“The mountains skipped like rams”

dallas moon

This is my last post (for the time being) on the topic of moving on. (You may read the introduction, first post, and second post at your convenience.)

Some of the most entrenched human conflicts and misunderstandings have to do with differing relationships to time; one person wants to look forward, while another wants to stand still or look backward. Not only individuals, but groups and cultures can come into conflict in this way.

Too often the two sides do not see or think on each other’s terms. Each tends to put the other down. The one who wishes to remember sees the other as dismissive and unreflective; the one who wishes to move on sees the other as self-indulgent and stagnant. To make things even trickier, sometimes they are right in their judgments.

It is no accident, then, that religions ritualize both memory and progress. Judaism has specific times for mourning and repentance; while not erasing an individual’s own rhythms and timings, it offers a strong counterpoint and guide. Mourning takes its own time in a person, but within the rhythms of shiva, the initial mourning period, the year of saying Kaddish, the yahrzeit, Yizkor, and other remembrances, it has both a place and a boundary. A person may not conform to this structure entirely, but it is there all the same.

So, too, with repentance. While we typically associate repentance with the period from Tisha B’Av through Yom Kippur, it has a place throughout the year, at limited times. In ancient times, Rosh Hodesh, the holiday of the new lunar month, had a sin-offering among the sacrifices; today this is mentioned in the Torah reading during the Rosh Hodesh service.

The literature about this sin-offering reveals some surprises. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Chulin 60b), the moon was unhappy about being diminished by God. After some argument, God promised to atone; this is why there is a he-goat offering “for the Lord” on Rosh Hodesh. Thus, according to this and other commentaries, there is divine atonement every month. Therefore this is also an opportunity for humans to atone. (Of course atonement is possible every day–but every month there is a special time.)

But atonement (in Hebrew teshuvah, or return) does not proceed in linear fashion; in the Litukei Halachot, Rebbe Nosson of Breslov’s interpretation and reworking of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings, it is posited that the reason we “skip” parts of the service on Rosh Hodesh is that repentance, too, skips backward and forward:

Rosh Chodesh itself is a time for the beginning of repentance, since the Holy One Himself said “bring me atonement,” and from then on repentance disseminated into the entire created world. For our Holy Rabbi wrote that everyone thinks of repentance on Rosh Chodesh. This is why we say the “half Hallel”, that is, we ‘skip’ parts of Hallel, since those doing Teshuva don’t ascend in a steady way, from step to step, but skip and jump over several steps… this is why the reading of the Torah on Rosh Chodesh skips back and forth. It hints at this theme of repentance which is central to Rosh Chodesh, because those doing Teshuva do not move in a straight line, but sometimes go backwards, and then forwards again.

“Skipping” can be found in the very words of Psalm 114, which is part of the Hallel service.

I love those images and rhythms of the Jordan turning backward, the mountains skipping like rams, the hills like young sheep. The psalm has thrilled me ever since I began to sing and understand it.

But now I understand it in a different way. If this turning and skipping has anything to do with teshuvah–within the liturgy, if not within the psalm itself–then it illustrates how we ourselves go back and forth during our lives, how these changes of direction may signify great moments. Each of us may be at times the skipping mountain or hill, the Jordan turning backward, or else these things standing still or rushing ahead.

I take these texts as poetry, not literal teachings–but it’s poetry that opens up the understanding. If our “skipping” and changes of direction have to do with our own striving and reckoning, then there’s room for generosity and forgiveness in all directions. Those impatient to move on can look kindly on those standing still, and vice versa, at least some of the time. At the very least, we can consider that those who differ from us in their motions and directions may be doing their own kind of good.

This doesn’t solve any problems. Nonetheless, I delight in thinking that we all have times of skipping and turning, changing our currents, shaking up our landscapes, and standing still. Although (as a friend and colleague remarked to me today) adults forget the joy of skipping, we actually skip abundantly without knowing it. Viewed from far away, or from inside, our lives might look like the shaking of sheep and hills.

 

I took the photo last night (around 4 a.m.) in Dallas, through the window.

Thanks to Rabbi Adam Roffman for introducing me and others to the passages from the Talmud and Likutei Halachot. The interpretations here are my own (and subject to leaps, skips, and turns).

