Attainment and Transition

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I have been thinking about attainment and transition in writing: how, when you complete a work–a poem, essay, book–and then later, when you publish it, you both reach a point and push beyond it. Sometimes the very act of publishing takes you to a new perspective; if you were to rewrite the work at this point, you might make some changes (or do something different entirely). The proportion of attainment to transition varies from situation to situation; some works are primarily attainments, others transitions or openings. Neither one is superior to the other; the work that reaches finality is not necessarily more perfect or more worthwhile than the one that opens up changes and new considerations. To the contrary: sometimes the more restless work has the greater liveliness.

Regarding this topic, I sense a cultural difference between the U.S. and Hungary. In the U.S. there is great emphasis on treating your published work as final and perfect; who ever goes back and revises a TED talk, for instance? For a work of nonfiction especially, you are supposed to isolate your “talking points” and say them again and again, in interview after interview. It is uncommon to hear someone say, “My thoughts on this subject have changed,” or “I have altered the wording since the book was published.” Yes, you fix mistakes, but you are otherwise expected to stick to your points. With poetry and fiction, the situation is similar: publishers do not typically want to consider works that have appeared before, even if the author has since revised them. (Part of this has to do with copyright law and economy: publishers compete for “first rights.”)

Here in Hungary I sense something different. My impressions are early and incomplete–I have a lot to learn and take in–but so far I see much less emphasis on finality and newness and much more on seeking, rethinking, and reworking. At least this is what I have found so far. Maybe I found it because I was alert to it. It is all too easy to generalize about a country or to mistake one’s early impressions for the whole. Still, the fragments themselves are promising.

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The poet, playwright, screenwriter, and prose author János Térey (whom I heard twice on Thursday) said in an interview in 2016, “Jó társaság átírni mindig verseinket. Úgy fogom fel, hogy ameddig élek, az utolsó kézvonás joga az enyém.” I would translate this approximately as follows: “It is good fellowship to rewrite our poems continually. As I understand it, as long as I live, the right to the last penstroke is mine.” “Kézvonás,” as I understand it, means a pulling of the hand (i.e., with a pen, over paper), so I translated it as “penstroke” (since “handstroke” has a different meaning); another possibility might be “move,” as in a chess move. I am not sure that I translated the first sentence correctly, but if I did, the meaning may be as follows: revision is fellowship (or company, or society) in itself, since it keeps you in dialogue with your work. It also allows for fellowship with others.

Large revisions are not always more important than small ones; sometimes an adjusted line, a single word change along with an altered word order, can recast an entire poem. Why should a person hold back from trying such changes, if they start growing in the mind?

Some might say that if you are allowed to revise a work as many times as you wish, you never have to take responsibility for your words. This would be true, I think, if, after revising, you erased every trace of the previous versions. But if the previous versions still stand, if they remain in published form, you are still responsible for them in some way, perhaps even more than if you did not change them at all. If you think it is wrong to revise published work, then in essence you relinquish it (“it’s done, it’s out there; what can I do but move on?”). But if you continue to revise your work even after publication, then you extend your responsibility; you not only live with your words but continue to work with them.

I consider Mind over Memes (to be released tomorrow) a better book, but also a more transitional one, than Republic of Noise. It brought me to a different place in my thinking and writing. If I were to revise Republic of Noise, I would make some changes but keep most of the text intact. If I were to rework Mind over Memes, it might become an entirely different book–either that, or it would lead to another one. That does not count against it; rather, it’s part of the book’s meaning. It was meant to open up into questions, and it did, for me at least. It remains to be seen what others think of it.

Probably many will see the actual book before I do; my copies have been held up in customs. I hope they arrive soon. Customs here can be tricky; I have yet to receive a scarf (my own scarf, not an ordered item) for which I completed and returned the customs form several weeks ago. The books may take even longer. The ones held up now are my own copies, but I ordered about thirty more copies for book events. I now more fully understand the meaning of “suspense”–not fully, that is, but more fully than before.

 

I took both pictures in Szolnok this past week. The second one reminds me of several lines from a poem; more about that, possibly, another time. Also, I added a paragraph and made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

“Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok”

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Over a year ago, before coming to Hungary, I began reading, thinking about, and learning Endre Ady poem “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm.” Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and finished memorizing it at last. It took time in part because of the complex phrases (“Boldog szimatolásaimban, / Gyöngéd simogatásaimban”) and in part because I had to memorize each syllable, since when I began I knew none of the grammar. Last night I realized that I understood its grammar and nearly all of the words; the parts I knew and the parts I hadn’t yet learned came together. But there was another reason, I think, that it came together all of a sudden: yesterday afternoon I attended a lecture on Ady’s poetry by the writer János Térey (poet, playwright, screenwriter, author of prose), who visited our school. The lecture did not touch on this poem; he focused on Ady’s Christmas-related poems, such as “Harang csendül“–but as I listened, I started to put things together in my mind. Even with my limited Hungarian, I came out of the lecture with a different understanding and with new poems I wanted to read (new for me, that is). From there, it took only a few minutes to finish memorizing the poem.

