These Swift, Full Days

IMG_6518When I came back to Hungary, I knew sour cherries would be out of season, or at least hard to find—and so they are, sadly—but plums and grapes spill over. Yesterday I saw a blue-fruited plum tree by the side of a bike path on the outskirts of Szolnok. There were signs saying “do not eat,” but of course I ate. It was the best roadside plum I have ever tasted. (I have never tasted a roadside plum before.)

The plums remind me that there’s little left of summer. For me this means not the end of vacation but rather the approach of deadlines and events. I am preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; I will be leading the musical parts of these services at Szim Salom, my synagogue in Budapest. Beyond that, I am preparing for my book release and turning my thoughts toward the school year. The main vacation-like thing here is the flexibility of days; for the next week, I can plan each day as I wish. We teachers return to school on August 24; from then onward, I will have a fixed schedule (probably on the looser side until the students return, then full and busy every day). I look forward to this year with its four aspects: teaching, writing, religious life, and personal life (which will include biking and learning Hungarian). It looks overfull, but I would not give up any of it. It isn’t frantic, just abundant and demanding in the best of ways.

So it is great to get on the bike and go in any direction the whim suggests. I only have to step outside to see the heather along the Zagyva river; to come to unexpected places, I need only ride along the river, but there are many other options and directions.

IMG_6496

The other day I followed a dirt road, along the Zagyva, that I had taken twice before but had found too muddy both times. This time, it was completely dry, so I could go on and on. The photo of the horses and the video of the water are both from that ride. (I also saw cows, storks, and a deer.)

IMG_6503

But given the swiftness of days, some planning is in order too. So I intend to take the train to Baja (with bicycle) on Sunday, bike southward along the Danube, possibly into Croatia, and return to Szolnok on Monday. I loved Baja on my first visit (eleven months ago) and was able to reserve a room just now at the same beautiful bed-and-breakfast place where I stayed before.

The day itself is going by too fast, so I will end here.

“Just as You sent the rain this night, so raise this boy.”

revolt of job 0The 1983 Hungarian film The Revolt of Job (Jób lázadása) begins with mist, an indoor swimming pool, boys jumping, splashing, and shrieking, boys upon boys. Adult figures emerge in the background; one of them, a man with greying beard, begins inspecting a few boys (for possible adoption) while his wife and the orphanage managers comment on the selections. Then a melody can be heard in the background, just for a few seconds, just the stark opening phrase, one note at a time, as though played with one finger hitting the piano keys. It is the Hungarian Jewish song “Szól a kakas már,” which comes and goes several times throughout the film.

According to legend, the first Kaliver Rebbe, Yitzchak Isaac Taub (1751-1821), learned and purchased this song from a shepherd, who, after teaching it to him, forgot it completely. Beloved by Hungarian Jews, it has come to be associated with the Shoah because of its Messianic longing, but it also evokes a longer history. The film itself is filled with longing; Imre Gyöngyössy, who directed it along with Barna Kabay, was himself adopted by Jewish parents who disappeared in the Holocaust. In an interview he told Seth Mydans, “Until now, in all my work the heredity of my adoptive father is working. Until now it is I who am running after the Messiah, after eternal liberation. I am running until now in all my films. I am running as my father told me.” (Please see Mydans’s superb article for more about the film, its background, and its making.)

Here by the swimming pool, we soon learn why the husband and wife (Jób and Róza, played by Ferenc Zenthe and Hédi Temessy) are “purchasing” a boy–in fact, exchanging him for two calves: Jób, who has lost seven sons, wants a Christian son to whom he can leave everything once they are gone. It is 1943; Christians have better odds of survival than Jews. The manager warns the wife not to be too choosy; as it is, he will have to back-date the papers to 1938 (when Jews were still allowed to adopt).

