Three Sentences

IMG_4513I will get to the three sentences in a minute. Today, around noon, I went biking along the Tisza; all the photos and the video in this piece are from the ride. There’s a long promenade that runs along the river all across town and beyond; I started exploring the path beyond but turned around when I saw an animal that looked from a short distance like a wolf. He stopped and stared; at one point he seemed ready to charge in my direction, but then, when I started to turn around, he slunk away. I figured I wouldn’t push the matter.

People were out biking, running, and thoughtfully walking; it was like Riverside Park, but with about one-hundredth of the crowd. There were solitary walkers, couples, and families; people with dogs, people fishing, and ducks paddling along with the current, which seemed to sweep them along.

Exactly at noon, when the church bells were ringing, I happened to be biking over the Tisza, on the Tiszavirág híd (the Mayfly Bridge). I decided to make a short video. You can see the old synagogue (now a gallery) ahead; you can hear the bells and the clattering of bike on planks. The biking seems a little wobbly because I was holding the phone up at the same time. Because of the angle, it also seems that I’m about to run into the people walking my way, but this was not so.

When I came to the Zagyva, I saw someone fishing right there, at the corner where the two rivers meet. If you look closely (and zoom in), you can see him too.

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But that’s not what this piece is about. I brought in this long preface so that I could include and explain the photos. Here are a few more, all taken on this ride.

So, on Friday, right after school, I went to Budapest for Shabbat; I stayed until Saturday late afternoon. I had prepared to leyn (chant) Torah on Saturday morning; in addition, the rabbi had asked me to give a little D’var Torah (teaching) on the relationship between the trope and the meaning of this Shabbat’s text. For the sake of simplicity and time, I limited myself to just a few remarks, which I did not write down. In addition, I decided at the last minute to say the first sentences of my D’var in Hungarian, so I prepared and memorized them.

I do not want to describe the service—that is not for the blog—but I’ll give those three sentences, since they mark an important moment in my life here. This was not only my first D’var Torah ever (except for a few short remarks at Morning Minyan in NYC), but my first time trying to say something in Hungarian beyond greetings and basic questions.

A Biblia legtöbb versje két részre osztható. (Most of the verses in the Bible can be divided into two parts.)

I saw people nodding; my Hungarian was intelligible! This is nothing to take for granted; if I had gotten one of the vowels or consonants wrong, the whole meaning might have been lost. I continued:

A trop “etnachta” osztja őket. Ez a két rész gyakran tükrözi egymást. (The etnachta trope divides them. These two parts often reflect each other.)*

From there I went on to discuss, in English and Hebrew, the word “anochi” (“I”) in Genesis 25:22 and 25:30: its  prominence in the etnachta position, and the contrast between the two occurrences (one is spoken by Rebecca, the other by Esau, with different tone and implications, and different conclusions of the verses). People jumped in; it turned into a stimulating discussion in three languages, with translations going every which way.

Now, I am not sure that my Hungarian was completely correct; in particular, I suspect that my use of the word tükrözi (“mirror,” “reflect”) was somewhat off. But the meanings came through as we talked.

I am nowhere near being able to form such sentences spontaneously—but this was a true beginning. Things will build from here.

*P.S. In retrospect, I see that I should have said, “The trope etnachta signals their division” (possibly A tropus “etnachta” jelzi megosztottságukat), not “The trope etnachta divides them”; such precision comes with language and time. (Also, it seems that the word for “trope” is tropus—but trop may be clearer in this context.)

 

Books and Leaves

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My book—the one I have been writing over the past fifteen months—has been accepted for publication by Rowman & Littlefield! The final manuscript is due March 1; the book should appear in late 2018 or so. I will give updates as they come.

Each of the book’s twelve essays examines an overused or misused word or phrase; it plays with language while commenting on culture. The working title is still Take Away the Takeaway; the final title will be different.

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The teaching is going well; I look forward to each day. I am learning students’ names faster than I expected, though not as fast as I would like. I know the names of the students in two of my eleventh-grade and one of my ninth-grade sections; that leaves five sections where I need to learn some names. (I teach eight sections in grades 9-12; two I see just once a week, two twice a week, and the others four or five times.)

The November bike rides have been glorious. The pictures above are from Alcsisziget, I think. I followed an arrow to Üdülőtelep but ended up in Alcsisziget (or maybe biked through both towns). In the second picture, if you look carefully through the branches, you can see a fisherman in a boat. Here’s another view of the water:

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Back in town, I visited the Szolnok Gallery, which was once Szolnok’s synagogue. I was alone in the museum, except for the office manager, who sold me a ticket and cracked the first joke I have yet understood in Hungarian. It was simple; he told me the price of the ticket, “háromszáz” (300), and then added, with a chuckle, “Nem euro, hanem forint” (Not Euros, but Forints.) I thanked him, climbed the spiral staircase, and walked around slowly. I don’t think I have ever been alone in a museum before. I took time with the art and the building and the silence of it all.

