Spring 2009 Initiation Speech

Biographical Note

Dr. Andrew Epstein, Associate Professor of English at Florida State University , received his BA in English from Haverford College , graduating summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and earned a Master's degree in English and his PhD in English from Columbia University . Director of Undergraduate Studies in English at Florida State for three years and a dedicated student mentor, Dr. Epstein is also the recipient of a graduate teaching award and five other grants and awards. He is a prolific poet, critic, and book reviewer and the author of the widely praised Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (Oxford 2006). Professor Epstein is currently writing a book about the representations of everyday life in contemporary literature and culture. His Phi Beta Kappa address draws from his current research.

Dr. Andrew Epstein 
Dr. Andrew Epstein


Attention Equals Life, Or Is Its Only Evidence 
The Alpha of Florida Phi Beta Kappa Chapter
Spring Initiation Address
Dr. Andrew Epstein
April 19th, 2009
Starry Conference Room
Rovetta Business Building

First, I just want to thank the officers of Florida State ’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter for inviting me to speak with you today, and my colleague Bruce Bickley for the kind words of introduction.  It is really an honor to be here today, to congratulate this year’s initiates into Phi Beta Kappa. You have all achieved something truly remarkable and you should be very, very proud of yourselves.  I know that all of your professors certainly are. 

To put it very simply, being elected to Phi Beta Kappa is a big deal.  It actually may be a bigger deal than some of you know.  Not every college student is aware of the significance of this honor.  I wouldn’t be surprised if, when some of you first got word that you’d been elected, you may have thought to yourself: “Phi Beta What?” or “Hey, I’m already in a fraternity!”  As you probably all know by now, Phi Beta Kappa is the most important, selective, and prestigious honor society in the United States .  In other words, this is a very select club you’re joining, and it is a real, tangible sign of your hard work and your accomplishments at this university.  It is also a marker of your achievements that will stay with you forever, as you go forward into the world – it immediately sends a signal to anyone (including future employers and grad school admissions committees) that you are a gifted, committed, dedicated student with tremendous potential for success.

It is also worth knowing that this select club you’re joining started a long, long time ago: in fact, it is almost exactly as old as the United States itself.  It was founded at the College of William and Mary in Virginia on December 5, 1776, and ever since Phi Beta Kappa has celebrated and advocated excellence in the liberal arts and sciences.  Its mission has always been about preserving the importance of the pursuit of knowledge, and the freedom of inquiry, thought, and expression – all values that are as important (or perhaps even more important) to America and to the world today as they were in 1776.

By becoming part of this select group, you should know that you’re also in very good company: it’s a pretty impressive bunch: seventeen U.S. Presidents, including John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, George Bush Sr., and Bill Clinton, were all members of Phi Beta Kappa, as are 7 out of the 9 current Supreme Court justices, the director Francis Ford Coppola, actress Glenn Close, the writers Mark Twain and John Updike, the quarterback Peyton Manning, and perhaps most impressively of all, Rivers Cuomo, the lead singer and songwriter for the indie-rock band Weezer.  (I bet you didn’t think there was a way for a speaker to work the band Weezer, or even the word “weezer,” into a Phi Beta Kappa initiation ceremony – but now you know there is!)