The text of Psalm 114 (in Hebrew and English) can be found on the Mechon Mamre website.

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

“The time is out of joint”

fuseli hamlet boydellThis is the second of my blog posts on the pitfalls of moving on. (See the introduction and first post.)

Hamlet is not about the conflict between moving on and looking back, but it’s tempting to see it that way. It has more to do with the conflict between expedient and many-layered language, but there are thousands of possible tiltings.

Early on in the play, Claudius and Gertrude both press on Hamlet to move beyond mourning; Hamlet, for his part, ensures that they remember precisely what they wish to forget (by staging a play that draws out Claudius’s guilt).

Claudius tells Hamlet (in Act 1, Scene 2):

‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; ’tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool’d:
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! ’tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd: whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died to-day,
‘This must be so.’

His argument has as much baseness as logic: he says, anyone will mourn the death of his parent (as a matter of filial obligation, for a term), but to drag it on too long is a sign of immaturity and unmanliness, a stubborn protest against heaven, man, and nature. All fathers die; Hamlet’s father’s father died too, and his father before him. A father’s death is the “common theme” of heaven, nature, reason, and the dead; what grown man would oppose it?

Hamlet insists on remembering–not by erecting a memorial or delivering a speech, but by giving the lie to others’ evasions and euphemisms. If this were all he did, if he had no internal struggles, he would come across as arrogant–but all this wit takes place within an overwhelmed consciousness. His words to others can be sarcastic (“Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables”), cryptic (“for yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward”), scornful (“Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!”), or teasing (“the age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he gaffs his kibe”). On his own, and with the Ghost, he shows still more capabilities, and near the end, when speaking to Laertes and Horatio, still more. His knowledge goes beyond what he knows.

He stages a play, The Murder of Gonzago, into which he inserts his own lines; he not only instructs the actors and arranges the event but provides his own commentary during the performance itself. It is precisely after his explanation (“He poisons him i’ the garden for’s estate. His name’s Gonzago: the story is extant, and writ in choice Italian: you shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife”) that the King cries out, “Give me some light: away!”

It is easy to ally oneself with Hamlet and decry the Claudiuses of the world, those who brush over their actions with the rhetoric of “moving on.” We hear plenty of that rhetoric in politics and workplaces, and it doesn’t inspire trust. In December 2016, in response to inquiries about Russian meddling in the election, Trump said that “we ought to get on with our lives”; he has said similar things since. But the phrase is not purely Trumpian; it’s common coinage. In workplaces after mass layoffs, the managers speak of “going forward”; at least two distinct advice books have the title Moving Forward.

Still, any alliance with Hamlet is artistic, not literal; we can find ourselves in Hamlet again and again, yet no one of us is Hamlet, and the play’s conflicts do not map exactly onto life. Hamlet’s integrity lies not in “looking back,” but in seeing that “the time is out of joint” and seeking “to set it right.” He is endlessly complicated; he goes about things in circuitous ways, evading questions, concocting elaborate scenes, and killing the wrong person. I find an odd comfort in his ruminations, but it is not the “useful” comfort of a sweater. It stays slightly at odds with uses.

Moreover, while the play allows us to believe that Hamlet is not wrong “in the main” (Claudius did kill King Hamlet, and the Ghost was seen first by others), with a little twist of the mind, he could be catastrophically wrong. Suppose his father had died a natural death, yet he imagined Claudius the killer and sought his life. Suppose, moreover, that Claudius had gained the throne legitimately. Hamlet would then threaten not only the stability, not only the people, but even the laws and principles of the state.

Therefore, while one can look to Hamlet for poetry, tragedy, and personal resonance, one cannot look to it for direct life lessons. When it comes to “moving on” and “looking back,” the play offers no guidance. Hamlet offers a language of grappling, but not an answer. There can be no absolute answer; any life moves backward and forward, right and left, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, sometimes with long pauses.

In the last post on this topic I will talk about the zigzags of return and progress.

Image: Robert Thew, after Henry Fuseli, Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus, and the Ghost (1796). Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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

 

 

The Pitfalls of Moving On

summer instituteThis is a brief introduction to an upcoming series of posts. I have noticed a widespread tendency to speak of “moving on” as though it were inherently superior to staying still or looking back. (I am not referring in any way of the organization MoveOn but rather to the colloquial expression and the assumptions behind it.) “Moving on,” people will say, with that nudge of the chin, or “Let’s move on,” or “Time to move on.”

