Monday, July 28, 2008

One last time: The Final Lecture as performance art

Beth and I watched the video of Randy Pausch's strange and unsettling final lecture delivered at Carnegie Mellon Institute last year. Pausch who was 43 at the time, had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had been given only a few short months to live. By all accounts he was an immensely popular and influential teacher whose personal energy seemed boundless and forever upbeat. Pausch died this week. This news of his death was what prompted us to finally watch his lecture (a little over an hour in length) on YouTube. Carnegie Mellon sponsored a lecture series titled the "Final Lecture". The idea was for professors to deliver a talk on the topic(s) most dear and most important to them, as if it were indeed their final lecture. Before Pausch was invited to speak the series was retitled "Journeys". With characteristic humor Pausch quipped, "I finally nailed the venue, and they went and changed the name!"

I want to write about the experience of watching the video because as I said at the outset I found it to be strange and unsettling. I feel a tiny bit of trepidation in view of how enormously popular this lecture, and the subsequent book it inspired, has become. It isn't my intention to speak ill of the dead; rather, I want to interrogate my own experience, an experience that was played quite self consciously I would argue by Pausch.
To begin, it is painfully obvious from the very beginning that what we are witnessing is in no small part, a grand gesture by a dying man. Pausch himself starts off by referring to the white elephant, cancer, and he pretends to unveil this beast by displaying a powerpoint slide showing tumors (ten of them) in his inner organs. He proceeds rapidly and matter-of-factly to disclose the doctor's bleak diagnosis - three to six months of good health. He then assures his audience that he is in fine health (dropping to the floor for some pushups to illustrate the point), that he feels no self pity, that he seeks no pity and that he has no time for anything but to extract the full measure of fun available to him in his final days. Briefly he speaks of being dealt cards, cards not of his choosing. The only choice we have, he says in so many words, is to play them or to fold.

Indeed, as I watched Pausch, I was struck by nothing so much as his fierce attachment to this pose, this brand of gamesmanship, this determination to play out the string. If life could be thought of as a gymnasium, you might think of Pausch as the ultimate gym rat, always game, always in there and at home.

It wasn't so much what he said; in fact, I found my mind wandering occasionally during his lecture which, not withstanding his Jim Careyesque smile and his endearing habit of self deprecation, was in so many ways a run of the mill powerpoint presentation, rambling, diffuse, anchored to bulleted slides and amateurish photos. His words seldom brought me up short, they seldom pulled me down into deeper waters, or triggered any soul searching; to the contrary, they burbled along garrulously, conventionally and in good humor. As long as I glanced at the bulleted items on the screen I was never in any danger of losing track of the main themes which were conveniently and repeatedly reiterated in large font. As far as his words went, there was almost less there than met the ear. I might boil them down thusly: dream, encourage others to dream, help one another, listen to feedback, don't give up, be playful and have fun... all of it unarguably useful advice but useful in the same way that items on the shelves of WalMart can be unarguably useful and yet inert and seemingly surplus.

It's not that Pausch wasn't earnest or authentic (however frequently he might have wavered between extolling the virtues of selflessness and assiduously engaging in self promotion); it's simply that his lecture was unremarkable as a lecture, the animating thrust of which seemed to be that he is a clever, brilliant, and compassionate man who has been blessed with great friends and colleagues and remarkable opportunities. Anecdote after anecdote was enlisted to illustrate these points. Individually they were curious, sometimes funny, and even revelatory. Serially, his anecdotes did not quite cohere as they did sort of fly about in the same air space; they didn't lend weight or gravity to his message as much as they festooned it. I would argue that this might well be a result of him having been given cruelly short notice to speak on an inherently unwieldy topic, namely how to sum up and make sense of his life experience. What he came up with was not a lecture in the final analysis; it was a performance piece.

At the root of this remarkableness lay a brute fact - we were watching a dying man deliver his dying words. This circumstance is so fleeting, so terrible and so compelling that few among us can witness it without being moved in some way. Pausch gives a performance that is almost novelesque. He is surrounded by friends and admirers, colleagues and students, and family, most visibly and poignantly his wife. Pausch may not be literally in his deathbed, but figuratively speaking he might as well be. Everyone is gathered to hear his parting words. Pausch responds by commanding the room; indeed, he seems viscerally to entertain the notion of not dying, to play on, almost like a character breaking loose from the novelist's grip. But only almost. We, all of us, know how the story must end, and so, even as we watch his miraculous embodiment of Life itself, we struggle to reconcile the dissonance in the room and in our own hearts. We watch Pausch plowing onward like a thoroughbred that cannot bring himself to break his gait even as he begins to break down. It is a riveting spectacle.

