Full disclosure: I am not exactly what you’d call “qualified” to write about Justice John Paul Stevens’s public lecture on Tuesday, October 11th. I was definitely there. I was in a room with the ninetieth Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. I had an unobstructed view of the stage, of University Provost and public policy professor Chris Eisgruber, and of Justice Stevens himself. I kept my ticket stub and program as souvenirs. But those slips of paper are just about all that I got out of attending the discussion.
It didn’t help that I was asleep for most of it. The thing ran from 4:30 to 6:00-ish, and I was conscious until about 4:45, and then again after 5:30 for the Q&A. So that should add up to half of the lecture’s run, except that the first fifteen minutes were comprised of applause and fanfare, introductions for introductions for introductions, and then the Q&A session was consumed by the slow, deliberate repetition of audience members’ questions and comments until they finally breached the waxy, decrepit ears of the honored nonagenarian. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say I heard about 15% of the words uttered by the esteemed Justice Stevens.
Why did I go? Why did I stand in line at Frist for a ticket two weeks in advance for the chance to pass out in the balcony of Richardson Auditorium? I’m not a politics junkie. I’ve never read any of Stevens’s opinions. I had no questions prepared. Even if I did, I probably would have passed out anyway. This year alone my record of falling asleep at extracurricular lectures stands at three for three—the other two occurred at a lecture given by Peter Singer and a discussion between Stephen Sondheim and Frank Rich, all celebrities I admire and was genuinely excited to hear, but then, when the moment of truth came, I dozed off and had to settle for my 15%.
I suppose I attended out of the kind of guilt one experiences when granted unfathomable privilege. When I enrolled at Princeton, I became a member of a student body that includes Olympic medalists, Broadway stars, chess masters, etc., a whole variety of insanely talented young adults whose past achievements already surpass anything I could ever hope to accomplish over the course of my entire life. If these are my equals, then the faculty employed to educate and train us must therefore be even smarter and wiser and better. And then the guest lecturers Princeton brings in to supplement out academics must be more godlike beings than even our professorial staff—right?
Well, maybe. Mr. Sondheim and Justice Stevens are certainly more famous than any of our theater or politics professors. Sure, Peter Singer is “ours,” as are Cornel West and Joyce Carol Oates, but because we don’t have a law school or award MFAs, we’ve got to fly in experts on musical theater and the Constitution, and any well-rounded student who wants to learn from the masters had better go hear them. But is celebrity really a mark of expertise? Furthermore, does expertise translate into oratory ability? The answer to both questions is, of course, no.
I went to John Paul Stevens’s lecture because I would have felt guilty had I missed it, had I squandered the opportunity. I thought to myself, “John Paul Stevens is 91 years old. He likely does not have that much time left on Earth, so if I’m ever going to hear him speak, now is the time. He is a very famous man and is in the news and therefore probably has some interesting things to say.”
What I should have thought was this: “John Paul Stevens is 91 years old. He is hard of hearing and somewhat curmudgeonly. He will not be not interested in explaining the basics of constitutional law and the role of the Supreme Court to the crowd of stargazing pseudo-intellectuals that will comprise the vast majority of his discussion’s audience. He will not be interested in recounting the opinions and anecdotes contained within Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir, a book he has just published and rightly expects his audience to be familiar with before attending his lecture. He will not know how to respond when a teenage female undergrad wearing a homemade “I ♥ JPS” t-shirt gushingly tells him that he is her favorite justice and that she thinks his bowtie is cute and that he shouldn’t be worried but her boyfriend is kind of jealous of him. He will grow noticeably jaded over the course of the Q&A session, and his answers will grow curter and curter when he realizes the superficiality of the event, which is not an opportunity to converse with an important man on the successes and failures of his career and ponder America’s past, present, and future, but a celebration of the greater Princeton community’s supposed love of intellectual stimulation through its periodic invitation of important men, disguised as a celebration of John Paul Stevens himself.”
FRESHMAN: Justice Stevens, first of all I’d like to thank you for your almost thirty-five years on the Supreme Court and your excellent service to this county.
Applause and hollers.
I am a freshman aspiring to study public policy in the Woodrow Wilson School, and would like to know if you think that the lifelong term limits granted to justices are perhaps too long; that is to say, do you think there should be a term limit imposed upon Supreme Court service that is shorter than life, perhaps a unit of time that could be measured instead in years, or decades, or—
I fell asleep during Stevens’s discussion with Eisgruber, the segment that constituted the 4:45 to 5:30 slot. This was partially because I am chronically tired at Princeton, what with the potent amalgam of homework and extracurricular clubs and partying and Internet procrastination that churns and churns in my cranium over the course of a week, and that drowns my brain out of commission during any spare hour that it knows is not necessary for the success of my academic and social ambitions. But it was also because I am less than an amateur when it comes to judiciary politics or constitutional law or the career of John Paul Stevens, the subjects of the discussion and the areas of knowledge and interest that an audience member would ostensibly possess before deciding to attend the event.
If I had to split up the relative factors that cast me into my forty winks, I’d attribute ten winks to physical exhaustion and thirty to boredom. With the Sondheim-Rich discussion, the split went twenty-twenty—while I am familiar with, and in some cases, tremendously admire Sondheim’s works, I admit full ignorance of the outrageous personalities that peopled Broadway in the 1970’s, about whom the speakers exchanged many a pithy and apparently hilarious anecdote. Regarding Singer’s lecture, it is true that I did not and do not understand the technical details of the United States healthcare system, but Singer did try to make the lecture approachable to the curious novice, and I think I passed out less because I was turned off by the presentation’s esotericism than by my peculiar state of fatigue—thirty winks tired, ten apathetic.
Once in my life, the constellations aligned, and I attended a public talk that I was both fully awake for and found interesting and educational. I speak of John Waters’s magical lecture in Spring 2010, in which the filmmaker colorfully recounted his life as among the transvestites, the bears and their trappers, and the otherwise sexually ambitious; his approaches toward and theories of cinema; and his fervent love of Baltimore. It was a lecture I will not soon forget, and that I cannot imagine anybody capable of falling asleep in. It certainly would have made for some very strange dreams.
Perhaps the JPS-Eisgruber discussion, or the Sondheim-Rich talk, or the Singer lecture were as fascinating and wonderful for some as John Waters was for me. Perhaps scattershot attendance of public lectures is the way to go. Maybe one day another one will stick. But one should attend only out of great expectations, not a nagging feeling of guilt. At any rate, it doesn’t hurt to try—worst come to worst you get in a little catnap.