The Ungivable Advice

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Yesterday was not a typical Saturday or Shabbat. In the morning, in Budapest, I co-led a synagogue service hosted by Szim Salom, Bét Orim, and a the West London Synagogue. It was a great occasion: some people in the room had never met before, while others had known each other for decades. We came together without effort (at least in the moment–there was effort in the preparations), and layers of voices filled the room. If someone were to ask me why I believe in God, I would reply, “Because of the human voice.” It’s only a sliver of a reason, and it’s as hard to explain that as to explain what it means to me to believe in God in the first place (even saying this much gets my words tangled), but even so, there’s something to it. In some way the human voice, especially the singing voice, does not die. Also, voices carry other voices; we bring memories into our singing, sometimes centuries of memories. There are moments in a Jewish service, and services of other religions too, when different levels of the past come together with the present. That’s what it was like all morning–but I wasn’t thinking of that. I was happy to be together with so many people, to be co-leading the service in a way that felt like being carried up and along.

Saying this, I understand a little better what happened six years and a few months ago, when I learned my first words in Hebrew. I listened to a cantor’s recording of the Blessing Before Haftarah, and something drew me in, something more than a beautiful voice or melody. It shook some kind of memory, though of what, I couldn’t say. I don’t mean anything mystical by this; I just mean that a few things happened at once. First, I knew that this was profoundly mine; second, I knew it belonged to many others too, of many centuries; third, I wanted to learn what it was all about, what the words meant, what on earth a Haftarah was; and fourth, there was something about it that went beyond explanation, maybe something mystical after all. All of this together launched the learning that carried me up to the present.

Afterward, after lingering for a little while to speak with people, I walked to the train station, caught the intended train, returned to Szolnok, biked home, dropped off my backpack, fed Minnaloushe, and then biked to the Verseghy Ferenc Library for the events I had been awaiting: a reading by László Darvasi (wonderful–very funny at moments, even to me, though I understood only a fraction of the humor), and then the Varga Katalin Gimnázium Drama Club’s performance, in a packed hall, of Farkasok (Wolves), a play by one of their members, Kata Bajnai. Many of my students were in the cast. There too, I didn’t understand everything, but I was taken by the clarity and starkness of the play and by the intensity of the acting. Each word and motion mattered. The audience was rapt. I hope to see it again and hope that the text will be published.

After that, I went back upstairs with two of my colleagues to hear a poetry slam performance. I don’t always like poetry slams (to put it mildly), but this one won me over. The performer, Kristóf Horváth, got the audience to  come up with multi-syllabic words and phrases that fit a given meter. Then he put them together and had us chant the whole improvised poem. People of many ages cheerfully pitched in.

But I was going to write about something else (related, though, in some way, to all of this). I have been thinking about how some of the most important advice is essentially ungivable. There is no way to understand it except in retrospect, and no way to phrase it in time. If I were to give advice to my former self (my teenage self, for instance), it would be something like this: “Do not doubt the worth of that essential, unchanging part of you. That is your contribution to the world; it is supposed to be there.” So many young people (and older people too) wish part of themselves away, especially those parts that stand out, that don’t seem to mesh with the surroundings.

But how do we know which parts of ourselves are essential and changeless, and which parts are changing? This takes time and participation in the world. We learn about ourselves through doing things, getting to know others, making mistakes, making our way through life. Also, the relation between the changing and the changeless is complex. I think I have always been both bold and shy, but over time I have gotten better at acknowledging both. A person does not have to be just one thing. Nor are boldness and shyness inherently good or bad; they can be shaped in many ways.

Moreover, the “changing” part is not necessarily less important than the “changeless” part; there’s vitality and loss in the transformation.

Back to the supposed advice: what does it mean that the unchanging part is “supposed” to be there? Despite believing in God in some way, I do not imagine a divine power creating and watching over each of us. It is likely that through evolution, humans became different from each other; these differences and distinctions gave us an advantage, since we could learn from each other and had to find ways to communicate. So from this standpoint, each person has something to contribute to the whole, even negatively.

