A Literary Evening About Death

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I have been promising to describe an event I attended in Debrecen on January 17: a reading and discussion hosted by the literary magazine Alföldon the topic of death.

The theme was not mortality but death. Mortality is the abstract condition; death, the actual event. Mortality is death in a suit and tie (or cocktail dress); death can’t dress up if it tries. Why would a literary event on death draw such a large, dedicated crowd on a winter evening in Debrecen? I can only answer for myself: I went because I admire at least one of the writers and was eager to hear this topic approached openly, a topic that often gets euphemized and sidestepped. Introduced by the editor-in-chief of Alföld, Péter Szirák, the event consisted of discussion–led by the poet and Alföld editor János Áfra–and readings by Krisztián Grecsó, Gyula Jenei, and Márton Meszáros. I left with more than my limited Hungarian can assemble right now, but even if I were fluent in the language, I would need a long time to put together what I had heard.

They began by considering how, for many, the first encounter with death was through the death of an animal. Gyula Jenei read his poems “Tyúkszaros” (approximately the adjective “Chicken-shat”) and “Dögkút” (approximately “Carcass Pit”). Krisztián Grecsó read his story “Jó nap a halálra” (“A good day for death”). Márton Meszáros, a literary scholar, spoke of some of his work. I am not giving translations here of any of the works, because I would want to take time to do it adequately, ask the authors’ permission, and look for a better place for the translations than this blog.

The discussion and readings brought up many memories. I have not raised animals for food and do not know what that is like. But I remember a time when, at age eight or so, I found an egg in the woods, a blue speckled egg, on its own, on the ground, without a nest. I took the egg in my hand, squeezed it, and felt it crack. I remember not knowing, in the moment or afterward, whether I had meant to do this and whether I had taken a life. I wanted to think not, but I wasn’t sure.

I also remember the deaths of various pets: cats that roamed far and never came back, a big St. Bernard dog who went off by herself into the back yard and lay down to die, and Fred, my favorite dog, who died while we were living in Holland and our friends were taking care of him. (My parents couldn’t bring themselves to tell me until a few months after his death.)

We encounter death frequently, even though we do not always acknowledge or name it. It is part of how we come to know the world and ourselves. Deaths shape, scare, humble, sometimes even relieve us. Stories upon stories come to mind. But we also evade death (and discussions of death) with language, technology, medicine, and all kinds of escapes.

Later the writers discussed how people keep death at a distance; János Áfra brought up extreme sports and the fantasy of being a superhuman. They discussed whether euthanasia was an acceptable way of helping a dying person: does it prevent a person from experiencing the transition from one state to another? Should death be experienced fully, in the presence of loving people? On the other hand, does the full experience really do anything for the dying person? Is there really something to be experienced here, besides a sudden terror and pain? Are others able to help at all?  (There was much more to the conversation, and I may have some of this wrong, but this is what I was able to glean.)

The final readings–which appear in the current issue of Alföld–would have made the trip worthwhile on their own, without anything else. I have the texts (and a copy of the journal; there were free copies at the event), so I will be able to read them many times over the years to come. Gyula Jenei’s long poem “Isteni műhiba” (“Divine Malpractice”), the third part of which appears in Alföld, begins:

rendkívüli eseményre készülök. az időpont még
kérdéses, de a dolog elkerülhetetlennek látszik,
s húsz éven belül valószínűleg megtörténik.

You can read the second part of the poem (along with these opening lines) in the January 2019 issue of Kortárs.

Here is the opening stanza of Krisztián Grecsó’s “Magánapokrif” (maybe translatable as “Self-apocryph”):

A mindeneim mára üres árkok,
Kopár földsávok a kincstári mezőn,
Kifosztott oltár a harmadik napon,
Tucatnyi mérgezett varjú a tetőn.
Róluk mondatott le, intett, az Úr,
És elhagytak engem ők könnyedén,
Mintha nem én szültem volna őket,
Általam voltak, mert léteztem én.

I had come here by cab; afterward I walked back to the train station, through the snow, and looked at statues and buildings. A few things were moving slowly in my mind. First, I knew that it was a quietly historic evening, an event that people will remember, not only silently, but in their writings, teachings, conversations. Second, it wasn’t flashy or shocking; it relied on its own quality. The discussion was thoughtful and probing (and funny too, at moments), and the literature worth rereading slowly, many times. Third, I felt fortunate not only to have gone, but to have wanted to go, to have figured out how to do so. I think I understood only a fraction of it (maybe between a third and a half, and a fragmented slice at that), but isn’t that part of the point? You step into something like this, and no matter how much or little you understand, you leave with all three sides of it: the things understood, the things not understood, and the in-between, which together begin their own building.

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I took both pictures in Debrecen on January 17. The statue has an interesting history and has given rise to a variety of interpretations.