I don’t think there is anything magical about this. Memorizing involves interpretation; to know what comes next in a poem, you must understand its structure, motion, rhythm, tones, meanings; to do that, you must think about each word and the relationships between them. A lecture, by offering an interpretation, gives your mind a working structure; even if it’s on a slightly different topic, it helps you with the structure at hand. If it’s on an interesting subject, by someone with exceptional insight, it does even more. Beyond that, I concentrate so hard when listening to Hungarian that the focus persists afterward. In any case, I now can carry “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm” and traces of other Ady poems in my mind. It is the third Hungarian poem that I have memorized, and I hope for many more. Each book opens up to more places, and the memorizing is just the beginning.

Memorizing a poem in another language can also open up aspects of one’s own. The Ady poem has the lines “Köszönöm a kétséget, a hitet, / A csókot és a betegséget.” (roughly, “I thank You for the doubt, the belief, / The kisses and the infirmity”). The word “kétség” means “doubt” but could literally be translated as “twoness” or “being of two minds” (since “két” means “two,” and the suffix –ség turns the word into an abstract noun). I began to suspect that “doubt” also had something to do with “two,” and so it does, according to my handiest etymological dictionary at this time. From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

c. 1200, douten, duten, “to dread, fear, be afraid” (a sense now obsolete), from Old French doter“doubt, be doubtful; be afraid,” from Latin dubitare “to doubt, question, hesitate, waver in opinion” (related to dubius “uncertain”), from duo “two” (from PIE root *dwo- “two”), with a sense of “of two minds, undecided between two things.” Compare dubious. Etymologically, “to have to choose between two things.”

I could (and should) have realized this long ago, but learning a poem makes me more alert to such things. Learn a book of such poems inside out, and you come close to learning a language. There will be much more to learn after that, but you will start to hear the language from the inside.

Speaking of books, mine comes out in three days. The Dallas Institute posted a Q&A; another one is coming any day on the Book Culture blog. I will have a reading in Budapest, at Massolit Books & Cafe, on Sunday, November 18; I hope to have one in Szolnok too, possibly at the library, which I visited for the first time yesterday when I went to hear János Térey read from his own work. It’s a beautiful library, and I hope to visit often, whether for events or for reading.

 

I took the photo after a concert in September. Also, I made some additions to this piece after posting it.

Update: Here is a short video of János Térey‘s visit to our school. Thanks to Gyula Jenei for posting the link–and to Gyula and everyone else who made these events possible.

Secrets Behind the Trees

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The other day, just before reaching home, I saw a young man with his bike parked beside the river wall. He was seated on the wall, gazing out at the Zagyva. I wanted to take a picture but did not want to disturb his privacy, even without his knowledge. So I took a picture in which he could not really be seen. You can just see the bike and a hint of a blue jacket behind the tree. The picture represents part of my life here these days and the happiness I am finding. There is room for thinking.

The picture has another meaning too. As I start to understand more and more Hungarian, as I put together more sentences, read more, and carry more in my mind, I start to see secrets behind the trees, things I would not recognize if I did not know that they had to be precisely there. (This last part, after the colon, is a paraphrased quotation from a poem—a somewhat different version from the one behind the link.) I have discovered that one of my colleagues is a poet and another an essayist and critic; their work inspires me to read and understand. They also run a literary journal, Eső (Rain); the Fall 2018 issue comes out tomorrow. Much more reading lies ahead!

In addition, I find that language sometimes works like constellations in the mind: you have seen the individual stars, but when you recognize the form between them, that is when you know them by heart. When learning how to say certain things, I find that I had some of the knowledge before: maybe the grammar, or maybe the words–but when I put them together, I understand both grammar and words in a new way. Last Monday, I tutored two women in English; after an hour, as we had agreed beforehand, we switched to Hungarian so that I could practice too. I learned how to say things that I had almost known how to say; when they clicked, right there in the sound of conversation, I knew I would remember them.

There is much more to say about this, but I am running late and must therefore run.

On Beginnerhood (Reprise)

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Fall is here at last! Goodbye, for now, to the heat and pounding rays; a hearty welcome to the chill and vigor. I love walking and biking around in the fall: listening to the leaves, watching the trees sway, taking in the pale colors. I also just completed one of the greatest challenges of my life: leading services for the High Holy Days, along with the rabbi. (I led the musical parts; she led the spoken parts.) I spent weeks preparing daily; it went beautifully, and I learned profoundly.

I was so tired afterward, and so overwhelmed with upcoming projects and deadlines, that I thought I would have to give up one of two events this weekend. I had planned to go to a Budapest Festival Orchestra concert on Friday–a Baltic program, featuring works by Čiurlionis, Pärt, and Vasks–and then to the Season Opening Gala, a benefit event for the orchestra’s “Choose Your Instrument” program, which gives children around Hungary the opportunity to do just that. I thought I would have to give up the gala–but then, with a little encouragement, I decided to go.

