Missing the Mark

The other day, on the train to school, I overheard an extended conversation among three high school students (two girls and a boy) who were talking about their classes. They were bright, interested kids–and from their demeanor and journey it seemed that they attended a selective school in Manhattan. (I have a pretty good guess which school it is, but I don’t want to “out” them.)

They had to read Hermann Hesse’s Demian (or the first chapter) for English class. One of the girls had read it; she said it was very long. The boy began reading it on the train.

This was one of my favorite books when I was thirteen. I read and reread it. My writing was influenced by it. I read as much Hesse as I could. The book still has great meaning for me; I have brought in passages to my students over the years. (In particular, the break  between Sinclair and Pistorius has come back to mind many times.) I often think back on the prefatory words:

“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?”

For a few minutes, the boy seemed absorbed in the reading. His copy was an worn hardcover with a brown canvas cover–maybe a library book. He stopped talking and just read and read. I imagined reading it too, and in doing so, I remembered phrases, cadences, and details.

Then he looked up and asked one of his classmates, “What’s a mark?”

In the first chapter, Kromer,  a bully, tries to intimidate Emil Sinclair (the protagonist and narrator) into giving him two marks. Terrified, Sinclair breaks into his own piggybank on the sly and procures sixty-five pfennigs. Of course that doesn’t satisfy Kromer.

“I don’t know,” one of the girls answered. “I was confused about it too. I think a pfennig is like a penny, and a mark is like a dollar.”

“But they use euros in Germany,” the boy replied.

I held back from saying anything, but I found the conversation puzzling. First, how did they not realize that the book was written long before the adoption of the euro? Second, why did this particular detail stall them? Even if they weren’t sure what the mark was, couldn’t they “mark” that question and proceed?

Beyond that, why the attention to the mark and not to Sinclair’s struggle between two worlds? There is a dichotomy he can’t accept: between the pure, innocent world of light and the sordid, crime-ridden, unspoken world of darkness. He wants something besides these two worlds but doesn’t know yet what it is. Isn’t that something most teenagers can recognize: the longing for way of life that they haven’t found yet?

The mark is important, of course; Sinclair thinks he has to get the money but has no way of doing so without stealing. The incident seems to push him out of his former world. It matters that the mark is much more than a pfennig and that two marks is about three times his piggybank savings (which he does not even consider his own to take). To overlook these details would be to miss a great deal of the meaning. Yet the meaning exists beyond these details and gives them their proper place. If you understand what’s happening with Sinclair, then you figure out the significance of the mark, even if you don’t know German pre-Euro currency.

It would be wrong of me to blame what I saw and heard on the Common Core or “close reading.” I have no way of knowing whether it had anything to do with their instruction. Also, it was good to pick up on the mark; it is an important detail, after all. Still, something was amiss. How could these students have difficulty with the first chapter of Demian? Why did it strike them as “long”?

This may speak to a larger cultural tendency: a weakened capacity to relate to (or even imagine) other times and places, unless they are presented in a way that matches us. Curiously, a number of seemingly opposite educational tendencies play into this. The Common Core is in some ways a response to the extremes of Balanced Literacy, which emphasized “reading strategies” and personal connections to the text. Under Balanced Literacy, students were encouraged to make “text-to-self” connections, which immediately removed them from the text. The Common Core standards demand a focus on the text itself.

What’s curious is that students would even need help making connections between the texts and their lives.  When I was in school, that was the part that came easily. I could relate to just about anything I read, if it was good. The challenge lay in separating myself from the text–in seeing differences between the characters and myself, or between the text’s language and my own. The last thing I needed was practice in making a “text-to-self connection.”

But if I (and my peers) were too attached to what we read, too ready to find ourselves in it, today the tendency is toward detachment. (People read very little, or they read with quick and specific goals.) Like Balanced Literacy, the Common Core attempts to address this problem. But instead of encouraging students to connect the text to their own lives, the Core stresses the importance of reading and making sense of it. Find out what’s actually in it before you start connecting it with yourself.

Yet if people read with absorption and openness, then they would both take in the actual text and relate it (subtly, not crassly) to their own lives. They would need neither “text-to-self connections” nor laborious lessons in close reading. The reading would be the starting point; in class, they would discuss and probe the text further in a variety of ways.

