There’s No Such Thing as a “Thinker”


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, now intact again, 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 self-knowledge must hold knowledge of the flaw.

In that light, and in a different mood from “Pomegranates,” a piece by Louis Phillips caught my eye and tickled my mind yesterday. “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….”

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:

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

My lord, I cannot.

I pray you.

Believe me, I cannot.

I do beseech you.

I know no touch of it, my lord.

‘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.

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

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.


I took the two photos this week.


Springtime in the Mind

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).


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

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”

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 ….”).

midsummer final scene

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.


(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.

Taking a Walk Without Time

Sometimes when I’m busy, I forget to take walks for enjoyment. It seems that I don’t have time. But time doesn’t always have to be “had”; sometimes you can do without it. It’s even better that way; you’re not wasting it, since you aren’t in a position to dole it out at all, to yourself or anyone else. In this way I managed to take a walk through the wet snowfall of Szolnok. “Új nemzedék” (above) means “new generation”; “zeneiskola” (below), “music school.”


I also passed by the beautiful old synagogue (now a gallery) and crossed halfway over the Tiszavirág híd (Mayfly Bridge). It felt like the first day in Szolnok, only snowy and wet, with more Hungarian whirling around in my mind.

That leads to the point of this post. Teaching all day, and then working on the book in the evening, I have been so steeped in English that my progress in Hungarian has been slow. The language barrier has started to get to me; people are kind and generous with translation, but I know that I will not understand the country, or fully take part in life here, until I can speak the language. To learn the language, I have to immerse myself; to immerse myself, I have to finish the book!

But the book is not just some task to complete; it has been at the center of my life. It was my reason for leaving Columbia Secondary School in June 2016; I needed stretches of time for it. I drew on savings to write it, since my only income was from the Dallas Institute’s Summer Institute. Day after day, I put thought, research, work, and afterthought into it. The final revisions can be the most important ones, since the pressure gives the words a healthy scare.

Nor will I be “done” when the book is sent in; there will still be proofreading, indexing, and much more, not to mention the book release party and other readings. But I will have a little more time to take long bike rides, speak and study Hungarian, go to plays and concerts, and get to know people. I have committed to another full year here–except for a month in the summer–so there will be time for these things.

A few people have asked me whether I might tutor them or someone else in English (for pay). It’s supposedly lucrative work, but not appealing right now. The more time I spend speaking English, the less I will hear Hungarian. Even a tutoring exchange (English and Hungarian) would not be satisfying for me, since I am not asking for a tutor. I do not do well with excessively structured time; I need some time for exploring and thinking.

This brings me back to the subject of time: needing certain kinds of time, not “having” time, making do without time. Sometimes when we speak of time, we really refer to form; “not having time” for something really means excluding it from our form. Sometimes the form breaks open, and suddenly that thing for which there was no time ends up in time, a thing taken up and done, a person met.

I end with Robert Frost’s sonnet “Meeting and Passing“:

As I went down the hill along the wall
There was a gate I had leaned at for the view
And had just turned from when I first saw you
As you came up the hill. We met. But all
We did that day was mingle great and small
Footprints in summer dust as if we drew
The figure of our being less than two
But more than one as yet. Your parasol
Pointed the decimal off with one deep thrust.
And all the time we talked you seemed to see
Something down there to smile at in the dust.
(Oh, it was without prejudice to me!)
Afterward I went past what you had passed
Before we met, and you what I had passed.



Life here in Szolnok gives me lots to ponder. For example, I pass by the word gépkölcsönző and ask myself, what could that mean? I look it up and find out that it means “tool rental shop”–a place to remember, as I might need a drill one day.

I learned today that a possible Hungarian word for “contrariwise” (congratulations again to the international contest winners!) is ellenkezőleg. This came from a visit to the bookstore, where I found and purchased a Hungarian translation of Through the Looking-Glass. This means a translation not only of “contrariwise,” but of “Jabberwocky“!

Nézsonra járt, nyalkás brigyók,
Turboltak, purrtak a zepén,
Nyamlongott mind a pirityók,
Bröftyent a mamsi plény….

I started reading and could not resist skipping ahead to Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Subidam és Subidu), the White Knight (a Fehér Huszár), and other favorite characters and parts. I look forward to reading it in and out of sequence.

I started writing an quasi-absurdist mini-play in faltering Hungarian (something to do when you don’t know much of the language), but haven’t gotten too far yet, since I have so much else to do. Here’s the opening dialogue. The characters’ names,  inspired by various travels, are Vasútállomás and Pályaudvar (Train Station and Railway Station).

Vasútállomás: Tovább?
Pályaudvar: Tovább.
Vasútállomás: Kártya van?
Pályaudvar: Van.
Vasútállomás: Egy ember azt mondta, hogy…
Pályaudvar: Mit?
Vasútállomás: Valami csengő. Nem tudok semmit.
Pályaudvar: Győződjön meg arról.

