Packing and Unpacking

koraI have moved from house to house, borough to borough, state to state, and even country to country. But I have never moved to another country on my own. At age 10 and 14, I lived in the Netherlands and Soviet Russia, respectively, but with my family. This is different. Planning for Hungary, I sharpen to my surroundings.

This afternoon, in the 77th Street subway station (6 line), I heard a kora player. (See the picture above.) Some people walked by as though nothing extraordinary were happening. How can that be? He sounded a little like Toumani Diabaté (who sounds a little like heaven, probably, if it exists):

A little earlier in the day, when heading to a doctor’s appointment, I passed through Central Park and saw a sweet scene with a tire swing. I shot an eight-second video:

I don’t usually relish doctors’ and vets’ appointments, but I am finding a thrill in taking care of things. Even Aengus and Minnaloushe have bonded. (Here they are at the vet’s yesterday, hiding together under a chair.)

at the vet

It seems at first glance that packing is tedium; unpacking, excitement. But that’s not true. The packing and unpacking happen together and depend on each other. When you say goodbye to a place, it spills open. When you open your suitcase, you see where things might go.
After posting this piece, I muted the sound on the tire swing video; it’s better that way.

What’s in a Map, and What Isn’t?

hungary map

As I look at the map of Hungary (something I’ve been doing a lot lately), I see how it can be understood only through its history. The country is surrounded by Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria; from 1869 to the Treaty of Trianon (1920), Austro-Hungary (the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary) encompassed most of this region. After Trianon, many Hungarian speakers found themselves cut off from Hungary. Hungary lost over two-thirds of its territory, while new countries (the Kingdom of Romania, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and the Czechoslovak Republic) gained sovereignty.

One of the principles of the Treaty of Trianon was the “self-determination of peoples”–but who and where are the peoples? Should countries be defined ethnically, and is this even possible? Eva S. Balogh argues that the new borders did not correspond closely with ethnic lines–and that, given many Hungarians’ belief that the only solution lay in the full restoration of the former Kingdom of Hungary, “it was almost inevitable that Hungary would end up on the side of Germany, the country dissatisfied with the status quo.” Or was it? Balogh herself suggests that if the situation had been presented and approached more carefully, things might have turned out differently.

IMG_3359To understand Trianon, one has to go back farther still, and then farther still, and forward too, and back again. Also, one cannot look at the “big picture” alone. If you zoom in on the map (which I obtained through Google Maps), you will see, to the southeast of Košice, a town called Sátoraljaújhely. Keep zooming in (you have to do so about five more times), and you will see, just over the Slovak border, another town, Slovenské Nové Mesto. These together were once a great town, a center of Jewish culture and the capital of Zemplén county. As of Trianon, the Ronyva stream has separated the Slovak (formerly Czechoslovak) side from the Hungarian side; that was neither the beginning nor the end of the sorrows. From the photo here on the left (which I took at the end of my bike trip in May), one would not know the town’s grief and losses: the World War II bombings, the deportation of nearly all the Jews to Auschwitz, the Soviet occupation. Even reading the history, I only begin to grasp parts, and only from a distance. I can zoom in further and further, I can visit the town and walk over the border, but still it will take years to understand, as a beginner, what happened here. It is worth the long, slow study.

 

The map image above is courtesy of Google Maps.

Teaching in Hungary!

szolnok gallery

It is now official: I will be teaching English–and American and British civilization–at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary, starting in November! I applied through the Central European Teaching Program and was offered this wonderful position; I will be stepping in for a teacher who is going on leave.

In addition, I hope to volunteer for the  Budapest Festival Orchestra; it would be an honor to help with the synagogue project, other community projects, and the orchestra’s work in general.

Szolnok is on Eurovelo 11, the same bike route I took for part of my expedition in May. I look forward to many long bike rides.

In the English classes, my focus will be on English conversation; in the civilization classes, on history and culture. (There may be opportunities to teach electives as well; we’ll see.) I have many ideas for topics, materials, and approaches; I will have still more once I get to know the school and students.

There is much more to say about the school, the teaching, and other projects and plans. (I may have an update on my book as well.) For the next two months I will be busy with preparations. In September I intend to make a short trip to Budapest (and four other cities) to submit paperwork, meet people, and attend concerts. At the end of October, I will be leading a seminar and presenting a paper at the ALSCW Conference in Dallas. Then off to Hungary (with my two cats) and into the classroom!

