The Thing Itself
BLSE Commencement Address 2007
You have probably heard many tales about Bread Loaf over the course of five or even ten years, and you have probably formed the conclusion that your spouse, partner, friend, or loved one has hoodwinked you into believing that he or she has been rigorously working toward an M.A. or M. Litt. You might be thinking about our Pavlovian response to the dinner bell and our running out of the dining hall when the flickering lights signal the end of the meal, or about the square dance where every man sets out to “swing his corner upside down.” Or about our costume party in which we embody our most inwardly suppressed desires for all our classmates and professors to witness: a hot-air balloon, an entire pond, Isobel Armstrong. In short, you’ve decided that we’re at summer camp. And if I didn’t know this place, I might see your point. But tonight, I will gently show you where you may have the wrong idea about our mountain retreat. It isn’t just a series of lawn games, tennis matches, and do-si-dos.
Toward the end of Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel The Waves, in which six friends gather at a restaurant and mourn the death of their friend Percival, a flower in a vase stirs the memories of Bernard, one of the novel’s six narrators. Bernard says:
“The flower, the red carnation that stood in the vase on the table of the restaurant when we dined together with Percival, is become a six-sided flower; made of six lives…a many-sided substance cut out of this dark; a many-faceted flower. Let us stop for a moment; let us behold what we have made. Let it blaze against the yew trees. One life. There. It is over. Gone out.”
In the center of every Bread Loaf classroom is a many-sided rose. It grows by the day, for there are as many petals as there are perceivers in the room. Each of us, through our own perceptions, interpretations, and imaginations, contributes a petal, shaping the class into a series of Woolfian “Moments of Being,” into what she elusively calls “the thing itself.” The thing is a rose; it is an idea; it is a mode of thinking. It is a yellow Morgan horse barn in which learning sustains us every day. It is a chipmunk relieving himself on my final project. For senior Mimi Morimura, it is “standing at the ‘universal cataract’ not of death, but of discovery.” In facing graduation, she adds, “as I have discovered immense knowledge in literature, I found there is more to be found.”
We have unearthed so much here. Personally speaking, I think I’ve taken my Bread Loaf experience a little too literally. My first summer I read Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo and, palette whetted, eventually found myself on a plane bound for Ghana. While there I visited Elmina Castle and stood at the “Door of No Return”—the site of the embarkation of slaves bound for the New World. I stood simultaneously at the origins of colonialism and in Margery Sabin’s postcolonial literature class.
Then there was the time I read James Baldwin’s Another Country in Arthur Little’s class and two weeks later moved to Hungary. Over the three years I spent there, I identified with main character Eric’s sustained period of self-inflicted sojourn and exile. I cheated, though. I flew to Vermont from Budapest, hoarded up my baubles over the course of six precious weeks, and then returned again to a country where, until recently, intellectual freedom and imaginative expression could not be taken for granted. Individualism is still new, and chatter is still suspect. I came back to Vermont every year to breathe again, to chatter, and to be an individual.
But it’s not just all talk here. We become performers, actors, spectators, and audience members, a community of watchers and listeners. And when we write, our narratives cut to the quick and catch our breath too short. Just ask any member of either Jonathan Strong’s or Patricia Powell’s fiction courses. In Pat’s class this summer we laughed so hard we cried, and we cried so hard we had to hold hands.
We come here, quite simply, to be wowed. For wowing us we thank our outstanding cadre of faculty, the Acting Ensemble, staff, and administration. This eclectic and marvelous assortment of fine minds and generous hearts quickly becomes the largest collection of mentors and friends ever gathered in one place. Through their dynamism, guidance, and tenacity, they propel us, in Angela Carter’s words, into “the vertigo of freedom.” Under their care we are graced with dizzying possibility, placed at the “cataract of discovery.”
Through our time with them we forge new modes of tolerance and new means of empathy for our students. We do this by osmosis and through direct instruction: professors here have opened the literary canon to include voices not always heard, and we have listened. And we have, I hope, appropriated that same tolerance and ushered it into our classrooms and into our lives. As an additional mark of gratitude for what the people of this place have given us, the senior class has founded a new scholarship to enhance diversity at Bread Loaf.
Our stories, performances, and conversations find a home in Bread Loaf nostalgia. This is what keeps the Bread Loaf heartbeat thumping during the year. We ship our stuff to wherever it is we call “home,” and we sustain our visions elsewhere. In our real and virtual classrooms, we sustain our visions and connect through the Bread Loaf Teachers’ Network; we connect through some of the most introspective and moving student exchanges on BreadNet. For this, ultimately, is what our work here is about: making connections between the most disparate writings in the English language. Making connections with those different from ourselves. Making connections between narrative and life. Living out our stories as we choose to narrate them for our own good and for the good of our communities.
