Dances and Departures

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On Sunday the rabbi and I went to the glorious Dancing on the Square, performed by the Budapest Festival Orchestra–with special guests on cymbalom and violin–and schoolchildren, Roma and non-Roma, from all over Hungary. The seating area outside Saint Stephen’s Basilica was packed; the performance filled the air with good things, from music to tolerance to joy. There will be an online broadcast tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. Central European Summer time (12:30 p.m. EST); it will be available over the following two days.

I decided, close to the last minute,  to spend the night in Budpest (at the wonderful Baross Hotel) and then, in the morning, take a day trip to Subotica, Serbia. It all worked out–a long day, but worthwhile down to the second.

Staying at the Baross (where I stayed last September,  during my preparatory visit to Hungary) allowed me to ride the glass elevator.

The train ride to Subotica took four hours; about 30 minutes were spent at the border, where “border police” boarded to check passports. I had to show my residence permit as well (because it was clear that I had been in Hungary for a while); once I showed it, the officers had no more questions.

Subotica is unlike any border city I have visited before. Not only are street signs in several languages (Serbia, Croatian, Hungarian, English), but you sense the old presence of Serbian and Hungarian cultures. Bunjevci were once a majority here. In many ways Subotica looks like a Hungarian city–but the Secessionist (Art Nouveau) architecture is especially prominent and colorful. Overall the city showed crumbling elegance: shady parks, towering churches, long terraces of cafes and shops, a famous theater, and some falling apart here and there.

 

 

I wanted to see the synagogue (which reopened in March, after a detailed restoration); having no map, I walked around in circles for a couple of hours before overhearing a couple heading to the tourist information office. I walked along with them, benefited from their sense of direction (they found the office), and received a map. From here I found the way.

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The synagogue, designed in the 1890s and built in 1902, is one of the great Art Nouveau monuments of Subotica. Outside, the Holocaust memorial reads, in five languages, “In memory of 4000 Jewish citizens with whom we lived and built Subotica. They perished in the fascist death camps during the World War II. — Citizens of Subotica, July 10, 1994.”

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After this, I headed back to the train station; the trip home took seven hours, since it involved going back to Budapest and heading from there, on a different train, to Szolnok. In the later part of the trip, the wind and mist rolled through the windows; the train grew emptier, and I thought back slowly on the day.

Bicycling on Shabbat?

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Students sometimes ask me questions about Judaism; while happy to answer, I recognize that my words will be incomplete and sometimes incorrect. Recently a student asked whether I ride my bicycle on Shabbat. I said yes and added that this was not prohibited. I later questioned the second part of my answer, looked into it, and found out that it is indeed prohibited in Orthodox Judaism and, for the most part, in Conservative Judaism as well. But the matter is complicated; there have been many disagreements over the centuries.

I continue to ride my bike on Shabbat (when I am not in Budapest), simply because it is a source of joy and because if I relegate it (along with other non-Shabbat things) to Sunday, I end up with great anxiety and pressure. At the end of my life, when I look back, I don’t think I will be sorry; there are worse ills than going out on the bike and enjoying nature.

I am nowhere near perfect in my observance, but I take the questions and traditions seriously. Also, I am still young in my Judaism; while Jewish by birth (on my mother’s side, and thus by Jewish law), I started practicing it just over five years ago. I expect that my practices and views will change over time. Maybe I will become stricter, maybe less so; in any case I hope to have more understanding.

Biking is prohibited on Shabbat (under Orthodox and Conservative Judaism) for several reasons. First of all, it is considered a form of carrying. Carrying is permitted on Shabbat only within an eruv (an enclosed private area, often an enclosed Jewish community) and then only when the particular thing being carried is not forbidden. It is permissible, for instance, to push a stroller on Shabbat within an eruv, but not outside. The bicycle, not being one of those permitted things, may not be transported even within the eruv.

Some argue, though, that if it allows a person to fulfill a mitzvah, such as leading a service or reading Torah, then it may be used for that purpose alone, even outside the eruv. Conservative Judaism permits driving to synagogue (and only synagogue) on Shabbat (see the 1950 “Responsum on the Sabbath“); some Conservative communities extend this to biking and see the latter as less problematic than the former.

