Attainment and Transition

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I have been thinking about attainment and transition in writing: how, when you complete a work–a poem, essay, book–and then later, when you publish it, you both reach a point and push beyond it. Sometimes the very act of publishing takes you to a new perspective; if you were to rewrite the work at this point, you might make some changes (or do something different entirely). The proportion of attainment to transition varies from situation to situation; some works are primarily attainments, others transitions or openings. Neither one is superior to the other; the work that reaches finality is not necessarily more perfect or more worthwhile than the one that opens up changes and new considerations. To the contrary: sometimes the more restless work has the greater liveliness.

Regarding this topic, I sense a cultural difference between the U.S. and Hungary. In the U.S. there is great emphasis on treating your published work as final and perfect; who ever goes back and revises a TED talk, for instance? For a work of nonfiction especially, you are supposed to isolate your “talking points” and say them again and again, in interview after interview. It is uncommon to hear someone say, “My thoughts on this subject have changed,” or “I have altered the wording since the book was published.” Yes, you fix mistakes, but you are otherwise expected to stick to your points. With poetry and fiction, the situation is similar: publishers do not typically want to consider works that have appeared before, even if the author has since revised them. (Part of this has to do with copyright law and economy: publishers compete for “first rights.”)

Here in Hungary I sense something different. My impressions are early and incomplete–I have a lot to learn and take in–but so far I see much less emphasis on finality and newness and much more on seeking, rethinking, and reworking. At least this is what I have found so far. Maybe I found it because I was alert to it. It is all too easy to generalize about a country or to mistake one’s early impressions for the whole. Still, the fragments themselves are promising.

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The poet, playwright, screenwriter, and prose author János Térey (whom I heard twice on Thursday) said in an interview in 2016, “Jó társaság átírni mindig verseinket. Úgy fogom fel, hogy ameddig élek, az utolsó kézvonás joga az enyém.” I would translate this approximately as follows: “It is good fellowship to rewrite our poems continually. As I understand it, as long as I live, the right to the last penstroke is mine.” “Kézvonás,” as I understand it, means a pulling of the hand (i.e., with a pen, over paper), so I translated it as “penstroke” (since “handstroke” has a different meaning); another possibility might be “move,” as in a chess move. I am not sure that I translated the first sentence correctly, but if I did, the meaning may be as follows: revision is fellowship (or company, or society) in itself, since it keeps you in dialogue with your work. It also allows for fellowship with others.

Large revisions are not always more important than small ones; sometimes an adjusted line, a single word change along with an altered word order, can recast an entire poem. Why should a person hold back from trying such changes, if they start growing in the mind?

Some might say that if you are allowed to revise a work as many times as you wish, you never have to take responsibility for your words. This would be true, I think, if, after revising, you erased every trace of the previous versions. But if the previous versions still stand, if they remain in published form, you are still responsible for them in some way, perhaps even more than if you did not change them at all. If you think it is wrong to revise published work, then in essence you relinquish it (“it’s done, it’s out there; what can I do but move on?”). But if you continue to revise your work even after publication, then you extend your responsibility; you not only live with your words but continue to work with them.

I consider Mind over Memes (to be released tomorrow) a better book, but also a more transitional one, than Republic of Noise. It brought me to a different place in my thinking and writing. If I were to revise Republic of Noise, I would make some changes but keep most of the text intact. If I were to rework Mind over Memes, it might become an entirely different book–either that, or it would lead to another one. That does not count against it; rather, it’s part of the book’s meaning. It was meant to open up into questions, and it did, for me at least. It remains to be seen what others think of it.

Probably many will see the actual book before I do; my copies have been held up in customs. I hope they arrive soon. Customs here can be tricky; I have yet to receive a scarf (my own scarf, not an ordered item) for which I completed and returned the customs form several weeks ago. The books may take even longer. The ones held up now are my own copies, but I ordered about thirty more copies for book events. I now more fully understand the meaning of “suspense”–not fully, that is, but more fully than before.