Of course, sometimes it is good to move on, just as it is good sometimes to contemplate the situation at hand or to remember something from the past. Yet each stance on its own, without its counter-perspectives, can lead to disaster. To insist on moving on is to insist on first impressions and superficial interpretations; if you cannot stop to think about what has happened, your understanding will reflect this rush. On the other hand, dwelling in memory can distort the memory itself (and leave you without food); it can isolate you from those who carry different memories. Contemplation of the situation at hand can unravel into infinite complexity; where do you stop? When do you gather up  your thoughts and proceed?

Progress, contemplation, and memory must combine–that’s easy to say–but the challenge lies in finding the right combination, which will vary from situation to situation and from person to person. Each tendency has gifts and dangers. But “moving on” as an expression and phenomenon deserves some special critique, since it has received a bit too much unquestioned approval.

In the next post, I will consider what it means to return to a work of literature.

I took this photo at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

Why Imagination Matters

poets walk park

Our schools have vacillated between adulating and dismissing imagination; neither attitude suffices. Imagination involves forming things in the mind; education cannot do without it. Yet to employ it well, one must understand it correctly and combine it with actual learning.

In his bracing book Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing our Children from Failed Educational Theories, E. D. Hirsch Jr. explores the origins and consequences of our schools’ emphasis on “natural” creativity and imagination at the expense of concrete learning. He points to the destructive effects of this trend, both in the United States and in France (which moved from a common curriculum to a child-centered mode of instruction). In addition, he offers wise commentary on standardized tests, the teaching profession, and the Common Core initiative.

An admirer of Hirsch’s work and of Core Knowledge schools, I object to just one aspect of his argument: By opposing creativity and imagination to specific training and instruction, he limits both. Recognizing this possible pitfall, he acknowledges that a school with a strong curriculum can still encourage imagination—but he does not treat the latter as vital and endangered. Imagination, in his view, has been overemphasized; the necessary corrective lies in specific, sequenced instruction.

He writes (on p. 119): “I am not, of course, suggesting that it would be a good idea to adopt the in-Adam’s-fall-we-sinned-all point of view. Imagination can certainly be a positive virtue when directed to life-enhancing goals. But the idea that imagination is always positive and life-enhancing is an uncritical assumption that has crept into our discourse from the pantheistic effusions of the romantic period.” I dispute nothing in this statement but the emphasis (and the take on Romanticism–but that’s another subject). I would proclaim: “Imagination has been wrested apart from subject matter and thus distorted—but properly understood, it permeates all intellectual domains.”

What is imagination? It is not the same as total freedom of thought; it has strictures and structures. To imagine something is to form an image of it. Every subject requires imagination: To understand mathematics, you must be able to form the abstract principles in your mind and carry them in different directions; to understand a poem, you must perceive patterns, cadences, allusions, and subtleties. To interpret a work of literature, you must notice something essential about it (on your own, without any overt highlighting by the author or editor); to interpret a historical event, you may transport yourself temporarily to its setting.

Civic life, too, relies on imagination; to participate in dialogue, you must perceive possibility in others; to make informed decisions, you must not only know their history but anticipate their possible consequences. Imagination forms the private counterpart of public life; to participate in the world, you must be able to step back and think on your own, as David Bromwich argues in his essay “Lincoln and Whitman as Representative Americans” (and elsewhere).

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave describes the cultivation of the imagination. The uneducated mind, the prisoner in the cave, accepts the appearances of things (as manipulated by others); once embarked upon education, it slowly, painfully moves toward vision of true form. People are quick to dismiss Plato’s idealism as obsolete—but say what you will, it contains the idea of educating oneself into imagination, which could inform many a policy and school.

Schools and school systems have grievously misconstrued imagination; drawing on Romantic tendencies, as Hirsch explains, they have regarded it as “natural” and therefore good from the start. If imagination is best when unhampered and untouched, if it is indeed a process of nature, then, according to these schools, children should be encouraged to write about whatever pleases them, to read books of their own choice, and to create wonderful art (wonderful because it is theirs). Some years ago I taught at a school where we were told not to write on students’ work but instead to affix a post-it with two compliments and two suggestions–so as not to interfere with the students’ own voice.

