Is There a Human Project?

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It is the season of cherries and ice cream, of ducklings and Scarce Copper butterflies (I think that’s the type in the picture above), of wrapping up the school year and saying goodbye for the summer. Also, the book is almost in press; the last corrections have been made, and I must now think about the release in the fall. While doing this, I find myself questioning certain phrases in the book. At one point I mention the human project. Is there a human project? Or is this yet another phrase that has lost meaning over time?

It exists but abounds with contradictions, oppositions, anomalies, impossibilities. Drawing partially on George Kateb’s Human Dignity, I would define the human project, in part, as our ongoing assumption (and abdication) of responsibility as stewards of nature, including our own. Humans alone have the capacity to act as stewards–or not. Acting as steward involves recognizing what one has done, or can do, to help or harm oneself and others–and who these others are, and why it matters. In this recognition, humans have advanced somewhat, in some ways, over time. Certain things that we recognize as wrong, such as slavery, were accepted not long ago.

Last week I introduced my eleventh-grade students to the song “Amazing Grace,” which a few already knew. I thought it was important for American civilization, especially since we were now touching on religion. I did not know the origins of the song (having missed the Broadway musical and the movie and forgotten a good bit of history); when I read about it, I heard it in a new way.

It was composed by the English Anglican minister John Newton (1725-1807), who, prior to his Christian conversion, had been forced into the slave trade. He had rebelled so often aboard the ships–not on behalf of the slaves, but on his own behalf–that he had undergone lashings, demotions, and finally slavery, when the crew left him in West Africa with a slave dealer. He was finally rescued and brought back to England; during the voyage, he had a spiritual conversion. Slowly, over time, this conversion brought him to abhor the slave trade. This did not happen linearly; he returned to the slave trade, fell ill, and underwent a new conversion. He continued in the trade a few more years, and then in 1754 renounced it completely.

His tract Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, written in 1788, thirty-four years after he abandoned the business, repudiates the enslavement and trafficking of humans. It begins:

The nature and effects of that unhappy and disgraceful branch of commerce, which has long been maintained on the Coast of Africa, with the sole, and professed design of purchasing our fellow-creatures, in order to supply our West-India islands and the American colonies, when they were ours, with Slaves; is now generally understood. So much light has been thrown upon the subject, by many able pens; and so many respectable persons have already engaged to use their utmost influence, for the suppression of a traffic, which contradicts the feelings of humanity; that it is hoped, this stain of our National character will soon be wiped out.

If I attempt, after what has been done, to throw my mite into the public stock of information, it is less from an apprehension that my interference is necessary, than from a conviction that silence, at such a time, and on such an occasion, would, in me, be criminal. If my testimony should not be necessary, or serviceable, yet, perhaps, I am bound, in conscience, to take shame to myself by a public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent, or repair, the misery and mischief to which I have, formerly, been accessary.

I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was, once, an active instrument, in a business at which my heart now shudders.

Hearing those undertones in “Amazing Grace” (although the hymn preceded the tract by two decades or so), I understand the song not as a paean to the born-again experience but as the author’s recognition of profound error. To see that one has been terribly wrong and to change one’s life accordingly: this allows for something of a human project. For by writing what he saw and learned, Newton allowed others to see it too.

I don’t want to be glib about this. Looking at the picture below, I would say that ducks do a bit better with their projects than humans; they lead their little ones, which grow up to have little ones of their own. But ducks also kill ducklings that they do not recognize–and suffer no qualms of conscience, as far as I know. It is not that we humans do so well with our conscience–we continue to do things that we repudiate or simply fail to question–but our conscience also matures, not only through experience in the world, but through encounters with books, speeches, music, plays. In listening to something, we come to take ourselves in measure. Or at least we may. To the extent that we do, we participate in a human project.

I ask myself why I didn’t notice the Broadway musical Amazing Grace, which would have taught me something, even fleetingly, about John Newton. I think I unthinkingly ignored it because of the title. I had heard the song sung mockingly so many times that I had absorbed the mockery. That reminds me to be less sure of my mockeries, especially borrowed ones. Mockery has a place in writing–there would be little satire without it–but it must be informed. In this case mine, though never overt, was also ignorant until now.

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

“Where are you, my beloved land?”

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The synagogue concerts in Szeged and Békés keep breaking past my phrases; they will not be held back by summaries. Since its inauguration in 2014, the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s synagogue project has brought music to one synagogue after another, in cities, towns, and villages across Hungary–synagogues that once thrived but that were laid bare by the Holocaust. Fiona Maddocks writes:

One is now a table-tennis hall, another a furniture warehouse. A third has been ransacked, all the windows broken, birds flying in and out during the concert. In many cases the locals had never seen inside. The doors of one had not been unlocked since last closing, during the German occupation.