The Friday night concert was beyond anything I had expected, since Arvo Pärt himself was there! I was first introduced to his work in my senior year of college; at the time, I listened to Tabula Rasa over and over. I slowly became acquainted with some of his other compositions, including Te Deum, which the BFO performed Friday night. His music is so otherworldly that I didn’t initially imagine flesh-and-bones mortals playing it, let alone composing it–so it was astonishing to see everyone together, composer and musicians, in the hall. In this photo, he appears all the way to the left, with a bouquet of flowers; at this point, we had been applauding for so long that he signaled that it was time for sleep.

The concert program consisted of Te Deum (the final piece), Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis’s Miške (In the Forest), Pärt’s Como cierva sedienta,  and Pēteris Vasks’s Epifonia. (The soprano Sylvia Schwartz was the soloist for Como cierva sedienta; the Cantemus Mixed Choir sang Te Deum.)

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I stayed overnight in Budapest, went back to Szolnok in the morning, and then returned to Budapest two hours later for the Gala event. I also had to return to my previous hotel to pick up a book of poetry I had left there. (It was intact.) So now I start to wend my way into the topic at hand: beginnerhood, about which I have written before.

During the reception before dinner, we were all invited to try out instruments; members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and several children demonstrated the instruments and allowed people to give them a try. (I tried the tuba, horn, flute, and violin; later, during the dinner, I tried another horn and the harp as well.) It was thrilling to be a beginner: to have no expectations except for that starting point, the first note or few notes, however they might sound. But there was more to it than that. As Iván Fischer explained to us later that evening, not everyone is suited to every instrument. Different instruments make different demands of a person; some require an earlier start than others, some favor particular physiques, some have particular logistical requirements, and some get fallen in love with. When children understand this, they have a better chance of selecting an instrument that is right for them.

When you choose an instrument, you do not necessarily sign on for life. I spoke with BFO members who had started with one instrument and then switched to another, who had taken breaks from playing, who had not begun their instrument until their teenage years, or who had studied something else at the university. The paths to musicianship–even toward the highest levels–are not as standardized as people may assume, but no matter when and where these musicians began, they have been devoted to their instruments for years. This cannot be shortchanged. Trying an instrument, you grasp all over again what it would take to learn to play it well. But basic proficiency is just another layer of beginning, amid more layers and layers.

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In that sense, beginnerhood and mastery do not cancel each other out; a master still has chances, at any moment, to play a familiar piece in a fresh way, to play in new situations and formats, and to treat the bare beginners kindly. The evening was full of generosity: musicians giving encouragement and suggestions as guests tried to play clear notes (or any at all), sounds ringing out all over the room, lively and lovely performances over the course of the evening, good fundraising, and conversation in many languages.

In speaking of a spirit of beginnerhood, I do not mean that “everyone is a beginner” or that freshness is everything. Years of practice and repetition allow one to inhabit music, language, or another field; without such dedication over time, a person would stay trapped within the “sort of” (which to me is a sort of hell). But repetition and habit are only part of the work, though an unforsakeable part; musicians, writers, artists, actors must also meet the art anew and anew, with everything they have, with empty hands.

Speaking of that, I have some work that is barely begun, with rapidly approaching deadlines–so it is time to buckle down and overcome this particular beginnerhood, knowing that others and other kinds will follow.

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

The Truth of Seeking Truth

IMG_6704One of the most damaging contemporary dicta is that truth does not exist: that all we know is our own perspective, if even that. According to some, if you so much as mention truth, you have revealed your own outdatedness. The pursuit of truth can only lead farther into illusion, some say; to be with the times, one must admit that there’s no ultimate truth at all.

Were it not for its emphasis on being with the times, the above could seem plausible. Again and again, we think we know what happened in a given episode in our lives, only to find out later that our understanding was just a fragment and that the various known fragments do not complete a whole. Not only that, but even if all of the information were available, we could only make sense of it through stories–and stories require selection, emphasis, and sequence. There is no way to convey a full picture, even if it exists; our language, existing in time, does not allow for such complexity and completeness.

Yet much of our experience is sturdy. The bicycle does not turn into a tractor from one day to the next. The slice of pizza does not become a cherry pie in the middle of a bite. If you go to a concert, and you remember it the next day, so do others; if you teach a class, there’s general agreement, the next time, about what the lesson contained, even if not everyone remembers everything. So consistency of experience and commonality of memory point to some reality outside of us, a reality that can be called true.

