My employer, the University of Houston, has been in the news: after much hemming and hawing, UH confessed it has forked over $135,000 (as well as $20,000 to the agency representing him) to the actor Matthew McConaughey to speak at next week’s graduation.
The money seems to have been well spent: our brand-new stadium, which stood half empty during the football season, is filling up for this event. Still, I cannot help but wonder if the money could have been spent otherwise. Given that our university advertises itself as the House That Innovation Built, why not use the honorarium as seed money for a time machine? After all, McConaughey managed to bounce through time in Interstellar.
I know, I know: What does a liberal arts professor know about the mechanics of time travel? Not much, I admit. But being a liberal arts professor has taught me a bit more about the mechanics of the Western tradition, the great conversation, the classical canon -- or whatever label you want to slap on the great books I have taught for more than twenty-five years. Reading is just another kind of time travel, of course. And having read and taught these works, I’ve come to see them as little more than a glorious series of commencement speeches. Some of these speeches are longer, some shorter, some in rhyme, some in prose, some pretending to be history, others posing as fiction, but all offering advice on how to live our lives.
What if we could bundle a few of these figures into our machine and bring them to our stadium to speak? While our engineers are working out the kinks -- don’t forget the airbags! -- here are a few previews.
Niccolò Machiavelli: “It’s good to be here. Honest. Honestly honest. I know: Why trust the author of The Prince? Easy: if you had the Medici family as an employer, you’d be honestly glad to be sweltering in this stadium, too. Let me share with you the knowledge I’ve acquired through long experience of politics, extended reading in antiquity and a recent jab at gardening. Primo, it is a general rule about men and women that they are ungrateful, fickle liars and deceivers -- except, that is, for the men and women, garbed in your magnificent robes, sitting here today in this great arena!
“Secundo, never forget that fortune might be like a river, but the job market in the humanities is like the plumbing at my place in Lombardy: nonexistent. If you wish to succeed, keep in mind it is good to be feared, but it’s even better to have a balanced investment portfolio.
“E terzo, keep in mind that how we live is so very different from how we ought to live. And so, he who studies what ought to be done rather than what is done will learn the way to his downfall rather than to his preservation. This is why the English majors out there should get up now and enroll immediately in your school’s hotel and restaurant management program.”
Franz Kafka: “I shouldn’t even be here. As I explained to your emissaries, my one wish was to die in obscurity. Take my friend Max Brod. Please. No, seriously, this is why I asked my friend Max to burn all of my writings. He didn’t, it turns out. Max, if you’re out there, we need to talk. Let me level with you: when I learned about this invitation, I was moved. Until, that is, I was floored by this sudden fear that I’d show up today as a beetle. With two e’s. And not the ladybug sort of beetle, but the sort that just sends shivers down your spine. A roach, in fact. Dad, Mom, Sis: if you’re out there, look, I’m not a roach!
“But I did wake up with two strange men in my hotel bedroom. All of this didn’t give me much time to prepare my remarks -- the men seemed nice enough, but they ate my breakfast -- but I do have some advice. As you march into the world, armed with your endearingly ridiculous optimism and utterly unfounded confidence, bring a book along with you -- but the right kind of book.
“We ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. I’ve always said that if the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? Oh, I see the president is waving to me: my time seems to be up. I wonder where those nice men from breakfast went. I’m sure they’ll find me.”
Friedrich Nietzsche: “Stop me if you’ve heard this one. ‘There was a madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours…’ Wait, I see several hands raised. What is that? You have heard this one? Talk about eternal recurrence, right? You know the punch line, then: the madman, searching for God and failing to find him, announces, ‘We have killed him,’ throws the lantern to the ground and blurts out, ‘I have come too early, the news has not yet reached your ears.’ Were he to see the wires running from your ears to those black wafers you carry everywhere, our madman, I think, would shatter yet another lantern. The news is still here, but still cannot be heard.
“You know, I used to say there are no facts, only interpretations. Don’t tell me -- you’re wondering, ‘What about student debt?’ Well, yes. But remember that if you stare at your bank account for too long, your bank account begins to stare back at you. For this reason, you must live dangerously! Love fate! Reject who you are: we must constantly overcome ourselves to live fully. Overcome, even -- especially! -- all you have learned at this august institution. I always said that in heaven all the interesting people are missing. How much truer for the academy.”
Jane Austen: “What dreadful hot weather we are having! It keeps one in a continual state of inelegance. I scarcely recognize myself in the colors of your splendid university. But you do not recognize me at all, of course. How could you? You see, it was only a short while ago that I learned from your university’s Jane Austen specialist that posterity has not a single portrait or drawing of me.
“A certain Mrs. Woolf, I also learned today, has made much of women needing a room of their own, just as she made much of the creaky door pivot and desk blotter that allowed me to hide my writing from the world. But here I must make much of my own view: I do not regret these constraints.
“Lean in I did -- a charming phrase -- but not so far as to lose my balance. Family and friends often accompanied me as I wrote; they were my best and most critical readers. Yes, my freedom was frustratingly limited, but these limits also reminded me of duties I always treasured as a sister, daughter and aunt, as a friend as well as a writer.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. But let me add that a single man or single woman in search only of a good fortune has misunderstood the ends of a good life. As I once wrote, know your own happiness. And want for nothing but patience -- or give it a more fascinating name. Call it hope.”
Rob Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston's Honors College and author, most recently, of Boswell's Enlightenment (Harvard 2015).