There’s No Such Thing as a “Thinker”


People who call others “thinkers” may not mean it as a compliment; the term can suggest someone too intellectual and removed, too intense, no fun. Worse still if this “thinker” is a woman. Doubleplusunfun.

But come now, who isn’t a thinker? Everyone thinks, even those who live by the mantra “don’t think.” Most of us think in handfuls of ways; no one’s thought is just this or that, just analytical, just relational, just artistic, just mechanical, just oino-tragical, just pastoral-litotic. When you tell others what kind of thinkers they are, it’s as though you wanted to repair your stone wall, to secure your territory in the neighborhood. You, esteemed neighbor, have a theoretical mind. I am practical. (Or vice versa.) Stay away from me, you and your thinking, and I, now intact again, will thrive.

There is nothing scarier than recognizing that the egghead or electrician across the street may think like you at times–and even harbor a sense of humor. Your mental egg shudders at the idea (yes, idea!). Eggheads are supposed to be just eggheads; electricians, just electricians. If they dare be more than that, then who are you?

We know our own minds from the inside, and other people’s from the outside; that in itself breeds judgments. D. H. Lawrence is having none of it; his “Pomegranates” begins:

You tell me I am wrong.
Who are you, who is anybody to tell me I am wrong?
I am not wrong.

There is more than one way to read “You tell me I am wrong.” It could mean, “You tell me I am mistaken in my thoughts, statements, or actions.” Or else it could mean, “You tell me I myself am awry.” In the latter case, “I am not wrong” is much more than defense; it’s the basic assertion of the soul.

Here’s the etymology of “wrong” (courtesy of the beloved Online Etymology Dictionary, which I visit almost daily):

late Old English, “twisted, crooked, wry,” from Old Norse rangr, earlier *vrangr “crooked, wry, wrong,” from Proto-Germanic *wrang- (source also of Danish vrang “crooked, wrong,” Middle Dutch wranc, Dutch wrang “sour, bitter,” literally “that which distorts the mouth”), from *wrengh-, nasalized variant of *wergh- “to turn,” from PIE root *wer- (2) “to turn, bend.”

“I am not wrong”–that is, “my being is not bent”–this declaration opens up, over the course of the poem, into a rebuke and revelation. The speaker takes the reader to task:

Do you mean to tell me you will see no fissure?
Do you prefer to look on the plain side?”

The poem holds a paradox: on the one hand, the speaker is “not wrong”; on the other, he is broken. Yet the two ends come together; he alone dares to look at the fissure, in geography, in himself, in the “glittering, compact drops of dawn.”

So it is with “thinkers.” The people who call us this or that have no idea what they’re talking about. Yet self-knowledge must hold knowledge of the flaw.

In that light, and in a different mood from “Pomegranates,” a piece by Louis Phillips caught my eye and tickled my mind yesterday. “How to Recognize an Intellectual” plays with the reader from the outset:

PERSONS are frequently kept awake at night by questions they cannot answer. Can I pay the rent this month is one such question. Or, just where is Nicaragua? But one question that probably bothers men and women more than any other is: Am I an intellectual?

I won’t give the rest away–but through deft silliness he takes “thinkers” to task, from the inside, while poking fun at those who poke fun at them.

So, the next time I am called a “thinker,” I will reply, “And a good thing, too; if I weren’t one, could I possibly tie my shoes, choose a good tomato, or turn this assertion of yours into a question?”


I took the photo in Szolnok yesterday. More recently, I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

Revision and Spring


I have wanted to say more about spring; I have been meaning to say something about revision. So why not do both at once? They have something to do with each other.

Revision is more than correction, rearrangement, and rewriting; it involves seeing your work in a new way. You understand what you want to keep and bring out and what you want to drop; you hear the rhythm, tone, and stumblings.

It is part of my daily life: I make final edits to the book,  return to old blog posts, and find the right word in a poem. Sometimes, long after I have written something, my mind replays a passage, as if to nag me, and I see the problem in it: a straightforward error, a missing logical step, a wrong word, or a redundancy. I go back, fix it, and move along in my puzzling. I never liked jigsaw puzzles much, but this kind of puzzling suits me well.

Spring, like revision, takes up and tosses your thinking. In this case it’s not the spring but your mind that you refigure. You come back to your pictures of sky, trees, and river.


I took both photos in Szolnok last week.

Literary Journals and the Folly of the “Good Fit”


One of the essays in my forthcoming book pummels the notion of a “good fit.” We hear about the “good fit” everywhere–in colleges, workplaces, and everyday life–and are pressed, day by day, to seek it out. Employers routinely assess candidates for “fit” (either informally or through personality tests) and consider or reject them accordingly. College applicants can take a number of quizzes designed to help them find their “perfect fit.”

