The Bounty of Self-Doubt

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I depend on self-doubt for survival and prosperity. I don’t refer here to existential doubt, which does me little good, except as a starting point. (As a starting point, it has bounty of its own.) I mean the kind where I question my words and actions.

For survival, this allows me to recognize where I am going wrong and make corrections. For prosperity, it allows me to consider possibilities, to look further into questions, to find more in a person, book, or other entity than I have seen before.

The other day a baby kitten came meowing up to me, right outside my apartment building. Then he ran up to someone else who was buzzing one of the apartments. He seemed to know the building and to want to be let in–but his scrawniness and ticks suggested that he lived outdoors.

I had a thought of adopting him. I brought him upstairs, gave him water (which he drank avidly), and let him relax in Minnaloushe’s crate. After a while, I brought him out.

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Minnaloushe seemed relaxed at first, but then she let out a long hiss. I remembered that something similar had happened five and a half years ago when I adopted Aengus. It took Minnaloushe a little while to understand what was going on, but when she did, she wasn’t happy. I held the little kitten on my lap, and he purred and purred; Minnaloushe gazed off into the abstract distance, thinking, “here we go again.” (I have no idea what she was thinking.)

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I didn’t want to put Minnaloushe through this again–especially now, when I am about to leave for the U.S. for a month. It wouldn’t be fair to her or to the cat-sitter to introduce her to a kitten in my absence. Also, the kitty would need a medical exam first;  he might well be sick.

So I brought him back outside. A woman sitting out on the bench told me that he was known to people here–that he had a sibling, and that he was safe near the building. He retreated into the shade of a plant; I comforted myself with the thought that I had brought him back home.

But later I began questioning myself. Couldn’t I have brought him to the vet–to give him shots, have his ticks removed, etc.? Granted, I leave in ten days–but I could explain that to the vet, and we could figure out the best plan. So I will keep an eye out for him; if I see him again, that is what I will do.

In none of this, even the questioning, do I feel that I “did the right thing”; instead, the questioning pulled me out of self-satisfaction. Rarely is it possible to do the right thing completely. Imperfections come up everywhere. Nor is doubt always constructive; you can doubt your way into a tizzy, like the Underground Man. But doubt combined with searching can result in a reasonably good idea, at least something worth trying out.

How does this differ from “growth mindset,” a concept I criticize? I find that the division between growth and fixed mindsets oversimplifies reality. Even in questioning myself here, I stayed within limits. There are courses of action I didn’t consider, even afterward. That isn’t because I am deficient in “growth mindset”; rather, some options were outside of reasonable range for me, and others held no appeal. In much of we do, we combine limit and possibility; the combination allows us to bring actions to completion while still thinking beyond them.

I hope this kitty fares well, and I hope to see him again so that I can take him to the vet.

 

I took the first photo at the farmers’ market in Szolnok and the second photo at home. The third photo (of Minnaloushe) is from a week ago; it doesn’t quite convey the “here we go again” look, but it comes close.

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.

Celebrating CONTRARIWISE from Afar

Vol 5 CoverIn honor of today’s CONTRARIWISE celebration at Book Culture in New York City, I thought I’d post a partial review of the fifth issue–partial in the double sense of “biased” and “fragmentary.” It’s biased because I served as faculty advisor for the first three issues; fragmentary because I will comment on only a fraction of it. What a beautiful, playful, inquisitive volume, and what a joy to see CONTRARIWISE continuing onward!

It has many traditional CONTRARIWISE features and touches: the cover art, a Cast and Crew section, the Infrequently Asked Questions, the contests, certain topics and forms, and the Index of Essentials, and others; each of these comes across in a fresh way. The pieces make you laugh, pause, read slowly, think, and return.

Jeanyna Garcia’s “Cooking à la Buber” relates cooking to Martin Buber’s idea of the I-Thou relation. “As weird as it may sound,” she writes, “if there isn’t a special attachment between you and the food, or if there isn’t diligence while you are preparing the food, then you might as well be cooking something inedible.”

In “The Story of Envy,” a dialogue that takes place over the years, Theo Frye Yanos (who has contributed to every issue of CONTRARIWISE) takes up tensions between parent and child, longing and limitation, consolation and truth. The piece begins, “Once there was a child. The child was named Envy, and all they wanted was to have a big, colorful house with lots of flowers.” Growing older, more mature (or immature?), and more stubborn, Envy longs to be understood rather than wished away.