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Speaking of synagogues, I have begun leyning at Sim Shalom in Budapest, which has services every other Shabbat (and many other events in between). It seems that I will read Torah at each Saturday service (or as many as possible) and will eventually teach others to do the same. Each Saturday Shabbat service is followed by a shiur (Torah teaching and discussion) over Kiddush lunch; I love the focus and gathering.

I can’t end this without mentioning Aengus and Minnaloushe. They have been wonderful sports. They have started enjoying the porch, though shyly; they like going out late at night, when it’s all quiet except for the birds and leaves. Here they are: Aengus behind the curtain, Minnaloushe on the dresser, and the two of them considering the world.

It is late here (after 11:00 p.m.), and I have much to do tomorrow. So that will be all.

That Iron String

sitting in cafe 2I am writing this in my favorite Szolnok cafe, Cafe Frei, which has a warm, quiet atmosphere and an internet connection. The picture’s a bit grainy, but it captures the feel of  the place. Tomorrow the teaching begins; I have put together an outline of my lessons for the week and have begun assembling the details in my mind. There’s a set curriculum for the English classes–but room to plan the lessons, add some activities, decide on the emphasis, and more, as long as the students learn the substantial material in the books. For Civilization (American and British), there are informal textbooks too, but much room for additions. I think this is just the right combination of structure and flexibility.

I will begin with introductions and a short class discussion about education itself. Then I will bring up the CONTRARIWISE International Contest; then we will go right into the lessons.

It’s the first time, in all my teaching (except for my year teaching first-year Russian as a graduate student at Yale and my summers at the Dallas Institute) that I have worked from a preestablished curriculum. In my first three years of public school teaching, there was no curriculum for my subject (ESL);  in the fourth year, the school had a curriculum, but I was teaching a subject (literature through theater) that didn’t completely fall within it. At Columbia Secondary School, I created, taught, and oversaw the philosophy sequence for grades 9-11. So there was a curriculum, but not at the outset.

Yet although I usually didn’t have a curriculum at the outset, I advocated for one and set about to create it, not just for that year, but for the longer term. I define curriculum as a general outline of the topics, works, ideas, and skills that will be taught, as well as the key assignments. It does not have to be granular, if the teacher knows the material well. In language instruction, though, it probably should lay out the details, as long as it retains some flexibility. So much goes into teaching and learning a language that you can’t teach well from a general outline unless you have years of experience. You can teach something from an outline, but you’ll probably omit or shortchange many important topics and exercises.

That said, my “ex nihilo” or “quasi ex nihilo” beginnings will come in handy here too. Teaching in an unfamiliar country is no trifle; it takes a willingness to rearrange and recast the elements a bit, not only the external ones, but the internal ones too. For example, in American Civilization I plan to introduce students to Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” (in the context of the unit on the American frontier). Although Emerson was not a frontiersman in a physical sense, he expresses an intellectual frontier that has delighted and troubled me for years and that my former students have remembered again and again. I delight in its vigor, imagination, and boldness; I am troubled by its seeming rejection of predecessors, tradition, and external wisdom. Either way, Emerson’s writing makes a mark; students and teachers come back to it over the years. The ambivalence and memorability can congeal into a few questions for a class discussion.

“Trust thyself,” Emerson writes; “every heart vibrates to that iron string.” He continues:

Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

How can writing arouse such a strong Yes and No at the same time? How can words so self-sure and resounding be simultaneously right and wrong? Also, does he make a single point, or several contradicting ones? To accept the place that “providence” has found for you, you must be alert to “the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.” You cannot be entirely removed. The trustworthiness comes from both introspection and alertness, and from language, which connects one person to another.

I do not want to give too many of my own thoughts here, since there are discussions in store. “That iron string” is part of anything important I have done. Still, I have often had to stop to make sure it was in tune, and in tuning it, I had to listen to outside and inside sounds, not only from the present, but from combinations of times.

I end with a photo I took of the Tiszavirág híd, the Mayfly Bridge, which crosses the Tisza in Szolnok. It seems appropriate for the crossing into teaching (and for iron strings too).

bridge over tisza

 

On Confluences

800px-Szolnok,_Nyáry_Lőrinc_híd,_Zagyva1

The photo (not taken by me) shows the Zagyva flowing into the Tisza in Szolnok. As it happens, my flat will be near the bank of the Zagyva, so I will get to know this river well.

