Packed Days, Words, and (Now) Bags Too

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How do you pack a few days like these into a blog post? For the past week, my colleagues Gyula Jenei, Marianna Fekete, and I were guests of the Dallas Institute and Cowan Center; these days keep opening into more.  The Education Forum on Monday and Tuesday evening, the various introductions and conversations, the visits to various places in the city, the assembly yesterday morning at the Terrell Academy, the luncheon, the sightseeing in Fort Worth yesterday–all of this was so full, warm, and brimming that we will be thinking about them for a long time. Not only that, but new projects and ideas are coming out of them; I have a lot to do over the coming months and years.

On Sunday we visited the Dallas Museum of Art, and on Monday during the day we walked around a lot and visited the Aquarium and Sixth Floor Museum.

Both evening events were terrific; the audience took genuine interest, and we enjoyed the readings and discussions. On Monday, Gyula Jenei read seven of his poems, and I read my translations of them; afterward, he, Marianna Fekete, and I held a panel discussion and took a few questions from the audience.

On Tuesday, I read aloud my translation of Marianna’s essay about the haiku poetry of Béla Markó; then Gyula, Marianna, and I had a panel discussion, followed by a Haiku haiku workshop, in which Marianna taught the audience how to pronounce several of the haiku poems, and I explained the individual words. You can see the Flickr album of the Tuesday night event here; I have included just a few below (and at the top of this post).

Things kept getting better and better. On Wednesday morning we gave an assembly at the I.M. Terrell Academy for STEM and VPA, which is one of the Dallas Institute’s Cowan Academies. We spoke in a huge, elegant auditorium to several hundred students, who listened attentively and asked sharp questions at the end. Then we went on a tour of the school and saw (for instance) the music room and several classes in progress. We were moved and impressed.

Then we returned to the Dallas Institute for a luncheon with special guests, including the poet Frederick Turner–who, with Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, has translated many Hungarian and other poets–and the publisher Will Evans. (Dr. Ozsváth was unable to be in town for the event, but I felt her presence anyway.) The conversations and readings brought us together not only around the table, but for something ongoing too. Nothing I say right now will do it justice; I can only thank everyone who was there. Much more will come of it, visibly and invisibly.

I am in a rush now, so I will finish with a few pictures from yesterday (at the steakhouse–Larry Allums is wearing a bib, one of two that I brought for him and Claudia MacMillan, from our faculty trip to Serbia last August), on the golf cart at the Fort Worth Botanical Gardens, where Claudia took us for a long and lovely walk, and in South Dallas last night). I am grateful for all of this. More thoughts and photos soon.

Photo credits:
Monday night event: Marshall Surratt;
Tuesday night event: James Edward (Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture);
Halloween photo: Marianna Fekete;
Terrell assembly photos: Jerrett Lyday;
Group photo outside Terrell Academy: Claudia MacMillan;
All other photos: Diana Senechal.

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

If Only

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Often in my English classes we work with counterfactual conditionals: “If I hadn’t overslept this morning, I wouldn’t have arrived late”; “If I knew that you would be waiting, I would have called you”; etc. The curious thing about all these statements is that we have no idea whether they are true. We think that if we had done such-and-such, things would have turned out differently, but we don’t know precisely how. All we know is what actually did happen, and (to a lesser extent) what choices went into it. So when I look back on the past sometimes, and think, for example, “If I had taken a class with Harold Bloom, if I had majored in English while also taking Russian literature classes….” my conclusions, though appealing, come down to speculation.

I tried positing this–the unreality and uncertainty of the things that didn’t happen–in a one-session workshop on the philosophy of time (which I taught at school last year on Katalin Day). I didn’t talk about my own experience but focused on the texts I had brought and on the discussion in the room. A few students protested vigorously that my argument denied free will. But it doesn’t; it merely posits that we have no way of knowing what would have happened if we had done this or that differently. This doesn’t make the choices unimportant or unreal. To the contrary: by choosing an action, we give it a reality that the other hypothetical possibilities can never attain, except in the mind. It is true that we can return to, and embrace, a rejected option later. But we are now doing it as a different person from before, with the accumulated experience.