Having rejected several possibilities, Jób looks out into the pool again and sees a boy dunking underwater to hide. The boy pops up, looks at him, and goes under again. This is the one, Jób decides; Lackó (Gábor Fehér) gets carried out kicking and screaming, gets a haircut, and gets taken home in the horse-drawn cart, with the sheep in the back. (A dog running alongside the cart gets adopted too; there is some mayhem, but they make it home.) Over the next eight months or so–the film begins before Rosh Hashanah and ends about a month after Passover–Lackó comes to love his adoptive parents and become beloved by them. They accomplish what they set out to do: raise a son, even in such a short time, to carry on their tradition and memory. This is the “revolt” of Jób (the father’s name); rather than give up all heritage, he has decided to go out and find it, breaking custom, meeting with some disapproval, but listening to what he knows he has to do.

Part of this film’s magnificence lies in its sense of time. At the poolside we learn that it is 1943; after that, as far as I remember, no specific dates are mentioned again. All time is conveyed through nature (day and night, rain and sun) and the Jewish holidays (Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach). We find little Lackó gazing through the window at his adoptive mother lighting the Shabbat candles. Jób joins her and wishes her “gut Yontiv.” This suggests that the date is Friday, October 1, 1943–the very end of Rosh Hashanah–or perhaps one week earlier. The next time Lackó peers through the window, it is Kol Nidre; he sees a man carrying the Torah scroll and chanting “Or zarua latzadik…”; he hears Kol Nidre; he hears a rabbi give the D’var Torah.

Jób does not try to convert Lackó to Judaism; he tells Lackó about God but asks a Swabian friar to instruct him too. In one of the conversations, at the village market–where some of the townspeople and the Deputy Town Clerk are singing “Let’s hit the Jews with a stick,” and where a man is squirting water at two mating dogs who are stuck together–Lackó learns from his father that God–the word he teaches is “Shechinah,” a Hebrew word for an aspect of God, often understood as the manifestation–is “in the acts of love in the pastures”; that he gives light, like a glow-worm. Lackó asks whether God is in frogs too; Jób replies that he is, since frogs croak nicely. (At the end of the film, during the closing credits, we  hear “Szól a kakas már” again, slower than any other time, with frogs croaking in the background. The sound reminded me of the frogs I heard when bicycling to Sárospatak at night last April.

When Lackó and his best friend–a little girl from the village–capture frogs as a surprise for his father, they see militia coming through the marshes to hunt down deserters. The two tell a soldier that they have seen no one pass through. Thus the film is not only of love and sweetness; contrary to what Janet Maslin wrote, it holds both the cruel and the sweet. Nor is the sweetness overdone; it may be hard for the cynical among us to believe, but that is part of the point. The sweetness has something to do with time; even Lackó senses the treasure of these few days. Or maybe he knows it through memory; it is a story of memory, of trying to find what has been lost.

revolt of job 5

To me the most moving scene is during Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, when Jób is praying in the sukkah. (It may be specifically the holiday Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot, since that is the day when we pray for rain.) The sukkah itself symbolizes transience and fragility; in Leviticus 23:40-43, God commands Moses:

מ  וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים, וַעֲנַף עֵץ-עָבֹת, וְעַרְבֵי-נָחַל; וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם–שִׁבְעַת יָמִים. 40 And ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.
מא  וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג לַיהוָה, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה:  חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי תָּחֹגּוּ אֹתוֹ. 41 And ye shall keep it a feast unto the LORD seven days in the year; it is a statute for ever in your generations; ye shall keep it in the seventh month.
מב  בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים; כָּל-הָאֶזְרָח, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, יֵשְׁבוּ, בַּסֻּכֹּת. 42 Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths;
מג  לְמַעַן, יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם, כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. 43 that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

 
revolt of job 3

Jób knows that he is not only praying in a booth, but living in one, that his time will soon end; he prays in an undertone (maybe reading from the book before him, maybe praying from memory, maybe praying from his heart), but he prays without pause. Lackó sees him from the outside and comes in, but Jób motions to be left alone, and he leaves: first telling the dog that his father has either gone mad or been attacked by love, then spying on the servant couple in bed, then crawling in bed with his mother. The rain starts to pour down, into the sukkah; Jób gives thanks for the rain, saying Hallelujah, praying, “Just as You sent the rain this night, so raise this boy.” Lackó, hearing the rain, realizes that his father must be getting wet; he rushes back to the sukkah, with Róza close behind. Jób takes him up on his lap, lifts him up, laughs with joy torn open, saying Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