This requires more than an instructional shift; it requires a shift of culture. We are trapped in the lingo of the latest–of updates and takeaways. Students learn to view reading as a form of possession; they must “get something out of it” in order for it to be worth their time. There needs to be more allowance for things that come slowly, for meanings that reveal themselves over time, and for stories that do not match us at first glance but may offer lasting correspondences.

CONTRARIWISE and the Humanities

CONTRARIWISE appears in a video by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture! The video–about the future of the humanities–features interviews with three Hiett Prize winners: Mark Oppenheimer, James E. McWilliams, and myself. A lovely segment is devoted to CONTRARIWISE. There are also some glimpses of the Summer Institute in action. Thanks to the Dallas Institute and the producer, Judy Kelly, and congratulations to all involved!

Dylan Thomas and Deuteronomy

I have been thinking that Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” may have echoes of Deuteronomy. If I am not imagining things, these echoes affect the meaning of the last line, “After the first death, there is no other.”

In particular, the last line draws on the possible meanings of Deuteronomy 4:39, in the Dhouay-Rheims translation, “Know therefore this day, and think in thy heart that the Lord he is God in heaven above, and in the earth beneath, and there is no other.” In Hebrew, the final phrase, “there is no other,” consists of two words, “ein od,” אֵין, עוֹד. The meanings of this phrase could easily make a book.

But let us backtrack. What is going on in this poem? The syntax may be puzzling at first, but then it comes clear: its  main clause (“Never … shall I let pray the shadow of a sound…”) envelops a long subordinate clause “until the mankind making…”

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child’s death.

The subordinate clause is about the end of the world, where God “tells with silence the last light breaking” etc., and the speaker must again cross into the Promised Land, “the round / Zion of the water bead / And the synagogue of the ear of corn.”

The main clause is about the refusal to mourn: “Never … Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound / Or sow my salt seed / In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn / The majesty and burning of the child’s death.

In Deuteronomy, Moses gives his last speeches to the Israelites, who are to enter the Promised Land without him. He reminds them of their history and of the commandments, warns them against idolatry, promises them restoration if they repent, and dies at the end of the book.

Thomas’s poem continues:

I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

This reference to blasphemy echoes Moses’ warning in Deuteronomy 4:15: “Keep therefore your souls carefully. You saw not any similitude in the day that the Lord God spoke to you in Horeb from the midst of the fire.” And then in verses 16-19:

16 Lest perhaps being deceived you might make you a graven similitude, or image of male or female,
17 The similitude of any beasts, that are upon the earth, or of birds, that fly under heaven, 
18 Or of creeping things, that move on the earth, or of fishes, that abide in the waters under the earth: 

19 Lest perhaps lifting up thy eyes to heaven, thou see the sun and the moon, and all the stars of heaven, and being deceived by error thou adore and serve them, which the Lord thy God created for the service of all the nations, that are under heaven.

To mourn anyone other than the first is similar to serving anyone other than God; but why is this, and who is the first? It could be the first of all mortals, but it could also be that first death, that first profound loss, that any of us encounters in our life. Not the first that we see, necessarily, but rather the first that we know. It may be “sorrow’s springs” in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall.”

Why is that first loss sacred? It is the ancestor; every other loss joins it. The lineage is in the brilliant lines, “Robed in the long friends, / The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,”

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,

To mourn a later loss–as though it were the first–is to prop up a false god, to become vulgar, to kill. It is blasphemy and bad poetry. The true mourning lies in the respect.

I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Then we arrive at the last three lines (which follow “the dark veins of her mother”):

Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

Like the inscrutable God, the first death holds all death; nothing can compare to it.

What does this mean? I have only skated over the surface–but the last line seems to echo two verses of Deuteronomy: 4:39 (quoted earlier) and 34:10, “And there arose no more a prophet in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face….”

Back to the two Hebrew words, “ein od,” אֵין, עוֹד. They can mean “There is no other” or “There is nothing else.” In Deuteronomy, they describe God: there is no other God, or everything is God. (There is also a sense in which it applies to Moses; as 34:10 makes clear, there never would be another.) In the poem, the meaning is also double, triple, or more: there is no other death comparable to the first, and that death is all of humanity.

Or, even more simply: a loss is incomparable and unredeemable; it is the first because it has no copies, and in that sense it is also the last. It is and can only be “deep with the first dead.”

