Books and Leaves

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My book—the one I have been writing over the past fifteen months—has been accepted for publication by Rowman & Littlefield! The final manuscript is due March 1; the book should appear in late 2018 or so. I will give updates as they come.

Each of the book’s twelve essays examines an overused or misused word or phrase; it plays with language while commenting on culture. The working title is still Take Away the Takeaway; the final title will be different.

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The teaching is going well; I look forward to each day. I am learning students’ names faster than I expected, though not as fast as I would like. I know the names of the students in two of my eleventh-grade and one of my ninth-grade sections; that leaves five sections where I need to learn some names. (I teach eight sections in grades 9-12; two I see just once a week, two twice a week, and the others four or five times.)

The November bike rides have been glorious. The pictures above are from Alcsisziget, I think. I followed an arrow to Üdülőtelep but ended up in Alcsisziget (or maybe biked through both towns). In the second picture, if you look carefully through the branches, you can see a fisherman in a boat. Here’s another view of the water:

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Back in town, I visited the Szolnok Gallery, which was once Szolnok’s synagogue. I was alone in the museum, except for the office manager, who sold me a ticket and cracked the first joke I have yet understood in Hungarian. It was simple; he told me the price of the ticket, “háromszáz” (300), and then added, with a chuckle, “Nem euro, hanem forint” (Not Euros, but Forints.) I thanked him, climbed the spiral staircase, and walked around slowly. I don’t think I have ever been alone in a museum before. I took time with the art and the building and the silence of it all.

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Speaking of synagogues, I have begun leyning at Sim Shalom in Budapest, which has services every other Shabbat (and many other events in between). It seems that I will read Torah at each Saturday service (or as many as possible) and will eventually teach others to do the same. Each Saturday Shabbat service is followed by a shiur (Torah teaching and discussion) over Kiddush lunch; I love the focus and gathering.

I can’t end this without mentioning Aengus and Minnaloushe. They have been wonderful sports. They have started enjoying the porch, though shyly; they like going out late at night, when it’s all quiet except for the birds and leaves. Here they are: Aengus behind the curtain, Minnaloushe on the dresser, and the two of them considering the world.

It is late here (after 11:00 p.m.), and I have much to do tomorrow. So that will be all.

That Iron String

sitting in cafe 2I am writing this in my favorite Szolnok cafe, Cafe Frei, which has a warm, quiet atmosphere and an internet connection. The picture’s a bit grainy, but it captures the feel of  the place. Tomorrow the teaching begins; I have put together an outline of my lessons for the week and have begun assembling the details in my mind. There’s a set curriculum for the English classes–but room to plan the lessons, add some activities, decide on the emphasis, and more, as long as the students learn the substantial material in the books. For Civilization (American and British), there are informal textbooks too, but much room for additions. I think this is just the right combination of structure and flexibility.

I will begin with introductions and a short class discussion about education itself. Then I will bring up the CONTRARIWISE International Contest; then we will go right into the lessons.

It’s the first time, in all my teaching (except for my year teaching first-year Russian as a graduate student at Yale and my summers at the Dallas Institute) that I have worked from a preestablished curriculum. In my first three years of public school teaching, there was no curriculum for my subject (ESL);  in the fourth year, the school had a curriculum, but I was teaching a subject (literature through theater) that didn’t completely fall within it. At Columbia Secondary School, I created, taught, and oversaw the philosophy sequence for grades 9-11. So there was a curriculum, but not at the outset.

Yet although I usually didn’t have a curriculum at the outset, I advocated for one and set about to create it, not just for that year, but for the longer term. I define curriculum as a general outline of the topics, works, ideas, and skills that will be taught, as well as the key assignments. It does not have to be granular, if the teacher knows the material well. In language instruction, though, it probably should lay out the details, as long as it retains some flexibility. So much goes into teaching and learning a language that you can’t teach well from a general outline unless you have years of experience. You can teach something from an outline, but you’ll probably omit or shortchange many important topics and exercises.

That said, my “ex nihilo” or “quasi ex nihilo” beginnings will come in handy here too. Teaching in an unfamiliar country is no trifle; it takes a willingness to rearrange and recast the elements a bit, not only the external ones, but the internal ones too. For example, in American Civilization I plan to introduce students to Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” (in the context of the unit on the American frontier). Although Emerson was not a frontiersman in a physical sense, he expresses an intellectual frontier that has delighted and troubled me for years and that my former students have remembered again and again. I delight in its vigor, imagination, and boldness; I am troubled by its seeming rejection of predecessors, tradition, and external wisdom. Either way, Emerson’s writing makes a mark; students and teachers come back to it over the years. The ambivalence and memorability can congeal into a few questions for a class discussion.