There’s strength in knowing one’s rivers: where they come from and where they go, what towns lie on them, what fish live in them, and what their histories are. A river starts on a mountain or in a body of water; it ends in another waterway (sea, river, or lake) or breaks into two or more. No river comes from nowhere; like humans, they all have their origins and endings. (In other ways, they are quite unlike humans, or they put humans to the test; thus the godly but mortal Achilles could not outrace the river Scamander and needed the help of the gods.)

The Zagyva begins near Salgótarján in Nógrád county (a place I hope to visit) and flows south-southeast, ending in Szolnok, where it joins with the Tisza. The Tisza begins near Rakhiv, Ukraine, and courses southwest and then south, ultimately flowing into the Danube near Novi Slankamen, Serbia. The Danube, the second-longest river in Europe (after the Volga), starts out in Donaueschingen, in the Black Forest of Germany, and passes through or along ten countries before emptying into the Black Sea. In Hungary, it flows south, but its overall path is east-southeastward. Here is a river map of Hungary.

This is probably my last blog post in New York City (for a long time, anyway). This afternoon I return the modem; that means my only internet access (until Dallas and then Hungary) will be by phone. I will not blog by phone; I have tried it before and don’t enjoy it. I’ll wait until that little tributary flows into the larger stream of laptop with Wifi connection.

On Monday I led a philosophy roundtable on the subject of human dignity. It marks the end of my leadership of the series, which began in 2012. I hope that others will continue it. I think about the association with Columbia Secondary School and the surprising forms it took; when I began working there, I had no idea that I would be teaching philosophy, starting a roundtable tradition, and helping my students found a journal. Even less did I know about the collegial relations I would build and the things I would learn from others.

But humans are not rivers. In saying this, I’m being partly silly but also serious. A river does not decide its course, moment by moment; to some extent, humans do. Rivers do not react emotionally to events; yes, they respond to forces, but only in accordance with physical laws. That’s why Psalm 114 has such awe and surprise:

מַה-לְּךָ הַיָּם, כִּי תָנוּס; הַיַּרְדֵּן, תִּסֹּב לְאָחוֹר.

“What is with you, sea, that you flee? And you, Jordan, that you turn backward?”

Still, it’s tempting to see a soul in a river: a light soul, a brooding soul, a pained soul, a soul filled with laughter and light and sometimes litter. It’s likewise tempting to think of life as water in motion, water filled with fish of many colors, water that passes through fields and towns and lives, water that breaks and comes together. It’s good to give in to this temptation at times. There are songs in it.

To what extent humans have free will, to what extent they exist and act beyond physical laws, I don’t know; it seems an unanswerable question. But our meetings and partings seem as unpredictable–and as catalytic–as anything in our lives. Who knows who will be around the corner; who knows what junctions lie ahead; who knows how they will shape and influence us. In this light, on a good day, even losses are bearable. Even they leave something with us. We gather up our many streams (sort of like a river, but not really) and take them into the new place, whose real rivers meet with the imagination and then break away again. In my new home, I will get my feet and soul wet.

I leave off with Franz Schubert’s “Auf dem Wasser zu singen,” performed by Elly Ameling and Irwin Gage. (Speaking of confluence, see Benjamin Ivry’s article about Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92.)

 

Image: “The Zagyva meets the Tisza River in Szolnok” (courtesy of Wikipedia).

I changed two words in this piece after posting it. One of my upcoming pieces will be about revision.

The Gift of Criticism

norman-rockwell1A few years ago I edited a student’s piece on Machiavelli; I had recruited it at the last minute for my students’ philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE and found that it needed clearer wording in places. When I presented him with the edits, he said that he accepted some but not all of them: that in a few places he was trying to say something else. We sat down to discuss this. In telling me what he meant, he found the right wording; by the end of our meeting, he had revised the piece to his satisfaction. This happened because he was open to the suggestions but strong enough to make his own decisions. Also, I saw past the particulars of my edits; I wanted to help him find his words, not replace them with mine.

This memory returns as I ponder two recent articles about Amy Cuddy and the power pose: Susan Dominus’s New York Times piece and Daniel Engber’s response in Slate. I find Engber’s article much clearer and more to the point–but he also has the benefit of hindsight, critique, and revision. Dominus may well follow up with some afterthoughts. She tackled a complex and heated topic and (from what I can see) did her best to present it fairly. Yet the article fails to distinguish adequately between personal attack and criticism. I posted a comment, which I am developing a little further here. This piece is not about Cuddy; it’s about criticism itself. (Regarding the power pose study, there are numerous recent comments–from many perspectives–in the article’s comment section and on Andrew Gelman’s blog.)