Moreover, we are disposed to seeking out truth; day after day, we try to find out what really happened, what was really said, what a word means, where a particular thing is located, what causes a particular phenomenon, and what we think; this pursuit is not all in vain, nor does it follow a set schedule. When you find the solution to a math problem, it stays; when you understand a word, the understanding abides, even if it changes over time. Knowing your own thoughts may be the most difficult challenge of all, since you are thinking them even as you examine them. Even so, we probably all have had moments of clarity, of knowing, at least for an instant, who we are.

That we build justice systems, schools, governments, news publications on the pursuit of truth does not, in itself, prove truth’s existence; looking at the history of such institutions, we can find many deceptions and follies. Still, people coming together in a courtroom affirm that through assembling the evidence, hearing the witnesses, and deliberating, a jury can reach a fairer and more accurate verdict than it would without these actions. In the classroom, anyone can make mistakes, but the very existence of mistakes suggests the possibility of accuracy. In newspapers and on news programs, a story can get distorted, but then, over time, others correct the record. At their best, all of these institutions pursue truth instead of claiming to have it–and demonstrate, through their daily work, that such pursuit is possible.

Literature can hold truth, but it does this through seeking. Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” sounds on the surface like a simple telling of truth, but the truth moves before our eyes, changing color and tone, ambling through grief and delight. Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin plays with deception and dissimulation but reaches a kind of clarity. Eliot’s “Prufrock” seeks something too, in a muted and doubting way. I cannot think of a work of literature (that is, a work that I would want to reread) that does not in some way seek truth, integrity, precision, form, completion, or clarity (and their necessary companions). It may or may not reach an answer, but it takes the reader from one place of understanding to another.

The search for truth does not move with the times; it may go against the passions and predilections of a given culture or group. It follows its own timing; discoveries and insights do not always arrive on schedule, but may come when unexpected and fail to arrive when expected. How many of us have recognized one of our mistakes long after making it; how many dramatic works rely on such mistiming? It would be better to catch a mistake in advance, but short of that, we take insight as it comes.

Each of us seeks some kind of truth: some with enthusiasm, some with weariness, some with direction and purpose, some with open curiosity. To respect others is to recognize that they seek just as I do–not in the same way or with the same timing, but for similar reasons: they want to understand what they do not now understand; they believe, as I do, that there is something to learn.

I took the photo when crossing the Zagyva last week. Also, I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.

Is “Dream Crazy” Good Advice?

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Here I will not be talking about the boiling controversy around the Nike “Dream Crazy” ad–a controversy about the individuals in the ad, not the ad’s message. Nor do I mean to take the ad as a logical argument; its primary purpose is to promote the Nike brand, and its message serves that end. I bring up the ad only because it stands out as an example of a well-worn and highly (U.S.) American idea: the idea that (a) a certain kind of success, involving money and fame, is all-important; (b) the ones who succeed are the ones who “dream big”; and (c) that such dreamers should let nothing and no one stand in their way. No obstacle is an obstacle, no qualm a qualm; the true champion reduces all hindrances to nothing, simply through power of the mind.

“If people say your dreams are crazy,” says Colin Kaepernick, the ad’s narrator, “if they laugh at what you think you can do–good. Stay that way.” So far, I have no objections. Then he continues: “Because what nonbelievers fail to understand is that calling a dream crazy is not an insult. It’s a compliment. Don’t try to be the fastest runner in your school, or the fastest in the world. Be the fastest ever. Don’t picture yourself wearing OBJ’s jersey. Picture OBJ wearing yours. Don’t settle for homecoming queen or linebacker. Do both.” A little later: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” The ad continues for a while longer, and he says a bit more, but this is enough for now.

On the surface, the words of the ad sound profoundly humanitarian. People should not hold themselves back; no one has to be inferior to anyone else, or to a dream, or even to the greatest dream imaginable. Each of us, no matter where or how we grew up, has access to infinity.

Yet this version of infinity gives me qualms. Why should a dream consist of becoming the best at something–not only the best right now, but the best ever known? First of all, to the extent that the best can be identified and measured, it has room for only one person; not everyone can be the best. If everyone’s primary goal were to be the best, life would quickly become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Or to put it differently: there are people who don’t worry about whether they themselves are the best ever at what they do; it is their work that they want to perfect, something within the work that they seek out. Many fields demand this kind of focus. To be an excellent musician, you must be listening intently to the music, working your way toward what you hear or want to hear in your mind. Thoughts about being the best musician of all time might distract you. For sure, there are musicians who aspire to make a mark in history, who hope to go down as one of the best–but others reach heights without thinking in those terms. How does one determine, moreover, who is the best, even in athletics, where numbers are ready at hand? It is not as easy as it may sound.

Second, if you aspire to do your work well, whatever it may be, without necessarily hoping to become the best ever, this does not make you a conformist or lesser person. Striving for visible superiority is highly conformist; voices from all corners tell you to “go for it” and applaud you if you do so. But there are many successes that do not look like an athlete leaping in the air and hurling a ball; there are successes in finding a phrase, discovering a new angle (so to speak) on a math problem, making a delicious gulyás, teaching a class, raising a child, sitting at a dying person’s bedside. This does not mean that a person should eschew all competition; competition has a place. But not all good works look like athletic championship; not all unusual things look alike.

