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Meeting Oneself by the Charles

By Pierpaolo Barbieri, None

In the spirit of imminent change that grips the world into which we graduate, I believe it fitting to start at another time—1969—a time as unknown to us graduates as the uncharted waters beyond our Commencement. That year, change was in the air, Nixon was in the White House, and Vietnam was on everyone’s mind.

Around the time our predecessors marched on Harvard Yard to protest that war, one of the finest literary figures of the century, Jorge Luis Borges, was at Harvard to deliver the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton lectures. Judging by their content, one could think Borges was not in touch with the profound transformations occurring all around him—rather than talking politics, he devoted the lectures to his recurrent literary themes: remembering and forgetting, poetry and metaphor, the craft of verse.

Yet during his time at Harvard, Borges lived through an experience that eventually inspired his most relevant short story. On a spring morning, Borges took a walk by the Charles River, and sat on a bench close to Dunster House to rest. Despite his blindness, he noticed he wasn’t alone—someone else was there. But when he talked to “The Other”—as the story based on the incident is called—Borges was horrified to hear his own voice answering his questions, except that the voice was decades younger. The man next to him claimed to be barely 20 years old and in Geneva; he even said it was 1918.

And so, on an otherwise ordinary morning in 1969, by the Charles, Borges met himself.

The two men tried to dismiss the bizarre experience as a dream, or nightmare. But they soon confirmed they both were Borges—one in Cambridge, on the Charles’ shore, the other in Geneva, on the banks of the Rhône; one lecturing at Harvard, the other composing his first poems; one cynical about the unstoppable march of History, the other waxing idyllic on the brotherhood of all men; one at the dusk of life, the other at its dawn.

Borges told his younger self about the life that awaited him: his family, the endless pages yet to be written, and even the looming World War that would dwarf the first one. Only literature–Dostoyevsky, Coleridge, Hugo–brought them together, yet their interpretations profoundly differed. Ultimately, Borges and The Other were the same person, but they were also strangers. Too much time, too many experiences came between them.

So Borges recalled Heraclitus: One cannot step into the same river twice, for neither one nor the river are the same.

Those of us who passed through the Dexter Gate four years ago “to grow in wisdom” would not have recognized those of us who depart today “to better serve [our] kind.” And more than any specific concentration or class, paper or professor, there is one lesson at the core of our transformation.
As obvious as it sounds, Harvard has taught us to succeed. There is no need revisit the impossible odds associated with gaining admission to this college—such fortune should humble us. We have been taught by a Faculty chosen for their unrivalled ability to revolutionize their fields of study. We have won access to their minds, and they have enriched our own. We have sung for outstanding a capella groups, played for impressive sports teams, written for the most prestigious college newspaper in the country, and perhaps even dressed in drag for Hasty Pudding Theatricals.
But just as empowering as those victories have been our defeats. Those strangers who arrived here four years ago were not likely to have faced failure–hence they were enrolling at Harvard. During our time here, however, we have had to learn to fail the hard way. Perhaps it was a newspaper “turkey shoot” election, perhaps sports tryouts, maybe a laundry list of academic honors, or even just being turned down for lunch at Adams House.

Learning to lose in this ultra-competitive, yet cushioned, environment has changed us dramatically: It has prepared us for the uncertainty beyond the ivory tower. If we consider the root causes of the current financial debacle that currently occupies all headlines, it becomes clear that recognizing and facing our shortcomings is necessary medicine for our social ailments, as is coming to terms with our inability to accurately predict what is to come. We cannot foretell the changing tides of Heraclitus’ river. Yet learning to fail inherently means learning to curb our hubris—and that is a lesson of personal growth I hope each of us takes through the gates. 

On the banks of the Charles, Borges was glad his younger self never asked him how successful his verses and books would be. As we face the unanswered questions of where, to whom, and to which causes we shall devote our lives, let us leave today with a promise: to remain true to an ever-changing path, yet always armed with Harvard’s lesson of how to succeed–and also how to fail.

The standard may be a daunting one. But the goal is paradoxically clear: That many years from now, when we meet ourselves on a spring morning by the Charles, our younger selves will be proud of the path we will have put ahead of them.


Pierpaolo Barbieri ’09, a former Crimson associate editorial chair, is a history concentrator in Eliot House

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