“Trust thyself,” Emerson writes; “every heart vibrates to that iron string.” He continues:

Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

How can writing arouse such a strong Yes and No at the same time? How can words so self-sure and resounding be simultaneously right and wrong? Also, does he make a single point, or several contradicting ones? To accept the place that “providence” has found for you, you must be alert to “the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.” You cannot be entirely removed. The trustworthiness comes from both introspection and alertness, and from language, which connects one person to another.

I do not want to give too many of my own thoughts here, since there are discussions in store. “That iron string” is part of anything important I have done. Still, I have often had to stop to make sure it was in tune, and in tuning it, I had to listen to outside and inside sounds, not only from the present, but from combinations of times.

I end with a photo I took of the Tiszavirág híd, the Mayfly Bridge, which crosses the Tisza in Szolnok. It seems appropriate for the crossing into teaching (and for iron strings too).

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The Gift of Criticism

norman-rockwell1A few years ago I edited a student’s piece on Machiavelli; I had recruited it at the last minute for my students’ philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE and found that it needed clearer wording in places. When I presented him with the edits, he said that he accepted some but not all of them: that in a few places he was trying to say something else. We sat down to discuss this. In telling me what he meant, he found the right wording; by the end of our meeting, he had revised the piece to his satisfaction. This happened because he was open to the suggestions but strong enough to make his own decisions. Also, I saw past the particulars of my edits; I wanted to help him find his words, not replace them with mine.

This memory returns as I ponder two recent articles about Amy Cuddy and the power pose: Susan Dominus’s New York Times piece and Daniel Engber’s response in Slate. I find Engber’s article much clearer and more to the point–but he also has the benefit of hindsight, critique, and revision. Dominus may well follow up with some afterthoughts. She tackled a complex and heated topic and (from what I can see) did her best to present it fairly. Yet the article fails to distinguish adequately between personal attack and criticism. I posted a comment, which I am developing a little further here. This piece is not about Cuddy; it’s about criticism itself. (Regarding the power pose study, there are numerous recent comments–from many perspectives–in the article’s comment section and on Andrew Gelman’s blog.)

Here’s the key difference, as I see it, between criticism and personal attack: criticism gives you something concrete to consider, something about the issue at hand, be it your work, your actions, or even your personality. Its aim is to point out areas for improvement. It is not always correct or kind; sometimes critics can be vehement and unsympathetic, and sometimes they make mistakes or show biases. But if it is about the thing itself, if it analyzes strengths and weaknesses in a coherent way, it counts as criticism. By its nature it points toward improvement. It is not necessarily negative; it can recognize strengths and excellence.

Personal attack does not give you a chance to improve. Maybe it comes in the form of vague and veiled hints. Maybe it’s incoherent. Maybe it focuses on your personal life instead of the issue at hand. Maybe it gets said behind your back, without your knowledge. Or maybe it’s about something so fundamental to you that it’s unfair to expect you to change. In any case, when it comes to helpful content, there is no “there” there, at least no “there” that invites you in.

In that light, criticism is a gift, even when the delivery is not ideal. It offers working material. But our culture is not well attuned to criticism; we’re taught to hear the “yay” or “nay,” the “up” or “down,” not the subtler responses. For criticism to achieve its purpose, several conditions must exist.

First, institutions would have to make generous room for error, reexamination, and correction. Universities, schools, scientific organizations, publications should not only acknowledge error openly but treat it as part of intellectual life, not cause for shame or demotion.

Second, the person giving the criticism should do so as frankly and humbly as possible: laying the critique on the table without claiming superiority. There’s some disagreement over whether this should happen in private or public, by in person or online. As I see it, a published work can be criticized anywhere–online or offline, in public or private–but an unpublished work or private act should receive more discreet treatment. Published books get reviewed publicly, after all; there’s no suggestion that a reviewer should contact the author privately before saying something in the New York Review of Books. But if I send someone an unpublished manuscript for comment, I expect this person to reply to me alone (or me and my editor) and not to the world.

