Mr. Chancellor, I am proud and happy to be here, and touched by the honour you have given me, even though I feel like scratching my head in bewilderment when I wonder why you have done this for me. These days a man who is both a novelist and a university teacher feels like a grouse in the shooting season. So it is very pleasant to stand here, sanctified as it were by these robes, like a malefactor in ancient times who has escaped into a temple with his pursuers at his heels and for a few moments can at least hang on to the alter. It is above all delightful to one who was born and raised within a few minutes' walk of the Atlantic to find himself on a beautiful campus like this, on a coast that seems exotic when compared to the gray granite and frigid waters of Nova Scotia.
I am here also as a representative of McGill, and as you know, .in its early days UBC, had a very close association with that strange and wonderful institution on the side of Mount Royal. In two days' time my former Dean and old friend, Kenneth Hare, will be installed as your new President. Although he is a veteran of the last Great War, I doubt if he has ever entered into a position of such exposure as he is now about to accept. If a Congregation speaker may be allowed to make a special request of the University which has honoured him, I would like to propose, in view of the atmosphere now prevailing on most campuses, including my own, that a new kind of benevolent society be established at UBC, and that it be called The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to College Presidents, and that its motto should be, "Don't shoot the piano player - he's doing the best he can". Those who matter here today are you who have graduated, the parents who have sacrificed for you and the teachers who have worked for you. May join these latter in congratulating all of you who have graduated, and wishing you good luck? This you will certainly need, all of it you can get, not because you are entering an unbelievable world - for the world has always been more or less unbelievable to those who have studied it - but because never in history have so many people at the same time realized what a fantastic creature a human being is, and this has made everyone nervous. There is a famous chorus in Sophocles' Antigone which begins, "Wonders are many, and none more wonderful than man". The poet goes on to speak of man's many skills, of how he learned the power of speech and of thought and of all the moods that mould a state, and how "he has resource -for all, and without resource he meets nothing that must come ... how cunning beyond fancy’s dream is the fertile skill which brings him now to good, now to evil."
But there is one thing about human beings that Sophocles does not mention here, and that is their genius for discontent. This is what separates us from the beasts. Discontent is responsible for humanity's incredible evolution. But Sophocles, an Athenian who accepted profoundly the classic motto médan aqan which roughly means "not too much of anything", would surely say, were he alive at a time when western man has acquired nearly everything in the material way the reformers have been striving for this past Century and a half, that "the articulate spokesmen of our culture have broken all records for discontent, and have again upset the balance of human nature with their strident insistence that man is now a good deal worse than he actually is.
I shall speak now as a novelist who works with students, who literally swims in hundreds of undergraduates. I share with them the discontents they feel with the current society, but remembering two wars and the depression, I cannot really share their pessimism, though often I can be pessimistic enough. The best of them, there is no question at all about this, have more maturity, originality and dedication than many I remember in my time, even at oxford, though I can't say they have an actual discipline. what is brewing among them is not the froth on the surface, nor can they be judged by their extremely competent and highly trained agitators. There is something deep and mysterious here, something pretty simple, I think, which is the yeast in the ferment. What they are rejecting is a concept of life I had never hoped to live long enough to see rejected, but which I myself have always rejected.
This concept was perfectly expressed by that cantankerous American thinker, Albert J. Nock, some twenty-five years ago in his MEMOIRS OF A SUPERFLUOUS MAN. Nock lumped together the meaning of Russian and Western civilization in a single word which he called "economism" and this he defined specifically as "an ethic which reduces all the values of life to the production, distribution and consumption of material goods, and the moving of large objects from place to place at ever-increasing speeds". Of such a society he wrote,
"Economism can build a society which is rich, prosperous, powerful, even one which has a reasonably wide diffusion of material well-being. It cannot build one. which is lovely, one which has savour and depth, and which exercises the irresistible power of attraction that loveliness wields. Perhaps by the time economism has run its course, the society it has built may be tired of itself, bored by its own hideousness, and may despairingly consent to its own annihilation, aware that it is too ugly to be let live any longer."
Now this indictment was not made yesterday but a generation ago, and it was made by a very old man who had witnessed the two great wars and the building of barrack cities all over England and the United States. Now these barrack cities, combined with war and the unnecessarily gross values of a crude materialism, happen to be the very things against which the young generation everywhere is in specific revolt. And to me this seems a good thing, a healthy thing, a saving thing — providing that the concerted attack on that ill-defined abstraction called the Establishment is not a drop-out in disguise, as these days it so often is. "Man goes incompetently about curing his ills", wrote Montaigne in an age as spiritually confused as our own. "He is so impatient of whatever happens, to be galling him at any particular moment that he seeks only to get rid of this, reckless of the cost. Good does not necessarily ensue upon the removal of a particular evil. Another evil may ensue upon it, and a worse one."
