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.

Is “Dream Crazy” Good Advice?

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Here I will not be talking about the boiling controversy around the Nike “Dream Crazy” ad–a controversy about the individuals in the ad, not the ad’s message. Nor do I mean to take the ad as a logical argument; its primary purpose is to promote the Nike brand, and its message serves that end. I bring up the ad only because it stands out as an example of a well-worn and highly (U.S.) American idea: the idea that (a) a certain kind of success, involving money and fame, is all-important; (b) the ones who succeed are the ones who “dream big”; and (c) that such dreamers should let nothing and no one stand in their way. No obstacle is an obstacle, no qualm a qualm; the true champion reduces all hindrances to nothing, simply through power of the mind.

“If people say your dreams are crazy,” says Colin Kaepernick, the ad’s narrator, “if they laugh at what you think you can do–good. Stay that way.” So far, I have no objections. Then he continues: “Because what nonbelievers fail to understand is that calling a dream crazy is not an insult. It’s a compliment. Don’t try to be the fastest runner in your school, or the fastest in the world. Be the fastest ever. Don’t picture yourself wearing OBJ’s jersey. Picture OBJ wearing yours. Don’t settle for homecoming queen or linebacker. Do both.” A little later: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” The ad continues for a while longer, and he says a bit more, but this is enough for now.

On the surface, the words of the ad sound profoundly humanitarian. People should not hold themselves back; no one has to be inferior to anyone else, or to a dream, or even to the greatest dream imaginable. Each of us, no matter where or how we grew up, has access to infinity.

Yet this version of infinity gives me qualms. Why should a dream consist of becoming the best at something–not only the best right now, but the best ever known? First of all, to the extent that the best can be identified and measured, it has room for only one person; not everyone can be the best. If everyone’s primary goal were to be the best, life would quickly become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Or to put it differently: there are people who don’t worry about whether they themselves are the best ever at what they do; it is their work that they want to perfect, something within the work that they seek out. Many fields demand this kind of focus. To be an excellent musician, you must be listening intently to the music, working your way toward what you hear or want to hear in your mind. Thoughts about being the best musician of all time might distract you. For sure, there are musicians who aspire to make a mark in history, who hope to go down as one of the best–but others reach heights without thinking in those terms. How does one determine, moreover, who is the best, even in athletics, where numbers are ready at hand? It is not as easy as it may sound.

Second, if you aspire to do your work well, whatever it may be, without necessarily hoping to become the best ever, this does not make you a conformist or lesser person. Striving for visible superiority is highly conformist; voices from all corners tell you to “go for it” and applaud you if you do so. But there are many successes that do not look like an athlete leaping in the air and hurling a ball; there are successes in finding a phrase, discovering a new angle (so to speak) on a math problem, making a delicious gulyás, teaching a class, raising a child, sitting at a dying person’s bedside. This does not mean that a person should eschew all competition; competition has a place. But not all good works look like athletic championship; not all unusual things look alike.

The third problem here–a problem with “growth mindset” as well–is that such an ideal bids us think only in terms of striving, dreaming, going beyond the limit. Any sense of limitation, any thought of mortality, becomes taboo or at best undesirable. Don’t say that you will die one day; dream and act as though you could live forever. But human immortality is not as great as it sounds. The body wears down; the world gets crowded. An endless life could be miserable. Moreover, as long as we have known, and as long as we know now, every human and animal life comes to an end. Do we have to pretend this isn’t true? There’s something shrill and forced about the dogma of limitlessness; it looks away from life.

I do not mean that people should curb their dreams because they will die one day. But it is possible to live with bounds and boundlessness at once: to strive beyond what we know, to carry dreams of different kinds, but also to admit to the end of things, the need for sleep, the presence of others, the worth of simple acts.

I took the photo at the Gulyásfesztivál in Szolnok.

A Concert in Gyula

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I first learned about the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s synagogue concert series before I even knew about the possibility of teaching in Hungary. I wanted to support it and hoped one day to attend one of these concerts. Yesterday I made it to my fifth–but just barely!

To get to the concert in Gyula (a town in southeastern Hungary, near the Romanian border), I needed to take the 3:34 train out of Szolnok. The next train would get me there too late. My last class ended at 3:20, and I would need another minute or two to get out the door and on the bike; biking fast, I could possibly make it to the station in ten minutes, but much depended on the timing of the traffic lights. Just one long red light, and I would miss the train.

In addition, there was no way to return to Szolnok that night; I would need to stay in Gyula and return the next morning on the earliest train, the one that departed at 4:59. (The next one would get me to school too late.) So I reserved a hotel room in advance, not knowing whether I would make it to the concert in the first place.

After my last class on Wednesday, I rushed out the door, got on my bike, and pedaled with everything in me. I cut one corner: on bike, you are not supposed to cross Szapáry Street right at Kossuth Lajos Street but are instead directed to cross halfway up the next block. That would have taken too long, so I crossed right there, along with the traffic, then re-entered the bike path and sped onwards. I got to the train just in time; it left about a minute after I boarded with the bike. The transfer in Békéscsaba went without a hitch, and I arrived in Gyula exactly on time, at 5:07. (The concert started at 5:30.)

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I had a basic idea of how to get there but wasn’t completely sure I was doing it right. I passed through a park where some teenagers were sitting and smoking. They saw me pass by and immediately sensed that I was looking for something; when I explained, three of them came to my aid and explained the directions, telling me to turn left and cross a bridge. I turned left but saw no bridge; I asked a woman on a bike how to get there, and she said she was going in the same direction and would show me. Soon we crossed that bridge and were there: at the Ferenc Erkel Music School, formerly a synagogue. I entered and took my seat early.