 

The photo above is of Szolnok’s former synagogue; the building now houses the Szolnok Gallery. Courtesy of the website of the Damjanich János Múzeum.

I updated this piece after posting it.

On Staying Intact

transfer bridge

I was partly kidding when I suggested that if we all pitched in now and then with gardening and philosophizing, we would get things done, it wouldn’t be so terrible, and no one would have to be roped in for the long haul. But a more serious question has been on my mind: Is it possible to do something one doesn’t normally do and doesn’t like to do, or something about which one has mixed thoughts and emotions, and still stay intact? I realize that “yes and no” is too simple an answer, but if explained properly, it seems correct.

What does it mean to stay intact? It means that you retain roughly the same thoughts and preferences as before, as well as the strength to honor them. If I generally don’t like commercial action thrillers but go with a friend to see War for the Planet of the Apes (which I have no plans to see), find myself enjoying it a little, but still know that I would not choose it on my own, I have stayed intact. I have neither betrayed myself nor become a different person; I just tried something out of the usual for me.

Or take a trickier example: Let’s say I have a friend who does not like some of my other friends. I can spend time with this person, in private or public, without fearing that I have betrayed others. Sometimes this can be challenging, but it’s possible.

Or suppose I attend a religious service of a faith other than my own. Up to a point, I can participate without worrying that I have gone against who I am. There is a breaking point, though, generally understood by all. For instance, if you are not Catholic, you can sing the hymns and join in the responses (according to your comfort) but should not take communion. In holding back here, you show respect for yourself and others.

Another tricky example: Suppose I attend a demonstration that generally reflects my views but differs in some particulars. If I participate without assuming (or letting others assume) that I have given up my differences, then I have stayed intact. (In this case, the demonstration becomes a statement in itself, so a participant may have difficulty differentiating himself from it.)

Why does it matter to stay intact? It affects your participation in the world. If you believe that an experience will turn you into that thing, whatever it may be, then you might avoid it, for fear of becoming someone you don’t want to be. If you believe that you will stay intact, you can walk confidently through the world and try all kinds of interesting things.

So, now for the “yes” and “no” of the matter. It is possible to do something without becoming it, yet each of our experiences and actions influences us and our directions. Moreover, some experiences affect us profoundly and surprisingly. We can’t always control what comes of them. Also, some distinctions and markers of identity lose importance over time, while others gain importance. Someone who formerly took pride in not being a “poetry person” may come to question whether such a type exists. But a poet who initially admired both Yeats and Auden might come to favor one over the other.

It’s possible to stay intact, but not completely.  We’re continually reshaping around the edges. Sometimes the center undergoes a whirl. Still, even with that, it’s possible not to cave in to each suggestion or sensation. The wisdom of when and when not to resist, how far to venture outward, and when and how to go home can be found in books, but only partly. Each judgment is lonely.  But there’s something grounding in seeing it as judgment, and not just as fate or folly. In many senses of the phrase, we get to make up our minds.

 

I took this photo of the 69th Street Transfer Bridge while biking along the Hudson last Friday. See Nick Carr’s photos as well.

As usual, I made some minor changes to this piece after posting it.

Ady Endre, “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm”

117_Ady utolsó fényképeToday I found an astonishing poem by the Hungarian poet Ady Endre (1877–1919; Ady is the surname). I know only a few Hungarian words, phrases, and basic forms, but even this much lifted the latch, with the help of translations. Immediately I saw some of the difficulties of translating this work.

You can hear a recording on YouTube and read both the Hungarian and Leslie A. Kery’s translation in the Babel Web Anthology. There’s another translation, by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner, in Light within the Shade: Eight Hundred Years of Hungarian Poetry. Both brought me closer to the poem yet stopped before coming too close. I sense something burning here, something a translator might try to make cooler and softer.