There are other (more tenuous) reasons why riding a bicycle is forbidden on Shabbat. First, it is forbidden to fix things on Shabbat, and a bicycle might break on route, leaving you in a position of wanting to fix it. Second, bicycle riding is considered a weekday activity, and weekday activities are to be avoided. Third, when on a bicycle, you might find yourself leaving the eruv–whether intentionally or by mistake–or even the tehum, the 2000 cubits beyond the town’s last house. You are less likely to do this on foot. Fourth, the bike tires might make marks in the dirt, thereby violating the prohibition against plowing on Shabbat. Finally–and this comes up in many discussions–bicycle riding should be discouraged on Shabbat because many communities consider it wrong and will be upset to see it happening. Some Orthodox communities are uneasy about bikes in general.

Part of me says, “This has no bearing on you; if you want to ride your bike, ride your bike! It brings you joy and rest, and you aren’t Orthodox anyhow!” Another part admires the precision and care of these considerations, a welcome contrast to a culture of “whatever.” It is possible, I think, to combine the independence and the precision: to follow my judgment while learning more about these questions and their intricacies.

The questions are far from settled. On the website of the Judaic Seminar (a project of the Sephardic Institute in Midwood, Brooklyn), I found a fascinating argument, by Rabbi Moshe Shamah, that bicycle riding should be permitted on those holidays when it is permitted to carry–that is, when the primary objection to bicycle riding does not apply. (Riding on Shabbat is still out of the question here.)

First of all, Rabbi Shamah quotes the Ben Ish Hai, who says that we should not make additional gezerot (enactments, prohibitions) but should rely on the ones already set down in Talmud. The arguments against bicycle riding (on days when carrying is permitted) are innovations and should be avoided for this reason. Therefore it should be permissible to ride the bicycle within the eruv on Shabbat and other holidays, even for recreation.

From there, Rabbi Shamah makes the case that there are reasons to permit bicycle riding on holidays when carrying is allowed. One is that young people in Orthodox communities should not be made to feel that they are doing something wrong when they are not.

The many teenagers and young adults who inevitably will ride their bicycles on Yom Tob should not feel they are doing an issur [something prohibitedDS] when they are not. Some of them feel they cannot help but ride their bicycles on Yom Tob and, psychologically, thinking that they are doing an issur may prompt them to doing a true issur. `If I’m already doing a sin, what difference does it make if I commit another one?’. It’s a terrible way of looking at things, but unfortunately too common.

Also, by not heaping new restrictions and rules onto existing ones, rabbis in an Orthodox community can protect the people from Conservative enticement:

Our rabbis also worked long and hard to prevent the Conservative Movement from making inroads in our community. A major aspect of their success these past two generations has been their policy of not indiscriminately prohibiting what is basically permitted in areas that would make our people vulnerable to non-Orthodox enticement. Bicycle riding on Yom Tob falls into this category.

Finally, one should avoid an overly restrictive approach to Judaism, as this can turn many people away:

In our generation we have witnessed a miraculous renewal of interest in Judaism….However, we often encounter a somewhat questionable by-product of this renewed vigor, namely, halachic enthusiasm which breeds halachic competitiveness. This frequently results in an overly restrictive, inaccurate version of Judaism replete with unfounded halachic stringencies which may ironically deter others from seeking entrance into the majestic world of Torah Judaism. Often the `pleasant ways of the Torah’ seem to have become difficult to bear as a result of stringencies superimposed upon the truly pleasant ways of Torah Judaism.

These considerations apply not only to Orthodox Judaism but to other branches of Judaism and, more generally, to other religions. How do you maintain the integrity of a tradition while opening yourself to new possibilities and lessons?  Rabbi Shamah sympathizes with young people and with those who feel overwhelmed by the rules. Yes, he sees Conservatives as a threat, partly because they offer, relative to Orthodoxy, a less encumbered approach to Jewish law, an approach that he would like to emulate in part.