Third, the person receiving the criticism should learn to hear it and separate it from the emotion it may stir up. Even thoughtful, carefully worded criticism can be hard to hear. It takes some strength to sort out the upset feelings from the actual content of the words. It takes even more to decide which parts of the criticism to take, which to reject, and which to continue considering. Some criticism incites us to reconsider everything we have done; some draws attention to small (but important) details. To hear and use criticism well is to open oneself to profound improvement.

Just before the final manuscript of Republic of Noise was due, someone who read the manuscript offered me some far-ranging suggestions. I saw her points but didn’t want to apply them rashly, in a rush. To decide whether, how, and where to apply them, I would need much more time than I had. I decided to keep them in mind for the future. I am glad of this decision; the book was the way I wanted it, but her suggestions helped me with subsequent writing.

Why do I say that our culture isn’t set up well for criticism? We aren’t taught how to handle it. As a beginning teacher, I remember being told (at numerous “professional development” sessions) not to use red pen, since it could make a student feel bad; not to write on students’ work, but to use Post-its instead; and to limit the comments to two commendations and two general suggestions for improvement. While some of the gist is good (one should avoid overwhelming students or treat one’s own appraisal as the last word), it assumes students’ extreme fragility in the face of concrete, detailed suggestions. The more we treat criticism as devastating, the more fragile we make ourselves (both the critics and the recipients).

Hearing criticism–actually perceiving and considering its meaning–deserves continual practice. It requires immersion in the subject itself; you can’t practice criticism without practicing the thing criticized. It isn’t always fun, but it can lead to exhilaration: you see, on your own terms, a way of doing things better.

 

Image: Norman Rockwell, Jo and Her Publishor (this title may or may not be correct; I have also seen it as Jo and Her Publisher and Jo and Her Editor). This is one of his several illustrations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In Chapter 14, Jo publishes two of her stories in a newspaper.

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

The Not-So-Brief Soul of Wit

chasing the last laughI have not yet read the book pictured to the left (Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour by Richard Zacks). I learned about it yesterday, early in the morning, when looking lackadaisically into humor and wit. Although I had resolved to buy no more books before leaving for Hungary–no more!–I broke down and ordered this one, because it looks too good to pass up. I didn’t know that Twain was a stand-up comedian or that he went on a world tour–or maybe once upon a time I knew this, “But, being over-full of self-affairs, / My mind did lose it.” (I did know that he was friends with Tesla, but that’s a separate matter.)

Yesterday I was thinking not about comedy in particular but about what makes some people uproariously and endearingly funny. Comedy and funniness are not identical; comedy is not always funny, nor do funny things necessarily constitute comedy. Funniness has many sources: it can come from setting up and breaking logical, semantic, and conversational expectations; taking an idea to an absurd conclusion; bringing a particular rhythm, tone, and timing into your speech; performing an exquisite imitation; and more. Today I will look at one ever-gurgling spring of funniness: the ability to exult in your foibles.

We all have foibles of one kind or another; many of us struggle with them daily. A comedian takes them and makes the most of them. Human fallibility attains splendor while retaining its clumsiness and silliness.

For example, some of us can be a pest at times. I am generally patient and unfazed by things–but when I really want to get something done, and it depends on other people, I will bug them until the thing is accomplished, whatever it may be. Sometimes I feel guilty about this; I type and untype an email, hover over the “send” button, delete the whole mess, start over, and repeat the process several times until I end up just sending the thing. It’s always polite–I don’t “flame” people–but still I may feel like a pest.

So when I listen to James Veitch give one of his talks about replying to spammers, I see that he’s taking this quality–being a pest, or feeling like one–and lifting it to its pinnacle. If you are going to be a pest, whom better to pester than those who are aggressively pestering the world: spammers with spurious business proposals? Veitch managed to get one of them so annoyed that he or she (the spammer) finally replied, “PLEASE STOP EMAILING US.” Now, in daily life, with people I know or even with strangers, I wouldn’t want this to happen–I’d be sad and remorseful if it did–but with a spammer, it seems beautifully fitting.

My one objection to his talk is that, in keeping with the TED worldview, he tells his audience, “do do this at home.” He qualifies this by saying they should use fake email addresses, but still, that’s bad advice. He can do this because he has a flair for it. Others could get themselves into trouble. It wouldn’t be the same. The TED illusion–that everyone can do this, whatever “this”  may be–detracts a little from his act. The best way to share in humor and wit is to laugh along, to recognize oneself in it, while also letting it belong to someone else.  Most of us know the feeling of trying to retell someone else’s joke: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but either way, it’s not the same. Funniness is like a soap bubble. Its air is internal.

