Ahead and Behind


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Letters from a Doll (Sestina)

A girl had lost her doll; to help her through,
Kafka wrote letters—from the doll—that told
where she had been, what she had learned, and what
learning, if not what lessons, lie in loss.
Later the girl found one more in a crack:
Love will come back, but in a different form.

Loss let us first define as ruptured form.
Everything comes from it; it bellows through
the vaults of dark and stars, shaking a crack
in light itself, untelling what was told
and starting a new story: I am loss;
in me there is no who, where, why, or what.

I did not know my winding words were what
wore out your own, or that I broke a form;
I thought I could not be a source of loss.
But loss lies in all things, soaking them through,
down to the dearest, down to what we told
ourselves was firm, down to the plastered crack.

Late in the attic, looking through the crack
in the pine wall, I think I make out what
could be your afterlight. A singer told
me once that certain songs attain their form
from being listened to, and even through
full stoppage can be heard. So with your loss,

so with the fading of the light, the loss
of stuff and all its traps, the faithful crack
in hoped-for shapes, the senses dimming through
lowest degrees, down into who knows what,
the hints of weather marks and final form,
hushing to null, in what the pinewood told.

Yes, the beloved story comes untold
through being heard; nothing without its loss,
it casts me out of what I thought was form.
I rotate this black box, trying to crack
its terse domain, to learn, if lucky, what
keeps it from falling open, being through.

Instead I hear a form of letter. Told
through a new face, cast in new sound, the loss
becomes a pause, a crack, a question, what?

I wrote this sestina today. It was inspired partly by two separate pieces I read recently about Kafka and the doll, partly by Loren Eiseley’s poem “Say that the Gift was Given” (thanks to Thomas for introducing it to me yesterday), and partly by who knows what.

Attainment and Transition


I have been thinking about attainment and transition in writing: how, when you complete a work–a poem, essay, book–and then later, when you publish it, you both reach a point and push beyond it. Sometimes the very act of publishing takes you to a new perspective; if you were to rewrite the work at this point, you might make some changes (or do something different entirely). The proportion of attainment to transition varies from situation to situation; some works are primarily attainments, others transitions or openings. Neither one is superior to the other; the work that reaches finality is not necessarily more perfect or more worthwhile than the one that opens up changes and new considerations. To the contrary: sometimes the more restless work has the greater liveliness.

Regarding this topic, I sense a cultural difference between the U.S. and Hungary. In the U.S. there is great emphasis on treating your published work as final and perfect; who ever goes back and revises a TED talk, for instance? For a work of nonfiction especially, you are supposed to isolate your “talking points” and say them again and again, in interview after interview. It is uncommon to hear someone say, “My thoughts on this subject have changed,” or “I have altered the wording since the book was published.” Yes, you fix mistakes, but you are otherwise expected to stick to your points. With poetry and fiction, the situation is similar: publishers do not typically want to consider works that have appeared before, even if the author has since revised them. (Part of this has to do with copyright law and economy: publishers compete for “first rights.”)

Here in Hungary I sense something different. My impressions are early and incomplete–I have a lot to learn and take in–but so far I see much less emphasis on finality and newness and much more on seeking, rethinking, and reworking. At least this is what I have found so far. Maybe I found it because I was alert to it. It is all too easy to generalize about a country or to mistake one’s early impressions for the whole. Still, the fragments themselves are promising.


The poet, playwright, screenwriter, and prose author János Térey (whom I heard twice on Thursday) said in an interview in 2016, “Jó társaság átírni mindig verseinket. Úgy fogom fel, hogy ameddig élek, az utolsó kézvonás joga az enyém.” I would translate this approximately as follows: “It is good fellowship to rewrite our poems continually. As I understand it, as long as I live, the right to the last penstroke is mine.” “Kézvonás,” as I understand it, means a pulling of the hand (i.e., with a pen, over paper), so I translated it as “penstroke” (since “handstroke” has a different meaning); another possibility might be “move,” as in a chess move. I am not sure that I translated the first sentence correctly, but if I did, the meaning may be as follows: revision is fellowship (or company, or society) in itself, since it keeps you in dialogue with your work. It also allows for fellowship with others.