Much more happens in this gentle film; they make it to Pesach and a little beyond, but Jób and Róza cannot protect Lackó from his grief and confusion when they are carted away. That will be part of his inheritance, along with the love, the traditions, the gifts, and the nighttime sounds.

I have watched the film four times on a big screen–in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018–at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers, where I teach each July. It is part of the curriculum for the course in the Epic, which takes place in the even-numbered years. Each time I have watched the film, I have understood much more than the previous times–not only because of the returns, but because of my own learning. In 2012, I had not yet begun going to synagogue or learning Hebrew. In 2014, I had been doing both for a little over a year, so I could understand some of the words and references. In 2016, I understood still more; in 2018, I had been living in Hungary for eight months, could understand some of the Hungarian (and more of the Jewish meaning), and recognized the countryside, although I do not think I have been to the particular places of this film. Now I see that there is still more to understand, much more. This film resembles a poem, where the rhythm, language, shape, argument, sounds, images, and allusions all take part in the whole, and where the truth dazzles gradually, in all too short a time.

The images are screenshots of Jób lázadása, which you can find in DVD format (with optional English subtitles) or watch online (without subtitles). The verses from Leviticus are courtesy of Mechon Mamre; the phrase “dazzles gradually” alludes to Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Update: I just learned that the film will be on Hungarian television (channel M5) on Friday, August 17, at 9:15 p.m.

The Revolt of Job (soon)

revolt of job 1
Not long ago I promised to say something about the Hungarian film Jób lázadása (The Revolt of Job, released in 1983)–but when I started putting thoughts together, I realized it would take more than a few hours to say enough and to say it sparsely. I expect to write and post the piece on Sunday or Monday.

This image is a screenshot from the film (directed by Imre Gyöngyössy and Barna Kabay; written by Gyöngyössy, Kabay, and Katalin Petényi). Gábor Fehér plays Lackó.

What’s in a Walk?

IMG_6435

A walk is much like a bike ride, except that you’re without wheels and therefore must go more slowly. Even a brisk walk has a relative slowness to it. This is where the statement “it’s all relative” becomes almost true. It isn’t all relative, but concepts such as “fast” and “slow” are. When people remark that the world is “getting faster and faster,” they are comparing the current state of things not only to their memory of things past, but to actual measurements of miles per hour, kilobytes per second, and such. So, in comparison to driving down a highway (where it has become dangerous to drive as slow as the speed limit), walking (at any speed) has a slowness worth relishing.

When walking, you rarely have to make split-second decisions; if there’s a turn or fork ahead, you have a good minute or more to contemplate it. People passing you will rarely crash into you, or you into people coming your way. So beyond staying alert and aware of your surroundings, you don’t have to worry much about accidents, wrong turns,  and aggressive traffic. (But do watch out for the surprise rollerbladers.)

This, in turn, means that you have time to look around and get lost in thought–a combination not always afforded. For instance, you might notice the way light falls on a rock.

IMG_6438

Or enjoy not only the sunset, but others’ enjoyment of it.

IMG_6447

Or catch a soccer game at an exciting moment.

IMG_6450

But of the thoughts themselves, what of them? They went all kinds of ways without scattering. I thought of my two years in the neighborhood, of the homelikeness of return, of the languages in the air, of the upcoming two years, of the book, of the Summer Institute, of a meal, of the setting sun, of a recent joke, of a spontaneous story, of regrets and happinesses, of the bike back in Hungary, of music, of poetry, of Torah.