 

I took both pictures in Szolnok this past week. The second one reminds me of several lines from a poem; more about that, possibly, another time. Also, I added a paragraph and made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

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.

Secrets Behind the Trees

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The other day, just before reaching home, I saw a young man with his bike parked beside the river wall. He was seated on the wall, gazing out at the Zagyva. I wanted to take a picture but did not want to disturb his privacy, even without his knowledge. So I took a picture in which he could not really be seen. You can just see the bike and a hint of a blue jacket behind the tree. The picture represents part of my life here these days and the happiness I am finding. There is room for thinking.

The picture has another meaning too. As I start to understand more and more Hungarian, as I put together more sentences, read more, and carry more in my mind, I start to see secrets behind the trees, things I would not recognize if I did not know that they had to be precisely there. (This last part, after the colon, is a paraphrased quotation from a poem—a somewhat different version from the one behind the link.) I have discovered that one of my colleagues is a poet and another an essayist and critic; their work inspires me to read and understand. They also run a literary journal, Eső (Rain); the Fall 2018 issue comes out tomorrow. Much more reading lies ahead!

In addition, I find that language sometimes works like constellations in the mind: you have seen the individual stars, but when you recognize the form between them, that is when you know them by heart. When learning how to say certain things, I find that I had some of the knowledge before: maybe the grammar, or maybe the words–but when I put them together, I understand both grammar and words in a new way. Last Monday, I tutored two women in English; after an hour, as we had agreed beforehand, we switched to Hungarian so that I could practice too. I learned how to say things that I had almost known how to say; when they clicked, right there in the sound of conversation, I knew I would remember them.

There is much more to say about this, but I am running late and must therefore run.

“God keep me from ever completing anything”

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

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

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

“So the famous singer sang his tale”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

I took the photo outside the Dallas Institute yesterday.

The Positivity Pushers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Myth as a Form of Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the “Next Big Idea Club” Is a Bad Idea

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I recently learned that Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, Daniel Pink, and Adam Grant have started a book club called the “Next Big Idea Club,” whose goal is to draw attention to new books that are “Groundbreaking, Science-Based, and Life-Changing (Actionable).” The book selections come with “video e-courses” that “highlight key concepts” (in case readers can’t figure them out for themselves), written course materials, exclusive author interviews, and an invite-only Facebook group.

In other words, the club leaders emphasize books that appear to have not only scientific basis, but clear takeaways–immediate applications to life–and then take the additional step of distilling those takeaways for the readers, thus affirming that the books should be put into action right away rather than thought upon, questioned, disputed.

And there lies about a third of the problem. I have no issue with the idea of a book club, no matter who leads it, when it involves selecting books that one loves (or finds especially interesting) and bringing them to the club members. But books deserve time and rumination; instead of being translated immediately into “actionable” takeaways, they should take up residence in the mind for a while. It is the dialogue (an approximate term) between author and reader that makes for memorable reading. The books that influence me the most have nothing immediately “actionable” about them; rather, they get me to think, they provoke me to return to the pages.

So that’s the first problem: the emphasis on the “actionable.” The second lies in the so-called scientific basis. Some of these books may well have strong scientific grounding. But science involves dogged and keen questioning–so the most scientific books will likely have the most uncertainties. With some exceptions, they will be the ones least conducive to takeaways. For a book to be both scientific and actionable at once, the scientific aspect may have to undergo simplification. The book club leaders, apparently, hasten the process of simplification by handing summaries and key points to the readers. This not only reduces the science itself but discourages scientific thinking.

The third problem lies in the priority given to “groundbreaking” books. We often don’t know right away whether a new book is groundbreaking; it takes time to put it in proper context and observe its influence and effects. Sometimes a seemingly new idea has many unknown antecedents; sometimes a seemingly grand solution fails to pan out. Rather than look for “groundbreaking” books, I would seek books that demonstrate intellect, probing, and wit: books that allow the reader to reconsider previous assumptions without latching on to false certainties.

