Respect for What Is Other and Different

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Since the killing of George Floyd by police officers–just one of a long line of incidents of police violence against black people–the public has come to recognize the need for profound changes. Not only the Black Lives Matter protests, but countless formal and informal discussions have taken up the topic around the clock. Yet within the drive for racial justice, an injustice is taking hold. People are being shamed, canceled, driven out of their jobs–for saying the wrong thing, saying the right thing but not strongly enough, or saying the right thing, strongly enough, but not coupling it with immediate and acceptable action. Such shaming hurts not only the individuals involved (including the shamers, who bring out the worst in themselves), not only democracy, language, and human dignity (a handful already), but even the protests. There will be no real progress against racism in America if people cannot participate with integrity, if they cannot speak their minds, doubts, and feelings, if they cannot hear others out. Instead there will be heartbreak as the movement fails not only the larger public, but its own participants and supporters.

On June 6, Mayor Jacob Frey was booed out of a protest rally in Minneapolis because he stated–upon being questioned repeatedly–that he did not support the full abolition of the police. You can watch the exchange here.

Another video suggests that many members of the crowd were not booing him but rather letting him pass through. If this is accurate, the booing does not represent the whole, but still drowns out everything else.

For the sake of what? Mayor Frey had already said that systemic change was needed. The woman with the microphone pressed him further by asking him repeatedly whether he supported defunding the police. What does that even mean? The Minneapolis City Council has since vowed to dismantle the police force, but no one knows what the end result will look like. In other words, a mayor was driven out of a rally–which he had come out to support–for the sake of something unknown.

The ganging up on perceived enemies has affected not only politics, but medicine, poetry, theater, art, science, sports, and other spheres. It is not exclusive to the left. Health workers and officials have been pushed out of their jobs and subjected to harassment and death threats by groups protesting coronavirus protection measures–groups that regard the coronavirus as a hoax perpetrated by Jews, for instance. According to The New York Times, Dr. Amy Acton, the state health director of Ohio, dealt with “anti-Semitic attacks and demonstrations by armed protesters on her front lawn,”. While widely different in political orientation and aim, groups from the right and left punish those who do not meet their demands exactly. Whether Trump sets an example here or follows an existing trend, he displays a similar tendency in his tweets to all the world.

Back to the left, or a segment of it. A letter to the Poetry Foundation–presented by thirty individuals, most of them Poetry Foundation Fellows, and signed by over 1,800 individuals–demanded that the Foundation replace its president, take specific action to eradicate racism and other discrimination, acknowledge the harm it has committed already, move toward redistributing its funds, and more. All signatories pledged not to work with the Poetry Foundation until the demands had been met “to a substantial degree.” The president, Henry Bienen, has already stepped down. The letter came in response to the organization’s antiracism statement, issued on June 3, which was not deemed strong enough:

The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine stand in solidarity with the Black community, and denounce injustice and systemic racism.

As an organization we recognize that there is much work to be done, and we are committed to engaging in this work to eradicate institutional racism. We acknowledge that real change takes time and dedication, and we are committed to making this a priority.

We believe in the strength and power of poetry to uplift in times of despair, and to empower and amplify the voices of this time, this moment.

The Guggenheim Museum and other museums, theaters all over the country, and other institutions are being told to espouse certain values, statements, and actions or face consequences. Those who delay in doing so are named on lists; those who comply are often suspected of not meaning it. A public Google spreadsheet, titled “Theaters Not Speaking Out” and open for anyone to edit, lists 486 theaters as of this writing. According to the Los Angeles Times:

More disturbing than the slowness to speak out, [Marie] Cisco said, was the language of the statements themselves, many of which fell back on pledges of support without acknowledgement of the historical diversity problem in theater or commitments to take concrete steps to support black artists.

As theaters posted statements to social media and emailed them to their supporters and the press, Cisco and her crowd-sourced contributors recorded when each company’s message went public, whether it cited Black Lives Matter specifically and whether the institution had donated to the cause or pledged “actionable commitments,” among other criteria.

Beyond the arts, countless corporations are churning out antiracism statements–and it is no surprise that some of them ring hollow. In a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” environment, many probably figure that they can mitigate their damnation somewhat with a consultant-crafted mission statement.

I think back on the words of O’Brien in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain.” As the tactics of shaming and demanding become a way of life, so does the damage. The tactics hurt much more than the targeted individuals and institutions.

First of all, they hurt democracy. If, to be treated as an acceptable human being or institution, one must adopt a prescribed line and course of action, then there can be no exchange of views. Without an exchange of views, there is no democracy. We have already seen this, in different form, with Trump’s long series of purges. Democracy depends on a plurality of opinions–an opportunity to discuss, deliberate, and decide. It also depends on a mixture of priorities. Social justice–as usually conceived–is not the only kind of justice worth fighting for, nor can it stand alone.  To be viable, it must consider and combine with other justices, including justice within an individual, justice between two, and public justice.

Second, these tactics hurt language. If those making the demands reject all criticism and challenges, they lose a chance to exercise imagination and logic. In a bizarre Rolling Stone article, EJ Dickson argues that Olivia Benson, a police officer in the TV show Law and Order, (that’s right, a fictional character) should be canceled because she appears as a good cop and could therefore confuse viewers about the true nature of the police force. What, should Marge Gunderson be canceled too for her smarts and tough charm? Should fictional characters from other professions–teachers, mayors, doctors, priests–be nixed as well, while we’re at it? And what price will the mind pay for this? How can anyone “reimagine” the police, for instance, if we are not supposed to imagine in the first place? (Not to mention that literature would disappear.)