The Grip of Nonchalance

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In a beautifully concise 1956 review of Saul Bellow’s novella Seize the Day (a work I especially love, and about which I have written), Alfred Kazin writes,

Tommy finds himself prowling through a New York day searching for a place of support or rest. By the end of it, he has tossed away the last of his money on the market and is desperately frightened. Yet he gains an unexpected release when he is swept by the passing crowd into the funeral of a man he has never known — and, looking down at the dead man’s face, at last finds himself able to feel, to accept his own suffering. Thus, at last, he is able to confront that larger suffering which (as we can see only at the end of the story) has been the dead weight of existence pressing on him without any release or passion in him of understanding.

People often ask me how I could live in Hungary, a country whose leaders have taken a turn toward the far right. My replies–“not everyone supports Viktor Orbán and his party”; “there are other things going on here”; “people here are very kind”–seem inadequate. That isn’t quite it. In any country, you will find people who disagree with the prevailing ideology. You will find kind people too. No, there is something else. Through a series of events, a combination of circumstances, I found my way to just the right place. I don’t think I would be as happy living in Budapest, though I go there regularly for synagogue, which I love. The people I am getting to know, the the school where I teach, the place where I live (just a few steps away from the swan I photographed this morning) are more than dreams come true; they teach me about who they are, who I am, what matters in life, what questions lie open. I can take on these questions without embarrassment. The Hungarian language is now coming to me in spades, and I am still at the cusp of speaking. Much more lies ahead.

What I miss from the U.S. are my dear friends, my family (though any of them can tell you that I have an independent streak), my former school, and the Dallas Institute. But there’s something I don’t miss at all: the American pressure toward nonchalance, casualness, lightness, changing the subject when it gets too serious, cutting off people who seem too intense. Do not get me wrong: I love humor and do not like to wallow in gloom. But in the U.S. I have found a pressure to curb myself with every sentence, to watch carefully in case the other person thinks the conversation is getting too “heavy.” (I do not find this with my friends, which is part of the reason the friendships have lasted. But it has put a strain on some acquaintanceships throughout my life.)

In the U.S. I have been told, from a young age, that I am very intense and “intellectual,” yet I did not receive that comment from people in other countries. It was a particularly American descriptor. “Intense” and “intellectual” are not meant as compliments. It’s acceptable to be intense about politics–when you know exactly what you think and can express it with vehemence–but any kind of extensive searching threatens people, unless they happen to be drawn to that kind of thing. I found my home here and there–at the philosophy roundtables I led, in some of my classes, etc. But overall I learned to be wary of myself, to accept that my way of thinking and speaking would be too much for some people. There is a certain American ideal expressed in Edie Brickell and Kenny Withrow’s song “What I am,” “I’m not aware of too many things, I know what I know if you know what I mean….” I could not attain that ideal if I tried, and it does not interest me anyway.

The pressure to be light, to avoid taking things too seriously, does not exist in the same way in all cultures. Here I have found not only a release from it, but a welcome into serious thinking and conversation (which has plenty of wit and humor wrapped up in it). Intellect is not frowned upon; intensity (if that is even the right word) carries no shame. Granted, Hungary has its anti-intellectuals; just look at some of the politicians! In addition, the economic conditions are driving many thoughtful people to leave the country; this will change the culture (and not for the better). I do not see Hungary as anywhere near perfect; it has massive problems. But in this particular way, in the room people make for grappling, in the honor they give to literature, I am not only at home, but in the middle of a new way of living.

It makes teaching a joy. When we returned from winter break, I introduced my students to Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” (The link points to a page with both the original text and István Jánosy’s Hungarian translation). Eleven different classes, from grades 9 through 12, read the poem with me; each discussion brought something different out of the poem. One student heard, in the final two lines “And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” a kind of insistence and self-persuasion, as though the speaker wanted to believe that sleep (and death) were still far away. Some students detected fear in the poem; the speaker could only stay in that dark wood for so long before it became too much. Some found meaning in the punctuation at the end: the difference between a comma and a period is greater than appears on the surface. Over the course of these discussions, I noticed something for the first time: throughout the poem, despite the tranquility of the scene, there is a slight disturbance of some kind, a disturbance so subtle that you might not notice it. At first, it is the disturbance of being on someone else’s property:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Next comes the horse’s disturbance, his sense that something is different, his shaking of the harness bells:

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

Finally, there is the disturbance of time: the speaker’s knowledge that this moment must come to an end, that he must go on to other things.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

What is it that unites these various disturbances, these various rattlings of the mind and wind? Could it be that they are necessary to the beauty? Could it be that without them, there would be no stopping by woods?

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I took both pictures this morning. Also, I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.

Making Room for Alcibiades

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Near the end of Aristophanes’ comedy Frogs (Βάτραχοι), after the poetry contest between Aeschylus and Euripides, Dionysus reveals his reason for coming down to Hades: to find a poet who will save the city. For the poetry itself, he chooses Aeschylus–but he is left unsure whom to bring back. To determine which of the two is better suited to the task he has in mind, he poses a few final questions, the first about Alcibiades (a prominent Athenian leader who went into exile after being charged with sacrilege. Aeschylus’s answers make more sense to him, and it is Aeschylus he chooses. Here is Matthew Dillon’s translation of the passage (courtesy of the Perseus Digital Library Project):

Dionysus
Bless you! Come, listen to this.
I came down here for a poet. For what purpose?
So that the city might be saved to stage its choruses.
So whichever of you will give the state some useful
advice, that’s the one I think I’ll take.
Now first, concerning Alcibiades, what opinion
does each of you have? For the city is in heavy labor.

