A Library Down the Road

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The Verseghy Ferenc Public Library, just a block away from school, has become one of my favorite places in Szolnok. It brings back library memories but also takes me into new thoughts and the Hungarian language. I have been there many times this year, for poetry and prose readings and for my own book event. I love the luminous room where the readings are held.

Yesterday afternoon I went to hear Levente Csender read from his work and speak with Gyula Jenei. A week from tomorrow, on April 13, I will return from Budapest in time to attend the evening part of a day of literary events: a reading by László Darvasi and, after that, a performance by the Varga Katalin Gimnázium Drama Club (Varga Diákszínpad) of a play written by one of the troupe’s own members, Kata Bajnai.

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This is just the beginning; I look forward to many more events and quiet hours. In June, at the library, my tenth-grade students will perform scenes from Hamlet; before then, I hope to get a library card. Yes, a library card is essential–but so far, I haven’t had much reason to take out books, since I read so slowly in Hungarian and have so many books waiting on my shelf.

My life has held many libraries. In early childhood, in Amherst, Massachusetts, I often went to the Jones library; at the time, they catalogued and displayed a little book that I wrote (with pages stapled together) about a rainbow. At the Forbes Library in Northampton, there were weekly screenings of classic cartoons (Donald Duck, etc.); I used to go and laugh. In high school, I loved the school library with its spiral staircase between the two levels. Later on, in college, graduate school, and in between, I worked at the Yale library and did research there; when I later returned to New Haven to write Republic of Noise, I walked to the library almost every day. Other libraries (such as the New York Public Library and the Berkeley library) have also been large in my life. But the Verseghy Library in Szolnok stands out among the libraries I have known. Here I can listen to Hungarian literature–taking in as much as I can, striving to understand more, saying hello to a few people afterward, and leaving with a new book or two in hand and the evening’s language in my mind.

One day, when my Hungarian is much stronger, I will remember these library days and what they held. I will come back to the works I first met there, remembering how they sounded the first time. I hunger for that return, maybe because I will understand much more by then, or maybe because I will get to look back on these bright, dear days.

P.S. I heartily recommend Bob Shepherd’s piece “The Limits of Learning.”

A Way of Hearing the World

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Isn’t reading literature in the original one of the fundamental reasons for learning a language–and not just a side benefit or frill? Isn’t reading Shakespeare one of the great rewards of learning English? You can’t come close to Shakespeare in a translation, though some are of exceptional quality, or in “Shakespeare made easy” editions (which are watered down beyond pity). You have to plunge into Shakespeare’s language, struggle with it a bit, and then start to see it make glorious sense all around you.

Overall, I admire the gimnázium curriculum here in Hungary. What students learn is valuable not only for their future careers, but for independent thought and life. Literature is central to their learning; they read poems, novels, stories, and more (in Hungarian). They also learn math and sciences (to advanced levels), history (in depth and detail), grammar, technology, languages, arts, and physical education. My two criticisms are (a) that the curriculum is crammed, with little or no flexibility or choice, so that students have no time to absorb what they are learning; and (b) that in the language courses, literature is treated as an extra, something the teacher may add to the lessons if time and inclination permit. (My school has been very supportive of my Shakespeare projects–but still, in relation to the official curriculum, they are something added on.) Language instruction–and all the textbooks I have seen–focus on grammar, vocabulary, and conversation on everyday topics (health, food, family, nature, school, the environment, technology, etc.), which repeat and repeat, at increasingly advanced levels. All of this is good and important–but language instruction without literature is like music lessons without music. I am not the only one who brings literature into class–many teachers do–but still, it may seem an appendage, not an internal organ.

I have sometimes been asked why I am having students read Shakespeare in the original, when they will not need to use Shakespeare’s language later in their lives. My response: they will use it! They will recognize words, phrases, quotes, allusions all around them; they will gain a way of hearing the world; and they can return to the plays and poems throughout their lives.