But there is more to life than contributing to humanity as a whole. Yes, each of us is a tiny part of an immense field of action, which is in turn a tiny part of a more immense one. But we were given this strange gift of “I,” a self that eventually learns that it is not the center of the universe, but still never shakes its own importance entirely. What is this self for? If we were really supposed to serve humanity as a whole, shouldn’t the self have phased itself out? Wouldn’t we be better off as highly skilled and somewhat diverse carpenter ants?

The self brings with it a paradox: it (the self) prevents us from seeing others fully, but only through the self can any of us see another. Without a self, there would be no listening or speaking. But the self also blocks things out; it’s at once the keenest and dullest of instruments. So it sometimes needs a good shaking. Everyone, having a self, has something to work with and an infinity of things to take in (or not). The ungivable advice is that this is all worthwhile. Or at least some of it is, and that part requires the rest.

I took the photo on Friday morning. Also, I revised the piece on April 18.

A Walk Along the Zagyva

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A photo I took by the Zagyva this morning, and a new poem.

A Walk Along the Zagyva

The jagged margin should suffice as proof
that this here “you” was salvaged from old lore,
a muddy stretch that no one really knows
but for its way of sounding like a stream.
In any case, this isn’t meant for you,
whoever you may be, but if you find
its driftwood to your liking, take your pick,
and walk away the richer. Who am I
to claim such water-tossings? Nobody.
The catch is this: naming the jagged edge,
detaching “you” from you, can I pretend
nothing was cracked and amble my way down
into the matter? I don’t see why not;
since you and I stopped speaking years ago,
these words are pure contraption anyhow,
and purity does not give up midway.
Moreover, what I have to say is not
what you might dread from me—a fisted cry
or penned apology for old debris—
but something harder: knowledge of the law.
Nothing in modern or medieval code
says hearts cannot be broken, but to date
we have no proper breaking place, except
in verse and song; no parliament or court
gives figure to the breach, and prose itself
distorts through grim precision. Even song
forgets sometimes: it isn’t only love
that gets the axe, but friendship’s early drafts,
things said too soon, unwindable, unlike
a fisherman I really saw today
by the vague river. He would toss a line
and wait, then reel it in and shift
his place and try again. But this requires
a general indifference to fish
along with a true love of catching them.
We humans fail at pure indifference;
we lift each other up in difference.
But then we’re clumsy, too—or I, at least,
tossing the mask of “we,” can say I slipped
and fell. No code prohibits even this;
therefore some errors have no legal name,
and all the judges sitting on the wall
(you too, perhaps, though who am I to know?)
hurl follies at the margin’s lilting line.

 

As usual, I made a few changes to this after posting it.

A Library Down the Road

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The Verseghy Ferenc Public Library, just a block away from school, has become one of my favorite places in Szolnok. It brings back library memories but also takes me into new thoughts and the Hungarian language. I have been there many times this year, for poetry and prose readings and for my own book event. I love the luminous room where the readings are held.

Yesterday afternoon I went to hear Levente Csender read from his work and speak with Gyula Jenei. A week from tomorrow, on April 13, I will return from Budapest in time to attend the evening part of a day of literary events: a reading by László Darvasi and, after that, a performance by the Varga Katalin Gimnázium Drama Club (Varga Diákszínpad) of a play written by one of the troupe’s own members, Kata Bajnai.

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This is just the beginning; I look forward to many more events and quiet hours. In June, at the library, my tenth-grade students will perform scenes from Hamlet; before then, I hope to get a library card. Yes, a library card is essential–but so far, I haven’t had much reason to take out books, since I read so slowly in Hungarian and have so many books waiting on my shelf.