Another foible (if one can call it that) is awkwardness. Many of us know the feeling of being a little out of sorts and out of place in a setting–not quite saying the right thing, or saying too much, or not saying enough. Some comedians–such as Ismo Leikola–take their own awkwardness and turn it into a glowing orb. Many performers transcend their awkwardness, but certain comedians actually preserve and exalt it. You see Leikola stuttering and puttering around, flapping his arms, and having a grand old time.

On a different level, and in a different way, this foible-lifting is part of what I love in László Krasznahorkai’s prose. He takes you dancing in the characters’ vanities and exaggerations. When reading The Melancholy of Resistance, I burst out laughing many times; when reading Mrs. Eszter’s funeral oration at the end, I laughed myself to tears. The laughter came from the recognition of mind–not the brooding reminiscence of Philip Roth’s characters, but something inflated, clumsy, profound, absurd, and wondrous.

To make the most of foibles, comedians, humorists, and writers perceive kairos (in the ancient Greek sense of the word, not the Christian sense): the opportune moment, which comes again and again in life. Foibles are not always fun or funny, but each one has its spectacular hour or series of hours. That takes us into comedy itself. If comedy turns a potentially threatening, destructive, or even catastrophic situation into something life-affirming (or, at worst, darkly persistent), then, by playing out a foible at just the right moment, by being both flawed and exquisite at once, one can launch a round-the-world comedy tour, not like Mark Twain, but in and along an unrepeatable way.

 

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

 

The Difficulty of Dignity

IMG_3777On October 23, a week before leaving for Hungary, I will lead a philosophy roundtable at Columbia Secondary School on the topic of human dignity. Our texts will be Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech “Solitude of Self,” and a short excerpt from Immanuel Kant’s Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. This excerpt begins, “In the kingdom of ends everything has either value or dignity. Whatever has a value can be replaced by something else which is equivalent; whatever, on the other hand, is above all value, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity.” That strikes me as a good starting point.

At these philosophy roundtables, the discussion takes surprising directions; while I prepare in advance, I do not know what to expect. I am fairly sure, though, that we will spend some time discussing the difficulty of dignity. That’s an inexhaustible topic, so it will not hurt if I lay out a few thoughts here.

It’s easy, when speaking of dignity, to point to egregious violations, such as those we see in the current U.S. presidency. It’s important to call out the egregious and to separate oneself from it (“I deplore this; this is not me”). But take away those extremes, and no one has mastered dignity. Everyone has difficulty with it; each of us fails in some way to perceive and honor others.

If dignity consists in that which is beyond all value and cannot be replaced, then we ignore or harm dignity when treating each other as dispensable or replaceable. Now, we all have aspects that are replaceable; that’s a different matter. If I leave a job, and someone takes over my responsibilities, that person has replaced that aspect of me that fulfilled those responsibilities. Still the person has not replaced me as a whole; I, like the new person, am irreplaceable. Not only did I bring something unique to the work, but I exist beyond it, as does any worker. Also, we often have qualities that we wish to slough off; those qualities do not deserve special honor.

How do we treat others–that is, entire people–as dispensable and replaceable? One common method is gossip. (That doesn’t happen to be my weakness–I gossip “hardly ever“–but don’t worry, I have plenty of other foibles.) Gossip, especially vicious gossip, creates an in-group and an outcast; the outcast has no say, and the gossipers assume that their own words have more status anyway. Also, gossip takes one aspect of a person–one mistake, one unpleasant quality–and treats it as the whole. Now, there’s gossip and gossip; some gossip is on the gentler side, but all the same, it takes advantage of the person’s absence.

But you do not have to be a gossiper (or slanderer, or libeler) to have difficulty with dignity. There are many other ways! For instance, if you try too hard to befriend people who don’t reciprocate, you risk ignoring or damaging their dignity; you assume that your own wishes are worth more than theirs (or that you know what’s good for them). On the other hand, if you shut people out unreasonably, if you push away people who show goodwill and kindness, you are reducing and tossing their gestures and sometimes, with that, their very selves.

If you chronically show up late for appointments and dates, you are rattling others’ dignity by making your day more important than theirs. But sometimes there’s dignity, or at least courtesy, in slight lateness (for instance, when arriving for dinner); it gives your hosts a little more time to prepare and relaxes the expectations. Etiquette has dignity bound up in it, but etiquette taken too far becomes judgmental and self-serving.

