“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”


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.




Why Imagination Matters

poets walk park

Our schools have vacillated between adulating and dismissing imagination; neither attitude suffices. Imagination involves forming things in the mind; education cannot do without it. Yet to employ it well, one must understand it correctly and combine it with actual learning.

In his bracing book Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing our Children from Failed Educational Theories, E. D. Hirsch Jr. explores the origins and consequences of our schools’ emphasis on “natural” creativity and imagination at the expense of concrete learning. He points to the destructive effects of this trend, both in the United States and in France (which moved from a common curriculum to a child-centered mode of instruction). In addition, he offers wise commentary on standardized tests, the teaching profession, and the Common Core initiative.

An admirer of Hirsch’s work and of Core Knowledge schools, I object to just one aspect of his argument: By opposing creativity and imagination to specific training and instruction, he limits both. Recognizing this possible pitfall, he acknowledges that a school with a strong curriculum can still encourage imagination—but he does not treat the latter as vital and endangered. Imagination, in his view, has been overemphasized; the necessary corrective lies in specific, sequenced instruction.

He writes (on p. 119): “I am not, of course, suggesting that it would be a good idea to adopt the in-Adam’s-fall-we-sinned-all point of view. Imagination can certainly be a positive virtue when directed to life-enhancing goals. But the idea that imagination is always positive and life-enhancing is an uncritical assumption that has crept into our discourse from the pantheistic effusions of the romantic period.” I dispute nothing in this statement but the emphasis (and the take on Romanticism–but that’s another subject). I would proclaim: “Imagination has been wrested apart from subject matter and thus distorted—but properly understood, it permeates all intellectual domains.”

What is imagination? It is not the same as total freedom of thought; it has strictures and structures. To imagine something is to form an image of it. Every subject requires imagination: To understand mathematics, you must be able to form the abstract principles in your mind and carry them in different directions; to understand a poem, you must perceive patterns, cadences, allusions, and subtleties. To interpret a work of literature, you must notice something essential about it (on your own, without any overt highlighting by the author or editor); to interpret a historical event, you may transport yourself temporarily to its setting.

Civic life, too, relies on imagination; to participate in dialogue, you must perceive possibility in others; to make informed decisions, you must not only know their history but anticipate their possible consequences. Imagination forms the private counterpart of public life; to participate in the world, you must be able to step back and think on your own, as David Bromwich argues in his essay “Lincoln and Whitman as Representative Americans” (and elsewhere).

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave describes the cultivation of the imagination. The uneducated mind, the prisoner in the cave, accepts the appearances of things (as manipulated by others); once embarked upon education, it slowly, painfully moves toward vision of true form. People are quick to dismiss Plato’s idealism as obsolete—but say what you will, it contains the idea of educating oneself into imagination, which could inform many a policy and school.

Schools and school systems have grievously misconstrued imagination; drawing on Romantic tendencies, as Hirsch explains, they have regarded it as “natural” and therefore good from the start. If imagination is best when unhampered and untouched, if it is indeed a process of nature, then, according to these schools, children should be encouraged to write about whatever pleases them, to read books of their own choice, and to create wonderful art (wonderful because it is theirs). Some years ago I taught at a school where we were told not to write on students’ work but instead to affix a post-it with two compliments and two suggestions–so as not to interfere with the students’ own voice.

This is silly, of course. Serious imaginative work—in music, mathematics, engineering, architecture, and elsewhere—requires knowledge, discipline, self-criticism, and guidance from others. You do not learn to play piano if your teacher keeps telling you, “Brilliant, Brilliant!” (or even, in growth-mindset parlance, “How hard you worked on that!”). To accomplish something significant, you need to know what you are doing; to know, you must learn. Mindset aside, you must be immersed in the material and striving for understanding and fluency. You must listen closely; you must acknowledge and correct errors.

Learning draws on imagination and vice versa; a strong curriculum is inherently imaginative if taught and studied properly. Students learn concrete things so that they can think about them, carry them in the mind, assemble them in interesting ways, and create new things from them. On their own, in class, and in faculty meetings, teachers probe and interpret the material they present. This intellectual life has both inherent and practical value; the student not only comes to see the possibilities of each subject but lives out such possibilities in the world.

Hirsch objects, commendably, to the trivialization of curriculum and imagination alike: for instance, the reduction of literature instruction to “balanced literacy” (where students practice reading strategies on an array of books that vary widely in quality). Conducted in the name of student interest, creativity, initiative, and so forth, such programs can end up glorifying a void.

