Gifts From We Know Not Where

Robert Fitzgerald (1910-85) – Commencement Address at St. John's College – May 1984

Ten years ago this November I published an English version of The Iliad, and the publication date, say November 15th, was known beforehand to me and to some of my friends. A week or so before that date, one friend, who was driving through the South, saw fit to send me a postcard. It came from a town called Homerville, Georgia, and the message ran: "Folks down here are waiting with bated breath..."

Well, that amused me, of course. Then I thought—not to disparage a town in Georgia—that another kind of Homerville existed, a community made up of all those through the centuries who, on hearing or reading, had felt the charm and magic and excitement of the Homeric poems, and the brilliant life of the classical centuries. That is the Homerville to which a great many St. John's graduates belong. As a fellow member of that community, among others, I am proud and happy to have been invited by the seniors of St. John's to speak at this commencement.

In J. Winfree Smith's book on the beginning of the St. John's program it is said that one of the aims of St. John's is to prepare students for the business of living as distinguished from the business of earning a living. One can learn, it is said, through reading, through coherent conversation about reading, and through the willingness to question everything. I have only one suggestion to add to this, but I will postpone it for the moment.

On an occasion like this we feel we may, and should, reflect on the world about us, the world as we know it. In a sense, we know it very well, we really do. A friend of mine who wrote good stories once remarked that anyone who survived childhood had enough to think and write about for a lifetime. But if we are going to reflect on the world together, then the world we are thinking of must be the one we have in common, not the private ones that we are closest to and seem most real.

In the large world, then, the public world, we may remember first of all how very large it appears in spatial dimension, a vastness that it takes light itself eons to cross, an abyss of which our night sky gives us a faint notion, sown with star clusters and galactic systems on the order of the one in which our fearfully flaming sun is a minor star among millions. We glance outward in awe—and we glance briefly, because it is all very much too much for us, reminding us of the inch we occupy on one enormous scale. Clever engineering and mathematics have enabled a few young people to get as far as the moon in the great abyss. They were the first to see earthrise, when our own sunlit planet hove in sight over the lunar horizon. At that distance, or indeed at the much shorter distance of a few hundred miles, the works of men, the very existence of our race, could not be guessed from the look of our planet.

That is how it is with us, for what it's worth to mention, in the measurable or quantifiable world. That huge affair is none of our doing, or making, nor are we likely to affect the prodigious forces at play in it by any force of our own. We understand ourselves to be composed within it of the same stuff of which the whole thing is made, although in certain special configurations that go by the name of life. It might be added that the wild profusion of such configurations on our own planet sharply distinguish it from any other object, beginning with the barren moon, that our little range of observation has so far taken in. And one more point might be made: that while we observe and study the physical universe there is no evidence that it, or any part of it, observes and studies us. Up to now, at any rate, that is our distinction. We are even in a position to find mere quantity tedious: one light year is very like another.

In our hearts from way back, as now more and more in our thinking, we know all the varieties of life to be our kin. We are one another's prey. We all live dangerously. Among them, and between them and us, fratricide and sororicide are common. As we slap at a mosquito we may say to ourselves, "There's a brother who has to go." But biochemistry and biology have made our kinship clear to us, as the study of eco-systems has given us proof of our mutual dependence, so that the protection of what used to be called wildlife appeals to us more strongly than ever as having a lot to do with the protection of our own. And of our own, our human life, we are now more fully aware, through the study of mankind to which we gave as usual a Greek name—anthropology—how various upon the earth were and are the tribal ways of life in the human family. If we can sympathize with our organic kin, both little and big, marine and terrestrial, how much more intimately can we sympathize with all the peoples, hunters and tillers, hill people and plains people and foresters, who have made their fires and shaped their tools and bowls, coupled and nursed their children and borne their hard hours in the human centuries.

This need not be sentimental. Rapacity and atrocity have disfigured life in the simplest as well as the most elaborate societies. But the sense that our latter generations have had of the world's diversity of cultures has qualified and enriched many cocksure and penurious habits of mind.

Our experience of the public world in our lifetime has made us realize what might be called the sheer momentum of the great human inheritance of ill. We have only to think of the murderous wars and of the barbarity and terror deliberately employed in them to take the measure of unregeneracy in humankind. And when we do so, what a forbidding prospect the future seems to hold for the whole world: populations growing beyond the point at which they can be fed, depletion of the fossil fuels and energy resources, fear and want everywhere exacerbated, glacier-like states impervious to their own best spirits, and the terrible silos, out of sight, but charged with who knows what furies. We quail, and we should quail, to think of all this. But then no doubt we pluck up our courage to bring ourselves to bear in what small ways we can. And perhaps we should not be quick to settle on our own limitations.

