Susan Sontag’s Commencement Address Advice: “Pay Attention. It Connects You With Others. It Makes You Eager. Stay Eager.”

Image by Lynn Gilbert, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

“The times we live in are indeed alarm­ing. It is a time of the most appalling esca­la­tion of vio­lence — vio­lence to the envi­ron­ment, both ‘nature’ and ‘cul­ture’; vio­lence to all liv­ing beings.” But “it is also a time of a ver­tig­i­nous drop in cul­tur­al stan­dards, of vir­u­lent anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism, and of tri­umphant medi­oc­rity.” You may, at this point, already find your­self in agree­ment with these words. But they’re the words of Susan Son­tag, now sev­en­teen years dead, and as such can’t actu­al­ly be describ­ing our present moment. In fact she spoke them in, and about, 1983, dur­ing her first com­mence­ment address at Welles­ley Col­lege.

Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly unspar­ing, Son­tag extend­ed her charge of medi­oc­rity even to “the edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem that you have just passed through, or has passed you through.” In her view, “triv­i­al­iz­ing stan­dards, using as their jus­ti­fi­ca­tion the ide­al of democ­ra­cy, have made the very idea of a seri­ous human­ist edu­ca­tion vir­tu­al­ly unin­tel­li­gi­ble to most peo­ple.” If it is to hap­pen at all, resis­tance to this medi­oc­rity must hap­pen at the lev­el of the indi­vid­ual. “Per­haps the most use­ful sug­ges­tion I can make on the day when most of you are ceas­ing to be stu­dents,” Son­tag says, “is that you go on being stu­dents — for the rest of your lives. Don’t move to a men­tal slum.”

This point returned, some­what altered, in Son­tag’s last com­mence­ment address, deliv­ered twen­ty years lat­er at Vas­sar Col­lege. “Try not to live in a lin­guis­tic slum,” she advised the class of 2003. Indeed, “try to imag­ine at least once a day that you are not an Amer­i­can,” or “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.” Though cel­e­brat­ed pri­mar­i­ly as a crit­ic, Son­tag was also a nov­el­ist, and like Vladimir Nabokov under­stood full well the neces­si­ty of imag­i­na­tion to a prop­er intel­lec­tu­al life.

Else­where in her Vas­sar address, Son­tag also makes the high­ly Nabo­kov­ian point that “no book is worth read­ing that isn’t worth re-read­ing.” Though the full text of the speech isn’t online, you’ll find these and oth­er choice quotes from it at Vas­sar Quar­ter­ly. Son­tag’s key theme seems to have been atten­tion. “Pay atten­tion,” she says in a pas­sage still cir­cu­lat­ed on social media today. “It’s all about pay­ing atten­tion. Atten­tion is vital­i­ty. It con­nects you with oth­ers. It makes you eager. Stay eager. (Two years lat­er, David Fos­ter Wal­lace would make a sim­i­lar point about being ” “con­scious and aware enough to choose what you pay atten­tion to” in his famous 2005 com­mence­ment address at Keny­on Col­lege.)

When we devel­op and retain the habit of pay­ing atten­tion, we see things oth­ers don’t, espe­cial­ly those truths that run counter even to our own pro­fessed beliefs. “Our soci­ety does not cen­sor as total­i­tar­i­an soci­eties do; on the con­trary, our soci­ety promis­es lib­er­ty, self-ful­fill­ment, and self-expres­sion,” Son­tag says. But pay atten­tion, and you’ll notice that “many fea­tures of our so-called cul­ture have as their goal and result the reduc­tion of our men­tal life, or our men­tal oper­a­tion; and this is pre­cise­ly, I would argue, what cen­sor­ship is about.” Near­ly two decades have passed since Son­tag said this, and as she might have expect­ed, we tune out at greater per­il than ever.

Relat­ed con­tent:

John Berg­er (RIP) and Susan Son­tag Take Us Inside the Art of Sto­ry­telling (1983)

David Byrne’s Grad­u­a­tion Speech Offers Trou­bling and Encour­ag­ing Advice for Stu­dents in the Arts

Susan Sontag’s List of 10 Par­ent­ing Rules

Toni Mor­ri­son Lists the 10 Steps That Lead Coun­tries to Fas­cism (1995)

David Fos­ter Wallace’s Famous Com­mence­ment Speech “This is Water” Visu­al­ized in a Short Film

‘Nev­er Be Afraid’: William Faulkner’s Speech to His Daughter’s Grad­u­at­ing Class in 1951

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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