Large revisions are not always more important than small ones; sometimes an adjusted line, a single word change along with an altered word order, can recast an entire poem. Why should a person hold back from trying such changes, if they start growing in the mind?

Some might say that if you are allowed to revise a work as many times as you wish, you never have to take responsibility for your words. This would be true, I think, if, after revising, you erased every trace of the previous versions. But if the previous versions still stand, if they remain in published form, you are still responsible for them in some way, perhaps even more than if you did not change them at all. If you think it is wrong to revise published work, then in essence you relinquish it (“it’s done, it’s out there; what can I do but move on?”). But if you continue to revise your work even after publication, then you extend your responsibility; you not only live with your words but continue to work with them.

I consider Mind over Memes (to be released tomorrow) a better book, but also a more transitional one, than Republic of Noise. It brought me to a different place in my thinking and writing. If I were to revise Republic of Noise, I would make some changes but keep most of the text intact. If I were to rework Mind over Memes, it might become an entirely different book–either that, or it would lead to another one. That does not count against it; rather, it’s part of the book’s meaning. It was meant to open up into questions, and it did, for me at least. It remains to be seen what others think of it.

Probably many will see the actual book before I do; my copies have been held up in customs. I hope they arrive soon. Customs here can be tricky; I have yet to receive a scarf (my own scarf, not an ordered item) for which I completed and returned the customs form several weeks ago. The books may take even longer. The ones held up now are my own copies, but I ordered about thirty more copies for book events. I now more fully understand the meaning of “suspense”–not fully, that is, but more fully than before.


I took both pictures in Szolnok this past week. The second one reminds me of several lines from a poem; more about that, possibly, another time. Also, I added a paragraph and made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

“Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok”


Over a year ago, before coming to Hungary, I began reading, thinking about, and learning Endre Ady poem “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm.” Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and finished memorizing it at last. It took time in part because of the complex phrases (“Boldog szimatolásaimban, / Gyöngéd simogatásaimban”) and in part because I had to memorize each syllable, since when I began I knew none of the grammar. Last night I realized that I understood its grammar and nearly all of the words; the parts I knew and the parts I hadn’t yet learned came together. But there was another reason, I think, that it came together all of a sudden: yesterday afternoon I attended a lecture on Ady’s poetry by the writer János Térey (poet, playwright, screenwriter, author of prose), who visited our school. The lecture did not touch on this poem; he focused on Ady’s Christmas-related poems, such as “Harang csendül“–but as I listened, I started to put things together in my mind. Even with my limited Hungarian, I came out of the lecture with a different understanding and with new poems I wanted to read (new for me, that is). From there, it took only a few minutes to finish memorizing the poem.

I don’t think there is anything magical about this. Memorizing involves interpretation; to know what comes next in a poem, you must understand its structure, motion, rhythm, tones, meanings; to do that, you must think about each word and the relationships between them. A lecture, by offering an interpretation, gives your mind a working structure; even if it’s on a slightly different topic, it helps you with the structure at hand. If it’s on an interesting subject, by someone with exceptional insight, it does even more. Beyond that, I concentrate so hard when listening to Hungarian that the focus persists afterward. In any case, I now can carry “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm” and traces of other Ady poems in my mind. It is the third Hungarian poem that I have memorized, and I hope for many more. Each book opens up to more places, and the memorizing is just the beginning.

Memorizing a poem in another language can also open up aspects of one’s own. The Ady poem has the lines “Köszönöm a kétséget, a hitet, / A csókot és a betegséget.” (roughly, “I thank You for the doubt, the belief, / The kisses and the infirmity”). The word “kétség” means “doubt” but could literally be translated as “twoness” or “being of two minds” (since “két” means “two,” and the suffix –ség turns the word into an abstract noun). I began to suspect that “doubt” also had something to do with “two,” and so it does, according to my handiest etymological dictionary at this time. From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

c. 1200, douten, duten, “to dread, fear, be afraid” (a sense now obsolete), from Old French doter“doubt, be doubtful; be afraid,” from Latin dubitare “to doubt, question, hesitate, waver in opinion” (related to dubius “uncertain”), from duo “two” (from PIE root *dwo- “two”), with a sense of “of two minds, undecided between two things.” Compare dubious. Etymologically, “to have to choose between two things.”

