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Phi Betta Kappa

Of Single Strands and Textures

Zenia Sacks DaSilva
(Talk on the occasion of the Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony, April 26, 2010)

It isn't easy to make a learned discourse for a group as special as you, so very smart, so jam-packed with invention and knowledge. I suppose I could give a small disquisition on the pluperfect subjunctive in modern-day Castilian, or a bibliographical listing of Hispanic literary journals. But somehow I think it might be better just to tell you a little story, and let the chips fall, or the cookies crumble, as they may.

The story is called "Juan Manso" (John Meek) and it was written in the early part of the 20th century by the extraordinary Spanish novelist, poet, playwright, scholar, Miguel de Unamuno. It is the story of Juan Manso, a man so mild that in his whole life he never broke a dish or swatted a fly. He never had a love in his life. He never took a stand on any issue, personal or political; and after some sixty-odd years, he made the only definitive move in his entire life. He died.

Yes, death did him part, and Juan Manso directed himself toward the gates of Heaven. As you can imagine, there were many people waiting to get in, and so he placed himself at the end of the line. Soon afterwards, along came a humble friar and said: "Juan Manso, I've been waiting so long to get into Heaven. Would you mind giving me your place in line?" And Juan, thinking it might be useful to have a man of the cloth in his corner, gave him his place and stayed at the end of the line. Time went by and along came other people, many of them, and each time Juan gave them his place -- until people stopped asking him for permission; they merely bowled him over and took his place. And so the years turned into ages, and Juan Manso, now all gray and shriveling, was still at the end of the line. "I’ll never get into Heaven", he decided. So he went down and knocked at the portals of Hell, and a devil came out to receive him. "What have you done to burn in our fires?", he asked. And in all truth, Juan couldn't reply. "Look, man", said the devil, “even I have a conscience.” And the devil shut on him the portals of Hell.

Desperate, Juan Manso staggered to the doors of Limbo , and again the answer was “No”. So poor Juan found himself with nowhere to go B until one day, eons later, God took pity on him and sent him back for another stint on earth. This time Juan Manso lived his life questioning, challenging, thrusting out in all directions. And the second time he died, he arrived at the gates of Heaven, and there once again he found the waiting line. He went to the end, broke into a trot, hurled himself against the whole lot of them... and landed, kerplop!, right in the midst of Heaven ... where to this day he remains, chanting the inevitable refrain: " Life on earth is challenge. Life on earth is involvement.” "Milicia es la vida en la tierra."

Unamuno wrote this tale at a moment when Spain, a nation that had once ruled the world in the riches of its empire and of its arts, now lay fallow and impotent. It was a nation locked in insularity, enervated by tradition, shunning those who strode past her into modernity. Unamuno’s story was a call for his people to awake from its lethargy, to break with complacency and explore new paths and contexts. And it was more. It was a call for every living being -- for every one of us to awaken the diverse self that abides within us, to move that self into action, and to weave a fuller texture for the consummate art of living.

Well done. But Unamuno’s story doesn’t go far enough. It stops with the triumph of defiance. It moves us to action but it doesn’t say to what end or how. What shall we act for, or against? With whom shall we be partnered, or may we impose a single will without recall? Juan Manso doesn’t tell us. But in others of his writings, Unamuno strikes a broader chord. Let us not reject our uniqueness, he says; it is our essence. But let that uniqueness not stand alone. A nation of single thread cannot survive. The thread unbound to others will crumple and fold... Neither can the mind of single dimension thrive. It must seek a multitude of channels and pursue them; and with every new dimension it grows. From there can come the call, and only from there, the cogent action. It took Juan Manso two lifetimes to discover that. You’re well on your way to doing it in one.

All of which brings me to a subject dear to my meanderings. My son Russell was telling me the other day that the West Saxon language and literature of ancient Britain is no longer being taught in any American university. In fact, he took the last class in West Saxon that was given some thirty years ago at Princeton. ... "Tell me", I asked, "to what extent was there an old West Saxon literature?" ..."Well, aside from the biggie, Beowulf", he explained, "which was actually in a dialect of West Saxon, there were gory tales of battles, with some fun parts about sacking and pillage; there were hymns... and there were inscriptions found on broken old wooden crosses, with most of the words cut off in the middle..." -- "Then how could you ...?" He anticipated my question. "They really weren't too hard to figure out. Since the whole language had only 1200 words, and half of them meant "spear", all you had to do was say 'spear', or ‘weapon’ ... and you were in like Flynn..."

Russell may have been over-simplifying. But yes, he did learn something from that course, and he loved the experience. He learned about a social structure not our own B though I dare say I'm beginning to see certain correlations. He learned that the verb "to be" is so irregular in English because it was actually derived from two separate verbs, one of which, beon, gave us the present tense -- ic eom (I am), thu aerest (thou art) he (hay) is... and the other, “wesan”, gave us the past--ic waes... we (way) waeron... There were also two verbs that meant “to go”. One , "goon” gave us the present tense, and the other, “wendan”, gave us “went”. You can still find this verb in the expression "to wend one's way". (I’m sure you’ve been wondering about that all your life.) Now why does this really matter in our day and age? ... It matters because it is a link between us and the unbroken chain that weaves the then with the now and the coming; it matters because our lives and our civilizations are interconnected. They always have been and they always will be. Besides, as Russell concluded, "it's a shame to see those old languages just fade away. Suppose we are suddenly invaded by a horde of West Saxon speaking Vikings, and there's nobody here who can translate what they say!"

In all seriousness, the humanities are the amalgam that brought you to Phi Beta Kappa today; they are also the amalgam that will build the texture of your tomorrows. History, philosophy, literature, mathematics, languages, social science, in all their forms and phases, the arts in all their flow. You have delved into many of their recesses. Now take each strand of those discoveries and bind them with the others. For literature is history, philosophy, social science, psychology, all entwined in the cloth of language. And language is the transparent phrase that reveals the psyche of a people and the frame of its moment. Science is mathematics, economics, politics, and art. And art is sight, sound, intellect and movement -- physical, rational, sensual... and perpetual. So hear a piece of music and ask how a painter would transfer it to canvas. Gaze at a painting and ask how a dancer would convey it in steps. Read the printed word and ask how the composer would relay it in sounds, in rhythms, in instruments. Take the chronicles of history and tie them to today’s actualities. And continue to surf the seas of knowledge with an ever surging lust for discovery. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll find.

Oh, yes, there is still a need for those humanities, whatever our occupational objectives. There is a need for the mindset that informs each expertise; a need for the ability to collate separate strands and extrapolate from them a viable conclusion. Even more, there is a need for us to expand the parameters of our ownhumanity, to multiply the sensations and passions that say who we are. To be the mathematician/physicist who climbs mountains(Look at Harold Hastings); the economist /educator who exults in the footlights of Broadway (Look at Dr. Berliner); the language major whose paintings win prizes (Look at our recent graduate Christina Makrakis); the scholar whose e-mail moniker is "jazzycat" (I don’t know who it is, but I’d like to); the high-powered lawyer who still finds old West Saxon exciting; and all of us who align with our chosen professions the tunes we improvise at the piano, the delicacies we concoct, the books we devour, the issues we argue, the sports that we play and even those that we watch. There, at the confluence of knowledge and action, you will find the textured life we call “educated”. I welcome you to its challenge and to its warmth.

Many congratulations.