Well, I take that back. There are certain physical certainties, or relative certainties. If I take a book out of the bookshelf in my apartment, it will stay out until I put it back in; if I do not take it out, it will stay there. I can say, with some confidence, “If I hadn’t taken that book out of the bookshelf, it would still be there.” But as soon as other people and complex situations are involved, the alternative possibilities and their outcomes become less definite.

Let’s take the example of majoring in English. I see now that my reasons for not doing so were foolish. I paid too much attention to the amateur advice-givers around me. People were saying that the English major was overcrowded and that you “couldn’t do anything” with a degree in English. I don’t know about the first assertion, but the second was false. English majors can become writers, editors, scholars, critics, and much more; if they decide to change fields–for instance, to go into law–their studies will serve them well. Moreover, they will carry many of the works they read, and memories of the lectures and discussions, for the rest of their lives.

Why do I sometimes wish I had majored in English? Part of the reason is that I wanted to do this, early on, but let myself be dissuaded. Part of it is that I had a difficult time choosing a major at all; I finally chose Russian, but this came after I entertained many other possibilities. And there lies the catch. There are many reasons why I had difficulty choosing a major: a multitude of interests, contradictory and confusing advice, too many opportunities to change my mind, and profound uncertainty about what I was doing. There is no guarantee that any of this would have abated if I had chosen a different major.

Moreover, I loved the study of Russian literature and excelled in it. The one problem was that I didn’t want to go to Russia to study for a semester or year. I wasn’t required to do this, but it would have helped my Russian greatly. I wanted to stay put–having traveled and moved a lot in childhood–and this placed a limit on my Russian. My Russian was considered proficient at the time, but it wasn’t fluent. I could express myself well in certain areas, write essays, and read Dostoevsky without a dictionary, but there were swathes of vocabulary and colloquial expressions that I didn’t know. My deficiencies were even more basic than that; I made mistakes with perfective and imperfective verb forms and was far from mastering the prefixes.

Over the long term, I learned and accomplished things I never would have predicted–but beyond that, this is the only life I know. All those things that might have happened, that might have turned out differently, stay part of the imagination. Like any human, I take them up in the mind, but I can be certain of none of them.

Back to my students’ objections: If there is only one way for things to turn out, what happens to free will? I question the question’s premise. There are many ways that things can turn out, but only one way that they actually do. But even that is only partly true. Do we ever know, with certainty, how things turned out? To a degree, we can state what happened. But the meaning of what happened is continually changing; our perspectives change, and we learn from others’ perspectives. So, in a sense, an event many turn out in many ways at once. We have more free will than we even know: we not only make choices in life, but later choose how to interpret what we and others did. In this interpretation, the things that did not happen play a large role. There is still a distinction between things that happened and things that did not, but both sides involve the imagination, and the choices are infinite. (I didn’t manage to say all of this in class; these thoughts, provoked by the students’ challenges, came later.)

I am very sorry that I never took a class with Harold Bloom (or even met him in person). That’s on my mind now, since he died last week. But in ways I didn’t realize, I was learning from him indirectly. My friends and professors (and later my colleagues) spoke of him often; I picked up and returned to his books, which I read in passages and parts. He was in my life in some way, and he remains.

I have a similar (though different) feeling about Toni Morrison, who died in August. I would have learned so much from being in the room while she was speaking. I thought the day would come, but it did not. Still I continue to learn from her.

I didn’t miss out, though, even in terms of English courses; I had the great joy of taking two classes from John Hollander, as an undergraduate and a grad student. I think that was how things were supposed to be, since I sought those classes out. There was nothing like them in all my years of school; I return to them often in my mind. I am so far from missing out in life that a regret seems frivolous. But regrets have a place, when not taken too far. They help us perceive things that did not come to pass and that never will. Without such imagination we would fall for a much more dangerous illusion: that we are always justified, right, and complete.