Third, these tactics hurt human dignity–the presence, in each person, of something that goes beyond measure, beyond others’ knowledge. If people are so sure of their assessments of others, so quick to name enemies of the cause, then anyone, at any moment, can be flattened to enemy status; not only that, but the flattening will become a way of life and thought. The “I-Thou” relation as described by Martin Buber and referenced in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” becomes a thing of the past, a relic in an antique shop.

Fourth, these tactics hurt the Black Lives Matter protests themselves–not only over the longer term, but now. To accomplish something durable, protesters must be willing to work and speak with a range of people, including those who disagree with them on some points, express ideas differently, or have different priorities. Through such work, the protest efforts can grow and strengthen over time. But just within the coming months, the protesters’ conduct will influence the outcome of the election in swing states. Setting a principled example, showing regard for others, the protesters can help the country overcome Trump (along with his effects and affects) and move toward a saner and kinder world.

The alternative–the extreme self-righteousness, the thronged castigation of dissenters–will dishonor the protests, harm decent people, and destroy the very things worth fighting for.

Painting: Marc Chagall, The Revolution (1937). “I think the Revolution could be a great thing if it retained its respect for what is other and different,” Chagall had written in My Life (1923).

Correction: The Minneapolis rally mentioned here took place on June 6, not June 7.

Update: See “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published online in Harper’s on July 7. It will also appear in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue.

Bike Rides and Their Layers

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One thing I love about long bike rides is that they allow me to think without interference. I can sift through many things over those hours. Another thing I love is the discovery: exploring towns and countryside, taking detours here and there. A third is the return: coming to know a place better through visiting it again and again. Then these three things start to play with each other in counterpoint: the thinking, exploring, and return, so that the bike ride becomes a kind of music.

Music! someone might say. What are you doing talking about music? There’s no time for that. You should be out on the streets protesting.

But music is not an escape. It is protest of its own kind. It demands and allows truth.

I stayed in Vajdácska, at the bed-and-breakfast I have visited four times now, in four consecutive years. The owners are welcoming, the food is delicious, and the place is lovely and full of original touches. The photo at the top was the view from my window. Here, below, is a view from about 300 meters away. (The church on the left is Hungarian Greek Catholic; the one on the right, Protestant.)

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In 2017, when I first visited, I biked around the surrounding towns and villages. In 2018 and 2019, I bicycled up to Kassa (Košice) and took a train back; this time, I biked to Tokaj and back. Tokaj is famous for its wines, especially sweet white wine–but it is the dry Furmint that especially appeals to me.  Anyway, I had more than one reason for going to Tokaj: I wanted to stay within Hungary, see Tokaj itself, see what this southbound route was like, and start figuring out a future bike trip–about two and a half days long–from Szolnok to Vajdácska.

But this bike ride took me beyond what I had expected. In Vámosújfalu, I noticed that every house had a well next to it. That is, everyone drew their own water. The next village, Olaszliszka, had something magical about it, but I didn’t start to understand it until the way back. Then in Szegilong there were storks in nests, one after another, all of them feeding their young. (There had been storks before, but this was the first time that I saw them in a row.)

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As I drew closer to Tokaj, I started seeing wineries and vineyards, one after another.

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Then Tokaj itself–a place where you were invited to take a rest and enjoy yourself. A statue of Bacchus, by the sculptor Péter Szanyi, sets the mood in the town square. (Tokaj legends include a cult of Bacchus, thanks in part to the Jesuit teacher and poet Imre Marotti.)

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I had some goulash at the Bacchus Restaurant, then visited a wine cellar (the Borostyán Pince, over 350 years old), where I bought some Furmint and talked for a while with the owner, who showed me the currency he had received from visitors from around the world and asked me many questions about how I ended up coming to Hungary to live and teach. (All the conversations on this trip were in Hungarian.)

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So far, this sounds more or less like a typical tourist trip, or tourist bike trip. But I had been noticing some other things too. When I entered Tokaj, I passed by a large Jewish cemetery, larger than the one in Sátoraljaújhely. It was closed, so I just looked at it for a few minutes. (To take this picture, I passed my hands through the gate.)

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On the way back, I was thinking about how some of the villages were entirely inhabited by Roma people (“Gypsies”), others by white Hungarians, others by both. I thought about how each village had its own history–sometimes a violent history–of ethnic conflict. I didn’t know anything yet about Olaszliszka, but on the way back, I took a little more time to look at it. It seemed to be all Roma–I saw children playing in the streets, parents pushing their babies in strollers, teenagers chatting outside a corner store. I saw medieval ruins overgrown with greenery.

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I saw a sign pointing the way to a Jewish synagogue and cemetery–and biked in that direction but found nothing. Later I learned that this was a famous center of Hungarian Hasidism–where the first Lisker Rebbe, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Friedman, lived. The village apparently still has a memorial synagogue site.

The village was also the site of a murder in 2006, which became part of the subject of a play by Szilárd Borbély. A white Hungarian biology teacher, Lajos Szögi, was driving through with his two daughters when his car hit a little Roma girl, who fell down but was unharmed. The family attacked the man and beat him to death in front of his daughters. The father of the little girl later received a life sentence; all the others involved received stiff punishments. There have been some discussions of why this happened, but for many, the incident confirmed existing prejudice and hatred. (There has been repeated violence against Roma people too.)

A village like this keeps everything secret and tells all. Knowing nothing of this yet, I stopped to listen to the swooping birds. I hope to go back and see more, including the synagogue memorial.

Before and after, I was thinking about the U.S., about police violence, about the protests. I support the protests in that they call out truths and necessities. I do not stand with protesters who shame and debase people who disagree with them even in part (for instance, those who booed and shamed Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis when he said that he did not support abolishing the police force). This leads to no good; it alienates some possible allies and coerces others into false agreement. It makes deliberation impossible.

On the other hand, protests need their fire. Many protesters are understandably tired of moderate arguments; too often moderation has squirmed away from its promises.

