with twitter.)

But even with that, wonderful new writers appear, artists of all kinds wow and thrill us and make us think and feel just as they have through time.

In this world you’re entering, technology is a tool of surveillance and manipulation, making us into commodities with our little ‘likes’ and snap judgments.

But technology is also bringing together people from around the world, creating new communities, helping transform learning and scholarship. In ancient studies, as well. I have done reports on how digitization and drones are transforming archeology. I recently interviewed a geneticist about what he calls the “ancient DNA revolution”, getting new information hidden in old bones, that is changing what we know of ancient human populations and migrations and language formation.

In this world you’re entering, the kind of studying you’ve done here, the knowledge you’ve gained, are not always valued. Intellectualism is scorned in some quarters. Facts, everywhere,  are a battleground.

And yet I see all the time how ancient literature and history find their way, explicitly or more quietly, into our lives today, often in creative and exciting ways. One small example, an organization I reported on some years ago called ‘The Theater of War’, in which leading actors do a reading of an ancient tragedy for military personal suffering from PTSD and their families. Making a connection that helps give perspective and a sense of shared humanity to warriors in our wars. The audience is hushed, cries, exclaims, just as we might imagine at the theater in Athens.  After a performance of ‘Ajax”, a soldier stood and said: “That’s me.”

The bad and the good. The ugly and the beautiful. As you’ve learned here, men and women have lived with and argued about these things forever. And as I think you’ve also learned here, part of making your way through life is an ability to hold these opposing truths and ideas in your head.

I realized right away when I received this invitation that my one task was to assure you that there is life after graduation with a degree in classics. Right? What else is on your minds, perhaps weighing on you, right now?

There are no guarantees, there is no clear path. A few of you will continue your studies and enter the academy as professional scholars and professors. Most of you will pursue other paths, as I did. My job: to say to you and to your parents – there IS a life. There CAN be really good one. Without question, there is a life awaiting you in which what you’ve learned here will stick with you, benefit you, guide you. 

And if I may say something specifically to the parents: I am one of YOU, too. Our daughter is getting her PhD in classical archeology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is right now at the American Academy in Rome finishing a two year Rome prize fellowship. Working on her dissertation – I hope. She has far surpassed anything I ever achieved in my studies. My wife and I are extraordinarily proud of her – her decision to do this, the way she does it, as a well-rounded, smart and fun and life-living person. We, like all of you who are the parents of these graduates, wait with some wonder and some concern to see what will happen next.

Yes, I understand the hopes and fears, for both students and parents.

I think I understand, I certainly feel the hopes and fears in a larger sense: for the value of a public education from grade school up to this great university – all under various kinds of threat.

The hopes and fears about the humanities and humanism. Too often not much valued in our society.

The hopes and fears for our nation and its democracy. So divided now, so harsh and cold and unforgiving in so many ways.

These are big subjects. My greatest hope is that you will find ways to address them, to bring your values to them, to show by example – to help ensure the continuation of the ‘public’ idea, of the humanities tradition, of the democracy we live in.

On a very personal note, I have mentioned several times that this is a ‘we’ moment, a shared moment -- for me and my wife. We met in a classroom in Dwinelle Hall in the fall semester of 1979. We started to notice something was happening while reading Xenophon – all those long marches of his. And we would say: let’s read 20 more lines before we stop for a glass of wine. But things really ‘developed’ as we read the Iliad, in Greek. Maybe it was the boring part – I thought it was boring – with the catalogue of ships in book II. But things happened, between us, that is. We tell this story sometimes and say, how romantic is that – to fall in love over Homer in Greek! I’m not sure the rest of the world knows what we’re talking about but this group does.

Long ago Norman O. Brown said something that I’ve now heard a version of from so many writers and musicians and artists: “The answer to poetry is poetry.” Poets become poets by reading other poets. Musicians learn from other musicians. Keep reading, keep listening, keep writing. And scholars become scholars by reading and studying with other scholars.

I published a book of poetry a couple of years ago. I want to end with a poem that I now see pulls together much of what I’ve been saying here today – the past and present alive at the same moment, the awakening of an intellectual life and the closing of circles, romance of all kinds that continue to this day. And a message I want to convey to you. As I saw in the poem: “How to take, then make yours.” To take all this, all that you’ve gained here, and make it yours.

The poem begins at an exhibition Paula and I attended at the Uffizi in Florence – paintings by Rembrandt and Georgio Morandi in one gallery, two artists from different centuries, in a sense ‘out of order’ and out of time and yet playing off one another in artistic influence and connection. The poem swirls around through other moments and influences in my life. And it ends with a certain blind bard – in the past when I was a student and in this present moment – right here.

It’s called “The Influence of Anxiety”.

In the Uffizi, after a del giorno meal, we saw
Morandi doing Rembrandt and—keep walking—
Rembrandt doing Morandi, if that is possible.
P and I walking in circles, etchings that seemed
somehow inevitable, no matter where we started.
Momentary anxiety followed by a kind of ecstasy.

It came back, what had set me on fire
so long ago. No surprise now, those courtiers
in hats and sly smiles, soldiers in battle with flags
flying, the Fra Angelico beauty who might step
off the wall into the piazza—keep dreaming—
I was nineteen and language seemed no barrier.

Battles and beauty? Norman O. Brown
took a word, polemos, beyond “war” to “strife”
“struggle” through time: Apollo chasing Daphne
into centuries to come (he’ll never catch her).
One thing—keep running—leading to another
in myth, literature, and, by the way, journalism.

We—reporters, anchors—borrow daily
switching between the breathlessness
of the “new” and “nothing new under the sun.”
You think no one’s seen or said this before?
Listen! This is important—keep talking—
the green light is on and so are you.

I hear it as a I drive: on Mermaid Avenue
Tweedy does Dylan doing Guthrie. Listen to
“Airline to Heaven,” you think: There he is, no
there he is and back and forth, raising the question—
keep singing—of how this one learned, that one
borrowed, and great artists out-and-out steal.

How to take then make yours? The problem
hanging over the head of every would-be
word- and song- and image-maker—keep making.
So  much more than just the blank page.
Rather, not blank at all but filled and filled
to overflow with what has come before.

But where was I? Riding down the highway
with Bragg listening to Bob listening to
Woody listening to—keep listening—who?
Some nameless local hero perhaps, so many
ur-men of music who deserve the applause
but in history float like ghosts on page zero.

We met in song, P and I, walking in circles
in search of each other: Homer in Greek
my apartment, Book Two, catalogue of ships
translating lines, touching hands—keep touching—
some anxiety, then ecstasy that was, I swear
original, brought together by a blind bard

singing, sung, sung again, by one and all.

Congratulations to the class of 2018!