The third problem here–a problem with “growth mindset” as well–is that such an ideal bids us think only in terms of striving, dreaming, going beyond the limit. Any sense of limitation, any thought of mortality, becomes taboo or at best undesirable. Don’t say that you will die one day; dream and act as though you could live forever. But human immortality is not as great as it sounds. The body wears down; the world gets crowded. An endless life could be miserable. Moreover, as long as we have known, and as long as we know now, every human and animal life comes to an end. Do we have to pretend this isn’t true? There’s something shrill and forced about the dogma of limitlessness; it looks away from life.

I do not mean that people should curb their dreams because they will die one day. But it is possible to live with bounds and boundlessness at once: to strive beyond what we know, to carry dreams of different kinds, but also to admit to the end of things, the need for sleep, the presence of others, the worth of simple acts.

I took the photo at the Gulyásfesztivál in Szolnok.

A Concert in Gyula

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I first learned about the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s synagogue concert series before I even knew about the possibility of teaching in Hungary. I wanted to support it and hoped one day to attend one of these concerts. Yesterday I made it to my fifth–but just barely!

To get to the concert in Gyula (a town in southeastern Hungary, near the Romanian border), I needed to take the 3:34 train out of Szolnok. The next train would get me there too late. My last class ended at 3:20, and I would need another minute or two to get out the door and on the bike; biking fast, I could possibly make it to the station in ten minutes, but much depended on the timing of the traffic lights. Just one long red light, and I would miss the train.

In addition, there was no way to return to Szolnok that night; I would need to stay in Gyula and return the next morning on the earliest train, the one that departed at 4:59. (The next one would get me to school too late.) So I reserved a hotel room in advance, not knowing whether I would make it to the concert in the first place.

After my last class on Wednesday, I rushed out the door, got on my bike, and pedaled with everything in me. I cut one corner: on bike, you are not supposed to cross Szapáry Street right at Kossuth Lajos Street but are instead directed to cross halfway up the next block. That would have taken too long, so I crossed right there, along with the traffic, then re-entered the bike path and sped onwards. I got to the train just in time; it left about a minute after I boarded with the bike. The transfer in Békéscsaba went without a hitch, and I arrived in Gyula exactly on time, at 5:07. (The concert started at 5:30.)

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I had a basic idea of how to get there but wasn’t completely sure I was doing it right. I passed through a park where some teenagers were sitting and smoking. They saw me pass by and immediately sensed that I was looking for something; when I explained, three of them came to my aid and explained the directions, telling me to turn left and cross a bridge. I turned left but saw no bridge; I asked a woman on a bike how to get there, and she said she was going in the same direction and would show me. Soon we crossed that bridge and were there: at the Ferenc Erkel Music School, formerly a synagogue. I entered and took my seat early.

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The program was new for me (until the encores): Max Bruch’s string octet in B-flat major and Claude-Paul Taffanel’s wind quintet in G minor. The Bruch allowed me to delight in Rita Sovány’s cello playing and the conversation of all the instruments.

The Taffanel was full of Bach influence, but with Romantic dreaminess and flute (played gloriously by Anett Jóföldi). In its evocation and transformation of a past, it suggested some of the meaning of the evening, as did the Bruch. I was caught up in it from start to finish.

There was a triple klezmer encore, with the full ensemble; two of the pieces I knew from previous concerts, and one was new to me. We the audience listened with hush and clapped with noise.

The full hall, the sounds that seize, the traditions coming together, the musicians’ gifts, the audience’s warmth, and my own joy in being there made this an evening not only of beauty but of urgency. The evening does not translate into a political message; that is part of the point. All the same, it “asks a little of us here.”

The magnificent clarinetist Ákos Ács–who leads the synagogue series–spoke at several points, clarinet and microphone in hand. A delightful rabbi–whom I heard speak once before, at the concert in Szeged last June–spoke about Jewish synagogues. Hungarian is not his native language; I enjoyed the sense of searching in his speech. Another man spoke at length about the history of Jews in Gyula, and then the head of the music school said some concluding words.

The audience seemed profoundly involved; afterward, people lingered and left slowly.

Then came the clouds and downpour. I made it to the hotel without confusion; I just began riding and found it. I took this picture right at the corner.

The hotel had a restaurant, so I had some delicious fish soup and then went to sleep. I left at 4:40 in the morning and got to the train station five minutes later.

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I hope to visit this town again for a longer stretch. But this quick trip was so full and unlikely that it continues onward in my mind.

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You can read my posts about the synagogue concerts in Albertirsa, Baja, Szeged, and Békés here, here, and here.