Euripides
What opinion does she have concerning him?

Dionysus
What opinion?
She longs for him, but hates him, and yet she wants him back.
But tell me what you two think about him.

Euripides
I hate that citizen, who, to help his fatherland,
seems slow, but swift to do great harm,
of profit to himself, but useless to the state.

Dionysus
Well said, by Poseidon! What’s your opinion?

Aeschylus
You should not rear a lion cub in the city,
[best not to rear a lion in the city,]
but if one is brought up, accommodate its ways.

Euripides regards Alcibiades with nothing but scorn, while Aeschylus suggests that the city is responsible for him, having reared him. That is, not only must the city make room for him, but it must also take responsibility for having done so until  now. To bring in a completely dissimilar quote from Le Petit Prince, “Tu deviens responsable pour toujours de ce que tu as apprivoisé” (You become forever responsible for what you have tamed.”

In choosing Aeschylus, Dionysus implicitly favors his reply as well. In my many conversations about  this play (at the Dallas Institute and elsewhere), we have considered how a city’s greatness may be measured, in part, by its treatment of the Alcibiadeses of the world: those formidable people with mixed qualities, who pose danger while also bringing gifts. Perhaps it takes a great city to give a home to such a person–or maybe it is that home, that room for difficulty, that defines the city’s greatness, or helps define it.

I think of this as I ask: is there room in the public imagination for people with mixtures of qualities? Do our cities, countries, institutions make room for them, take responsibility for them, treat them as their own? Or do such people get shoved aside, written off?

I have been thinking off and on, over the past year, about Lorin Stein’s December 2017 resignation from the editorship of The Paris Review–in response to allegations of sexual misconduct–and his apology. (Full disclosure: He is a distant acquaintance of mine; I have had several enjoyable, helpful, and interesting conversations with him in the past, at Yale and in New York City, but don’t think I have seen him since 2002 or so.)

I have no knowledge of the actual circumstances, beyond what has appeared in the news; I have no trouble perceiving him, though, as both a brilliant editor and a bit of a “scoundrel” (an epithet I borrow from Wesley Yang). I bring him up because to my knowledge no one–not Yang, nor Katie Roiphe, nor anyone else commenting on this matter–has made the explicit point that The Paris Review should also bear great responsibility for the situation, having hired him precisely for who he was, with full knowledge of his gifts and foibles. (Both Yang and Roiphe come close to saying this but have other emphases and points.) It seems that when the the journal’s board selected him as editor, they wanted his full personality; they wanted to revive some of the spirit of the George Plimpton era, the dazzling and sometimes outrageous parties, the sense that The Paris Review was not only a great literary journal, but the place to be.

If this was in fact their goal, was it flawed? In my view, yes. I distrust glamorous social “scenes” that form around music, literature, and other arts, precisely because they distract from the art itself (and sometimes even crowd it out). Here I am not referring to genuine friendships, but to the superficial relations at parties and other gatherings. I remember going to hear bands in San Francisco and not being able to hear the music because people standing in front of me were talking loudly throughout the show. That is the main problem with a scene: it often takes on its own life, which has more to do with “who is who,” “who is with whom,” and “here I am” than with anything else.

But here’s the thing: given that The Paris Review chose Stein, given that they recognized early on what he would bring to the journal, they owe him a little more than a revision of their workplace policies and the listing of past editors on their masthead. I am not sure what would be fitting–a statement of responsibility? a tribute to his work? a private apology?–nor am I sure that it hasn’t happened. But nothing I have read on this subject suggests that anything of the sort has taken place.

Should he not have stepped down? I have no way of knowing. It may have been the simplest, cleanest, and most helpful course of action under the circumstances. But even now that he is no longer the editor, The Paris Review can make room for him, as a city can make room for Alcibiades. I don’t mean this in a cute way. I have questioned this analogy and decided to keep it; it is not perfect, but it has some truth. Besides, it allows me to bring up Frogs, a play I love for its silliness and satire, its playfulness and pain. Also, my point goes beyond Stein and The Paris Review; it has to do with cities, large and small, literal and figurative, and the way they treat their own lions.

Image credit: Wood engraving by John Austen. From a 1937 limited edition of Aristophanes’ Frogs, translated from the Greek by William J. Hickie. Courtesy of Biblio.com

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

Ahead and Behind

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Today I leave Dallas for Nashville (a short trip); from this evening until Sunday noon, I will be taking part in the ALSCW conference: presenting two papers, participating in a poetry reading (by ALSCW members, on Friday evening), attending as many other seminars, panels, and readings as possible, talking with colleagues and friends, and taking part in the ALSCW Council meeting. I hope to take some walks in Nashville too. Then, on Sunday evening, I head back to Hungary and should arrive Monday evening, if all goes as scheduled. (I am grateful to the three colleagues who agreed to cover my classes on Monday; to return by Monday, I would have had to skip the Council meeting and possibly more.)