Any death at all, any death taken to heart, is the first. No death after it is death. There is hope in this–after all, death comes only once–but there is also unmitigable grief. The first is the only one, and there is nothing beside it.

But joy is in here too, in the singularity. I refuse to mourn a girl crassly, I refuse the pomp of multiple elegies–because there is only one death, and with it only one mourning.

Note: If there is a previous analysis of a relation between this poem and Deuteronomy, I would be interested in reading it.

“I Contemplate a Tree”

buber tree 2On Wednesday I took two of my classes across the street to Morningside Park in order to look at trees. We had been reading the tree passage in Martin Buber’s I and Thou, which begins with the declaration, “I contemplate a tree.” The speaker first accepts the tree as a picture, “a rigid pillar in a flood of light,” then feels its movement, then observes it as a species, then perceives it as an expression of physical and chemical laws, and then “dissolves” it into a number. “Throughout all of this,” he writes, ” “the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.”

Then comes a shift: “But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.”

I told my students that we could not replicate what Buber described in the passage–that the sheer effort to replicate it would defeat  the purpose. I asked them nonetheless to pay attention to what happened.

It was imperfect, of course, because we had little time and had to stay together. One or two students moved a little apart from the group; others clustered together and moved close to the tree of their choice. I saw them fingering the needles, observing the crinkles of the bark, noticing a long worm on the ground.

I had to keep an eye on everyone and everything, so I could not focus on a tree–but as I looked around, I was struck by each tree’s insistent form. Some were bare and gnarled; others showered you with color. Some had leaves falling from them as we watched; others stood warm and firm with their needles and cones. Some had berries or nuts; others, nothing but trunk and branches. Yet these had more than appeared at first glance. You could follow the lines in their bark as though listening to a story.

For my students, too, this was imperfect. Street noises and other distractions made it difficult for them to focus. All the same, they appreciated taking a few minutes to look at a tree; it was something they didn’t get to do very often.

On the way back to school, I thought of taking a picture of one of the trees. It seemed to go against the spirit of our outing, so I didn’t. Later in the day, I returned and took a shot. This set off a stream of thoughts about the nature of pictures and other mementos.

When you take a picture of something, you are turning it into a possession of sorts–something you “have” and can pull out at will. In one discussion of Buber, a student spoke of the satisfaction of Polaroid cameras–of seeing that tangible object emerge from the camera soon after the photo is taken. So, in the taking of a photo, there is some wish or effort to possess what is not really yours–to claim what cannot be claimed, to hold what cannot be held.

Yet it is also possible, when taking or looking at a photograph, to see it as a hint of something else–not as an object or possession, but as a reminder of something not possessed or contained. (Much of the early controversy over religious icons had to do with these different ways of regarding a picture.)

There is still a third possibility: the photograph can be a work of art and can take on its own life and limitlessness. It is then no longer merely a representation of something else. Buber writes about the creation of art:

The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. And yet I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experienced world. Not as a thing among the “internal” things, not as a figment of the “imagination,” but as what is present. Tested for its objectivity, the form is not “there” at all; but what can equal its presence? And it is an actual relation; it acts on me as I act on it.

To “actualize” a form, as Buber describes, one must allow oneself the confrontation–yet this cannot happen through effort of will alone. Is there a way, then, to make it possible, or does it just happen? In other words, can Buber’s words be “applied” to life and to ethics, or are they for contemplation only?

I believe that they can be applied, if one defines “applied” cautiously. Buber’s words cannot in themselves take us to the You–but they can make us aware of our tendency to claim and circumscribe things. (Buber stresses that we cannot survive without the It–but that the It cannot involve our whole being.)

So I take a picture, but with slight regret. First, my picture is far from a work of art, so it does not exist at that level. Second, it reminds me of the outing but leaves out almost everything. Third, while on the outing I resisted taking the picture, but later I caved in–so the picture is both removal and compromise. Yet it is pretty: the branches, leaves, and texture, the sense of something more.

Whenever I take a picture, I have ambivalence of this kind; it is usually wound into a tight thought, but it is present all the same. Here, the thought unravels. To “apply” Buber, then, is not to encounter a tree fully, nor to stop taking pictures, but to come closer to knowing one’s intentions.