Taken in moderation, the idea of a “good fit” makes some sense; few of us want to put ourselves in settings where we would be miserable. But the quest for a “good fit” has turned feverish; people seek it out as though it were their obligation and right. In all this fervor, the benefits of a slight mismatch get forgotten.

I won’t repeat the points I make in the essay–but will instead consider the “good fit” from an angle that occurred to me just now: the literary journal (and publication more generally).

Literary journals’ submission guidelines routinely advise writers to familiarize themselves with the journal in advance, so that they can determine whether their work is appropriate for it. Often the editors simply mean that writers should not waste their time submitting junk. For instance, a poem like the following (which I made up just now) should not be sent to the Paris Review, Missouri Review, Shenandoah, or other high-caliber journal:

After eating a bowl of cherries,
I found myself getting wary.
What will happen to all those pits?
Into the dustbin–and that’s it?
Or will I plant them in the ground
to bear more cherries sweet and sound?
As with the pits, so with my life:
Let me compost my juicy strife.

Besides being trite, the poem has bad rhyming, rhythm, and diction; even in its quaintness it doesn’t work.

Besides trying to weed out bad work, the editors also seek writing that they particularly like or that suits the journal’s nature. Here we come to the messy subject of the “good fit.” On the one hand, it would be silly to submit a research article to a journal that publishes only fiction except for the occasional nonfictional narrative. If a journal specializes in heartwarming stories about animals, it probably will not consider a drama in verse about construction workers. A new translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon will probably not get published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Those extreme considerations aside, I hope that writers and editors alike will consider the slight misfit: the “purple thread” (an Epictetus reference) that, by not belonging, makes the journal memorable and beautiful.  Yes, journals reflect not only editorial tastes, but editorial tradition; yes, a journal is more than an assemblage of unrelated pieces. Something–whether quality, topic,  tone, style, whim, or a combination of these–holds the pieces together. Even so, the whole point of writing for an audience is to offer something new. A perfect fit would not be worth reading.

Blatant novelty isn’t the point. A piece that’s entirely new misses something; it’s an impossibility anyway. There’s a sense of ancientness in some of the most daring works. Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” would be nothing without the cathedrals of “those olden days”–yet it takes those cathedrals to a startling place.

Originality turns into matter; you feel it physically. As you’re reading, something catches your mind and emotions; once you’ve finished, this thing chases you around–or maybe goes away and then returns years later.

So with all the pressure to find a “good fit” in publication–and all the anxiety over getting published in the first place–I hope that writers and editors will dare their misfits onto us.


I took the photo here in Szolnok last week. By the way, here’s my first “Hunglish” joke: What do you call someone who eats her last piece of cheese, then bikes around the corner and disappears from view? Answer: Out of sajt. (The “s” is pronounced “sh,” and the “aj” more like “oy” than like “igh,” so it doesn’t quite work–but I think it would get a few good groans on the right occasion.)

“The moon and stars to rule by night….”

I was thrilled and moved by Rabbi David Wolpe’s piece “Passover in a Land of Jewish Ghosts.” As I read along, I first began thinking, “Yes, but….” But then came the turning point, and he took that very “Yes, but….” and did something beautiful with it. I won’t give it away–but here’s a passage I love, not just for itself, but for its relation to the opposite: “Throughout Jewish history the ‘ner tamid,’ the eternal light, has gone out. But it has also been relit. All those empty synagogues wait; all those unopened books and unsung words retain their meaning. We are rekindling people.”

I started thinking of Psalm 136, which I will be leading at tonight’s Seder at Szim Salom. The long phrase in verse 9, “Et hayareach vechochavim lememshelot balayla” (“the moon and stars to rule by night”), is usually difficult to fit into a given melody and rhythm. The other verses work just fine; this one stands out. I remember that the chazzan and rabbis at BJ would handle this in one of several ways: they would draw out both the phrase and melody in length, break the phrase in two parts (each one to be sung to the melodic phrase), or pronounce the syllables especially fast. In any case, when we sang it responsively, they would usually take the lead with this verse, since it could get chaotic if several hundred people tried to sing it without guidance.

How great it is that this particular verse makes us pause, slow down, or stumble–that we must pay attention to the multitude of lights at night. I think of this in the Pesach spirit: how, even in those long voyages out of Egypt, there are lights upon lights, especially in the dark. It isn’t just that there’s hope in darkness; it’s that these multitudes upon multitudes of lights, near and impossibly distant, not only show the way, but tip a person into wonder. Even in a grim age, the lights not only shine but rule.