I wrote a sestina yesterday; I may include it in what I read on Friday, or I may choose something shorter. I am reading a new translation as well; more about that in the future!

The book talk and discussion at the Dallas Institute was lively and warm; I am grateful to everyone who worked to put it together and who came out for it. There were over forty people in the audience, and the books almost sold out. But the best part was the combination of planning and spontaneity, familiarity and surprise, content and question.

First Dr. Larry Allums introduced me, then I spoke about the book and read some passages from it, then Dr. Allums and I had a dialogue, and finally I took questions (of which there were many) from the audience. I am delighted that this was the book’s first event; I will try to do something like this in events to come, though I will not be able to replicate it. It was great to be back at the Institute; I look  forward to returning in July.

There are some videos of the evening. Soon I will upload them to my website; for now, you can view them here. (They are numbered 3903, 3904, 3905, and 3906. The first one contains the introductions–Dr. Allums’s introduction and my preliminary remarks; the second, my readings from the book; the third, Dr. Allums’s dialogue with me, and the fourth, the exchange with the audience.)

Yesterday I went back to the Dallas Institute in the lovely rain and met with my colleagues, who took me to dinner at Gloria’s, our favorite Salvadoran/Latin restaurant. Here is the Dallas Institute’s patio just before we left.

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On a sad subject, I will have more to say soon about the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. Others are already making important arguments: for instance, that this was not simply a deranged act, but an act fueled by social media, a reckless and callous president, and easy access to weapons. Some have been looking specifically at its anti-Semitism; others, at its resemblance to other recent hate crimes in the U.S. and elsewhere. Some are analyzing it from the point of view of psychology, others from a political perspective, others from the perspective of gun control, others from personal pain. I will try something a little different (or maybe not different, since I have not had time to read all the responses). I want to consider what it means to believe one has the right (or even duty) to take another’s life, or the lives of members of a particular group. This is so far from my own understanding of rights and duties that I have to see where the difference lies. I might not arrive at answers, but I hope to raise some questions. Is the idea of liberty–of living the way you like, as long as you do not impinge on others, and protecting others’ right to do likewise–still young in our history and imagination? Does it contradict itself? Is it feasible? Do people support it today?

I will be thinking of this and more as I head to the airport.

On Beginnerhood (Reprise)

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Fall is here at last! Goodbye, for now, to the heat and pounding rays; a hearty welcome to the chill and vigor. I love walking and biking around in the fall: listening to the leaves, watching the trees sway, taking in the pale colors. I also just completed one of the greatest challenges of my life: leading services for the High Holy Days, along with the rabbi. (I led the musical parts; she led the spoken parts.) I spent weeks preparing daily; it went beautifully, and I learned profoundly.

I was so tired afterward, and so overwhelmed with upcoming projects and deadlines, that I thought I would have to give up one of two events this weekend. I had planned to go to a Budapest Festival Orchestra concert on Friday–a Baltic program, featuring works by Čiurlionis, Pärt, and Vasks–and then to the Season Opening Gala, a benefit event for the orchestra’s “Choose Your Instrument” program, which gives children around Hungary the opportunity to do just that. I thought I would have to give up the gala–but then, with a little encouragement, I decided to go.

The Friday night concert was beyond anything I had expected, since Arvo Pärt himself was there! I was first introduced to his work in my senior year of college; at the time, I listened to Tabula Rasa over and over. I slowly became acquainted with some of his other compositions, including Te Deum, which the BFO performed Friday night. His music is so otherworldly that I didn’t initially imagine flesh-and-bones mortals playing it, let alone composing it–so it was astonishing to see everyone together, composer and musicians, in the hall. In this photo, he appears all the way to the left, with a bouquet of flowers; at this point, we had been applauding for so long that he signaled that it was time for sleep.

The concert program consisted of Te Deum (the final piece), Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis’s Miške (In the Forest), Pärt’s Como cierva sedienta,  and Pēteris Vasks’s Epifonia. (The soprano Sylvia Schwartz was the soloist for Como cierva sedienta; the Cantemus Mixed Choir sang Te Deum.)

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I stayed overnight in Budapest, went back to Szolnok in the morning, and then returned to Budapest two hours later for the Gala event. I also had to return to my previous hotel to pick up a book of poetry I had left there. (It was intact.) So now I start to wend my way into the topic at hand: beginnerhood, about which I have written before.

During the reception before dinner, we were all invited to try out instruments; members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and several children demonstrated the instruments and allowed people to give them a try. (I tried the tuba, horn, flute, and violin; later, during the dinner, I tried another horn and the harp as well.) It was thrilling to be a beginner: to have no expectations except for that starting point, the first note or few notes, however they might sound. But there was more to it than that. As Iván Fischer explained to us later that evening, not everyone is suited to every instrument. Different instruments make different demands of a person; some require an earlier start than others, some favor particular physiques, some have particular logistical requirements, and some get fallen in love with. When children understand this, they have a better chance of selecting an instrument that is right for them.

