Susan Sontag gave a graduation speech a week ago,
31 May 2003, at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. I came across some excerpts from it on the New York Times site
and sent it along to my friends. It got them off and running. Here's a bit of what she said.
"Despise violence. Despise national vanity and
self-love. Protect the territory of conscience.
"Try to imagine at least once a day that you are not
an American. Go even further: try to imagine at least once a day that you belong to the vast, the overwhelming majority
of people on this planet who don't have passports, don't live in dwellings equipped with both refrigerators and telephones,
who have never even once flown in a plane.
"Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting
for inspiration's shove or society's kiss on your forehead. ... Pay attention. It's all about paying attention.
It's all about taking in as much of what's out there as you can, and not letting the excuses and the dreariness of some of
the obligations you'll soon be incurring narrow your lives. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others.
It makes you eager. Stay eager.
"You'll notice that I haven't talked about love.
Or about happiness. I've talked about becoming - or remaining - the person who can be happy, a lot of the time,
without thinking that being happy is what it's all about. It's not. It's about becoming the largest, most inclusive,
most responsive person you can be."
Well, all that seems harmless enough. But I
got this from a friend -
"No it's not! She's wrong! It IS all about
being happy! What the hell good is it to become "the largest, most inclusive, most responsive person you can be" if,
after you become that and then they give you some goddam prize for it, or whatever it is you get for becoming that, what the
hell's the point if it doesn't make you happy?
"It's just that what she says reminds me of a commentary
I heard on NPR's "All Things Considered" last year that was presented by a way-too-sober Norwegian lady who sneered down her
nose at people who thought "life was all about being happy" instead of what is known by "all right-thinking people" (there's
that dark-ages philosophical term again), that life is all about "serving others." First, I thought she was doing satire,
but thinking back over her essay and finding nothing else the least bit funny there, I figured she was serious.
"Which now brings to mind these two references:
"(a) Regarding "Serving Others," old fans of "Twilight
Zone" (I think it was) will remember the episode about the aliens who came to earth bearing a book they said was entitled
"Serving Man," and it was just at the end of the show, as Earthlings had just voluntarily boarded the departing alien spaceship,
when a scientist who had gotten hold of the book and translated it, came running up yelling 'Wait! Stop! It's
"(b) And Ralph Emerson, not prominent in my memory
for saying lots of funny things, did come up with this all-time classic: "The more he spoke of his honor, the faster we counted
I sent him my thoughts -
No, no, no! The objective isn't to be happy
-- it's to own stuff.
No, no, no! The objective isn't to be happy -- it's to own the right stuff!
No, no, no!
The objective isn't to be happy -- it's to know the right people!
No, no, no! The objective isn't to be happy --
it's to see the most places!
No, no, no! The objective isn't to be happy -- it's to know the most things!
no, no! The objective isn't to be happy -- it's to be cool!
No, no, no! The objective isn't to be happy --
it's to be good, to deserve happiness, as Ficthe said.
No, no, no! The objective isn't to be happy -- it's to be
accepted and loved!
No, no, no! The objective isn't to be happy -- it's to find God, or to become Buddha, or to harass
elderly French tourists in Arizona!
No, no, no! The objective isn't to be happy -- it's to be respected, or if not
respected, at least feared!
No, no, no! The objective isn't to be happy -- it's to be large, inclusive and responsive!
It seems, for Sontag at least, she gets really happy
if people say, "Hey, look! It's Susan, the largest, most inclusive, most responsive person she can be!" And Susan
smiles smugly, because, damn it, she really does seem to be large, inclusive and responsive. Cool. It makes her
happy. I had a dog like that once -- large, inclusive (if not promiscuous) and responsive (scratch the right place and
he'd rhythmically thump his left rear leg). Lamar was a good dog.
Anyway, it looks here as if Susan does
not need love or happiness. She says so. She just needs approval of her attitude.
Another friend chimed in -
"Happiness is so fleeting during the day it's amazing
if it even gets noticed. I'm not real clear on what she means by being large, or how inclusive one needs to be to notice
this fleeting happiness that usually turns into something else pretty soon. Sometimes I become slaphappy and then no
one wants to stick around me so I don't have a chance of being inclusive. Now harassing elderly French tourist in Arizona,
Alan? Man that's livin' large.
"I will take Susan's advice and imagine what it is
like to live with out air travel and refrigerators--and I will be damn happy those days are over for me."
So much for happiness. Seems it doesn't matter
much in Poughkeepsie but does elsewhere.