Vasútállomás: Természetesen. De nincs időm.
Pályaudvar: Vár a buszra?
Vasútállomás: A busz gyakran megáll itt. De ez nem bizonyít semmit.
Pályaudvar: Miért ne?
Vasútállomás: A bizonytalanság kissé boldoggá tesz.
Pályaudvar: A boldogság néha kissé boldoggá tesz.
Vasútállomás: Az igaz. Viszontlátásra!
Pályaudvar: Miért viszlát?
Vasútállomás: Nem tudok annyit magyarul folytatni ezen a ponton.
Pályaudvar: Ó, már értem. Viszontlátásra.
Vasútállomás: Úgy beszélsz, mint egy igazi pályaudvar.


Phases and Counterpoints


Popular psychology often describes human life in terms of stages: the five stages of grief, the four stages of culture shock, and so on. Such formulations are simplistic and untrue, except as general templates. Our lives cannot be chunked; we may go through phases, but they blend and combine and sometimes appear out of order.

Still there are reasons to mark points in time, to honor life events, whether of the past, present, or future, whether our own or someone else’s. The point is not to dictate joy and sorrow but rather to create a counterpoint. My own thoughts and feelings do not disappear during a ritual, but I hear them alongside something else; in this way they turn into something new. Ritualized mourning will not match my own mourning, nor ritualized celebration my own joy; so the ritual lifts me both out of and into myself.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that one can think of Jewish ritual as “the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.” He notes that the first time that the word qadosh, “holy,” is used in the Bible, it is applied to the seventh day–that is, to time. Shabbat is art and architecture of time in that we ourselves shape it. It is artifice in the best sense of the word; it comes out of intention and imagination.

Jews vary widely in our observance of Shabbat. Many do not observe it at all, many observe it strictly, and many do something in between (or change over time). Differences aside, even an awareness of this day can affect how we go about our lives. It contrasts with our everyday timing, urges, and impulses. Moreover, it is we who have to build it; it has been observed and described for centuries, but we contribute to its structure, not just once, but again and again. We lay down a block or beam; we set a window.

Something similar can be said for other holidays (inside and outside of Judaism). They are ways of honoring and structuring time: not our personal time, but the time of a larger entity.

This Friday and Saturday, as Szim Salom, we celebrated Shabbat Shira, the special Shabbat that includes the Shirat Hayam (the Song of the Sea) in the Torah reading. Shabbat Shira takes place once a year. Traditions vary from place to place, but it is common for the entire congregation to rise for the Song of the Sea and to sing certain verses responsively.

In the cantillation course I took at JTS last year–taught by the wonderful Cantor Perry Fine–we devoted much time to the Song of the Sea because of its importance and complexity. The leader must know how to alternate between regular Torah trope and the responsive melody; moreover, he or she must be steeped in the text, capable of giving it cadence and tone.

800px-Song_of_the_seaFor this responsive reading at Szim Salom yesterday, we made many preparations; on Friday night, after service, we went over the melody and verses; the rabbi spoke about the significance of the responsive verses and their difference from the rest of the text. On Saturday morning, we invited everyone to come up to the scroll to see the Shirat Hayam, which has a different layout from the rest of the text. Before beginning the Torah reading, we reviewed the melody and verses again. From there, things swelled; the reading was truly responsive and joyous. It is not for description here; it happened there and is now wrapped up in memory.

Shirat Hayam (in Chapter 15 of Exodus) tells how Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, which parted left and right for them, and how Pharaoh’s horses, riders, chariots, and captains perished in the waves. While most of the text relates a succession of events, the responsive verses have a sound of eternity. They are part of Jewish (and sometimes Christian) regular liturgy, hymns, and piyutim; people readily recognize verse 15:11, “Who is like unto Thee, O LORD, among the mighty? who is like unto Thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” and 15:18, “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever.”

In this way, right there in the Shirat Hayam, you feel the counterpoint of timelessness and time: a song rising up out of a tale, or a ritual out of history.

As I thought about this, before and afterward, I remembered Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (“That is no country for old men. The young…”) I started thinking about some lines that I had not given as much attention before. When I think of the poem, I usually remember the second stanza first of all:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

All of this I thought I understood. But just a little later, at the end of the third stanza, a phrase takes me by surprise: “the artifice of eternity.”