It is a nice problem. As each of us is bounded by his or her own skin, so each of us has limits of other kinds, and the experience of living is to some extent a testing and determination of these. But the analogy of the skin breaks down because in fact some kinds of limit are very hard to establish. In mathematics, I surmise, each of us comes to a point beyond which he simply cannot go; but in the life of the imagination you never know what further reaches open up. Maybe in the timeless realm of abstract thought each one has a given capacity—like our bone structure and bodily limits, inalterably given. On the other hand for all that is bound up with time, all that is timeful, so to speak—the affective and aesthetic life and the work of the proving or making intellect—no given limit can be surely assigned.

I make these points as a kind of premise for the only suggestion I have to offer, which that a just expectation of life may include an expectation of moments that seem mysterious gifts from we know not where. These need not be full-scale epiphanies or blasts of revelation. As instances of what I mean, I may mention two incidents in my own life that were not hard to explain, in a way, but were at the same time teasing implications far from ordinary. Both occurred during the several years when I worked at putting Homer's Odyssey into English verse. After I had lived with the poem for some time, I felt closely involved not only with Odysseus but with his patroness, the great goddess Athena, who now and then appeared to him in human guise to put heart into him in time of need. Once she even appeared as a little girl with braided hair. Then, one October, I had a chance to visit Greece for the first time, for a week or so. Thirty years ago smog was not yet a problem in Attica. On the contrary the tawny land, the brilliant sun and limpid air at once seemed to me a divine brew, a medium from which a god might step at any moment.

While in Athens I took it into my head to fly over to Crete for a night and see the reconstructed Minoan palace at Knossos. The flight in the late afternoon at no great altitude took me over the lovely islands of the Cyclades, their beaches like gold foil in the late sunlight. A fine three-masted schooner was moored in the round little port of Melos. At Heraklion I found a room in a small hotel. I did not, and do not, understand modern Greek. They had no English at this hotel, so I had to get by in my poor French. I managed to have some dinner and then wandered out into the streets of Heraklion, where I felt more and more grievously that peculiar loneliness that comes of not knowing a soul and not speaking or understanding the local language. I found myself at last halted in front of a shoe shop, looking at the display, very disconsolate, when a voice said, "Good evening, sir!"

What a joy! My heart leaped with pleasure. I looked up and saw a little girl, eleven or twelve, with long pigtails, standing in the doorway and smiling. "Good evening to you!" said I. "How good it is to hear someone speak English! What's your name?" And she said: "Oh, I'm Athena."

Well. Of course, it turned out that she had grown up in Camden, New Jersey, and had come over to help her grandmother run the shop, and had thought me an American because of my suit, and son—all perfectly plausible. But did not the goddess always have a good story too? That girl didn't say her name was Athena—she said she was Athena. Just a few minutes of talk with her put heart into me again.

The second incident occurred some years later when I was engaged on the second part of The Odyssey, which is set, you remember, on Odysseus' home island of Ithaca. I had contrived another brief visit to Greece in late July and decided to return to Italy by steamer from Piraeus, stopping over at Ithaca on the way. I stayed at a tiny hotel on the quay of the port of Vathi, run by a man who had worked for several years at one of the Horn & Hardart automats in New York. He introduced me to the mayor, with whom I got along in French, and the mayor produced an interpreter for me in the person of a fifteen year old boy who had grown up in South Africa. On the first day I visited the frame house where the Ithacans carefully kept things from the British archeological digs before the war. Some of these, votive offerings, showed that during the classical centuries there had been on the island a cult of Odysseus as a demi-god. I had to think that over on the next day. On that day we took one of the decrepit Ithacan taxis to go up the island to the little cove where they say the Phaiakians put Odysseus ashore in his sleep. Here near the water there was a grove of tall eucalyptus trees with cicadas going like mad in the late July heat, and under the trees a few rickety tables at which some old locals sat in their shirtsleeves drinking soda pop. I walked up the shore a bit to take in the scene and then walked back toward the taxi. As I came abreast of the eucalyptus trees one old fellow got up and shuffled toward me. He stopped and spoke in perfect English, Oxonian English. It might have been the voice of Sir Maurice Bowra. He said: "You know, we say that he never died. We say that he still turns up now and then, looking like a soldier or a sea captain... or... just a stranger." He paused and looked serenely at me. And there in the burning sun I shivered from head to foot. I could not say a word. I bowed my head and walked on.

Just a coincidence, of course—that an old Ithacan capable of saying that to me in my language, without any preamble, should have been there on that particular afternoon when for the only time in my life I came to that spot, and came from years of companionship, almost of identification, with the hero whom he didn't have to name... But that is how the gods used to appear to mortals out of the radiant Aegean air, or how the messengers of heaven appeared to men in another mythical landscape, and can we be so sure that these were dreams or fantasies? As I began with an outward glance at the larger world, let me conclude with a sentence by William James cautioning against presumption in our view of it. James said: "We may be in the universe as dogs and cats are in our libraries, seeing the books and hearing the conversation, but having no inkling of the meaning of it all." Open-ness of expectation, at any rate, we can encourage in ourselves and in one another, so that the mysterious gifts of experience, strange exhilarations and wonders, gifts from we know not where, will not be lost on us.