[Note: This is the text of the 2006 commencement address for the Department of English at the University of California at Berkeley.]
Some of you here today receiving degrees took time off to explore the world, work for a cause, or earn enough money to get to college, but I suspect the great majority of you went straight through from high school and thus were likely born in 1984. What does it mean to be born in 1984, the ominous year that hung over humanity for 36 years after George Orwell made those four numbers a synonym for totalitarianism; what does it mean to be born atop the high wall at the end of the grim future of the imagination?
I thought of that as soon as I was invited to give this talk, thought about the enormous gap between when Orwell, on the beautiful isle of Jura in Scotland, wrote this bleakest of anti-utopian novels in 1948, and the actual 1984, as well as the no less profound chasm between 1984, real and imagined, and the present moment. To contemplate those chasms is to recognize, in the most literal sense, just how utterly unpredictable the future is. To recognize that is to realize that a rapidly changing world requires an ability to appreciate uncertainty, and what in books we call wild plot twists, at least as much as the wobbly gift of prophesy.
I thought of these things with the tools with which we English majors graduate into the world — not the tools that enable you to splice genes, cantilever bridges, or make piles of money, but those that enable you to analyze, to see patterns, to acquire a personal philosophy rather than a jumble of unexamined, hand-me-down notions; those that enable you not to make a living but maybe to live. This least utilitarian of educations prepares you to make sense of the world and maybe to make meaning; for one way to describe the great struggle of our time is as the endeavor to become a producer of meanings rather than a consumer of them — in an age when meaning as advertising and marketing, as others’ definitions of pleasure and terror, is daily forced down our throats.
To make meaning, to change the world, or just to read it thoughtfully (which can itself be insurrectionary)… And never has our world been so overloaded, so rapidly changing, and so full of surprises that require us to change our minds, rethink possibilities, and then do so again; never has it required such careful reading. In my own case, the kind of critical reading I first learned to do with books, then with works of art, turned out to be transferable to national parks, atomic bombs, revolutions, marches, the act of walking — a skill transferred not only to feed my writing but my larger path through the world.
Books themselves sometimes change the world directly: you can talk about nonfiction like Diderot’s Encyclopedia, about the Communist Manifesto, The Origin of Species, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, about an essay that mattered a great deal only a very long time after it was written, Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” and about a book in that Thoreauvian vein whose practical impact we might actually be able to measure.
In 1975, Edward Abbey published his novel about a charming bunch of what the Department of Homeland Security would now call domestic terrorists, The Monkey Wrench Gang. The novel changed the English language in a small way by popularizing monkey-wrenching as a verb for sabotage, but it did more. (And here, being an English major and thus a lover of obscure scraps of information, let me mention that the word sabotage itself comes from the wooden shoes French workers — actually peasants just off the land — wore. Not so long after the Industrial Revolution, such workers would sabotage machinery by throwing their wooden shoes, or sabots, into it, and so jamming up the works.) Anyway, in the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, the protagonists plan to blow up Glen Canyon Dam, the huge and ultimately useless structure strangling the Colorado River upstream from the Grand Canyon.
The novel helped prompt the founding of Earth First! — which has not always been perfect but has sometimes been useful, even heroic, in the protection of the environment. In 1981 Earth First! announced its arrival on the scene by rolling an immense length of plastic painted to resemble a crack down the wall of Glen Canyon Dam, saying with this that the dam was neither immutable, nor inevitable. From its creation in the early Sixties until then, the dam had seemed just that; since then it has become ever less crazy and hopeless to dream, think about, even work for the opening of its sluice gates and the rebirth of the wild river.
The same is true of another dam that famously broke another writer’s heart, Hetch-Hetchy Dam inside Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada, built in the teens of the last century. That praise-singer of peaks and Sierra Club cofounder John Muir mourned its construction; you young Californians may live to see its dismantling. I can’t say nobody imagined we would come to such a pass, but I can say that few did, maybe not even Muir and Abbey.
Let me reach for another book, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, to cite the Red Queen’s reprimand of Alice’s rational assertion that “one can’t believe impossible things.” The Queen replies, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
You might want to take up the Red Queen’s practice. For we are impossible people living in an impossible world — or at least inconceivable to the great majority not so long ago. The year 2006 would certainly have been even more unimaginable from the perspective of 1984 than 1984 was from the perspective of 1948. Who would have believed it if you had told someone in, say, 1954, or even 1974, of our world as it is now in all its scientific, genetic, social, political, environmental, and sexual transformation, this melting, mutating, tainted world that still holds such hope? Various forms of federal collapse and repression have long been anticipated, but a dynamic and vocal Latino population, same-sex marriage, radical food activism? Oddly enough, I don’t think that science fiction is particularly good at teaching you to anticipate such unexpected change, but perhaps fiction in general and poetry can indeed provide lessons in unpredictability.
