Commencement Speech: "Maine's Absent Presence"
Story posted May 26, 2001
"Maine's Absent Presence"
Nathaniel Chase Vinton
Speaker Saxl, Honorands, Mr. Kurtz, President Edwards, Distinguished Guests, Members of the Bowdoin Community, and Friends. Today the "proud company" of our Alma Mater gets even prouder.
Four years ago I was drawn here at least in part because I was star-struck by Bowdoin's alumni rolls—by names like Joshua Chamberlain and Joan Benoit. Their accomplishments are so varied, and so extraordinary. But today I think many of my classmates will agree that the idea of joining our names with these is rather daunting.
Artists are familiar with a concept that I think might help our class to understand the tradition of which we are about to become a small part. There is an artistic principle known as an absent presence. Easy enough to understand intuitively, this is the theory that all works of art make implicit references. The absent presence is the idea that hides just beyond the margins of the canvas, of the tale, or of the symphony. The absent presence is invisible, but it is nonetheless the very thing which organizes a chaos of words and images into something meaningful—into a story or a painting. For example, we might say that the absent presence of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is the American slave trade, or that the absent presence of the TV series Star Trek is the Cold War. We might even say that the absent presence of the crashing and searing rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" that Jimi Hendrix played at Woodstock, was napalm.
A work of art can have an absent presence, but so can a life. Listen to our parents as they talk to one another today. If they went to college, then you might hear them talking about what graduation meant to them thirty years ago. What did you do after graduation, they ask each other, delicately. Listen closely, and you can always feel the presence of something big hovering above and around those conversations. It is the silent fact of the Vietnam draft.
Yet I fear that I’ve misled you with these examples. I've suggested, accidentally, that the absent presence of everything artful needs to be something horrific. If this were true, then we'd need to discount the art of love poetry entirely. We'd need to discount Ferris Bueller's Day Off, because there is an absent presence operating indirectly on Ferris's life; his need to cut class and live for the moment is explained by his impending graduation. And graduation isn't all that bad. Is it?
For me, the best evidence that the absent presence of something beautiful needs not be something awful is the fact that for two hundred years, graduates of this college have led lives that were courageous and meaningful. The intangible thing that has driven and guided the accomplishments of people like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Geoffrey Canada, and Ellen Baxter is something altogether grand and humane. Certainly these people have benefited from all the learning, all the tradition, all the concentrated talent that Bowdoin has to offer. But while one could make a case for any of these influences, I would propose that there is something else that leaves an impression on every member of this community. I want to say that there is something in the very air in Maine—a Maine sensibility—that functions as an absent presence in the lives of Bowdoin graduates. There is something unassuming but extraordinary about this state, and it has indirectly shaped all of the people receiving degrees today.
This last fall I spent a good deal of time exploring the marshes of Merrymeeting Bay with one of our professors. There, when the tide rises, salt water starts pushing its way back up the streams that feed the bay. So if your timing is just right, you can float up any one of these streams and into the woods without even paddling. You ultimately arrive at the remote ponds which migrating ducks retreat to in foul weather. One morning, we were riding one of these streams back down into the bay, when my professor pointed out something that I had not noticed on the way up. Here was a dead tree that had fallen across the stream; on the way up, we had had to crouch down in the canoe in order to squeeze through a gap in the branches. But what I hadn't noticed until my professor pointed it out to me was that the gap in the branches was only there because someone had very neatly and very discreetly taken a saw to one of the tree's limbs, cutting it off right near the trunk. This had produced a space just exactly wide enough for an ordinary canoe to float through the deadfall. This meant that there had been no sound of wood scraping against the sides of the boat. In short, the person with the saw had saved us from scaring away the birds that we were looking for.
Absent presences. Heading back to campus later on, we drove along a very remote dirt road that circled around that part of the bay. This was the muddiest road I'd ever seen, and my professor was forced to drive slowly. Here were mobile homes, their yards packed with gutted trucks and rusted out washing machines. And now it was my turn to point something out. In one of the yards was a camouflaged canoe lying beside a working pickup truck. In the back window of that truck was a gun rack. And sitting neatly in the gun rack was a small handsaw.
I tell this story about the handsaw because I think it is emblematic of a certain sensibility that is native to Maine—a resourceful and inconspicuous practicality. I believe that this sensibility has been here since the conception of this institution and has always expressed itself in the actions of the people who have spent time here. Perhaps you already suspected this. Perhaps you—my classmates—already feel this sensibility working upon you, working within you, indirectly. But if you should happen to be skeptical—as all good Bowdoin graduates should be—then I would put before you the example of George Mitchell's role in establishing, in 1998, the Northern Ireland Peace Accords. Can anyone deny an inconspicuous practicality at work there? Or consider the resourcefulness that so dignifies Geoffrey Canada's creativity in the face of urban despair. We're talking here about people who are not afraid to tinker with their worlds, to take actions that make their community a better place for everyone to live. I'm quite sure that thousands of Bowdoin graduates are out there right now, doing equally great things and often without any expectation of recognition. They are writing plays, saving forests, and curing cancer. They are the absent presences, thanklessly organizing the chaos of this world into something beautiful and meaningful.
All the women in my family come from Maine. They would never allow me to forget that some of the people living in those remote trailers alongside Maine's coastal marshes are my distant relatives. I grew up far from here, but Maine was always an absent presence for me. I was raised to believe that most of humanity's noblest achievements found their origin in the mud and the atmosphere of this place. My grandmother in particular will make the case that the prominence of Bowdoin's name in history has everything to do with the location of Bowdoin's campus in the State of Maine. My grandmother told me, four years ago, that this was a sensible place that produced sensible people. She reminded me that the school colors were black and white.
The world outside of Bowdoin is rarely black and white; the world outside of Maine is not always sensible. It is a world full of dead trees falling across streams. But it is also full of a surprising number of people who have left these same steps armed with all kinds of tools, and who are now trimming away, unobtrusively—making passage easier for people they might not even know. And today you join them in that endeavor, and it is a noble endeavor, and you are sensible people. Good luck.
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