So, when looking into the issue of bicycling on Shabbat, I found much more than answers. I found a rabbi grappling not only with this particular question, but with the question of how to honor laws, humans, understanding–and, encompassing all of these, an essence that we only glimpse, in word, thought, and action, throughout our lives.

I took the photo in Szolnok on Friday.

Knowing and Not Knowing a Country

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Some people have suggested that my next book will be about my time in Hungary. I think that’s likely, but if so, it will differ from books that claim to reveal a country from the inside. Instead, it will explore the very difficulty of getting to know a country, even when you live and teach there, even when you undertake to learn the language, even (I believe) after you have been there a few years. The difficulty is the great part of it; if I could learn all about a country in a few months, I probably wouldn’t bother; I’d look for something more challenging to do.

When trying to speak more Hungarian, people tend to react in one of two ways. Some express amazement when I so much as put a sentence together. Other people ask, “Why do you even bother? Hungarian is difficult, and surely you can find enough people who speak English.” Yes, it’s a difficult language, but I insist on meeting the difficulty. I seek out situations where I am surrounded by Hungarian (for long stretches, without translation). Then I can focus on listening and figuring out as much as possible. The brain does lots of work in the background, too; when I surround myself with the language, I start recognizing patterns and words.

The difficulty of learning a language, of getting to know a country, is all the more reason for doing it. It’s difficult because it shows the limitations of your own knowledge and speech. For a long time you simply feel clumsy, unable to say what you want to say, unable to understand what others are saying. Then, over time, the big clumsiness melts away and an awkward semi-fluency sets in. Then slowly the fluency grows and the awkwardness diminishes; and now you start to appreciate the things that one language can express and the other cannot. You read literature in the new language, without much use of a dictionary. You try making jokes. Even this has a tentative quality–but the tentativeness also sharpens the ear. Something similar can be said for getting to know a country; as you learn more, you keep your conclusions more and more in check and become more alert to your surroundings. (I say “you,” but the truth of this may vary from person to person, place to place, and time to time.)

In that spirit, here’s a recording of a bird I heard the other night. At first I thought it was a mockingbird, but I don’t think there are mockingbirds here. It might have been a starling or Eurasian jay. And here, below, is a video of an unknown bird I saw take flight. I thought it was a stork, but since it was completely white, it may have been an egret instead.

As for the photo at the top, I took it in Békés on June 5. The river is the Körös.

Why the “Next Big Idea Club” Is a Bad Idea

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I recently learned that Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, Daniel Pink, and Adam Grant have started a book club called the “Next Big Idea Club,” whose goal is to draw attention to new books that are “Groundbreaking, Science-Based, and Life-Changing (Actionable).” The book selections come with “video e-courses” that “highlight key concepts” (in case readers can’t figure them out for themselves), written course materials, exclusive author interviews, and an invite-only Facebook group.

In other words, the club leaders emphasize books that appear to have not only scientific basis, but clear takeaways–immediate applications to life–and then take the additional step of distilling those takeaways for the readers, thus affirming that the books should be put into action right away rather than thought upon, questioned, disputed.

And there lies about a third of the problem. I have no issue with the idea of a book club, no matter who leads it, when it involves selecting books that one loves (or finds especially interesting) and bringing them to the club members. But books deserve time and rumination; instead of being translated immediately into “actionable” takeaways, they should take up residence in the mind for a while. It is the dialogue (an approximate term) between author and reader that makes for memorable reading. The books that influence me the most have nothing immediately “actionable” about them; rather, they get me to think, they provoke me to return to the pages.

So that’s the first problem: the emphasis on the “actionable.” The second lies in the so-called scientific basis. Some of these books may well have strong scientific grounding. But science involves dogged and keen questioning–so the most scientific books will likely have the most uncertainties. With some exceptions, they will be the ones least conducive to takeaways. For a book to be both scientific and actionable at once, the scientific aspect may have to undergo simplification. The book club leaders, apparently, hasten the process of simplification by handing summaries and key points to the readers. This not only reduces the science itself but discourages scientific thinking.

