“When our deep plots do pall….”

It is tempting to imagine, in teaching and elsewhere, that the more you plan and prepare, the better things will turn out. Up to a point, this is true, but too much planning can go awry, and a bit of spontaneity can set things right. When you plan too hard for something, and it doesn’t turn out the way you intended, the overplanning is partly at fault. I don’t mean that teachers should improvise all the time–but we should be willing to adjust course. We say this continually but still forget it.

For weeks I had been planning a lesson on poetic song verse (for a twelfth-grade English class). It didn’t go as I had hoped. I had envisioned it as part planned, part spontaneous: I would present some songs, and students would too. We would see what came out of the combination. But four students were absent; of those present, only a few offered comments, and no one presented songs. I found myself speaking rather stiffly about the songs I had brought; I don’t think I conveyed much. We have only one class left, and then the students graduate–so I wish I had done better somehow. I understand, though, that the students are ready to move on with their lives.

But another class that day turned into song. We went over a test that the students had taken the day before, and then I taught them the song “Today,” which I sang at my high school graduation and which I thought they would enjoy. (I think they did.) Then they asked to sing songs by Abba and Queen, and I happily went along with that (and introduced a couple of songs too). Day after day, we have been preparing for their school-leaving exams, so this was a nice way to spend time with them before the end.

The contrast helps me see something else as well. In the lesson on poetic song verse, I wanted us to talk  about the relation between a song’s lyrics and its music. I thought I had brought memorable examples (Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen, and others) that they might not have heard otherwise. I realize, though, that it’s a mistake to talk analytically about a song before actually absorbing it. It’s hard to talk about songs at all, but it’s especially difficult in a rush. The students needed time that wasn’t there. If we had had the semester ahead of us, and if it had been a course on songs, then there would have been time. But we are at the end.

Also, songs have a visceral effect. You can’t persuade others to like them–or maybe you can, but only under the right conditions. I remember how others introduced me to various songs over the years–in class, in conversation, at concerts, etc. Some of these songs became favorites; others I never grew to like. Liking isn’t necessarily the point–but when I share a song with someone, or when I teach it formally, I hope that the person will ultimately find it worth hearing. Even that can’t be guaranteed.

Maybe the lesson went better than I thought. Maybe there was something interesting in it for someone. But if it did flop, it’s partly because I had planned something that didn’t match the situation–and didn’t fully realize this until the lesson was over.

So the lesson is not “don’t prepare,” but rather “don’t stake too much on your preparations” and “attend to the situation at hand.”

Otherwise this was a profoundly good day–but more about that another time, when it is not so late. There is a lot to say. At the end of the day I took part in the Holocaust memorial run–from the sugar factory to the synagogue–and then danced with many others in the evening light.

The Ungivable Advice


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


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


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.

april 13

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.”


One of my favorite words in Hungarian is “bonyolult,” (“complicated, messy, intricate”), which sounds like what it means: all wound up in a bundle. According to Wiktionary, it is the past participle of bonyolul, (“to become complicated”), “an archaic verb which was formed from the bonyol- stem of bonyolít (to make something complicated).” Some linguists trace bonyolít to the Proto-Finno-Ugric *puńa (to wind up, twist).

The photo above (which I took on Sunday evening) expresses bonyolultság well. The stump is full of life: if you look closely, you can see leaves on some of its thin branches. The water looks dark, but in the upper left corner, there’s a hint of pink (since the camera is facing north or north-northeast, and the sunset was not yet over).

I would not say that complexity is the crowning principle of life. It goes along with certain simplicities. Complexity on its own becomes unintelligible, whereas simplicity becomes reductive. Neither one, at the exclusion of the other, can be beautiful, nor does the combination guarantee beauty. Beauty is one of the strangest things in human life: on the one hand subjective and private, and on the other, breaking out of subjectivity; on the one hand, conditioned by society, and on the other, proudly unconditioned. When you find something beautiful, you are all alone and in company, both of these purely, both at once.

A Way of Hearing the World


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):

My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.
Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
Methinks it is like a weasel.
It is backed like a weasel.
Or like a whale?
Very like a whale.
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.
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.