I could (and should) have realized this long ago, but learning a poem makes me more alert to such things. Learn a book of such poems inside out, and you come close to learning a language. There will be much more to learn after that, but you will start to hear the language from the inside.

Speaking of books, mine comes out in three days. The Dallas Institute posted a Q&A; another one is coming any day on the Book Culture blog. I will have a reading in Budapest, at Massolit Books & Cafe, on Sunday, November 18; I hope to have one in Szolnok too, possibly at the library, which I visited for the first time yesterday when I went to hear János Térey read from his own work. It’s a beautiful library, and I hope to visit often, whether for events or for reading.


I took the photo after a concert in September. Also, I made some additions to this piece after posting it.

Update: Here is a short video of János Térey‘s visit to our school. Thanks to Gyula Jenei for posting the link–and to Gyula and everyone else who made these events possible.

Repetition and Refrain


On Monday we celebrated music at school, thanks to the music teacher and other colleagues. I had various thoughts on what to do but settled on a particular idea: I would teach “Frère Jacques,” which students knew in Hungarian but perhaps not in French and English. We would sing it in all three languages; then we would listen to the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. We listened to a recording of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur.

The singing of “Frère Jacques” was lovely. I realized afterward that bells sound different in different languages; if I were to do it again, I would perfect the vowel sounds. But for the occasion, it went well. Listening to the Mahler was a little more difficult, since the speakers weren’t powerful enough for the hushed instruments; all the same, we could hear the “Frère Jacques” theme at its quietest. (You can listen to the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado, here; the third movement begins at 24:56.)

The music didn’t end there or that day; today one of my ninth-grade classes (class 9C, group 2) returned to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which last week led to a lively discussion of the relation between liberty and property (both public and private). Here is the recording of today’s singing.

I find with these songs (and with many other things) that the repetition opens up understanding. Repetition is inherent in music and theatre, not only within the pieces themselves, but in rehearsals and other preparations. As for literature, my favorite works are those that I want to read many times; the first reading makes way for more. Repetition works well with teaching, too; it allows teachers and students to see the subject in more than one way.

Speaking of that, I am excited to be participating in a seminar on rereading in November, at the ALSCW Conference in Nashville; I will present a paper on rereading Chekhov’s “Duel.” In the Poetic Verse seminar, I will present a paper on music and ellipsis in Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” and Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac” (two of my favorite songs for years and years).

I suppose that’s part of what I enjoy about living in Szolnok: bicycling down the same streets, in rain and sun and wind, and sometimes different ones too.


I took both photos today in Szolnok.

Update: For “This Land Is Your Land,” the first upload attempts didn’t work; it seems that the file was too large. I shortened it; now the link works. Another time (not tonight) I will try again to upload the whole song.

Secrets Behind the Trees


The other day, just before reaching home, I saw a young man with his bike parked beside the river wall. He was seated on the wall, gazing out at the Zagyva. I wanted to take a picture but did not want to disturb his privacy, even without his knowledge. So I took a picture in which he could not really be seen. You can just see the bike and a hint of a blue jacket behind the tree. The picture represents part of my life here these days and the happiness I am finding. There is room for thinking.

The picture has another meaning too. As I start to understand more and more Hungarian, as I put together more sentences, read more, and carry more in my mind, I start to see secrets behind the trees, things I would not recognize if I did not know that they had to be precisely there. (This last part, after the colon, is a paraphrased quotation from a poem—a somewhat different version from the one behind the link.) I have discovered that one of my colleagues is a poet and another an essayist and critic; their work inspires me to read and understand. They also run a literary journal, Eső (Rain); the Fall 2018 issue comes out tomorrow. Much more reading lies ahead!