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.

The Immensity of Language

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While the Varga graduates of 2019 are off to their university orientations, we teachers are having orientations of our own: meeting new colleagues, participating in meetings, and getting ready for the school year, which starts on Monday. As I contemplate the coming year, take part in meetings in Hungarian where I really understand what is being said (not just in general, but in detail), and recover from a few recent language embarrassments and mishaps (where I misunderstood what was being said and responded accordingly), I think about the immensity of language.

You can study a language for a decade, study it well, study it with vigor and openness and play, and still not reach fluency in it. That’s what makes it worthwhile! Languages would be dull if they could be mastered in a year. Learning a language takes patience, not only with the language, but with others and the self. Especially the self. Supposedly young people learn languages faster than older people, but even for them, it is not easy.

After our year in Moscow (when I was fourteen), and even in college three years later, some people called me fluent in Russian. I was not fluent. I had good pronunciation. I could read Dostoevsky without a dictionary (and with only a few lapses in understanding). I could speak confidently (albeit with mistakes) on familiar topics. But put me in an unfamiliar situation, and I might not know what to say at all. This came clear in graduate school, when I had to take a proficiency test. I reached a level that qualified me to teach the language, but the last task stumped me completely. I was given a situation: “You come home to your apartment but find that your doorknob is broken. You have to go to the neighbor to ask for some tools to fix it.” I didn’t know the words for this–or rather, I knew them, but didn’t know to use them here. A basic situation that left me speechless!

Remembering this–and this was after I had majored in Russian in college–I can forgive my level of Hungarian right now. I am making lots of progress, but there is a huge amount to learn, and I still get stumped sometimes in basic situations.

The reason is this: A language is life, history, thought, and art. It is not simply a set of words and structures, although those are essential; many other things can affect your expression and understanding. First, the more you know of the context–the background information, the situation at hand–the better you will fare. Second, in the early stages there’s a good deal of luck. A single word you don’t know, or a grammatical construction that you don’t immediately grasp, can throw you off. It takes time to get beyond that uncertain stage. Even then, there are nuances that you might miss. Third, even when you border on fluency, you make mistakes. Mistakes are part of it all; they bring out not only the differences between languages, but language complexity in general.

Isn’t this part of the reason to learn a language in the first place? To go into that immensity–not only the grammar and vocabulary, not only the countless variations, but also the literature, songs, plays, and films? These would not exist if language were a simple, compact matter. If we made no mistakes, there would be no poetry either.

Given all of this, how does one go about improving? A language, being a combination, demands one too. I have to be immersed in the language–with no one translating for me, no one stopping me from listening, listening, listening. I attend literary events and take in as much as I can. I speak the language whenever I can, with colleagues, friends, and strangers, even making mistakes, because that is how I learn. I have wonderful “language exchanges” where we meet regularly and speak first entirely in English (for the other person’s practice) and then entirely in Hungarian (for mine). I also read every day, sometimes without looking anything up, sometimes slowly, with a dictionary. I write, too, and learn songs and poems.

Systematic study is also necessary. Recently I have started a vocabulary log, since vocabulary is my main obstacle right now. I watch and listen especially for words that I hear often but don’t know, or words that I really like for some reason. I look them up and write them down(or vice versa). That helps a lot. The grammar is in better shape; I understand how much of it works and am getting more adept at using it. Hungarian grammar is thrilling; once you start using the -hoz, -ként, and other cases with ease, you can say all sorts of things. And don’t get me started on the translative case, my favorite of them all!

If someone were to ask my advice on how to learn a language, I would say: do it all. Listen, speak, read, write, sing, learn vocabulary, study the rules, take in as much literature as possible, listen to songs. Do these last two for their own sake; they will bring the language with them. Beyond all of this, don’t be afraid of the difficulty, don’t be afraid of things you don’t yet understand. And above all, don’t be afraid of mistakes.