Sátántangó (the film)

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I had been looking forward to this for weeks: Sátántangó, Béla Tarr’s 1994 film based on László Krasznahorkai’s novel. Over seven hours long, with two breaks, this event lasted from 2 until 10 p.m. (I took the picture at the end of the second break; this shot stayed still for a minute or two before the film resumed.) There were ten to twelve of us in Auditorium “E” at the Tisza Mozi. I expected that I would know or at least recognize someone there, because the people who show up for this film probably have something in common, and because I have been living in Szolnok for over two years now. And indeed: a parent of one of my former students was there, and someone else looked vaguely familiar.

When I entered the movie theatre, it seemed like a Krasznahorkai setting itself: the place was being torn down, nothing recognizable was in sight, and the workers didn’t know where the movies were. I soon found out that I had to enter through the side (the front entrance was being renovated).

The film unrolls and reveals human depravity–cheating, affairs, swindling, idolatry, gullibility, all-out alcoholism, and greed. There’s nothing redeeming in the characters (except perhaps the doctor and the girl Estike), no sentimentality at all, nothing romanticized, no one to feel sorry for (except Estike, maybe, and the cat), and nothing in the scenery except for mud, rain, more rain, trees, dilapidated buildings, more mud, more rain. But somehow this becomes gorgeous–through the long, slow scenes, Krasznahorkai’s sentences and phrases, the long gazes, the bells ringing and ringing, the animals mulling around, the dance that goes on and on, the accordion haplessly playing, and the scoundrels’ indomitable belief that they will be led to a better life by the arch-schemers Petrina and Irimiás. The latter has a gift for soft-spoken oratory and–in a brilliant performance by Mihály Víg–leads people to want to believe him and his partner, against all evidence. I loved the ending, which I won’t give away here, except to say that everything goes dark and the story begins.

Honors, Arts, and Travels

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This is a short post, since I leave early in the morning for the U.S. (for the 2019 ALSCW Conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I will be leading a seminar and presenting a paper). I will get to see my friend Joyce, who lives in Worcester, tomorrow evening.

Last Friday I had the great honor of being interviewed by Zsolt Bajnai, author of the wonderful blogSzolnok (which I read daily) and many other articles, essays, interviews, and stories. it was my first interview in Hungarian. Here it is.

Rosh Hashanah at Szim Salom was beautiful. Lots of people came. Now I have to stay strong and healthy for Yom Kippur (and beyond). I have many more thoughts about the holidays than these brief jottings convey.

Last night I saw a film that doesn’t leave my mind: Akik maradtak (Those Who Remained), directed by Barnabás Tóth. I recommend it to everyone and hope to say more about it another time. It was followed by a discussion between Zsolt Bajnai and the director and producer. They talked about how the film differed from the movie, how the actors were chosen, and more.

The week was filled with performances and other good things. Yesterday, during our long break in the morning, the music teacher (Andrea Barnáné Bende) and a group of students put on a short concert in honor of the school’s 90th anniversary. They sang and played a selection of songs from the past 90 years.

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And today (see the picture at the top) the ninth-grade bilingual class, under the direction of the drama teacher (Zsuzsanna Kovácsné Boross), rehearsed a short play on the theme of libraries and humanity, which they will perform this week (and next, I think). Since the rehearsal took place during our regular English class, I got to see it–in the beautiful new school library, curated and maintained by the school librarian, Judit Kassainé Mrena.

Also, Issue 12:1 of Literary Matters came out! It contains my translations of Gyula Jenei’s poems “Piano,” “Cemetery,” and “Madeleine“; my review of John Wall Barger’s The Mean Game; and much more.

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Finally, I am grateful to my colleagues for covering my classes during my absences. Speaking of absence, it is now time for sleep.

Catching Up

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I have some things to say, many more things on my mind, but so much going on right now that it’s hard to catch up. Really enjoying the school year so far–the new classes and the familiar ones, the overall feeling of teaching at Varga for the third year. Now I enter the whirl: on top of the teaching, preparations for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and two trips to the U.S. for literary events (in Worcester and Dallas). Even so, I managed to spend some time at the Szolnok Goulash Festival yesterday. Some of my students were staffing a Russian booth there, so I talked with them for a while. Just when I was leaving and crossing the Mayfly Bridge, I saw a folksong group approaching. I had to stay just a little longer to listen to them.