By bringing music to these places, the orchestra not only revives their memory but brings people together, in the present, for something beautiful. I attended two synagogue concerts in September and two this week; as I attend more, I not only love them more, but come to understand their meanings.

Every seat was filled. It all went by too quickly, but I remember the acoustics in Szeged, where every texture could be heard, and the intimate sound in Békés (where even those in the back row were just a few meters away from the musicians).

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They played the first movement of Schubert’s Octet in F Major (D803), the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-Flat Major (Opus 20)–for four violins, two violas, and two cellos–and and Glazunov’s Rêverie orientale (which, as the clarinetist Ákos Ács commented in his introduction, has something of a klezmer feel). I think back on the subtle tones and changes of the Schubert; the cellos in the Mendelssohn; the dialogue between cello and clarinet, and then viola and clarinet, in the Glazunov; and then the laughing, crying, dancing, shrieking klezmer music that took us to the end. 

Between the pieces, a rabbi (a different one each time) spoke about synagogues in general and about the history of Jews in the particular place. In Szeged, someone else spoke as well–perhaps the person in charge of the performance space. Then Ákos Ács led the exhilarating klezmer encores–one encore in Szeged, two in Békés. He then invited us all to stay for cake; people lingered and talked and then slowly went their different ways.

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The Szeged synagogue is now a performance space; the Békés synagogue, a plum pálinka center. Each place shows its loss: the first through its bareness and the second through its refurbishment.  Upstairs in the pálinka center, the bar counter has two menorahs (you can see one of them in the photo above); are they always there, or were they put there in honor of the concert? A few minutes in these places, and you can get overwhelmed; the history is so difficult that even the brave might walk away.

These concerts make it possible to sit still here, or somewhat still–to sit with some knowledge of what happened, but more than knowledge alone. The music does something to us; we live through something together and know it when we look around afterward. We are no longer separated. Maybe we will be tomorrow, but we will still remember being here. We will remember the musicians’ gifts to us.

I biked through beautiful Békés, stopping when I saw or heard something I couldn’t ignore: the river, farmhouses, the sunset. Here’s a chicken strutting across a roof, with farm sounds in the background.

And here is a field–not a bad end to the day.

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I later learned that for the first movement of the Octet, Schubert adapted a theme from his lied “Der Wanderer” (whose words are from a poem by Georg Philipp Schmidt von Lübeck). I had to listen to both compositions several times to figure out which theme this was, but think I found it at last. In the first movement of the Octet, it is the main theme of the Allegro. In “Der Wanderer,” it is the piano part during these lyrics:

Wo bist du, mein geliebtes Land?
Gesucht, geahnt, und nie gekannt!
Das Land, das Land so hoffnungsgrün,
Das Land, wo meine Rosen blühn.

Where are you, my beloved land?
Sought for, dreamed of, but never known!
The land, the land, so green of hope,
The land where my roses bloom.

So even the bike ride was not remote from the music.

“I see a voice: now will I to the chink….”

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We have been practicing, day by day, for the May 31 Shakespeare event–just a week away now–which will include three excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two excerpts from Hamlet, a simple Renaissance dance, and a few introductions and interludes. The rehearsals have built and built; each time, something has improved, and the mistakes have made memories too.

It has been fun to pull costumes together; a homemade lion costume (in the works–thanks to a student’s mom), plastic wreaths and vines, a lanthorn, a not-so-thorny thornbush, a (stuffed) dog, some crowns, and other props and accoutrements.

Here’s a dialogue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 1 (recorded May 17):

Here’s one from Act 3, Scene 2, with a different Hermia and Helena (recorded May 22):

Here’s the Wall (“In this same interlude it doth befall / That I, one Snout by name, present a Wall….”)

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I don’t have any Hamlet photos or videos yet (aside from the drawings I posted recently), but that may change soon.

Birches and Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There’s No Such Thing as a “Thinker”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“Call me what instrument you will….”

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When my students were reading and acting out Hamlet III.ii, I interrupted them so that we could look again at this dialogue. The Players have just passed through, playing recorders (that is, woodwind instruments); Hamlet asks for one and resumes his conversation with Guildenstern:

HAMLET
I do not well understand that. Will you play upon this pipe?

GUILDENSTERN
My lord, I cannot.

HAMLET
I pray you.

GUILDENSTERN
Believe me, I cannot.

HAMLET
I do beseech you.

GUILDENSTERN
I know no touch of it, my lord.