The third problem lies in the priority given to “groundbreaking” books. We often don’t know right away whether a new book is groundbreaking; it takes time to put it in proper context and observe its influence and effects. Sometimes a seemingly new idea has many unknown antecedents; sometimes a seemingly grand solution fails to pan out. Rather than look for “groundbreaking” books, I would seek books that demonstrate intellect, probing, and wit: books that allow the reader to reconsider previous assumptions without latching on to false certainties.

The book club itself is nothing new; Gladwell appears to have been running it in some form for years. Kathryn Schulz wrote of his “Big Idea Club” in 2011 (in New York Magazine):

Big Idea books have been around for a long time; see The Communist Manifesto. But the Big Idea Book Club … is a recent phenomenon. Its accidental founder and president in apparent perpetuity is Malcolm Gladwell. Its membership, like the membership of most powerful groups, is largely male. Its combined sales are stratospheric; whatever these books are hawking, we can’t stop buying it.

And then, toward the end of the article:

There is no rule, process, peer group, leader, or best seller that can absolve us of the responsibility of thinking our way through life on our own two feet. What irks me most about this infinite parade of gigundo solutions isn’t their glibness or even the borderline theology (of some) and borderline Babbitry (of others) involved in promising audiences easy, happy, profitable ideas. Nope. What irks me is that when you rigidly apply grand theories to everybody, sooner or later everybody feels like nobody, whether you’re in Communist Belgrade or the local DMV. There is a reason we call such systems soul-crushing: They ignore or annihilate individual difference and inner life.

There you have it. Some ideas are big by nature, some medium-sized, some small. It would be folly to avoid an idea on account of its size. But it is dangerous to pursue or herald an idea because it is big. The bigness should give some pause. Do we really have room in this idea? Does it hold enough truth? Or has it been swept in, like so many others, only to drift out again later?

Some of the club’s selections may well be worth reading. Of the twenty that Adam Grant listed for 2018, I would be most likely to read Melissa Dahl’s Cringeworthy. I probably would not get to it until 2020 or later; I have many books waiting and generally like to read slowly. In any case, if I do read this book, it will be to consider the ideas and stories, not to apply them directly to my life. In books, it is the indirect applications–the use of words, the gestures of wisdom–that influence my life the most. The big idea? I take it in stride.

I have criticized the American emphasis on the Big Idea many times, in many places. (See, for instance, “The Folly of the Big Idea: How a Liberal Arts Education Puts Fads in Perspective,” American Educator, Winter 2012-2013). But I now come upon a new point: no matter what the size of an idea, I expect to be able to consider it in my own terms, on my own time–and not to accept someone else’s summaries or rush it into action.

Well, then, don’t join the club! someone might retort. No one is making you join. True, true, but that’s a moot point; I don’t join book clubs in general. Through my teaching, I have many opportunities to read with others; outside of work and projects, my time for reading is so scarce that I like to choose books on my own, often old books that I have read years ago or that I have been wanting to read for years. No, my own non-membership is not the point here. Rather, I argue and long for a different kind of reading: a kind that allows for liberty of thought, judges an idea by its merits, delights in verbal courage, and suspends summary and action.

I took the photo in Szeged in May.

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

Is There a Human Project?

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It is the season of cherries and ice cream, of ducklings and Scarce Copper butterflies (I think that’s the type in the picture above), of wrapping up the school year and saying goodbye for the summer. Also, the book is almost in press; the last corrections have been made, and I must now think about the release in the fall. While doing this, I find myself questioning certain phrases in the book. At one point I mention the human project. Is there a human project? Or is this yet another phrase that has lost meaning over time?

It exists but abounds with contradictions, oppositions, anomalies, impossibilities. Drawing partially on George Kateb’s Human Dignity, I would define the human project, in part, as our ongoing assumption (and abdication) of responsibility as stewards of nature, including our own. Humans alone have the capacity to act as stewards–or not. Acting as steward involves recognizing what one has done, or can do, to help or harm oneself and others–and who these others are, and why it matters. In this recognition, humans have advanced somewhat, in some ways, over time. Certain things that we recognize as wrong, such as slavery, were accepted not long ago.