But to the point: this year, the tenth-grade students (who last year adored A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are getting a little restless with Hamlet, or many are. The reasons are understandable: we read only in class (since the books stay at school, and I am reluctant to add to their already hefty homework); we meet only twice a week, and have not always devoted both sessions to Hamlet; there have been various interruptions and absences, so many students have missed at least one key scene of the play; it’s longer and more difficult than Midsummer; and in my desire to continue onward through the play (so that we can later go back and focus on certain scenes), I have not explained certain passages as well as I could. But we are close to the end; and I am confident that when we go back, reread, and enact particular scenes, the experience will be different.

Also, they have fond memories of Midsummer–and this is a very different sort of work. Comparing the first to the second, they may well feel some disappointment at first (though some have said that they find Hamlet more interesting). Last year their readings and performances were joyous and funny, and here a different mood sets in, though there is plenty of humor in Hamlet too.

Why Hamlet, out of all of Shakespeare’s plays? Well, for one thing, Hamlet is a play of the mind; it takes us into thinking itself. It is also full of play and trickery; the play itself is full of plays, not only the play within the play, but other enactments too–so that we are not always sure whether Hamlet is speaking his thoughts or acting for a perceived audience. Also, there is the question of metamorphosis: what must happen to Hamlet, how must he change, to do what he has set out to do? And the question of “minor” and “major” characters: might Polonius and Laertes be more important than they seem? The whole play has to do with “seeming” and “being”–so that when Hamlet first replies to his mother (in Act 1, Scene 2), his words, in a sense, introduce the play:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

And there you have the beauty of Hamlet: despite all the changing appearances and illusions, despite all the plots and tricks, there is an integrity, something that cannot be reduced to “just” this or that. It can only be revealed, though, through the illusions. We see Hamlet playing with Polonius here (in Act 3, Scene 2):

LORD POLONIUS
My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.
HAMLET
Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
LORD POLONIUS
By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
HAMLET
Methinks it is like a weasel.
LORD POLONIUS
It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET
Or like a whale?
LORD POLONIUS
Very like a whale.
HAMLET
Then I will come to my mother by and by. [Aside.] They fool me to the top of my bent. I will come by and by.
I will say so.
HAMLET
By and by is easily said.

Here Hamlet tests Polonius (craftily) to see whether he will continue to agree with him. But Polonius’s continued agreement reveals to Hamlet that he himself is being played with, in a more serious manner–that is, that Polonius has made some plan with the king and queen (or a larger “they”). So the play reveals the play–and Hamlet speaks through it all: “They fool me to the top of my bent,” suggesting that even his outwitting of Polonius may be partly an illusion, as there may be something beyond Polonius that he cannot outwit.

In some ways Hamlet cannot be a group experience. Last year, a few students took strongly to the play, not together but alone, and their responses set the tone for classes. I see this happening this year as well, but it has yet to come through. I believe that this will be worthwhile for everyone, not only now, but later. But to make it worthwhile, I have to think more about the scenes that we will study closely: how to interpret them, stage them, “character” them. Then, I think, good memory will be built.

Image credit: M. C. Escher, Metamorphosis I (1937 woodcut printed on two sheets).

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

Against Superiority

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When I read about the massacre in the New Zealand mosques (as of now, 49 people have died, and the suspect is a white nationalist), I felt, in addition to sadness and disgust, a renewed rejection of superiority. Superiority and inferiority are part of life, but their absolute forms–the belief that one person or group is better than another–lead to harm.

Belief in superiority is in all of us and sometimes holds truth. One person may be taller (or shorter) than another. One may be better than another in math, or at playing the cello. One person may be kinder, more professional, more generous than another. Specific superiority cannot be wished away; moreover, we are taught to strive for it and seek it out. It is natural to want to hear a good musician rather than a bad one, or to publish a good poem rather than a slipshod assemblage of words.

But all of this has to do with partial superiority: perceived excellence at certain activities, or in certain qualities. It has nothing to do with absolute superiority over another human being or group. As soon as you entertain thoughts of absolute superiority over others because of your skin color, religion, sex, or anything else, you verge on the kind of thinking that has resulted in mass graves. Not only that, but we have learned through history how wrong it is. Why do we keep on forgetting?