HAMLET
‘Tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.

GUILDENSTERN
But these cannot I command to any utterance of harmony; I have not the skill.

HAMLET
Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call  me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.

This is one of the hundreds of reasons why people should read Hamlet. His trick reveals truth; by seeming to change the subject, by fooling Guildenstern into admitting that he cannot play the recorder, he shows the vanity of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s ploys. (The two have colluded with King Claudius and Queen Gertrude in observing Hamlet’s every move; after each conversation with Hamlet,  they report back to the King and Queen. Hamlet has figured this out.)

But Hamlet’s words go far beyond the immediate place and time. How many people pretend to know what lies inside others–where their stops are, how to sound them; how much of today’s technology is aimed at that very end! Everywhere we go–whether on Facebook or on hard ground–someone sums us up, puts us in a category, predicts what we will do next. Even though the attention isn’t as fixedly on most of us as it is on Hamlet here, we receive “mass personalized” scrutiny, which, while effective at predicting purchasing patterns, voting tendencies (and other such things), fails, fortunately, to determine who we are.

It is not just through social media and marketing that this occurs. There’s a fad of sorting out “good” and “bad” people and sweeping away all vestiges of the “bad.” I see this in certain aspects of the #MeToo movement (for example, many publishers are now halting publication, and sellers distribution, of books by authors who allegedly harassed women, as though the claims of harassment invalidated the authors and their works). I see it in the careless use of the words “fascist” and “monster” to describe people with whom one disagrees. (Yet the modern analogy is flawed, for reasons I will discuss shortly.)

In outwitting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet shows them that they cannot diminish him. “Why, look you now,” he says, “how unworthy a thing you make of me!” To treat a person as playable and knowable is to deny that person’s dignity; even a little instrument cannot just be played at will, and Hamlet much less so.

Hamlet has mastered the very game he derides; he plays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern just as they cannot play him. He calls playing the recorder “as easy as lying” and explains: “govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.” This is indeed what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been trying clumsily to do: to govern (or rather, cover) certain ventages (their true purposes) and play out their deceit. Hamlet does not cover his stops; rather, it seems, he governs them, showing truth when and how he wishes. (There is ongoing controversy over Hamlet’s sanity and self-control; I see him as brilliantly in control here, though not everywhere.)

So there is a problem with Hamlet: he continually resists others diminution, yet in mocking them he diminishes them himself. Many readers, including me, enjoy the way he makes fun of Polonius, whom he has written off as a doddering fool. I wonder whether Hamlet has tricked me too; yes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem false as can be, but might there not be slightly more to Polonius, for instance, than Hamlet would allow? He has nothing close to Hamlet’s wit, but are humans measured by their wit?

It’s a misreading of Hamlet, then, to treat it as a discourse on human dignity. There is something else at stake here, a grappling with truth and doubt. Hamlet has seen his father’s ghost, has heard directly from him about the “foul and unnatural murder,” yet even he worries that his imaginations may have been “as foul / As Vulcan’s stithy.” If the ghost’s revelations are true, then Hamlet must avenge his father’s death; if they are not, he must somehow put this thought aside. To find the truth, he has the Players play a play; “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

The “play” here is not just the actors’ performance, but a series of plays upon plays; he sees the others playing with him, and he outplays them at their games. The one with the truest view–Hamlet–will win, but he can win only by losing.

Literature (at its best) cannot be translated into messages about life, but it can open up language and thought. Hamlet does not say that it’s wrong to diminish others.  But through its poetry it gives us a troubled, unsummable, brilliant soul.

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I took the two photos this week.

 

Springtime in the Mind

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When you’re surrounded with a language that you’re learning, there comes a “springtime” when it starts opening up all over the place–where everything around you starts to make sense in greenings and unfurlings. So  yesterday, at the store, when the grocer asked me “még valamit?” I didn’t just figure out his meaning from context, as I have done so many times; I understood the words themselves. (“Anything else?–or, more literally, “More something?”) This is happening not just once in a while, but all over the place, throughout the day; while I still understand less than half of what I hear (maybe a fifth to a fourth), the amount increases by the minute.

Spring is here in more ways than one. Over the past two days I have seen kids kayaking on the Zagyva (alongside a coach in a quiet motorboat).

Also, spring can lead to springs. One challenge in a new country is figuring out where to get specific things you need, such as nails, which I needed to mount my Chas. Fischer Spring Co. hat rack on the wall. But in springtime, you find yourself ambling around instead of just heading straight home; and so, biking this way and that, I found a little gardening store with hardware supplies. Delighted, I bought some nails. Here is the hat rack (with one of the springs showing).

