On Giving Things Up

IMG_3805

Last week, in a conversation about my upcoming move to Hungary, a friend asked me, “How could you give up your apartment here?” I found this question difficult to answer; after all, we are defined in large part by our willingness and unwillingness to give up certain things. For me, giving up an apartment (under these circumstances) is easy; for someone else, it may be unthinkable. But I struggle with other material attachments. When sorting and packing my things, I have paused for a long time over books. I can’t bring many books with me, but I find more and more that I don’t want to leave behind. I am just putting them in storage–they won’t be gone–but I won’t be able to take them out of the shelf whenever I want.

Extreme circumstances–a war, flood, earthquake, fire, or other calamity–can force a person to give up things that otherwise would have seemed indispensable. Even a minor life change requires relinquishment of some kind. All the same, in large and small situations, each of us has a unique response to things that stay and go. Whether in times of ease or difficulty, no two people attach in the same way to their possessions, surroundings, and relationships.

Why is it easy for me to give up my place? After selling my apartment in Brooklyn, I chose to rent (rather than buy) an apartment so that I would have greater flexibility. I wanted to be open to future possibilities. So in a way the departure was already built in; I just didn’t know what form it would take. I love the neighborhood–particularly Fort Tryon Park–and am grateful for the two years here. It was an ideal place for writing my book (which is inching toward publication, by the way; there’s no concrete news yet, but I see light ahead).

So one answer to the question is, “This was part of the plan, before I even knew what the plan would be.” But another answer has to do with my sense of home. In my adult life I have spent years in one place or another–over a decade in New Haven, seven years in San Francisco, thirteen years in Brooklyn, two years in upper Manhattan, and seven Julys in Dallas. I am not one to move around continually. But I have no single home; each of these places is still a home for me, and there will be more.

Home does not exist for me without homesickness and longing for unknown places. Those are two different longings, though they combine at times; homesickness is a longing for a real or imagined home, while that longing for other places–places that aren’t home–pulls a person away from home, away even from homesickness, into travel and exploration. In his video introduction to his Shudh Sarang-sextet, Iván Fischer describes his search for a single word for such longing, something along the lines of “farsickness.” He had a wonderful Hungarian word, elvágyódások, but could not find a title in English that conveyed what he wanted.

So to answer the question, I would have to explain my sense of home, homesickness, and longing for the faraway. That could take a few years; in the meantime, the relations might have altered or shifted. For most of my adult life, I have not traveled much abroad, but the few trips I took on my own (to Kyrgyzstan, Argentina, Lithuania, Turkey, Slovakia, and Hungary) became part of my daily thought. The move to Hungary is more than travel; I don’t know what it will become, and I look forward to finding out.

Isn’t this true for everyone? Doesn’t each person have a sense of home that is difficult to explain to others, that changes shape over a lifetime, and that gets pushed and pulled in unexpected ways?

Back to the sorting and packing….

 

I took this photo in Baja, Hungary.

On Staying Intact

transfer bridge

I was partly kidding when I suggested that if we all pitched in now and then with gardening and philosophizing, we would get things done, it wouldn’t be so terrible, and no one would have to be roped in for the long haul. But a more serious question has been on my mind: Is it possible to do something one doesn’t normally do and doesn’t like to do, or something about which one has mixed thoughts and emotions, and still stay intact? I realize that “yes and no” is too simple an answer, but if explained properly, it seems correct.

What does it mean to stay intact? It means that you retain roughly the same thoughts and preferences as before, as well as the strength to honor them. If I generally don’t like commercial action thrillers but go with a friend to see War for the Planet of the Apes (which I have no plans to see), find myself enjoying it a little, but still know that I would not choose it on my own, I have stayed intact. I have neither betrayed myself nor become a different person; I just tried something out of the usual for me.

Or take a trickier example: Let’s say I have a friend who does not like some of my other friends. I can spend time with this person, in private or public, without fearing that I have betrayed others. Sometimes this can be challenging, but it’s possible.

Or suppose I attend a religious service of a faith other than my own. Up to a point, I can participate without worrying that I have gone against who I am. There is a breaking point, though, generally understood by all. For instance, if you are not Catholic, you can sing the hymns and join in the responses (according to your comfort) but should not take communion. In holding back here, you show respect for yourself and others.

Another tricky example: Suppose I attend a demonstration that generally reflects my views but differs in some particulars. If I participate without assuming (or letting others assume) that I have given up my differences, then I have stayed intact. (In this case, the demonstration becomes a statement in itself, so a participant may have difficulty differentiating himself from it.)

Why does it matter to stay intact? It affects your participation in the world. If you believe that an experience will turn you into that thing, whatever it may be, then you might avoid it, for fear of becoming someone you don’t want to be. If you believe that you will stay intact, you can walk confidently through the world and try all kinds of interesting things.

So, now for the “yes” and “no” of the matter. It is possible to do something without becoming it, yet each of our experiences and actions influences us and our directions. Moreover, some experiences affect us profoundly and surprisingly. We can’t always control what comes of them. Also, some distinctions and markers of identity lose importance over time, while others gain importance. Someone who formerly took pride in not being a “poetry person” may come to question whether such a type exists. But a poet who initially admired both Yeats and Auden might come to favor one over the other.

It’s possible to stay intact, but not completely.  We’re continually reshaping around the edges. Sometimes the center undergoes a whirl. Still, even with that, it’s possible not to cave in to each suggestion or sensation. The wisdom of when and when not to resist, how far to venture outward, and when and how to go home can be found in books, but only partly. Each judgment is lonely.  But there’s something grounding in seeing it as judgment, and not just as fate or folly. In many senses of the phrase, we get to make up our minds.