I remember a philosophy roundtable I led at Columbia Secondary School, on the topic of privacy. One of the texts I included was Marianne Moore’s “Silence“:

My father used to say,
“Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow’s grave
or the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like the cat—
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse’s limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth—
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint.”
Nor was he insincere in saying, “Make my house your inn.”
Inns are not residences.

I had previously interpreted the tone as somewhat admiring: that the father’s words represent a kind of ideal for Moore or at least the poem’s speaker. But the others at the roundtable were having none of it. They pointed out, for instance, that the father’s words take up almost all of the poem, and that the final line, “Inns are not residences,” suggest the coldness of his view. They also pointed to the beginning of the quote: “Superior people” and the absolute adverbs “never” and “always.” They heard something devastating in the father’s pronouncement on “the deepest feeling.”

That evening somewhat, and later even more, I came to believe that they were right: that the poem’s irony lies in the near-silence of the speaker, and that this near-silence is not “superior” but instead full of pain.

This leads me to thoughts of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which I brought to my students early in the year.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Here too, the quoted speech takes up almost all of the poem–and while it is the “traveller from an antique land” speaking and not Ozymandias, the story leaves the main speaker (the poet) with nothing more to say. But it is easy to get caught up in the “lone and level sands” and forget about something earlier: “Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, / Tell that its sculptor well those passions read / Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things.” The sculptor, the unseen character in all of this, has not only portrayed Ozymandias but read those passions “which yet survive.” The long distance of the sands may come down to nothing.

Yesterday in British civilization class I brought up W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” so often quoted and misquoted, with the famously misunderstood lines: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Those lines about the “best” and the “worst,” taken out of context, may seem to mean that uncertainty is inherently superior to intensity. But that is not it; Yeats (who wrote the poem in 1919) is speaking of a particular lack of conviction, a particular kind of passionate intensity–the latter an extreme certainty, a belief in one’s own authority. Something is taking place that we cannot even see or hear; it has come on us slowly, and now it is all around us. Within all of this, “the best lack all conviction” because the current explanations collapse; even the possibility of a “Second Coming” looms with a question. We, the readers, are guided out of conclusions and into troubling images and thoughts. I see that as one gesture of the poem: away from over-certainty.

If education is for anything at all besides preparing us for the workplace, giving us interesting things to think about, and enabling us to continue learning on our own, then it is for this: reminding us, again and again, through literature, music, art, language, sciences, history, and other fields, that no matter how often we think and feel otherwise, no human stands above another–except in specific respects, and even then imperfectly, just for a time, by way of a passing gift.
Image credit: Anselm Kiefer, The Morgenthau Plan (series of paintings, 2012).

A Similar Gaze

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Yesterday I received a letter from a stranger (copied here with permission):

Dear Ms. Senechal,

I fortuitously discovered your work and simply adore your thinking, your whole orientation towards education, your perceptions about culture could not be more nuanced, intelligent, and deeply inspiring! I am writing to thank you for your work and also to ask you if you could offer some sort of reading list that might help a reader develop a similar gaze. I love your counter-culture thinking, but it is not dismissive and hostile, but rather critical and informed. You tight-rope walk a very subtle line, and I really appreciate it. Most academic writing is AWFUL to read—-horrid prose, jargons, and not very impressive ideas. Your work is a breath of fresh air, and I would love to read others like you and those who have shaped your thinking.

I thought of writing a response here, because this gives me a chance to recognize some of the writers who have influenced my thinking. But when I started assemble it in my mind, I became overwhelmed by the task. First of all, my thinking is continually changing; I expect the next book to differ from my latest one, and I rethink things day by day.

I suppose the letter-writer was referring to nonfiction, but my greatest influences have been poetry, music, and certain kinds of fiction–as well as nonfiction that has been influenced by these. I am drawn to those writers who have an ear for language–who hear the overtones and undertones of words, who know how to set words to rhythm, who set and break patterns. I love Aeschylus and Sophocles, the Psalms and Koheleth–but if I start listing names, I won’t end.

Nikolai Gogol: perhaps the writer who influenced me the most overall. His sentences are works of art: building up and breaking down, toying with sounds and meanings, and bursting with comedy and sadness.