Here’s the key difference, as I see it, between criticism and personal attack: criticism gives you something concrete to consider, something about the issue at hand, be it your work, your actions, or even your personality. Its aim is to point out areas for improvement. It is not always correct or kind; sometimes critics can be vehement and unsympathetic, and sometimes they make mistakes or show biases. But if it is about the thing itself, if it analyzes strengths and weaknesses in a coherent way, it counts as criticism. By its nature it points toward improvement. It is not necessarily negative; it can recognize strengths and excellence.

Personal attack does not give you a chance to improve. Maybe it comes in the form of vague and veiled hints. Maybe it’s incoherent. Maybe it focuses on your personal life instead of the issue at hand. Maybe it gets said behind your back, without your knowledge. Or maybe it’s about something so fundamental to you that it’s unfair to expect you to change. In any case, when it comes to helpful content, there is no “there” there, at least no “there” that invites you in.

In that light, criticism is a gift, even when the delivery is not ideal. It offers working material. But our culture is not well attuned to criticism; we’re taught to hear the “yay” or “nay,” the “up” or “down,” not the subtler responses. For criticism to achieve its purpose, several conditions must exist.

First, institutions would have to make generous room for error, reexamination, and correction. Universities, schools, scientific organizations, publications should not only acknowledge error openly but treat it as part of intellectual life, not cause for shame or demotion.

Second, the person giving the criticism should do so as frankly and humbly as possible: laying the critique on the table without claiming superiority. There’s some disagreement over whether this should happen in private or public, by in person or online. As I see it, a published work can be criticized anywhere–online or offline, in public or private–but an unpublished work or private act should receive more discreet treatment. Published books get reviewed publicly, after all; there’s no suggestion that a reviewer should contact the author privately before saying something in the New York Review of Books. But if I send someone an unpublished manuscript for comment, I expect this person to reply to me alone (or me and my editor) and not to the world.

Third, the person receiving the criticism should learn to hear it and separate it from the emotion it may stir up. Even thoughtful, carefully worded criticism can be hard to hear. It takes some strength to sort out the upset feelings from the actual content of the words. It takes even more to decide which parts of the criticism to take, which to reject, and which to continue considering. Some criticism incites us to reconsider everything we have done; some draws attention to small (but important) details. To hear and use criticism well is to open oneself to profound improvement.

Just before the final manuscript of Republic of Noise was due, someone who read the manuscript offered me some far-ranging suggestions. I saw her points but didn’t want to apply them rashly, in a rush. To decide whether, how, and where to apply them, I would need much more time than I had. I decided to keep them in mind for the future. I am glad of this decision; the book was the way I wanted it, but her suggestions helped me with subsequent writing.

Why do I say that our culture isn’t set up well for criticism? We aren’t taught how to handle it. As a beginning teacher, I remember being told (at numerous “professional development” sessions) not to use red pen, since it could make a student feel bad; not to write on students’ work, but to use Post-its instead; and to limit the comments to two commendations and two general suggestions for improvement. While some of the gist is good (one should avoid overwhelming students or treat one’s own appraisal as the last word), it assumes students’ extreme fragility in the face of concrete, detailed suggestions. The more we treat criticism as devastating, the more fragile we make ourselves (both the critics and the recipients).

Hearing criticism–actually perceiving and considering its meaning–deserves continual practice. It requires immersion in the subject itself; you can’t practice criticism without practicing the thing criticized. It isn’t always fun, but it can lead to exhilaration: you see, on your own terms, a way of doing things better.

 

Image: Norman Rockwell, Jo and Her Publishor (this title may or may not be correct; I have also seen it as Jo and Her Publisher and Jo and Her Editor). This is one of his several illustrations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In Chapter 14, Jo publishes two of her stories in a newspaper.

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

Noah and the End of Endings

Noah's Sacrifice

The following post is not only for those of Jewish faith, or even the religious in general; the Biblical verses on Noah and the flood transcend particular belief.

As I prepare to read three aliyot of Noah* this coming Shabbat, I am moved by the divine shift in these verses. Genesis 6:13 reads,

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים לְנֹחַ, קֵץ כָּל-בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי–כִּי-מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס, מִפְּנֵיהֶם; וְהִנְנִי מַשְׁחִיתָם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ.

And God said unto Noah: ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

God doesn’t destroy them all, though; He saves Noah, his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives. They must survive and bear the kind of loss that makes a whole life reel. The survival must be its own good.

I think of “Still, Citizen Sparrow” by Richard Wilbur, who died on Saturday at the age of 96. I quote just the last two stanzas (starting with the first full sentence):

…. Forget that he could bear
To see the towns like coral under the keel,
And the fields so dismal deep. Try rather to feel
How high and weary it was, on the waters where

He rocked his only world, and everyone’s.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew; he rode that tide
To Ararat; all men are Noah’s sons.