Natalie Schmit’s “From Folly” not only made me roar but captured something of the texts in question. She wrote the piece for an assignment: students had to imagine a conversation between characters in writings they had read in philosophy class that year. The resulting epistolary exchange (between Desiderius Erasmus’s Folly and a character from Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose”) includes this letter:

Dear Folly,

I asked you not to write to me again. But your thoughts are too serious to ignore. First, how dare you speak of my daughter like that!? She will have a proper marriage to a nice bureaucrat with a nose! I surely have no idea what this “joking” business is. I only have joked one singular time in my life. I do not have any more time for this nonsense. I have more important things to do. Additionally, I have come to suspect this may be sedition? I don’t know, but I want nothing to do with it!

Goodbye forever (for real this time),
Madam Alexandra Grigoryevna
P.S. Do NOT refer to me as Alex!

Speaking of Russian literature, another of my favorites is Melany Garcia’s essay “The Underground Man: Philosopher or Angry Middle-Aged Man?” She argues that Dostoevsky’s Underground Man is not a philosopher; unable to “move forward in understanding his opinions,” he “simply rants and rambles on about them.” That seems believable on the face–but what makes this piece stand out is its keenness. The author examines some of the passages where the Underground Man verges most closely on philosophy–and shows how he stops short or veers off.

I almost forgot! Another favorite is Mario Pereira’s “Logos at Thanatos,” where Aristotle enters a classroom in the Underworld and finds Socrates giving a lesson to a corpse. It begins:

Socrates: And so, only philosophers have the knowledge to divine the forms.

Corpse: Of course.

This reminds me of the old days of CONTRARIWISE, except that it’s different. Of course a corpse says “of course”–but no corpse has done so before, at least not here. There’s a verbal justice to it; the right thing gets said by the right character (to the right character–what do you say to Socrates but “of course”?) at the right time.

Speaking of justice, this year’s international contest, which involved imagining justice as a building, brought in a wealth of pieces. I have previously mentioned the winnersBarnabás Paksi, Hakan Urgancıoğlu, and Gábor Medvegy–but the editors chose to publish additional entries, and with good reason. They are fascinating and different from each other.

The journal takes immense work: planning the issue, announcing contests, inviting and collecting submissions (including art), reviewing them, choosing them, contacting the authors, editing the selected pieces, putting them in layout, designing the cover, proofreading, proofreading again, proofreading still again, sending everything off, waiting, receiving the copies, selling them, planning events, holding them, planning for the next year, and, in addition to all of this, sending out announcements, maintaining the website, updating the Facebook page, handling the finances, finding ways to sell more copies and raise money, updating the documentation, and, alongside everything, delving into topics and texts, thinking about the philosophical ideas themselves.  It “speaks volumes” (five, in fact!) that those now in charge of the journal have given it so much care and thought.

As I promised, I have covered just a fraction of the fifth issue. You can read the rest on your own; that’s better than reading about it! To all those involved in today’s event–which begins in about 20 minutes–I wish you a joyous occasion. Here are a few photos from CONTRARIWISE events of yore.

 

 

 

“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.

Birches and Books

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William Blake got something right in his ruminative “Auguries of Innocence“:

The Princes Robes & Beggars Rags
Are Toadstools on the Misers Bags
A Truth thats told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent
It is right it should be so
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know<
Thro the World we safely go

What a strange and persistent poem; it seems like a long procession of lanterns. I think of it in light of the sad international news of the past few weeks, the joys in my life, the mixture of meanings everywhere.

Today many students were out of the classroom, attending a special event, so I took my eleventh-grade classes to the park, where we went in different directions, looked at something for five minutes, and then converged again to show each other what we had seen. In one session I found roses blooming upward; in another, a weeping birch in the wind.

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During this time, things have been coming along with the book, which now has a jacket design:

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To top it all off, or to lift it up from the foundation, the CONTRARIWISE copies arrived here in Szolnok today! A copy goes to each of the contest winners from my school, another one to the school, and one to me. CONTRARIWISE prevails. I will say more soon.

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Happy Volume 5, CONTRARIWISE!