I grew up on classical music but love rock too, and folk, and other kinds; music can take the humblest of forms and still shake a life. It depends on subtle things.

Of essayists, I am drawn toward the ruminative and the keen (in combination): Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf, David Bromwich, to name just three.

But as long as I can remember, some of my greatest influences have been the people around me every day: colleagues, students, friends, family, acquaintances. Some of them I admire for their work, character, or both; some challenge me in everyday conversation by putting things in a way that I hadn’t considered before. That’s one reason why I hope to continue teaching as long as I can give it full mind and strength.

I don’t think I have fully answered the question, though. The person who wrote to me found something in my writing that differed from the usual jargon. This difference is still building, but even in its elementary versions, it has come with some risk and pain. It isn’t just that I read particular writers, although I do. It isn’t just that I am inspired by those around me, although I am. It is that I took my own way, more than once, and learned what was there. For instance, in the middle of graduate school I decided that I didn’t want to go into academia–that is, to become a professor. I left graduate school, moved to San Francisco, finished my dissertation a few years later, for its own sake, and received my degree. Many people were initially upset that I had turned away from academia, but I don’t regret the decision; teaching high school gives me a full intellectual life, with freedom to move between subjects (philosophy, literature, language, drama, etc.). I don’t have life answers; I wouldn’t advise anyone to take or avoid my path. Each person faces different dilemmas and conundrums, so any advice must be tentative.

Nor have I attained the writing that I am after. Even with blog posts, I keep looking for the right word, rhythm, or mixture. When I finish writing something more substantial, such as a book, I outgrow it it a little; the mind keeps going past the final draft, and I start tinkering with ideas for the next work, whatever it may be. This is not a “process” (dreary word) but a pursuit of something I can barely see and hear.

Back to the question of things to read: I recommend Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and Bromwich’s Moral Imagination. Each of these will lift the thinking; if you take them in slowly, they may exhilarate too. I choose them because I return to them again and again.

 

I revised this piece a few times after posting it. The photo shows part of my bookshelf (and just a fraction of my books, since I was able to bring only a few to Hungary); the record cover at the top is of Art of Flying’s Escort Mission.

 

The Grip of Nonchalance

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In a beautifully concise 1956 review of Saul Bellow’s novella Seize the Day (a work I especially love, and about which I have written), Alfred Kazin writes,

Tommy finds himself prowling through a New York day searching for a place of support or rest. By the end of it, he has tossed away the last of his money on the market and is desperately frightened. Yet he gains an unexpected release when he is swept by the passing crowd into the funeral of a man he has never known — and, looking down at the dead man’s face, at last finds himself able to feel, to accept his own suffering. Thus, at last, he is able to confront that larger suffering which (as we can see only at the end of the story) has been the dead weight of existence pressing on him without any release or passion in him of understanding.

People often ask me how I could live in Hungary, a country whose leaders have taken a turn toward the far right. My replies–“not everyone supports Viktor Orbán and his party”; “there are other things going on here”; “people here are very kind”–seem inadequate. That isn’t quite it. In any country, you will find people who disagree with the prevailing ideology. You will find kind people too. No, there is something else. Through a series of events, a combination of circumstances, I found my way to just the right place. I don’t think I would be as happy living in Budapest, though I go there regularly for synagogue, which I love. The people I am getting to know, the the school where I teach, the place where I live (just a few steps away from the swan I photographed this morning) are more than dreams come true; they teach me about who they are, who I am, what matters in life, what questions lie open. I can take on these questions without embarrassment. The Hungarian language is now coming to me in spades, and I am still at the cusp of speaking. Much more lies ahead.

What I miss from the U.S. are my dear friends, my family (though any of them can tell you that I have an independent streak), my former school, and the Dallas Institute. But there’s something I don’t miss at all: the American pressure toward nonchalance, casualness, lightness, changing the subject when it gets too serious, cutting off people who seem too intense. Do not get me wrong: I love humor and do not like to wallow in gloom. But in the U.S. I have found a pressure to curb myself with every sentence, to watch carefully in case the other person thinks the conversation is getting too “heavy.” (I do not find this with my friends, which is part of the reason the friendships have lasted. But it has put a strain on some acquaintanceships throughout my life.)