Online communications can affect dignity in all sorts of ways; a too-long email can overwhelm, whereas a short text message, in certain contexts, can reduce or erase conversation. Twitter seems to have a built-in indignity; it’s set up for eruptions of semi-thought. Brevity itself isn’t the culprit; it’s a certain kind of brevity, a dismissive kind, that runs rampant online.

Why is dignity so difficult? There are numerous possibilities; one is that we live inside our own minds and do not know what it’s like to be someone else. Everything we do, think, or feel is from our own perspective; while we can experience empathy, it’s essentially an act of imagination. Because of this, it is all too easy to treat others as slightly less real than we are. There’s supreme difficulty in seeing others.

Then there are the limits of a day and a life; there’s only so much we can take in, only so much room we can make for others. People reasonably set up their lives with concentric and sometimes overlapping circles; they have their inner circle and then successive outer rings. Distance can have dignity too–there’s dignity in strangers and privacy–but it’s all too easy to diminish distant people, to treat them as existentially less important.

Is there hope, then? Yes; first of all, dignity is inherent in us and cannot be given or taken away. It can be recognized or ignored, strengthened or damaged, but it stays. (I recognize that some dispute this, but I hold to it for now.) Second, there are thousands of ways of moving closer to it. Just as it can be bruised, so it can be healed. Treating others as beyond all value–that’s the work of a lifetime, but it’s possible,  thought by thought, gesture by gesture, mistake by mistake, repair by repair.

 

I took the photo in Albertirsa, Hungary. You can’t really see the grapes (except for one cluster), but they are there. When I looked at this little vineyard (in person), at first I saw no grapes at all. But then I started noticing one cluster after another.

For an extraordinary investigation of human dignity, see George Kateb’s book on the subject.

Radical Patience

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Urban life seems to tell us that only fools show patience. If you’re waiting in line, and the people in front of you are just dawdling, then it’s on you to urge them to move along. Or if you apply for a job and hear nothing for several months, there’s no virtue in staying silent; unless you make an inquiry, you may find yourself waiting indefinitely. It seems that the people who accomplish things are those who take existence by the horns and shake it up. It is those movers and shakers–legs in the air, hands gripping the Toro–who actually matter, or so it seems.

Celebrity lore perpetuates this idea. Famous people get huge book deals, and their books get *everyone* talking. Famous people make hugely influential films about social issues. Famous people influence election outcomes, for better or for worse. Whenever these take a bite from a celery stalk, they send a tremor through the press. According to these exemplars, any worthy accomplishment in life comes loudly, with grand echoes; if your work lacks such dramatic response, it basically doesn’t exist.

But this celebrity model distorts things. Many accomplishments such as writing require not only persistence and “grit” but a subdued quality known as patience. The right kind of patience is far from foolish; taking time with things, letting them unfold, you come closer to understanding their nature. Patience allows for sorting and recombination; it puts immediate passions in perspective.

In this sense, patience does radical work. It rips a person away from immediate reactions and demands, away from the distortions of glitz and fame, into a perception of things that matter. It has dangers, of course, especially when combined with wishful thinking; a person can wait and wait for nothing at all. It needs the mediation of good judgment.

Working on my book, I needed more patience than I first expected. I initially thought it would get snatched up by an agent–or rather, I thought this was expected of me. People were surprised to hear that I would devote a year to writing when I didn’t even have a publisher, so I thought, “I’ll have one soon.” It takes time to find one; not only that, but there’s something to be said for the time involved. It allows for serious thinking and revision along the way.

It is too soon for me to say anything definite, since I don’t have anything definite–but in terms of publication, I see some light ahead. Whether or not this light is for me, I don’t know. But the book will make its way into print, and the time will have helped it. I don’t think it would be where it is now if someone had seized it right away.

Too much waiting does no one any good; it can turn into sloth or procrastination. But I am not talking about either of those things; while waiting, I have been working on the book and doing many other things.

How, then, does patience differ from grit? With grit, you are the one in control; with patience, not so. Patience is essentially passive (as its root suggests); this quality doesn’t get much respect in our “go for it” culture. But certain kinds of passivity make room for good; moreover, passivity and activity often combine. Patience does not equal a long nap or, at the other end of things, a long scream. It’s somewhere in the background, but not too far; while letting things happen, it stays alert and taut. It exists only alongside impatience; there is a time for waiting and a time for saying “enough.” When to do which? To choose between the two, one must be capable of both; the bold word holds hours of holding back.