Last week I introduced my eleventh-grade students to the song “Amazing Grace,” which a few already knew. I thought it was important for American civilization, especially since we were now touching on religion. I did not know the origins of the song (having missed the Broadway musical and the movie and forgotten a good bit of history); when I read about it, I heard it in a new way.

It was composed by the English Anglican minister John Newton (1725-1807), who, prior to his Christian conversion, had been forced into the slave trade. He had rebelled so often aboard the ships–not on behalf of the slaves, but on his own behalf–that he had undergone lashings, demotions, and finally slavery, when the crew left him in West Africa with a slave dealer. He was finally rescued and brought back to England; during the voyage, he had a spiritual conversion. Slowly, over time, this conversion brought him to abhor the slave trade. This did not happen linearly; he returned to the slave trade, fell ill, and underwent a new conversion. He continued in the trade a few more years, and then in 1754 renounced it completely.

His tract Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, written in 1788, thirty-four years after he abandoned the business, repudiates the enslavement and trafficking of humans. It begins:

The nature and effects of that unhappy and disgraceful branch of commerce, which has long been maintained on the Coast of Africa, with the sole, and professed design of purchasing our fellow-creatures, in order to supply our West-India islands and the American colonies, when they were ours, with Slaves; is now generally understood. So much light has been thrown upon the subject, by many able pens; and so many respectable persons have already engaged to use their utmost influence, for the suppression of a traffic, which contradicts the feelings of humanity; that it is hoped, this stain of our National character will soon be wiped out.

If I attempt, after what has been done, to throw my mite into the public stock of information, it is less from an apprehension that my interference is necessary, than from a conviction that silence, at such a time, and on such an occasion, would, in me, be criminal. If my testimony should not be necessary, or serviceable, yet, perhaps, I am bound, in conscience, to take shame to myself by a public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent, or repair, the misery and mischief to which I have, formerly, been accessary.

I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was, once, an active instrument, in a business at which my heart now shudders.

Hearing those undertones in “Amazing Grace” (although the hymn preceded the tract by two decades or so), I understand the song not as a paean to the born-again experience but as the author’s recognition of profound error. To see that one has been terribly wrong and to change one’s life accordingly: this allows for something of a human project. For by writing what he saw and learned, Newton allowed others to see it too.

I don’t want to be glib about this. Looking at the picture below, I would say that ducks do a bit better with their projects than humans; they lead their little ones, which grow up to have little ones of their own. But ducks also kill ducklings that they do not recognize–and suffer no qualms of conscience, as far as I know. It is not that we humans do so well with our conscience–we continue to do things that we repudiate or simply fail to question–but our conscience also matures, not only through experience in the world, but through encounters with books, speeches, music, plays. In listening to something, we come to take ourselves in measure. Or at least we may. To the extent that we do, we participate in a human project.

I ask myself why I didn’t notice the Broadway musical Amazing Grace, which would have taught me something, even fleetingly, about John Newton. I think I unthinkingly ignored it because of the title. I had heard the song sung mockingly so many times that I had absorbed the mockery. That reminds me to be less sure of my mockeries, especially borrowed ones. Mockery has a place in writing–there would be little satire without it–but it must be informed. In this case mine, though never overt, was also ignorant until now.

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

“Where are you, my beloved land?”

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The synagogue concerts in Szeged and Békés keep breaking past my phrases; they will not be held back by summaries. Since its inauguration in 2014, the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s synagogue project has brought music to one synagogue after another, in cities, towns, and villages across Hungary–synagogues that once thrived but that were laid bare by the Holocaust. Fiona Maddocks writes:

One is now a table-tennis hall, another a furniture warehouse. A third has been ransacked, all the windows broken, birds flying in and out during the concert. In many cases the locals had never seen inside. The doors of one had not been unlocked since last closing, during the German occupation.