My life has held many libraries. In early childhood, in Amherst, Massachusetts, I often went to the Jones library; at the time, they catalogued and displayed a little book that I wrote (with pages stapled together) about a rainbow. At the Forbes Library in Northampton, there were weekly screenings of classic cartoons (Donald Duck, etc.); I used to go and laugh. In high school, I loved the school library with its spiral staircase between the two levels. Later on, in college, graduate school, and in between, I worked at the Yale library and did research there; when I later returned to New Haven to write Republic of Noise, I walked to the library almost every day. Other libraries (such as the New York Public Library and the Berkeley library) have also been large in my life. But the Verseghy Library in Szolnok stands out among the libraries I have known. Here I can listen to Hungarian literature–taking in as much as I can, striving to understand more, saying hello to a few people afterward, and leaving with a new book or two in hand and the evening’s language in my mind.

One day, when my Hungarian is much stronger, I will remember these library days and what they held. I will come back to the works I first met there, remembering how they sounded the first time. I hunger for that return, maybe because I will understand much more by then, or maybe because I will get to look back on these bright, dear days.

P.S. I heartily recommend Bob Shepherd’s piece “The Limits of Learning.”

A Way of Hearing the World

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Isn’t reading literature in the original one of the fundamental reasons for learning a language–and not just a side benefit or frill? Isn’t reading Shakespeare one of the great rewards of learning English? You can’t come close to Shakespeare in a translation, though some are of exceptional quality, or in “Shakespeare made easy” editions (which are watered down beyond pity). You have to plunge into Shakespeare’s language, struggle with it a bit, and then start to see it make glorious sense all around you.

Overall, I admire the gimnázium curriculum here in Hungary. What students learn is valuable not only for their future careers, but for independent thought and life. Literature is central to their learning; they read poems, novels, stories, and more (in Hungarian). They also learn math and sciences (to advanced levels), history (in depth and detail), grammar, technology, languages, arts, and physical education. My two criticisms are (a) that the curriculum is crammed, with little or no flexibility or choice, so that students have no time to absorb what they are learning; and (b) that in the language courses, literature is treated as an extra, something the teacher may add to the lessons if time and inclination permit. (My school has been very supportive of my Shakespeare projects–but still, in relation to the official curriculum, they are something added on.) Language instruction–and all the textbooks I have seen–focus on grammar, vocabulary, and conversation on everyday topics (health, food, family, nature, school, the environment, technology, etc.), which repeat and repeat, at increasingly advanced levels. All of this is good and important–but language instruction without literature is like music lessons without music. I am not the only one who brings literature into class–many teachers do–but still, it may seem an appendage, not an internal organ.

I have sometimes been asked why I am having students read Shakespeare in the original, when they will not need to use Shakespeare’s language later in their lives. My response: they will use it! They will recognize words, phrases, quotes, allusions all around them; they will gain a way of hearing the world; and they can return to the plays and poems throughout their lives.

But to the point: this year, the tenth-grade students (who last year adored A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are getting a little restless with Hamlet, or many are. The reasons are understandable: we read only in class (since the books stay at school, and I am reluctant to add to their already hefty homework); we meet only twice a week, and have not always devoted both sessions to Hamlet; there have been various interruptions and absences, so many students have missed at least one key scene of the play; it’s longer and more difficult than Midsummer; and in my desire to continue onward through the play (so that we can later go back and focus on certain scenes), I have not explained certain passages as well as I could. But we are close to the end; and I am confident that when we go back, reread, and enact particular scenes, the experience will be different.

Also, they have fond memories of Midsummer–and this is a very different sort of work. Comparing the first to the second, they may well feel some disappointment at first (though some have said that they find Hamlet more interesting). Last year their readings and performances were joyous and funny, and here a different mood sets in, though there is plenty of humor in Hamlet too.

Why Hamlet, out of all of Shakespeare’s plays? Well, for one thing, Hamlet is a play of the mind; it takes us into thinking itself. It is also full of play and trickery; the play itself is full of plays, not only the play within the play, but other enactments too–so that we are not always sure whether Hamlet is speaking his thoughts or acting for a perceived audience. Also, there is the question of metamorphosis: what must happen to Hamlet, how must he change, to do what he has set out to do? And the question of “minor” and “major” characters: might Polonius and Laertes be more important than they seem? The whole play has to do with “seeming” and “being”–so that when Hamlet first replies to his mother (in Act 1, Scene 2), his words, in a sense, introduce the play:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