Let us consider first the title, “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm,” which means “I thank you, I thank you, I thank you” (root “köszön” + personal suffix -“öm”; the “you” is implied). Kery translates the title as “My Thanks to Thee” (making the address to God explicit and removing the repetition). Ozsváth and Turner translate it “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You,” keeping the repetition, making God less explicit, but dropping the sense of “I,” which in turn allows for a sense of relation. It’s a difficult call, whether or not to keep some sense of “I”; “köszönöm” is basically an equivalent of “thank you,” and an added “I” might seem stilted. In any case, the repetition is important, as is the sense of relation; each translation conveys one or the other.

Now let’s look at the first four lines. These are enough to make a person fall in love with the poem, and they only hint at what’s coming.

Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok,
Számban nevednek jó íze van,
Szent mennydörgést néz a két szemem,
Istenem, istenem, istenem,

Here’s Kery’s translation:

It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear,
Thy name is tasting sweet within my mouth
And my eyes, oh Lord, oh God of mine,
behold the holy thunder.

Here’s what Ozsváth and Turner do:

Dazzling in my ears is the roar of the sun,
Sweet in your mouth the savor of your name,
Loud in my eyes your holy thunder,
Lord of light, lord of sweetness, lord of wonder;

What a difference! I am torn between them. I like the bareness of Kery and the incantation of Ozsváth and Turner. But neither seemed to want the “Istenem, istenem, istenem” (“My God, my god, my god”) in bare form; the one turned it into “oh Lord, oh God of mine,” the other into “Lord of light, lord of sweetness, lord of wonder.”I see what they are doing–they’re conveying the nuances within the repetition–but I miss the repetition itself.

What are the alternatives in English? “My God, my god, my god” lacks the cadence and subtlety of “Istenem, istenem, istenem,” and anything with “O my god” would sound too casual. Maybe the best way around this is to read the original and translations side by side (and listen to the original).

But I jumped ahead. The first line lets us hear the rays of sun:

Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok,

“[It is] the sunbeams’ hum that I hear,”

The onomatopoeic”zúgása” (“the hum”), which reminds me of the Russian жужжанье, comes right after “Napsugarak,” “of the sunbeams.” In these very sounds, you can hear the beams humming. “amit hallok” means “that I hear.” Here I prefer Kery’s translation (“It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear”): the euphony and syntax work beautifully. Ozsváth and Turner‘s “Dazzling in my ears is the roar of the sun” seems cranked up too loud; moreover, it loses the sense of a question. “It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear” answers the implied “What is it that I hear?”

The third line, “Szent mennydörgést néz a két szemem,” does something spectacular with the first. “Szent mennydörgést” means “holy thunder” (as direct object); “néz,” “watch”; “a két szemem,” “my two eyes”; together, “my two eyes behold the holy thunder.” This is directly followed by “Istenem, istenem, istenem,” which looks like thunder itself. The hum of the sunbeams and the view of thunder go together–but what matters here is not just the joining, but the person who hears and sees.

I have only inched into the poem here. If this post encourages someone to read and listen to it, I will be glad. Over time, I hope to understand it more accurately and deeply. In the meantime, I adopt it into my life.

 

Image credit: Photograph of Ady Endre, courtesy of the Babel Web Anthology.

Weeding and Watching

gardening When people tell me that philosophy isn’t their thing, I figure they can’t possibly mean philosophy as I define it. Some other kind of philosophy must unimpress them. I don’t think I could do without it, nor would I want to, though I think in various ways, not only philosophically. Philosophy, as I understand it, involves not only questioning a premise but building a structure of questions. For instance, what questions do we need to ask, and in what sequence, to arrive at a better understanding of happiness? I enjoy thinking and reading about such topics, discussing them with others, and going off on my own to think some more. This isn’t  just fun; to an extent it informs how I live.

But when it comes to gardening, I throw down the gloves. I am not a gardener! Some, hearing this, may assume I have misunderstood gardening, since gardening (as they understand it) goes rake in rake with joy. But no, I  do not like gardening. I am not supposed to spend extended time in the sun; beyond that, I dislike the crouching and the continual feeling (usually confirmed by others) that I’m doing something wrong: that I failed to pull up a weed or succeeded in destroying an important legume.

