The Grip of Nonchalance

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In a beautifully concise 1956 review of Saul Bellow’s novella Seize the Day (a work I especially love, and about which I have written), Alfred Kazin writes,

Tommy finds himself prowling through a New York day searching for a place of support or rest. By the end of it, he has tossed away the last of his money on the market and is desperately frightened. Yet he gains an unexpected release when he is swept by the passing crowd into the funeral of a man he has never known — and, looking down at the dead man’s face, at last finds himself able to feel, to accept his own suffering. Thus, at last, he is able to confront that larger suffering which (as we can see only at the end of the story) has been the dead weight of existence pressing on him without any release or passion in him of understanding.

People often ask me how I could live in Hungary, a country whose leaders have taken a turn toward the far right. My replies–“not everyone supports Viktor Orbán and his party”; “there are other things going on here”; “people here are very kind”–seem inadequate. That isn’t quite it. In any country, you will find people who disagree with the prevailing ideology. You will find kind people too. No, there is something else. Through a series of events, a combination of circumstances, I found my way to just the right place. I don’t think I would be as happy living in Budapest, though I go there regularly for synagogue, which I love. The people I am getting to know, the the school where I teach, the place where I live (just a few steps away from the swan I photographed this morning) are more than dreams come true; they teach me about who they are, who I am, what matters in life, what questions lie open. I can take on these questions without embarrassment. The Hungarian language is now coming to me in spades, and I am still at the cusp of speaking. Much more lies ahead.

What I miss from the U.S. are my dear friends, my family (though any of them can tell you that I have an independent streak), my former school, and the Dallas Institute. But there’s something I don’t miss at all: the American pressure toward nonchalance, casualness, lightness, changing the subject when it gets too serious, cutting off people who seem too intense. Do not get me wrong: I love humor and do not like to wallow in gloom. But in the U.S. I have found a pressure to curb myself with every sentence, to watch carefully in case the other person thinks the conversation is getting too “heavy.” (I do not find this with my friends, which is part of the reason the friendships have lasted. But it has put a strain on some acquaintanceships throughout my life.)

In the U.S. I have been told, from a young age, that I am very intense and “intellectual,” yet I did not receive that comment from people in other countries. It was a particularly American descriptor. “Intense” and “intellectual” are not meant as compliments. It’s acceptable to be intense about politics–when you know exactly what you think and can express it with vehemence–but any kind of extensive searching threatens people, unless they happen to be drawn to that kind of thing. I found my home here and there–at the philosophy roundtables I led, in some of my classes, etc. But overall I learned to be wary of myself, to accept that my way of thinking and speaking would be too much for some people. There is a certain American ideal expressed in Edie Brickell and Kenny Withrow’s song “What I am,” “I’m not aware of too many things, I know what I know if you know what I mean….” I could not attain that ideal if I tried, and it does not interest me anyway.

The pressure to be light, to avoid taking things too seriously, does not exist in the same way in all cultures. Here I have found not only a release from it, but a welcome into serious thinking and conversation (which has plenty of wit and humor wrapped up in it). Intellect is not frowned upon; intensity (if that is even the right word) carries no shame. Granted, Hungary has its anti-intellectuals; just look at some of the politicians! In addition, the economic conditions are driving many thoughtful people to leave the country; this will change the culture (and not for the better). I do not see Hungary as anywhere near perfect; it has massive problems. But in this particular way, in the room people make for grappling, in the honor they give to literature, I am not only at home, but in the middle of a new way of living.

It makes teaching a joy. When we returned from winter break, I introduced my students to Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” (The link points to a page with both the original text and István Jánosy’s Hungarian translation). Eleven different classes, from grades 9 through 12, read the poem with me; each discussion brought something different out of the poem. One student heard, in the final two lines “And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” a kind of insistence and self-persuasion, as though the speaker wanted to believe that sleep (and death) were still far away. Some students detected fear in the poem; the speaker could only stay in that dark wood for so long before it became too much. Some found meaning in the punctuation at the end: the difference between a comma and a period is greater than appears on the surface. Over the course of these discussions, I noticed something for the first time: throughout the poem, despite the tranquility of the scene, there is a slight disturbance of some kind, a disturbance so subtle that you might not notice it. At first, it is the disturbance of being on someone else’s property:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Next comes the horse’s disturbance, his sense that something is different, his shaking of the harness bells:

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

Finally, there is the disturbance of time: the speaker’s knowledge that this moment must come to an end, that he must go on to other things.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

What is it that unites these various disturbances, these various rattlings of the mind and wind? Could it be that they are necessary to the beauty? Could it be that without them, there would be no stopping by woods?

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I took both pictures this morning. Also, I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.