For me one of the great pleasures of writing nonfiction is that real life supplies coincidences and upheavals too improbable for novels. The amazing thing about the novel 1984 is that Orwell could invent the Ministry of Truth, Big Brother, thought crimes, and the Memory Hole, but in his book women are still hanging cloth diapers on clotheslines. It’s easier to prophesy global politics than laundry, but our lives are shaped by both. And fiction and poetry, as well as movies, music, and conversations, help generate the changes that don’t come as revolutions or reforms but as shifts in how people think about their daily lives and acts — and by this I mean not just changes in sensibility but in what people consume, who they support, embrace, even love. You can see, for example, that the arts have led the battle against homophobia and other kinds of intolerance. As the San Francisco poet Diane DiPrima likes to say, “The only war that counts is the war against the imagination,” and every creative act, every thoughtful inquiry, every opening of a mind is a triumph for our side in that war.
Books matter. Stories matter. People die of pernicious stories, are reinvented by new stories, and make stories to shelter themselves. Though we learned from postmodernism that a story is only a construct, so is a house, and a story can be more important as shelter: the story that you have certain inalienable rights and immeasurable value, the story that there is an alternative to violence and competition, the story that women are human beings. Sometimes people find the stories that save their lives in books.
The stories we live by are themselves like characters in books: Some we will outlive us; some will betray us; some will bring us joy; some will lead us to places we could never have imagined. George Orwell’s 1984 wasn’t a story to shelter in, but a story meant to throw open the door and thrust us into the strong winds of history; it was a warning in the form of a story. Edward Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang was an invitation in the form of a story, but even its author didn’t imagine how we might take up that invitation or that Glen Canyon Dam might have taken on a doomed look by 2006. “The universe,” said the radical American poet Muriel Rukeyser, “is made of stories, not atoms.” I believe that being able to recognize stories, to read them, and to tell them is what it takes to have a life, rather than just make a living. This is the equipment you should have received.
The good thing about being born in 1984 is that it should inoculate you against nostalgia. The actual 1984 was no Arcadian daydream, no uneventful utopia; it hovers back there in no golden haze. This week in 1984, Ronald Reagan was campaigning for his second term against a feeble Democratic candidate; democracy and human-rights activists from Poland to the Philippines were being imprisoned and otherwise repressed for daring to demand something better than dictatorship; AIDS was a big new disease and political issue with no effective treatment; and all across the U.S. deregulated savings and loans were beginning to collapse, taking people’s hard-earned savings with them. Thanks to related policies, a new American subgroup that had hardly existed in the 1970s was beginning to appear, the mass of people we call the homeless. And the U.S. was busily intervening in the worst possible way in the politics of Central America. What the Middle East is to Bush Jr., Central America was to Ronald Reagan, a place to assert U.S. might with ruthless disregard for human rights.
Those who imagine that the American torturers in the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib are some appalling new aberration need to remember that, in El Salvador and Guatemala in 1984, the most hideous kinds of torture were in widespread use. Although these were generally not directly inflicted by U.S. troops, they were carried out with U.S. training and funding, and often with CIA direction. The U.S. also had a powerful anti-intervention movement defending the right of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Government that had overthrown the U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza, and the rights of the rebellious in Guatemala and El Salvador, those rebelling against brutal regimes in blood-soaked civil wars.
At the same time, President Reagan had just stepped up the nuclear arms race and many in that moment anticipated an end-of-the-world nuclear war any time, a war with what Reagan called the Evil Empire, aka the Soviet Union. This generated a powerful antinuclear movement that changed quite a few things around the world, a movement that, sadly, dissipated when the Cold War came to an end and we failed to seize the fabled “peace dividend.” The sudden vanishing of the Soviet Union was one of the most impossible things the Red Queen could have imagined before breakfast.
You who were born in 1984 would have been entering second grade as the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War went on hold — only to be reborn as the War on Terror. Now, there are two ways I can bring this story of where we were then and where we are now forward. One you probably know; and, if you have been in too many graduate seminars, you also know that it could be called a declensionist narrative: Reagan was bad; Bush is worse; we have lost a lot of wilderness, polar ice, species, rainforest, battles, independent media outlets, family farms, and so forth; while gaining a lot of weapons systems, marketing strategies, TV channels, genetically modified organisms, and pavement. This is all true, and the reason why I seldom bother telling this story myself is that it is told so well, even exhaustively, by so many of my compañeros on the left. There’s “another way of telling,” as the great writer John Berger says, and a lot more stories.
When I consider the state of the world I go back to those Dickens novels in which so many characters are onstage that there can be no single conclusion. Think of Great Expectations, in many ways the most purely tragic of his novels, with Pip and Estella forever separated and forever saddened by the hard lessons they have learned. (At least in the unsweetened original ending.) Tragedy, my splendid undergraduate English professor told me, ends in exile, comedy in marriage. But remember that Dickens in all his multifarious generosity gave us many stories in one book. After all, in Great Expectations, Biddie and Joe seemed to be living as happily ever after as Pip’s great friend Herbert and his dear girl. Great Expectations is a tragedy, but only for the major figures, and perhaps these millennial years are a tragedy for the U.S.A. and a few other giant countries like Russia, but not for all smaller countries. Bolivia and Chile, for example, have begun to bloom, and India is most certainly in both the best and the worst of times.