In the U.S. I have been told, from a young age, that I am very intense and “intellectual,” yet I did not receive that comment from people in other countries. It was a particularly American descriptor. “Intense” and “intellectual” are not meant as compliments. It’s acceptable to be intense about politics–when you know exactly what you think and can express it with vehemence–but any kind of extensive searching threatens people, unless they happen to be drawn to that kind of thing. I found my home here and there–at the philosophy roundtables I led, in some of my classes, etc. But overall I learned to be wary of myself, to accept that my way of thinking and speaking would be too much for some people. There is a certain American ideal expressed in Edie Brickell and Kenny Withrow’s song “What I am,” “I’m not aware of too many things, I know what I know if you know what I mean….” I could not attain that ideal if I tried, and it does not interest me anyway.

The pressure to be light, to avoid taking things too seriously, does not exist in the same way in all cultures. Here I have found not only a release from it, but a welcome into serious thinking and conversation (which has plenty of wit and humor wrapped up in it). Intellect is not frowned upon; intensity (if that is even the right word) carries no shame. Granted, Hungary has its anti-intellectuals; just look at some of the politicians! In addition, the economic conditions are driving many thoughtful people to leave the country; this will change the culture (and not for the better). I do not see Hungary as anywhere near perfect; it has massive problems. But in this particular way, in the room people make for grappling, in the honor they give to literature, I am not only at home, but in the middle of a new way of living.

It makes teaching a joy. When we returned from winter break, I introduced my students to Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” (The link points to a page with both the original text and István Jánosy’s Hungarian translation). Eleven different classes, from grades 9 through 12, read the poem with me; each discussion brought something different out of the poem. One student heard, in the final two lines “And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” a kind of insistence and self-persuasion, as though the speaker wanted to believe that sleep (and death) were still far away. Some students detected fear in the poem; the speaker could only stay in that dark wood for so long before it became too much. Some found meaning in the punctuation at the end: the difference between a comma and a period is greater than appears on the surface. Over the course of these discussions, I noticed something for the first time: throughout the poem, despite the tranquility of the scene, there is a slight disturbance of some kind, a disturbance so subtle that you might not notice it. At first, it is the disturbance of being on someone else’s property:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Next comes the horse’s disturbance, his sense that something is different, his shaking of the harness bells:

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

Finally, there is the disturbance of time: the speaker’s knowledge that this moment must come to an end, that he must go on to other things.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

What is it that unites these various disturbances, these various rattlings of the mind and wind? Could it be that they are necessary to the beauty? Could it be that without them, there would be no stopping by woods?

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I took both pictures this morning. Also, I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.

On Appreciation

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Often teachers don’t know how much they are appreciated; often students don’t either. Regarding teachers, students have often told me about a teacher who has influenced them, taught them something important, opened them to a subject, inspired them, or shown them kindness; I doubt that many have said these words directly to the teacher. There is a lot of gratitude in the air, but people don’t always know it.

But the same is true for students; they probably have little idea how much they give to a lesson, or to their classmates, or to a teacher’s day, or to a school.

It made my day yesterday (a “szombati munkanap,” or official, government-mandated Saturday working day, one of six in 2018), when I saw this on the board:

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I meet with this class only once a week; I look forward to each time. They bring such cheer and willingness to each lesson. They are learning quickly. Some who said, at the beginning of the year, that they didn’t speak any English are now participating eagerly; others are becoming more expressive and precise.

I remember one day when we had a schedule change; it was the first or second week in the school year. I had thought, incorrectly, that the change would take effect the following week, so I was sitting and working at my desk. There was a knock on the door of the teachers’ room. I opened the door to see two of the students from this class. “We are waiting for you,” they said. I came downstairs and found the students eager to get started. They understood my mistake, and we jumped right into the lesson.

One day in October I taught them “Frère Jacques” in French and English (they already knew it in Hungarian). Here they are singing it in all three languages. (It is posted with the students’ permission. I set it to “unlisted” so that it will be available only to those who have the link.)