All that said, I enjoyed some modest gardening in Fort Tryon Park yesterday. The volunteer shift was from 10 to 2; I lasted from 10 to noon. I felt bad about leaving early, but then I thought: isn’t that better than not volunteering at all? For those two hours, or most of them, I enjoyed the weeds and lilies (listen to Hannah Marcus’s gorgeous song by that title). It’s possible to stretch beyond my preferences without going to far: to garden just enough, not to the point where I never want to garden again. Also, within those limits I didn’t have to worry about having to extricate myself; the extrication was built in. I could stay true to the “hardly ever.”

IMG_3668 Today, with some friends, I watched the partial eclipse from Central Park. Many had gathered with special glasses, cylinders, colanders, and other instruments; others stopped by and asked to borrow glasses. We were thronged with excitement and curiosity; I could not have wished for a better crowd and sky. I thought about how these two things go together, the weeding and the watching. To make such a gathering possible, someone had to pull the weeds and clean the litter. Someone had to work out some basic natural philosophy. That person didn’t  have to be someone else; it could be any of us, if we went beyond our usual hesitations and complaints. Then again, no one, given free choice, really has to do what he or she dislikes doing. My only point is that it’s possible and, within limits, possibly even fun.

IMG_3672Thus beauty and labor depend on each other. There would be no point in gardening if it didn’t give people a garden, no point in philosophy if it didn’t open up understandings. It’s easy to delegate the labor to others, but it’s more satisfying to take part, within reason. Short shrift may bite and sting, but a short shift may save the day.

In this last picture, a woman is holding a colander so that the eclipse will project onto the paper below. Others stand by and photograph the paper. The dogs fixate on other things, whatever those may be. People pass through the park. We start to think of things we have to do. Time and schedule press in. Sun and moon slowly let go of each other.

I made a few changes and additions to this piece after posting it.

“Viva la libertà!”

I now have a new reason to keep my mind sharp into old age: I want to remember last night’s Don Giovanni performance–directed and conducted by Iván Fischer, and performed by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, eight singers, and sixteen young actors from the University of Theatre and Film, Budapest–for the rest of my life. After it ended, I wanted to see and hear it all over again, from start to finish.

First of all, the opera is magnificent; it hits so many tones of comedy and pathos, and plays out the characters so tangibly, that you feel like a participant from early on. It’s full of play on sound and words, from “si” and “no” to the musical quotations from Figaro, etc. Leporello is my favorite character; he seems a bumbling, astute, playful, corporeal Ariel longing for release from his master. (Don Giovanni is anything but a Prospero, though.) Yet every character became my favorite at times, partly because of the music, partly because of this particular performance.

This was no run-of-the-mill opera production. As Mr. Fischer explained in the question-and-answer session before the performance, while opera productions usually have a stage director and a conductor, each one with a particular focus, he could not approach the work this way; he had to be both director and conductor. This could be felt throughout. He brought together singers and musicians, stage and score, into a single life and form.

There were the silent actors, who served as props–a seat, a gravestone, a table, a building, a garden with fountain, a coach, villagers, dancers, and figments of the imagination. They appeared with moonlike glow and pallor. This had the effect of making everything physical and breathing (though also dreamlike). You could see the world through Don Giovanni’s eyes. The music was the great reality, in the subtle textures, the mandolin, the stage musicians, the trombones that accompanied the Commendatore, every single instrument, and the extraordinary voices.

That might have been the greatest brilliance of all: to let us (at moments) into Don Giovanni’s mind. It is easy to condemn him. But this performance brought us into him; not only did the objects breathe and move, but each aria, each terzetto seemed more beautiful than the last. You wanted to catch each one without fail;  you would fall in love with one only to find yourself chasing the next. I disagree with James Jorden, who praises this production to the skies (in his New York Times review) but ends with the claim that it lacks “an indefinable spark of the divine.” No, it lacks no such thing. The divine is palpable, not only in the sensuality that implicates you and melts your everyday judgments, but in the surprises of beauty and soul and structure.

One of my favorite scenes of all was Zerlina’s aria “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto.” Many find this aria troubling and hard to interpret, but here the interpretation was natural and unhindered. Masetto’s look of anguish–sustained throughout the aria, up almost to the end–tells us that he would not beat Zerlina, and that Zerlina knows this. Her “Batti, batti” shows such confidence, such tenderness, that she can move closer and closer to him and find, at the end, no rancor, just jealousy and pain.