Spectacles (at least man made ones) are usually massive contrivances. Pausch's discipline, virtual reality, is of course dedicated in no small way to the spectacular. I was struck by persistently the name Disney popped up in his remarks and by how the landscape of popular virutual entertainment seemed like hallowed ground to him. in a carefully framed moment, Pausch recounts how he used his credentials as a someone invited to brief the Pentagon on virtual reality developments as a means to secure an interview with a legendary project leader at Disney. Pausch is both clever and glib here, but also, it seems, either naive or disingenuous. What he wants to talk about is his childhood dream of being an imagineer with Disney, but why not at least open the window a tiny bit and allow us to glimpse that other realm that like Disney trades in the talents and imaginations of people like Pausch? I'm not suggesting something sinister at work here, only that Pausch's focus seems almost adolescent to me, as if he is suppressing the adult inside him.

In the end Pausch claims to have "head faked" his audience by pretending to be talking to us when in fact he's been talking to his children. It is a swift sleight of hand moment that brings the lecture to an abrupt end. Here the Victorian deathbed scene is finally made complete with the inclusion of the children, discreetly kept in the rear of the scene but present nonetheless. His concluding claim (the head fake), if true, is thoroughly understandable. Perhaps the lecture is a final grand gesture towards his children, an artifact to stand the test of time that will both represent him and speak to them as they grow up without a father.

It's understandable- I can't imagine myself not wanting to make a gesture of some sort myself, but I don't quite believe the head fake bit. In the beginning he warns his audience that one topic he will not talk about will be his wife and children, for fear of becoming too tearful. Yet he does talk about both, bringing a birthday cake out in a surprise for wife, a surprise that not surprisingly reduces her to tears. Interestingly the cake is meant to illustrate for us how sincere Pausch is about not focusing on himself but on focusing on others. It does nothing of the sort of course, which is not to say that it isn't a touching gesture nonethess, just that perhaps Pausch is being disingenuous here. But he is doing so in the honorable fashion of stage performers. We are his audience.

It's not that he's lying. The best stage performances trade on truth. It seems likely that Pausch would, if he could, make a gift to his kids of everything he's done, everything he is, in order that they would never have to feel as though they no longer had a dad. The film "Life Without Me" offers a glimpse of how such a desire might be realized, and how tenuous and fragile such a project must needs be.

Ultimately I find the head fake bit and the lecture-as-gesture to his kids to be more convincing as the final twist of his performance piece. It gives the audience the release it has been waiting for. We are all relieved in a way at the end to be absolved from having had to pay too close attention, for having daydreamed a little, for perhaps even making critical mental notes because it really wasn't for us after all. The standing ovation that follows this moment helps alleviate any need we might feel to interrogate a bit more closely the way in which we have just been diverted for a little over an hour.

I am surprised by something at the end. What I feel is a glint of recognition. I've seen his type before; I've even aspired to be this type, perhaps I still do. He is the teacher/performer. His venue is the lecture hall or the classroom or the lab or the field trip. He is adept, articulate, engaging, well schooled, incredibly equipped to improvise, and he is consumed by enthusiasm for what he does. It is barely an exaggeration to say that teaching/performing is his life.

Pausch unapologetically labels himself a salesman. Academia, more specifically, his discipline of virtual reality, has provide him with a perfect environment in which to practice and nourish his art and to connect with an audience hungry for his art. Saying goodbye to all that is on some level terribly hard to contemplate. It's easy for me imagine that Pausch gave his final lecture for one simple reason - it's what he loves to do and he couldn't say no to doing it one last time. Watching Pausch at the end, during the ovation is most poignant for me. He seems unsure where to stand, what to do next, as if he hadn't thought of this part. He tries sitting with his wife, then takes her by the hand, gets her up and improvises a bow while everyone stands and applauds warmly. People are weeping. That's when it hits me. It really is over now.


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