Delivered by Ed Folsom
Ceremonies like this one—all ceremonies actually—make us particularly and acutely aware of time. It’s part of what a ceremony is there for—to mark time, to designate the beginning of something, and so we call it “commencement,” an act of commencing or beginning, originally and etymologically a “coming together” for “initiation,” which is to say “a coming together in order to begin.” There’s a very real way in which you can be said to be beginning your future today. But I want to think with you for a couple of minutes about the other side of commencement: precisely because it marks the beginning of something, it inevitably also marks the ending of something else, and that’s why ceremonies almost always make us, oddly, both happy and sad. The reasons for a lot of tears that will be shed today will remain a mystery to those who shed them. I remember my own graduate commencement seemed to me as much about endings as about beginnings, because the things that were ending—my long life as a student, my classes and thesis writing, my daily interactions with mentors and friends and fellow students—were far more palpable to me than the very indeterminate and inchoate thing that was beginning: my future, whatever that was to be, a future, it turns out, strangely enough, that put me here, today, in your present, at your commencement.
I still distinctly remember something that passed through my mind during my own graduate commencement, thirty-some years ago. I had at the time been thinking about James Joyce’s amazing novel Ulysses, in which a character, Stephen Dedalus, ruminates about time. The present moment, he thinks—“the now, the here”—is a kind of point “through which all future plunges to the past.” The present, this moment right now, this one, in the midst of this commencement, is the point through which all future plunges into the past. One way you might describe what I’m doing here today right now is taking five good minutes of your future and plunging it through this weird, fragile, fleeting moment of the present to turn those minutes of infinite possibility into five minutes of your completed past. Half of what I’m going to say to you this morning is already part of your past now, though it was, only minutes ago, part of your future. And what I’m still going to say in the immediate future, am in fact now saying, is plunging into your past as I say it. It’s there now.
James Joyce’s definition of the present, for me, turned time dynamic in a way it hadn’t been before. It made the present seem this amazing tiny processor of time, instantaneously and incessantly turning what hadn’t even happened yet into something that, before I could grasp it, was already past. Just like that sentence I just said. Or this one. Little bits of future plunging into past. And when the future plunges into the past, where does it go, really? Some of it, a small fraction of it, appears to go into a strange weave of things we call memory. Memory, of course, is not just some configuration of electrical impulses deep in our brains, though it is that: we store memory everywhere—in drawers and chests and attics, in photos and paintings and films, in hard drives and on servers, in journals and stories and poems, in histories. Memory in its various forms gives us the illusion that we can capture some of that time that is always—even and especially right now—plunging into our past. So today, one way many of you will process this commencement into your remembered past is to take pictures.
I study a lot of nineteenth-century writers, people who were in the first generation of humans to experience photographs, to come to grips with what this new “magic mirror,” as it was called, did to time. Walt Whitman, one of those nineteenth-century writers, was about twenty years old when photography was invented, and, starting in the 1840s he had his photograph taken often over the remaining fifty years of his life. When he was an old man, he was among the first humans to experience looking back at a lifetime of photographic images of himself. He had hundreds of them. And as he flipped through them chronologically, he discovered an unexpected conundrum. He was unsure just what those photographs told him about his identity. Whitman’s friend commented, “There’s a wide difference in the pictures superficially: yet you must have been the same you through them all.” But Whitman wasn’t so sure: “Is the difference evolutional or episodical?,” he asked; “Taking them in their periods is there a visible bridge from one to the other or is there a break?” Do those physical traces of our selves that have plunged into the past track a single evolving identity or a series of shifting, changing selves, episodes of being or a single process of becoming?
Part of the answer, of course, depends on how many of the traces of our past we put next to each other. We are, after all, more intimately connected to our pasts than we usually realize. It all depends on how we think our way into our pasts—our personal pasts and our cultural pasts. If we go back by centuries, our present moment seems remote from the past, and change seems clear and sharp—episodes of history or epochs. If we go back by decades, change seems more gradual but still apparent. If we go back year by year, however, change starts to seem almost nonexistent: this year’s graduate commencement is not that much different from last year’s and probably not from next year’s, and the graduates last year and next would seem very familiar to you, sharing the same interests and styles and music and frames of reference, and we’d be hard-pressed to track historical movement between these events. And that would be the case, of course, year by year, right back to the first Graduate College commencement at the University of Iowa well over 100 years ago. If we here today in Carver Hawkeye Arena were to creep year-by-similar-year, hour-by-similar-hour, back to that very first commencement, it would ultimately seem that very little had changed; we’d be tied intimately—minute-by-minute—to those people who, if we then leap a century and a half forward from then to now, suddenly seem so remote and distant, people from another epoch.
If we go back day by day or hour by hour, our pasts never disconnect themselves from our present, and shifts in cultural attitudes, for example, become nearly impossible to trace, even though they’re clear if we jump by decades or centuries. Evolutional or episodical? It’s impossible to construct those hour-by-hour connections across long periods, though, because to do so would take all our future, so we learn to use a shorthand for the past and box it off in categories, eras, periods, turn the gradual evolution into distinct episodes. It’s your choice, and an important one, how you construct your relationship to the past.
In a few moments, your graduate career will plunge into your past. Something will commence. This is an occasion on which it is traditional to exhort you to go out and face your future. But I want to suggest to you at this commencement that you go out from here and face your past, and remember that for every moment of your future, you will create another moment of your past. Your graduate years at Iowa are now a part of your past that will continue to engage you throughout your future. You are always creating your past: in one way, you can’t help it as your future plunges there; but in another way, you will help it, as you devote part of your future to constructing your past, in order to make the most of it, as, in the ongoing moment of the present, you keep facing the infinitely new person you have become, are becoming, and will become. One of William Faulkner’s characters said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And that’s true: the past that is dead is beyond memory; the past that is alive is never past; it’s always waiting for us in our future as a thing to be remade, recast, retold. That’s why we keep writing histories of the same period over and over, why no history is ever definitive or complete: our futures always demand new pasts and new relationships to our pasts. So, when those cameras click and flash today, quickly turning this happy moment of commencement into a past memory, remember that you’re recording not just an important episode in your life but also a flash in an ongoing evolution of what you are becoming. That photograph is, really, all about what you will make of what you have made.