It’s easy to be fond of Zerlina and Masetto–but I also found myself entranced by Don Ottavio, the “straightest” of them all, and by Elvira, that troubled soul. I can’t just consider them singly, though; right  now I am remembering the duet of Leporello and Don Giovanni in the finale of Act I, “tornerete a scherzar e ballar.” (I have been looking up favorite parts in my score this morning.) Later in the finale, Don Giovanni’s ominous “Viva la libertà!” first plays against the others’ “Siam grati a tanti segni di generosità” but then becomes the refrain of all; they sing these words as though not knowing what they (the words or they themselves) mean. There’s something mad and reckless in that “libertà,” but for a moment, all are swept into it.

But I did not always see things through Don Giovanni’s eyes, nor did Mozart’s composition or the performance encourage that. Not only is he ultimately contained and swallowed up in flames, not only do the others go on with their lives, but throughout the work there are scenes of censure, scenes where Don Giovanni faces the disapproval, disgust, and disdain of each of the others, who, with all their fallibility, understand something about living. His excess froths, centerless–and the music itself, while gorgeously enticing, contains itself as it contains him. Don Giovanni contains and moves beyond Don Giovanni. Mr.  Fischer chose the Prague version of this opera, which, besides being the original version, stands out for its balance and unity. Through this balance and unity, the opera (as I hear it) responds to Don Giovanni  himself.

I took two pictures during intermission: one of the harpsichord tuner (above) and one of a member of the stage crew who mopped, sprayed, and mopped the floor over and over (below). Thanks to them, to the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center, and to everyone who brought this performance about.

I made a few edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

Update: This piece appears in Hungarian translation on the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s website!

What Is Civics Education?

Utopia

After the Charlottesville violence, there will probably be renewed calls for civics education.* But what is civics education? Any initiative needs a clear understanding of it.

Here is what I would offer. Civics education conveys, develops, and enlivens the premise that a country is built on principles, structures, realities, and interpretations, and that each of these has internal contradictions and contradictions with other elements. Civics education would help students understand (a) what these principles, structures, realities, and interpretations actually are; (b) where they come from, historically and philosophically; (c) how they have coincided or conflicted with each other over time; (d) how one can grapple with these confluences and contradictions; and (e) how one can apply this understanding. In addition, such a curriculum would bring out the relation between external government (government of a country or smaller political unit) and internal government (government of the self). A civics curriculum that built this kind of knowledge, questioning, analysis, and introspection would be fine indeed!

So, for instance, the principle of “pursuit of happiness” runs into frequent conflict with the principle of equality, but both are essential to this country and part of its foundation. How does one reconcile them? Answers may be found in philosophical works, court cases, literature, and more, but such answers are not final and do not solve everything. The question stays open, continually calling for new responses, not only in the political arena, but in our minds and lives.

A civics curriculum would include but go beyond courses in government, philosophy, and history alone; it would involve arts, languages, literatures, mathematics, and sciences, since all of these help us understand who we are, who others are, what is known and unknown, and what matters.

Very well, you might say. When and how will this great education come about? I say that it already exists, in places and in pieces. The challenge is to lift it up and make it stronger. This will require, among other things, renewed dedication to secular education–that is, not education that denies or diminishes religious faith, but that builds a common basis and mode of discussion among people: a basis of knowledge and a mode of reasoning, imagining, and listening.

This may sound grand and far-fetched, but I have seen it in practice. I sensed these qualities in my best high school, college, and graduate school classes; I have found them when visiting classes taught by colleagues. I see them in the philosophy roundtables and philosophy journal at Columbia Secondary School. I experience them each summer at the Dallas Institute and look forward to reveling in them at the upcoming ALSCW Conference. In addition, I find them when reading, listening to music, visiting other countries, speaking other languages, and writing. These are some of the contexts I know; how many more there must be! This practice exists, in other words; it just needs attention, recognition, and strengthening.

Image credit: Sir Thomas More, Utopia, 1516 edition.

*The term “civics education” may seem redundant, since “civics” already denotes a field of study. I use it to refer not just to the field but to the ways of teaching it and the subjects surrounding it. 