And there you have the beauty of Hamlet: despite all the changing appearances and illusions, despite all the plots and tricks, there is an integrity, something that cannot be reduced to “just” this or that. It can only be revealed, though, through the illusions. We see Hamlet playing with Polonius here (in Act 3, Scene 2):

LORD POLONIUS
My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.
HAMLET
Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
LORD POLONIUS
By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
HAMLET
Methinks it is like a weasel.
LORD POLONIUS
It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET
Or like a whale?
LORD POLONIUS
Very like a whale.
HAMLET
Then I will come to my mother by and by. [Aside.] They fool me to the top of my bent. I will come by and by.
I will say so.
HAMLET
By and by is easily said.

Here Hamlet tests Polonius (craftily) to see whether he will continue to agree with him. But Polonius’s continued agreement reveals to Hamlet that he himself is being played with, in a more serious manner–that is, that Polonius has made some plan with the king and queen (or a larger “they”). So the play reveals the play–and Hamlet speaks through it all: “They fool me to the top of my bent,” suggesting that even his outwitting of Polonius may be partly an illusion, as there may be something beyond Polonius that he cannot outwit.

In some ways Hamlet cannot be a group experience. Last year, a few students took strongly to the play, not together but alone, and their responses set the tone for classes. I see this happening this year as well, but it has yet to come through. I believe that this will be worthwhile for everyone, not only now, but later. But to make it worthwhile, I have to think more about the scenes that we will study closely: how to interpret them, stage them, “character” them. Then, I think, good memory will be built.

Image credit: M. C. Escher, Metamorphosis I (1937 woodcut printed on two sheets).

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

Against Superiority

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When I read about the massacre in the New Zealand mosques (as of now, 49 people have died, and the suspect is a white nationalist), I felt, in addition to sadness and disgust, a renewed rejection of superiority. Superiority and inferiority are part of life, but their absolute forms–the belief that one person or group is better than another–lead to harm.

Belief in superiority is in all of us and sometimes holds truth. One person may be taller (or shorter) than another. One may be better than another in math, or at playing the cello. One person may be kinder, more professional, more generous than another. Specific superiority cannot be wished away; moreover, we are taught to strive for it and seek it out. It is natural to want to hear a good musician rather than a bad one, or to publish a good poem rather than a slipshod assemblage of words.

But all of this has to do with partial superiority: perceived excellence at certain activities, or in certain qualities. It has nothing to do with absolute superiority over another human being or group. As soon as you entertain thoughts of absolute superiority over others because of your skin color, religion, sex, or anything else, you verge on the kind of thinking that has resulted in mass graves. Not only that, but we have learned through history how wrong it is. Why do we keep on forgetting?

I remember a philosophy roundtable I led at Columbia Secondary School, on the topic of privacy. One of the texts I included was Marianne Moore’s “Silence“:

My father used to say,
“Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow’s grave
or the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like the cat—
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse’s limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth—
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint.”
Nor was he insincere in saying, “Make my house your inn.”
Inns are not residences.

I had previously interpreted the tone as somewhat admiring: that the father’s words represent a kind of ideal for Moore or at least the poem’s speaker. But the others at the roundtable were having none of it. They pointed out, for instance, that the father’s words take up almost all of the poem, and that the final line, “Inns are not residences,” suggest the coldness of his view. They also pointed to the beginning of the quote: “Superior people” and the absolute adverbs “never” and “always.” They heard something devastating in the father’s pronouncement on “the deepest feeling.”

That evening somewhat, and later even more, I came to believe that they were right: that the poem’s irony lies in the near-silence of the speaker, and that this near-silence is not “superior” but instead full of pain.

This leads me to thoughts of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which I brought to my students early in the year.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Here too, the quoted speech takes up almost all of the poem–and while it is the “traveller from an antique land” speaking and not Ozymandias, the story leaves the main speaker (the poet) with nothing more to say. But it is easy to get caught up in the “lone and level sands” and forget about something earlier: “Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, / Tell that its sculptor well those passions read / Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things.” The sculptor, the unseen character in all of this, has not only portrayed Ozymandias but read those passions “which yet survive.” The long distance of the sands may come down to nothing.

