Eric M. A. Lax

Eric M. A. Lax '66
Commencement Address
June 13, 1993

When President Hersh asked me to give this speech, he made an offer I couldn’t refuse. “Take your pick,” he said. “We’ll forgive your unpaid library fines.” It was no contest. I chose forgiveness of the fines. Then someone in the bursar’s office tallied up what I owed. I’ll have to pay.

Coming here to talk to you has made me remember the fears I had about leaving Hobart and starting life on my own. It has also reminded me of my hopes.

Twenty-seven years ago I sat where you are and listened to Edward Weeks, the legendary editor of the Atlantic Monthly, say that many of us would have second careers. I found that both hopeful and ironic. Hopeful because it gave me a sense that a single choice made at the end of college would not necessarily determine how I spent the next 60 years. Ironic because on that day I didn’t yet have a first career. For that matter, I didn’t even have a job. My parents had driven from California to watch me get my diploma, and I think it is only because they were so excited that I was the first person in our family to earn a college degree that they weren’t ready to slit either of their wrists or mine over my lack of prospects.

The morning after graduation, we packed the car for the drive west and I checked my mailbox for the last time.In it was a letter from the Peace Corps inviting me to go to Micronesia, what I came to know as a small loss of memory in the Pacific. My parents couldn’t have been happier. I couldn’t have been happier. In 1966 America was at war with itself over race and with the North Vietnamese and soviets over dominoes, and I had a draft board in San Diego that was interested in me only for my body. I had applied for conscientious objector status, an unpopular idea in San Diego, and while I was willing to go to prison for my beliefs, I was in no hurry to do so. The Peace Corps gave me and exemption, and so for the next two years, anyway, I would be free of the Selective Service System’s clutches. It was a mixed happiness, however, because several of my classmates fought and suffered in Vietnam. The closest was my roommate, George Packard. He and his wife Helen, were two of my best college friends, and today they are here to see their daughter, Helen, graduate. How Skip and Beaz and I are the same age but their kid has finished college and my oldest is in kindergarten is a problem I leave to the math majors.

The war you face, that we all face today, is a different one. Medieval in fundamentalism and Dark Age tribal hostility foster disregard for anyone different. Technology has shrunk the world but not altered ancient hatreds. Or modern ones. Television lets us watch neighbors tear each other apart in Bosnia or South Africa, but the problems are not only far away. Last year in Los Angeles, where I live, the city burned before my eyes. And so, just as the integration of blacks and whites was a central issue when I left here, the need for integration rather than separation is the problem today. What I have found over the years is how well the values of these two colleges help address that need.

I used to think that the notion of coordinate colleges was quaint but hardly germane. A men’s college, a women’s college, shared premises but individual identities; it was a nice package, but why not just make the place coed and forget it? The answer has to do with the need for and the reality of coordinates – of equalities – in all aspects of our lives. Hobart and William Smith establish a basis for acknowledging differences while allowing individuals to grow together and find enough common ground. Different, I learned here, doesn’t necessarily mean unequal.

I also received the essence of a liberal-arts education; I learned how to synthesize ideas and to think. This may sound odd, but one of the most important aspects of this was learning how to use the library. While for you the library is often as close as your computer, the lesson is the same. Ideas are for thinking, but unless you know where to look and how to piece them together, you’re lost in the intellectual woods – and in life.

Like you, I didn’t listen to lectures from a distant professor who left us to study under anonymous teaching assistants. Frank O’Laughlin and Walter Ralls, Maynard Smith and Katy Cook, and Louis Hirshson – whom you know as a dormitory but I knew as the President – were a knock on the door away. They made me connected to this place not only through their teaching but in their friendship. And so, while I know virtually none of today’s faculty, you and I are joined by a tradition of personal education.

My B.A. is in English, which you might expect of a writer, but it happened totally by default. Over my first two years, I tried one department after another without much success. My junior year, Ben Atkinson, then the dean, called me into his office and sternly told me I had to declare a major. “What haven’t I tried?” I asked him. “English,” he said. “I guess that’s it,” I told him.

My less than stellar performance my first two years gave me something in common with Woody Allen, whose scholastic underachievements made me look like, well, a Doctor of Letters. I’ve known him for 23 years now, as I’ve observed his artistic evolution from over his shoulder. It is a difficult time for him – and for me, too. We are professional, not social, friends, but we are inevitably linked. I have found that a version of what people think of him, they think of me for having written about him.