“Forgive the hero”: The one who goes through all this cannot possibly be pleasant. People do not want to see what he saw. Because his whole manner reflects what he saw, they find him “unnatural.” But Wilbur hints at something beyond the suffering. Through seeing “the towns like coral under the keel,” through riding that tide where it was so “high and weary,” Noah changes the world.

I have many thoughts on the poem, but I’ll return to Genesis now. Here there’s no hint of Noah’s thoughts, no mention of his suffering. We only get to picture the destruction along with him: the waters rising fifteen cubits high, all flesh dying, all life being blotted out, except the life in the ark.

But when the earth dries, Noah, after stepping out of the ark at God’s command, builds an altar (without being so commanded) and makes burnt offerings. God smells the sweet savor and says (Genesis 8:21-22),

וַיָּרַח יְהוָה, אֶת-רֵיחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ, וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-לִבּוֹ לֹא-אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם, כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו; וְלֹא-אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת-כָּל-חַי, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי.

עֹד, כָּל-יְמֵי הָאָרֶץ: זֶרַע וְקָצִיר וְקֹר וָחֹם וְקַיִץ וָחֹרֶף, וְיוֹם וָלַיְלָה–לֹא יִשְׁבֹּתוּ.

And the LORD smelled the sweet savour; and the LORD said in His heart: ‘I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.

While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.’

There is extensive commentary on each word of this; I will focus here on the reversal of “the end of all flesh.” It was really “the end of all flesh with a few worthy exceptions”–but even such an end, according to these verses, will never happen again. The end has ended.

These verses show a permanent shift in the divine. What happened with Noah could happen only once; maybe that is God’s atonement for the toll it took, but in any case, a changed God emerges, one who will never again smite every living being.

But the reason is strange: “for the imagination [purpose, plan] of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” One would think that human goodness, not evil, would dissuade God from acting in this way again. Rashi comments,

from his youth: This is written מִנְּעֻרָיו [i.e., without a “vav,” implying that] from the time that he [the embryo] shakes himself [נִנְעָר] to emerge from his mother’s womb, the evil inclination is placed in him. — [from Gen. Rabbah 34:10]

So one can understand these verses as follows: I, who created humans, must bear responsibility for who they are. Their evil is not just their own doing; it has been with them since their birth. Although I may punish them (and allow them to harm each other), I will never destroy them altogether, because their condition comes not only from them, but from me.

But there’s more happening here. God says  this after smelling the “sweet savour” of Noah’s sacrifice–and it was unprecedented among sacrifices, sweeter, maybe, than any that came before, because Noah performed it after horrific survival–survival at the cost of peace of mind. Noah’s sacrifice, his suffering, has already been enough by any standard, but he adds the formal sacrifice, which moves God to speak “in His heart [or mind, or seat of intention]” (אֶל-לִבּוֹ). So there could be a meaning like this:

Just as I answered evil, so I now answer good; evil will always abound, but good can change even the heart of God. I am changed by Noah’s obedience and piety, and not only by his character and actions, but by his life, this cherished life, this life that was everything all along. Accepting this sacrifice, smelling its sweetness, I cannot be the same God as before; I cannot put an end to all life, even with a few exceptions, ever again.

Whatever one’s religious, agnostic, atheistic or other views of life, one can imagine these verses, and within them, a God profoundly shaken by the goodness of a man.

What does this mean here and now? It doesn’t mean that we should stop worrying about destruction; the threat of destruction is real. Nor does it mean that the good people are rescued and the bad ones destroyed. It means, maybe, that any of us can sit with goodness, take it in, and, as a result, change forever how we deal with others.

So difficult it is to take in goodness; goodness itself is difficult. It isn’t always recognized; sometimes it’s mistaken for something else. Even when recognized, it isn’t easy to accept or fathom. Receiving another person’s goodness, one also receives the loneliness, the singularity. I don’t know exactly what it does, this “sweet savour,” but I think it leaves a person slightly gentler than before.

 

 

*In synagogue services, when Torah is read, the portion is divided into aliyot (honors with blessings). A member of the congregation, or sometimes a guest, is called up for an aliya; this person recites the blessings before and after the reading. In the past, the person receiving the honor would also read the Torah verses; today there is usually a separate reader. The reader chants the text according to cantillation principles. I will be reading at both the children’s service and the main service; hence the span of verses.  (This is my last Shabbat at B’nai Jeshurun before I leave for the ALSCW Conference and then for Hungary.)

The English translations of the Biblical verses are from the JPS 1917 edition (courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website). In two places I added alternate translations in brackets.

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

Image: James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Noah’s Sacrifice, Gouache on board, c. 1896-. The Jewish Museum (New York City).