In addition, I saw two beautiful films this past week, Curtiz and A létezés eufóriája (The Euphoria of Being), both of which I recommend to all. Both, in different ways, have to do with the Holocaust; both are about art (film and dance) and life; both have a way of unraveling you. I intend to watch them again. Curtiz is coming back to Szolnok soon–I will see it at least one of those times–and in November I will get to see the dance performance around which A létezés eufóriája revolves. I want to say more about these films but will have to wait for a later time.

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On a different subject, I had promised to explain what it means to be a “vice form teacher,” one of my many roles this year. Against appearances and sounds, it is nothing like the role of the Sub-Sub-Librarian in Moby-Dick. In Hungarian high schools, the official form teacher (osztályfőnök) is the homeroom teacher for a particular class from ninth grade through graduation. He or she meets with them regularly, keeps track of their individual situations, grades, and so forth, maintains contact with their parents, gives them support and advice, and then, at graduation time, participates in ceremonies with them and handles their final diplomas and grades. Visiting teachers from abroad (like me) are not eligible for this role–but they can be “vice form teachers”–which means being there to help out. I am honored to be vice form teacher for the new bilingual ninth grade class, working alongside my colleague Marianna Fekete, the official form teacher.

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This is not nearly all that I wanted to say, but I have some more things to do before I sleep. More at a slightly slower time.

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I took three of these pictures: the first at the Goulash Festival, the second in Buda after the film A létezés eufóriája (The Euphoria of Being), and the fourth this morning, outside my apartment here in Szolnok. The third (in the schoolyard) was taken by my colleague Krisztián Berecz, who teaches geography and biology and photographs the school’s official events.

Film, Bike, Evening, Szolnok

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A few weeks ago, the faculty at Varga received an invitation to a Tisza Mozi screening of the 2018 documentary Gettó Balboa. Knowing nothing about it except for a basic description, I signed up right away. Tonight a colleague and I went. I stayed at school until 5:00, grading tests and such, and then zipped off on the bike, down Szapáry utca, and then around the corner onto Templom út and to the cinema. Everything was starting to light up: the gallery, the street lamps, the Mayfly Bridge.

Gettó Balboa depicts a former Budapest mafia man from the Budapest Ghetto who turns to God, turns his life around, and begins to train poor ghetto children and young adults in boxing. One young man in particular, Zoli Szabó, he supports through difficulties that might otherwise have crushed him. Both he and Zoli are of Gypsy (Roma) origin, as is the director, Árpád Bogdán. This is both important to the film and not; the audience was Gypsy and non-Gypsy, and afterward, in the lobby, Gypsy chefs treated us to a delicious stew. But the film was about poverty too and what it does to a person–and about kindness and fighting, which we all know in our own ways. What does it take to help oneself and others? What does it mean to fight with all your soul? The black-and-white cinematography–sometimes crystal-clear, sometimes flattened into silhouettes, sometimes blurred with flashes of light–took me into the hardship and beauty.

After the film, there was a discussion–which came as a surprise to me–I had not known about it in advance–led by the author and journalist Zsolt Bajnai, with Árpád Bogdán (the director), Róbert Bordás (the cinematographer), Attila Poczók (the producer–at least I think he was there), and Mihály Sipos (“Misi,” the protagonist). They discussed, among other things, the process and techniques of filmmaking, the film’s themes and messages, and their own impressions of it.

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Then, after eating some stew and saying goodbye to my colleague, I biked up onto the Mayfly Bridge (where I ran into one of my neighbors) and soon afterward turned around. I had thoughts about the nature of kindness: how many directions it takes, how many illusions it can hold, and how simple it can be nonetheless. And about documentaries: how they distill real events into forms, how they can come close to poetry. And about Szolnok, which has opened up to me slowly over the months, and which I am starting to get to know in new ways. And other thoughts, harder to pinpoint, which carried me home.

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“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.

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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.

 
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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)

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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.

“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.

On Being Welcome

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Yesterday I treated myself to two films at Film Forum: Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (an old favorite) and The Teacher (by Jan Hrebejk, the director of Divided We Fall, with Csongor Kassai in one of the lead roles). Not having seen The Teacher before, I was taken with its subtle treatment of a rather flat premise: a new teacher, who happens to be chair of the Communist Party at her school, begins extorting services and favors from the students and parents. Ben Kenigsberg’s New York Times review does not do the film justice; there’s much more to it than he suggests. The texture of Hrebejk’s films–the music, pacing, dimness, gentleness–stays with me long afterward. This film lent itself to a kind of soul-searching, not only through its subject, but through its moods and ambiguities. Kassai has become one of my favorite film actors, and I loved the others too. Each parent and child shows a mixture of confusion and principle, timidity and strength.