Without strong curricula, creative and imaginative initiatives will lack meaning, especially for disadvantaged students who rely on school for fundamentals. You cannot learn subjects incidentally; while you may gain insights from a creative algebra project, it cannot replace a well-planned algebra course.

But imagination belongs at the forefront of education, not on the edges; it allows us to live and work for something more than surface appearance, hits, ratings, reactive tweets, and prefabricated success. Imagination reminds us that there is more to a person, subject, or problem than may appear at first. It enables public, social, private, economic, intellectual, and artistic life. Without it, we fall prey to shallow judgment (our own and others’); within it, we have room to learn and form.


Photo credit: I took this picture yesterday in Poets’ Walk Park in Red Hook, NY.

“And so it begins, again.”

contrariwise meeting

The above title quotes the “Five Word” (as opposed to last year’s “Four Word”) of the fourth issue of CONTRARIWISE. You can see all four issues side by side on the table. Today I went in to meet with the current and future editors-in-chief (two current, two future) and the faculty advisor–to discuss carrying CONTRARIWISE into the future. The new editors seemed eager to take on their new roles; the outgoing two, Kelly and Alan (who graduate in just over a week), regaled them with good advice.

It is not easy to give up the journal. I handed it over a year ago and stayed out of the production except when someone had a question for me or when I had a specific role to play (such as facilitating an Istanbul/NYC Skype conversation) or contributing to today’s meeting. All the same, I awaited the fourth issue eagerly and often opened up the earlier ones for browsing and reading. I remembered meetings, hours of editing and layout, deliberations, dilemmas, jokes, mishaps, sudden ideas, and uproarious yet serious celebrations.

But in giving it up, each person (the editors-in-chief or I) gave something to it. Others could now take charge of it and carry it onward, and the journal could strengthen its spine. No one left it abruptly; each person gave thought to its editorship and future. Those who took it over–editors and faculty advisor–did a terrific job. At this rate, there will be a fifth issue in 2018, a sixth issue in 2019, and onward, into the unknown. Or maybe the unknown will come first; who knows.

So as far as lettings-go go, this one went pretty well.

“How Was It?”

When I come back from a trip–or anything, really–and people ask, “How was it?” I don’t know what to say. “Rich, beautiful, fantastic,” etc.–those are generic words, but if I go into too much detail, I might try anyone’s patience, including my own. Moreover, the most important parts are often the most difficult to sum up. So I put together a slideshow–just a fraction of the photos I took, but a hint of the three weeks. To avoid big downloads and crashes, I put it on YouTube. (I adjusted and re-uploaded it several times; this is the final version.)

Also, I made a short video playlist of musicians I heard on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul. I find myself listening to these songs again and again.

Speaking of “How was it?” yesterday I saw a delightful performance of The Government Inspector, Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s play. The acting, stage set, directing, and the text itself combined into a performance that was part social satire, part panorama of human vice, and part utter silliness and play. I was grateful that that last part, the silliness and play, did not get short shrift; to me, it was the greatest part of all. Afterward there was a discussion with the director, Jesse Berger; the Russian scholar and author Emil A. Draitser; and several members of the cast.

Gogol’s play and the adaptation have the same basic plot: Residents of a small provincial town learn of the imminent arrival of a revizor, or government inspector. They scramble to cover up the town’s far-reaching corruption. In the meantime, Khlestakov, a self-indulgent, imaginative, unsuspecting dandy, has been staying at the inn for a week; once his presence is noted, people assume he is the revizor himself. This plays out hilariously–and in this production, everyone is having fun. But there’s also a sad irony: while believing they are covering up their foibles, the townspeople actually reveal one vice after another, particularly obsequiousness. What seems like concealment unravels into disclosure.

But this does not sum up the play, the adaptation, or the performance; as I was watching, I noticed that each scene, and many moments within the scenes, come across as pictures, po-gogolevski. The wordless scene at the end–the famous “nemaia stsena”–still shifts and staggers in my mind.

This actually brings me back to my trip. The four lessons I taught in Istanbul (to four sections of eleventh-graders) were about the relation between concealment and disclosure in specific works of art, music, and literature: a Degas painting, a Verlaine poem, the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7, a passage from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and Chekhov’s story “Home.” This play would have been a great addition to that syllabus, had there been time for it. In that sense, the study continues.

So my reply to “How was it?” is “Was? No, is.”