 

I took the photo in Albertirsa, Hungary.  “Pékség” means “bakery,” and baking, in many situations, requires patience. (Then again, it can also be done in a rush.)

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

 

Krasznahorkai’s Ken

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Yesterday I did two things for the first time: saw a woodchuck on these particular steps of Fort Tryon Park (I have seen many woodchucks in the park, but not there–a stranger pointed him out excitedly), and read László Krasznahorkai’s story The Last Wolf (which I followed up with Herman this morning). The two events are related in that this woodchuck reminds me of the “noxious beasts” of his stories, the beasts that arouse human cruelty and remorse.

Just a few lines into The Last Wolf, I knew that I was faced with great literature–great, that is, in the reading itself. But what makes it great? It is the way of unraveling and revealing thoughts that I recognize as my own but that catch me off guard with their undertones and contradictions. The stories’ threads combine, diverge, combine: the narrator’s story to the bartender, the many stories he gathers, despite himself, of the last wolf, and then the story of his own mind, revealed only to the reader–all of this in a single sweeping sentence.

… and he remembered that the strange thing about the article was not only the way the oddly poetic sentence stood out in the text but that anyone would know when “the last wolf” had died, for how would anyone know, and beyond that, the verb itself, “perished” for did any scientist speak like that? no, there was something not quite right about the article, about the sentence …

This is introspection filled with the world. You start reading, and from then on, with all the twists and turns, you’re balancing on thin logs; nothing sags, nothing lets you quit, and with just a slip of the foot, you’re trapped.

It wakes up my mind; as I read, I become the game warden, the enthusiastic interpreter, the sleepy bartender, the repeated phrases, the changes of the conscience. Herman is fantastic too; the story’s two parts contradict each other in places, leaving me to suspect that people are lying, that stories are not fully told, that people rumored to have disappeared are dead or vice versa, that something magnificent has happened against our knowledge, and that the public imagination can’t hold a single solitude.

It’s possible to read these stories as allegories, but is it necessary? I would say no; the meaning lies in the things themselves, not in what they might represent. An allegorical reading would evade some of the meaning (and give the reader an escape).

Some readers find Krasznahorkai’s prose too dense and slow. I have a different reaction; his prose holds me much more than some lighter styles do, not because it’s dense, but because the density is so involving. The language sings, but with the pain of someone confronting himself like a stranger. Krasznahorkai has been compared to Gogol, and with good reason; he also reminds me a little of Borges. But these comparisons are slant; he has a ken of his own. I can’t wait to read The Melancholy of Resistance.

 

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

“The time is out of joint”

fuseli hamlet boydellThis is the second of my blog posts on the pitfalls of moving on. (See the introduction and first post.)

Hamlet is not about the conflict between moving on and looking back, but it’s tempting to see it that way. It has more to do with the conflict between expedient and many-layered language, but there are thousands of possible tiltings.

Early on in the play, Claudius and Gertrude both press on Hamlet to move beyond mourning; Hamlet, for his part, ensures that they remember precisely what they wish to forget (by staging a play that draws out Claudius’s guilt).

Claudius tells Hamlet (in Act 1, Scene 2):

‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; ’tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool’d:
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! ’tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd: whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died to-day,
‘This must be so.’

His argument has as much baseness as logic: he says, anyone will mourn the death of his parent (as a matter of filial obligation, for a term), but to drag it on too long is a sign of immaturity and unmanliness, a stubborn protest against heaven, man, and nature. All fathers die; Hamlet’s father’s father died too, and his father before him. A father’s death is the “common theme” of heaven, nature, reason, and the dead; what grown man would oppose it?

Hamlet insists on remembering–not by erecting a memorial or delivering a speech, but by giving the lie to others’ evasions and euphemisms. If this were all he did, if he had no internal struggles, he would come across as arrogant–but all this wit takes place within an overwhelmed consciousness. His words to others can be sarcastic (“Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables”), cryptic (“for yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward”), scornful (“Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!”), or teasing (“the age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he gaffs his kibe”). On his own, and with the Ghost, he shows still more capabilities, and near the end, when speaking to Laertes and Horatio, still more. His knowledge goes beyond what he knows.

He stages a play, The Murder of Gonzago, into which he inserts his own lines; he not only instructs the actors and arranges the event but provides his own commentary during the performance itself. It is precisely after his explanation (“He poisons him i’ the garden for’s estate. His name’s Gonzago: the story is extant, and writ in choice Italian: you shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife”) that the King cries out, “Give me some light: away!”