Painting: Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888).

“Call me what instrument you will….”

When my students were reading and acting out Hamlet III.ii, I interrupted them so that we could look again at this dialogue. The Players have just passed through, playing recorders (that is, woodwind instruments); Hamlet asks for one and resumes his conversation with Guildenstern:

I do not well understand that. Will you play upon this pipe?

My lord, I cannot.

I pray you.

Believe me, I cannot.

I do beseech you.

I know no touch of it, my lord.

‘Tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.

But these cannot I command to any utterance of harmony; I have not the skill.

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call  me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.

This is one of the hundreds of reasons why people should read Hamlet. His trick reveals truth; by seeming to change the subject, by fooling Guildenstern into admitting that he cannot play the recorder, he shows the vanity of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s ploys. (The two have colluded with King Claudius and Queen Gertrude in observing Hamlet’s every move; after each conversation with Hamlet,  they report back to the King and Queen. Hamlet has figured this out.)

But Hamlet’s words go far beyond the immediate place and time. How many people pretend to know what lies inside others–where their stops are, how to sound them; how much of today’s technology is aimed at that very end! Everywhere we go–whether on Facebook or on hard ground–someone sums us up, puts us in a category, predicts what we will do next. Even though the attention isn’t as fixedly on most of us as it is on Hamlet here, we receive “mass personalized” scrutiny, which, while effective at predicting purchasing patterns, voting tendencies (and other such things), fails, fortunately, to determine who we are.

It is not just through social media and marketing that this occurs. There’s a fad of sorting out “good” and “bad” people and sweeping away all vestiges of the “bad.” I see this in certain aspects of the #MeToo movement (for example, many publishers are now halting publication, and sellers distribution, of books by authors who allegedly harassed women, as though the claims of harassment invalidated the authors and their works). I see it in the careless use of the words “fascist” and “monster” to describe people with whom one disagrees. (Yet the modern analogy is flawed, for reasons I will discuss shortly.)

In outwitting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet shows them that they cannot diminish him. “Why, look you now,” he says, “how unworthy a thing you make of me!” To treat a person as playable and knowable is to deny that person’s dignity; even a little instrument cannot just be played at will, and Hamlet much less so.

Hamlet has mastered the very game he derides; he plays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern just as they cannot play him. He calls playing the recorder “as easy as lying” and explains: “govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.” This is indeed what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been trying clumsily to do: to govern (or rather, cover) certain ventages (their true purposes) and play out their deceit. Hamlet does not cover his stops; rather, it seems, he governs them, showing truth when and how he wishes. (There is ongoing controversy over Hamlet’s sanity and self-control; I see him as brilliantly in control here, though not everywhere.)

So there is a problem with Hamlet: he continually resists others diminution, yet in mocking them he diminishes them himself. Many readers, including me, enjoy the way he makes fun of Polonius, whom he has written off as a doddering fool. I wonder whether Hamlet has tricked me too; yes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem false as can be, but might there not be slightly more to Polonius, for instance, than Hamlet would allow? He has nothing close to Hamlet’s wit, but are humans measured by their wit?

It’s a misreading of Hamlet, then, to treat it as a discourse on human dignity. There is something else at stake here, a grappling with truth and doubt. Hamlet has seen his father’s ghost, has heard directly from him about the “foul and unnatural murder,” yet even he worries that his imaginations may have been “as foul / As Vulcan’s stithy.” If the ghost’s revelations are true, then Hamlet must avenge his father’s death; if they are not, he must somehow put this thought aside. To find the truth, he has the Players play a play; “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

The “play” here is not just the actors’ performance, but a series of plays upon plays; he sees the others playing with him, and he outplays them at their games. The one with the truest view–Hamlet–will win, but he can win only by losing.

Literature (at its best) cannot be translated into messages about life, but it can open up language and thought. Hamlet does not say that it’s wrong to diminish others.  But through its poetry it gives us a troubled, unsummable, brilliant soul.


I took the two photos this week.


Springtime in the Mind

When you’re surrounded with a language that you’re learning, there comes a “springtime” when it starts opening up all over the place–where everything around you starts to make sense in greenings and unfurlings. So  yesterday, at the store, when the grocer asked me “még valamit?” I didn’t just figure out his meaning from context, as I have done so many times; I understood the words themselves. (“Anything else?–or, more literally, “More something?”) This is happening not just once in a while, but all over the place, throughout the day; while I still understand less than half of what I hear (maybe a fifth to a fourth), the amount increases by the minute.