This is silly, of course. Serious imaginative work—in music, mathematics, engineering, architecture, and elsewhere—requires knowledge, discipline, self-criticism, and guidance from others. You do not learn to play piano if your teacher keeps telling you, “Brilliant, Brilliant!” (or even, in growth-mindset parlance, “How hard you worked on that!”). To accomplish something significant, you need to know what you are doing; to know, you must learn. Mindset aside, you must be immersed in the material and striving for understanding and fluency. You must listen closely; you must acknowledge and correct errors.

Learning draws on imagination and vice versa; a strong curriculum is inherently imaginative if taught and studied properly. Students learn concrete things so that they can think about them, carry them in the mind, assemble them in interesting ways, and create new things from them. On their own, in class, and in faculty meetings, teachers probe and interpret the material they present. This intellectual life has both inherent and practical value; the student not only comes to see the possibilities of each subject but lives out such possibilities in the world.

Hirsch objects, commendably, to the trivialization of curriculum and imagination alike: for instance, the reduction of literature instruction to “balanced literacy” (where students practice reading strategies on an array of books that vary widely in quality). Conducted in the name of student interest, creativity, initiative, and so forth, such programs can end up glorifying a void.

Without strong curricula, creative and imaginative initiatives will lack meaning, especially for disadvantaged students who rely on school for fundamentals. You cannot learn subjects incidentally; while you may gain insights from a creative algebra project, it cannot replace a well-planned algebra course.

But imagination belongs at the forefront of education, not on the edges; it allows us to live and work for something more than surface appearance, hits, ratings, reactive tweets, and prefabricated success. Imagination reminds us that there is more to a person, subject, or problem than may appear at first. It enables public, social, private, economic, intellectual, and artistic life. Without it, we fall prey to shallow judgment (our own and others’); within it, we have room to learn and form.

 

Photo credit: I took this picture yesterday in Poets’ Walk Park in Red Hook, NY.

The Millefoglie of Success

graduation 2017

Yesterday the fourth graduating class of Columbia Secondary School did what a graduating class is supposed to do: graduate. Heralded with cheers, a mini-orchestra, thoughtful speeches, and a gathering on the steps of the Low Library, the students passed from one stage of life to the next. Yet I sensed that many of them had already done this internally; while relieved to graduate, they had already entered college in their minds and plans. For others, the ceremony may have held some sadness; maybe they had no family there, or they knew they would miss their friends. Still others went into the ceremony with great pride. Most of them, I imagine, had layers and mixtures of these and other emotions.

Success is not understood simply; maybe it is like a millefoglie in motion, with the “thousand” layers sometimes coming together in elegant pastry, sometimes flying past each other, sometimes jumbling in a heap. Any given moment holds more possibilities than can be grasped. Even out on the steps, congratulating and saying goodbye to students, I felt and sensed changing mixtures of elation, pride, affection, melancholy, distance, memory, dignity, hilarity, impatience, restfulness, and more, inside and outside myself. Yet all together they made up something beautiful.

It is a CONTRARIWISE piece from two years ago that brings the millefoglie to mind: “Carpe Diem” by Andrea Sarro, Margherita Pelliconi, Giulia Dall’Olio, Maria Sole Venturi, and Giovanni Mastropasqua. They write that “the millefoglie for dessert is the future, because we have different paths to take as the different pastry layers.” I would add that within each of us there are many simultaneous paths, making for a complex pastry indeed, hard to imagine in time, even less on a plate.

Yesterday, to my great honor, I found that a Rabbi Howard Jacoby Ruben, head of the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, had referred to my article “The Cult of Success” in his moving summer sendoff piece “The Summer Ahead: Looking for Wonder,” which explores the nature of success and wonder through the examples of a mathematician (Grigori Perelman), two musicians (Joshua Bell and Chance the Rapper), and a rabbi (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel). The piece is rich with references; at one point Rabbi Ruben paraphrases Pirkei Avot 4.1, which “urges us to identify wisdom in those who learn from everyone, wealth in those who appreciate their own unique portion, and honor in those who honor others.”

