It was the most memorable speech I’ve ever heard, though I can’t remember a single word of it. Let us enter the scene at about the one hour mark when the audience gathered on the sun dappled lawn broke into sustained applause. Though a passer by might have taken the applause for appreciation, for the families perched on uncomfortable folding chairs the vigorous clapping had a desperate air. Surely this time the speaker would take the hint and wind things up. It was about the fourth or fifth time that the audience had broken into spontaneous applause at any small break in the torrent of words, some even standing, to try to bring the agony to an end. But each time the speaker, a tiny man whose head barely peeked over the podium, waited patiently until the clapping ceased and then resumed speaking in his barely audible whisper of a voice.
As the neverending speech droned on we observed the increasing discomfort of the faculty seated on the dais. The anxious twitching of academic robes, the exchange of worried glances, and the faculty themselves starting the waves of applause to try to bring the speech to a merciful end. Eventually it was clear that action must be taken. A member of the faculty stood up, walked over to the podium, and took the speaker’s arm, literally dragging him away mid-sentence. What was said to the poor man we could only conjecture.
This was a law school graduation ceremony at University of California Berkeley and the speaker was Buckminster Fuller. We had actually looked forward to hearing him speak. It was the early 1970’s (when the 1960’s were not quite over) and the renowned architect, inventor, and intellectual fitted right into the zeitgeist. Words such as maverick, iconoclast, visionary, polymath, futurist, and eccentric were attached to his name. He was even called a modern Leonardo da Vinci. Most famous for his geodesic dome structures he was also known as a global thinker who coined the phrase “Spaceship Earth” and advocated for international cooperation in solving the world’s problems. He was a planner, and featured speaker, for the first Earth Day in 1970. In short he was a secular patron saint for the burgeoning environmental movement. We were sure his speech would be interesting.
I was reminded of this long ago excruciatingly awkward event when I came upon a review of a new biography, Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller by Alec Nevala-Lee. According to The New York Times book review this is the first biography by a writer who was not a devoted Buckminster acolyte, “a carefully researched and fair-minded” work. Though full of admiration for his subject, Nevala-Lee paints a warts and all portrait of a man who didn’t always live up to his public reputation. I note this statement:
Fuller’s public lectures, which could go on for five or six hours, were famous. Always extemporaneous, these modern-day Chautauquas were a startling weave of poetry and science, delivered in his own peculiar locution. Fuller’s lectures have a raga quality of rich, nonlinear, endless improvisation full of convergent surprises.New York Times
Well we got off lightly on that Berkeley afternoon! But for the faculty intervention we might have been treated to the full five or six hours. And if only we could have heard him perhaps it would have been interesting.