I sat down for a while to go over my upcoming Torah reading at beloved B’nai Jeshurun and was struck by Deuteronomy 9:21:

כא  וְאֶת-חַטַּאתְכֶם אֲשֶׁר-עֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת-הָעֵגֶל, לָקַחְתִּי וָאֶשְׂרֹף אֹתוֹ בָּאֵשׁ, וָאֶכֹּת אֹתוֹ טָחוֹן הֵיטֵב, עַד אֲשֶׁר-דַּק לְעָפָר; וָאַשְׁלִךְ, אֶת-עֲפָרוֹ, אֶל-הַנַּחַל, הַיֹּרֵד מִן-הָהָר. 21 And I took your sin, the calf which ye had made, and burnt it with fire, and beat it in pieces, grinding it very small, until it was as fine as dust; and I cast the dust thereof into the brook that descended out of the mount.–

 

I have not heard anyone say (yet)—or maybe I have heard or read but forgotten—that this verse is the origin of Tashlikh, the custom of casting pieces of bread (symbolic of one’s sins) into the river on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah–but the verb in the second half of the verse, “vaashlikh,” has the same root, and Moshe’s gesture seems to have a similar meaning. (People often point to Micah 7:18-20 as a Biblical source of the tradition; I have not yet heard anyone mention this.) I love imagining the fine dust of the golden calf being cast into the brook descending from the mount.

A walk has an aspect of that too; you cast not only your sins, but your worries and stray ponderings into the stream. The thinking gets clearer.

I learned yesterday that a white supremacist group had held an illegal flash anti-immigrant demonstration in the park on Saturday. They displayed a large banner that said, “Stop the Invasion. End Immigration.” On Tuesday, New Yorkers held a vigil in response. I do not know whether the rally itself was illegal–it depends on what took place and how many people took part. From what I gather, the demonstrators had no permit. But it is scary and sad to see Fort Tryon Park used as a broadcasting point for an anti-immigrant message, even if the demonstrators were acting within the law. It goes against the history, spirit, and fortitude of the park, whose beauty lies not only in its cliffs and flowers, but in the many people who live near it, who walk in it every day, who play, sing, read, and think in it, and in the generations of the neighborhood, its Jewish, Latino, and other immigrants, its people from around the world, its newcomers and old-timers, its ancestors and newborns, its lovers.

I think about thought–how it is not to be taken for granted, but thrives in places like Fort Tryon Park, where you can walk, absorb, and dream without worrying that anyone will tell you to go away.

I took all the photos on Sunday, July 29, in Fort Tryon Park. The quotation of Deuteronomy 9:21 is courtesy of Mechon Mamre.

“God keep me from ever completing anything”

IMG_6426Today we celebrated and lamented the conclusion of the Epic course–and the Political Philosophy course–at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers. The laments are short-lived, since this work can never be finished. I have more to learn as I reread these texts, teach them again, hear others speak about them, turn them in my mind, and carry them into my life.

Thanks to everyone who made this a soaring and diving three weeks, through the reading, discussion, listening, and more. I have much more to say, but the words are coming too slowly right now. Soon I will write about The Revolt of Job (Jób lázadása), a film I have watched in four successive Epic summers here (in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018), and which has become one of my favorite films of any time or place. I look forward to next summer and to the October 30 event.

I took the photo here in Dallas. The post’s title is a quote from Moby-Dick.

“So the famous singer sang his tale”

IMG_6424
I first read the Odyssey in eighth grade; I enjoyed it then (especially Odysseus’s “Nobody” trick) but over time have come to hear more of its sorrow. It takes time to start to know Odysseus and take in the tones of the many songs.