Spring is here in more ways than one. Over the past two days I have seen kids kayaking on the Zagyva (alongside a coach in a quiet motorboat).

Also, spring can lead to springs. One challenge in a new country is figuring out where to get specific things you need, such as nails, which I needed to mount my Chas. Fischer Spring Co. hat rack on the wall. But in springtime, you find yourself ambling around instead of just heading straight home; and so, biking this way and that, I found a little gardening store with hardware supplies. Delighted, I bought some nails. Here is the hat rack (with one of the springs showing).


And Pesach is just two days away… I will get to celebrate it at Szim Salom in Budapest–such a happy and profound holiday, and such a great way to celebrate it here.

Speaking of the near future, the forthcoming issue of CONTRARIWISE will come forth in four weeks or so; according to inklings and industry rumors, it will be gorgeous. More about it when it appears.

But back to springtime in the mind–there are times when one finds oneself in intense mental activity, thinking about all kinds of things, working on big and small projects, and listening to music, literature, and everyday speech.  This is usually true for me, but lately especially so. I like this way of life, especially when I can also take off on the bike. But the mind needs its other seasons too; each one brings something that the others cannot.

I thought the phrase “the mind has its seasons” might be a cliché; but then I couldn’t remember hearing it before. Looking it up, I found few occurrences: one in an interesting passage in Sarah Ellis’s Temper and Temperament (1846). I won’t quote it here; the quote would need to be too long.

But why would such an expression not be a cliché? People think in terms of moods, it seems, but not mental seasons; there’s little acceptance of the idea that the mind might need something other than constant, untrammeled growth and productivity. The thoughts grow even when they do not–but growth is not the only good of life. If all we could do was grow, we would become impossible monsters–where even our little toe would crush our best-laid plans. No, the mind needs not only growth; it needs “that other fall we name the fall.” It needs, moreover, something beyond its needs.


The Book Has a Title!


My book goes into production today and should appear in October 2018! Its title is Verbal Resistance: Waking Our Language from Everyday Clichés. The subtitle alludes to a passage in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty: “Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post, as soon as there is no enemy in the field.” For Mill, the “enemy”–the critic–keeps language and ideas alive.

Verbal Resistance takes up common words and phrases in need of scrutiny–“takeaway,” “passive listening,” “team,” “creativity,” and seven more–and regards them from different angles. It argues that democratic discourse and intellectual life depend on the questioning of language.

I took the photo of the blackbird above.

Thoughts on Sacrifice

Often, when I think about a topic, it grows so vast in my mind that a blog post seems futile. How do you say something about sacrifice in a few words? The meaning of sacrifice has changed over millennia; Hebrew has various words for it, none of which translates easily into a modern language. Psalm 51 seems profoundly modern in its reflection on sacrifice–but if you read it carefully, from start to finish, you find that it does not say what it seems at first to say.

יז  אֲדֹנָי, שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח;    וּפִי, יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ. 17 O Lord, open Thou my lips; and my mouth shall declare Thy praise.
יח  כִּי, לֹא-תַחְפֹּץ זֶבַח וְאֶתֵּנָה;    עוֹלָה, לֹא תִרְצֶה. 18 For Thou delightest not in sacrifice, else would I give it; Thou hast no pleasure in burnt-offering.
יט  זִבְחֵי אֱלֹהִים,    רוּחַ נִשְׁבָּרָה:
לֵב-נִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּה–    אֱלֹהִים, לֹא תִבְזֶה.
19 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.

It seems, on hasty reading, that the psalmist sees no more meaning in burnt-offering–and believes God sees no meaning in them–but instead has turned to offerings of the spirit. But at the end of the psalm, he expresses longing for restoration of the temple offerings.

What is this offering of broken spirit, then? In some way it is provisional; it is what the psalmist has. The offering does not consist in victimhood; according to Stephen Geller, whose wonderful course on the Psalms I took two years ago, this “broken spirit” has to do with intense introspection, with seeing the divide between what God wants and who one is at the moment. The “broken spirit” comes out of seeing.

Jumping now into rash generalization, I find that sacrifice overall has to do with seeing. Or rather, seeing is essential to it. I had grown up thinking of sacrifice as some kind of painful generosity or relinquishment; if you gave more than was comfortable, you were truly sacrificing. Now I see it differently. Sacrifice entails giving what is right; to know what is right, you must listen and perceive. Sacrifice–whether religious or secular–is not necessarily extravagant or painful; it comes with a sense of timing, proportion, and devotion. By giving the right thing in the right way, you make the giving sacred.