The soul-searching: I would never extort things from my students or their parents; all the same, do I always use my power justly? This question does not end; I must ask it again and again. Also, when witnessing abuses of power (in any setting), have I spoken up, or have I accommodated the situation? The film brings out how mixed we are: how easy it is for any of us to justify our comforts and push difficulty away, even believing that we are doing the right thing. I could have been one of the parents objecting to the petition; I could have been the head teacher in her state of relief when the meeting, which she reluctantly called and led, seems to come to nothing.

But that’s not what this post is about. While waiting in the lobby (an ample wait, since I had purchased my tickets earlier in the week and had arrived early), a boy of about thirteen or fourteen asked me, “Are they letting people in yet for Pierrot le Fou?” He held a big bag of popcorn in one hand and a soda in the other. I told him that we were on standby; he nodded and stood by. He was all by himself. When we were let in, I went ahead; he came along and sat down two seats away from me. He seemed absorbed in the film; now and then I heard him laughing. At the end of the film, either he or someone else nearby exclaimed “Cool!” He got up and left.

I was tempted to ask him (before or after the film) what had brought him there; it isn’t every day that you see a thirteen-year-old attending Pierrot le Fou alone. (Of course it isn’t  every day that you see Pierrot le Fou, so here we have the un-everyday within the un-everyday.) Did he know someone in it? Was he a young director? Did he know what he was getting into? Why didn’t he laugh during the “Est-ce que vous m’aimez” scene (or did he, maybe)? This time, I found the scene wildly silly and sad, but I don’t know how others took it.

I decided not to ask him any questions or bother him at all. I remember what one of my former students said a few years ago: “You know you’re accepted when people don’t make a big fuss about your presence–for instance, when you can go to a play and just be part of the audience.” I remembered, also, what it was like to be a kid and have people coo over me, just because I was a kid. (It wasn’t fun.) Why should kids have to justify themselves wherever they go, sit, or stand? So I left him alone. I was delighted, though, that he had the gumption to go to a movie–this particular one, no less–on his own.

But then, I must have looked rather young when, at age fourteen, I went on my own to concerts and plays in Moscow. No one bothered me, and that was grand; I could enjoy them on my own terms. Sometimes I invited classmates (or they me), but most of the time I went by myself.

Those times of liberty, of being able to explore not only your physical surroundings but works of art, music, theatre, dance, and film, help give you a foothold in the world, and not only a foothold, but a way of loosening it, a lift into the unknown.

 

Image credit: From a YouTube video of the “Est-ce-que vous m’aimez” scene, acted by Raymond Devos and Jean-Paul Belmondo. (I prefer the Vimeo one because it’s a little longer and shows Pierrot escaping at the end.)

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

The Cats of Istanbul

Yesterday I learned from David Costanza (Art of Flying) about Kedi, Ceyda Torun’s documentary about the cats of Istanbul! It looks absolutely wonderful; I will write about it after watching it in full.

Speaking of Istanbul cats, it would be a shame not to assemble the photos I took of some of them. Here is a slideshow of fifteen pictures. What moved me was not only the omnipresence of cats, but the love with which they were treated. The first two pictures–of a mother and baby cat inside a restaurant–came thanks to a stranger on the street. He saw me photographing cats and, with hand gestures, urged me to go inside.

While in Istanbul, I sent Andrew Gelman some cat photos in case he wanted any of them for his blog. So far, he has used two; you can see them here and here.

Who Ever Said Listening Was Passive?

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One of my favorite scenes in A Serious Man is the one pictured above, about 25 minutes into the film, where Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff) is practicing his Torah portion with the help of a recording by Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. He listens, imitates, listens again, imitates. That’s not how you’re supposed to learn your portion–you’re supposed to work with the text and trope–but this fits his character and allows us to hear the great cantor. But what gets me is how well he imitates. It’s transcendent. He picks up not only the melody, but the subtle textures, the ornamentation, the timing. (I have not found a video of this particular scene–but the bar mitzvah scene gives you an idea.) I was so intrigued by the excellence of this scene that I looked up the actor and learned that he is a cellist. In addition, this was his actual Torah portion when he became a bar mitzvah.

Here is a recording of him at age 15 playing Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody. There’s a funny interview afterward, too. The point is not, “Wow, how amazing that he could play that at age 15,” but rather: This is serious musicianship. The little scene in A Serious Man is no fluke; there’s some exceptional listening in it.