The Not-So-Brief Soul of Wit

chasing the last laughI have not yet read the book pictured to the left (Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour by Richard Zacks). I learned about it yesterday, early in the morning, when looking lackadaisically into humor and wit. Although I had resolved to buy no more books before leaving for Hungary–no more!–I broke down and ordered this one, because it looks too good to pass up. I didn’t know that Twain was a stand-up comedian or that he went on a world tour–or maybe once upon a time I knew this, “But, being over-full of self-affairs, / My mind did lose it.” (I did know that he was friends with Tesla, but that’s a separate matter.)

Yesterday I was thinking not about comedy in particular but about what makes some people uproariously and endearingly funny. Comedy and funniness are not identical; comedy is not always funny, nor do funny things necessarily constitute comedy. Funniness has many sources: it can come from setting up and breaking logical, semantic, and conversational expectations; taking an idea to an absurd conclusion; bringing a particular rhythm, tone, and timing into your speech; performing an exquisite imitation; and more. Today I will look at one ever-gurgling spring of funniness: the ability to exult in your foibles.

We all have foibles of one kind or another; many of us struggle with them daily. A comedian takes them and makes the most of them. Human fallibility attains splendor while retaining its clumsiness and silliness.

For example, some of us can be a pest at times. I am generally patient and unfazed by things–but when I really want to get something done, and it depends on other people, I will bug them until the thing is accomplished, whatever it may be. Sometimes I feel guilty about this; I type and untype an email, hover over the “send” button, delete the whole mess, start over, and repeat the process several times until I end up just sending the thing. It’s always polite–I don’t “flame” people–but still I may feel like a pest.

So when I listen to James Veitch give one of his talks about replying to spammers, I see that he’s taking this quality–being a pest, or feeling like one–and lifting it to its pinnacle. If you are going to be a pest, whom better to pester than those who are aggressively pestering the world: spammers with spurious business proposals? Veitch managed to get one of them so annoyed that he or she (the spammer) finally replied, “PLEASE STOP EMAILING US.” Now, in daily life, with people I know or even with strangers, I wouldn’t want this to happen–I’d be sad and remorseful if it did–but with a spammer, it seems beautifully fitting.

My one objection to his talk is that, in keeping with the TED worldview, he tells his audience, “do do this at home.” He qualifies this by saying they should use fake email addresses, but still, that’s bad advice. He can do this because he has a flair for it. Others could get themselves into trouble. It wouldn’t be the same. The TED illusion–that everyone can do this, whatever “this”  may be–detracts a little from his act. The best way to share in humor and wit is to laugh along, to recognize oneself in it, while also letting it belong to someone else.  Most of us know the feeling of trying to retell someone else’s joke: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but either way, it’s not the same. Funniness is like a soap bubble. Its air is internal.

Another foible (if one can call it that) is awkwardness. Many of us know the feeling of being a little out of sorts and out of place in a setting–not quite saying the right thing, or saying too much, or not saying enough. Some comedians–such as Ismo Leikola–take their own awkwardness and turn it into a glowing orb. Many performers transcend their awkwardness, but certain comedians actually preserve and exalt it. You see Leikola stuttering and puttering around, flapping his arms, and having a grand old time.

On a different level, and in a different way, this foible-lifting is part of what I love in László Krasznahorkai’s prose. He takes you dancing in the characters’ vanities and exaggerations. When reading The Melancholy of Resistance, I burst out laughing many times; when reading Mrs. Eszter’s funeral oration at the end, I laughed myself to tears. The laughter came from the recognition of mind–not the brooding reminiscence of Philip Roth’s characters, but something inflated, clumsy, profound, absurd, and wondrous.

To make the most of foibles, comedians, humorists, and writers perceive kairos (in the ancient Greek sense of the word, not the Christian sense): the opportune moment, which comes again and again in life. Foibles are not always fun or funny, but each one has its spectacular hour or series of hours. That takes us into comedy itself. If comedy turns a potentially threatening, destructive, or even catastrophic situation into something life-affirming (or, at worst, darkly persistent), then, by playing out a foible at just the right moment, by being both flawed and exquisite at once, one can launch a round-the-world comedy tour, not like Mark Twain, but in and along an unrepeatable way.

 

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

 

Fall Gratitude

IMG_3825

In celebration of this autumn day (a welcome change from the heat of the past few weeks), I offer some short and memorable readings.

The first is Jeb Sharp’s essay “On The Wind in the Willows and Going Home.” I was tempted to quote it, but the part I wanted to quote deserves everything preceding it. After reading the essay online (months ago), I found the journal in which it is published, Clockhouse, and ordered a print copy, which sits now on my desk. It’s coming with me to Hungary. (The desk is not.) It’s one of the most moving essays I have ever read.