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

Against the Overwhelming Vagueness

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After writing the last post (on Appiah’s essay on condescension), I started thinking about a peculiarity of (U.S.) American economic and social life: many decisions and judgments get made behind the scenes, with no public disclosure of the discussion and reasoning behind them. People get rejected from colleges, turned down for jobs or publication, or even excluded from parties without ever learning why. The rejection letter (or equivalent) epitomizes the vague: “Thank you for your interest in the position. We received an unforeseen number of exceptional applications and ultimately chose finalists whose qualifications most closely matched our criteria. We have therefore decided not to consider your application further. We wish you the best in your job search,” etc.

In such situations (which abound), the only way a person learns of the specific reasons is through a personal connection. That is part of the reason for the American emphasis on “networking”; without it, you may be consigned to the realm of the perplexed.

In some countries (not all), the situation is more clear-cut, though not better. Either you are not considered at all (because of your class, educational background, demographic group, or some other known factor), or you fail to meet explicit criteria (such as a test score). The drawback in such cultures is that some people never get considered in the first place. The advantage is that they often know the reasons.

Vague rejections are such a part of American life that people don’t question them outright. They might suspect and contest a particular rationale for a rejection (for instance, in the case of Asian-American applicants to Harvard and other colleges) but take for granted that they will receive a vague letter, if any at all.

Even peer groups and individuals exclude others without telling them why. People are bombarded with advice to cut “toxic” people from their lives or distance themselves from “negative” people, but sometimes these individuals never learn that anyone considered them toxic in the first place. Instead, they just see their peers drifting away, evading invitations, having parties and conversations without them. They are left to guess what’s going on. Even if they aren’t deemed toxic, they may be ostracized without explanation. It could be because of their habits, the company they keep, their background, something they said, or or something that has been said about them.

Carina Chocano’s terrific piece on the word “inappropriate” appears in The New York Times Magazine’s First Words column (like Appiah’s). “The word’s vagueness has always been a handy way to remind people of their relatively low status,” she writes; If they can’t already tell what’s wrong about their behavior, perhaps they are beyond help.” By calling others “inappropriate,” people excuse themselves from dealing with them. The vagueness is an exit ticket for the elite.

But there is a benevolent, humble side to this American tendency. People genuinely don’t want others to feel bad or to take their judgments as the final word. If they stick to vague verbiage, perhaps the rejected one will stay hopeful. Timothy might not be a “good fit” for Harvard, but who knows about Swarthmore or Vanderbilt? The New Yorker rejected my poem “despite its evident merit”; maybe it will get snatched up by the next witting editor. Karla doesn’t want to go out with Jamal, but he can still believe that he’s a wonderful person and that someone will appreciate him for what he has to offer.

The problem is that the vagueness can leave a person in worse doubt than clarity would–because the words themselves lose meaning. Does “inappropriate” mean “really bad” or just “mildly out of place”? Why did Harvard turn Timothy down? Did Jamal do anything that put Karla off? Does my poem pass muster?

I recognize the bureaucratic mess that specific, reason-filled acceptances and rejections could cause. They would be inordinately time-consuming, error-prone, subject to lawsuits, sometimes misleading, maybe algorithm-driven, open to interpretation, and possibly more trouble than they are worth. But at the other extreme, the vagueness has become a way of life, a way of making judgments while pretending not to judge.

There are ways to break through some of the vagueness, individually or together.  We* can strive for clarity (without cruelty) in thought, action, and word. We can work to lift taboos surrounding criticism. We can protect an institution’s decisions (provided they are lawful) while laying bare the reasons. But first and foremost, we can recognize that the vagueness does not have to be accepted as is; even if we cannot change it entirely, we can question it, look at what it does, and seek out other ways.

*”We” in this context is as far-reaching as it wants to be. It can involve a few individuals or more.

I took the photo yesterday afternoon outside my school here in Szolnok (after a day of faculty meetings). That’s my bike parked on the right.

I made some edits to this piece after posting it. Also, I am considering “American vagueness” as the topic for my next book. There is much more to say on this subject.

Condescension, Contempt, and Beyond

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Kwame Anthony Appiah’s recent essay “Thank You For ‘Condescending‘” (published in The New York Times Magazine’s excellent First Words column) stirred up some thoughts about the American concern with status. Appiah argues that we have forgotten the old meaning of “condescension” (which Samuel Johnson defined as ““Voluntary submission to equality with inferiors”). Over time, “condescension” has taken on negative connotations; today we resist the notion that there are superiors and inferiors in the first place. Yet hierarchies persist, says Appiah, whether we like them or not–and so condescension, once honorable, has degenerated into “its curdled opposite,” contempt, which now fills the political sphere. I support this argument and the reveille it brings; I would offer just a few complications.

When thinking of the benevolent kind of condescension, I remembered the Swinburne poem “To a Cat,” which begins:

Stately, kindly, lordly friend,
      Condescend
Here to sit by me, and turn
Glorious eyes that smile and burn,
Golden eyes, love’s lustrous meed,
On the golden page I read.