The next day, on my way to the Sárospatak train station, I passed by a rose garden. It was beautiful, so I stopped. The gardener saw me and cut a rose for me. I thanked him and headed on. Then I turned back and asked him if he would take a picture. He obliged. (There is much more to say about Sárospatak, and far more to learn.)

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I wondered, throughout the trip, whether my own uncertainty (over politics and many other things) was a sign of strength or weakness. I don’t think I can answer that yet (or maybe ever). But for better or worse, uncertainty is part of what I do, what I have to offer. I know that I don’t know the entirety of another person, a country, myself, or a crumbling building. But I want to come back and learn more.

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

Wending Its Way to Readers

mindovermemesWhen you write a book, there’s great excitement and anticipation around its publication. Who will read it? How will they respond to it? Then come the book events. Then the reviews–maybe many, maybe few. A few responses from friends. Then a few interviews. Then the wait. Sometimes a long silence.

My book events–in Dallas, Budapest, Szolnok, and New York–were dreamy and lively. I couldn’t have wished for better. They come back as happy memories. The responsible reviews were encouraging too. (A few Goodreads reviews were irresponsible in that their authors showed no signs of having read the book or knowing what it was about.) But overall, the book went under the radar.

People have so much to read, they are so bombarded with stuff, that they don’t rush to read your book unless they have a particular interest in it or have been hearing about it from everyone. That is why so many publishers and publicists compete to create “buzz” around a book even before it is published.

My book opposes buzz, though; that’s part of its point. It is about thinking carefully about what you want to say and saying it on your own terms, in your own time. It is about questioning those catchwords and phrases–“the team,” “creativity,” “the good fit,” “toxic people,” and others–that do so much damage when thrown about carelessly.  It is about recognizing that we don’t have the last word about the people around us, the ways to lead life, or the meaning of a text.

So it was a delight to be interviewed by Marci Mazzarotto at the New Books Network. She is an Assistant Professor of Digital Communication at Georgian Court University in New Jersey. We had an unrushed, enjoyable conversation about the book and its ideas. The podcast appeared online today.

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A good interview brings out some new aspect of a book or author, or at least something that hasn’t been emphasized yet. In this case, we talked about the presence or absence of empathy in language. For instance, when people write others off as “toxic,” they often haven’t taken the trouble to speak with them, learn who they are, or address the particular problem at hand. To call someone “toxic” is to say, “I don’t have to bother with you.”

Empathy is a tricky matter. It can bring its own illusions. But as a rejection of over-certainty about others, it is good. As an acknowledgment that others cannot be summed up, that they have lives and thoughts of their own, it can help us out of many errors.

The book was written well before COVID-19 appeared, but today I notice various ways of writing off the disease–not by calling it or its victims “toxic,” but by somehow describing those affected in a way that separates them. It’s tempting to believe that the virus comes just to the old, the sick, the faraway–as though anyone could escape any of those states with just a bit of willpower. It is easy to trick yourself into this kind of thinking, even in mild forms, until you know someone who has been ill.

When I reread the book now, I see that it says important things that hold up over time. There are a few superfluous sentences and phrases that I would cut today, but they don’t overwhelm the text. In any case, it is wending its way to readers, and I have thoughts for the next book.

Old School in Hungary: Part 9

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We finished the novel, and then schools throughout Hungary closed on account of the coronavirus. We didn’t have a chance to discuss the book as a whole. But at least we completed it and discussed the ending together; we devoted our last lesson to the last half of the last chapter. Afterward, as we quickly adjusted to online classes, students’ written responses started to arrive in my box. The days went by, and I thought about how strange it was that for us, too, school had become a memory–a recent one, yes, but a memory all the same.

The students’ responses to Old School varied in emphasis, idea, emotion, and more. I am quoting a few here–with the authors’ permission–to give a sense of the range. In this one, a student describes a change of perspective over the course of the reading.

At first I didn’t know what to think of the book. It felt dull, like just another book about writers coming to visit a private school. The fact that we don’t know the name of the narrator didn’t help either. It made me feel like it’s not even an individual story, which, now that I think about it, is not even a bad thing. I couldn’t relate to the main character. He had different problems, feelings, and attitudes towards the questions of life. In chapter ”Übermensch,” for example, he read a novel and suddenly realized that he belongs to the next level of humanity. How am I supposed to place myself in that situation?

But as I read more and more, I started to get the picture. The discussions helped me understand the deeper meanings that I wasn’t able to recognize while reading at home. There was one part in particular that I couldn’t stop reading. It was the part when the narrator got expelled. One reason for that is that I can’t put a book down not knowing what happens next. What’s more, the way the narrator heard the same usual sounds of the school brought up some memories of mine, memories of my last day at primary school. Although it wasn’t an expulsion, I felt the same way. Now that was relatable. The way I, once a student, became an outsider.

It is difficult to summarize the whole novel as one single unit. It has parts that seem to be only storytelling, but in reality have a double meaning. There are also philosophical parts, which require the reader to think about certain questions for themselves. Overall, this book has definitely changed my perspective on life.

Another student, after explaining what he didn’t like about the book–the difficulty of the language, the lack of information about the characters, the lack of clear signals when a dialogue is beginning or ending–went on to discuss what he liked:

The characters were very interesting, especially the “narrator” in the perspective from which we could usually see his thoughts mostly, not his physical acts. Also the way he plagiarized the book, and thought that it really was his.

I really liked (or disliked) the other characters as well. For example my favourite of them all was Mr. Ramsey, who won this place because he was so different in the school than after the narrator was expelled, in the car and at the station. And when he gave the pack of cigarettes to the narrator: that was such a middle-finger to the Honour Code which he did not agree with. And there was Goss, who behaved disgustingly. And this was, I think, some of the biggest magic of the book: you could really associate with the narrator, how he felt in these situations, and what his feelings were about other characters, and it was so well written! And anyone can associate with these feelings, because there is no human being who never felt the stressful pressure while being charged by something, knowing/realising what he did and what the consequences will be, but unable to say a word for his protection. And also, these characters are so real, that you can really associate with them.

