Long after midnight the towers and spires of Princeton were visible, with here and there a lateburning light--and suddenly out of the clear darkness the sound of bells. As an endless dream it went on; the spirit of the past brooding over a new generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets. Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights, destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success, grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faith in humanity shaken...
--adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise
Nearly 80 years later, Fitzgerald's words speak even more truly to my generation than they did to his: We are children cradled to the sound of a crooning Bob Dylan and formed in the materialistic '80s and sober '90s. We have romantic conceptions of the true meaning of student activism and have had austere lessons in the failure of pithy aphorisms and the inevitability of complexity and, often, inaction. We are a generation burdened with the memory of attempted change and of subsequent half-success or failure.
During my four Harvard years, I have kept a collection of the most breathtaking and incisive ideas I have read. Some I stored in a hidden space in my desk drawer, others I stuffed in folders and lost at the bottom of my knapsack. At the end of each year, I collect the words of wisdom jotted down on scraps of paper and in notebooks and record them onto more permanent index cards.
I stumbled upon these quotes unaware the other day. I was cleaning out my desk drawer and found the index cards filled with words. The power of Fitzgerald jumped out at me again, differently this time. Never had I so fully identified with his lost generation, called by the tolling of bells as my class will be as we commence, palpably surrounded by the spirit of the past and of Harvard tradition, even as we take our leave of this home. I have learned the old creeds alongside the new, and together they make for a difficult lesson. We are taught to be the leaders of the future and to want to change the world, but we have learned the lessons of the post-modernists well enough to doubt the existence of a world that can be changed at all.
And then I flipped to another card, with an excerpt from one often classed among the original post-modernists. Nietzsche's words leap up at me: "Without forgetting, it is quite impossible to live at all." Usually, Commencement is associated with memory--from old relatives who enjoin us to remember our good ole' college days to close friends we're urged never to forget.
But there is another element to living, and that is the forgetting. It is true on a personal level: four years of memories weigh a lot; if we carried them all, it would be difficult to move very far. And it is true on a historical level: the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead political leaders and poets have the potential for over-complexifying our perceptions and rendering necessary change impossible. I am part of a generation that glories in the shades of gray separating right from wrong.
"Questioning," Martin Heidegger wrote, "builds a way." But there is a downside to always questioning. We deconstruct with the best of them, but all that deconstruction leaves the landscape dotted with many cracked foundations and few standing structures. The abuses of ideology and of claims to absolute truth our century witnessed have left us with a healthy distrust of right answers but have also made us hesitant to act on our beliefs or to take stands with moral repercussions.
Another card, written in a strong hand, records William James's injunction: "If this life be not a real fight, in which something is essentially gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will." Our lives are real, and we have the potential for effecting change through our actions. Living shackled by memory or in fear of complexity sucks the essence out of life, leaving us with an empty shell (albeit it a nuanced one) but not much substance.
At their core, these are conflicting messages: we are a generation simultaneously burdened and enlivened by history, by questioning, by the real fight. And then I turn over the final index cards. There are two: "One person can never find complete fullness in himself [or herself] alone," writes Mikhail Bakhtin. It is in relationships that fullness occurs, in the relationships we create and that create us. And with Annie Dillard I rejoice: "Life gets your blood going, and it smells good." At the threshold of change, with the nuances and relationships of four years piled high around us, we're filled with each other and with life. There is a Jewish exclamation for celebration. L'chayim. To life.
Talia Milgrom-Elcott '98, a social studies concentrator in Mather House, was an associate editorial chair of The Crimson in 1997.