Popularity Sans Teeth

IMG_3280Mitch Prinstein’s New York Times op-ed “Popular People Live Longer” bounces between conflicting conceptions of popularity and fails to establish a working definition. For this reason I trust neither the premise nor the conclusions. Moreover, it relies heavily on Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s meta-study, which examines the relationship between the quality and quantity of one’s relationships (not popularity exactly) and one’s mortality. But what is popularity anyway? Some clarity would have helped.

In the fourth paragraph, in passing, Prinstein seems to define lack of popularity (“being unpopular”) as “feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely.” This conflation of the subjective and objective confuses the issue. If “being unpopular” is the same as “feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely,” then “being popular” would be the same as “feeling included, connected, fulfilled.” Yet there are plenty of people with few but strong friendships who feel “included, connected, fulfilled.” Does having just a few good friends, then, make you popular, if you feel good about the situation?

If so, then standards definitions of popularity go out the window. In dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster, popularity is associated with “common” or “general” approval, not the strong approval or support of the few, or with one’s own feelings of acceptance and fulfillment. Has Prinstein pulled a Humpty Dumpty on us?

No–I suspect that instead he has just used the wrong word and concept. Popularity is not the issue here. It may be that some combination of the number of one’s friends, the quality of one’s friendships, and one’s own feelings of inclusion can have a great effect on one’s health. In fact, Lunstad and colleagues emphasize the importance of the combination: ” Importantly, the researchers also report that social relationships were more predictive of the risk of death in studies that considered complex measurements of social integration than in studies that considered simple evaluations such as marital status.” (I view Holt-Lunstad’s study cautiously but see possibilities in the general principle.)

In other words, Lunstad’s study is not about popularity in the first place. Prinstein writes that “Dr. Holt-Lunstad found that people who had larger networks of friends had a 50 percent increased chance of survival by the end of the study they were in.” Yet Holt-Lunstad says “stronger,” not “larger”: “Across 148 studies (308,849 participants), the random effects weighted average effect size was OR = 1.50 (95% CI 1.42 to 1.59), indicating a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships.”

Very well. What about Prinstein’s own discussion of popularity?

He wisely distinguishes between different kinds of popularity, particularly between likability and status–and notes that Facebook likes have more to do with the latter than the former. “Which means that it wouldn’t kill you to step away from Twitter once in a while,” he concludes, bringing me close to to liking the piece. Yet he fails to make other necessary distinctions–not only between subjective and objective states, not only between number and quality of relationships, but also between one’s qualities and others’ responses to them, and between likability and virtue overall.

Likability,” he says, “reflects kindness, benevolent leadership and selfless, prosocial behavior.” First of all, likability, defined in this manner, is not equal to being liked; it is just the state of qualifying for being liked. You can show kindness and benevolence and still be shunned by those around you. In fact, this has happened often through the ages.

But there’s another rub. Often to be kind and benevolent, you have to do things that others don’t immediately like. Suppose, for instance, you are the principal of a school that has had ongoing problems with bullying. To curb the bullying, you institute a schoolwide program of discipline and character education. Students start complaining that it’s stupid; teachers, that it’s taking too much time from other things; parents, that their own child doesn’t need it. But you persist with the plan. Over time, the bullying goes away, and the school’s new practices become habitual. People now praise the character education program for its content and effects. Students who used to dread coming to school now thrive in their classes and walk easily down the hallways. But for this to happen, you had to risk being disliked.

That leads to more brambles still. Likability is not the only virtue in life. Often there is reason to do things that come into conflict with likability. Of course, to do good or to accomplish something important, one need not be gratuitously nasty or cold–but sometimes one needs an independent streak, an ability to think and act alone. It is possible that such internal strength also contributes to longevity.

All in all, Prinstein’s working premise needs much more probing, definition, and refinement. In addition, the forthcoming book (from which the op-ed is adapted) needs a new title. Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World mimics Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (and other titles with similar formulas). It’s too late–the book comes out tomorrow–but did the author and publisher choose this title for the sake of popularity? Or was it meant as a tribute? Either way, it’s a shame; the title limits the book by establishing a flawed opposition. Don’t judge a book by its title and accompanying op-ed, I remind myself, but the two leave me with doubts.


I took this photo on Eurovelo 11 in Hungary.

