Text of my speech on Resolved: I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness at the annual Yale Political Union Party Prize Debate last night. I spoke in the negative. I with my teammate Alex Fisher took 2nd Place (again, blech).- - - - -
I cannot say, ladies and gentlemen, that I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, for to say that something is destroyable is to suggest that it was created, that it lived. With sadness I admit that I can say no such thing about my generation. What I have seen, Mr Speaker, is a generation of still births, of children born into a desanguinated world to leech away her last drops of blood and beauty, to make perpetual her torpid afternoon of the soul.
I pity my generation because it seems we were never given a chance. Like an unholy Hegelian synthesis of the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers, we are both practical minded and narcissistic, risk averse and self-indulgent, mature enough to spurn the recklessness of Woodstock and the Beats but frivolous enough to maintain a cultured bourgeois adolescence until our 40s.
Unlike some others tonight, I do not define madness as “that which I like” (or dislike, as the case may be), and so while the defining traits of my generation bewilder and sadden me I cannot name them lunacy.
Man is by nature a petty and fearful creature, for in the recesses of his mind and depths of his soul he knows, in the way the moth knows light to be beautiful and the vine knows to grow toward the sun, that he is insufficient, he is incomplete. His carnal fear perverts this knowledge into a veneration of, and sacred duty to protect, that which is immediately perceivable, attained, and obviously his. We have made an idol of our fear, but no longer do we name it God: now we bend before the altars of comfort, security, health, and success, and tell ourselves in the wordless dialogue of our souls that we are responsible to something nobler than our own inescapable mortal terror.
It is the mad ones who have the wholly unjustified courage to give themselves over fully to the arbitrariness of life, who know that, as Don Colacho says, “everything in the world rests on its own final ‘just because.’” The mad ones know their fear is just, and give themselves over in faith to whatever may be. Zorba the Greek says that he lives as though he should die any minute, in contrast to the old man he meets planting an almond tree, who lives as though he should never die. The mad ones reject modernity as described by Colacho, that collection of things which “seem to allow us to escape the human condition.”
It is common to associate madness and extremism, and not unreasonably so, but it is not against mediocrity or smallness of ambition that I speak. I concur heartily with Chesterton when he says that “mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, is extraordinary enough to be exciting.” On the contrary, it is the pietistic devotion to certainty and the self-drawn maps of our lives that sterilizes and blinds us to the beautiful absurdity of the world, which, as Chekhov and Kafka have shown us, can be found even from a census bureau or insurance office.
I will not lie and tell you that the prism of madness, of looking upon all things in wonder and with sacred awe, of spurning the well-considered boundaries and protections that have grown up through centuries of civilization, comes without a price. Madness is that which unites Eros and Thanatos in communion with the beautiful, the good, and the true. In Eastern Christendom this is known as kenosis, the paradoxical idea that we can only be filled once we have emptied ourselves, just as Christ, in death, fulfilled His nature, and conquered death thereby. It is the madness of martyrs, the call from heaven not all of us have yet been given the grace to hear; yes, ladies and gentlemen, it is indeed a call to destruction. But none that I will dare call best ignore its sonorous ring.
Who will be the martyrs of our generation, ladies and gentlemen? Has our culture given us the courage to say, “I know that there is more within me than breath”? Standing as I am on the precipice of adulthood I do not know, and so, foolishly, madly, I hope.