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Last Thursday I received word that the fifth issue of CONTRARIWISE had just arrived at Columbia Secondary School! Soon we will receive copies here in Szolnok. At that point I will have more to say; for now, congratulations to the writers, editors, faculty advisor, and everyone who brought this about. The journal thrives.

As many readers know, Barnabás Paksi  (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok, Hungary) won first place in this year’s CONTRARIWISE International Contest; Gábor Medvegy (also from Varga Katalin) shares the second place with Hakan Urgancıoğlu (Sainte Pulchérie Lisesi, Istanbul, Turkey). Their pieces appear in this issue.

There will be a CONTRARIWISE event at Book Culture (536 112th St., New York City) on Sunday, June 3, at 3 p.m. If you are in the vicinity, go! It’s an incomparable experience. Here are photos from the 2014, 2015, and 2016 events (at Word Up, Bowery Poetry, and Book Culture).

Panaceas and Toxins (and Their Discontents)

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Throughout my adult life (and some of my childhood as well), I have objected to the worship of panaceas and toxins, which now has reached screeching peaks in private, social, and political life. There’s a human temptation to swoon before all-encompassing solutions and all-destroying poisons, or things that claim such status. In reality, grand solutions and grand destructors are rare; most things fall short of such extremes.

I have known people who believed in a single answer to all of life, be it Amway, herbal medicine, or a political stance. Similarly, I have seen national leaders blame a single enemy (say, George Soros or the media) for many if not all of the country’s ills. I have seen self-help books by the dozens that claim to help you get rid of toxic people, find your true fulfillment in six steps, and so forth.

It is easy to see how sweeping solutions can do more damage than good. It’s more difficult to figure out why they have such wide and profound appeal. Part of the reason is obvious: people want answers for the difficulties they encounter in life. Big answers seem to promise big relief. But there’s a more fundamental reason: such solutions offer their believers an identity. If you believe in a panacea, then you automatically become part of the in-group, not part of the problem. Likewise, if you call out a “toxic” person or thing, then you are one of the non-toxic, one of the worthy members of humanity. In both cases, you get to identify with a group of “acceptables” and to join with them against the enemy. Such group membership, whether subtle or overt, offers definition and comfort.

No one escapes this entirely. Probably everyone, at some point, has subscribed to some solution or pinpointed some enemy. Nor is this always wrong; such clarity and simplicity can allow for important action. The danger, or part of it, lies in doing this for the sake of an identity rush or a sense of vindication. Identity does not come from here, and vindication can bring new grief.

Worldviews that depend on panaceas and toxins leave no room for “discontents”–that is, those who object and those who fail to be contained. Throughout history, the dissident who has said “I am not contained, and I refuse to be contained, in this plan of yours” has revealed an ideology’s narrowness and insistence on conformity. There are dissidents today whom few recognize as such; they speak courageously against false formulas. (I do not herald myself as one of these; to be a dissident, I would need to speak up a bit more.)

A few of the essays in Mind over Memes–“Take Away the Takeaway,” “Social and Unsocial Justice,” “The Toxicity of ‘Toxic'” (also the title of a blog post), “In Praise of Mixed Mindsets,” and “A Good Misfit”–challenge our penchant for big solutions and ostracisms. I take it up elsewhere as well: for instance, in “The Folly of the Big Idea.”

Yet my contributions are minuscule compared to what has been done; literature, by its nature, resists reduction, whether subtly or explicitly, whether thematically or through its syntactic turns. I think of the ending of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge:

Her teaching had a reflex action upon herself, insomuch that she thought she could perceive no great personal difference between being respected in the nether parts of Casterbridge and glorified at the uppermost end of the social world. Her position was, indeed, to a marked degree one that, in the common phrase, afforded much to be thankful for. That she was not demonstratively thankful was no fault of hers. Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transmit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers. But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who had deserved much more. And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquility had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.

Here Hardy does much more than to say that “people can find sustained happiness in adulthood, even after unhappy childhoods.” He takes the reader through subtlety after subtlety: Elizabeth-Jane recognizes her good fortune but is not demonstrably thankful; her life experience does not call for effusiveness, yet she also realizes that others have deserved far more than they received. She is thus “forced to class herself among the fortunate,” but even within this stricture, she wonders “at the persistence of the unforeseen.” Even this tracing of the paragraph does little justice to it; the phrase “Her teaching had a reflex action upon herself” must be understood in light of the previous paragraph, which in turn reflects on what comes before.