It is easy to ally oneself with Hamlet and decry the Claudiuses of the world, those who brush over their actions with the rhetoric of “moving on.” We hear plenty of that rhetoric in politics and workplaces, and it doesn’t inspire trust. In December 2016, in response to inquiries about Russian meddling in the election, Trump said that “we ought to get on with our lives”; he has said similar things since. But the phrase is not purely Trumpian; it’s common coinage. In workplaces after mass layoffs, the managers speak of “going forward”; at least two distinct advice books have the title Moving Forward.

Still, any alliance with Hamlet is artistic, not literal; we can find ourselves in Hamlet again and again, yet no one of us is Hamlet, and the play’s conflicts do not map exactly onto life. Hamlet’s integrity lies not in “looking back,” but in seeing that “the time is out of joint” and seeking “to set it right.” He is endlessly complicated; he goes about things in circuitous ways, evading questions, concocting elaborate scenes, and killing the wrong person. I find an odd comfort in his ruminations, but it is not the “useful” comfort of a sweater. It stays slightly at odds with uses.

Moreover, while the play allows us to believe that Hamlet is not wrong “in the main” (Claudius did kill King Hamlet, and the Ghost was seen first by others), with a little twist of the mind, he could be catastrophically wrong. Suppose his father had died a natural death, yet he imagined Claudius the killer and sought his life. Suppose, moreover, that Claudius had gained the throne legitimately. Hamlet would then threaten not only the stability, not only the people, but even the laws and principles of the state.

Therefore, while one can look to Hamlet for poetry, tragedy, and personal resonance, one cannot look to it for direct life lessons. When it comes to “moving on” and “looking back,” the play offers no guidance. Hamlet offers a language of grappling, but not an answer. There can be no absolute answer; any life moves backward and forward, right and left, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, sometimes with long pauses.

In the last post on this topic I will talk about the zigzags of return and progress.

Image: Robert Thew, after Henry Fuseli, Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus, and the Ghost (1796). Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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

 

 

Reading and Rereading

kosice bookstoreThis is the first of three blog posts on the pitfalls of moving on. (See the introduction here.) Of all the examples of fruitful return, rereading stands out as both obvious and splendid. For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed rereading more than first-time reading; in remembering and rediscovering the book (or poem or play), I not only see new things in it but grasp a different whole. For this to happen, the work does not have to present explicit difficulties; I can reread Lorca’s poem “La guitarra” (in his Poema del cante jondo) and find new clarities and darknesses in it, even though nothing seemed to stump me on the first round.

Continual rereading has its own pitfalls; if you never get around to new books, you will limit the rereading itself. To reread a book, you must have read it in the first place; you must put those old favorites aside and take up this bulky thing that you do not yet know. This is my main “reading difficulty”: those stacks of unread books in my good intentions.

Rereading, then, can only accompany first-time reading. But our culture and economy seem tipped toward the latter: the latest book, the book club selections, the titles that everyone is talking about for a short while. Many of these books disappear as quickly as they come, but if they manage to squeeze some fame and sales out of the air, the publishers and publicists will not complain. Publishers do care what comes out of their presses, but they have to prosper too. So they will publish many urban daylilies along with a few bristlecone pines.

One possible measure of literary quality is longevity: how many times, or over how much time, a work can be read with new understanding and pleasure. A few publishers base their entire work on this principle. Library of America “champions our nation’s cultural heritage by publishing America’s greatest writing in authoritative new editions and providing resources for readers to explore this rich, living legacy.” Thus the Library of America’s work consists not only of republishing but of rereading too–and reading works that have been there for decades or centuries but that we barely acknowledged with a soporific quote.

A spirit of rereading makes room for first-time readings too. When you look back, you make room for those works you missed. Cynthia Haven’s “Another Look” book discussion series, which she founded with Tobias Wolff, focuses on books that deserve more attention than they have received. For many, these books may be first-time reads, but the club’s name, “Another Look,” suggests return. The series kicked off with William Maxwell’s short novel So Long, See You Tomorrow. I had not read it before; although I could not attend the discussion, I purchased a Library of America edition, read it in time for the event, brought it into my life, and now look forward to a third reading.

So returns and rereading can dissolve the highways of popularity and bring newness out of dust. But it is a complex matter. Exclusive rereading (with no new books) and exclusive first-time reading (with no returns) both constrict. Nor is there a perfect proportion; the balance or imbalance may vary. But rereading can offer a strong corrective to a culture bent on “moving on” to the next new thing. What just came out is not necessarily more important than what came out years ago.