Uncertainty as an Opening

uncertainty Once in a while, for fun, I take some quiz or questionnaire that has me rate my agreement with various statements, for instance: “I like to have things planned out in advance.” What am I to say? Do I agree with it or not? Is it even possible to respond in the abstract? Yes, I like to plan things in advance. In less than two weeks I leave from Istanbul, where I will be teaching for two weeks at the wonderful Sainte Pulchérie Fransız Lisesi; from there I go to Budapest and Košice for a week. I have planned a beautiful itinerary and schedule but have also left room for the unexpected. It’s possible that the unforeseen parts will have the most meaning, as they will take me out of what I already know.

I have uncertainties in my life as well. I devoted this year to writing my second book. I have finished the second round of revisions but do not yet have an agent, let alone a publisher. People are often surprised when they hear this; they don’t know why someone would write a book without a contract. Of course it’s risky–but not nearly as risky as waiting for that elusive contract and maybe not writing any book at all! I chose to focus first on the work and only later on its place in the world. For that reason, I am facing uncertainty, but it’s worthwhile.

There’s a great comfort in locating yourself in the world, especially in conversations with others. Perceived success often has to do with having a place. When people ask, “Who’s your publisher?” it’s awkward to say, “I don’t have one.” When people ask, “How’s the job search going?” it’s embarrassing to reply, “I was turned down for job A and haven’t heard anything about B, C, D, E, or F.” I sense acutely that I am coming across as Unsuccessful. But this lack of placement–this interval of not knowing where one will be–can have great meaning and thrill.

I lack certain external markers right now; I cannot glibly say, “Oh, my book will be published by Knopf, and I will be heading a new humanities program at Carnegie Mellon in the fall.” That sounds extremely impressive and warming; I suspect that if it were true, I’d be glad. Sweet grapes these would be. The names wouldn’t even have to be so grand; there’s a comfort in having any concrete answer to the question, “Who are you and where are you going?”

But here’s the rub; if I had these externals all set up, if I had a ready-made answer, I would never have worked with the question. The uncertainty has been its own fortune.

Not knowing who the publisher would be, I persisted with the book; through this, I came to know it on its own terms.

Not knowing what my job would be, I looked at many possibilities; in seeing them, I started imagining what I could do. Had my job been all set up, I would not have had a chance to do this.

Beyond that, there’s a strength that comes from letting oneself just plain not know.

I also recognized how much I have, even in this uncertainty. I thought of the harrowing uncertainty that millions upon millions of people suffer every day: the uncertainty about the next meal or shelter, or even life itself. My uncertainties are not petty or trivial–but in looking at them, I see uncertainties vastly more difficult than my own.

The uncertainty can also open up into beauty. This year I have had room to go to concerts, plays, and an opera; see friends; take walks; go biking; visit Columbia Secondary School and lead philosophy roundtables there; and plan the upcoming trip, while also devoting myself to my book and the cantillation course.

So uncertainty can be an opening into oneself, one’s work, and the world. Last week, when walking down 88th St., I saw a tree in bloom and took the photo above. At that moment, I realized that I had noticed the tree because I was not rushing off somewhere. I had a little lull in the morning and did not know exactly where I would go next. There’s a liveliness in that lull. Of course I can’t stay in it forever, but I remember it as I go on.

In fact, if I think of the happiest moments of my life, there’s one kind that stands out among the rest. It’s that brief shivery hesitation, where for a split second your soul vibrates. I have had this at street intersections, in classrooms, and before a scroll. For just a flash, you do not know the next step, and that flash holds everything. Then it goes away and you continue on your course, which now has tinges of gold.


The Toxicity of “Toxic”

fort tryon in springWe gain much of our strength, versatility, and wisdom from difficulties and challenges. Yet today a cult of convenience squats in each field of life. Often, when people refer to others as “toxic,” they are not just using words carelessly; they are suggesting that the people they don’t like (or don’t immediately understand) are bad for their existences and deserving of expulsion.

Would the scene in the photo exist if no one could be bothered with difficulty? It took some adventurous sculpting and grappling with stone and plants (and that’s an understatement). What about a great friendship, also a mixture of nature and sculpture? If people dropped friendships as soon as they became difficult in any way, what would be left?

Again and again, I see advice about how to eliminate “toxic” people from your life. The criterion for “toxicity” is basically inconvenience or unpleasantness. Those who speak of “toxicity” rarely distinguish between people who pose difficulties for you and people who really hurt you.

On her website Science of People, Vanessa Van Edwards, author of the forthcoming Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People (Portfolio, April 25, 2017), declares that you “deserve to have people in your life who you enjoy spending time with, who support you and who you LOVE hanging out with.” The site has been discussed in comments on Andrew Gelman’s blog; while there’s plenty to say about the references to “science,” I’ll focus on “toxic” instead, since that’s the topic of this blog post.

