Out, Out Brief Candles
When he gave the only good Convocation Speech I’ve ever listened to, William Hutt told the Spring 2006 graduates of Queen’s University:
“Until I was about 20, my life had no centre; it had no touchstone against which to evaluate experience. I was riding the waves, going where the wind blew me and the tide took me; I was a tourist in my own life. It was not until I left home and spent two years in uniform serving – and hating – the army that a couple of things began to penetrate the mud of battlefield surrounding me and the fog of denial and hostility shrouding me. First was the realization that the war was not going to end any time soon and consequently I had better find a way to tolerate army life (perhaps to even learn from it), or else if the enemy did not kill me, boredom and lack of involvement certainly would. I then began to recognize the need to put verbs into my life – to search, to find, to explore rather than wallow in apathy, torpor and hostile indifference. At war’s end, as I waited months to board a ship bound for home, I realized that the top priority for my immediate future was to search for, make contact with, and inhabit my own life.”
It was in the context of just this search that William Hutt noted the American writer Norman Mailer’s sad observation that “there is a law of life – so cruel and so just – that one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same.” Both William Hutt and Norman Mailer were men who refused to remain the same, who wanted to grow. To flourish. To turn their lives into quests. For Hutt, “it was a quest for answers, for peace that comes with understanding, for intellectual adventures and broader horizons, for the ability to change and the talent to use one experience as the springboard onto the next.” He says – with all the bravado and theatricality that made his performances of Shakespeare so glorious and accessible – that “more than anything, I wanted to gravitate towards those areas of life where thought had energy.”
For Mailer, his reticence to ‘remain the same’ took a more frenzied, harried form, evocative of Jack Kerouac’s immortal run-on-sentences in On the Road: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to talk, mad to live, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”
His ‘mad desire’ brought him six wives. Nine children. The oft-theatrical spectacles which preceded (and precipitated) his divorces, such as when he prematurely ended a dinner party by stabbing his second wife with a penknife. His furious avant-garde films, such as Maidstone, whose climactic brawl between him and a fellow actor, to quote the wry observation of one Wikipedia editor, ‘may or may not have been planned.’ And today it’s brought him a raft of obituaries peppered with epithets like ‘pugnacious’ and ‘pugilistic’. He grew – but certainly in a different sense than the one Hutt means when he says that he “searched for escape in the parklands of the mind and for inspiration and guidance in the meditations of great thinkers.”
Norman Mailer died last night. William Hutt died last summer. There were similarities between them: they were both paragons of the arts establishment: Mailer’s debut novel is listed by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels in English language, to say nothing of his repeated Pulitzer Prizes. Hutt was widely considered to be the world’s greatest Shakespearean actor and was inducted into the Order of Canada on account of it. They were both outsiders, as a Jew and a homosexual, respectively. They both subscribed to a philosophy of life which mandated personal growth, even if they manifested it in markedly different ways. Hutt was oft known to say “I entertain a certain reluctance to speak – unless I feel it improves on silence.” These are two people who have both, in their own ways, improved on silence. And for that I am thankful.
William Hutt’s Convocation Address is available on the iTunes Music Store (Free; 17 minutes)