When you choose an instrument, you do not necessarily sign on for life. I spoke with BFO members who had started with one instrument and then switched to another, who had taken breaks from playing, who had not begun their instrument until their teenage years, or who had studied something else at the university. The paths to musicianship–even toward the highest levels–are not as standardized as people may assume, but no matter when and where these musicians began, they have been devoted to their instruments for years. This cannot be shortchanged. Trying an instrument, you grasp all over again what it would take to learn to play it well. But basic proficiency is just another layer of beginning, amid more layers and layers.

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In that sense, beginnerhood and mastery do not cancel each other out; a master still has chances, at any moment, to play a familiar piece in a fresh way, to play in new situations and formats, and to treat the bare beginners kindly. The evening was full of generosity: musicians giving encouragement and suggestions as guests tried to play clear notes (or any at all), sounds ringing out all over the room, lively and lovely performances over the course of the evening, good fundraising, and conversation in many languages.

In speaking of a spirit of beginnerhood, I do not mean that “everyone is a beginner” or that freshness is everything. Years of practice and repetition allow one to inhabit music, language, or another field; without such dedication over time, a person would stay trapped within the “sort of” (which to me is a sort of hell). But repetition and habit are only part of the work, though an unforsakeable part; musicians, writers, artists, actors must also meet the art anew and anew, with everything they have, with empty hands.

Speaking of that, I have some work that is barely begun, with rapidly approaching deadlines–so it is time to buckle down and overcome this particular beginnerhood, knowing that others and other kinds will follow.

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

The Truth of Seeking Truth

IMG_6704One of the most damaging contemporary dicta is that truth does not exist: that all we know is our own perspective, if even that. According to some, if you so much as mention truth, you have revealed your own outdatedness. The pursuit of truth can only lead farther into illusion, some say; to be with the times, one must admit that there’s no ultimate truth at all.

Were it not for its emphasis on being with the times, the above could seem plausible. Again and again, we think we know what happened in a given episode in our lives, only to find out later that our understanding was just a fragment and that the various known fragments do not complete a whole. Not only that, but even if all of the information were available, we could only make sense of it through stories–and stories require selection, emphasis, and sequence. There is no way to convey a full picture, even if it exists; our language, existing in time, does not allow for such complexity and completeness.

Yet much of our experience is sturdy. The bicycle does not turn into a tractor from one day to the next. The slice of pizza does not become a cherry pie in the middle of a bite. If you go to a concert, and you remember it the next day, so do others; if you teach a class, there’s general agreement, the next time, about what the lesson contained, even if not everyone remembers everything. So consistency of experience and commonality of memory point to some reality outside of us, a reality that can be called true.

Moreover, we are disposed to seeking out truth; day after day, we try to find out what really happened, what was really said, what a word means, where a particular thing is located, what causes a particular phenomenon, and what we think; this pursuit is not all in vain, nor does it follow a set schedule. When you find the solution to a math problem, it stays; when you understand a word, the understanding abides, even if it changes over time. Knowing your own thoughts may be the most difficult challenge of all, since you are thinking them even as you examine them. Even so, we probably all have had moments of clarity, of knowing, at least for an instant, who we are.

That we build justice systems, schools, governments, news publications on the pursuit of truth does not, in itself, prove truth’s existence; looking at the history of such institutions, we can find many deceptions and follies. Still, people coming together in a courtroom affirm that through assembling the evidence, hearing the witnesses, and deliberating, a jury can reach a fairer and more accurate verdict than it would without these actions. In the classroom, anyone can make mistakes, but the very existence of mistakes suggests the possibility of accuracy. In newspapers and on news programs, a story can get distorted, but then, over time, others correct the record. At their best, all of these institutions pursue truth instead of claiming to have it–and demonstrate, through their daily work, that such pursuit is possible.

Literature can hold truth, but it does this through seeking. Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” sounds on the surface like a simple telling of truth, but the truth moves before our eyes, changing color and tone, ambling through grief and delight. Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin plays with deception and dissimulation but reaches a kind of clarity. Eliot’s “Prufrock” seeks something too, in a muted and doubting way. I cannot think of a work of literature (that is, a work that I would want to reread) that does not in some way seek truth, integrity, precision, form, completion, or clarity (and their necessary companions). It may or may not reach an answer, but it takes the reader from one place of understanding to another.

The search for truth does not move with the times; it may go against the passions and predilections of a given culture or group. It follows its own timing; discoveries and insights do not always arrive on schedule, but may come when unexpected and fail to arrive when expected. How many of us have recognized one of our mistakes long after making it; how many dramatic works rely on such mistiming? It would be better to catch a mistake in advance, but short of that, we take insight as it comes.