Each summer, at the Dallas Institute, my colleagues and I teach literature: epic in the odd-numbered years and tragedy and comedy in the even-numbered years. This year, when returning to King Lear, I admired the scene where Edgar (in the guise of a stranger) pretends to assist his blinded father, Gloucester, in jumping off a cliff but actually saves him. Having attained the make-believe cliff, which actually is nothing, they have the following exchange (Lear 4.6.25-41):

Edgar. Give me your hand: you are now within a foot
Of th’ extreme verge: for all beneath the moon
Would I not leap upright.

Gloucester.                            Let go my hand.
Here, friend, ‘s another purse; in it a jewel
Well worth a poor man’s taking. Fairies and gods
Prosper it with thee! Go thou further off;
Bid me farewell, and let me hear thee going.

Edgar. Now fare ye well, good sir.

Gloucester. With all my heart.

Edgar. [Aside] Why I do trifle thus with his despair
Is done to cure it.

Gloucester says farewell to the world, jumps, “falls,” and is rescued by Edgar in the guise of another stranger, who speaks of his miraculous survival.

Edgar. Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
So many fathom down precipatating,
Thou’dst shivered like an egg: but thou dost breathe;
Hast heavy substance; bleed’st not; speak’st; art sound.
Ten masts at each make not the altitude
Which thou hast perpendicularly fell:
Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.

I have read and loved this scene many times. But on this reading, Edgar’s aside stood out: “Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it.” This may seem an unnecessary explanation; the audience can already guess that Edgar intends to save his father’s life. But Edgar speaks here not of saving a life, but of curing despair; he makes a striking connection between “trifling” with the despair and “curing” it. He invents a lightness, which then surrounds Gloucester’s unfatal fall. “Thy life’s a miracle,” says Edgar–but what makes it a miracle is this very trifling, this creation of precipice, fall, and survival out of level land.

That’s what happens with rereading: it is choreography of words, where the dancers surprise you even after you think you know the whole dance. Rereading holds you up to the book and says, “There’s more, there’s more.”

 

I took the photo in Košice on May 29.

“Those Last Notes Which Complete the Harmony”

William-Trost-Richards-Rocks-and-Sea

In her essay “The Russian Point of View,” Virginia Woolf writes about Chekhov’s stories and their endings:

But is it the end, we ask? We have rather the feeling that we have overrun our signals; or it is as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it. These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognise. In so doing, we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic — lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed — as it is in most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong, but where the tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely the information that they went on talking, as it is in Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony. Probably we have to read a great many stories before we feel, and the feeling is essential to our satisfaction, that we hold the parts together, and that Tchekov was not merely rambling disconnectedly, but struck now this note, now that with intention, in order to complete his meaning.

Over the past few days I listened to a Russian audiobook of Chekhov’s story “The Duel,” read by the actor Denis Nekrasov. I love a good audiobook, especially when it is well read; all the same, I was unprepared for this return to a story I had read and misunderstood years ago (and still carried with awe in my memory).

I first read it as an undergraduate, I think, and found it funny at the time; I saw it as a satire on the tradition of the duel in Russian literature and wrote a paper to that effect. (The teaching assistant commented, “What tradition of the duel?”) Now I hear it entirely differently. It has tinges of humor, but the overall tone is hard to define: world-weary, melancholic, hopeful, but tilting, shifting, swaying out of all of these states.

It is not really “about” a duel; the duel is primarily a state of mind: a state of forced certainty, of knowing that “it has come to this,” that you know exactly another person’s worth, and that you or he must die. Just how that state forms, hardens, and dissolves, this is the matter of the story. But it is not the action of one person alone, but of many figures with entrances, exits, and presences. A person who seems on the periphery can change the course of events. Conversations that seemed incidental can come back as refrains. Maybe the characters change profoundly, maybe not; but as they lose their certainty, they move into decency.

I am not going into detail, since I hope others will read the story. (Also I’m about to board a flight to Dallas.) But I know now that the earlier misunderstanding was worthwhile; I latched onto the duel itself, just as the two duelists did. Over many years, my forced certainty came undone, but still admired the story for reasons I could not articulate. Yesterday, listening to the ending, I heard the rhythms of the sea, of farewells, of the characters and their changing thoughts.

 

Image credit: William Trost Richards, Rocks and Sea.