 

 

Is the “lesson” from all of this that we should tell people more often that we appreciate them? Yes and no; as I will bring up in another post, I become less and less sure about what the lesson of any situation is. There may be four, five, ten lessons, some contradicting each other. Yes, it is good to tell people good things directly, without fear, but maybe there is an inevitable part that we keep to ourselves. In a school, there is some formality; we do not say everything. Still, there is no harm in saying a good word, if you are strong in it. It brings not only cheer but clarity too. There is lots of muddle in the world, many voices telling us to dismiss or disparage the good. Say a good word, and a quiet rises up around it. The chaos backs away.

Ahead and Behind

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Today I leave Dallas for Nashville (a short trip); from this evening until Sunday noon, I will be taking part in the ALSCW conference: presenting two papers, participating in a poetry reading (by ALSCW members, on Friday evening), attending as many other seminars, panels, and readings as possible, talking with colleagues and friends, and taking part in the ALSCW Council meeting. I hope to take some walks in Nashville too. Then, on Sunday evening, I head back to Hungary and should arrive Monday evening, if all goes as scheduled. (I am grateful to the three colleagues who agreed to cover my classes on Monday; to return by Monday, I would have had to skip the Council meeting and possibly more.)

I wrote a sestina yesterday; I may include it in what I read on Friday, or I may choose something shorter. I am reading a new translation as well; more about that in the future!

The book talk and discussion at the Dallas Institute was lively and warm; I am grateful to everyone who worked to put it together and who came out for it. There were over forty people in the audience, and the books almost sold out. But the best part was the combination of planning and spontaneity, familiarity and surprise, content and question.

First Dr. Larry Allums introduced me, then I spoke about the book and read some passages from it, then Dr. Allums and I had a dialogue, and finally I took questions (of which there were many) from the audience. I am delighted that this was the book’s first event; I will try to do something like this in events to come, though I will not be able to replicate it. It was great to be back at the Institute; I look  forward to returning in July.

There are some videos of the evening. Soon I will upload them to my website; for now, you can view them here. (They are numbered 3903, 3904, 3905, and 3906. The first one contains the introductions–Dr. Allums’s introduction and my preliminary remarks; the second, my readings from the book; the third, Dr. Allums’s dialogue with me, and the fourth, the exchange with the audience.)

Yesterday I went back to the Dallas Institute in the lovely rain and met with my colleagues, who took me to dinner at Gloria’s, our favorite Salvadoran/Latin restaurant. Here is the Dallas Institute’s patio just before we left.

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On a sad subject, I will have more to say soon about the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. Others are already making important arguments: for instance, that this was not simply a deranged act, but an act fueled by social media, a reckless and callous president, and easy access to weapons. Some have been looking specifically at its anti-Semitism; others, at its resemblance to other recent hate crimes in the U.S. and elsewhere. Some are analyzing it from the point of view of psychology, others from a political perspective, others from the perspective of gun control, others from personal pain. I will try something a little different (or maybe not different, since I have not had time to read all the responses). I want to consider what it means to believe one has the right (or even duty) to take another’s life, or the lives of members of a particular group. This is so far from my own understanding of rights and duties that I have to see where the difference lies. I might not arrive at answers, but I hope to raise some questions. Is the idea of liberty–of living the way you like, as long as you do not impinge on others, and protecting others’ right to do likewise–still young in our history and imagination? Does it contradict itself? Is it feasible? Do people support it today?

I will be thinking of this and more as I head to the airport.

What Happened to Liberty?

I read just now about the massacre in the Pittsburgh synagogue–which happened yesterday, during Shabbat services–and while I am in a rush, about to go to the U.S. for a week, I have to say a few things about it. First, it is sickening. The lives are gone, and so is everyone’s safety; no place, not even a house of worship, is safe. I am so sad for everyone who was there and for their families and friends.

Second, something strange is going on in the U.S. (and elsewhere in the world–but the U.S. seems to take the lead in massacres). Many have blamed Trump’s rhetoric and recklessness, and the stridency of his followers. Yes, there is plenty of basis for that explanation, but it is far from complete.