In her short article “How to Spot a Toxic Person,” after describing seven toxic types, Van Edwards lists some tell-tale symptoms that you’re in the presence of someone toxic.  She then assures her readers that they don’t  need these toxic people–that they deserve the company of wonderful people, with whom they can be their best selves. Here is the list:

  • You have to constantly save this person and fix their problems
  • You are covering up or hiding for them
  • You dread seeing them
  • You feel drained after being with them
  • You get angry, sad or depressed when you are around them
  • They cause you to gossip or be mean
  • You feel you have to impress them
  • You’re affected by their drama or problems
  • They ignore your needs and don’t hear ‘no’

Now, of the nine symptoms listed here, only one clearly has to do with the other person’s actions: “They ignore your needs and don’t hear ‘no.'” The others have to do with the sufferer’s own reactions and assumptions. Of course those reactions also matter, but they do not necessarily reflect meanness, selfishness, or obtuseness in the other person.

So what? someone might ask. If someone’s company leaves you miserable, don’t you have a right to detach yourself? Well, maybe, up to a point (or completely, in some cases), but it makes a difference how you frame it, even in your own mind. It is possible to keep (or work toward) some humility.

If your explanation is, “This person wants more time and energy from me than I can give,” then it makes sense to try to set an appropriate limit. If that fails, either because you weren’t clear enough or because the other person does not accept the terms, then a more drastic resolution may be needed–but even then, it doesn’t mean that the person is “toxic.” It just means that you have incompatible needs. Perhaps you were like that other person once upon a time; many of us go through times when we particularly need support or seek it from someone who cannot give it.

If the explanation is, “I don’t like the kind of conversation I end up having around this person,” then one option is to change the topic or tenor of conversation. Another is to limit its length (or try to do something together instead of mainly talking). If neither one works, there may be a basic incompatibility at stake. Even then, it doesn’t mean the other person is “toxic.” It just means that you have different interests.

Now, of course there are people who use, harm, and control others. There are those who gossip aggressively and meanly, promote themselves at every possible opportunity, or treat others  as their servants. When describing such people, one still doesn’t have to use the word “toxic”; a clearer description will lead to a clearer solution.

Why does this matter? The concept of “toxicity,” as applied to humans, has become a fad; people use it to justify writing off (and blaming) anyone who poses an inconvenience or whose presence doesn’t give constant pleasure. Philosophers, theologians, poets, and others, from Aristotle to Buber to Shakespeare to Saunders, have pointed to the moral vacuity of this practice. Yet the “toxic” banner continues to fly high in our hyper-personalized, hyper-fortified society (and always over the other people).

There are ways to be around people and still hold your ground, draw provisional lines, and take breaks. It’s possible to limit a relationship without deeming the other person awful. It is not only possible, but essential to public discussion, substantial friendship, and solitude. Who am I, if I must dismiss and disparage someone just to go off on my own or be with others? Doesn’t that cheapen the subsequent aloneness or company?

As for whether we deserve to be around people we love, people whose company we enjoy–yes, of course. But we also deserve to be around those whose presence is not so easy for us. When appropriately bounded, such a relationship can have meaning and beauty. Some of my best friendships had an awkward start; they grew strong when we let each other know what we did and didn’t want.

I hope never to call a person “toxic”; if it’s my reactions that trouble me, I can address them appropriately; if it’s the person’s actions, I can find a more specific term.

Image credit: I took this photo in Fort Tryon Park.

Update: Here’s an article by Marcel Schwantes (published in Inc.) advising people to cut “toxic” co-workers from their lives as a way of keeping “good boundaries.” Here’s a quote:

5. Cut ties with people who kiss up to management.

They will go out of their way to befriend and manipulate management in order to negotiate preferential treatment–undue pay raises, training, time off, or special perks that nobody else knows about or gets. Keep an eye out for colleagues who spend way more face time with their managers than usual. The wheels of favoritism may be in motion. Time to cut ties.

What? You don’t even know why the person is spending “face time” with management. Why conclude that it’s “time to cut ties”?

This anti-“toxic” stance of this article (and others like it) is much too self-satisfied and self-assured. 