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And Pesach is just two days away… I will get to celebrate it at Szim Salom in Budapest–such a happy and profound holiday, and such a great way to celebrate it here.

Speaking of the near future, the forthcoming issue of CONTRARIWISE will come forth in four weeks or so; according to inklings and industry rumors, it will be gorgeous. More about it when it appears.

But back to springtime in the mind–there are times when one finds oneself in intense mental activity, thinking about all kinds of things, working on big and small projects, and listening to music, literature, and everyday speech.  This is usually true for me, but lately especially so. I like this way of life, especially when I can also take off on the bike. But the mind needs its other seasons too; each one brings something that the others cannot.

I thought the phrase “the mind has its seasons” might be a cliché; but then I couldn’t remember hearing it before. Looking it up, I found few occurrences: one in an interesting passage in Sarah Ellis’s Temper and Temperament (1846). I won’t quote it here; the quote would need to be too long.

But why would such an expression not be a cliché? People think in terms of moods, it seems, but not mental seasons; there’s little acceptance of the idea that the mind might need something other than constant, untrammeled growth and productivity. The thoughts grow even when they do not–but growth is not the only good of life. If all we could do was grow, we would become impossible monsters–where even our little toe would crush our best-laid plans. No, the mind needs not only growth; it needs “that other fall we name the fall.” It needs, moreover, something beyond its needs.

 

Thoughts on Sacrifice

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Often, when I think about a topic, it grows so vast in my mind that a blog post seems futile. How do you say something about sacrifice in a few words? The meaning of sacrifice has changed over millennia; Hebrew has various words for it, none of which translates easily into a modern language. Psalm 51 seems profoundly modern in its reflection on sacrifice–but if you read it carefully, from start to finish, you find that it does not say what it seems at first to say.

יז  אֲדֹנָי, שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח;    וּפִי, יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ. 17 O Lord, open Thou my lips; and my mouth shall declare Thy praise.
יח  כִּי, לֹא-תַחְפֹּץ זֶבַח וְאֶתֵּנָה;    עוֹלָה, לֹא תִרְצֶה. 18 For Thou delightest not in sacrifice, else would I give it; Thou hast no pleasure in burnt-offering.
יט  זִבְחֵי אֱלֹהִים,    רוּחַ נִשְׁבָּרָה:
לֵב-נִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּה–    אֱלֹהִים, לֹא תִבְזֶה.
19 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.

It seems, on hasty reading, that the psalmist sees no more meaning in burnt-offering–and believes God sees no meaning in them–but instead has turned to offerings of the spirit. But at the end of the psalm, he expresses longing for restoration of the temple offerings.

What is this offering of broken spirit, then? In some way it is provisional; it is what the psalmist has. The offering does not consist in victimhood; according to Stephen Geller, whose wonderful course on the Psalms I took two years ago, this “broken spirit” has to do with intense introspection, with seeing the divide between what God wants and who one is at the moment. The “broken spirit” comes out of seeing.

Jumping now into rash generalization, I find that sacrifice overall has to do with seeing. Or rather, seeing is essential to it. I had grown up thinking of sacrifice as some kind of painful generosity or relinquishment; if you gave more than was comfortable, you were truly sacrificing. Now I see it differently. Sacrifice entails giving what is right; to know what is right, you must listen and perceive. Sacrifice–whether religious or secular–is not necessarily extravagant or painful; it comes with a sense of timing, proportion, and devotion. By giving the right thing in the right way, you make the giving sacred.

But how do you learn to give the right thing in the right way? Through rituals of sacrifice, you learn form; you learn the  importance of the details, the care that goes into the act. Beyond that, you learn through experience. Rash gifts sometimes crumble on delivery; well-considered gifts build and strengthen. But the lesson is not that we should always act in accordance with established custom. Sometimes the eccentricity is the sacrifice. Sometimes even the mistake holds a gift in it.

To give what you have, to give heedfully, both with and without reserve, on repeating occasions and in singular moments–does anyone get it completely right? I doubt it. But no one knows in full what another person brings: what thoughts, questions, and struggles accompany an act of giving or holding back. The outside action is essential, responsible, and judgeable, but only part of the sacrifice. The inside may be like D. H. Lawrence’s pomegranate, “dawn-kaleidoscopic within the crack.”
 

Psalm 51 quotation courtesy of Mechon Mamre. The English translation is from the JPS (1917 edition).

I took the photo here in Szolnok last week.