One student brought up the loss of innocence in the book–the realization that the school has double standards and that the world isn’t a “pink bubble”:

Old School deals with many moral issues and social problems. It can be read as a parody or satire on the value of art and morals in society (for example, the racial boundaries). But what caught me the most that the novel introduces us to an academic environment with strict standards, but later we can see them as double standards and false standards. Like when the boy is caught copying, he knows he has broken an ethical code (which I think is not so perfect), but what he doesn’t know then, he learns later in the book: All the people who judged him so harshly were liars too, as was the idea of “not lying.”

My personal favourite part is when the narrator whistles a song what he learned during his summer job. I had no idea why the school’s handyman Gershon was so upset when he heard it. It was a big suprise when it turned out to be a Nazi song. I found it the story’s most shocking part. That was when I felt that the writer pulled us out of the little sweet school life to push us into the true and cold reality. This was a powerful point for the narrator (and for us). At that moment he finally realises that the world isn’t a pink bubble. He experienced bad things before, but lots of people experienced so much worse. And he started to cry when he found out the truth about the song and Gershon’s past. I think it was very a human reaction from the narrator. At that moment I could sympathize with him.

Another student went through some changes of perspective and understanding while reading–at first noticing what the book wasn’t, but later realizing what it was.

Through the last few weeks, I have been a part of a story whose atmosphere was unknown for me in many aspects. At first the book itself sounded great, as though there would be some action and adventure. Yet it wasn’t as I expected it to be. For me the most interesting experience was that when I was reading the chapters I didn’t feel any of this great adventure, but as I am now fully aware of the whole story, I look back and see lots of expressions, conflicts, confrontations, secrets. I think this is why it is unusual for me but these things take the story to a whole other level. Now I think reading a book like this can help us with understanding some real important issues we will be having in our lives, so I think it teaches a lot about how to handle some situations.

What I have realised is that reading a book is one thing, but to talk about it with people of different opinions is the best way of understanding what it may hold hidden between some pages. Through the discussions, I could feel sometimes that some parts of the book are just boring and like the story wasn’t going anywhere, but after all I think these might have been the most essential parts to make a full story. If we think about the fact that throughout the story we have met some famous writers who, in other cases we wouldn’t have met, this is a story full of knowledge. If we think about it, this book really broadens our minds.

I am glad that we had class discussions, as now I can see lot of things more clearly, and I think this built a stronger trust between some classmates.

One student wrote about the book in terms of the questions it raised:

My first question is why Makepeace gave money to his wife, if they didn’t live together. He could have loved her very much.

The other question that makes me think about is Susan and the narrator’s relationship. I can’t stand how could Susan be so kind and friendly with the narrator, after what he did. She could have become a talented writer if he hadn’t stolen her novel. I can’t stand this, but I have to recognize her. When they were at the restaurant, she said “writing is too frivolous; it makes you selfish and doesn’t really do any good,” but she knows that the narrator was a writer, and she hurts him with this monologue, maybe just accidentally. I think the narrator liked Susan more than as a friend, before they met, but during the “date” Susan gives clear signals that she doesn’t like him. Why does the narrator accept Susan’s idea for a meeting place, if he knows there’s won’t be anything between them?

One of my favourite citations in the book is: “let sleeping dogs lie….” We discussed the meaning of this sentence, but it started the gears in my brain. Is it a good decision to keep the truth hidden? Maybe, if I were Makepeace, I would have told the truth. He felt guilty, and he could feel much better through making a statement. On the other side, it could make others lose their confidence in him. But he hasn’t got any choice, because that was one of the headmaster’s terms. In my opinion, Makepeace was a totally honest and good person, if he got hurt by this little lie.

Another student focused on the ending:

I think this ending was very messed up and unordinary. As I like to read, I have gotten used to some types of endings, such as in the crime stories, where they find out who the murderer was. But this was absolutely different. We didn’t get to know whether the main character visited his old school or not.We didn’t get to know about his family life, or what his job was alongside writing. Although I would do it differently, this ending was good in his own manner. It was a plot twist, and the readers hadn’t expected that. And the good writer pretends to surprise his or her readers.

Another had a striking comment on the copying of “Summer Dance”:

What made an impression on me? Well, I liked reading this book because it wasn’t a fairy tale. It had some real-life problems, and these things made it better. When I found out that the narrator was Jewish, I didn’t really understand why he didn’t say it to Dean Makepeace. He could just say it, and this way he shouldn’t have apologized. A while later I finally understood that he was afraid. Afraid because he didn’t want to be an outcast in the school. Afraid of what his friends would think of him. And I felt sorry for him, not knowing that he was going to be strong enough to say it.

This is why I was so happy when he copied “Summer Dance.” Even though it wasn’t his, everyone thought that it was. He had the power to announce the truth about himself. The whole school found out that he was Jewish. He was no longer afraid or embarrassed about his true self, and this is what made an impression on me.

Another student expressed ambivalence–relating to certain things, finding the ending and overall style unsatisfactory, but enjoying the experience overall:

Quite frankly, the story was relatable. The protagonist went through some character development, which happens to the most of us at his age. He even cycled through the same outlooks on life as I did, or am currently doing. Having your role-model be the perfect and peak performance of a human, without any faults. Of course he too realized how stupid that is.

The only thing I can nit-pick about is how the end left too many questions open, and how solving them required a lot of post-processing and theorizing by the class. Some people find these things entertaining, and I have to admit it is kind of smart, but since I personally would have missed the hidden meanings, I find it under-handed.