For others and elsewhere it has been an era of miracles, if not of paradises. You have probably heard all too many mythologizing stories about “the Sixties,” you who were born in the late 1970s and 1980s, but you have not heard nearly enough about the ferocious and sometimes very powerful activism of the 1980s and 1990s. While there is little to be nostalgic for in 1984 itself, there is in the later 1980s, which may well have been the greatest era of revolution this world has ever seen. Certainly, 1989 was a year to compare with 1789 and 1848. Those Polish and Filipino activists who were being squelched in 1984 triumphed a little later, as did the Koreans, grasping democracy from the bottom up from the military autocrats who had ruled over them for so long. The U.S.-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown by a defecting army and what came to be called “people power” twenty years ago this spring.
Poland’s Solidarity labor movement was only part of a great surge of boldness that ultimately toppled the Soviet empire in the fall of 1989 in a series of breathtaking events that let Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Poland be free and, two years later, resulted in the full dismantling of the Soviet Union. Its sudden vanishing was one of the most impossible things the Red Queen could have imagined. The CIA and other U.S. intelligence pros never for a second anticipated that such a thing might happen, even as Eastern European and Russian writers, artists, union organizers, and others dreamed it and organized it into being. The student uprising in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989 ended in tanks and Orwellian oppression, but the spark it lit may not be extinguished.
1992 brought a deeper revolution reaching back farther in time, one that throws open the doors of my own imagination. This revolution was lovingly crafted by scholars, by poets, by tribal leaders and ceremonial elders, by speakers of endangered languages, organizers, and activists — mostly indigenous ones because this was the great indigenous reclamation that transformed the quincentennial of Columbus’s bumbling arrival in the Americas from a sugar-coated commemoration of conquest into an anticolonial insurrection. Back then, the native people of the Americas were supposed to be conquered, silenced, even extinct — many of us non-natives were raised to believe that they were, especially those of us who grew up earlier than you did on the old textbooks that reduced the extraordinary richness of languages and cultures in Native California to a handful of primitive diggers, rooting up grubs to eat with sharpened sticks. Stories matter, and here the stories and the circumstances have changed, unbelievably.
In 1994, an indigenous army walked out of the remote Lacandon jungle of Chiapas, in Mexico’s poorest and southernmost state, and staged a revolution, not only in what the status of Indians would be in that country but in the nature of revolution too. These were the Zapatistas, named after an earlier Mexican revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata. Their mouthpiece was a nonnative guy who called himself Subcommandante Marcos and who reinvented the language of politics as something poetic, paradoxical, playful — who found another story to tell. The Zapatistas burst onto the world stage on January 1, 1994, when you would have been going on 10 years old, in response to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which went into effect that day. That measure made so many Mexicans so much more desperately poor and has everything to do with the millions of Mexican migrants arriving here today.
The Zapatista response to NAFTA was the beginning of a remarkable, unforeseen, and still-raging war against corporate globalization. As it happened, they had been inspired to rise fifteen months before by the indigenous questioning of the quincentennial. Even the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez couldn’t anticipate the Zapatistas but writers like the Uruguayan history-poet Eduardo Galeano and John Berger welcomed them. And when they arrived, the story of what was possible changed.
Twelve years later, on January 22 of this very year, the poor, mostly indigenous nation of Bolivia elected its first indigenous president, Evo Morales, a story that has taken 514 years to come not to its happy ending but to at least an auspicious, audacious new beginning. President Morales was an impossibility a hundred years ago, fifty years ago, twenty years ago, when only a Red Queen would have believed in him.
In Latin America, from Mexico to Chile, from the mid-1970s into at least the late 1980s, most countries were governed by military juntas, by dictators, by regimes that relied on terror and torture to thwart the will of the people. One by one in the past twenty-two years, those regimes have been overthrown, voted out, gradually transformed, so that Latin America, that former continent of carnage and fear, is now a beacon of hope for the rest of the world and many of its governments lead the fight against corporate globalization. That seemed impossible in 1984.
What, then, is impossible in 2006 that you who are still so young will live to see become actuality? More atrocities, more miracles and shocks, much that is now unimaginable.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” The state of the world is always a jumble of opposing ideas, of uprisings and crackdowns, of wonder and horror. Fitzgerald’s forgotten next sentence is, “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
Hopeless is one story, otherwise is another; go tell it on your mountain or internship or wherever you’re headed, but never forget that you know how to dismantle stories, how to question them, how to compare and contrast them, and maybe sometimes how to invent or reinvent them. This is vital, since your task as the young being cut loose at this moment of graduation from what we, the old, have to give is to reinvent the universe, the universe made out of stories — to change the stories, to tell them, to bury them, and to give birth to them. A difficult task, but not an impossible one. Not if you remember, as readers and scholars might, that we are living in an impossible world already.
Rebecca Solnit’s Tomdispatch-generated Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities is out in a new and expanded edition. Her most recent book is A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
Copyright 1984/2006 Rebecca Solnit.
This article appeared first, with an introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at Tomdispatch.com.