In Book VII, when Odysseus arrives, naked and bereft, at the land of the Phaiakians, after having lost his raft and swum two days at sea, he meets Nausikaa, who tells him the way to her parents’ house. Once he has arrived, Nausikaa’s father, Alkínoös, welcomes him. In Book VIII, after Odysseus has eaten, drank, and stayed the night, Alkínoös calls on his men to entertain the guest, and calls for the blind singer, Demodokos, “for to him the god gave song surpassing / in power to please, whenever the spirit moves to singing.” The herald Pontonoös sets out a silver-studded chair for him, hangs the lyre on a peg, shows him how to reach for it, and shows him where to reach for his cup. Demodokos sings of the old quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles. (At this point no one knows the identity of the guest.) As he listens, Odysseus

taking in his ponderous hands the great mantle dyed in
sea-purple, drew it over his head and veiled his fine features,
shamed for tears running down his face before the Phaiakians;
and every time the divine singer would pause in his singing,
he would take the mantle away from his head, and wipe the tears off,
and taking up a two-handled goblet would pour a libation
to the gods, but every time he began again, and the greatest
of the Phaiakians would urge him to sing, since they joyed in his stories,
Odysseus would cover his head again, and make lamentation.

πορφύρεον μέγα φᾶρος ἑλὼν χερσὶ στιβαρῇσι
κὰκ κεφαλῆς εἴρυσσε, κάλυψε δὲ καλὰ πρόσωπα:
αἴδετο γὰρ Φαίηκας ὑπ᾽ ὀφρύσι δάκρυα λείβων.
ἦ τοι ὅτε λήξειεν ἀείδων θεῖος ἀοιδός,
δάκρυ ὀμορξάμενος κεφαλῆς ἄπο φᾶρος ἕλεσκε
καὶ δέπας ἀμφικύπελλον ἑλὼν σπείσασκε θεοῖσιν:
90αὐτὰρ ὅτ᾽ ἂψ ἄρχοιτο καὶ ὀτρύνειαν ἀείδειν
Φαιήκων οἱ ἄριστοι, ἐπεὶ τέρποντ᾽ ἐπέεσσιν,
ἂψ Ὀδυσεὺς κατὰ κρᾶτα καλυψάμενος γοάασκεν.

Alkínoös notices Odysseus weeping and suggests that they all go outside for a few contests. This does not go much better; Euryalos taunts Odysseus for not participating in the contests, and Odysseus, after replying sternly, throws a discus so far that everyone is stunned. Alkínoös praises Odysseus and calls for dancers to dance and for Demodokos to sing again with the lyre.

Now Demodokos sings of Ares and Aphrodite in the house of Hephaistos–and Odysseus enjoys it greatly–but a little later, after receiving farewell gifts, Odysseus himself calls for Demodokos and asks him to sing of the wooden (Trojan) horse. When Demodokos sings, Odysseus once again “melted, and from under his eyes the tears ran down, drenching / his cheeks.” Alkínoös notices and at last asks Odysseus who he is. Odysseus’s answer takes up the next four books of the Odyssey. He reveals not only who he is, but what happened to him after he sailed away from Troy. He tells of the Kikonians, the Lotus-Eaters, the Cyclopes, Circe, his visit to Hades, and much more; the rapt Phaiakians listen.

Anyone could forget, at this point, that these tales would have brought Odysseus to tears, had Demodokos been the one to sing them. The Phaiakians treat the tales as entertainment (whether profound or light); for Odysseus, who recognizes his life in them, they hold loss and grief. Yet he himself longs to hear them; otherwise he would not have asked Demodokos to sing again.

Entertainment is nothing to scoff at; to entertain, in the old sense of the word, is to maintain, to keep someone in a state of mind. The songs of the Odyssey delight the mind, but for some of the characters, and for readers over time, they do much more. Not only that, but they take and give back time; the question “who are you?” unrolls into the night.

 

The quotations in English are from Richmond Lattimore’s translation of the Odyssey; the Greek text is courtesy of the Perseus Digital Library.