Listening is the beleaguered art or skill; again and again I hear it described as “passive.” Egad! Listening is not passive. It’s some of the most active activity in action. It requires intense concentration and attention to subtlety. You must be alert to the structure, tones, rhythms, transitions, and those qualities that aren’t as easily specified, in the collection of sounds you take in. It takes practice, too; if you have never listened to a symphony from start to finish, you might not know what to  make of it, or  you might get restless; but if  you are used to it, you enter a welcoming country (unless the performance or piece is horrible).

In education discussion people often oppose “active learning” to “passive listening.” Such an opposition is not only false but destructive. Yes, students need opportunities to discuss their ideas in the classroom–but if they do not also learn to listen to a sustained piece or presentation, they will miss out on a great deal. It is in a lecture, for instance, that one can lay out an argument and draw attention to its less obvious details. Putting it together, and forming questions in the mind, a student becomes involved with the subject in a particular way. There’s a dialogue in listening; you make sense of what you hear, and you find your responses.

Now, some may say that music and lectures–and the kinds of listening that accompany them–are so different that they shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same discussion. I recognize their differences but also see a lot in common. In both cases, something is conveyed through sound, over an interval of time; its various parts come together in a whole. When you listen, you basically travel through it in time, exercising your memory and anticipation all along the way. Your reactions may be analytical, emotional, or both, but they will not be complete until you have listened to the whole piece, and even then they may be in formation. You carry away not only the content, but the sound, which can play in your mind for a long time afterward.

Yesterday I put this to the test. On Tuesday I revised the fourth chapter of my book, the chapter on listening–so yesterday I treated myself to a day of listening. In the morning I went to an open rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic; in the evening I attended a lecture by Christine Hayes, “Forging  Jewish Identity: Models and Middles in Jewish Sources.” In both of these, in different ways, I was absorbed in the details and the whole. After both, I walked away with sounds and thoughts.

The New York Philharmonic played Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto (with pianist Stephen Hough). Both of these I remembered from many listenings in the past; in addition, I remembered playing the Brahms in symphony in college. I had that distinct sense of it from the inside; not only that, but I remembered some of the places where we played it (we toured England and Wales in the spring). With both the Brahms and the Beethoven, I was alert to the interpretation–the many tiny differences from what I remembered, the dynamics, the dialogues between instruments.

As for the lecture, I immediately understood the three-part structure (Dr. Hayes discussed Jewish identity in terms of memory, covenant, and Qedushah, and went on from there to explore different historical responses to crisis.) Understanding the shape and motion of the lecture, I was able to enjoy and think about the details. When she read texts aloud in English, I would follow along in Hebrew, not only for the additional challenge, but for the sake of the Hebrew text itself. This allowed me to encounter, for the first time,  the wonderful line from Mishnah Sotah 7:8: “Fear not, Agrippas, you are our brother, you are our brother, you are our brother!”

אל תתיירא אגריפס אחינו אתה אחינו אתה אחינו אתה

I walked away not only with the lecture’s  ideas (and my slowly forming questions), but with these words.

In short, listening is not passive, simple, or easy. But just a little bit can add serious riches to a life, and the lack of it can lead to grief. (That’s a different subject for another time.) I end with one of my old poems, “Jackrabbit.”

Jackrabbit

This land has never been painted properly.
Mix clumps of juniper with moonbeam blue,
Throw in a bit of tooth, a bit of song,
to fill the silhouette with bite and tongue.

This is a real dirt road with imagined rocks,
senses, insensate dangers, destinations.
Headlights sweeping the long floor of the mind
pan a jackrabbit back and forth in time.

Caught in the blank emergency of beams,
he dodges his dilemma with a brisk
“what if, what if” that dances him to death.
He could not find a way out of the way.

Earlier that day I was on the phone,
missing all your relevant advice.
A wire had got caught up in my throat,
an answer-dodger. It distracted me.

It trembled so fast that it numbed my tongue.
It did this while you were trying to talk.
I couldn’t listen well because the dance
had blurred all trace of consonant and sense.

I think now that this may have been a crash
of my old givens against your offerings:
new junipers, or ways of seeing them,
new countries, or ways of getting there.

When I hung up, there was no wire or word.
The moon was gone, the road a long fur coat
on some unwitting wearer, blissed and hushed.
I forgot all about it until years later.

You had said: “You can go left or right.”
Take me straight! I shouted. Straight to the remedy.
Gallop like the nineteenth century
down to the police station or cemetery.

Striding answerless, a station incarnate,
a cop ticketed me for not listening.
Now I can bear the rabbits and the wires.
I inch through forks and roadkill, listening.

Note: I made a few little corrections to this piece after posting it.