I would never really voluntarily read stories like this one. It was honestly more of a documentary than anything, although it was relatively enjoyable even though it was a mandatory read. The class discussions were fun and I think they were better than simple classes where we learn things I mostly already know.

Many students wrote about the discussions themselves. Here are a few quotes:

Although I really enjoyed the weird storyline at the end, my favorite part was discussing the story, because it was very interesting to hear my classmates’ thoughts about it. I also enjoyed that I could give some useful thoughts to these discussions. I felt that I understood the meaning of the story, so I am really happy about that, especially because I am not a huge fan of reading books. This book encouraged me to start reading more often.

Another:

The class discussions let us get to know each other’s personality more, which was really important for our little community. They also showed how intelligent my classmates are. I noticed it when small arguments came up in class and everyone could keep their chill and talk about the disagreements with respect.

Another comment that brings up the class arguments:

To begin with, the characters of the book had really big effects on me. I could “see with their eyes” and think like them. For example, Ayn Rand’s personality and features were exciting and disgusting at the same time for me. Besides her, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost also impressed me. Also the calm and kindness of the narrator’s grandparents melted my heart. In a nutshell I was able to observe so many people with different lives, habits, and features.

For me the most important part was the class discussion, so I would like to focus on this. Due to the discussions and arguments, I could hear my classmates’ opinions on a given topic. It helped me get to know them a little bit better. I could see how they could argue and what their reasons were. It also showed how wise and mature they are.

Lastly, I stepped out of my comfort zone too. I read something that I thought I would never choose, but as it turned out, it was very good. So in a percentage of the reading I tried something new, and new things are always exciting.

Taking everything into account, I liked this book, but I liked how we elaborated on it even more.

I could go on with the comments, but after all, not one of them is the last word, for the students individually, for the class, for me, or for the book, so I don’t need to turn them into anything conclusive. Instead, they show how some students met the book in time: what it meant, didn’t mean, or came to mean.

I think of how quickly it all went by. Walking into the classroom (sometimes seeing students up at the board drawing diagrams of the plot–they were nervous about the pop quizzes), starting the discussion, hearing students’ comments, looking at passages closely together, raising more questions, and then hearing the bell and realizing that we had run out of time. I also think back on the long conversations with students who didn’t like the book but would linger after class to talk about it. Liking or not liking–that’s secondary to what happened here. For this I am grateful to Old School, to my school, to my colleague Marianna (who helped make this possible), and to my students.

 

This is the last in a series of nine posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. All the students quoted in this post gave permission to have their comments included. To view all the posts, go here.

Old School in Hungary: Part 8

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Somehow we finished Old School just before the Hungarian schools closed on account of the coronavirus. We didn’t get to have the last discussion I had planned, a discussion of the book as a whole, but the students wrote about it, and I have been taking in their responses all evening.

On Friday, when the second section finished the book, I asked whether Makepeace had the right to kick himself out of the school, whether he could possibly be a fair judge of himself (and whether in general people can judge themselves accurately), and whether it was the right decision for him.

Regarding the question of rights, one student said that no, he didn’t have the right to kick himself out, because he had responsibilities toward others. Another asked whether anyone else besides him was in a position to expel him. That’s a trickier question than may seem, because the headmaster, while technically entitled to fire a teacher, would probably not do so except under extreme circumstances. A matter of conscience like this would probably not have made the cut.

(In the other section, students overwhelmingly agreed that he had the right to kick himself out. But one student pointed out that that didn’t make it a good decision.)

Then the question of whether he could judge himself fairly: a student said that since he was elderly, he was likely to be too hard on himself. Young people up to age 30, he explained, rely on others’ judgments; people in their 30s and 40s (I think) realize that the world doesn’t care about them, and older people tend to judge themselves. This observation helped us see Makepeace in time; his age makes a difference here. We talked a bit about how people can judge themselves too harshly (or, in some cases, too lightly).

We spent some time on Makepeace’s regrets, and what he missed about teaching; and then we made our way to his return, which a student read aloud. Then I asked what this ending was about–they picked up on the Prodigal Son reference right away–and what it had to do with the narrator.

A student suggested that it had something to do with the epigraph at the beginning (from Mark Strand’s “Elegy for my Father”).

Why did you lie to me?
I always thought I told the truth.
Why did you lie to me?
Because the truth lies like nothing else and I love the truth.

She explained that the narrator, by ending the story with Makepeace, was telling his own truth through a “lie”–that is, through a fiction about someone other than himself. I then passed out a longer excerpt of the poem–I had meant to hand it out on Monday, but now seemed the time–and read the first two parts aloud. The same student commented, “He answers each question in two ways. The first answer is factual, and the second is from the soul.”

Then she continued: “The narrator is doing the opposite of what he did before, when he copied ‘Summer Dance.’ There he copied someone else’s story and submitted it as his own. Here he is telling his own story, but making it into someone else’s.” (Her words were slightly different, but this was her point.)

Students recognized that not only Makepeace but the narrator had come home, and that this ending was about coming home, really coming home, and being welcomed  and forgiven.

But it isn’t pat. A student in the other section, who didn’t like the book, said, “It isn’t a happy ending.” He was right. There is sadness in the ending, and there are those who don’t like the book, even though they argued with it, thought about it, and carried bright insights into it.

The sadness is maybe this: that the homecoming required a great loss. The final image has a heartbreaking aspect: “Though the headmaster was the younger man, and much shorter, and though Arch was lame and had white hairs coming out of his ears and white stubble all over his face….” Although the “though” is typically the weaker part of the sentence, the “concession,” here you feel its weight.

I won’t quote students’ written responses here. Later, I might ask permission to quote a few, but only after some time has gone by. Responses are still coming in. So far I admire their genuineness, their fresh language, their differences from one another. There’s nothing generic about them. They are downright beautiful.