The book club itself is nothing new; Gladwell appears to have been running it in some form for years. Kathryn Schulz wrote of his “Big Idea Club” in 2011 (in New York Magazine):

Big Idea books have been around for a long time; see The Communist Manifesto. But the Big Idea Book Club … is a recent phenomenon. Its accidental founder and president in apparent perpetuity is Malcolm Gladwell. Its membership, like the membership of most powerful groups, is largely male. Its combined sales are stratospheric; whatever these books are hawking, we can’t stop buying it.

And then, toward the end of the article:

There is no rule, process, peer group, leader, or best seller that can absolve us of the responsibility of thinking our way through life on our own two feet. What irks me most about this infinite parade of gigundo solutions isn’t their glibness or even the borderline theology (of some) and borderline Babbitry (of others) involved in promising audiences easy, happy, profitable ideas. Nope. What irks me is that when you rigidly apply grand theories to everybody, sooner or later everybody feels like nobody, whether you’re in Communist Belgrade or the local DMV. There is a reason we call such systems soul-crushing: They ignore or annihilate individual difference and inner life.

There you have it. Some ideas are big by nature, some medium-sized, some small. It would be folly to avoid an idea on account of its size. But it is dangerous to pursue or herald an idea because it is big. The bigness should give some pause. Do we really have room in this idea? Does it hold enough truth? Or has it been swept in, like so many others, only to drift out again later?

Some of the club’s selections may well be worth reading. Of the twenty that Adam Grant listed for 2018, I would be most likely to read Melissa Dahl’s Cringeworthy. I probably would not get to it until 2020 or later; I have many books waiting and generally like to read slowly. In any case, if I do read this book, it will be to consider the ideas and stories, not to apply them directly to my life. In books, it is the indirect applications–the use of words, the gestures of wisdom–that influence my life the most. The big idea? I take it in stride.

I have criticized the American emphasis on the Big Idea many times, in many places. (See, for instance, “The Folly of the Big Idea: How a Liberal Arts Education Puts Fads in Perspective,” American Educator, Winter 2012-2013). But I now come upon a new point: no matter what the size of an idea, I expect to be able to consider it in my own terms, on my own time–and not to accept someone else’s summaries or rush it into action.

Well, then, don’t join the club! someone might retort. No one is making you join. True, true, but that’s a moot point; I don’t join book clubs in general. Through my teaching, I have many opportunities to read with others; outside of work and projects, my time for reading is so scarce that I like to choose books on my own, often old books that I have read years ago or that I have been wanting to read for years. No, my own non-membership is not the point here. Rather, I argue and long for a different kind of reading: a kind that allows for liberty of thought, judges an idea by its merits, delights in verbal courage, and suspends summary and action.

I took the photo in Szeged in May.

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

Is There a Human Project?

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It is the season of cherries and ice cream, of ducklings and Scarce Copper butterflies (I think that’s the type in the picture above), of wrapping up the school year and saying goodbye for the summer. Also, the book is almost in press; the last corrections have been made, and I must now think about the release in the fall. While doing this, I find myself questioning certain phrases in the book. At one point I mention the human project. Is there a human project? Or is this yet another phrase that has lost meaning over time?

It exists but abounds with contradictions, oppositions, anomalies, impossibilities. Drawing partially on George Kateb’s Human Dignity, I would define the human project, in part, as our ongoing assumption (and abdication) of responsibility as stewards of nature, including our own. Humans alone have the capacity to act as stewards–or not. Acting as steward involves recognizing what one has done, or can do, to help or harm oneself and others–and who these others are, and why it matters. In this recognition, humans have advanced somewhat, in some ways, over time. Certain things that we recognize as wrong, such as slavery, were accepted not long ago.

Last week I introduced my eleventh-grade students to the song “Amazing Grace,” which a few already knew. I thought it was important for American civilization, especially since we were now touching on religion. I did not know the origins of the song (having missed the Broadway musical and the movie and forgotten a good bit of history); when I read about it, I heard it in a new way.