Public Privacy

heart-on-a-platterWe have been worn thin by publicity, especially in the internet era. Private life, as it was once known and protected, has ceased to exist, except for those who protect it defiantly. On the one hand, this “openness” brings people out of isolation; they can now speak of their experiences in ways they could not before. I remember when it was considered shameful to bring up family problems or divorce; children often felt that they could not tell anyone what was happening at home. (That still might be the case—but there’s more of a sense that it’s good to speak up.) Also, people went through personal tragedy without knowing that others had been through similar things. Today it is easier in some ways to find support, and this is good.

But the spillage of personal life carries dangers. It has become the new norm to put your heart on webcam, as it were—so if you wish to be more reserved, you are on your own. Also, the boundaries are unclear and can vary widely from situation to situation. A normal disclosure in one context could easily be “too much information” in another; with no ill intention, people can intrude on each other with their words, or can appear rude and standoffish for holding back. This confusion of boundaries can hurt friendships, working relationships, and family bonds.

This “public privacy” cripples discourse as well. (Hannah Arendt, writing more than half a century ago, describes this as the submersion of the private and public spheres in the social sphere.) Newspaper op-eds, radio shows, and other media and formats are now filled with intensely personal stories, which you are not supposed to challenge. If you try to do so—and few dare—you risk being written off as heartless. It’s personal, after all.

Moreover, to share your private life is to shed your guilt—or so goes the belief. In his essay “How Publicity Makes People Real” (in Moral Imagination), David Bromwich discusses how this “broadcast intimacy”—through which people seek some kind of public expiation—prompts people to disclose things to the masses that they would not tell their own families. The success of this process, he writes, “depends on the puzzling fact that the irrevocable passage from depth to surface can be experienced as a relief.”

I was stunned by a recent New York Times piece by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, “You May Want to Marry My Husband.” The author writes from the deathbed, it seems; she says, “I need to say this (and say it right) while I have a) your attention, and b) a pulse.” She explains that she was diagnosed in 2015 with ovarian cancer and had to give up her plans and projects. She proceeds to describe her wonderful husband, Jason, and to express hope that the right reader will find him and start a new life with him once she (Rosenthal) is gone.

The problem lies not with publishing a farewell to her husband, or writing about cancer and impending death. All of this can be done with grace (and even privacy). Rather, this excruciating context makes it difficult for anyone to question her gesture of offering her husband up. That gesture, as I see it, should not be protected from criticism; any thoughtful and civil response should have a place.

I find her gesture troubling, not only in itself but in combination with a detail in the piece. She mentions that in her most recent memoir (written before her diagnosis), she invited her readers to suggest matching tattoos (that they would actually get). She thought this would be a great way for reader and author to bond. She ended up taking a suggestion from a 62-year-old librarian; the two went to get tattoos together.

I responded with the following comment:

You write: “In my most recent memoir (written entirely before my diagnosis), I invited readers to send in suggestions for matching tattoos, the idea being that author and reader would be bonded by ink.”

That, to me, goes against the bond between reader and text, a bond that can strengthen, weaken, release, or otherwise change over time. The reader does not have to be on display; he or she can think, dispute, laugh and cry in private. The author, likewise, needs no permanent token of the reader’s devotion; to write and publish something is to trust that readers will arrive.

I find privacy missing from this piece overall–not because you write about a personal experience (which many writers do, even those who tend toward privacy), but because you seem to try here, as before, to bond with a reader in the flesh.

Not all bonds have to be in the flesh; not all have to be known, seen, etched, or advertised.

That said, I recognize the pain and grief that you are facing.

At this point there are 1,124 comments. The overwhelming majority speak of being in tears over the piece, finding it the most beautiful thing they have every read, etc. There are only a few outliers—and some of them got snappy comments in response. Some people even said that only a heartless person would read the piece without crying.

My point here is not that Rosenthal did something wrong. There is more than one view of the matter. Many took her piece as an act of love and courage; there’s much here that the readers cannot see or know. Nor is the problem (as I see it) with her piece in particular. The problem is more general: Such excruciating revelations call for only one kind of response. You are supposed to join in the chorus of sympathy or be a brute.

Because pieces like this are so common, because it has become the norm to put not only oneself but one’s loved ones “out there,” public discussion has lost some of its verve, diversity, and questioning. (Of course many other factors have affected discussion as well.)

Personal stories are essential; they have beauty, they can help both the teller and the hearer, and they can transcend the particular situation. But there are stories and stories; a story should not be protected and praised because it’s personal, and people should not be afraid of questioning and criticizing a story’s content, premises, or style.

There is reason to be wary of genres and platforms that encourage unanimous mass responses. Literature at its best, no matter what its content or form, helps us speak and think on our own.