The second, which I have mentioned here before, is William Lychack’s magnificent (and very short) story “The Ghostwriter.” (If you don’t have access to JSTOR, you can find it in his story collection The Architect of Flowers, which, like Volume Three of Clockhouse, will come along with me.)

The third and fourth are poems: May Swenson’s “Water Picture” and Edward Hirsch’s “Wild Gratitude,” both of which I first read about thirty years ago and reread with different understanding today.

Hirsch’s poem holds all of this together, including the photo above, taken earlier this month, of the ceiling of the Ady Endre Libary, formerly Baja’s synagogue, and the one below, from this morning’s outing to the corner store. I wish I knew what the cat saw at that moment; I’m pretty sure it was something I did not see.

atm cat 2

 

 

More on “Free Relation”

PushkinBenchOver the past two days I struggled with the post on The Stone Guest and statues; I realized that the topics were too large and the connections too weak. After revising it many times, I finally let it stand. But something came out of it, at the end: the idea that a “free relation” to a statue or other work of art comes through a spirit of learning. This kind of freedom consists of movement beyond misconceptions, limited understandings, and errors; not only that, but it yearns for such movement. It is the opposite of ignorance, which rests on self-satisfaction and becomes a rut. As Diotima tells Socrates in Plato’s Symposium, “If someone doesn’t think he’s in need of something, he can’t desire what he doesn’t think he needs.”

I think about my relation to Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin, which I first encountered as a fourteen-year-old in Moscow, through Tchaikovsky’s opera. I loved the opera (which I saw as many times as possible) but in a limited way; I saw myself as Tatiana and understood the work primarily from that perspective.

In brief: Tatiana falls in love with Onegin and writes him a letter; he rejects her; he flirts with Olga, Tatiana’s sister, and ends up killing Lensky in a duel; and five years later, he attends a ball in Petersburg, only to discover that Tatiana is married to a prince. He suddenly falls in love with her–and writes her a letter–but she explains her resolve to be faithful to her husband forever. That’s a crude summary, with many details missing, but I was drawn, in any case, to Tatiana’s torment and courage.

While in Moscow, I obtained the sheet music for the opening duet “Slykhali l’ vy” between Olga and Tatiana and practiced it, hoping to sing it beautifully one day. Here’s a recording of a 2011 performance by the Bolshoi Theatre, with Galina Vishnevskaya as Tatiana and Larisa Avdeeva as Olga:

Seeing myself in the opera, I missed a great deal; even when I read the poem that year, I understood it in terms of the opera. But at least the opera was in my life; I would return to it many times later.

In graduate school, I read the poem carefully and came to see its subtleties, ironies, and play; it had humor and bite that the opera seemed to lack. I learned that Nabokov considered Tchaikovsky’s libretto “an absurdity and an abomination,” full of “vulgar and … criminal inanities.” I thought my teenage enthusiasm for the opera had been naive.

Still later, I came to admire Tchaikovsky’s Onegin again, but on different terms. I saw it most recently at the Metropolitan Opera last April and was moved by the entire performance, but especially by Prince Gremin’s aria, performed by Štefan Kocán, in which he tells Onegin of his love for his wife, Tatiana, whom Onegin previously rejected. This aria, rich in life and tranquility, is nowhere in the poem itself; the narrator has some of these words but gives them different meaning. The music alone conveys what Onegin lacks; Gremin’s genuine happiness upends any stereotype. I have found no recording of Kocán’s performance online, but here’s one with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and here’s the sheet music:

I outgrew both the teenage attachment to Tatiana and the later deference to Nabokov (whom I also questioned and satirized, even then). Pushkin’s novel in verse and Tchaikovsky’s opera are two distinct works, each to be taken on its own terms, over a lifetime. Sometimes the understanding is intellectual, sometimes visceral, sometimes learned, sometimes intuitive; but it builds and changes over time. I have much to learn about both works; I returned to them today to see how much I had missed before.

So a “free relation” to art is one that moves beyond error, safety, and limitation. A person returns to a work, learns from it, learns about it, and understands it in a different way from before, all the while staying alert to more. Maybe, like Gremin, the person moves toward simple joy, the joy of not needing to own or sum up what one loves, the joy, sometimes difficult, of living among things that grow in beauty and meaning and that return, again and again, with more.

 

Image: Photo of a statue of Pushkin at Tsarskoe Selo. Courtesy of the MadOpera Blog.