As the generation now; emerging from universities, now studying in universities in numbers previously undreamed of, is the one which will save the world or even may preside over its destruction, I would say that its only chance of saving it is to admit a truer and better picture of itself and of man's potential than many of its spokesman now profess. Psychiatrists and child-trainers have been asserting for years that the cure for nearly everything is love, but the old puritan ethic, or perhaps man's genius for discontent is still a barrier to love, for the puritans condemned any aspect of self-love. In so doing they opened the gates unnecessarily wide to an unnecessary degree of self-contempt, which inevitably was projected into aggression and hatred against others. John Donne, for all his fascination with sin and fear of damnation, knew better than this when he said, "Do ye first but love yourselves", meaning that otherwise we cannot love our fellows. For surely it is only through a self-love, and a true self-respect, that any man can release himself into others, can forget himself, can escape from one of the most hellish of prisons - the self-regarding, self-obsessed, dissatisfied self.
In recent years my own profession has been a horrible example of this vice. While fiction, like any other art, is often a true reflection of the times, it can also be a slavish follower of fashions, and if the novel is in trouble today, I think it clear that it is in trouble for much the same reason as that which causes many individuals to be certified and committed to asylums. It has followed to a dead end this fashion of being totally self-centred. It has confused the search for truth with sheer exhibitionism. It has reduced love to various repetitive exercises in mechanical engineering. With the acclaim of critics who should know better, it has abandoned, or turned over to non-fiction writers, its traditional role of occupying itself with human beings of personal value and with affairs of large and general importance. Assuming that the one thing anyone truly knows is himself, a statement with which no psychiatrist would ever agree, novel after novel leads the reader along the weary path of a joyless neurotic in his career from one girl to another, one guilt to another and so on and so on. Only a week ago I was told that it is right and proper to praise this kind of literature because to do otherwise would be to go against the tide of history, The man who said this to me was a child in the late 1930's when some people were arguing that one should accept Hitler, and one's own extinction, because Hitler was on the wave of the future. Well, Winston Churchill and some three hundred million other people thought otherwise, and Hitler's wave of the future came to a bad end a few years later.
It seems to me that this current attitude of negative self-abasement is not much more than a fashion, but this does not mean that it cannot be lethal. It reminds me of that disastrous period at the end of the Roman Empire when it became the fashion to execute Socrates, to banish the sunshine of the classic Greeks, to wear hair shirts and cry mea maxima culpa. This is to yield to the Death-Wish and to put Eros into prison, to lock the door on him and throw away the key. If more people had been able to laugh in the fourth century AD, there might have been no Dark Ages.
I began by saying that man is a fantastic creature and in no way is he more so than in his capacity to persuade himself of anything. To know yourself, for example, does not mean invariably to know how bad you are. Equally, it can mean to know how good you are, which often is better than you think. To be confused for a time does not mean that we are doomed to be confused forever. Canada, for instance, is far less confused right now than she was three or four years ago. While on the one hand we live in a period self-conscious in the Freudian sense, we live also in one where it is possible to recognize an objective pattern within history itself. We live in a tragic time, certainly. So did Shakespeare. But there is not a single Shakespearean tragedy which does not end upon a note of renewal. Megalomania, egotism, and blind wickedness run their courses in Shakespeare, but a Fortinbras, a Montano, a MacDuff, or an Edgar - previously almost bit-players - enter at the end to restore sanity and recover the state.
It has nearly always been like this with men, because it is the simple truth that however mixed man's nature is, more people wish to do good than evil. The generation now at college or leaving it - of this there is no doubt - passionately desires the truth. But my own association with students in recent years makes me think that far too many of them assume that a thing cannot be true unless it is bad.
What matters, surely is our attitude toward the truth, whether we search for it positively or negatively. The university, which grew over the centuries from the Grove of Akademos and the Stoa Poikele, has in this regard a prime duty. It must be the guardian of The Word which St. John said was in the beginning and was with God.
Those who handle The Word were called in Europe "clerks", and they have a responsibility in the use of it. For while The Word may be used for all kinds of purposes, and today is being used for more than any before, the function of the honest clerk is not to use it for propaganda, to persuade others to do what he himself wants for his own sake, least of all is it to use The Word to debase humanity and give to the young the notion that life is a dirty joke. La traihison des Clercs is a form of treason beside which the treason of Benedict Arnold was relatively innocent. All of us here, more or less, are clerks, and surely we can use The Word, and use it truthfully, to preserve the self-respect which is the foundation of men and cities, and without which no man or city can be happy or even survive.