I think of many other stories, poems, songs–Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” comes to mind now–that in some way break out of their summaries. When you read them,  you break out of your own, “for here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.”

I took the photo yesterday.  Please click on it for the full-size image; if you zoom in, you can see the stork in flight. At least one stork frequents the Zagyva these days; he (or she) pecks at things in the water and grass, struts around, and soars over the water.

“Sunrise, sunset”

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As I enjoy coffee, birdsong, and breeze (the balcony door is opened wide) and think about the coming week, I thrill over the extra bundle of time that got dropped into my lap. Last week, we had the graduation ceremony; this week, the seniors take their finals. While I have many things to do at school, this Monday through Thursday I have no classes until afternoon. Thus I have some morning time for two big projects: reviewing the page proofs for my book and learning the liturgy and texts for Shavuot.

There were two graduation ceremonies: one in school (on Thursday), and one outdoors, throughout Szolnok (on Saturday). I couldn’t attend the second, since I was in Budapest–but the first was unlike any I had seen or heard before. With their form teachers at the front of the line, the seniors walked hand in hand, class by class, through the halls, carrying flowers and singing songs in unison (including “Gaudeamus igitur”). The faculty stood outside the teachers’ room and listened to them as they wove by. It was so beautiful. Then we went out into the schoolyard for the speeches and awards.

These rites of passage have meaning, but only if we recognize that life does pass by.

In the U.S., women (and men) over 30 are continually urged to conceal their age, to make themselves seem younger than they are, to knock off a decade somehow, as though one’s true age were a source of shame. I reject this shame. It is in my fifties that I find things coming together: meaningful work and projects, self-knowledge, a few insights into the world around me, a sense of fun, and a tolerance for the many things that I do not know or understand. I was not there in my twenties, thirties, or forties; why hide from my age, when it has allowed me to build things? One day I will be older still. In fact, that will happen right now.

Each age comes with its responsibilities too. They are not spelled out and absolute–they vary from person to person–but they make themselves clear. I see the fifties as a time of ordering. The house is built; now put things in place. For some, this happens much earlier; for others, later; or maybe different parts happen at different times.

When preparing the Torah portion for this last Shabbat, I struggled with the text (Leviticus 21), which discusses how the priest must keep himself pure. For example, he may marry only a virgin, not a profaned woman, a harlot, or a woman banished from her husband. The judgments of women seem archaic–but as I worked with the text, I saw greater meaning. The priest, in his role, has an obligation to conduct himself in a holy manner, for the sake of the holiness itself. Others might be at liberty to marry a “profaned” woman–but he may not, even if he wishes. There could be many reasons for this: the relationship should not stir up gossip, its status should not be ambiguous, the children should be born into good reputation, etc.–but the larger point is that he must restrict himself for the sake of his role, which in turn serves something larger.

Today’s rules are more flexible–and can vary considerably from one culture or position to another–but like ancient rules, they carry principles. Each office in life comes with its obligations and strictures. In most cultures, a teacher does not socialize with students outside of school, since this would break the integrity of the classroom. Facebook “friending” between teachers and students is common in some places (for instance, here in Hungary) but comes with boundaries. Friendships between teachers and parents are a trickier matter; in some cultures and communities they are common and accepted, whereas in others they break the norm. Yet even where accepted, they must be conducted properly. Even collegial relationships can be tricky, since they come with many unspoken and unofficial rules.

With all the supposed liberties of our era, one of the great challenges is to glean and apply the rules, allowing for appropriate variation. No profession, no way of life can survive long without structure, but what kind does it need? Some parts are obvious at the outset; others take time to figure out but hold equal importance. Part of the beauty of Leviticus (along with its harshness) lies in its offering of structure.

Those who flagrantly disrespect structure (such as President Trump) affect not only themselves but others. The structure is never only for oneself; it sets an example and hints at a form. Throughout my life I have learned from others’ structures and lack thereof.

Back to the question of age: I see the fifties as a time of knowing one’s structure, arranging one’s life within it, and treating others with dignity. This does not have to be rigid or final; there will be many mistakes, openings, bendings, and rebuildings. But one comes to see structure for what it offers and means. This can happen earlier and later too–but there’s a special time when structure comes into focus.

