This week, the TJ Society, a gathering of U.Va. alumni who graduated 50 or more years ago, returned to the Grounds for their reunion. My remarks to them reflect on how the University and its people – much like Mick Jagger, Madonna and other modern “amortals” – evolve and change over time, yet remain ageless in their consciousness and aspirations.
Most of you graduated in 1961, a year of great promise, with “The New Frontier,” the Peace Corps, and America at the height of its power. Within two years, John Kennedy was assassinated, the Vietnam War was underway, and the struggle for civil rights was rocking the nation.
If the ’60s in America were an era of terrible dilemmas, they would also come to be seen as an age of “amorality”; to use a tired phrase, a time of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.
You, the Class of 1961, know better. The ’60s were also a time of revolutionary thought, of boundless energy and discovery, when the culture of youth began its ascendancy and never looked back.
It was around this time that an idea crept into our consciousness, the idea that one can live agelessly.
So, it is not surprising that 50 years after you graduated, the notion of “amorality” that once branded you in your youth has been replaced with “amortality,” the aspiration to keep aspiring, in the sense of breathing, to live the same way and enjoy the same things, perhaps not at the same pace, from your late teens to the day you die.
According to Time magazine, the people of the amortal era “rarely ask themselves if their behavior is age-appropriate, because that concept has little meaning for them. They don’t structure their lives around the inevitability of death, because they prefer to ignore it. Instead, they continue to chase aspirations and covet new goods and services. Amortals assume all options are always open.”
Hugh Hefner, whose fame is indelibly linked to the early 1960s and his “Playboy philosophy,” is a classic amortal. He’s preparing to marry a woman 60 years younger and once said that Viagra was invented with him in mind. Woody Allen no longer plays the much-older man wooing the young woman in his films (he was shamed out of it by his critics), but he is married to one. Elton John becomes a first-time dad at age 62. Keith Richards writes a fascinating memoir that sums up the essence of amortality: the spirit lives on while the body caves in. Women, too, like Madonna, challenge our notions of age-appropriate behavior.
These amortals don’t just express the Zeitgeist, they embody the important truth that consciousness changes and evolves at a much different pace than the body does. Amortality characterizes an entire generation, the largest in American history, namely, the Boomers and their precursors. You see the world through 25-year-old eyes, even at 75, and imagine yourself still becoming the person you want to become. Instead of a fixed adult identity, you have instead a constant searching, and a becoming: the years slip by, but you still think of yourself as youthful. Your consciousness is forever young.
Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell had a complicated relationship. But when Ali won the heavyweight championship for the third time, Cosell quoted Bob Dylan’s song, “Forever Young.” I have always liked that piece, especially the last stanza:
May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young.
The amortality of consciousness applies also to this university of yours, whose bicentennial we will celebrate in 2019. Most of you went to the College in the late 1950s—a world I glimpse now and then through the writings of my good friend, Ken Ringle, who, by the way, has returned today for his 50th reunion. Ken is a former writer for the Washington Post, and wrote a very funny recollection of William Faulkner’s time at the University in 1958. Ken was stalking him in the hope of better understanding the Biblical allusions in Light in August, or the stained glass imagery in Go Down, Moses. While I don’t know that he got anywhere, I liked his piece so much that I posted it on my blog.
Ken wrote another piece, called “The University in the Late Fifties.” It’s a socio-cultural history, shrewd as it comes, and politically incorrect about a time that was, by today’s standards, politically incorrect. As he tells it, the students “drank bourbon over ice in the stands at football games, scotch and soda while bopping to blues bands in sweaty, smoke-filled fraternity houses, gin and juice and bloody marys on Sunday polo games … and lots of beer with meals.” It was a time when many Virginia students owned firearms and kept them in their rooms—mostly shotguns or rifles for hunting. Ken recalls seeing a deer carcass hanging by its heels from the porch of Sigma Pi. There were WWII and Korean War veterans who would pack their .45 service revolvers on road trips and shoot out the gate lights at Sweet Briar. It was a time when most of the students, whether in-state or imported, had some sort of tie to the land, and before the University saw an avalanche of students from Northern Virginia. Of course, like the TV series “Mad Men,” this still was a man’s world, with little inkling of the gender and racial diversity that would soon inhabit the Grounds.
Ken remembers classmates whose parents sent them to Virginia because, after Harvard, it was “the only other socially acceptable school.” After all, what other state university had a polo team? Ken also quoted the late CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt describing a Virginia diploma as “not only scholarly but patrician,” a distinction that had always escaped Chapel Hill where Kuralt went to school. For upwardly-mobile Irish Catholics named Kennedy (as in, Bobby and Ted) Harvard and Virginia were their preferred choices. If there is a consciousness of the University that remains forever young—from the founding of the University through the late 1950s, when so many of you went to school, down to the present day—I think it is this tension between aristocracy and populism: being a public Ivy, a state university with a polo team, a place that is at once patrician and democratic. To say that such essential tension defines who we are may seem elitist until we remember that this is exactly how Mr. Jefferson would have intended us to grow.
He believed in a naturally occurring aristocracy of talent and virtue, liberally scattered across all segments of the population—including the poor and the uneducated. It was the role of the university to “cull from every condition of our people” this natural aristocracy and provide it with opportunity in the form of education. By marrying this aristocracy of talent to democracy, he signaled that the purpose of his university lies in the exquisite refinement of human sensibility, to serve our democratic citizenry. Only a renaissance man could have defined democratic education in this way.
The University and the College should be as recognizable to you today as it was to you then. It evolves and changes, often in dramatic ways as our contemporary diversity attests, but it retains a spirit and a tradition, instantly recognizable, telling us we could be nowhere else, on no other Grounds, at no other university. It is almost two centuries old, but it has its own amortality: it stays forever young in its consciousness and in its aspiration. It was as recognizable to Mr. Jefferson as it is to you and to me.
So, to Mr. Jefferson, to you, and to today’s students at U.Va., let me raise a toast and recite the “Virginia Creed” (of unknown authorship):
“To be a Virginian, either by Birth, Marriage, Adoption, or even on one’s Mother’s Side, is an Introduction to any State in the Union, a Passport to any Foreign Country, and a Benediction from Above.”