It’s been a curious and instructive experience. Artists create the most original work they can. Biographers try to explain that work and the context from which it came. The idea is not to defend the work or the life but rather to understand them. Yet often the implication of the reader is that elucidation is equal to defense. It may be that you are what you eat, but regardless of what the deconstructionists say, you are not necessarily what-you write.

Woody Allen’s situation and my own are a useful look at the distinction between art and life – two very unequal propositions that are important to reconcile. As Allen himself has written, “Is art the mirror of life, or what?”

We hold within us the best and worst we have to offer, and that combination makes us human. It is our capacity to look for the good, and to idealize it, that also makes us acutely feel disappointment. but just because raised expectations in our choice of colleges, love, or artists aren’t always met does not mean those expectations should be abandoned.

In a poetry seminar my senior year, I became entranced by Wallace Stevens, whose wit and exotic and luxuriant language moved me very much. Then a few years later, a book quoted a letter he written after the Italian army had invaded Ethiopia in 1935. “Mussolini,” Stevens told his friend, “Had as much right to take Ethiopia from the Ethiopians as the Ethiopians had to take it from the boa constrictors.”

I was horrified to discover that this man I had treasured as a sharp but compassionate delineator of the soul could say such a thing. It took me some years to understand that this model of an artist was also, and unavoidably, the model of a human being. That is, he was flawed.

Because our cultural heroes open and explain the world to us in ways we feel but can’t express, we expect that heroism to carry into their personal lives. My own flaws were immaterial in my judgement of Stevens, and so I was allowed his life to overcome his art.

In his “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” Auden wrote:

            “The Death of the Poet was kept from his poems . . . he became his admirers.”

Which is what we want of the artist we cherish, that they and their work live in us. For 30 years Woody Allen’s work has made him a metaphor for the relationship between man and women. He celebrates the vital importance of friendship and loyalty as well as palatably displays our neuroses. But when his domestic life superseded his art, he became unpalatably real to millions of people -- many of them book buyers, I’m sorry to say. His vulnerability as a film character made him an Everyman. Now to many, his vulnerability as a man has made him a traitor to the lofty ideals he writes about. As I felt double crossed by Stevens, so do they feel betrayed by Allen, which is the cruelest of emotions and the hardest to overcome.

While our relationship to the artists who influence and are part of our critical life help define our outlook and our taste, it is the relationship we have with people with whom we shared our days and years that define us. If these colleges have done their job, none of you is the person you were four years ago. You have developed your minds, developed parity with your parents, and developed friendships that will withstand years of not seeing or even talking with one another; yet when you do, you will be able to pick up where you left off yesterday. If you are like me, you will leave friends today who, though thousands of miles away, years from now will call you in an emotional crisis or travel across the country to celebrate a milestone birthday with, because ties formed here are central to our lives. They are the basis of our coordinate history.

Until the end of college we have more a past than a history. Sixteen years of schooling are directed toward fulfilling an assignment and getting a grade. But after graduation, your relationships are to life, not an exam, and what you do, what choices you make, will be the history of your constantly revised selves.

When Edward Weeks told my class about second careers, he could also have talked about second – and fourth and sixth – lives. As near as I can count, so far I’ve had two careers and four lives, with more lives yet to come.

So much of who we are is bound up in our relationships. Our lives are different when we’re single than when we’re married, different when we don’t have children and when we do, different after a parent dies or, as happens too often, marriage fails.

Each of the lives that we lead should build on both the successes and the mistakes of the ones before it. Successes are always savored, but the importance of mistaking is too often underrated, because if we’re not making some, we’ve stopped growing.

When I was 26, my job in the Peace Corps was to fly around the world to look at programs and tell people often twice my age what they were doing wrong. One day I realized it was time for me to go and commit to my own errors, which I have certainly done. I can reconcile it – appreciate it – even when I make a mistake for the first time. It’s not learning from it that undoes me. There are so many fresh mistakes to be made that, when we repeat old ones, we stagnate in our work and carry emotional viruses into our new lives.

A commencement speech, like a fortune cookie, has to dispense pithy advice. Here’s mine: The greatest mistake is trying to meet what you think are the expectations of others. When you do that, you fear being your own true self. Which is a loss for everyone because, in the end, we ourselves are all we have to offer the world, and to one another.

Make no mistakes about this, however. I am deeply honored to speak to you: It is at once humbling, frightening, and intensely enjoyable to give you your last college lecture. There will be no quiz, but in case you’re wondering, from now on, everything will be on the exam.

I look forward to the day I listen to one of you do this. Thank you.


Eric M. A. Lax '66
Commencement Address
June 13, 1993