In addition, I find that language sometimes works like constellations in the mind: you have seen the individual stars, but when you recognize the form between them, that is when you know them by heart. When learning how to say certain things, I find that I had some of the knowledge before: maybe the grammar, or maybe the words–but when I put them together, I understand both grammar and words in a new way. Last Monday, I tutored two women in English; after an hour, as we had agreed beforehand, we switched to Hungarian so that I could practice too. I learned how to say things that I had almost known how to say; when they clicked, right there in the sound of conversation, I knew I would remember them.

There is much more to say about this, but I am running late and must therefore run.

The Truth of Seeking Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Condescension, Contempt, and Beyond


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Is one ever too busy to think?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

“Just as You sent the rain this night, so raise this boy.”

revolt of job 0The 1983 Hungarian film The Revolt of Job (Jób lázadása) begins with mist, an indoor swimming pool, boys jumping, splashing, and shrieking, boys upon boys. Adult figures emerge in the background; one of them, a man with greying beard, begins inspecting a few boys (for possible adoption) while his wife and the orphanage managers comment on the selections. Then a melody can be heard in the background, just for a few seconds, just the stark opening phrase, one note at a time, as though played with one finger hitting the piano keys. It is the Hungarian Jewish song “Szól a kakas már,” which comes and goes several times throughout the film.

According to legend, the first Kaliver Rebbe, Yitzchak Isaac Taub (1751-1821), learned and purchased this song from a shepherd, who, after teaching it to him, forgot it completely. Beloved by Hungarian Jews, it has come to be associated with the Shoah because of its Messianic longing, but it also evokes a longer history. The film itself is filled with longing; Imre Gyöngyössy, who directed it along with Barna Kabay, was himself adopted by Jewish parents who disappeared in the Holocaust. In an interview he told Seth Mydans, “Until now, in all my work the heredity of my adoptive father is working. Until now it is I who am running after the Messiah, after eternal liberation. I am running until now in all my films. I am running as my father told me.” (Please see Mydans’s superb article for more about the film, its background, and its making.)

Here by the swimming pool, we soon learn why the husband and wife (Jób and Róza, played by Ferenc Zenthe and Hédi Temessy) are “purchasing” a boy–in fact, exchanging him for two calves: Jób, who has lost seven sons, wants a Christian son to whom he can leave everything once they are gone. It is 1943; Christians have better odds of survival than Jews. The manager warns the wife not to be too choosy; as it is, he will have to back-date the papers to 1938 (when Jews were still allowed to adopt).

Having rejected several possibilities, Jób looks out into the pool again and sees a boy dunking underwater to hide. The boy pops up, looks at him, and goes under again. This is the one, Jób decides; Lackó (Gábor Fehér) gets carried out kicking and screaming, gets a haircut, and gets taken home in the horse-drawn cart, with the sheep in the back. (A dog running alongside the cart gets adopted too; there is some mayhem, but they make it home.) Over the next eight months or so–the film begins before Rosh Hashanah and ends about a month after Passover–Lackó comes to love his adoptive parents and become beloved by them. They accomplish what they set out to do: raise a son, even in such a short time, to carry on their tradition and memory. This is the “revolt” of Jób (the father’s name); rather than give up all heritage, he has decided to go out and find it, breaking custom, meeting with some disapproval, but listening to what he knows he has to do.

Part of this film’s magnificence lies in its sense of time. At the poolside we learn that it is 1943; after that, as far as I remember, no specific dates are mentioned again. All time is conveyed through nature (day and night, rain and sun) and the Jewish holidays (Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach). We find little Lackó gazing through the window at his adoptive mother lighting the Shabbat candles. Jób joins her and wishes her “gut Yontiv.” This suggests that the date is Friday, October 1, 1943–the very end of Rosh Hashanah–or perhaps one week earlier. The next time Lackó peers through the window, it is Kol Nidre; he sees a man carrying the Torah scroll and chanting “Or zarua latzadik…”; he hears Kol Nidre; he hears a rabbi give the D’var Torah.