It was composed by the English Anglican minister John Newton (1725-1807), who, prior to his Christian conversion, had been forced into the slave trade. He had rebelled so often aboard the ships–not on behalf of the slaves, but on his own behalf–that he had undergone lashings, demotions, and finally slavery, when the crew left him in West Africa with a slave dealer. He was finally rescued and brought back to England; during the voyage, he had a spiritual conversion. Slowly, over time, this conversion brought him to abhor the slave trade. This did not happen linearly; he returned to the slave trade, fell ill, and underwent a new conversion. He continued in the trade a few more years, and then in 1754 renounced it completely.

His tract Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, written in 1788, thirty-four years after he abandoned the business, repudiates the enslavement and trafficking of humans. It begins:

The nature and effects of that unhappy and disgraceful branch of commerce, which has long been maintained on the Coast of Africa, with the sole, and professed design of purchasing our fellow-creatures, in order to supply our West-India islands and the American colonies, when they were ours, with Slaves; is now generally understood. So much light has been thrown upon the subject, by many able pens; and so many respectable persons have already engaged to use their utmost influence, for the suppression of a traffic, which contradicts the feelings of humanity; that it is hoped, this stain of our National character will soon be wiped out.

If I attempt, after what has been done, to throw my mite into the public stock of information, it is less from an apprehension that my interference is necessary, than from a conviction that silence, at such a time, and on such an occasion, would, in me, be criminal. If my testimony should not be necessary, or serviceable, yet, perhaps, I am bound, in conscience, to take shame to myself by a public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent, or repair, the misery and mischief to which I have, formerly, been accessary.

I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was, once, an active instrument, in a business at which my heart now shudders.

Hearing those undertones in “Amazing Grace” (although the hymn preceded the tract by two decades or so), I understand the song not as a paean to the born-again experience but as the author’s recognition of profound error. To see that one has been terribly wrong and to change one’s life accordingly: this allows for something of a human project. For by writing what he saw and learned, Newton allowed others to see it too.

I don’t want to be glib about this. Looking at the picture below, I would say that ducks do a bit better with their projects than humans; they lead their little ones, which grow up to have little ones of their own. But ducks also kill ducklings that they do not recognize–and suffer no qualms of conscience, as far as I know. It is not that we humans do so well with our conscience–we continue to do things that we repudiate or simply fail to question–but our conscience also matures, not only through experience in the world, but through encounters with books, speeches, music, plays. In listening to something, we come to take ourselves in measure. Or at least we may. To the extent that we do, we participate in a human project.

I ask myself why I didn’t notice the Broadway musical Amazing Grace, which would have taught me something, even fleetingly, about John Newton. I think I unthinkingly ignored it because of the title. I had heard the song sung mockingly so many times that I had absorbed the mockery. That reminds me to be less sure of my mockeries, especially borrowed ones. Mockery has a place in writing–there would be little satire without it–but it must be informed. In this case mine, though never overt, was also ignorant until now.

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

“Lights, lights, lights”

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The Shakespeare event took place yesterday: beautiful performances, a full house, a feeling of excitement and pride. I am still gathering my thoughts–and hope to gather some more photos and videos, since I was too focused on the performance to take very many, and most of the ones I did take were from the back of the room.

Just minutes before the performance, we faced a big technical problem: whoever had shut down the Technika Háza earlier in the day had also shut off all the lights. To turn the lights on, you need not only access to a special room but knowledge of its location. This, apparently, is a carefully guarded secret. At last one student–the one who had helped me ask the drama teacher for additional props–managed not only to get on the phone with someone who had the information, but to persuade this person to disclose the information to him. Ten minutes before our show, we had lights, and everything went gloriously from there. Fittingly, the last words of the performance were “Lights, lights, lights” (from Hamlet).

Congratulations and thanks to everyone–including the audience–who made this a gracious and moving occasion. I will say more later.

Speaking of events, this Sunday in New York City there will be a CONTRARIWISE celebration at Book Culture! If there were any way for me to attend, I would, but given that I teach on Monday, it’s too far away. It will be in my thoughts, and I will take part of that day to write and post a little review of the fifth issue.

Update: I added a video and two photos to this piece after posting it.