 

More on “Free Relation”

PushkinBenchOver the past two days I struggled with the post on The Stone Guest and statues; I realized that the topics were too large and the connections too weak. After revising it many times, I finally let it stand. But something came out of it, at the end: the idea that a “free relation” to a statue or other work of art comes through a spirit of learning. This kind of freedom consists of movement beyond misconceptions, limited understandings, and errors; not only that, but it yearns for such movement. It is the opposite of ignorance, which rests on self-satisfaction and becomes a rut. As Diotima tells Socrates in Plato’s Symposium, “If someone doesn’t think he’s in need of something, he can’t desire what he doesn’t think he needs.”

I think about my relation to Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin, which I first encountered as a fourteen-year-old in Moscow, through Tchaikovsky’s opera. I loved the opera (which I saw as many times as possible) but in a limited way; I saw myself as Tatiana and understood the work primarily from that perspective.

In brief: Tatiana falls in love with Onegin and writes him a letter; he rejects her; he flirts with Olga, Tatiana’s sister, and ends up killing Lensky in a duel; and five years later, he attends a ball in Petersburg, only to discover that Tatiana is married to a prince. He suddenly falls in love with her–and writes her a letter–but she explains her resolve to be faithful to her husband forever. That’s a crude summary, with many details missing, but I was drawn, in any case, to Tatiana’s torment and courage.

While in Moscow, I obtained the sheet music for the opening duet “Slykhali l’ vy” between Olga and Tatiana and practiced it, hoping to sing it beautifully one day. Here’s a recording of a 2011 performance by the Bolshoi Theatre, with Galina Vishnevskaya as Tatiana and Larisa Avdeeva as Olga:

Seeing myself in the opera, I missed a great deal; even when I read the poem that year, I understood it in terms of the opera. But at least the opera was in my life; I would return to it many times later.

In graduate school, I read the poem carefully and came to see its subtleties, ironies, and play; it had humor and bite that the opera seemed to lack. I learned that Nabokov considered Tchaikovsky’s libretto “an absurdity and an abomination,” full of “vulgar and … criminal inanities.” I thought my teenage enthusiasm for the opera had been naive.

Still later, I came to admire Tchaikovsky’s Onegin again, but on different terms. I saw it most recently at the Metropolitan Opera last April and was moved by the entire performance, but especially by Prince Gremin’s aria, performed by Štefan Kocán, in which he tells Onegin of his love for his wife, Tatiana, whom Onegin previously rejected. This aria, rich in life and tranquility, is nowhere in the poem itself; the narrator has some of these words but gives them different meaning. The music alone conveys what Onegin lacks; Gremin’s genuine happiness upends any stereotype. I have found no recording of Kocán’s performance online, but here’s one with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and here’s the sheet music:

I outgrew both the teenage attachment to Tatiana and the later deference to Nabokov (whom I also questioned and satirized, even then). Pushkin’s novel in verse and Tchaikovsky’s opera are two distinct works, each to be taken on its own terms, over a lifetime. Sometimes the understanding is intellectual, sometimes visceral, sometimes learned, sometimes intuitive; but it builds and changes over time. I have much to learn about both works; I returned to them today to see how much I had missed before.

So a “free relation” to art is one that moves beyond error, safety, and limitation. A person returns to a work, learns from it, learns about it, and understands it in a different way from before, all the while staying alert to more. Maybe, like Gremin, the person moves toward simple joy, the joy of not needing to own or sum up what one loves, the joy, sometimes difficult, of living among things that grow in beauty and meaning and that return, again and again, with more.

 

Image: Photo of a statue of Pushkin at Tsarskoe Selo. Courtesy of the MadOpera Blog.

I made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

When the Statue Nods

stoneguestIn anticipation of Don Giovanni, which the Budapest Festival Orchestra will perform at Lincoln center on August 17, 18, and 19, I reread Alexander Pushkin’s dramatic poem The Stone Guest, which was inspired by a Russian-language version of Mozart’s opera. I had not read it in years; this time, I was amazed by the part where Don Juan (spelled “Дон Гуан” in Russian) orders Leporello to invite the statue of Dona Anna’s* deceased husband (whom he himself murdered) to come watch Don Juan meet with her in her home. (In Don Giovanni, it is the father of Donna Anna, not the husband, whom Don Juan has murdered and who later appears as a statue.) Leporello starts to speak to the statue but can’t finish; the scene is rendered in tense, broken iambic pentameter, where the silences hold little time and great weight. Leporello finally works up the nerve to invite the statue, who nods his assent. Don Juan does not see this; he finally invites the statue himself and, seeing him nod, cries, “Oh God!” Leporello: “What? I tried to tell you…” Don Juan: “Let’s get out of here.”

