“Beautiful in its time”

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I love and return to Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) for its rhythms, loss, and joy; its searching and yearning; its ways of doubt.

I have written about the opening verses before, but lately I keep coming back to the third chapter, especially the ninth through thirteenth verses, and the eleventh in particular:

ט          מַה-יִּתְרוֹן, הָעוֹשֶׂה, בַּאֲשֶׁר, הוּא עָמֵל. 9 {S} What profit hath he that worketh in that he laboureth?
י  רָאִיתִי אֶת-הָעִנְיָן, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן אֱלֹהִים לִבְנֵי הָאָדָם–לַעֲנוֹת בּוֹ. 10 I have seen the task which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith.
יא  אֶת-הַכֹּל עָשָׂה, יָפֶה בְעִתּוֹ; גַּם אֶת-הָעֹלָם, נָתַן בְּלִבָּם–מִבְּלִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִמְצָא הָאָדָם אֶת-הַמַּעֲשֶׂה אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה הָאֱלֹהִים, מֵרֹאשׁ וְעַד-סוֹף. 11 He hath made every thing beautiful in its time; also He hath set the world in their heart, yet so that man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end.
יב  יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אֵין טוֹב בָּם–כִּי אִם-לִשְׂמוֹחַ, וְלַעֲשׂוֹת טוֹב בְּחַיָּיו. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them, than to rejoice, and to get pleasure so long as they live.
יג  וְגַם כָּל-הָאָדָם שֶׁיֹּאכַל וְשָׁתָה, וְרָאָה טוֹב בְּכָל-עֲמָלוֹ–מַתַּת אֱלֹהִים, הִיא. 13 But also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy pleasure for all his labour, is the gift of God.

 

What does it mean that “He hath set the world (et-haolam) in their heart (belibam), yet so that man cannot find out the work (asher lo-yimtza ha-adam et-hama’asei) that God hath done from the beginning even to the end (merosh ad suf)”?

The word “olam,” as it appears in the the Hebrew Bible, does not usually mean “world”; it means something more like “perpetuity,” “the distant past,” “infinity,” or “the distant future.” It has to do more with time than place, or so I think. Here it does seem to mean “world,” but there could be other meanings as well.

So the verse might suggest that humans have to contend not only with the infinity of the world around them, but also with the infinity inside themselves. If they cannot know themselves from beginning to end, how can they possibly know the world?

Some people find this verse discouraging; I see it as hopeful, since in each of us, for the duration of our lives and even afterward, there is more than we know. There is more in others, too, than any of us can ever grasp or sum up.

What, then, explains the transition to the next verse, the declaration that there is nothing better than to rejoice and get pleasure?

I want to leave that verse alone, without clamping an interpretation on it, since the idea of pleasure in Kohelet is especially complex. But the next verse turns things around by suggesting that these enjoyments are gifts of God (and maybe part of the “olam” inside our hearts). The phrase “la’asot tov” does not mean “to get pleasure” in a modern sense. Some have translated it as “to see or experience good.”

The first part of verse 11 (“et hakol asa yafe beito”) adds yet another clue to the meaning.  If God has made everything beautiful in its time, then pleasure has something to do with being there when the beauty appears; seeing it, rejoicing in it. That is not always easy. Pleasure of this kind is not an escape, but a responsibility, a way of carrying oneself.

This afternoon, teachers, students, friends, and family went to the funeral of our colleague who died on October 6. It is not something to describe in a blog, but I am left thinking of her kindness. She was the first person in Hungary who invited me over. I wish I had returned the gesture in some way.

I don’t know whether I believe in an afterlife, but I do believe in human good, not only its possibility, but its existence. Hers will stay with me. And I hope she rests in peace.

 

The Hebrew text and 1917 JPS translation are courtesy of Mechon Mamre.

Introducing “Megfogalmazások”

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I have decided to start a new blog–in Hungarian–and have named it Megfogalmazások, which means “draftings,” “wordings,” or “formulations.” The blog will serve at least two purposes: it will allow me to practice writing in Hungarian, on topics of my choosing, and it will be separate from this blog, whose readers are used to finding something in English (with forays into other languages now and then). I cross-posted this morning’s post in Megfogalmazások and will proceed from there. The current blog, the one you are reading right now, will continue as before. I will say things here about Hungarian language and literature–but when I write a post in Hungarian (or my attempts at Hungarian), it will go on the other blog.

The Megfogalmazások posts will not be correct at first. There will be mistakes, disarrays, non-colloquial expressions. But one day, I hope, the language will lift off.

 

I took the above photo in August, not far from Szolnok.

Némelyik kép

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Míg várom, hogy a könyveim megérkezzenek (néhány másolásokot a vámügyek feldolgoznak, mások pedig csütörtökig érkeznek), azt gondoltam, hogy írhatok az első magyar nyelvű blogbejegyzésemet. Rövid, mert néhány perc múlva iskolába járok, de ezek a képek a legutóbbi biciklizésemről meghosszabbítják a történetet.

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Attainment and Transition

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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.

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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”

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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.

Where the Rivers Meet

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I learned today that one of my colleagues here in Szolnok died on Saturday after a long struggle with cancer. I don’t want to go into details here, since that would break privacy–but the photo above of the Zagyva and Tisza is dedicated to her memory. I took it in November 2017 and showed it to her (the next day, I think). She told me that that very place where the two rivers meet had special meaning for her.