I took the photo outside the Dallas Institute yesterday.

On Audienceship

IMG_6416

Of the ways of taking part in the arts and in intellectual life, audienceship deserves far more recognition than it receives. In the classroom I continually emphasize the importance of the audience member, the one who is there to listen and watch, to love, to hate, to adore, to doubt, to remember. As audience, you are not obligated to like what you see and hear, but by taking it in, by bringing yourself to it, you give life to the performance. Yet few people describe audienceship as “creative” or even as worthy of mention.

A curious New York Times article (“Forget a Fast Car. Creativity is the New Midlife Crisis Cure” by Laura M. Holson) discusses creativity as the “cure” for “midlife crisis.” People at midlife restore meaning to their lives by taking up the paintbrush, joining creative groups, and so forth. The article seems to presume that midlife crisis is universal; that midlife marks the beginning of retirement; that a midlife crisis, when it happens, takes the same form for all; and that creativity can be pursued in the first place. I took up these assumptions in a comment–but then, after reading another comment, thought about how the article didn’t once mention or hint at audienceship. Supposedly “being creative” means taking tap dance classes, singing on stage, making collages, doing, doing, doing–but not sitting in an auditorium and taking in a performance.

But if one defines creativity as the act, process, or potential of bringing something into being that did not exist before, then audienceship has everything to do with it. Moreover, audienceship brings honor, respect, and income to existing artists, many of whom have been working at their art for years.

The commenter (“SB”) argued that the industry of dabbling–the industry that encourages people to be “creative”–resembles (or even forms part of) the industry that pushes older artists out. It is ever on the lookout either for the hot new thing or for those willing to pay for a sense that they, too, can create. I would add that this industry (or its corrupt manifestation) thrives on hypocrisy. It sends out a double message: that everyone can be an artist, and that someone removed from us, some invisible force of the market, will decide who is worthy.

Audienceship casts both of those messages into question. Yes, many actors and musicians attend concerts and plays (when they can), but by attending a performance, you acknowledge that you could not have been in it (or at least are not in it). You get to receive it instead. What a treat! And by being there in the audience, you are calling it worthy (whatever you happen to think of it). You have made time for it in your life and room for it in your mind.

Concert-going and play-going can become pretentious, if you go to earn social status. Some people must have attended Hamilton primarily to say that they had seen it. But the great thing about audienceship is that you don’t have to justify it to anyone. Except at TED and other exclusive events, you don’t have to apply to attend; all you have to do is present your ticket, and you can take your seat. You might go out of curiosity, or because you are fond of the piece or play, or because you want to see a particular performer, or because something about the description drew you in. By the time you walk out, your reasons may already have changed.

I love attending performances alone. When alone, I don’t have to talk about the performance right away (or at all), I don’t have to talk during intermission, and I can enjoy the privacy of the work. Music and theater (and dance and other arts) are at once communal and private; they reach many people at once but bring each of us out of our usual thoughts into something else, something unknown to anyone else.

People are sometimes embarrassed to love a performance–or not to love it as much as others do. What a shame! By loving it, by not loving it, you have given something to it, as long as you were there with it, not removed through your own cynicism or prefabricated praise.

I do not see midlife as a time for seeking something new to do. I have plenty to do as it is–responsibilities and commitments that I care about. But I dream of auditoriums, of those few hours face to face with someone’s invisible work, now wrapping into form. If I were to regret something far later on in life–besides various human mistakes–it would be my failure to be there, in one of those numbered seats, when the curtain rose and fell.

 

I took the photo here in Dallas last week. Also, I made a few revisions to this piece after posting it.

The Positivity Pushers

IMG_6399

In her New York Times article “The Power of Positive People,” Tara Parker-Pope tells us that we should surround ourselves with positive people, for the sake of our happiness and health. Her article brought a slew of objections–including a comment from me and one from my friend Jenny Golub.

