Commencement 2003

By Corinne Militello '98

Vassar's 139th Commencement was marked by a much-welcomed break in the clouds and an opportunity for graduating seniors, their families and friends, and the campus community to hear from one of America's best-known and most influential writers, Susan Sontag.

“This is a wonderful occasion, an occasion of joy,” Sontag began her address. “Graduation from college has to be one of life's major turning points. There will be other turning points, but this one has to feel awesome. Something large and complicated has at last been accomplished, finished. Something even larger and more complicated awaits — on the other side of a great door that officially opens today.”

Sontag is the author, most recently, of Regarding the Pain of Others, widely considered to be, in part, a re-examination of an earlier work for which she received much acclaim, On Photography. Her other books include In America, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2000; I etcetera, a collection of short stories; a play, Alice in Bed; and many other works of fiction and nonfiction.

In her speech, Sontag offered these words of advice, among others:

“Read a lot. Expect something big, something exalting or deepening from a book. No book is worth reading that isn't worth re-reading.”

“Try not to live in a linguistic slum.”

“Try to imagine the concrete, lived reality that words point to. Words like, for example, 'war.'”

“Despise violence. Despise national vanity and self-love.”

“Protect the territory of conscience.”

“Try to imagine at least once a day that you are not an American. Go even further: try to imagine at least once a day that you belong to the vast, the overwhelming majority of people on this planet who don't have passports, don't live in dwellings equipped with both refrigerators and telephones, who have never even once flown in a plane.”

“Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration's shove or society's kiss on your forehead.”

“Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”

“You'll notice that I haven't talked about love. Or about happiness. I've talked about becoming—or remaining—the person who can be happy, a lot of the time, without thinking that being happy is what it's all about. It's not. It's about becoming the largest, most inclusive, most responsive person you can be.”