I didn’t know that this would be the end of class discussions for a while. But having built something, we can let it stand for a little while. It won’t come apart, and meanwhile we will work on other things. As in the book, though, how suddenly a cherished part of daily life can pause, change, or end.

 

This is the eighth in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here. There will probably be one more post in this series.

I made some additions to this piece after posting it.

Old School in Hungary: Part 7

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“In this book, two things happen,” one student said. “The first is that the boy gets expelled. The second is that the story ends with Makepeace.” That was that. But I wanted to hear more. How did he understand these actions? What made them stand out? Did he see a relation between them?

Arch Makepeace, the dean of the school, resigns from his position when the boy (the narrator’s character) is expelled for submitting someone else’s story as his own. Makepeace argues that if the boy is being punished for laying “false claim to a story,” he himself has “laid false claim to much more–to a kind of importance, to a life not his own.” All this time, he has lived, taught, and served as dean in the midst of rumors that he knew Hemingway in World War I–and while he has not confirmed this outright, he has not dispelled the rumors either.

In class on Wednesday, one student pointed out that Makepeace is partly responsible for the very contests he hates: not only has he failed to speak up against them, but his own reputation has fueled them.

Then a student suggested that Makepeace actually comes to believe the rumors that he knew Hemingway in World War I. There’s more to that than may appear; I’ll get to that in a moment.

Another student pointed out that he actually does know Hemingway, since he knows his work. Thus the lie is true in a way. This brings up a lot that might have passed by us otherwise: the way he drops A Farewell to Arms from his honors seminar but keeps something by Hemingway on the reading list. (That in itself shows an intimacy with Hemingway’s writing.) He behaves toward Hemingway’s writing the way one would toward an old friend who gets annoying at times.

Back to the other student’s point: although nothing suggests that Makepeace really believes that he knew Hemingway personally, he does seem to have fallen for the sense of being special. This, in fact, allows him to resign; he somehow believes that he has the wherewithal to live without the school and without teaching. There’s a submerged hubris at work here. Later he finds out how wrong he was (191):

In former times Arch had supposed that his sense of being a distinctive and valuable man proceeded from his own qualities, and that they would sustain him in that confidence wherever he happened to be. He’d never imagine that this surety was conferred on him by others, by their knowing and cherishing him. But so it was. Unrecognized, he had become a ghost, even to himself.

And just a couple of pages earlier (189-190):

Up to the moment he resigned he must have imagined that teaching was a distraction from some greater destiny still his for the taking. Of course he hadn’t said this to himself, but he’d surely felt it, he later decided, because how else could he not have known how useless he would be thereafter? For thirty years he had lived in conversation with boys, answerable to their own sense of how things worked, to their skepticism, and, most gravely, to their trust. Even when alone he had read and thought in their imagined presence, made responsible by it, enlivened and honed by it. Now he read in solitude and thought in solitude and hardly felt himself to be alive.

If the Hemingway rumor has fed his own notion that he is destined for something greater, then through believing this notion, he has come to believe the rumor. But the rumor is also true to an extent; not only does he know Hemingway’s work, but Hemingway the person rises up again and again in it: “Who could not think of Hemingway when reading about Colonel Cantwell pissing on the Italian battleground where he’d been wounded, or Santiago pursuing his big fish?” Arch keeps trying to muffle his Hemingway but has doubts about doing so; he “distrusted his growing aversion to both the man and the work. It might well be a dishonest form of chagrin at his own false position, or simply resentment at looking so small beside the giant to whom he’d let himself be linked” (184-185). Even as he thinks he looks small beside Hemingway, he unknowingly imagines himself a giant of sorts. He is too reticent to show this off or even accept it in himself, but it becomes part of his thought and action.

And there–we concluded yesterday in class–lies a parallel between him and the narrator. Both take on a story that is theirs and not theirs. Both pay for this truth-lie by leaving the school: the one through being kicked out, the other through resigning.

I’ll stop here for now, since the second section finishes the book tomorrow (the first finished it yesterday). I think back on the words: “In this book, two things happen. The first is that the boy gets expelled. The second is that the story ends with Makepeace.” We will take this up on Monday, our last day with the book.

 

This is the seventh in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

Old School in Hungary: Part 6

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It has become more difficult, just within the past few days, to talk about these Old School discussions, since something has changed in the classroom. From “The Forked Tongue” onward, they have become more urgent. As if the story were happening around us and with us and by us.

Last week, because I was giving entrance exams Monday through Thursday and because we had a long weekend, one section had one class with me; the other had none. This week we resumed our rhythm, and students had lots to say.

One student asked, “Why is this writing competition destroying friendships and even breaking the school apart?” Another student suggested that the privilege of a private audience with the visiting writer was too extreme; only one person could receive that privilege, but to the boys it meant everything. Maybe, he suggested, the school could have given the honor to a small group of students instead of just one. They would all get to meet with the visiting writer.

Another student found it strange that Mr. Ramsey made the initial selections. (For the Hemingway contest, he chooses three and sends them to Hemingway, who selects the winner.) How many manuscripts might have been ignored just because Mr. Ramsey didn’t happen to like them? Was it right to give students the impression that their work was being read and considered by Hemingway (or whoever it happened to be)?

Some students picked up on the ironies at work: Bill White telling the narrator that it was his (Bill’s) story that he had written, not his own–and the narrator replying that if it had been Bill’s, Bill would have written it. They noticed that George Kellogg knew that the writing didn’t seem like the narrator’s; one student explained how George rationalized this discrepancy.