By bringing music to these places, the orchestra not only revives their memory but brings people together, in the present, for something beautiful. I attended two synagogue concerts in September and two this week; as I attend more, I not only love them more, but come to understand their meanings.

Every seat was filled. It all went by too quickly, but I remember the acoustics in Szeged, where every texture could be heard, and the intimate sound in Békés (where even those in the back row were just a few meters away from the musicians).

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They played the first movement of Schubert’s Octet in F Major (D803), the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-Flat Major (Opus 20)–for four violins, two violas, and two cellos–and and Glazunov’s Rêverie orientale (which, as the clarinetist Ákos Ács commented in his introduction, has something of a klezmer feel). I think back on the subtle tones and changes of the Schubert; the cellos in the Mendelssohn; the dialogue between cello and clarinet, and then viola and clarinet, in the Glazunov; and then the laughing, crying, dancing, shrieking klezmer music that took us to the end. 

Between the pieces, a rabbi (a different one each time) spoke about synagogues in general and about the history of Jews in the particular place. In Szeged, someone else spoke as well–perhaps the person in charge of the performance space. Then Ákos Ács led the exhilarating klezmer encores–one encore in Szeged, two in Békés. He then invited us all to stay for cake; people lingered and talked and then slowly went their different ways.

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The Szeged synagogue is now a performance space; the Békés synagogue, a plum pálinka center. Each place shows its loss: the first through its bareness and the second through its refurbishment.  Upstairs in the pálinka center, the bar counter has two menorahs (you can see one of them in the photo above); are they always there, or were they put there in honor of the concert? A few minutes in these places, and you can get overwhelmed; the history is so difficult that even the brave might walk away.

These concerts make it possible to sit still here, or somewhat still–to sit with some knowledge of what happened, but more than knowledge alone. The music does something to us; we live through something together and know it when we look around afterward. We are no longer separated. Maybe we will be tomorrow, but we will still remember being here. We will remember the musicians’ gifts to us.

I biked through beautiful Békés, stopping when I saw or heard something I couldn’t ignore: the river, farmhouses, the sunset. Here’s a chicken strutting across a roof, with farm sounds in the background.

And here is a field–not a bad end to the day.

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I later learned that for the first movement of the Octet, Schubert adapted a theme from his lied “Der Wanderer” (whose words are from a poem by Georg Philipp Schmidt von Lübeck). I had to listen to both compositions several times to figure out which theme this was, but think I found it at last. In the first movement of the Octet, it is the main theme of the Allegro. In “Der Wanderer,” it is the piano part during these lyrics:

Wo bist du, mein geliebtes Land?
Gesucht, geahnt, und nie gekannt!
Das Land, das Land so hoffnungsgrün,
Das Land, wo meine Rosen blühn.

Where are you, my beloved land?
Sought for, dreamed of, but never known!
The land, the land, so green of hope,
The land where my roses bloom.

So even the bike ride was not remote from the music.

Celebrating CONTRARIWISE from Afar

Vol 5 CoverIn honor of today’s CONTRARIWISE celebration at Book Culture in New York City, I thought I’d post a partial review of the fifth issue–partial in the double sense of “biased” and “fragmentary.” It’s biased because I served as faculty advisor for the first three issues; fragmentary because I will comment on only a fraction of it. What a beautiful, playful, inquisitive volume, and what a joy to see CONTRARIWISE continuing onward!

It has many traditional CONTRARIWISE features and touches: the cover art, a Cast and Crew section, the Infrequently Asked Questions, the contests, certain topics and forms, and the Index of Essentials, and others; each of these comes across in a fresh way. The pieces make you laugh, pause, read slowly, think, and return.

Jeanyna Garcia’s “Cooking à la Buber” relates cooking to Martin Buber’s idea of the I-Thou relation. “As weird as it may sound,” she writes, “if there isn’t a special attachment between you and the food, or if there isn’t diligence while you are preparing the food, then you might as well be cooking something inedible.”