Each of us seeks some kind of truth: some with enthusiasm, some with weariness, some with direction and purpose, some with open curiosity. To respect others is to recognize that they seek just as I do–not in the same way or with the same timing, but for similar reasons: they want to understand what they do not now understand; they believe, as I do, that there is something to learn.

I took the photo when crossing the Zagyva last week. Also, I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.

Against the Overwhelming Vagueness

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After writing the last post (on Appiah’s essay on condescension), I started thinking about a peculiarity of (U.S.) American economic and social life: many decisions and judgments get made behind the scenes, with no public disclosure of the discussion and reasoning behind them. People get rejected from colleges, turned down for jobs or publication, or even excluded from parties without ever learning why. The rejection letter (or equivalent) epitomizes the vague: “Thank you for your interest in the position. We received an unforeseen number of exceptional applications and ultimately chose finalists whose qualifications most closely matched our criteria. We have therefore decided not to consider your application further. We wish you the best in your job search,” etc.

In such situations (which abound), the only way a person learns of the specific reasons is through a personal connection. That is part of the reason for the American emphasis on “networking”; without it, you may be consigned to the realm of the perplexed.

In some countries (not all), the situation is more clear-cut, though not better. Either you are not considered at all (because of your class, educational background, demographic group, or some other known factor), or you fail to meet explicit criteria (such as a test score). The drawback in such cultures is that some people never get considered in the first place. The advantage is that they often know the reasons.

Vague rejections are such a part of American life that people don’t question them outright. They might suspect and contest a particular rationale for a rejection (for instance, in the case of Asian-American applicants to Harvard and other colleges) but take for granted that they will receive a vague letter, if any at all.

Even peer groups and individuals exclude others without telling them why. People are bombarded with advice to cut “toxic” people from their lives or distance themselves from “negative” people, but sometimes these individuals never learn that anyone considered them toxic in the first place. Instead, they just see their peers drifting away, evading invitations, having parties and conversations without them. They are left to guess what’s going on. Even if they aren’t deemed toxic, they may be ostracized without explanation. It could be because of their habits, the company they keep, their background, something they said, or or something that has been said about them.

Carina Chocano’s terrific piece on the word “inappropriate” appears in The New York Times Magazine’s First Words column (like Appiah’s). “The word’s vagueness has always been a handy way to remind people of their relatively low status,” she writes; If they can’t already tell what’s wrong about their behavior, perhaps they are beyond help.” By calling others “inappropriate,” people excuse themselves from dealing with them. The vagueness is an exit ticket for the elite.

But there is a benevolent, humble side to this American tendency. People genuinely don’t want others to feel bad or to take their judgments as the final word. If they stick to vague verbiage, perhaps the rejected one will stay hopeful. Timothy might not be a “good fit” for Harvard, but who knows about Swarthmore or Vanderbilt? The New Yorker rejected my poem “despite its evident merit”; maybe it will get snatched up by the next witting editor. Karla doesn’t want to go out with Jamal, but he can still believe that he’s a wonderful person and that someone will appreciate him for what he has to offer.

The problem is that the vagueness can leave a person in worse doubt than clarity would–because the words themselves lose meaning. Does “inappropriate” mean “really bad” or just “mildly out of place”? Why did Harvard turn Timothy down? Did Jamal do anything that put Karla off? Does my poem pass muster?

I recognize the bureaucratic mess that specific, reason-filled acceptances and rejections could cause. They would be inordinately time-consuming, error-prone, subject to lawsuits, sometimes misleading, maybe algorithm-driven, open to interpretation, and possibly more trouble than they are worth. But at the other extreme, the vagueness has become a way of life, a way of making judgments while pretending not to judge.

There are ways to break through some of the vagueness, individually or together.  We* can strive for clarity (without cruelty) in thought, action, and word. We can work to lift taboos surrounding criticism. We can protect an institution’s decisions (provided they are lawful) while laying bare the reasons. But first and foremost, we can recognize that the vagueness does not have to be accepted as is; even if we cannot change it entirely, we can question it, look at what it does, and seek out other ways.

*”We” in this context is as far-reaching as it wants to be. It can involve a few individuals or more.

I took the photo yesterday afternoon outside my school here in Szolnok (after a day of faculty meetings). That’s my bike parked on the right.

I made some edits to this piece after posting it. Also, I am considering “American vagueness” as the topic for my next book. There is much more to say on this subject.

Condescension, Contempt, and Beyond

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Kwame Anthony Appiah’s recent essay “Thank You For ‘Condescending‘” (published in The New York Times Magazine’s excellent First Words column) stirred up some thoughts about the American concern with status. Appiah argues that we have forgotten the old meaning of “condescension” (which Samuel Johnson defined as ““Voluntary submission to equality with inferiors”). Over time, “condescension” has taken on negative connotations; today we resist the notion that there are superiors and inferiors in the first place. Yet hierarchies persist, says Appiah, whether we like them or not–and so condescension, once honorable, has degenerated into “its curdled opposite,” contempt, which now fills the political sphere. I support this argument and the reveille it brings; I would offer just a few complications.