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

 

“And wet snow, and music, and nothing ever”

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Poetry has been filling the week. This morning I recorded and submitted an entry–“Six Poems About Endings”–for The Missouri Review’s Miller Audio Prize. Today is the commemoration of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, so we have no school. (Boldog forradalom napot!) It also seems to be Home Repair Day; I heard sawing and hammering for a good two hours in the morning. After that, I was able to record and re-record for an hour or so. Then a neighbor’s stereo started to thump.

Speaking of interludes, my ninth-grade students finished A Midsummer Night’s Dream this week. Here is the Wall performing her monologue (“In this same interlude it doth befall / That I, one Snout by name, present a wall; / And such a wall, as I would have you think,  / That had in it a crannied hole or chink ….”).

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The previous evening, at our school’s biennial gala performance of music, poetry, theater, and dance, a student from this same class recited János Arany’s poem “Él-e még az Isten?” which I hope to learn over time. There were many beautiful  performances that evening: Hungarian folk dancing and folk songs, classical guitar, rock bands, an brass band, improv comedy, and more.

Late this afternoon I watched a delightful twenty-minute film of Tomas Venclova reciting six of his poems and speaking in English about his work. As he recites his poems in Lithuanian, the screen shows English translations–two by me and four by Ellen Hinsey.

One of the poems ends, in English translation, “And wet snow, and music, and nothing ever.” (Hence the title of this post.)

What holds this all together is the blackbird at the top, not quite at the center, but not far from it either. I took the photo this afternoon when searching for a celebration that had ended two hours earlier. After some walking around–not in wet snow, but in wetter rain–with an enthusiastic neighbor, I came home to the quiet, which now was complete except for stray voices and footsteps.

Quiet doesn’t require completion; it thrives on slight imperfection. It isn’t total absence of sound that makes quiet; rather, it’s a wrapping into rest.

Feketerigó

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(Photograph by Endre Szabó.)

This morning, before five, I heard a bird song I had never heard before, or at least never noticed. I opened up the balcony door to hear more; the cats stepped outside and looked intently through the opening. The melody was slightly arpeggio-like; the sequence almost always ended in a high-pitched whistle, but no two phrases were identical. I recorded about thirty seconds of it (unfortunately there’s a machine noise too). When I played it back, I could hear the recording against the actual singing, which went on and on. For a long time I still heard it, until other sounds drowned it out.

I didn’t recognize the song, so I listened to various recordings. I believe that it may have come from a feketerigó (sometimes spelled as two words)–that is, a “black thrush,” known in English as a “common blackbird” or “Eurasian blackbird,” a species of true thrush. If so, then I might not have heard it before.

I thought about what it meant to hear this bird for the first time. Now there’s another reason to open the balcony door early in the morning.

I also thought back on an opinion piece I wrote eight years ago about teaching Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush.” I objected (and still object) to the overemphasis on objectives and strategies in schools. I argued for going right into the poem, posing questions along the way. I hold to almost all of this; I would adjust the questions and observations but would teach the poem more or less the way I described. I revise one thing I said, though. At the time, I believed that students did not need to see any pictures or hear any sounds before reading the poem;  the poem would speak for itself. Now I think differently.

There is a difference between knowing the sound of a thrush and not knowing it. It isn’t just any bird song. It stops you in your tracks. If you know the sound, or one of the sounds, then the word “thrush” will bring those sounds to mind. If you don’t, then it won’t. Hardy knew the sound and expected his readers to know it too. Today I would play not just one, but several recordings of thrushes; I would encourage students to listen for them, if they lived near any.

How much a word can hold. Thrush, blackbird, feketerigó–these are just words for birds, until they become words for sounds, and beyond that, for the the encounter with the sounds, since any word, heard in its fullness, holds an encounter, except for those words that dismiss and disparage encounter, that reduce language itself. I have thought recently about how we live in a war of words–but it’s not just a battle of simplistic language against subtle language, or of crass words against noble ones. Anyone, no matter how rich in vocabulary, must stay alert to language in order to use it well. The “war” is against the forces, internal and external, that dull the alertness, that make language rushed or sluggish; imitative or solipsistic; crammed or empty; abusive or noncommittal. To use language well, you must seek not just words, but their histories, structures, and rhythms; both within and without you must seek them.

There is something to be learned from a bird. I mean this not in a naive or silly way. I don’t mean that we should go around imitating them, or that they hold any life solutions. I mean only that a birdsong can change a life slightly; you hear it, and from then on you listen for it (and reject those things that would not have let you listen before). Through the casting off, waiting, searching, and listening, you find your way into form.

The photograph of the blackbird looking in the mirror is by Endre Szabó. The video is by Liza Bakos.