This brings me to the title: “Sunrise, sunset.” The days go by too fast; you barely get your structure together, and it starts to creak. All the more reason, I think, to give it honor.

 

I took the photo on my bike trip.

I revised this piece in several stages after posting it.

There’s No Such Thing as a “Thinker”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So it is with “thinkers.” The people who call us this or that have no idea what they’re talking about. Yet knowing oneself requires knowing one’s flaws; “I am not wrong” does not mean “Everything I do or say is right and good.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

What’s in a Country?

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One thing I have learned from living in various places is that no country can be pinned down or reduced. The Hungarian election results dismayed many, including me, but they do not sum up the times. There are many opinions, many layers of life; visible trends do not make up the whole. Yes, there’s reason to be vigilant, but neither the Prime Minister nor his party, Fidesz, represents everyone here.

Why, then, did so many people vote for Orbán? Some genuinely support his platform and believe his campaign promises. Some prefer him (or continuity, anyway) to the alternatives. Some don’t think much will improve, in general, no matter who gets elected. (Apathy can be a mighty force.) I don’t think many are surprised that he won. The greater disappointment, for those disappointed, is over the parliamentary win; it will be hard to oppose or even mitigate Fidesz’s legislative agenda.

How will this affect daily and institutional life? I do not know yet; for many, it’s a continuation of the familiar, but taken to new extremes. Orbán has promised elégtétel, something like “revenge” or “retaliation”) against his opponents, so there probably won’t be open dialogue among political leaders and constituents any time soon.

Will there be a rise in anti-Semitism? There’s probably more than one answer to that question. In many ways, Jewish life in Budapest seems to be thriving (there were some 130 people at the Szim Salom seder, for instance, and we are a small shul). On the other hand, one can see and feel the effects of the Shoah, the decades of Soviet rule, and the more recent right-wing attitudes. Many Jews keep their identity private; they don’t speak about it in the workplace or with people they don’t know well. Some people have even buried it for a generation or two; there are young people today discovering that they are Jewish. At the same time, many non-Jewish people are starting to learn about Judaism for the first time; from what I gather, it was for years an unbroachable subject. I don’t know what direction (or directions) things will take from here. The question is not about Hungary alone; around the world there are movements toward and away from understanding.

On this blog I don’t bring up everything I hear and see; for example, I don’t report individual or classroom conversations. I don’t think people would feel comfortable seeing their own words (even without their names, even in paraphrased form) on a blog. I do hear a range of political and other views, almost every day; in my experience so far, people are unafraid to speak openly and disagree with each other. I hope this openness continues.

In the meantime, this is the most beautiful spring I have seen in years. Biking home from school, I see trees in bloom, people rowing, people fishing, dogs running around, and a whole spate of greenery. At school, much is going on; my students, colleagues, and I are starting to plan for a Shakespeare event at the end of May. Last week, thanks to a colleague’s planning, we had a wonderful event at a local Russian restaurant, where one of the chefs taught us how to make a Russian salad. One of my eleventh-grade classes is reading Ionesco’s Rhinoceros; we are sure to have some interesting discussions. Across the seas, the fifth issue of CONTRARIWISE should be out in a few weeks.

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How do you put all that together: the beauty, the good things, the disappointments, the danger? You try to hold it all, but how? I think the answer, or part of it, lies in resisting false summaries and reductions. That’s in large part what my book is about–and, to an extent, my life. I am far from perfect at it–but rather than strive for perfection, I work for better judgment within the imperfection. Summaries are essential to good reasoning; it would be a mistake (and an impossibility) to give them up entirely. Still, they can be kept in perspective and held in doubt. If we treat our words and conclusions like testimony, if we ask ourselves, “Is this the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” the answer will usually be “No.”

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I took all three pictures in Szolnok: the first one at school, the second when crossing the Zagyva, and the third at the Russian event organized by my colleague Judit. The sign in the first picture means roughly “Caution: Danger of Falling/Crumbling Objects.” Speaking of the book, it is now available for pre-ordering; the projected publication date is October 15. I hope to have copies available for signing at the ALSCW Conference in November and possibly at an earlier event as well. I will post details on my website.