Time to Take Away the Takeaway

This weekend I bicycled from Szolnok to Szeged–most of it on the first day, and the remaining 2-3 hours on the second. It was a glorious trip, with long stretches through fields and forests, where I saw farm animals, deer, rabbits, storks, red pheasants (?), and many trees in bloom. I had originally planned to spend the night in Csongrád, but arriving there at 3:00 in the afternoon, I decided it was too soon to stop, and headed onward to Ópusztaszer, along the Tisza. I made a reservation at a guesthouse there. I was bicycling through fields, on dirt roads, at sunset, and arrived in town shortly after dark. When I came to the guesthouse, the owner said that they were full–but when I explained that I had made a reservation and paid for it, he decided to look more closely into the situation. He took me to another nearby guesthouse, where a room was available, and we sat down at the computer together. Eventually we figured out what had happened; I had made the reservation online, but before checking his email, he had subsequently rented the room to someone else. He and the host of the other guesthouse (perhaps a married couple) apologized for the situation and offered me a room there. I happily accepted; it was a lovely, elegant bedroom with all the comfort I needed for the night. We worked this all out in Hungarian, which is nothing unusual for me now, but still rewarding, given that they were strangers and this situation was new for us all. So the takeaway might have been, “They messed up,” but the reality was far different. I was treated not only to a room, but to their helpfulness and kindness, and their willingness to look into an error.

While I was biking, a few momentous things happened in the U.S.: Robert S. Mueller released his report on his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign; the investigation also considered whether Trump had obstructed justice. While finding no evidence of collusion or conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign, Mueller explicitly refrained from drawing conclusions regarding Trump’s possible obstruction of justice.

Later (after I returned to Szolnok), Attorney General William P. Barr delivered his own summary and concluded, on his own authority, that Trump had not obstructed justice. This quickly turned into a takeaway: Trump trumpeting that he had been EXONERATED (in capital letters). This is yet another time to “take away the takeaway”: Mueller’s hesitation to draw a conclusion should not be so quickly translated into a certainty. This is out of my hands; what happens or does not happen from here will have nothing to do with me. I was about to say, “if there were ever a time to take away the takeaway, it is now,” but that is not true; there are other times, other occasions, every day. How many times do we rush to conclusions that favor or disfavor us–that confirm, in some way, what we want to think? How many times do we take a tenuous statement as absolute truth? Takeaways have their place, but they should not have the final say; they need courageous unrolling. I will write about this again soon in relation to Hamlet.

(Take Away the Takeaway was the working title for my second book, which became Mind over Memes. It is still the title of the first chapter–and of my TEDx talk, and of this blog.)


The first photo is of Ópusztaszer; the second, of a dirt road near Dóc. If you zoom in on the upper part of the second picture, you can see a jackrabbit on the road. Most of the deer and rabbits were much too fast for the camera, but this one hesitated.

Film, Bike, Evening, Szolnok


A few weeks ago, the faculty at Varga received an invitation to a Tisza Mozi screening of the 2018 documentary Gettó Balboa. Knowing nothing about it except for a basic description, I signed up right away. Tonight a colleague and I went. I stayed at school until 5:00, grading tests and such, and then zipped off on the bike, down Szapáry utca, and then around the corner onto Templom út and to the cinema. Everything was starting to light up: the gallery, the street lamps, the Mayfly Bridge.

Gettó Balboa depicts a former Budapest mafia man from the Budapest Ghetto who turns to God, turns his life around, and begins to train poor ghetto children and young adults in boxing. One young man in particular, Zoli Szabó, he supports through difficulties that might otherwise have crushed him. Both he and Zoli are of Gypsy (Roma) origin, as is the director, Árpád Bogdán. This is both important to the film and not; the audience was Gypsy and non-Gypsy, and afterward, in the lobby, Gypsy chefs treated us to a delicious stew. But the film was about poverty too and what it does to a person–and about kindness and fighting, which we all know in our own ways. What does it take to help oneself and others? What does it mean to fight with all your soul? The black-and-white cinematography–sometimes crystal-clear, sometimes flattened into silhouettes, sometimes blurred with flashes of light–took me into the hardship and beauty.

After the film, there was a discussion–which came as a surprise to me–I had not known about it in advance–led by the author and journalist Zsolt Bajnai, with Árpád Bogdán (the director), Róbert Bordás (the cinematographer), Attila Poczók (the producer–at least I think he was there), and Mihály Sipos (“Misi,” the protagonist). They discussed, among other things, the process and techniques of filmmaking, the film’s themes and messages, and their own impressions of it.


Then, after eating some stew and saying goodbye to my colleague, I biked up onto the Mayfly Bridge (where I ran into one of my neighbors) and soon afterward turned around. I had thoughts about the nature of kindness: how many directions it takes, how many illusions it can hold, and how simple it can be nonetheless. And about documentaries: how they distill real events into forms, how they can come close to poetry. And about Szolnok, which has opened up to me slowly over the months, and which I am starting to get to know in new ways. And other thoughts, harder to pinpoint, which carried me home.


Without Repetition, Life Would Be Dull


Well, no, this was not the first stork, but the first I have seen in 2019. That there have been thousands before, and will be thousands more, only lifts the event; without repetition, life would be dull.


Against Superiority

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).