There seems to be a growing attitude in the U.S. that if someone or something makes you uncomfortable, you have the right to eliminate it–by ignoring, dismissing, or, at the outer extreme, killing the offending entity. There is a loss of willingness to be uncomfortable, to take in things that challenge one’s assumptions.

This may have to do with the increasing personalization (or appearance of personalization) on social media; the emphasis, in schools and elsewhere, on personal opinion, even opinion without grounding; and a belief, in many walks of life, that the most important thing is to be surrounded with people and things that agree with you. Take that to extremes, and you have hate groups and murderers–but far short of that, I sense an assumption, in milder places, that one of the goals of life is to be reflected and affirmed by others.

It may also have to do with a lack of listening, the lack of a practice of listening. In the name of “engagement,” people are asked, all over the place, for their quick reactions–to a play, movie, book, or anything else–and if you expect yourself and others to react so fast, you don’t have room to take things in.

I don’t know how to begin combating this. Some of it has to happen in education; teachers have to help students understand views and ways of speaking that differ from their own. News and other  publications have to do more to encourage thoughtful comments; I have seen too many good writers put down by readers who refuse to read.

I have often been put down for sounding a little old-fashioned; my diction is not typically American, and I sometimes get carried away with expressions that don’t help what I want to say. I am aware of this flaw in my writing–but some people write me and my work off on account of it. They refuse to read further, instead of considering that I have a slightly different language on account of years lived abroad, years spent with languages other than English, and a distance from much of popular culture.

I do not have any big solutions, but one of the first steps must be to revive the idea of liberty as expressed by John Stuart Mill and others: the idea that we have something to learn from those different from us, from opinions that we find wrong, and from expressions that we find troubling. By “troubling” I don’t mean dangerous; I don’t mean that anyone has to extend an olive branch to a murderer. I mean that in our midst there are many things, many people, that we can either shut out or consider–and while no one can take in everything or everyone, we can make our selections with some doubt, some acknowledgment that there is more in the world than what we understand, like, and accept. And let people worship in peace.

I added a paragraph and made a few changes to this piece after posting it. There is no picture this time.

 

Repetition and Refrain

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On Monday we celebrated music at school, thanks to the music teacher and other colleagues. I had various thoughts on what to do but settled on a particular idea: I would teach “Frère Jacques,” which students knew in Hungarian but perhaps not in French and English. We would sing it in all three languages; then we would listen to the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. We listened to a recording of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur.

The singing of “Frère Jacques” was lovely. I realized afterward that bells sound different in different languages; if I were to do it again, I would perfect the vowel sounds. But for the occasion, it went well. Listening to the Mahler was a little more difficult, since the speakers weren’t powerful enough for the hushed instruments; all the same, we could hear the “Frère Jacques” theme at its quietest. (You can listen to the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado, here; the third movement begins at 24:56.)

The music didn’t end there or that day; today one of my ninth-grade classes (class 9C, group 2) returned to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which last week led to a lively discussion of the relation between liberty and property (both public and private). Here is the recording of today’s singing.

I find with these songs (and with many other things) that the repetition opens up understanding. Repetition is inherent in music and theatre, not only within the pieces themselves, but in rehearsals and other preparations. As for literature, my favorite works are those that I want to read many times; the first reading makes way for more. Repetition works well with teaching, too; it allows teachers and students to see the subject in more than one way.

Speaking of that, I am excited to be participating in a seminar on rereading in November, at the ALSCW Conference in Nashville; I will present a paper on rereading Chekhov’s “Duel.” In the Poetic Verse seminar, I will present a paper on music and ellipsis in Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” and Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac” (two of my favorite songs for years and years).

I suppose that’s part of what I enjoy about living in Szolnok: bicycling down the same streets, in rain and sun and wind, and sometimes different ones too.

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I took both photos today in Szolnok.

Update: For “This Land Is Your Land,” the first upload attempts didn’t work; it seems that the file was too large. I shortened it; now the link works. Another time (not tonight) I will try again to upload the whole song.

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.