And stories require an origin, a return address, a wellspring. For those who went to the Oxford campus, that home is felt, as senior Jorge Rodriguez says of his time there, as the “weight of the centuries.” For those who keep coming to Vermont, we know the address by heart: Bread Loaf CPO 4265, Ripton 125, Middlebury, VT 05753. Senior Sarah Robinson has figured out an ingenious way to keep that address, quite literally, as the epicenter of her experience. She writes:
Bread Loaf will always be right here: the famous egg-yolk buildings in the beautiful forest. But how do we bring this place forward with us? The answer lies in sharing the spirit we’ve nourished here. The answer lies in participating whole-heartedly in the troubled world outside this bubble. Personally, I’ve been worried I might somehow forget that. So, my husband came up with a brilliant solution: We’ve decided to paint our house in Bread Loaf colors: Bread Loaf Cream with Forest Green trim: low lustre, non-fading acrylic latex paint, a special blend, number N103313.
In my own understanding of these acres as home, I turn to George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. Since my first summer here, I have turned to this passage as an eloquent summation of the ways we Bread Loafers imagine, think, and work in this home away from home. The landscape of Maggie Tulliver’s childhood, imbued with memory, carries tremendous power in connecting past and future. Eliot’s narrator asks:
“…what grove of tropic palms, what strange ferns of splendid broad-petalled blossom, could ever thrill such deep and delicate fibres within me as this home-scene? These familiar flowers, these well-remembered bird-notes, this sky with its fitful brightness, these furrowed and grassy fields, each with a sort of personality given to it by the capricious hedgerows – such things as these are the mother tongue of our imagination, the language that is laden with all the subtle inextricable associations of the fleeting hours of our childhood left behind them. Our delight in the sunshine on the deep bladed grass today, might be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls, if it were not for the sunshine and the grass in the far-off years, which still live in us and transform our perception into love.”
And I answer: No wild palm trees could supplant the deep fibers of this home and its familiarities. Only the well-remembered birds and sky of home and its grassy fields connect us through memory to distant childhood. That is what we’ve done above all else here through the communal symphonies we’ve spoken, sung, and shouted through the classrooms and the mountains. We’ve returned through time, space, and distance to our very own first stories in breathing life into our own characters and poetry on the page. And every year we go forth with a renewed understanding of ourselves to shape the ways others think and interpret their worlds. We take the final lines of Robert Frost’s “Directive” to heart: “Here are your waters and your watering place. | Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” We have drunk the waters, and we have become whole again here. Through that wholeness, to steal again from Virginia Woolf, “We are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”
Tonight and tomorrow, our music changes key as we say our goodbyes. The final paragraphs of Angela Carter’s version of the fairy tale “Peter and the Wolf,” which Michael Armstrong read to my teary-eyed Storytellers class last week, is both a dismantling and a building up, an ending and a beginning. Carter writes:
“The birds woke up and sang. The cool, rational sun surprised him; morning had broken on his exhilaration and the mountain now lay behind him. He looked over his shoulder and saw how, with distance, the mountain began to acquire a flat, two-dimensional look. It was already turning into a picture itself, into the postcard hastily bought as a souvenir of childhood at a railway station or border post, the newspaper cutting, the snapshot he would show in strange towns, strange cities, other countries he could not, at this moment, imagine, whose names he did not yet know, places where he would say, in strange languages, ‘That is where I spent my childhood. Imagine!’
“He turned and stared at the mountain for a long time. He had lived in it for fourteen years but he had never seen it before as it might look to someone who had not known it as almost a part of the self, so, for the first time, he saw the primitive, vast, magnificent, barren, unkind, simplicity of the mountain. As he said goodbye to it, he saw it turn into so much scenery, into the wonderful backcloth for an old country tale, tale of a child suckled by wolves, perhaps, or of wolves nursed by a woman.
“Then he determinedly set his face towards the town and tramped onwards, into a different story.
“ ‘If I look back again,’ he thought with a last gasp of superstitious terror, ‘I shall turn into a pillar of salt.’”
“Now to sum up,” as Woolf’s Bernard begins the ending of The Waves. He reminds us to “stop for a moment; … behold what we have made. Let it blaze against the yew trees.” Tomorrow, in our uprooting and dispersal, we set out to plant, sow, reap, and harvest the fields we need to tend. We set out into a different story. It is a daunting responsibility tinged with sadness and nostalgia, but our compensation is that the sunshine and deep-bladed grass will continue to live in us and transform our perceptions of the world not only into love, but also into hope for what is to come, because Bread Loaf isn’t summer camp.
It is freedom.
It is life.
It is the thing itself.
As co-president of his Bread Loaf class, Mark Elberfeld gave this commencement address in the summer of 2007. He lives in Atlanta.