Here’s the Russian text of this passage (you can see the trepidation in the broken lines themselves). You can listen to a recording too; the quoted lines begin at 35:38 and end around 37:45. This is from a 1962 performance by the Alexandrinsky Theatre.

Лепорелло

                                Охота вам
Шутить, и с кем!

Дон Гуан

                            Ступай же.

Лепорелло

                                                Но…

Дон Гуан

                                                        Ступай.

Лепорелло

Преславная, прекрасная статуя!
Мой барин Дон Гуан покорно просит
Пожаловать… Ей-богу, не могу,
Мне страшно.

Дон Гуан

                        Трус! вот я тебя!..

Лепорелло

                                                    Позвольте.
Мой барин Дон Гуан вас просит завтра
Прийти попозже в дом супруги вашей
И стать у двери…

Статуя кивает головой в знак согласия.

                            Ай!

Дон Гуан

                                    Что там?

Лепорелло

                                                    Ай, ай!..
Ай, ай… Умру!

Дон Гуан

                        Что сделалось с тобою?

Лепорелло
(кивая головой)

Статуя… ай!..

Дон Гуан

                        Ты кланяешься!

Лепорелло

                                                        Нет,
Не я, она!

Дон Гуан

                    Какой ты вздор несешь!

Лепорелло

Подите сами.

Дон Гуан

                        Ну смотри ж, бездельник.

(Статуе.)

Я, командор, прошу тебя прийти
К твоей вдове, где завтра буду я,
И стать на стороже в дверях. Что? будешь?

Статуя кивает опять.

О боже!

Лепорелло

                Что? я говорил…

Дон Гуан

                                                Уйдем.

There’s comedy and horror in this scene; both Leporello and Don Juan must each experience the statue alone; hence the eruptions and ellipses. Yet for all its jagged appearance, this dialogue keeps up the iambic pentameter as if propelled along. In the recording, the statue’s nod is signaled by music, which both interrupts and intensifies the rhythm. There are references to nonsense, death, God, and madness; exclamations of “ay!”; and a simple yet terrifying nod. The statue is more than a likeness, more than a stone carving. It holds hidden life; it traps time in a solid.

Having started to think about statues, I think of Charlottesville, yet the connection here seems tenuous. For Don Juan, the statue becomes his witness and demise; confronting it, he spirals into himself. It’s the poetry itself that nods. This statue moves in verse.

For us today, in the U.S. and elsewhere, a statue holds the history that will not go away, that shows up at the door. Even without great historical significance, even at its most mundane, a statue pulls at the imagination. Because of its dimension and its presence among us, because of its gesture (sometimes seeming in motion), it tempts us to sit on its lap, shake its hand, take pictures with our arms around it, put a cap on its head, and so on. Or it can offer much more. Simulating a body, it simulates hidden thoughts.

The white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville claim that nonwhite and non–”Aryan” groups (e.g., blacks and Jews) have robbed them of their rights, that life would be much better for them if others were put in their place or destroyed. For people who hold this view, a Confederate statue may express the restitution they desire. To move the statue is to rob them of their perceived rights; some will sooner kill others than let that statue go. The statue becomes their defender–theirs, not other people’s. It is their fantasy, oxidized and towering, astride a seemingly permanent horse.

A statue strangely joins life and death; it takes something that can never walk again in the world and puts it in our midst. But it matters how we regard it. We can have a free relation with it, taking it on its own terms and coming to understand it better. Or we can see it as an emblem of our rights and wishes, in which case we are bound to it. At its best, education moves toward the many languages and forms of free relation.

Image credit: V. Favorsky, to “The Stone Guest” by A. Pushkin.

I revised this piece substantially after posting it. I am still not satisfied, but the dissatisfaction itself is on the right track.

*A spelling correction: In the Russian text, it’s Dona Anna, not Donna Anna. In Spanish it would be Doña Ana.