A student suggested that the narrator, by copying and submitting someone else’s story–a story that seemed to be about his life–has broken an unwritten and unspoken rule at the school: that you don’t actually reveal yourself in your writing. Until now, the boys have not been revealing themselves; now he has. The unfairness goes beyond winning the contest. He has taken a shortcut to something he wouldn’t otherwise have dared to do, and this upsets the other boys for reasons they don’t know how to articulate.

But all those different insights are only part of what has been happening. It isn’t uniform at all; one class is much livelier than the other (though the quieter class comes up with beautiful ideas). Besides all of this, at least two things are happening at once. One is that the students are considering Old School as a story. How, they asked, did everything happen so fast just now–with the narrator winning the contest and then immediately getting caught and expelled? And how can it be that there are still many pages to go? (“I smell a twist,” one student told me.)

The other part is that we see these questions of truth, fairness, and justice coming up in the discussions themselves. A student brought up things he had said months ago that he realized had come across wrong. He felt so bad that it had come across as rude. I saw my own mistake after unfairly giving a student a 4 out of 5 on a multiple-choice quiz–and my even greater mistake in making this known to the class. In Hungary, grades are usually a public matter, but all the same, that doesn’t justify announcing them all the time. His answers, as it turned out, made sense when he explained them; in addition, he had been participating energetically and thoughtfully from the very beginning. I apologized and changed the grade–but it still stings in my mind. Even calling on people, and recognizing when they need some room to be quiet, can be a tricky matter. Some students are reading and thinking ahead, whereas others need a little more time to take in what we read last week.

One of the sections hasn’t gotten to the narrator’s expulsion yet–or at least we will be discussing it tomorrow–but with the other section, we spent a long time with Mr. Ramsey’s goodbye.

Here one says something, he said. It’s not the end of the world, be game, you’ll work things out … but for all I know you won’t work things out. How should I know? He patted his pockets for the Gitanes, put one in his mouth, and offered another to me. When I hesitated he stuck the pack in my shirt pocket and stepped down onto the platform and walked away, two long sweat stains darkening the back of his jacket. I was glad to see him go; several minutes remained before departure time and I’d worried he might stand vigil outside, watching me through the window and giving sad little nods whenever our eyes met.

Why, I asked, did the narrator not want Mr. Ramsey to wait? For some this was a difficult question; they themselves would have preferred to have their former teacher (now more of a friend) stay until the train departed. But then a student pointed out, “He hasn’t had any time alone yet, he hasn’t had time to process any of this.” And then we talked about the last paragraph (where he makes his way to the smoking car with his copy of In Our Time, a gift from his classmate Purcell), and how different it is from the other time that we saw the narrator on the train (with a copy of The Fountainhead). At that time he felt full of himself and sure of himself, at least in the uppermost registers; now nothing is certain, and he has been brought down low.

Now all depends on how we approach the ending. I think we will finish the book in four more lessons and then take an additional lesson to discuss not only the whole book, but the discussions and the whole endeavor. This has been something out of the usual, and the students more than lived up to it. We have been building something together. I will miss it when it is over, but I don’t think it will go away.

 

This is the sixth in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

I made a few minor changes (for clarity) to this piece after posting it.

Simplify (Once or Twice)

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In Walden, Thoreau wrote: “I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify.” Emerson is said to have commented, “One ‘simplify’ would have sufficed” (or something along those lines). I haven’t been able to verify this yet, but I see his purported point. Then again, it’s possible to simplify once and then simplify all over again.

Like many, I often comment on how much I have to do, but actually I am trying to keep some simplicity. It’s good not to be frazzled. With possessions, I am no ascetic, but I can live contentedly with books, CDs, clothes, a few kitchen supplies, some furniture, a few special items, a laptop with internet connection, a couple of musical instruments, and my bicycle. As far as a home goes, it doesn’t have to be big; if it has room for these things and me, and a cat, and guests now and then, that’s enough.

I am buying an apartment here in Szolnok–a beautiful little place, cozy rather than spacious. This summer I will sort out some belongings. Some things will stay in storage in NYC. Some things will move over here.  Some things will go (to charity if possible).

But back to Thoreau: pooh-pooh him all you like (because his mom supposedly did his laundry while he lived out in the woods and wrote about self-sufficiency); call him out, if you like, on the redundancy of “simplify, simplify”–but admit that he’s right about the “chopping sea of civilized life” and the principle of living by “dead reckoning.” A bit of simplicity is not surrender; it’s a staple. Like rice, it allows for feasts, fasting, and thousands of spices and sauces.

I took the photo this week while biking just past my current apartment.

Old School in Hungary: Part 5

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Whenever I go into the classroom to teach Tobias Wolff’s Old School, I am in for surprises. Sometimes the class is lively, sometimes slow and contemplative, but in both cases it can take unexpected turns. Most of the students disliked Ayn Rand (the character) and readily explained why the narrator changes his view of her writing after hearing her speak. One student, though, resisted this line of thinking. If he had loved her writing before, she argued, shouldn’t he still love it now? Shouldn’t he be able to separate the writing from the person?

These questions brought us back again and again to the passage on pp. 92-93, where the narrator admits to something complex. He acknowledges that he has his own personal reasons for rejecting her writing, reasons that have more to do with his own shame and self-pity than with the writing itself.

The self-pity I felt at this betrayal [by Ayn Rand’s characters Dominique and Roark, who wouldn’t have shown up in the sickroom while he was sick–DS] dressed itself up as fierce affection for Grandjohn and Patty, who had done all this for me. I found myself defending them against Dominique and Roark as if they, not I, had turned up their noses at these loyal, goodhearted bores.

So the narrator admits that at the time of turning away from Rand’s writing, he was blaming her for things he had done himself–for the scorn he had felt toward his grandfather and grandfather’s wife, “these loyal, goodhearted bores.”