Yesterday in British civilization class I brought up W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” so often quoted and misquoted, with the famously misunderstood lines: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Those lines about the “best” and the “worst,” taken out of context, may seem to mean that uncertainty is inherently superior to intensity. But that is not it; Yeats (who wrote the poem in 1919) is speaking of a particular lack of conviction, a particular kind of passionate intensity–the latter an extreme certainty, a belief in one’s own authority. Something is taking place that we cannot even see or hear; it has come on us slowly, and now it is all around us. Within all of this, “the best lack all conviction” because the current explanations collapse; even the possibility of a “Second Coming” looms with a question. We, the readers, are guided out of conclusions and into troubling images and thoughts. I see that as one gesture of the poem: away from over-certainty.

If education is for anything at all besides preparing us for the workplace, giving us interesting things to think about, and enabling us to continue learning on our own, then it is for this: reminding us, again and again, through literature, music, art, language, sciences, history, and other fields, that no matter how often we think and feel otherwise, no human stands above another–except in specific respects, and even then imperfectly, just for a time, by way of a passing gift.
Image credit: Anselm Kiefer, The Morgenthau Plan (series of paintings, 2012).

No Ordinary Song

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The Hungarian band 1LIFE released their debut CD, Nincsen Kérdés (“There Is No Question”), in February 2019. Here are some thoughts on one of their songs, “Maradok ember” (“I will stay human”).* My translations and interpretations are imperfect; fortunately you can listen to the song itself.

 

As with their other songs (such as “Kapcsolj ki“), the words and music go together well.  Here the lilting, descending melody, simple and repeating, makes room for the musical changes–the pauses, drum patterns, bass octaves, textures–and the wistful, cryptic lyrics. But the lyrics also follow the music, keeping to its rhythm and form. The song begins,

lehetnék hajó, te meg
lehetnél a folyó
úgysem engednéd, hogy benned
elmerüljek én

This translates approximately as

I could be a ship, and you
you could be the river
you would not at all allow
me to be submerged in you

It is as if the lyrics were the ship, and the music the river. But all of this is to occur in the future. The first word of the song, “lehetnék” (“I could be”) is the first person conditional of the verb “lesz” (“to become” or future “to be”) with the potential suffix “-het”: lesz + -het + nék = lehetnék. The song’s fifth word, “lehetnél” (“you could be”) is the second person singular. Both suggest the possibility of becoming something. Also, the ship is not preceded by a definite article (or any article at all), but the river is. Thus the first image of the pair is not specified–it’s a ship, any ship, or a generic ship–but the second thing is specific, existing in relation to the first. This pattern–of verbs and definite article–persists through the subsequent three pairs of images in the first verse. (But part of the initial pattern gets broken too: the “úgysem” segment occurs only twice. I like this about the band’s songs in general: that patterns are detectable but not overdone, and that they change at just the right time.)

At first the images and even the action seem common: just as people hold each other up, the river will not let the ship sink. I think I have heard this metaphor before. But there’s an ambivalence: is the river protecting the ship from danger and disaster, or keeping it from what it wants to do? Is there some kind of danger and loss in the protection itself? The next stanza extends the puzzle:

lehetnék felhő, te meg
lehetnél as eső
úgysem engedném, hogy végül
zápor legyünk

I could be a cloud, and you
you could be the rain
in the end I would never let us
turn into a shower

It seems, at first glance, that the cloud is holding things together, preventing the downpour from happening–but the rain is already falling, and so the cloud could be holding back from the action, refusing to join in, refusing to become “us,” even though it is made of the same matter as the rain. There might be some separation, some breakage, in this restraint.