The poem expands in thought over its eleven ;stanzas it contemplates distant past and far future; near the end of the first part, it asks the cat, “What within you wakes with day / Who can say?” It is worth reading in full, many times. I think I first read it–or maybe just the first few lines–in a cat book, as a child. I remember being struck by the word “condescend”; I knew I had not  heard it in that way before. The poem stayed with me because of it.

Appiah says that condescension (in its old, kindly meaning) “denies distance; contempt asserts it.” I would add that condescension of this kind recognizes the unknown in others, whereas contempt denies it. To have contempt for another is to believe that you have summed the person up, that nothing exists beyond your own assessment (or that if anything does exist, it isn’t worth your time).

Moroeover, he suggests that contempt–and its counterpart, resentment–may arise from our insistence on erasing or ignoring the visible markers of status. In pretending to be equal (in fact as well as in principle, in specifics as well as in general), we put ourselves on edge, suspecting a hidden hierarchy behind the ways of the world.

I find this resoundingly true but would add a few caveats. Yes, hierarchies persist and make themselves known, often surreptitiously–through subtle cues, gossip, and such. Many Americans seem intensely interested in knowing who is who. If you go to a wedding, for instance, and someone even mildly famous or wealthy is there, you will hear about it (maybe in a whisper). When I was a student at Yale, someone would often point out someone and say, “You see her? She’s always going around in jeans, but she’s a multi-millionaire.” Or “He’s the son of so-and-so.” I continued to see this tendency later on, in New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere.

In addition to pointing out hierarchies (in undertones), people would also try to act as though they didn’t exist. When the boss drank with the employees–on the job or at a bar, sometimes late into the night–it could seem that there was no hierarchy at all. But part of the point of such drinking is to get employees to work longer and better. While seeming “cool” for hanging out with the lowly programmers–and perhaps being genuinely affable and appreciative–the boss has a specific agenda. Drinking on the job can also foster an “in-group” by excluding those who for cultural, religious, medical, or personal reasons do not drink (or prefer to spend their time in other ways).

Unspoken hierarchies exist in schools, too. I have heard–but have not verified–that when parents pay steep prices (through real estate or tuition) to send their child to a school, they may come to view the teachers as their own employees. In addition, with the rise of “helicopter parenting,” parents are more likely to supervise and judge the daily classes and activities in their children’s schools. The reverse, though, can happen as well: teachers may view parents as their assistants–not as well versed as they are in the subject matter but capable of, say, reading to the child before bed or making sure the homework gets done. While parents and teachers would like to view each other as their equals, they do not always accomplish this.

But let us distinguish between two kinds of equality: basic human equality and provisional, specific equality (say, in athletic competence or language proficiency). It is possible to believe in basic human equality–the idea that all of us have dignity and deserve basic consideration and respect–without believing that we all have the same abilities, attainments, virtues, or even, in some spheres, rights. In our zealousness for affirming basic equality, we have often confused it with the specific kinds; we fear to admit that some people have more musical ability than others, that some are more mathematically inclined than others, that some write better than others (at a given time or over a lifetime), or even that some exceed others in courage. Everyone is supposed to be equally special and capable, ever growing. Everyone’s voice is important.

Only we know that’s not so. Not only differences in ability, attainment, and circumstance, but differences between the “somebodies” and “nobodies” keep resurfacing. Media like Twitter reveal, on the one hand, the principle of equal participation (anyone can join the conversation!) and the blatant divide between those with thousands of followers and those with fewer than thirty. There are those whose every word gets attention and those who write for friends and occasional passers-by.

If you are perceived as one of the “nobodies,” especially online, you can be sure that someone will remind you of this–regardless of the quality of what you do and what you have to say. (“Why pay attention to you? Your comment has only two likes.”)

But there is yet another complication. A person can have higher status in one area and lower status in another. Also, people can be simultaneously each other’s superiors and inferiors. Consider an editor (of a well-regarded publication) and a writer. In some ways, the editor has higher status (through acting as gatekeeper, for instance); in others, the writer does (through creating a work that an editor might covet). The relationship may change over time. So status is more complex than it looks on the surface.

I have often felt uneasy among people obsessed with status–but I recognize that status is there, whether we like it or not, and that it takes myriad forms. I see Appiah’s argument that disavowed status leads to anxiety, contempt, and resentment.  So how does one acknowledge status without letting it dominate one’s life?

Perhaps that is precisely it: by acknowledging it, one does not have to worry about it. One does not have to put so much effort into detecting and interpreting social cues. Criticism can be more frank and at the same time less loaded; the recipient, knowing what it contains, can then choose what to do with it. This will allow not only for clarity and learning, not only for condescension (in the generous sense of the word), but for better sleep and waking.

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I took the top photo in Szolnok (near my apartment building) and the bottom one in Baja by the Danube.

Is one ever too busy to think?