 

I took this photo of the 69th Street Transfer Bridge while biking along the Hudson last Friday. See Nick Carr’s photos as well.

As usual, I made some minor changes to this piece after posting it.

Weeding and Watching

gardening When people tell me that philosophy isn’t their thing, I figure they can’t possibly mean philosophy as I define it. Some other kind of philosophy must unimpress them. I don’t think I could do without it, nor would I want to, though I think in various ways, not only philosophically. Philosophy, as I understand it, involves not only questioning a premise but building a structure of questions. For instance, what questions do we need to ask, and in what sequence, to arrive at a better understanding of happiness? I enjoy thinking and reading about such topics, discussing them with others, and going off on my own to think some more. This isn’t  just fun; to an extent it informs how I live.

But when it comes to gardening, I throw down the gloves. I am not a gardener! Some, hearing this, may assume I have misunderstood gardening, since gardening (as they understand it) goes rake in rake with joy. But no, I  do not like gardening. I am not supposed to spend extended time in the sun; beyond that, I dislike the crouching and the continual feeling (usually confirmed by others) that I’m doing something wrong: that I failed to pull up a weed or succeeded in destroying an important legume.

All that said, I enjoyed some modest gardening in Fort Tryon Park yesterday. The volunteer shift was from 10 to 2; I lasted from 10 to noon. I felt bad about leaving early, but then I thought: isn’t that better than not volunteering at all? For those two hours, or most of them, I enjoyed the weeds and lilies (listen to Hannah Marcus’s gorgeous song by that title). It’s possible to stretch beyond my preferences without going to far: to garden just enough, not to the point where I never want to garden again. Also, within those limits I didn’t have to worry about having to extricate myself; the extrication was built in. I could stay true to the “hardly ever.”

IMG_3668 Today, with some friends, I watched the partial eclipse from Central Park. Many had gathered with special glasses, cylinders, colanders, and other instruments; others stopped by and asked to borrow glasses. We were thronged with excitement and curiosity; I could not have wished for a better crowd and sky. I thought about how these two things go together, the weeding and the watching. To make such a gathering possible, someone had to pull the weeds and clean the litter. Someone had to work out some basic natural philosophy. That person didn’t  have to be someone else; it could be any of us, if we went beyond our usual hesitations and complaints. Then again, no one, given free choice, really has to do what he or she dislikes doing. My only point is that it’s possible and, within limits, possibly even fun.

IMG_3672Thus beauty and labor depend on each other. There would be no point in gardening if it didn’t give people a garden, no point in philosophy if it didn’t open up understandings. It’s easy to delegate the labor to others, but it’s more satisfying to take part, within reason. Short shrift may bite and sting, but a short shift may save the day.

In this last picture, a woman is holding a colander so that the eclipse will project onto the paper below. Others stand by and photograph the paper. The dogs fixate on other things, whatever those may be. People pass through the park. We start to think of things we have to do. Time and schedule press in. Sun and moon slowly let go of each other.

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

What Is Civics Education?

Utopia

After the Charlottesville violence, there will probably be renewed calls for civics education.* But what is civics education? Any initiative needs a clear understanding of it.

Here is what I would offer. Civics education conveys, develops, and enlivens the premise that a country is built on principles, structures, realities, and interpretations, and that each of these has internal contradictions and contradictions with other elements. Civics education would help students understand (a) what these principles, structures, realities, and interpretations actually are; (b) where they come from, historically and philosophically; (c) how they have coincided or conflicted with each other over time; (d) how one can grapple with these confluences and contradictions; and (e) how one can apply this understanding. In addition, such a curriculum would bring out the relation between external government (government of a country or smaller political unit) and internal government (government of the self). A civics curriculum that built this kind of knowledge, questioning, analysis, and introspection would be fine indeed!

So, for instance, the principle of “pursuit of happiness” runs into frequent conflict with the principle of equality, but both are essential to this country and part of its foundation. How does one reconcile them? Answers may be found in philosophical works, court cases, literature, and more, but such answers are not final and do not solve everything. The question stays open, continually calling for new responses, not only in the political arena, but in our minds and lives.

A civics curriculum would include but go beyond courses in government, philosophy, and history alone; it would involve arts, languages, literatures, mathematics, and sciences, since all of these help us understand who we are, who others are, what is known and unknown, and what matters.

Very well, you might say. When and how will this great education come about? I say that it already exists, in places and in pieces. The challenge is to lift it up and make it stronger. This will require, among other things, renewed dedication to secular education–that is, not education that denies or diminishes religious faith, but that builds a common basis and mode of discussion among people: a basis of knowledge and a mode of reasoning, imagining, and listening.

This may sound grand and far-fetched, but I have seen it in practice. I sensed these qualities in my best high school, college, and graduate school classes; I have found them when visiting classes taught by colleagues. I see them in the philosophy roundtables and philosophy journal at Columbia Secondary School. I experience them each summer at the Dallas Institute and look forward to reveling in them at the upcoming ALSCW Conference. In addition, I find them when reading, listening to music, visiting other countries, speaking other languages, and writing. These are some of the contexts I know; how many more there must be! This practice exists, in other words; it just needs attention, recognition, and strengthening.

Image credit: Sir Thomas More, Utopia, 1516 edition.

*The term “civics education” may seem redundant, since “civics” already denotes a field of study. I use it to refer not just to the field but to the ways of teaching it and the subjects surrounding 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.

 

“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 might 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 we “skip” parts of the Hallel service on Rosh Hodesh precisely because 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 other 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 and later edited it again for clarity.

“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.

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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.