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

This is supposed to be strange, I think; it goes against notions that eternity just happens. Eternity is created, magnificently created; it opposes nature, which “is begotten, born, and dies.” The speaker yearns to become artistic form and creation; the fourth stanza begins,

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,

“Once out of nature”–this phrase is peculiar too. What does it mean? Perhaps “released from the phases of life,” released from the body and its decay. Once out of nature, I will take a new kind of form, the speaker suggests, and it will not be “from any natural thing.” But there are still more surprises to come:

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

There is a lot to say about the repetition of “gold” (“goldsmiths,” “hammered gold,” “gold enamelling” and “golden”) and the sardonic “keep a drowsy Emperor awake.” But it is the ending that catches my thoughts: “Or set upon a golden bough to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” How is it that the golden form, “out of nature,” sings of time and passing, “Of what is past, or passing, or to come”? It is the singing that sets it apart; to sing of time is to gather it up.

This singing is not only external; it involves studying “monuments of its [tjat is, the soul’s] own magnificence.” Here, to study is to sing; through study you rise up into form. This poem invites its own study; it seems easy to understand but keeps startling you (as though you were a drowsy emperor). It draws you into a continuous puzzle that, with each solution, brings new meanings to the whole. Its iambic pentameter (with aberrations) both lulls and wakes the ear; the stresses and counter-stresses make the song.

That’s only the beginning, though; if you read the poem along with its companion, “Byzantium,” you understand it in still more lights and tones.

So it is with the phases of life; they exist not on their own, or even in combination with each other, but in counterpoint with the things we read and sing, the time we honor, the words we slowly come to understand.

Dave Pearson, Sailing to Byzantium (gouache and ink)

Dave Pearson’s Sailing to Byzantium is part of his Byzantium series.

The image of the Shirat Hayam in a Torah scroll is borrowed from Wikipedia. As for the photo at the top, I took it last week on my way to school. The gold behind the trees looks like a sea or a lake, but it isn’t. That morning, there was a straight cloud line that hung low over the horizon; where the cloud line ended, the sun’s rays spread. A few minutes later, this sea of gold vanished, as the sun rose up past the line, into the clouds.

There was a problem with the formatting of this post; it is now fixed.

The Dare of Beauty


Over the centuries, many have claimed that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (or something similar), but this formulation seems simplistic. If beauty exists only in the viewer, then it has no ability to bring people together, except haphazardly or by persuasion. But beauty does bring people together, and while it can’t always be explained, it has some principles and paragons.

I find the above picture beautiful: not only the only the shapes of the branches, not only the snow, not only the curves of the river against the line of the wall, but the adult pulling the child in a sled, an accident of timing, since a few seconds earlier they were hidden behind the tree to the right. There was also surprise here; before opening the curtains, I thought, “Today I’ll go out on a long bike ride.” Then, when I saw this scene, I reconsidered and took two photos instead.

A scene can change in seconds from humdrum to songworthy. When crossing the river recently, I saw, from a certain angle, a string of lights reflected in the water; when I took a few more steps over the bridge, these reflections disappeared from view. So I backtracked a little and found the reflections again.


Beauty comes through at certain angles and times. That doesn’t make it transient; once you find beauty in something, you can find it again. Sometimes–for instance, in a favorite literary work or musical recording–you find it every time you return to it. But even then, it demands your alertness–maybe even more, the better you know it.

Alexander Nehamas writes in Only a Promise of Happiness (2007) that “beautiful things don’t stand aloof, but direct our attention and our desire to everything else we must learn or acquire in order to understand and possess, and they quicken the sense of life, giving it new shape and direction.” Some might take this to subordinate beauty to purpose–beauty is important because it gives shape to our lives–but I see it in reverse: beauty demands that I live up to the seeing. Being an audience member is no easy task; it does not stop when the performers take their last bow. I am responsible for everything I have seen.

Perceivers of beauty cannot be dismissed as naive dreamers or timid escapists; they know (sometimes painfully) what this perception requires of them. Whenever you find something beautiful–be it a film, place, or person–someone else is sure to deride it. How do you respond? Stubbornness will not do; if your defense is too brittle, it cracks. Capitulating is no better; you can’t let others dictate what you see, since there would then be no point in seeing at all. Instead, you must be able to hear others while holding your ground. In this way, the beauty draws you into counterpoint; you hear and see more than one thing at once (and more than you did before).

Someone looking at the picture above might say, “Yes, but look at those ugly apartment buildings.” Yes, the apartment buildings look drab (from the outside), but they seem to answer the trees. The same can be said for the picture below, in which people are gathering with sleds. The high-rise has added some lights of its own to the string.


To honor those amazements, while also learning and changing: that is the dare of beauty. Not everyone will see beauty in everything, but our glimpses go beyond the personal. They add something to human capacity. There are poems, stories, plays, songs I remember not only for themselves, but for the way they were introduced to me. There are people I remember not just for their stories and jokes, not just for their kind or mixed deeds, but for the things they pointed out.


I made a minor change to this piece after posting it.