When thinking of the benevolent kind of condescension, I remembered the Swinburne poem “To a Cat,” which begins:

Stately, kindly, lordly friend,
      Condescend
Here to sit by me, and turn
Glorious eyes that smile and burn,
Golden eyes, love’s lustrous meed,
On the golden page I read.

The poem expands in thought over its eleven ;stanzas it contemplates distant past and far future; near the end of the first part, it asks the cat, “What within you wakes with day / Who can say?” It is worth reading in full, many times. I think I first read it–or maybe just the first few lines–in a cat book, as a child. I remember being struck by the word “condescend”; I knew I had not  heard it in that way before. The poem stayed with me because of it.

Appiah says that condescension (in its old, kindly meaning) “denies distance; contempt asserts it.” I would add that condescension of this kind recognizes the unknown in others, whereas contempt denies it. To have contempt for another is to believe that you have summed the person up, that nothing exists beyond your own assessment (or that if anything does exist, it isn’t worth your time).

Moroeover, he suggests that contempt–and its counterpart, resentment–may arise from our insistence on erasing or ignoring the visible markers of status. In pretending to be equal (in fact as well as in principle, in specifics as well as in general), we put ourselves on edge, suspecting a hidden hierarchy behind the ways of the world.

I find this resoundingly true but would add a few caveats. Yes, hierarchies persist and make themselves known, often surreptitiously–through subtle cues, gossip, and such. Many Americans seem intensely interested in knowing who is who. If you go to a wedding, for instance, and someone even mildly famous or wealthy is there, you will hear about it (maybe in a whisper). When I was a student at Yale, someone would often point out someone and say, “You see her? She’s always going around in jeans, but she’s a multi-millionaire.” Or “He’s the son of so-and-so.” I continued to see this tendency later on, in New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere.

In addition to pointing out hierarchies (in undertones), people would also try to act as though they didn’t exist. When the boss drank with the employees–on the job or at a bar, sometimes late into the night–it could seem that there was no hierarchy at all. But part of the point of such drinking is to get employees to work longer and better. While seeming “cool” for hanging out with the lowly programmers–and perhaps being genuinely affable and appreciative–the boss has a specific agenda. Drinking on the job can also foster an “in-group” by excluding those who for cultural, religious, medical, or personal reasons do not drink (or prefer to spend their time in other ways).

Unspoken hierarchies exist in schools, too. I have heard–but have not verified–that when parents pay steep prices (through real estate or tuition) to send their child to a school, they may come to view the teachers as their own employees. In addition, with the rise of “helicopter parenting,” parents are more likely to supervise and judge the daily classes and activities in their children’s schools. The reverse, though, can happen as well: teachers may view parents as their assistants–not as well versed as they are in the subject matter but capable of, say, reading to the child before bed or making sure the homework gets done. While parents and teachers would like to view each other as their equals, they do not always accomplish this.

But let us distinguish between two kinds of equality: basic human equality and provisional, specific equality (say, in athletic competence or language proficiency). It is possible to believe in basic human equality–the idea that all of us have dignity and deserve basic consideration and respect–without believing that we all have the same abilities, attainments, virtues, or even, in some spheres, rights. In our zealousness for affirming basic equality, we have often confused it with the specific kinds; we fear to admit that some people have more musical ability than others, that some are more mathematically inclined than others, that some write better than others (at a given time or over a lifetime), or even that some exceed others in courage. Everyone is supposed to be equally special and capable, ever growing. Everyone’s voice is important.

Only we know that’s not so. Not only differences in ability, attainment, and circumstance, but differences between the “somebodies” and “nobodies” keep resurfacing. Media like Twitter reveal, on the one hand, the principle of equal participation (anyone can join the conversation!) and the blatant divide between those with thousands of followers and those with fewer than thirty. There are those whose every word gets attention and those who write for friends and occasional passers-by.

If you are perceived as one of the “nobodies,” especially online, you can be sure that someone will remind you of this–regardless of the quality of what you do and what you have to say. (“Why pay attention to you? Your comment has only two likes.”)

But there is yet another complication. A person can have higher status in one area and lower status in another. Also, people can be simultaneously each other’s superiors and inferiors. Consider an editor (of a well-regarded publication) and a writer. In some ways, the editor has higher status (through acting as gatekeeper, for instance); in others, the writer does (through creating a work that an editor might covet). The relationship may change over time. So status is more complex than it looks on the surface.

I have often felt uneasy among people obsessed with status–but I recognize that status is there, whether we like it or not, and that it takes myriad forms. I see Appiah’s argument that disavowed status leads to anxiety, contempt, and resentment.  So how does one acknowledge status without letting it dominate one’s life?

Perhaps that is precisely it: by acknowledging it, one does not have to worry about it. One does not have to put so much effort into detecting and interpreting social cues. Criticism can be more frank and at the same time less loaded; the recipient, knowing what it contains, can then choose what to do with it. This will allow not only for clarity and learning, not only for condescension (in the generous sense of the word), but for better sleep and waking.

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I took the top photo in Szolnok (near my apartment building) and the bottom one in Baja by the Danube.