In the next paragraph he continues this thought:

I blamed Ayn Rand for disregarding all this [that is, his family’s difficulties and struggles, and human struggles in general–DS]. And I no doubt blamed her even more because I had disregarded it myself–because for years now I had hidden my family in calculated silences and vague hints and dodges, suggesting another family in its place. The untruth of my position had given me an obscure, chronic sense of embarrassment, yet since I hadn’t outright lied I could still blind myself to its cause. Unacknowledged shame enters the world as anger; I naturally turned mine against the snobbery of others, in the present case Ayn Rand.

But is that all there is to his criticism? In the next paragraph, he suggests otherwise. “This part of my reaction was personal and unreasoned,” he says. “But there was more. It had dawned on me that I didn’t really know anyone like Roark and Dominique.”

The student who raised the initial objection stayed staunch in her argument. “If Ayn Rand’s writing made him realize all of this,” she said, “then it must have had something.” This prompted a distinction that might not have come up otherwise. There’s no question that the narrator breaks with Ayn Rand’s writing here–partly for personal reasons, partly because he finds it lacking, and partly because he is now drawn to something else. This complex mixture of reasons cannot be summed up as a judgment against Rand’s attitudes and characters. It is that but also more. Moreover, Rand’s writing deserves some credit: after all, it was able to wake him up.

This week we read Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” in one lesson, and, in another, the Parable of the Prodigal Son and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29–all of them to help students understand allusions and references, but also for their own sake. Each of these pieces set off a discussion; “Indian Camp” had the students enthralled. As for the parable and sonnet, we read each of them carefully; then I asked the students what the two had in common. I finally asked them what they had to do with Old School (so far). The responses could fill several blog posts and more. But this is all for now.

 

This is the fifth in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

Old School in Hungary: Part 4

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“If they go to Kamchatka, I will be happy,” one student told me after class. “But they will never go.” He was referring to Robert Frost (the character)’s advice to George Kellogg, who won the audience with him: “Go to Kamchatka.” He was also complaining that nothing seems to be happening in the novel. “I’ve been waiting for some action,” another said. “But it is all in vain.”

This provided the opening for a discussion of action itself. What is action? I asked the class. A student defined it as something that has consequences. Does action have to be physical? I asked. No, several replied; thoughts and words can be actions. (Another time we will consider to what extent actions must be intentional, and to what extent thoughts can be considered actions, or part of actions.)

So the novel does have action, I explained, but it also has inaction, and this is important to notice. What has not happened yet that is waiting to happen?

A student who had made one of the original comments answered, “He hasn’t won a writing contest yet. Is he going to win the third one?” I wouldn’t answer that question, but I asked what else hadn’t happened yet, in relation to that. We talked about how the narrator’s character’s writing hasn’t taken off yet; he puts so much pressure on himself that he can’t write, he doesn’t like his own ideas, he’s holding something back.

Then we could look at his reaction to The Fountainhead, which he reads four times; the students were disturbed that he likes it so much, that he gets so caught up in the idea of selfishness that he even sees his grandfather and grandfather’s wife as pathetic bores who are trying to keep him down.

I began to feel their kindness as a form of aggression. Patty was pitilessly solicitous. I couldn’t touch a book without getting grilled about the sufficiency of light and the comfort of the chair. Was I warm enough? Did I need a pillow for my back? How about one of the five thousand Cokes they’d stored up in anticipation of my visit? Grandjohn kept telling me how lucky I was to have my mother’s eyes, and how proud of me she would have been. Sometimes I had to go to the bathroom and scream silently, rocking from side to side like a gorilla, my head thrown back, my teeth bared.

Everyone could recognize this kind of situation. But his attitude? In many students eyes, reprehensible. How could he not see his grandfather’s wife’s kindness and good intentions?–but I asked them if they could see any hints that this was not going to be the narrator’s final attitude. A student pointed out “I began to feel” as a temporary state; others picked up on other things. We could then consider why he works himself into a fever of (supposed) confidence over a story he hasn’t written yet, and why he collapses in French class. And then–humiliation upon humiliation–Big Jeff wins the contest. Think what you will of Big Jeff’s story–some students found it preposterous–but he wrote it.

That was one section. In the other, on Monday, I was giving them some background on Nietzsche and Rand; we read excerpts from Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Fountainhead. But some students would not let me get away with telling them that Nietzsche said that “God is dead.” What does that mean? they wanted to know. Does this mean that God was alive before? How, according to Nietzsche, did humans kill God? Was Nietzsche an atheist, or was he creating a new religion of his own? All of these are important questions, and I had never been pelted with them in this way before, so I tried to offer answers, realizing that the more important thing here was the wrestling with these questions, the insistence on making sense of them. Then a few students got onto a seeming tangent about animals. Do animals go to heaven, according to Christianity? I said there was no clear answer on this issue. If they do go to heaven, a student asked, does that include all the animals over the course of evolution? I imagine so, I said, but I really don’t know! How do you expect me to know these things?

“Teachers are supposed to be smart,” a student quipped.

“Yes, and smart people admit that they don’t know everything.” (Ha! I got them there.) So we turned our attention to the text–and from here it made sense that the narrator would get caught up in The Fountainhead, as distant as Rand supposedly is from Nietzsche, as much as she liked to think of herself as indebted to no one.

At least at this stage, liking the book is immaterial here. Or rather, the dislikes are as important as the likings, as a way of opening up the book. This is partly a surprise for me. I knew that disliking was important, but I didn’t know how much it could fuel a discussion, and what kinds of understandings it could bring out. Some lessons are so lively I can barely keep up, and others are sleepier, but we’re now in the middle of the book, following it where it goes.

The book won’t go to Kamchatka, not on the surface, anyway (I’ll give just that one spoiler). But I think some students will be surprised by where it goes.

 

This is the fourth in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

I added a sentence to this piece after posting it.