Jób does not try to convert Lackó to Judaism; he tells Lackó about God but asks a Swabian friar to instruct him too. In one of the conversations, at the village market–where some of the townspeople and the Deputy Town Clerk are singing “Let’s hit the Jews with a stick,” and where a man is squirting water at two mating dogs who are stuck together–Lackó learns from his father that God–the word he teaches is “Shechinah,” a Hebrew word for an aspect of God, often understood as the manifestation–is “in the acts of love in the pastures”; that he gives light, like a glow-worm. Lackó asks whether God is in frogs too; Jób replies that he is, since frogs croak nicely. (At the end of the film, during the closing credits, we  hear “Szól a kakas már” again, slower than any other time, with frogs croaking in the background. The sound reminded me of the frogs I heard when bicycling to Sárospatak at night last April.

When Lackó and his best friend–a little girl from the village–capture frogs as a surprise for his father, they see militia coming through the marshes to hunt down deserters. The two tell a soldier that they have seen no one pass through. Thus the film is not only of love and sweetness; contrary to what Janet Maslin wrote, it holds both the cruel and the sweet. Nor is the sweetness overdone; it may be hard for the cynical among us to believe, but that is part of the point. The sweetness has something to do with time; even Lackó senses the treasure of these few days. Or maybe he knows it through memory; it is a story of memory, of trying to find what has been lost.

revolt of job 5

To me the most moving scene is during Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, when Jób is praying in the sukkah. (It may be specifically the holiday Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot, since that is the day when we pray for rain.) The sukkah itself symbolizes transience and fragility; in Leviticus 23:40-43, God commands Moses:

מ  וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים, וַעֲנַף עֵץ-עָבֹת, וְעַרְבֵי-נָחַל; וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם–שִׁבְעַת יָמִים. 40 And ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.
מא  וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג לַיהוָה, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה:  חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי תָּחֹגּוּ אֹתוֹ. 41 And ye shall keep it a feast unto the LORD seven days in the year; it is a statute for ever in your generations; ye shall keep it in the seventh month.
מב  בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים; כָּל-הָאֶזְרָח, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, יֵשְׁבוּ, בַּסֻּכֹּת. 42 Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths;
מג  לְמַעַן, יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם, כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. 43 that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

revolt of job 3

Jób knows that he is not only praying in a booth, but living in one, that his time will soon end; he prays in an undertone (maybe reading from the book before him, maybe praying from memory, maybe praying from his heart), but he prays without pause. Lackó sees him from the outside and comes in, but Jób motions to be left alone, and he leaves: first telling the dog that his father has either gone mad or been attacked by love, then spying on the servant couple in bed, then crawling in bed with his mother. The rain starts to pour down, into the sukkah; Jób gives thanks for the rain, saying Hallelujah, praying, “Just as You sent the rain this night, so raise this boy.” Lackó, hearing the rain, realizes that his father must be getting wet; he rushes back to the sukkah, with Róza close behind. Jób takes him up on his lap, lifts him up, laughs with joy torn open, saying Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

Much more happens in this gentle film; they make it to Pesach and a little beyond, but Jób and Róza cannot protect Lackó from his grief and confusion when they are carted away. That will be part of his inheritance, along with the love, the traditions, the gifts, and the nighttime sounds.

I have watched the film four times on a big screen–in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018–at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers, where I teach each July. It is part of the curriculum for the course in the Epic, which takes place in the even-numbered years. Each time I have watched the film, I have understood much more than the previous times–not only because of the returns, but because of my own learning. In 2012, I had not yet begun going to synagogue or learning Hebrew. In 2014, I had been doing both for a little over a year, so I could understand some of the words and references. In 2016, I understood still more; in 2018, I had been living in Hungary for eight months, could understand some of the Hungarian (and more of the Jewish meaning), and recognized the countryside, although I do not think I have been to the particular places of this film. Now I see that there is still more to understand, much more. This film resembles a poem, where the rhythm, language, shape, argument, sounds, images, and allusions all take part in the whole, and where the truth dazzles gradually, in all too short a time.

The images are screenshots of Jób lázadása, which you can find in DVD format (with optional English subtitles) or watch online (without subtitles). The verses from Leviticus are courtesy of Mechon Mamre; the phrase “dazzles gradually” alludes to Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Update: I just learned that the film will be on Hungarian television (channel M5) on Friday, August 17, at 9:15 p.m.