I found myself thinking about the Pirkei Avot passage long afterward. We often juxtapose external and internal success; external success, we realize, often distracts us from what matters. But the passage reminds me that it is we who define external success. We decide whom we will call wise, wealthy, and honorable; those definitions and designations affect those around us. “Societal views” are not just handed to us; we shape them through our thoughts, words, and actions.

As I remember members of this graduating class–whom I taught for two years, and for whom I wrote many college recommendations–I think of their kind and appreciative words for others, spoken many times over time. Seeing the good in others is no meager act or capacity; it influences everything. To see the good, you must also acknowledge that you do not see everything, that what you see and know literally is only a glimpse. The good, after all, comes in glimmers; the cynical dismiss it as illusion, but the courageous see through to its form.

IMG_3279

Images: I took the first photo yesterday (June 22) after the Columbia Secondary School graduation ceremony and the second photo on May 30 on Eurovelo 11.

Ateliers philosophiques et artistiques

header

On the website of the Sainte Pulchérie Fransız Lisesi, there is a lovely article about my two weeks of teaching at the school. Besides describing my classes, it mentions some of the school events during my stay, some student honors and accomplishments (including publication in CONTRARIWISE), and more. My gratitude goes to everyone at the school–Dr. Nimet Küçük, M. Alexandre Abellan, students, teachers, and staff–and to everyone involved with CONTRARIWISE.

To Have a Home

Last night, at the B’nai Jeshurun Annual Meeting, our rabbis announced their decision regarding interfaith marriage, a decision that emerged from long deliberation and contemplation, including a full year of discussions, lectures, and other events, as well as prayer, thought, and conversation. I quote from their written announcement, which appears on the BJ website:

Beginning in 2018, we plan to celebrate and officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples who are committed to creating Jewish homes and raising any children as Jews. Drawing from traditional Jewish sources, rituals and symbols, we will create a new Jewish wedding ceremony for these couples.

We will continue to hold to the traditional matrilineal definition of Jewishness. We are not prepared to depart from k’lal Yisrael (the total Jewish community) by independently adopting a different approach in defining Jewish identity. In other words, we are not changing the halahic definition of who is a Jew. As rabbis, we have the space to decide whom we officiate for, and there is no concern about the validity of such marriages in the larger Jewish world. However, we don’t want to put BJ members in the situation of having their Jewish identity questioned or contested beyond the BJ community.

We take these steps with deep loyalty to the Jewish past and with unwavering commitment to the Jewish future. We will embrace a renewed sense of inclusiveness toward those who seek to be part of our community.

103 kosice synagogueI listened in wonder. This was not an easy decision; people at BJ and beyond have a range of views on the issue. The decision affects the rabbis’ relationship with the congregation, with other congregations, with Jewish organizations, with Israel, and with Judaism overall. It is not only about marriage ceremonies but about spiritual and practical focus: where to place the emphases and efforts.

What about those who wish to marry but do not wish to build Jewish homes? They have other possibilities, outside BJ. What matters here is that an interfaith couple committed to Jewish life will not be turned away, nor will the non-Jewish partner be required to convert to Judaism for the union to be recognized. Yet traditional definitions of Jewish identity will remain intact. The implications are great but also subtle; they will reveal themselves over time.

Readers of this blog have probably noticed that I am Jewish. I come from an interfaith (or rather, non-religious) parentage and many backgrounds: Eastern European Jewish on my mother’s side (with ancestors from Ukraine, Hungary/Slovakia, and Lithuania) and French, Norwegian (probably Sami), Irish, German, and more on my father’s. All of this is part of who I am. I just visited the town of one of my great-grandfathers (my maternal grandmother’s father); one day I hope to visit other ancestral places, including the northern reaches of Norway. Nor is ancestry the whole point for me, or even close; I know myself through the things I do and think, the music and literature I love, the friends I make, the things I learn, the changes I undergo, the things I lose, and the truths that stay with me over time.

I have been preparing for teaching at the Dallas Institute’s Summer Institute in July; my first lecture will be on Aeschylus’s Eumenides, in which Athena initiates the first Athenian murder trial by jury, bringing an end to a cycle of bloodshed and revenge. Her genius lies not only in the innovation, but in its respect for the hidden layers of society and life. The Furies, who seemed threatening and repulsive to Apollo, become a revered and essential part of the new order–far below the surface, in the depths of the home. In this way, the civic imagination makes room for the seen and unseen, the public and private, the new and the ancient; moreover, it finds beauty in what some would have dismissed as hideous. This is perhaps the foundation of what Edmund Burke and others (including David Bromwich in his magnificent book by the title) would call “moral imagination,” which has to do with seeing things in their depth, beyond their surface appearance or immediate utility. (There is more to it than that.)