Is one ever too busy to think?

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It happened with the first book too: after everything is off to press, I find some delightful sources that, had I read them earlier, I would have quoted and discussed. That’s the inevitable result of working on a book: it opens up subjects that don’t close up along with your deadlines.

First, in his scathing article “The Naked and the TED,” Evgeny Morozov describes the “takeaway” as “the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think.” That’s great. My only qualm is that I don’t think people are really too busy to think; rather, they don’t want to think and use the busyness to excuse this. (We all do this with things we don’t want to do.) I’ll get to that in a moment.

Also, Dave Stein’s terrific blog Lex maniac–which examines “expressions that have entered and established themselves in everyday language in the last thirty years”–observes that the takeaway “refers to the main point you want to drive home but shifts the focus to the receiver of the message from that of the sender. The important thing is not what you say, but what your listeners remember.” In other words, a takeaway produces results, or rather, it is the result. It is the mental product that people carry away from a speech, book, advertisement, or other way of conveying something. (I have no excuse for not reading Lex maniac earlier–I was told about it more than once–but now I visit it often.)

Many people, especially in Hungary, have asked me, “What does ‘Take Away the Takeaway’ mean?” (That’s the title of this blog and of the first chapter of Mind over Memes.) I explain that I am not arguing to get rid of takeaways but rather to remove them temporarily to see what lies below them: what uncertainties, questions, subtleties, and extensions. In other words, don’t let the takeaway replace the larger subject. Like the birds in the photo below, look it up and down; examine it from different parts of the crate. (The birds–maybe flycatchers of some kind?–are a little hard to see, but they’re at the edge of the wooden crate in the foreground. One is looking up, the other down.)

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But back to the question of being too busy to think. No one can do everything, but people find ways to make time for the things they really want to do. No matter how busy you are, there are ways to fit things in and cut other things out. Those who say, “I really want to write; I just don’t have time” have chosen to do other things besides write. The same applies to playing an instrument, reading, or any other voluntary, ongoing activity or action. This is true even for people raising children; even in the most hectic years, many parents make (or find, borrow, conjure, steal, or glean) time for writing, music, and other things.

Now, finding the time for something can involve some big choices and even sacrifices. For any serious writing, I need stretches of time. I don’t work well in small snatches here and there, even though those can supplement the larger work. When writing a book, I have needed to take time off from teaching (which meant leaving my job at the time, since there were no sabbaticals or other leaves that accommodated what I wanted to do.) In contrast, I have not been in the routine of practicing cello lately. I do not like “sort of” playing; if I am going to play, I want to practice two hours a day–and that is a big commitment among others. I already have substantial commitments, including musical commitments, in my time outside of work, so I have chosen not to add more. I do want to return to cello–but at a time when I am willing to set other things aside for it. (“You sure seem to have time for your blog,” someone might say. Yes, that’s part of the point; I choose to have time for it.)

The same holds true for thinking. Yes, a day can leave little room for extended thought, but it’s up to an individual whether or not to find the openings. This choice depends on many things. There are temperamental differences: some people feel uncomfortable when sitting with their own thoughts, whereas others feel something missing if they don’t take time for contemplation, analysis, rumination, play. There are also practices, habits, rituals of thinking, which can be built over time; someone unused to wrestling with a geometry problem may find it frustrating at the outset, whereas someone who does it every day may relish it and seek out trickier problems.

For me, different kinds of thinking need different forms and settings; I enjoy thinking during bike rides but do a different kind of thinking when sitting at the computer, and still other kinds when reading a book, listening to music, or writing a poem.

So then, given the voluntary nature of thought, given the possibility of finding time for thought even in a busy schedule, why does there seem to be a growing cultural impatience with thinking? Why is a “thinker” even viewed as a social nuisance, the one who ruins the fun?

I would attribute at least some of this to the rise of “thinking-lite,” a stand-in for independent thought. It’s a way of having your cake and being told you just had broccoli, or quasi-broccoli. Institutions like TED and media such as Twitter give their audience the sensation of learning something new or participating in something smart. They offer some kind of takeaway. That is all very satisfying, until you realize that these nutritional nuggets were often nothing other than candy.

There are exceptions. Here and there, you will find a TED talk that takes the audience into the subtleties of a subject. Stephen Burt’s talk “Why People Need Poetry” does that, a little–though if he had stayed with one poem, he could have done more. It’s a talk about poetry in general; to its great credit, it ends with something other than a takeaway. It invites the audience to look and listen beyond the usual.

So to make more “time” for thought, a society must raise it up as an honorable thing: it must show, through classes, programs, books, and speeches, what it means to work toward greater understanding, to question assumptions, to find clear language, to return to old works and ideas, to gaze into art, to separate the known from the unknown in science, and to bear with not knowing for sure what you will get out of it all.

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I took these photos in Szolnok. On rainy days it almost looks like fall. But here’s a sunny day, below (also in Szolnok, by the Tisza river). Fall is not the takeaway, nor is rain.

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

Myth as a Form of Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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