Even here, the meanings have not been revealed; we don’t know what the ship and river, cloud and rain are, except that they express relations of some kind. Things take a turn with the next stanza, where living beings (as opposed to inanimate matter) come into play:

lehetnék erdő, te meg
lehetnél a madár
bújj el bennem, és igérem
itt senki nem talál

I could be a forest, and you
you could be the bird
hide in me, and I promise
no one will find [you] here

This picture seems peaceful, except for the suggestion of a threat: that the bird needs to hide from those pursuing it. It’s idyllic and fragile at the same time. But then the next stanza casts new meaning on what has occurred up to now (or the possibilities that have been suggested):

lehetnék bolond, te meg
lehetnél a király
mondd csak, minek is játszanék, hisz itt
mindenki bánt

I could be a fool, and you
you could be the king
tell me what part I should play, since here
everybody hurts

Now it seems that all of the images from before–ship and river, cloud and rain, bird and forest–are roles being played, like the fool (or jester) and king, and that no matter what part you play, you do not escape the basic pain and your own ability to hurt others. As I understand it, “bánt” is transitive, so the hurting is inflicted as well as suffered.

But then comes the chorus, which seems joyous, almost:

nem leszek több, mint aminek látsz
nem leszek jobb, mint amire vágysz
maradok csendben, maradok ember
nem leszek szebb, mint ez a világ
nem leszek bölcsebb mint az apám
maradok csendben, maradok ember

I will not be more than what you see
I will not be better than what you desire
I will stay quiet, I will stay human
I will not be lovelier than this world
I will not be wiser than my father
I will stay quiet, I will stay human

Is this the true victory: staying human, staying quiet, not succumbing to the pressures toward extremes? If so, this song seems to stand up against the hyperbole of our times, the pressure to be the best, the first, the loudest, the fastest. Or maybe it is not protest, but an admission, a promise, or a hope. (“Maradok csendben, maradok ember” could also be speaking of the present: “I remain quiet, I remain human.”)

The second verse–only half as long as the first–gives a new dimension to the puzzle. It returns to the first two pairs of images, but not the second two. Now, instead of looking ahead at possibilities, it looks back on what has happened.

te voltál a folyó, és látod
én voltam a hajó
vigyáztam de te mégis
partra vetettél

You were the river, and you see
I was the ship
I was careful but all the same
you threw [me] onto the shore

te voltál az eső, és látod
én voltam a felhő
azt mondtad, hogy minden rendben végül
viharrá lettél

you were the rain, and you see
I was the cloud
You said everything was fine in the end
you turned into a storm

All the cautions and protections come to nothing: the ship is tossed ashore, and the rain turns into a storm. Also, the becoming has come to an end; the primary verb is now “voltál”/”voltam,” the past tense of “van.” The phrase “viharrá lettél” caught my attention: “vihar” (“storm, tempest”) is of Slavic origin, and it appears here in the translative case, “viharrá,” which gives a sense of transformation (“into a storm”). From what I gather, the translative case has a slightly archaic or poetic feel. And then there’s “lettél,” the second-person singular past form of “lesz,” the verb I brought up in the beginning. It’s a past future of sorts: in the past, you became.

The forest and bird, fool and king, do not return, but they do not have to; we can decide for ourselves how they end up–how we end up, since we are they. How far do we hide? What and whom do we play? At what cost? To what end?

Then comes the chorus again, several times, along with interjections of “és látod” (“and you see”) and “és hát” (“and well”), and changes of musical texture. What does it mean, staying human? What does it consist of? Maybe being human has to do with two opposite things: protecting each other and yet failing to fully protect or be protected. Or maybe we play parts, well or poorly, while human pain and joy take their own course. Or we lighten our lives and mend the breaks with interjections (“well, you see”).

These words, patterns, melodies, and layers make “Maradok ember” no ordinary song. I sense that these musicians have much more coming, but right now they deserve to be heard.

Image: Marc Chagall, The Enchanted Forest (1945).

*I originally wrote the piece to support the band in an online poll. The winner will open for the Grenma at the Dürer Kert in Budapest on April 27. The band didn’t win the poll, but they did well, and the music transcends this stuff anyway. Also, they have an exciting show coming up: on March 23, when I will be on a bike trip to Szeged, they will open for Belmondo in Törökszentmiklós.