I was in the presence of moral imagination last night. How great it is to have such a home.

Image credit: I took this photo on May 29 in the gallery of the Košice synagogue. It appears in my slideshow as well.

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

“And so it begins, again.”

contrariwise meeting

The above title quotes the “Five Word” (as opposed to last year’s “Four Word”) of the fourth issue of CONTRARIWISE. You can see all four issues side by side on the table. Today I went in to meet with the current and future editors-in-chief (two current, two future) and the faculty advisor–to discuss carrying CONTRARIWISE into the future. The new editors seemed eager to take on their new roles; the outgoing two, Kelly and Alan (who graduate in just over a week), regaled them with good advice.

It is not easy to give up the journal. I handed it over a year ago and stayed out of the production except when someone had a question for me or when I had a specific role to play (such as facilitating an Istanbul/NYC Skype conversation) or contributing to today’s meeting. All the same, I awaited the fourth issue eagerly and often opened up the earlier ones for browsing and reading. I remembered meetings, hours of editing and layout, deliberations, dilemmas, jokes, mishaps, sudden ideas, and uproarious yet serious celebrations.

But in giving it up, each person (the editors-in-chief or I) gave something to it. Others could now take charge of it and carry it onward, and the journal could strengthen its spine. No one left it abruptly; each person gave thought to its editorship and future. Those who took it over–editors and faculty advisor–did a terrific job. At this rate, there will be a fifth issue in 2018, a sixth issue in 2019, and onward, into the unknown. Or maybe the unknown will come first; who knows.

So as far as lettings-go go, this one went pretty well.

“How Was It?”

When I come back from a trip–or anything, really–and people ask, “How was it?” I don’t know what to say. “Rich, beautiful, fantastic,” etc.–those are generic words, but if I go into too much detail, I might try anyone’s patience, including my own. Moreover, the most important parts are often the most difficult to sum up. So I put together a slideshow–just a fraction of the photos I took, but a hint of the three weeks. To avoid big downloads and crashes, I put it on YouTube. (I adjusted and re-uploaded it several times; this is the final version.)

Also, I made a short video playlist of musicians I heard on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul. I find myself listening to these songs again and again.

Speaking of “How was it?” yesterday I saw a delightful performance of The Government Inspector, Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s play. The acting, stage set, directing, and the text itself combined into a performance that was part social satire, part panorama of human vice, and part utter silliness and play. I was grateful that that last part, the silliness and play, did not get short shrift; to me, it was the greatest part of all. Afterward there was a discussion with the director, Jesse Berger; the Russian scholar and author Emil A. Draitser; and several members of the cast.

Gogol’s play and the adaptation have the same basic plot: Residents of a small provincial town learn of the imminent arrival of a revizor, or government inspector. They scramble to cover up the town’s far-reaching corruption. In the meantime, Khlestakov, a self-indulgent, imaginative, unsuspecting dandy, has been staying at the inn for a week; once his presence is noted, people assume he is the revizor himself. This plays out hilariously–and in this production, everyone is having fun. But there’s also a sad irony: while believing they are covering up their foibles, the townspeople actually reveal one vice after another, particularly obsequiousness. What seems like concealment unravels into disclosure.

But this does not sum up the play, the adaptation, or the performance; as I was watching, I noticed that each scene, and many moments within the scenes, come across as pictures, po-gogolevski. The wordless scene at the end–the famous “nemaia stsena”–still shifts and staggers in my mind.

This actually brings me back to my trip. The four lessons I taught in Istanbul (to four sections of eleventh-graders) were about the relation between concealment and disclosure in specific works of art, music, and literature: a Degas painting, a Verlaine poem, the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7, a passage from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and Chekhov’s story “Home.” This play would have been a great addition to that syllabus, had there been time for it. In that sense, the study continues.

So my reply to “How was it?” is “Was? No, is.”

