Senior Column: ‘A sadness dressed for graduation’ — notes on our half-finished June

Opinion by Emily Elott
June 10, 2020, 11:25 p.m.

Finding, as Emily Dickinson tells us in poem #870, is the first act — and it is at the beginning of our first acts that most of us find ourselves at college’s start. But Roberto Bolaño, in his novel 2666, understands that this act of finding is not easy, and that a dazzling dizziness accompanies it. 

When one character, Espinoza, admits that he will never write literature, Bolano characterizes this moment as “the beginning of his loneliness and a steady stream (or deluge) of resolutions, often contradictory or impossible to keep.” Espinoza “would never be a fiction writer, and, in his own way, he was brave.” Although Bolaño casts this insight in terms of a literal choice between the life of the artist and the unformed void of the half-finished and the half-started, his depiction transcends the specificity of Espinoza’s circumstances. In fact, Bolaño alights here on the simple but difficult realization that the semblance of infinite possibility some of us might have felt — an idea we might attribute to youth, naivete, hope or blindness — must eventually end. 

To find what we are, we have to lose what we could have been. And to admit to ourselves that the visions of plenitude which once sustained us cannot last is an act of bravery, not one of cowardice. For some, this realization arrives early, as it did for my friend, who, at age 13 and shorter than everyone around him, realized that a career as a professional basketball player might not be possible. This, too, was the case for my freshman roommate, who knew from the beginning that she wanted to study Computer Science and has never wavered in the four years that I have known her. And, for some, this illusion of infinitude never existed at all, waylaid by circumstance and oppression. For me, however, and, I suspect, for others like me, the realization of life’s limitations, and its associated release of long-held possible futures, happens at Stanford. As we walk through oak groves at dusk or lie in our concrete-walled bedrooms, a deluge of new, contradictory and impossible-to-keep resolutions rushes in to fill that now empty chamber where once we held our infinite dreams.

My case is especially stark: as late as winter quarter of my junior year, people on campus believed I was an engineer, although I had declared and settled on English as a sophomore. Even now, I can understand their confusion. My SymSys mug, a treasure from declaring the major, sits dusty on a shelf at home, still whispering occasional promises of what might have been. 

Over my time at Stanford, I have self-identified as majoring in Computer Science, Symbolic Systems, Mathematical and Computational Science, Public Policy, Economics, Linguistics, English (Creative Writing) and English (Literature). I still envy many other majors (shoutout to Anthropology, Sociology, Comparative Literature, Philosophy, Classics and Religious Studies). In one conversation with an especially curious neighbor, my initial proclamation that I wanted to be a “bohemian artist” met with a dead expression until I explained that really I wanted to write a feature piece or two for The New Yorker. 

But what now, you might ask? The self-fashioning is complete. The beginning, and its accompanying deluge, is over. I have grieved the loss of the infinite possible and I have found a major, an identity, a purpose, a next step —  supposedly, we all have. We will lose our Stanford email addresses soon —  goodbye to 18,000 unread! —  and craft new signatures in other places. We will adorn our names with titles demarcating us as this or that, scientist or performance-artist, community organizer or investment banker. But, we all have to ask, right here and right now, what is it that we are graduating into

It is no longer the time for our experiments in self-fashioning; such luxurious indulgences are as distant as the past, which is to say they are imaginable and knowable, but devastatingly unreachable. We can imagine what might have been: in times that are not these, we would find ourselves in graduation gowns at little sandwich tables in dry heat, with those we love at the elbow and our diplomas tucked safely away in purses or bags. We would experience what Mary Ruefle, in “My Private Property,” calls “green sadness,” where “green sadness is sadness dressed for graduation, it is the sadness of June, of shiny toasters as they come out of their boxes, the table laid before a party, the smell of new strawberries and dripping roasts about to be devoured.” 

This June, there will be no hint of strawberries in the air. White graduation dresses will stay starched and pressed in drawers unopened. The fountains will call out in vain for the dipped toes and bodies that graced them in other halcyon early summer days. An incomparable loss, for all of us. This June is suffused with what Ruefle calls “pink sadness, […] the sadness of deprivation, of going without, of having to swallow when your throat is no bigger than an acupuncture pin.” 

And yet, I find that, instead of cinematically concocting for myself what might have been, I think endlessly of what was: of 1848, of 1968, of all those other past moments where a people found themselves breathlessly at the brink of something better. No, this June is not the June of sandwich tables. It is not the June of I’ll be seeing you spoken to classmates we will never see again.

 Call me religious, but I find myself close to believing in this thing philosophers call a gestalt. For Jan Zwicky, in The Experience of Meaning, “gestalt comprehension is insight into how things hang together. It is perception that a thing or situation hangs together; and it is sensitivity to structural echoes between that thing or situation and others”. Or, as Robert Bresson writes in a comment on cinema, but also in relation to a gestalt, “images, like the words in a dictionary, have no power and value except through their position and relation.”  For John Berger, this is the essence of painting: “the encounter of these two energies, their dialogue, does not have the form of question and answer. It is ferocious and inarticulated dialogue. To sustain it requires faith.”  

Position, and relation, and dialogue, and the way things hang together. What is the gestalt of this missing, altered June? Who can see it? Well, as Virginia Woolf explains, “the only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.” The deluge, I am afraid, must continue. We must resolve, we must falter, for, after all, it is, in Emily Dickinson’s words, “Finite —  to fail, but infinite to Venture,” and this infinity is what we must hold onto and begin to recognize. If it is infinite to Venture, then we may have found our way back to the beginning of college — that time when infinite possibilities dotted our vision — again. 

This time, however, I have to ask something a bit different of us, the ones who find ourselves wondering what has happened this June and what we can do. To the degree that we can, we must seek to see this moment for what it is, to do what we can to redress where we have faltered, and to continue to make resolutions, even if they will always be “contradictory or impossible to keep.” 

We must all begin to view ourselves as the poets of our moment, as people committed to delightful and permanent experiments in self-fashioning, as citizens who know that understanding ourselves opens us to those around us, too. If we choose to view ourselves in this way, we take up Zwicky’s sense of the poet’s task: “to gesture towards the resonant structure she has discerned so that we, as readers, can see through the poem to a way the world is.” Now, the world has become something none of us could have predicted. And our goal, as we go forth, must be to see what stands immediately before us.   

Emily Elott ’20 was a Desk Editor in Opinions for Volumes 255 and 256. 

Contact Emily Elott at elotte ‘at’

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