Full disclosure: Two of the band members attend the school where I teach in Szolnok, and one of them is in one of my weekly classes (through April). A colleague told me about their CD, and I purchased it, listened to it, and then listened more. I write about this song because it (along with the rest of the album) has had an effect on me and because I would like others, particularly English speakers, to know about it.

 

A Similar Gaze

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Yesterday I received a letter from a stranger (copied here with permission):

Dear Ms. Senechal,

I fortuitously discovered your work and simply adore your thinking, your whole orientation towards education, your perceptions about culture could not be more nuanced, intelligent, and deeply inspiring! I am writing to thank you for your work and also to ask you if you could offer some sort of reading list that might help a reader develop a similar gaze. I love your counter-culture thinking, but it is not dismissive and hostile, but rather critical and informed. You tight-rope walk a very subtle line, and I really appreciate it. Most academic writing is AWFUL to read—-horrid prose, jargons, and not very impressive ideas. Your work is a breath of fresh air, and I would love to read others like you and those who have shaped your thinking.

I thought of writing a response here, because this gives me a chance to recognize some of the writers who have influenced my thinking. But when I started assemble it in my mind, I became overwhelmed by the task. First of all, my thinking is continually changing; I expect the next book to differ from my latest one, and I rethink things day by day.

I suppose the letter-writer was referring to nonfiction, but my greatest influences have been poetry, music, and certain kinds of fiction–as well as nonfiction that has been influenced by these. I am drawn to those writers who have an ear for language–who hear the overtones and undertones of words, who know how to set words to rhythm, who set and break patterns. I love Aeschylus and Sophocles, the Psalms and Koheleth–but if I start listing names, I won’t end.

Nikolai Gogol: perhaps the writer who influenced me the most overall. His sentences are works of art: building up and breaking down, toying with sounds and meanings, and bursting with comedy and sadness.

I grew up on classical music but love rock too, and folk, and other kinds; music can take the humblest of forms and still shake a life. It depends on subtle things.

Of essayists, I am drawn toward the ruminative and the keen (in combination): Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf, David Bromwich, to name just three.

But as long as I can remember, some of my greatest influences have been the people around me every day: colleagues, students, friends, family, acquaintances. Some of them I admire for their work, character, or both; some challenge me in everyday conversation by putting things in a way that I hadn’t considered before. That’s one reason why I hope to continue teaching as long as I can give it full mind and strength.

I don’t think I have fully answered the question, though. The person who wrote to me found something in my writing that differed from the usual jargon. This difference is still building, but even in its elementary versions, it has come with some risk and pain. It isn’t just that I read particular writers, although I do. It isn’t just that I am inspired by those around me, although I am. It is that I took my own way, more than once, and learned what was there. For instance, in the middle of graduate school I decided that I didn’t want to go into academia–that is, to become a professor. I left graduate school, moved to San Francisco, finished my dissertation a few years later, for its own sake, and received my degree. Many people were initially upset that I had turned away from academia, but I don’t regret the decision; teaching high school gives me a full intellectual life, with freedom to move between subjects (philosophy, literature, language, drama, etc.). I don’t have life answers; I wouldn’t advise anyone to take or avoid my path. Each person faces different dilemmas and conundrums, so any advice must be tentative.

Nor have I attained the writing that I am after. Even with blog posts, I keep looking for the right word, rhythm, or mixture. When I finish writing something more substantial, such as a book, I outgrow it it a little; the mind keeps going past the final draft, and I start tinkering with ideas for the next work, whatever it may be. This is not a “process” (dreary word) but a pursuit of something I can barely see and hear.

Back to the question of things to read: I recommend Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and Bromwich’s Moral Imagination. Each of these will lift the thinking; if you take them in slowly, they may exhilarate too. I choose them because I return to them again and again.

 

I revised this piece a few times after posting it. The photo shows part of my bookshelf (and just a fraction of my books, since I was able to bring only a few to Hungary); the record cover at the top is of Art of Flying’s Escort Mission.

 

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.