Popularity Sans Teeth

IMG_3280Mitch Prinstein’s New York Times op-ed “Popular People Live Longer” bounces between conflicting conceptions of popularity and fails to establish a working definition. For this reason I trust neither the premise nor the conclusions. Moreover, it relies heavily on Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s meta-study, which examines the relationship between the quality and quantity of one’s relationships (not popularity exactly) and one’s mortality. But what is popularity anyway? Some clarity would have helped.

In the fourth paragraph, in passing, Prinstein seems to define lack of popularity (“being unpopular”) as “feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely.” This conflation of the subjective and objective confuses the issue. If “being unpopular” is the same as “feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely,” then “being popular” would be the same as “feeling included, connected, fulfilled.” Yet there are plenty of people with few but strong friendships who feel “included, connected, fulfilled.” Does having just a few good friends, then, make you popular, if you feel good about the situation?

If so, then standards definitions of popularity go out the window. In dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster, popularity is associated with “common” or “general” approval, not the strong approval or support of the few, or with one’s own feelings of acceptance and fulfillment. Has Prinstein pulled a Humpty Dumpty on us?

No–I suspect that instead he has just used the wrong word and concept. Popularity is not the issue here. It may be that some combination of the number of one’s friends, the quality of one’s friendships, and one’s own feelings of inclusion can have a great effect on one’s health. In fact, Lunstad and colleagues emphasize the importance of the combination: ” Importantly, the researchers also report that social relationships were more predictive of the risk of death in studies that considered complex measurements of social integration than in studies that considered simple evaluations such as marital status.” (I view Holt-Lunstad’s study cautiously but see possibilities in the general principle.)

In other words, Lunstad’s study is not about popularity in the first place. Prinstein writes that “Dr. Holt-Lunstad found that people who had larger networks of friends had a 50 percent increased chance of survival by the end of the study they were in.” Yet Holt-Lunstad says “stronger,” not “larger”: “Across 148 studies (308,849 participants), the random effects weighted average effect size was OR = 1.50 (95% CI 1.42 to 1.59), indicating a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships.”

Very well. What about Prinstein’s own discussion of popularity?

He wisely distinguishes between different kinds of popularity, particularly between likability and status–and notes that Facebook likes have more to do with the latter than the former. “Which means that it wouldn’t kill you to step away from Twitter once in a while,” he concludes, bringing me close to to liking the piece. Yet he fails to make other necessary distinctions–not only between subjective and objective states, not only between number and quality of relationships, but also between one’s qualities and others’ responses to them, and between likability and virtue overall.

Likability,” he says, “reflects kindness, benevolent leadership and selfless, prosocial behavior.” First of all, likability, defined in this manner, is not equal to being liked; it is just the state of qualifying for being liked. You can show kindness and benevolence and still be shunned by those around you. In fact, this has happened often through the ages.

But there’s another rub. Often to be kind and benevolent, you have to do things that others don’t immediately like. Suppose, for instance, you are the principal of a school that has had ongoing problems with bullying. To curb the bullying, you institute a schoolwide program of discipline and character education. Students start complaining that it’s stupid; teachers, that it’s taking too much time from other things; parents, that their own child doesn’t need it. But you persist with the plan. Over time, the bullying goes away, and the school’s new practices become habitual. People now praise the character education program for its content and effects. Students who used to dread coming to school now thrive in their classes and walk easily down the hallways. But for this to happen, you had to risk being disliked.

That leads to more brambles still. Likability is not the only virtue in life. Often there is reason to do things that come into conflict with likability. Of course, to do good or to accomplish something important, one need not be gratuitously nasty or cold–but sometimes one needs an independent streak, an ability to think and act alone. It is possible that such internal strength also contributes to longevity.

All in all, Prinstein’s working premise needs much more probing, definition, and refinement. In addition, the forthcoming book (from which the op-ed is adapted) needs a new title. Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World mimics Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (and other titles with similar formulas). It’s too late–the book comes out tomorrow–but did the author and publisher choose this title for the sake of popularity? Or was it meant as a tribute? Either way, it’s a shame; the title limits the book by establishing a flawed opposition. Don’t judge a book by its title and accompanying op-ed, I remind myself, but the two leave me with doubts.

 

I took this photo on Eurovelo 11 in Hungary.