There are also some lesser (much lesser) members of Phi Beta Kappa, like, for example, me.  I was elected while I was in my junior year at Haverford College , a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania .  I guess I was particularly aware of what a big deal it was because both my parents and my sister were already members (no pressure or anything!).  As I was thinking about my own induction into Phi Beta Kappa in preparing these remarks, I was reminded of a brief anecdote I’d like to tell you about my own experience after graduating from college, which will lead me towards the main thing I want to speak with you about today, which is the importance of attentiveness, the urgent need to cultivate an alert responsiveness to daily life and ordinary things, a theme and issue in the literature I am currently studying and writing a book about.  But I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Like you, I graduated from college during a recession – in the spring of 1992.  Although the economy wasn’t in quite as bad shape as it is today, it was definitely a challenging moment to graduate from college, particularly with a sparkling new B.A. in English, which even in the best of times does not always seem like the most immediately useful or marketable of degrees.  My highly educated friends and I all found ourselves pushed out of the college nest and unable to get jobs, and suddenly everyone I knew who had just graduated from college was working at temp jobs in strange, antiseptic corporate office buildings.  After moving quickly through a series of miserable temp jobs, it started to become very apparent to me that what I really wanted to do was to keep studying literature, learning about and writing poetry, but no one was hiring for that.  So naturally, I thought getting a job in editing and publishing was the answer.  Finally, I got my big break: I was hired to be an Editorial Assistant for a large, prestigious publishing company, McGraw-Hill.  But it turns out it wasn’t exactly the most glamorous or creative of jobs: it was in a division that edited and published a giant, 1000 page book every year: the World Aviation Directory, otherwise known as WAD (W-A-D).  (I’m sure you’re all familiar with it, right?  And its famous slogan: “WAD is my co-pilot”).  It was basically a big fat phone book for the aviation and aerospace industries.  Although for some mysterious reason the ad had asked for English majors with strong writing and editing skills, it turned out to be glorified data entry: mind-numbing, soul-crushing work, as far from reading Hamlet or writing a poem as you can imagine.  I found myself sitting at a desk wondering “How did I end up here”?  I spent my lunch hours reading novels and writing poems, studying for the GREs, and dreaming of being back in school.

But – and here’s the point of this rather depressing tale – I also started to find ways to make this job interesting.  I took some initiative and started to learn more about an area I had no previous knowledge or interest in – the aviation industry – and found that I was particularly intrigued by what was happening at that moment internationally, as airlines and aerospace companies in Russia and the newly independent states of Eastern Europe were struggling to transition to a free market economy after the fall of Communism.  I worked hard, asked questions, learned about how corporations are structured and run, and spoke up at meetings with the editor-in-chief.  Suddenly, I found myself being promoted: and it became my job to help edit and compose a new, special publication about doing business with the former Soviet republics, which was roughly ten times more interesting than the data entry I’d been doing.

Although I can’t claim that I kept up my avid interest in the aviation industry once I began my graduate studies in literature the following fall, this experience did teach me a few important lessons.  First: don’t be scared to take a job that seems beneath you or dreadful, because it can lead to something more exciting that you first suspect.  Plus, almost everyone has to start at the bottom, in any field, and work their way up.  Second: the more you know about something, anything, the more rich and complicated and interesting it becomes.  When some area of study or some phenomenon seems forbiddingly dull, you may just not know enough about it to see its value or complexity.  (Later, in grad school, I found something similar happening: each course I took led me to want to convert to that field of study – so when I took Medieval literature, I was tempted to drop everything and become a medievalist; when I took Renaissance poetry, I thought: hey, the Renaissance is much more fascinating than any other period.)  And third, a more general lesson: if you actually pay attention to what’s right in front of you, you can discover that anything – or almost anything – is interesting.  If I could find entering data for a directory of aviation corporations of interest, anything could be.  

So what does my story about graduating during an earlier recession have to do with the question of attentiveness?

It has something to do with the fact that, in the 20th century (the period of literature that I study) writers and artists became increasingly focused on the ordinary, the small, and the everyday rather than the extraordinary, the exotic, or the heroic.  Whereas a good deal of earlier literature or art took on quite dramatic subjects – such as wars, epic journeys, mythic tales, faraway lands, passionate romance, religious ecstasy, or the intrigue and conflicts within the court of a king – in the 20th century, there is a turn towards the daily, the mundane, the familiar, the oft-overlooked.  To take one famous example, perhaps the most important and influential novel of the 20th century is the book Ulysses, by James Joyce.  The book is an epic-length novel, but instead of spanning 20 years and charting the fantastic adventures of its hero, as in Homer’s Odyssey, the ancient Greek poem on which Ulysses is based, it recounts the gritty reality of life in the space of a single, ordinary day in Dublin , Ireland .  To take another well-known example, the poet William Carlos Williams writes a famous poem that says, in its entirety, “So much depends / upon / a red wheel barrow / glazed with rain / water / beside the white/ chickens.”  Some early readers of the poem thought: why is that a poem? How is that art?  But part of the poem’s point is to force us to wonder why the poet feels that upon this unremarkable little scene of wheelbarrow and chickens a tremendous amount depends.  