Immediately after I learned the sad news today–I read it in a memorial display in the hallway and did not believe it until I went back to my desk, picked up the dictionary, and looked up one word, the one word whose meaning I did not know, and which confirmed everything–I had to go upstairs to teach a class. Most of the students were missing; they were taking a “class exam” for a different subject. So I talked a little with the students who were there, and we sat quietly for a while. Later in the afternoon I picked up spirits and taught the philosophy elective; we began the first chapter of Plato’s Republic.

Sometimes it seems difficult to put together happiness and sadness, but they are not really that disparate; they both come from things that matter. More about the happy things another day.

Along the Dirt Road

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In the late afternoon I got on the bike, pedaled north on the Zagyva walkway, crossed the railroad tracks, and continued onto the dirt road, which goes on and on. Here and there, with long stretches in between, I came across walkers (including one of my students), runners, bikers, and a slow jeep–as well as horses, sheep, cows, chickens, and cats.

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I saw swans for the first time this fall; approaching them, I saw someone sitting by the water, absorbed in thought. (That person does not appear in the picture.)

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Earlier on, before the swans, I dipped my foot in the Zagyva for the first time; here is the ripple.

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Soon I will have been here for a year. My two favorite seasons here are late spring (when the sour cherries spill over the crates) and the entire fall, from start to finish. There’s still a good bit of fall left, and while I will be away for part of it, I still hope for some hearty bike rides.

More soon on other things. I meant this post to be about books, but the dirt road had its own say. Speaking of say, here are some sounds from the bike ride.

Repetition and Refrain

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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.

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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

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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.

On Beginnerhood (Reprise)

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Fall is here at last! Goodbye, for now, to the heat and pounding rays; a hearty welcome to the chill and vigor. I love walking and biking around in the fall: listening to the leaves, watching the trees sway, taking in the pale colors. I also just completed one of the greatest challenges of my life: leading services for the High Holy Days, along with the rabbi. (I led the musical parts; she led the spoken parts.) I spent weeks preparing daily; it went beautifully, and I learned profoundly.

I was so tired afterward, and so overwhelmed with upcoming projects and deadlines, that I thought I would have to give up one of two events this weekend. I had planned to go to a Budapest Festival Orchestra concert on Friday–a Baltic program, featuring works by Čiurlionis, Pärt, and Vasks–and then to the Season Opening Gala, a benefit event for the orchestra’s “Choose Your Instrument” program, which gives children around Hungary the opportunity to do just that. I thought I would have to give up the gala–but then, with a little encouragement, I decided to go.

The Friday night concert was beyond anything I had expected, since Arvo Pärt himself was there! I was first introduced to his work in my senior year of college; at the time, I listened to Tabula Rasa over and over. I slowly became acquainted with some of his other compositions, including Te Deum, which the BFO performed Friday night. His music is so otherworldly that I didn’t initially imagine flesh-and-bones mortals playing it, let alone composing it–so it was astonishing to see everyone together, composer and musicians, in the hall. In this photo, he appears all the way to the left, with a bouquet of flowers; at this point, we had been applauding for so long that he signaled that it was time for sleep.

The concert program consisted of Te Deum (the final piece), Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis’s Miške (In the Forest), Pärt’s Como cierva sedienta,  and Pēteris Vasks’s Epifonia. (The soprano Sylvia Schwartz was the soloist for Como cierva sedienta; the Cantemus Mixed Choir sang Te Deum.)

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I stayed overnight in Budapest, went back to Szolnok in the morning, and then returned to Budapest two hours later for the Gala event. I also had to return to my previous hotel to pick up a book of poetry I had left there. (It was intact.) So now I start to wend my way into the topic at hand: beginnerhood, about which I have written before.

During the reception before dinner, we were all invited to try out instruments; members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and several children demonstrated the instruments and allowed people to give them a try. (I tried the tuba, horn, flute, and violin; later, during the dinner, I tried another horn and the harp as well.) It was thrilling to be a beginner: to have no expectations except for that starting point, the first note or few notes, however they might sound. But there was more to it than that. As Iván Fischer explained to us later that evening, not everyone is suited to every instrument. Different instruments make different demands of a person; some require an earlier start than others, some favor particular physiques, some have particular logistical requirements, and some get fallen in love with. When children understand this, they have a better chance of selecting an instrument that is right for them.

When you choose an instrument, you do not necessarily sign on for life. I spoke with BFO members who had started with one instrument and then switched to another, who had taken breaks from playing, who had not begun their instrument until their teenage years, or who had studied something else at the university. The paths to musicianship–even toward the highest levels–are not as standardized as people may assume, but no matter when and where these musicians began, they have been devoted to their instruments for years. This cannot be shortchanged. Trying an instrument, you grasp all over again what it would take to learn to play it well. But basic proficiency is just another layer of beginning, amid more layers and layers.

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In that sense, beginnerhood and mastery do not cancel each other out; a master still has chances, at any moment, to play a familiar piece in a fresh way, to play in new situations and formats, and to treat the bare beginners kindly. The evening was full of generosity: musicians giving encouragement and suggestions as guests tried to play clear notes (or any at all), sounds ringing out all over the room, lively and lovely performances over the course of the evening, good fundraising, and conversation in many languages.

In speaking of a spirit of beginnerhood, I do not mean that “everyone is a beginner” or that freshness is everything. Years of practice and repetition allow one to inhabit music, language, or another field; without such dedication over time, a person would stay trapped within the “sort of” (which to me is a sort of hell). But repetition and habit are only part of the work, though an unforsakeable part; musicians, writers, artists, actors must also meet the art anew and anew, with everything they have, with empty hands.

Speaking of that, I have some work that is barely begun, with rapidly approaching deadlines–so it is time to buckle down and overcome this particular beginnerhood, knowing that others and other kinds will follow.

I made a few minor chances to this piece after posting it.