Commencement Talk


"The Right Rite - Dr. Michael Sexson"

President Cruzado, Distinguished guests, faculty and staff, friends and families of the graduating class of 2012, I am privileged to accept on behalf of Robert Pirsig the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from Montana State University.

To quote the nominating letter sent to the board of regents, "It is rare to have a Montana honoree whose writings speak so eloquently to what may be the most pressing issue of the present time: the recognition of quality in all our lives."

While I was walking over here on this splendid frosty morning, I was thinking about where, in English literature, I could find the best discussion of the term "quality" that itself possesses the highest quality writing. In a flash it came to me: the last few pages of Walter Pater's book "The Renaissance." Pater was a 19th century British poet, aesthete, novelist, and educator. Coincidentally, he was the teacher of the great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who gave this institution its motto, "Mountains and Minds." A sonnet Hopkins wrote in a time of deep grief, "No Worst, There is None," contains the lines, "O the mind, the mind has mountains, cliffs of fall, frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed." In his slim volume on Renaissance philosophy and art, Pater mused, as poets are known to do, on the brevity of life. "We have an interval," he says, "and then our place knows us no more." Most people, he laments, spend this interval, this "short day of frost and sun," in listlessness. Others, he said, concern themselves with how to give the brief moments they have the highest possible quality as those moments pass. The latter he calls "the children of the world."

In the video we just saw, Robert Pirsig refers to what he calls the "seed crystal" moment in his life, when a colleague watering her plants asks him as he sits in his office at Montana Hall if he is teaching quality to his students. On the mythic level, this is his "call to adventure, which often begins inauspiciously, say, with the loss of a golden ball down a well where lives an charming frog, or a cryptic remark from a woman watering plants. A simple thing that puts into motion an unstoppable story. Once the call to adventure has been heard, it cannot be unheard. Some great change is in store. Something important has commenced.

Pirsig himself doesn't use such language to talk about this summons. Instead, he uses the language of science, of chemistry. In a supersaturated solution, he writes, "when you dissolve material at a high temperature and then cool the solution, the material sometimes doesn't crystallize because the molecules don't know how. They require something to get them started, a "seed crystal, a grain of dust or even a tap on the glass."

In a few minutes, President Cruzado will provide for the class of 2012, the "seed crystal moment." She will say and do things that will get the molecules moving completing the miracle of metamorphosis. In fairy tale and myth, this is when the wooden doll becomes a real boy, the girl a princess, and the frog a prince.

Now, President Cruzado will not be turning frogs into princes on this stage (although I wouldn't put it past her to do such things in her spare time). But she will be performing perhaps lesser acts of magic--- turning everyday students and writers into masters, into doctors, and, most impressive, supersaturated students into real graduates ready to step over the threshold and begin the perilous adventure.

But she can't do this by herself. She needs your help. You need to set aside for these few moments your skepticism about rites and rituals. I'm not asking for your belief, that you put your hands together and speak the words "I believe" so that Tinker Bell might arise from her death trance. I'm asking only that you suspend your disbelief so as to imagine that this ceremony actually, with its words, sights, and deeds, brings into our presence the very goddess whose name appears in the word "ceremony," "Ceres," Roman goddess of grain, of your morning "cereal" who, as the Greek goddess Demeter, established the mysteries at Eleusis, where initiates were led into a large chamber not unlike the one we are in now, and things were said, things were seen, and things were done that utterly changed their lives. When their friends on the outside of the temple saw their shining faces, they asked what had happened in there. But these ancient graduates refused to discuss specifics, simply putting their fingers to their lips to suggest silence and whispering: "it was good."

If Robert Pirsig were here today, he probably would not advise the class of 2012 to conquer worlds, acquire possessions, achieve status. That's not what these books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila, are about. He would probably say what the woman watering her plants said to him, "Are you pursuing quality," only he might phrase it this way: "Do the Right Thing." And he would add with a twinkle---- "You can spell that word either way----- r i g h t, or r i t e. We need to get the ceremony or the ritual correct. We need to get the rite right, right? in order for it to do its work of creating what is memorable and what is best. And now we are in the shadow of quality---to the Greeks "arete"----what is excellent, a ritual well performed or, most simply, what is well done. The essay you wrote Alexandra. The music you played Ashley. The problem you solved Logan. The people you helped Joseph. What better words to hear from our teachers: "Well done." Secondly he would say: Do not think about what is new but what is best. Next he would not say "Be Good," but "Take care of your goodness." And he would add lastly, "and for goodness sake, never, never, never forget."

Most of our lives fall into the oblivion of forgetfulness. At best we have vague memories of the great bulk of our experiences. But some things we remember because they were occasions in which what was seen, said and done were performed in a state of heightened consciousness. It is the purpose of ritual and ceremony ----all the spectacle and inflated rhetoric, the pomp and circumstance----to be memorable. All the rest might pass away but these moments of the perfect concert of words, sights, and deeds, will not pass away. Twenty, thirty years later, if the right/rite thing is done here and now, you --the class of 2012---will remember-----you will be able to recreate these happenings out of the great well of memory--the moments in which you were, in the twinkling of an eye--changed -and you will say, referencing Shakespeare's Henry V: "I was there and it was good." Can you put aside your skepticism for a moment and imagine this?

We began with the story of the woman watering her plants who asks Mr. Pirsig a question that changes his life. We end with an even more inauspicious incident that profoundly changes his mind. Both incidents have the same setting: the state of Montana where the air is thinner and the cliffs sheer and frightful The first takes place at Montana Hall in the center of campus, which, in myth is the axis mundi, the center of the world. The second takes place in Lame Deer, Montana where Pirsig, as he writes in the last pages of his second book LILA, tells of walking down a dirt road with a couple of friends, including a Cheyenne tribal elder by the name of John Woodenlegs (whose name gives me pleasure to speak for by speaking correctly, performing the right rite, I conjure him up, though dead to this world, and remember that this great magician came to this campus in 1979 and parted a cloud so that everyone at the Museum of the Rockies could witness a total solar eclipse--a true story--Life magazine said so. John Woodenlegs, it's good you could visit us here today). The walkers, having nothing to do, begin to follow a mangy dog down the dirt road, letting him decide their path. One member of the group asks Woodenlegs an innocuous question, just to make conversation.

"John, what kind of dog is that?" Woodenlegs stops and reflects a moment and pauses and reflects again then says, "That's a good dog." In the simple statement of a Montana Native who refuses to see the dog as a specific breed, but rather a manifestation of value, Pirsig experiences an epiphany, a recognition parallel in power to the seed crystal moment at the center of the world and he realizes that he has at last found the best instance of what he was looking for in 800 pages containing the journey of a lifetime-----the presence of Quality.

Graduates of Montana State University, here is your charge. Do the Right /Rite Thing. Think not of what's new but what's best. Take care of your goodness. And never never never forget. When asked thirty years from now where you went to school, would you please say, why at the center of world, at Montana State University in Bozeman, and when asked what kind of education you got, pause, and say, 'It was a good education."

And finally, to Robert Pirsig: I hope I got right (in both spellings of that word) what you might have said had you been able to be here. Mr. Pirsig (who has now become through the great power of the mysteries Dr. Pirsig)--Dear Robert: Take care of your goodness. And thank you for what you've given to so many millions around the world, and for what you've given to these special ones, this band of brothers and sisters gathered here on this day we shall forever remember, December 15, 2012, this short day of frost and sun, to celebrate an end which is also a beginning, in this temenos, this sacred precinct, this hallowed place at the center of the world where mountains and minds meet.

I am deeply grateful to have this opportunity to speak on your behalf. Thank you.