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

When the Statue Nods

stoneguestIn anticipation of Don Giovanni, which the Budapest Festival Orchestra will perform at Lincoln center on August 17, 18, and 19, I reread Alexander Pushkin’s dramatic poem The Stone Guest, which was inspired by a Russian-language version of Mozart’s opera. I had not read it in years; this time, I was amazed by the part where Don Juan (spelled “Дон Гуан” in Russian) orders Leporello to invite the statue of Dona Anna’s* deceased husband (whom he himself murdered) to come watch Don Juan meet with her in her home. (In Don Giovanni, it is the father of Donna Anna, not the husband, whom Don Juan has murdered and who later appears as a statue.) Leporello starts to speak to the statue but can’t finish; the scene is rendered in tense, broken iambic pentameter, where the silences hold little time and great weight. Leporello finally works up the nerve to invite the statue, who nods his assent. Don Juan does not see this; he finally invites the statue himself and, seeing him nod, cries, “Oh God!” Leporello: “What? I tried to tell you…” Don Juan: “Let’s get out of here.”

Here’s the Russian text of this passage (you can see the trepidation in the broken lines themselves). You can listen to a recording too; the quoted lines begin at 35:38 and end around 37:45. This is from a 1962 performance by the Alexandrinsky Theatre.

Лепорелло

                                Охота вам
Шутить, и с кем!

Дон Гуан

                            Ступай же.

Лепорелло

                                                Но…

Дон Гуан

                                                        Ступай.

Лепорелло

Преславная, прекрасная статуя!
Мой барин Дон Гуан покорно просит
Пожаловать… Ей-богу, не могу,
Мне страшно.

Дон Гуан

                        Трус! вот я тебя!..

Лепорелло

                                                    Позвольте.
Мой барин Дон Гуан вас просит завтра
Прийти попозже в дом супруги вашей
И стать у двери…

Статуя кивает головой в знак согласия.

                            Ай!

Дон Гуан

                                    Что там?

Лепорелло

                                                    Ай, ай!..
Ай, ай… Умру!

Дон Гуан

                        Что сделалось с тобою?

Лепорелло
(кивая головой)

Статуя… ай!..

Дон Гуан

                        Ты кланяешься!

Лепорелло

                                                        Нет,
Не я, она!

Дон Гуан

                    Какой ты вздор несешь!

Лепорелло

Подите сами.

Дон Гуан

                        Ну смотри ж, бездельник.

(Статуе.)

Я, командор, прошу тебя прийти
К твоей вдове, где завтра буду я,
И стать на стороже в дверях. Что? будешь?

Статуя кивает опять.

О боже!

Лепорелло

                Что? я говорил…

Дон Гуан

                                                Уйдем.

There’s comedy and horror in this scene; both Leporello and Don Juan must each experience the statue alone; hence the eruptions and ellipses. Yet for all its jagged appearance, this dialogue keeps up the iambic pentameter as if propelled along. In the recording, the statue’s nod is signaled by music, which both interrupts and intensifies the rhythm. There are references to nonsense, death, God, and madness; exclamations of “ay!”; and a simple yet terrifying nod. The statue is more than a likeness, more than a stone carving. It holds hidden life; it traps time in a solid.

Having started to think about statues, I think of Charlottesville, yet the connection here seems tenuous. For Don Juan, the statue becomes his witness and demise; confronting it, he spirals into himself. It’s the poetry itself that nods. This statue moves in verse.

For us today, in the U.S. and elsewhere, a statue holds the history that will not go away, that shows up at the door. Even without great historical significance, even at its most mundane, a statue pulls at the imagination. Because of its dimension and its presence among us, because of its gesture (sometimes seeming in motion), it tempts us to sit on its lap, shake its hand, take pictures with our arms around it, put a cap on its head, and so on. Or it can offer much more. Simulating a body, it simulates hidden thoughts.

The white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville claim that nonwhite and non–”Aryan” groups (e.g., blacks and Jews) have robbed them of their rights, that life would be much better for them if others were put in their place or destroyed. For people who hold this view, a Confederate statue may express the restitution they desire. To move the statue is to rob them of their perceived rights; some will sooner kill others than let that statue go. The statue becomes their defender–theirs, not other people’s. It is their fantasy, oxidized and towering, astride a seemingly permanent horse.

A statue strangely joins life and death; it takes something that can never walk again in the world and puts it in our midst. But it matters how we regard it. We can have a free relation with it, taking it on its own terms and coming to understand it better. Or we can see it as an emblem of our rights and wishes, in which case we are bound to it. At its best, education moves toward the many languages and forms of free relation.

Image credit: V. Favorsky, to “The Stone Guest” by A. Pushkin.

I revised this piece substantially after posting it. I am still not satisfied, but the dissatisfaction itself is on the right track.

*A spelling correction: In the Russian text, it’s Dona Anna, not Donna Anna. In Spanish it would be Doña Ana.