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It happened with the first book too: after everything is off to press, I find some delightful sources that, had I read them earlier, I would have quoted and discussed. That’s the inevitable result of working on a book: it opens up subjects that don’t close up along with your deadlines.

First, in his scathing article “The Naked and the TED,” Evgeny Morozov describes the “takeaway” as “the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think.” That’s great. My only qualm is that I don’t think people are really too busy to think; rather, they don’t want to think and use the busyness to excuse this. (We all do this with things we don’t want to do.) I’ll get to that in a moment.

Also, Dave Stein’s terrific blog Lex maniac–which examines “expressions that have entered and established themselves in everyday language in the last thirty years”–observes that the takeaway “refers to the main point you want to drive home but shifts the focus to the receiver of the message from that of the sender. The important thing is not what you say, but what your listeners remember.” In other words, a takeaway produces results, or rather, it is the result. It is the mental product that people carry away from a speech, book, advertisement, or other way of conveying something. (I have no excuse for not reading Lex maniac earlier–I was told about it more than once–but now I visit it often.)

Many people, especially in Hungary, have asked me, “What does ‘Take Away the Takeaway’ mean?” (That’s the title of this blog and of the first chapter of Mind over Memes.) I explain that I am not arguing to get rid of takeaways but rather to remove them temporarily to see what lies below them: what uncertainties, questions, subtleties, and extensions. In other words, don’t let the takeaway replace the larger subject. Like the birds in the photo below, look it up and down; examine it from different parts of the crate. (The birds–maybe flycatchers of some kind?–are a little hard to see, but they’re at the edge of the wooden crate in the foreground. One is looking up, the other down.)

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But back to the question of being too busy to think. No one can do everything, but people find ways to make time for the things they really want to do. No matter how busy you are, there are ways to fit things in and cut other things out. Those who say, “I really want to write; I just don’t have time” have chosen to do other things besides write. The same applies to playing an instrument, reading, or any other voluntary, ongoing activity or action. This is true even for people raising children; even in the most hectic years, many parents make (or find, borrow, conjure, steal, or glean) time for writing, music, and other things.

Now, finding the time for something can involve some big choices and even sacrifices. For any serious writing, I need stretches of time. I don’t work well in small snatches here and there, even though those can supplement the larger work. When writing a book, I have needed to take time off from teaching (which meant leaving my job at the time, since there were no sabbaticals or other leaves that accommodated what I wanted to do.) In contrast, I have not been in the routine of practicing cello lately. I do not like “sort of” playing; if I am going to play, I want to practice two hours a day–and that is a big commitment among others. I already have substantial commitments, including musical commitments, in my time outside of work, so I have chosen not to add more. I do want to return to cello–but at a time when I am willing to set other things aside for it. (“You sure seem to have time for your blog,” someone might say. Yes, that’s part of the point; I choose to have time for it.)

The same holds true for thinking. Yes, a day can leave little room for extended thought, but it’s up to an individual whether or not to find the openings. This choice depends on many things. There are temperamental differences: some people feel uncomfortable when sitting with their own thoughts, whereas others feel something missing if they don’t take time for contemplation, analysis, rumination, play. There are also practices, habits, rituals of thinking, which can be built over time; someone unused to wrestling with a geometry problem may find it frustrating at the outset, whereas someone who does it every day may relish it and seek out trickier problems.

For me, different kinds of thinking need different forms and settings; I enjoy thinking during bike rides but do a different kind of thinking when sitting at the computer, and still other kinds when reading a book, listening to music, or writing a poem.

So then, given the voluntary nature of thought, given the possibility of finding time for thought even in a busy schedule, why does there seem to be a growing cultural impatience with thinking? Why is a “thinker” even viewed as a social nuisance, the one who ruins the fun?

I would attribute at least some of this to the rise of “thinking-lite,” a stand-in for independent thought. It’s a way of having your cake and being told you just had broccoli, or quasi-broccoli. Institutions like TED and media such as Twitter give their audience the sensation of learning something new or participating in something smart. They offer some kind of takeaway. That is all very satisfying, until you realize that these nutritional nuggets were often nothing other than candy.

There are exceptions. Here and there, you will find a TED talk that takes the audience into the subtleties of a subject. Stephen Burt’s talk “Why People Need Poetry” does that, a little–though if he had stayed with one poem, he could have done more. It’s a talk about poetry in general; to its great credit, it ends with something other than a takeaway. It invites the audience to look and listen beyond the usual.

So to make more “time” for thought, a society must raise it up as an honorable thing: it must show, through classes, programs, books, and speeches, what it means to work toward greater understanding, to question assumptions, to find clear language, to return to old works and ideas, to gaze into art, to separate the known from the unknown in science, and to bear with not knowing for sure what you will get out of it all.

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I took these photos in Szolnok. On rainy days it almost looks like fall. But here’s a sunny day, below (also in Szolnok, by the Tisza river). Fall is not the takeaway, nor is rain.

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