I would not want to cut my slightly grumpy friends from my life–or to be cut off when going through a difficult time or speaking critically of something. “Positivity” is a vague term, but for some people it means “never complaining” or even “never criticizing.” The Iliad–and most of humanity–would be off limits for someone who sought only positive voices and views. Krasznahorkai and Bellow, Gogol and O’Connor would be off the charts.

Like me, but in different words, many of the commenters reject the premise that people can be classified as “positive” or “negative” and that the “positive” people are more valuable. In addition, they question the business of boosting one’s personal happiness without pause or perspective. “Moreover,” Jenny writes, “there is hard work to be done and genuine suffering to alleviate. Let’s just do the work—together—and stop worrying about that illusory, elusive, untrustworthy concept called ‘happiness.'”

That last point deserves an entire book. The “pursuit of happiness” has many meanings, but when it becomes a mandate and a fad, when people are told to do X, Y, and Z to become happier, then happiness loses whatever good it might have.

The current positivity movement–at least as described in the article–makes little room for suffering and self-questioning. Parker-Pope approvingly cites the work of the Blue Zone Team, which offers to help people assess and shape their social networks. For instance, the Team offers a tool for rating your current friends:

The Blue Zone team has created a quiz to help people assess the positive impact of their own social network. The quiz asks questions about your friends and the state of their health, how much they drink, eat and exercise, as well as their outlook. The goal of the quiz is not to dump your less healthy friends, but to identify the people in your life who score the highest and to spend more time with them.

Such a quiz promotes at least four ills: rating one’s friends in the first place (not to mention rating them against each other), rating them according to others’ criteria, treating the ratings as truth, and treating friends as subservient to one’s own agenda.

Parker-Pope and others might respond that they are not encouraging people to rate each other numerically–or to dump anyone in particular–but rather to take social inventory and act upon it. Well, if inventory is the point here, isn’t one better off examining how one is treating others? People are not obligated to be friends–some friendships take hold and others do not, for a panoply of reasons–but probably everyone has shied away from someone’s suffering. Probably everyone has, at some point, belittled someone who did not deserve to be belittled, ignored someone’s kind gestures, held grudges without good reason, or just not bothered to find out who someone was.

The point of such “inventory” need not be to heap guilt upon guilt or embark on a big project of forced amends, but to question one’s ways of regarding and treating others and to make a few genuine shifts.

Moreover, there is something to be said for grim jokes and rotund tears. When there is too much pressure to be happy, to speak in ever-cheery terms, you find yourself sneaking to the library to read Chekhov or Chesterton–whose works deserve much more than a peek or two on the sly. Why not begin more richly?

Yes, some people can drag others down with their attitudes and outlooks–but this isn’t a question of “negativity.” Such a drag can come from excessive self-assurance, in which the positivity pushers participate. It can also come from a bad or outworn habit in the friendship itself. The solution (if there is one) is not to surround oneself with “positive” people but to treat others frankly and kindly, acknowledge the unknown in them, and seek a fitting form of association with them. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes not; both ease and difficulty have a place in friendship, even in acquaintanceship, even in strangerhood.

Not for its lessons here, but for its gorgeousness and illumination, I recommend William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, which I can’t wait to read again.

 

I took the photo of Pollux at the Dallas Institute on Monday. Also, I added to this piece (several times) after posting it.

Myth as a Form of Question

IMG_6392

Serving, for the eighth consecutive summer, on the faculty of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers (this summer’s  texts include the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Moby-Dick, Theogony, Popol Vuh, Book of the Hopi, Mwindo, Monkey, and more), I think about our many discussions of myth over the years. Myth is no easy matter. People often define it as “something that isn’t true” or “something that people used to believe but no longer do”–or even “something that people use to explain the world around them”–but myth goes beyond the wearable and worn. It allows for common yet solitary understandings; we come together over myth yet experience it in privacy. To gather the good of myth, one must approach it in a strong and questioning spirit.