Making Room for Alcibiades

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Near the end of Aristophanes’ comedy Frogs (Βάτραχοι), after the poetry contest between Aeschylus and Euripides, Dionysus reveals his reason for coming down to Hades: to find a poet who will save the city. For the poetry itself, he chooses Aeschylus–but he is left unsure whom to bring back. To determine which of the two is better suited to the task he has in mind, he poses a few final questions, the first about Alcibiades (a prominent Athenian leader who went into exile after being charged with sacrilege. Aeschylus’s answers make more sense to him, and it is Aeschylus he chooses. Here is Matthew Dillon’s translation of the passage (courtesy of the Perseus Digital Library Project):

Dionysus
Bless you! Come, listen to this.
I came down here for a poet. For what purpose?
So that the city might be saved to stage its choruses.
So whichever of you will give the state some useful
advice, that’s the one I think I’ll take.
Now first, concerning Alcibiades, what opinion
does each of you have? For the city is in heavy labor.

Euripides
What opinion does she have concerning him?

Dionysus
What opinion?
She longs for him, but hates him, and yet she wants him back.
But tell me what you two think about him.

Euripides
I hate that citizen, who, to help his fatherland,
seems slow, but swift to do great harm,
of profit to himself, but useless to the state.

Dionysus
Well said, by Poseidon! What’s your opinion?

Aeschylus
You should not rear a lion cub in the city,
[best not to rear a lion in the city,]
but if one is brought up, accommodate its ways.

Euripides regards Alcibiades with nothing but scorn, while Aeschylus suggests that the city is responsible for him, having reared him. That is, not only must the city make room for him, but it must also take responsibility for having done so until  now. To bring in a completely dissimilar quote from Le Petit Prince, “Tu deviens responsable pour toujours de ce que tu as apprivoisé” (You become forever responsible for what you have tamed.”

In choosing Aeschylus, Dionysus implicitly favors his reply as well. In my many conversations about  this play (at the Dallas Institute and elsewhere), we have considered how a city’s greatness may be measured, in part, by its treatment of the Alcibiadeses of the world: those formidable people with mixed qualities, who pose danger while also bringing gifts. Perhaps it takes a great city to give a home to such a person–or maybe it is that home, that room for difficulty, that defines the city’s greatness, or helps define it.

I think of this as I ask: is there room in the public imagination for people with mixtures of qualities? Do our cities, countries, institutions make room for them, take responsibility for them, treat them as their own? Or do such people get shoved aside, written off?

I have been thinking off and on, over the past year, about Lorin Stein’s December 2017 resignation from the editorship of The Paris Review–in response to allegations of sexual misconduct–and his apology. (Full disclosure: He is a distant acquaintance of mine; I have had several enjoyable, helpful, and interesting conversations with him in the past, at Yale and in New York City, but don’t think I have seen him since 2002 or so.)

I have no knowledge of the actual circumstances, beyond what has appeared in the news; I have no trouble perceiving him, though, as both a brilliant editor and a bit of a “scoundrel” (an epithet I borrow from Wesley Yang). I bring him up because to my knowledge no one–not Yang, nor Katie Roiphe, nor anyone else commenting on this matter–has made the explicit point that The Paris Review should also bear great responsibility for the situation, having hired him precisely for who he was, with full knowledge of his gifts and foibles. (Both Yang and Roiphe come close to saying this but have other emphases and points.) It seems that when the the journal’s board selected him as editor, they wanted his full personality; they wanted to revive some of the spirit of the George Plimpton era, the dazzling and sometimes outrageous parties, the sense that The Paris Review was not only a great literary journal, but the place to be.

If this was in fact their goal, was it flawed? In my view, yes. I distrust glamorous social “scenes” that form around music, literature, and other arts, precisely because they distract from the art itself (and sometimes even crowd it out). Here I am not referring to genuine friendships, but to the superficial relations at parties and other gatherings. I remember going to hear bands in San Francisco and not being able to hear the music because people standing in front of me were talking loudly throughout the show. That is the main problem with a scene: it often takes on its own life, which has more to do with “who is who,” “who is with whom,” and “here I am” than with anything else.

But here’s the thing: given that The Paris Review chose Stein, given that they recognized early on what he would bring to the journal, they owe him a little more than a revision of their workplace policies and the listing of past editors on their masthead. I am not sure what would be fitting–a statement of responsibility? a tribute to his work? a private apology?–nor am I sure that it hasn’t happened. But nothing I have read on this subject suggests that anything of the sort has taken place.

Should he not have stepped down? I have no way of knowing. It may have been the simplest, cleanest, and most helpful course of action under the circumstances. But even now that he is no longer the editor, The Paris Review can make room for him, as a city can make room for Alcibiades. I don’t mean this in a cute way. I have questioned this analogy and decided to keep it; it is not perfect, but it has some truth. Besides, it allows me to bring up Frogs, a play I love for its silliness and satire, its playfulness and pain. Also, my point goes beyond Stein and The Paris Review; it has to do with cities, large and small, literal and figurative, and the way they treat their own lions.

Image credit: Wood engraving by John Austen. From a 1937 limited edition of Aristophanes’ Frogs, translated from the Greek by William J. Hickie. Courtesy of Biblio.com

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