In “The Story of Envy,” a dialogue that takes place over the years, Theo Frye Yanos (who has contributed to every issue of CONTRARIWISE) takes up tensions between parent and child, longing and limitation, consolation and truth. The piece begins, “Once there was a child. The child was named Envy, and all they wanted was to have a big, colorful house with lots of flowers.” Growing older, more mature (or immature?), and more stubborn, Envy longs to be understood rather than wished away.

Natalie Schmit’s “From Folly” not only made me roar but captured something of the texts in question. She wrote the piece for an assignment: students had to imagine a conversation between characters in writings they had read in philosophy class that year. The resulting epistolary exchange (between Desiderius Erasmus’s Folly and a character from Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose”) includes this letter:

Dear Folly,

I asked you not to write to me again. But your thoughts are too serious to ignore. First, how dare you speak of my daughter like that!? She will have a proper marriage to a nice bureaucrat with a nose! I surely have no idea what this “joking” business is. I only have joked one singular time in my life. I do not have any more time for this nonsense. I have more important things to do. Additionally, I have come to suspect this may be sedition? I don’t know, but I want nothing to do with it!

Goodbye forever (for real this time),
Madam Alexandra Grigoryevna
P.S. Do NOT refer to me as Alex!

Speaking of Russian literature, another of my favorites is Melany Garcia’s essay “The Underground Man: Philosopher or Angry Middle-Aged Man?” She argues that Dostoevsky’s Underground Man is not a philosopher; unable to “move forward in understanding his opinions,” he “simply rants and rambles on about them.” That seems believable on the face–but what makes this piece stand out is its keenness. The author examines some of the passages where the Underground Man verges most closely on philosophy–and shows how he stops short or veers off.

I almost forgot! Another favorite is Mario Pereira’s “Logos at Thanatos,” where Aristotle enters a classroom in the Underworld and finds Socrates giving a lesson to a corpse. It begins:

Socrates: And so, only philosophers have the knowledge to divine the forms.

Corpse: Of course.

This reminds me of the old days of CONTRARIWISE, except that it’s different. Of course a corpse says “of course”–but no corpse has done so before, at least not here. There’s a verbal justice to it; the right thing gets said by the right character (to the right character–what do you say to Socrates but “of course”?) at the right time.

Speaking of justice, this year’s international contest, which involved imagining justice as a building, brought in a wealth of pieces. I have previously mentioned the winnersBarnabás Paksi, Hakan Urgancıoğlu, and Gábor Medvegy–but the editors chose to publish additional entries, and with good reason. They are fascinating and different from each other.

The journal takes immense work: planning the issue, announcing contests, inviting and collecting submissions (including art), reviewing them, choosing them, contacting the authors, editing the selected pieces, putting them in layout, designing the cover, proofreading, proofreading again, proofreading still again, sending everything off, waiting, receiving the copies, selling them, planning events, holding them, planning for the next year, and, in addition to all of this, sending out announcements, maintaining the website, updating the Facebook page, handling the finances, finding ways to sell more copies and raise money, updating the documentation, and, alongside everything, delving into topics and texts, thinking about the philosophical ideas themselves.  It “speaks volumes” (five, in fact!) that those now in charge of the journal have given it so much care and thought.

As I promised, I have covered just a fraction of the fifth issue. You can read the rest on your own; that’s better than reading about it! To all those involved in today’s event–which begins in about 20 minutes–I wish you a joyous occasion. Here are a few photos from CONTRARIWISE events of yore.

 

 

 

Music of Fire and Water

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Yesterday, after a wonderful lunch with friends from New York City and their cousin, I went to hear a Baroque concert by the Budapest Festival Orchestra with guest conductor Jordi Savall. I think this was my first time walking down the leafy Liszt Ferenc tér; it was certainly my first time at the Zeneakadémia Koncertközpont. But those were minor firsts, relatively speaking; when it came to the music, I was in for surprises of soul.

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Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4 sounded fresh and alive; I was immediately caught up in it. Then came Rameau’s Les Boréades Suite, which opened up the imagination in new ways. I think I have listened to it before, but not in a long time; my favorite movement was the Contredanse en rondeau, strange and gracious at once. Here’s my favorite of the performances I found online–by Les Ambassadeurs, conducted by Alexis Kossenko–but Savall and the Budapest Festival Orchestra captured something different.

