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Cat, Frog, Worm...

The principal speakers during Commencement week 2000 said much about the value of reasoned inquiry, the importance of universities as a home for such work, and the imperative of including within the academy—and all human communities—those who do not have easy or comfortable access to the benefits of society. In making their points, the speakers several times explained their vision of the human kingdom with striking references to the animal realm. (The full remarks of Seamus Heaney and Amartya Sen appear on this magazine’s website, www.harvard-magazine.com, and will be printed in the September-October issue.)

In his Commencement afternoon remarks, speaking between Heaney and Sen, President Neil L. Rudenstine talked about their similar moral roles and called them “emblematic figures—‘relics and types’ of important aspects of the past century’s experience.” He continued:

“Both…have been schooled as witnesses to conflict and war—the often unyielding ferocity and exiguousness that have so wounded so much of our recent history.

“Both Seamus and Amartya have, as their intuitive heritage, that kind of unenchanted realism which also contains within itself the sources and resources for sustained hope and well-tempered idealism.

“Both have resisted, therefore, the pressure to over-promise or to over-prescribe….

“They offer us, not blueprints or designs, and certainly not illusory visions, but fruitful, reasoned, imaginative, and tested ways of conceiving how a good society might be animated and ordered; how an individual wanderer and explorer devoted to poetry or to economics—or indeed to any deep vocation—might find a proper habitation and a name over the course of a lifetime, a lifetime committed to the kinds of freedom which offer scope and room, but are also lovingly bounded; even how a university such as Harvard, devoted to its own vocation, might be continuously energized in its pursuits, because our books do indeed stand open and our gates unbarred.”

That reference was to Heaney’s “Villanelle for an Anniversary,” written in 1986 for Harvard’s 350th birthday. Heaney, Litt.D. ’98, the 1995 Nobel laureate in literature and now Ralph Waldo Emerson poet in residence, closed his brief speech with that poem. He began the talk with a borrowed translation of an early Irish poem about a monk and his cat, Pangur Ban—a meditation on the scholar’s work that ends:

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night,
Turning darkness into light.

Then Heaney read from his translation of Beowulf a scene in which the monster Grendel peers into the great, lighted hall built by King Hrothgar.

C-heaneyExplicating the passage, Heaney said, “The hall where the minstrel sings can be understood as any site of spiritual vision, or artistic endeavor, or indeed, higher learning, and, as such, it is an image of both election and exclusion. In the introduction to Beowulf, I said it reminded me of Kilcolman Castle, in County Cork, where the English poet Edmund Spenser sat writing The Faerie Queene in the 1580s. But it might well remind someone else of the city of Boston, set upon its hill in early seventeenth-century Massachusetts, or the newly founded college library to which John Harvard bequeathed his books in Newetowne in the 1630s. And to be reminded of those places is to be reminded also that great…institutions not only hold promise of fulfillment for those within them, but they can prompt feelings of relegation in those outside them. We’ve learned, in other words, to look at John Winthrop through the eyes of the Native American; to take a Native Irish view of the English expropriations; and indeed, to take a Grendel’s eye view of Beowulf.

“Which doesn’t mean that the good that these figures have stood for, and have done, need be interred, but it means that other aspects of the history they were a part of must be acknowledged.

“Whatever has happened in our time, there has been a recognition of the human affront of relegation and segregation, of the injustice of exclusion on the grounds of race or gender or class or economic status. So on the occasion of this millennial Commencement, let us resolve that the open books on the Harvard crest will continue to signify open access to the institution….”

Amartya Sen, Lamont University Professor emeritus, Master of Trinity College at Cambridge University, and the 1998 Nobel laureate in economics, spoke about globalization in an address titled “Global Doubts.” While insisting that economic progress had been fruitful, he also maintained that material gains must be accompanied by far broader accomplishments: democracy, civil rights, education and health care, enhanced social status for women, and equality. Casting doubt on the adequacy of the arguments advanced by both advocates and doubters of globalization, he said about the critics:

“Opponents of globalization may see it as a new folly, but it is neither particularly new, nor, in general, a folly. It is largely an intensification of the processes of interaction involving travel, trade, migration, and dissemination of knowledge that have shaped the progress of the world over millennia. The polar opposite of globalization is persistent separatism and relentless autarky. There is a worrying image of seclusion that has been arrestingly invoked in many old Sanskrit texts in India…. This is the story of a frog that lives its whole life within a well and is suspicious of everything outside it. This “kupamanduka”—the well-frog—has a world view, but it is a world view that is entirely confined to that well. The scientific, cultural, and economic history of the world would have been very limited had we lived like such well-frogs. This is an important issue, since there are plenty of well-frogs around—and also, of course, many attorneys of well-frogs.”

c-edletter2Two days before Commencement, K. Anthony Appiah, professor of Afro-American studies and of philosophy, who grew up in two cultures as the son of a Ghanaian father and an English mother, drew on that experience in “The Cosmopolitan Scholar,” his Phi Beta Kappa oration. Recalling his dying father’s message for him and his sisters, “Remember that you are citizens of the world,” Appiah issued an appeal that presaged the week’s oratory. “What is distinctive about cosmopolitans,” he said, “is that we display our concern for our fellow humans without demanding of them that they be or become like ourselves.” Near the end he noted:

“One of my favorite proverbs in my father’s language is a piece of wordplay that runs like this: esono esono ena esono sosono. It means, literally, that there is a difference between an elephant (esono) and a worm (sosono). But we can use it to say that even an elephant and a worm—two creatures as unlike each other as you could imagine—have something in common: their names are almost homonyms. And the very formula for difference—‘esono X esono Y’ is how we say that X and Y are different in my language—is itself in this strange way alike these very different creatures. It is language that brings worm, elephant, and difference together. Cosmopolitanism in the universalist vein values diversity because, even if you are an elephant and I am a worm, your difference can be a resource for me, just as mine can be for you: and if our differences are to be resources for each other, then they must be available for our common human conversation. That is the lesson I draw from the story of the elephant and the worm."