But how do you learn to give the right thing in the right way? Through rituals of sacrifice, you learn form; you learn the  importance of the details, the care that goes into the act. Beyond that, you learn through experience. Rash gifts sometimes crumble on delivery; well-considered gifts build and strengthen. But the lesson is not that we should always act in accordance with established custom. Sometimes the eccentricity is the sacrifice. Sometimes even the mistake holds a gift in it.

To give what you have, to give heedfully, both with and without reserve, on repeating occasions and in singular moments–does anyone get it completely right? I doubt it. But no one knows in full what another person brings: what thoughts, questions, and struggles accompany an act of giving or holding back. The outside action is essential, responsible, and judgeable, but only part of the sacrifice. The inside may be like D. H. Lawrence’s pomegranate, “dawn-kaleidoscopic within the crack.”

Psalm 51 quotation courtesy of Mechon Mamre. The English translation is from the JPS (1917 edition).

I took the photo here in Szolnok last week.

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


“And wet snow, and music, and nothing ever”

Poetry has been filling the week. This morning I recorded and submitted an entry–“Six Poems About Endings”–for The Missouri Review’s Miller Audio Prize. Today is the commemoration of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, so we have no school. (Boldog forradalom napot!) It also seems to be Home Repair Day; I heard sawing and hammering for a good two hours in the morning. After that, I was able to record and re-record for an hour or so. Then a neighbor’s stereo started to thump.

Speaking of interludes, my ninth-grade students finished A Midsummer Night’s Dream this week. Here is the Wall performing her monologue (“In this same interlude it doth befall / That I, one Snout by name, present a wall; / And such a wall, as I would have you think,  / That had in it a crannied hole or chink ….”).

midsummer final scene

The previous evening, at our school’s biennial gala performance of music, poetry, theater, and dance, a student from this same class recited János Arany’s poem “Él-e még az Isten?” which I hope to learn over time. There were many beautiful  performances that evening: Hungarian folk dancing and folk songs, classical guitar, rock bands, an brass band, improv comedy, and more.

Late this afternoon I watched a delightful twenty-minute film of Tomas Venclova reciting six of his poems and speaking in English about his work. As he recites his poems in Lithuanian, the screen shows English translations–two by me and four by Ellen Hinsey.

One of the poems ends, in English translation, “And wet snow, and music, and nothing ever.” (Hence the title of this post.)

What holds this all together is the blackbird at the top, not quite at the center, but not far from it either. I took the photo this afternoon when searching for a celebration that had ended two hours earlier. After some walking around–not in wet snow, but in wetter rain–with an enthusiastic neighbor, I came home to the quiet, which now was complete except for stray voices and footsteps.

Quiet doesn’t require completion; it thrives on slight imperfection. It isn’t total absence of sound that makes quiet; rather, it’s a wrapping into rest.

“This majestical roof fretted with golden fire”

Teaching Hamlet to my tenth-grade students this morning, I spent some time on this passage (in Act 2, Scene 2), which appears differently in the various versions and editions:

My lord, we were sent for.

I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and queene: moult no feather. I have of late — but wherefore I know not — lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire — why, it appeareth no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

Hamlet puts on something of a show here, pretending to disclose his state of mind; even his irony has ironies. Using familiar expressions, ideas, clichés, he turns them over (and his visitors along with them), revealing their underside. Yet one of these phrases, “this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire,” sounds true. He sees the world in more than one way; far from dismissing it all, far from regarding the world as fakery and deceit, he holds both fire and dust. His thick mockery mixes with admiration, not of everyone, but of a few. He can distinguish true friends from false, and he keeps some things to himself, even when speaking them out loud.

Spring is coming, I had my first dream in Hungarian last night (incorrect Hungarian, but Hungarian all the same), and made my first joke in Hungarian today when wishing my students a “boldog szombat munkanapot,” a “joyous working Saturday.” Tomorrow is one of six “working Saturdays” in Hungary this year; in exchange for certain days off that combine with holidays and form long weekends, we are required to work (and attend school) on these specific dates. I was excused from coming in tomorrow, since I am leading services at my shul in Budapest (and am on the train now). I am not thrilled about the “szombat munkanapok” in general, but people have been generous and helpful, and I am grateful for being exempted this time. I won’t be able to take many of these days off–that wouldn’t be fair to my colleagues or students–but with advance notice, I can work out a plan. There’s just one more this spring; the rest come in the fall.

I took the photo from my window early this morning.