That is what happens in a concert: you become part of a special instantiation of a piece. I was sitting all the way on the left, in the fourth row; this gave me a perfect view of the French horn section (they were playing Baroque horns, I think).

Then Muffat’s Impatientia Suite was sweet perfection: seven movements in about ten minutes. I think the third movement (Canaries) was my favorite, but it’s hard to tell now; each one proceeded like a raindrop on a string. In the last piece of the program, Händel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, the woodwinds took the concert to still another level of beauty in the first Menuet at the end. Here’s a gorgeous performance by The Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Christopher Hogwood–but again, it doesn’t sound quite like what I heard yesterday.

Then came three encores! For the first, the orchestra played the first suite of Händel’s Water Music; for the second, the last movement of the Rameau, the Contredanse très vive, with audience participation. Then, for the last one, I think it was the Gavotte I that they played (in honor of the ticking clock). I made it to the train just in time–a hot train, with no open windows, but with a view of rain and crepuscular rays. Fire and water: a fitting end to the day.

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I took the top photo from the train and the second when walking home from the train station and looking back westward.

“Lights, lights, lights”

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The Shakespeare event took place yesterday: beautiful performances, a full house, a feeling of excitement and pride. I am still gathering my thoughts–and hope to gather some more photos and videos, since I was too focused on the performance to take very many, and most of the ones I did take were from the back of the room.

Just minutes before the performance, we faced a big technical problem: whoever had shut down the Technika Háza earlier in the day had also shut off all the lights. To turn the lights on, you need not only access to a special room but knowledge of its location. This, apparently, is a carefully guarded secret. At last one student–the one who had helped me ask the drama teacher for additional props–managed not only to get on the phone with someone who had the information, but to persuade this person to disclose the information to him. Ten minutes before our show, we had lights, and everything went gloriously from there. Fittingly, the last words of the performance were “Lights, lights, lights” (from Hamlet).

Congratulations and thanks to everyone–including the audience–who made this a gracious and moving occasion. I will say more later.

Speaking of events, this Sunday in New York City there will be a CONTRARIWISE celebration at Book Culture! If there were any way for me to attend, I would, but given that I teach on Monday, it’s too far away. It will be in my thoughts, and I will take part of that day to write and post a little review of the fifth issue.

Update: I added a video and two photos to this piece after posting it.

Speaking Shakespeare

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Shakespeare’s language may seem daunting at first (“His discretion, I am sure, cannot carry his valor, for the goose carries not the fox. It is well. Leave it to his discretion, and let us listen to the moon“). Even after reading his work for decades, you may walk into verbal thickets. Still, through these very burrs and thorns (and leaves and petals and bugs), you find out how immediate Shakespeare’s language can be.

That has been happening in these final rehearsals: everyone has been involved, whether as listeners, actors, or supporting actors (the ones who play parts in rehearsals but not in the event). This afternoon, in the classroom, I saw that someone had written on the board, “Jó munkához idő kell” (“Good work takes time”). I don’t know whether that was a comment on the performance or a remnant from a previous class, but it applies here; day by day, the language has been catching on. I sense it in the audience as they watch their classmates perform scenes and monologues for the dozenth, twentieth time. They listen, laugh, turn pages, give cues, murmur along, call out mistakes. When the main actor is not present, they step in and read parts too.

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Students have been memorizing their lines in spades–and each memorization takes the scene to another level. Yes, there are still some giggles and lapses–but even in the past two days, the performers have come far. We have practiced in classrooms large and small, in the schoolyard (as pictured in the two photos above), and in the park; each place brings out something different.

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One student urged me to ask the drama teacher for additional costumes and props. He accompanied me during a break between classes and acted as interpreter–but after the beginning, we had no difficulty communicating. She took out a veil and said, “Ophelia”; she took out a sword and said, “Polonius.” Everything was clear.

We’re just a dress rehearsal away from the performance. “You shall see, it will fall pat as I told you. Yonder she comes.”