As the century goes on, the attempts by writers, artists, and filmmakers to apprehend the experience of modern everyday life become increasingly outlandish, innovative, and challenging: for instance, Samuel Beckett writes a play, Waiting for Godot, in which (as a critic famously said), “nothing happens, twice,” as two men stand around throughout the first act endlessly waiting for an event that never occurs, and then do the exact same thing all over again in the second act.  The French writer Georges Perec creates a five-page piece with the title “An Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated By Me in The Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four.”  The artist Andy Warhol makes a movie, an eight-hour movie, depicting a man sleeping in real-time and calls it “Sleep.”  A poet named Kenneth Goldsmith uses a tape recorder to record every word he says aloud for a week, types up the results, and creates a 400 page book of unclassifiable prose.

What all of these rather, well, strange experiments share is a deep commitment to trying to find new ways to make visible the often unnoticed and disregarded aspects of our experience.  In a 1973 manifesto, the French writer I mentioned a moment ago, Georges Perec, urged us to think about “What happens when nothing happens?  What passes when nothing passes, except time, people, cars, and clouds?” “How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day … the background noise, the habitual?”  Perec insists that “What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms.  To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us…. To question the habitual.  But that’s just it,” he says, “we’re habituated to it.  We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if it carried within it neither questions nor answers, as if it weren’t the bearer of any information.  This is no longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia.  We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep” (177).  

What a lot of this literature is saying, and I suppose what I’m saying too, is this: remember how important it is to wake up, to stay awake, to not let yourself sleepwalk through your own life, anaesthetized.  As the great American writer Thoreau says, for those who are truly awake, morning is more a state of mind than a time of day: “the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.”  Or, to put it another way, in the words of the philosopher Nietzsche, “Try to live as though it were morning.”  

My point is not to just tell you to “seize the day,” “carpe diem,” “catch your dreams before they slip away” and all that – although that’s a good lesson to bear in mind, too.  But I’m talking about something different, perhaps something quieter, more daily.  What I’m suggesting that these literary works are telling us is that in order to live your life as though it were perpetually morning, “attention is all.”  

The American poet Frank O’Hara, who is best-known for the wonderful poems he dashed off about walking around New York City during his lunch break from an office job at the Museum of Modern Art, felt that attention is the antidote to boredom – the cure for the sense of repetition, routine, and sameness that seems so prevalent in daily life.  O’Hara felt that one of the most significant goals of art, or music, or writing is to “beat back the bugaboos of banality and boredom.”  In an essay, he observed that what great works of art say is “Don’t be bored, don’t be lazy, don’t be trivial, and don’t be proud.  The slightest loss of attention leads to death.”  He praised one artist’s paintings by saying “What his work has always had to say to me, I guess, is to be more keenly interested while I’m still alive.  And perhaps this is the most important thing art can say.”  

In one poem, O’Hara writes: “I’m bored, but it’s my duty to be attentive: I am needed by things as the sky must be above the earth.”  In other words, we have an obligation, a duty, to pay attention, because without our doing so, we have no way of knowing what life even is, no way of recording what it is as it passes.  This is why O’Hara insists upon “an equation in which attention equals life, or is its only evidence.”

So what does the idea that “attention equals life” mean for you, standing here poised at the beginning of your lives after college?  It means that no matter where you go, what kind of career or life you make for yourselves, there is tremendous value in being and staying awake and attentive – to your work, to your family, to the million small actions and thoughts and events that make up your daily life, to what happens when nothing happens.  The novelist Henry James gave a piece of advice to young writers that seems relevant to anyone, particularly to those, like you, who are some of the most intelligent, gifted students, thinkers, and writers of your generation: “Try to be one on whom nothing is lost.”  

What James is suggesting is that you take nothing for granted, that you question the habitual, that you “be more keenly interested while you’re still alive.”  It’s your duty to be attentive, even when – or especially when! – you’re bored.  Even if you somehow find yourself typing in data about US Airways for some publication called the World Aviation Directory.  As the philosopher Stanley Cavell says “grasping a day, accepting the everyday, the ordinary, is not a given but a task.”   And I think what all of these writers are saying, and what I’m saying too, is that this ongoing task is not only a crucial component of whatever kind of work you end up doing, whatever kind of life you end up living, but of being human itself.  

Now, although I have been suggesting that you recognize that every day is important and meaningful, it’s true that today is a particularly important day.  Congratulations to all of you on your terrific accomplishments!