“Myth is a term of many turnings,” writes Louise Cowan in her essay “Myth in the Modern World.” The word “myth” is often used in a derogatory, dismissive sense–yet others have found that “myth does indeed represent a mode of truth, that it codifies and preserves moral and spiritual values, that, in fact, a civilization without myth fosters a way of life not fully human.”

She goes on to say that myth does not impose “rigid uniformity” but rather “supports and enhances diversity and endows ordinary acts with purpose and grace.” That is, when people come together over a common belief, form, or expression, they can find their own relation to it, precisely because it calls for contemplation and integrity. I recommend reading the full essay; I have barely touched on it here.

Myth  can go wrong when contorted to serve a specific agenda or when mistaken for literal truth or falsehood. It can be understood only through imagination; even then, it requires skepticism along with trust. Maybe the trust consists, simply, in taking time with the myth and resisting the urge (from within or without) to dismiss it offhand.

In his commentary on Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again,” Roger Cohen shows how Hughes “punctures the myth” of America yet resists tearing it apart. He comments, toward the end, “Hughes, at the last, does not descend into despair. His, as Dan Rather has observed, is ‘a rallying cry for inclusion.’ The poem leads to an oath to an unrealized idea, battered but alive, not to blackness against whiteness, or whiteness against blackness.”

In my own reading, the poem gives the myth its full life. By casting the myth in doubt, by declaring, in parentheses, “(America never was America to me),” by pounding out the despair–

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

–and then, after all that, reaffirming America, Hughes exalts the myth, not as illusion but as dimension, as time layered on time, resolution on heartbreak.

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

The future collapses into the present, through the word “oath,” which implies freedom to act. If he, the speaker of the poem, can declare, “America will be!” then America already exists, through his act of promising. (If he can promise America, then the promise has in some way been fulfilled.) The myth comes to life through the protest and questions, through the patience with possible meanings.

In that sense, myth demands more than full mind; it “asks a little of us here” (Frost), as we wrestle with what is and what is not.

Civility Is Not Passé

IMG_6208

As I leave behind the school year–we had our last day today, with a faculty meeting and luncheon–I feel some melancholy. It has been a lovely week: I helped administer oral examinations, took part in the diploma ceremony, went out for coffee with two colleagues, cleaned the surface of my desk (at school), took a bike ride, ate lots of sour cherries, and began preparing my Dallas lectures on Homer, Dante, and Melville.

But this week alone I ran into several writings and speeches claiming that civility does not bring about change, that heckling is necessary, and that if we are reverting to tribalism, well, we have always been tribal, whether we admitted it or not.

Such pieces imply that anyone calling for civility either lacks understanding or clings to power and privilege. Supposedly “civility” is the code for keeping things just as they are. I reject this proposition. Civility does not have to take the form of stiff politeness or euphemism. You can be strong, stubborn, outspoken, clear, and civil. To be civil is to recognize the limits of your knowledge, to listen to others even if you disagree with them, to build what you have in common, and to seek right action regarding your differences. In addition, it involves learning about the world so that you can speak and hear wisely. Above all, civility makes room for discernment. It allows you just enough time and pause to distinguish one situation from another.

Civility takes years of study and experience; it does not confine itself to social codes but instead allows for idiosyncrasy and exception. It is not fixed or perfect; it requires continual trial and error, introspection, observation.

Sometimes civility must be broken. Sometimes a protest needs full vehemence. But even then, one can keep civility close by. It will come in handy when things get out of hand.

Dismiss civility, and the whole purpose of protest comes apart. Why protest  at all, if not for the sake of a better life?  What life is there, if people cannot see or hear each other or themselves, if they cannot admit to being wrong? No, the modern air is full of shouting, shaming,  name-calling, disparaging, dismissing, and such–and there may be reason for them here and there–but such trends do not have the upper hand, the best plan, or the last say.

I took the photo in Szolnok a few weeks ago.