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The program was new for me (until the encores): Max Bruch’s string octet in B-flat major and Claude-Paul Taffanel’s wind quintet in G minor. The Bruch allowed me to delight in Rita Sovány’s cello playing and the conversation of all the instruments.

The Taffanel was full of Bach influence, but with Romantic dreaminess and flute (played gloriously by Anett Jóföldi). In its evocation and transformation of a past, it suggested some of the meaning of the evening, as did the Bruch. I was caught up in it from start to finish.

There was a triple klezmer encore, with the full ensemble; two of the pieces I knew from previous concerts, and one was new to me. We the audience listened with hush and clapped with noise.

The full hall, the sounds that seize, the traditions coming together, the musicians’ gifts, the audience’s warmth, and my own joy in being there made this an evening not only of beauty but of urgency. The evening does not translate into a political message; that is part of the point. All the same, it “asks a little of us here.”

The magnificent clarinetist Ákos Ács–who leads the synagogue series–spoke at several points, clarinet and microphone in hand. A delightful rabbi–whom I heard speak once before, at the concert in Szeged last June–spoke about Jewish synagogues. Hungarian is not his native language; I enjoyed the sense of searching in his speech. Another man spoke at length about the history of Jews in Gyula, and then the head of the music school said some concluding words.

The audience seemed profoundly involved; afterward, people lingered and left slowly.

Then came the clouds and downpour. I made it to the hotel without confusion; I just began riding and found it. I took this picture right at the corner.

The hotel had a restaurant, so I had some delicious fish soup and then went to sleep. I left at 4:40 in the morning and got to the train station five minutes later.

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I hope to visit this town again for a longer stretch. But this quick trip was so full and unlikely that it continues onward in my mind.

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You can read my posts about the synagogue concerts in Albertirsa, Baja, Szeged, and Békés here, here, and here.

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

Against the Overwhelming Vagueness

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After writing the last post (on Appiah’s essay on condescension), I started thinking about a peculiarity of (U.S.) American economic and social life: many decisions and judgments get made behind the scenes, with no public disclosure of the discussion and reasoning behind them. People get rejected from colleges, turned down for jobs or publication, or even excluded from parties without ever learning why. The rejection letter (or equivalent) epitomizes the vague: “Thank you for your interest in the position. We received an unforeseen number of exceptional applications and ultimately chose finalists whose qualifications most closely matched our criteria. We have therefore decided not to consider your application further. We wish you the best in your job search,” etc.

In such situations (which abound), the only way a person learns of the specific reasons is through a personal connection. That is part of the reason for the American emphasis on “networking”; without it, you may be consigned to the realm of the perplexed.

In some countries (not all), the situation is more clear-cut, though not better. Either you are not considered at all (because of your class, educational background, demographic group, or some other known factor), or you fail to meet explicit criteria (such as a test score). The drawback in such cultures is that some people never get considered in the first place. The advantage is that they often know the reasons.

Vague rejections are such a part of American life that people don’t question them outright. They might suspect and contest a particular rationale for a rejection (for instance, in the case of Asian-American applicants to Harvard and other colleges) but take for granted that they will receive a vague letter, if any at all.

Even peer groups and individuals exclude others without telling them why. People are bombarded with advice to cut “toxic” people from their lives or distance themselves from “negative” people, but sometimes these individuals never learn that anyone considered them toxic in the first place. Instead, they just see their peers drifting away, evading invitations, having parties and conversations without them. They are left to guess what’s going on. Even if they aren’t deemed toxic, they may be ostracized without explanation. It could be because of their habits, the company they keep, their background, something they said, or or something that has been said about them.

Carina Chocano’s terrific piece on the word “inappropriate” appears in The New York Times Magazine’s First Words column (like Appiah’s). “The word’s vagueness has always been a handy way to remind people of their relatively low status,” she writes; If they can’t already tell what’s wrong about their behavior, perhaps they are beyond help.” By calling others “inappropriate,” people excuse themselves from dealing with them. The vagueness is an exit ticket for the elite.

But there is a benevolent, humble side to this American tendency. People genuinely don’t want others to feel bad or to take their judgments as the final word. If they stick to vague verbiage, perhaps the rejected one will stay hopeful. Timothy might not be a “good fit” for Harvard, but who knows about Swarthmore or Vanderbilt? The New Yorker rejected my poem “despite its evident merit”; maybe it will get snatched up by the next witting editor. Karla doesn’t want to go out with Jamal, but he can still believe that he’s a wonderful person and that someone will appreciate him for what he has to offer.

The problem is that the vagueness can leave a person in worse doubt than clarity would–because the words themselves lose meaning. Does “inappropriate” mean “really bad” or just “mildly out of place”? Why did Harvard turn Timothy down? Did Jamal do anything that put Karla off? Does my poem pass muster?

I recognize the bureaucratic mess that specific, reason-filled acceptances and rejections could cause. They would be inordinately time-consuming, error-prone, subject to lawsuits, sometimes misleading, maybe algorithm-driven, open to interpretation, and possibly more trouble than they are worth. But at the other extreme, the vagueness has become a way of life, a way of making judgments while pretending not to judge.

There are ways to break through some of the vagueness, individually or together.  We* can strive for clarity (without cruelty) in thought, action, and word. We can work to lift taboos surrounding criticism. We can protect an institution’s decisions (provided they are lawful) while laying bare the reasons. But first and foremost, we can recognize that the vagueness does not have to be accepted as is; even if we cannot change it entirely, we can question it, look at what it does, and seek out other ways.

*”We” in this context is as far-reaching as it wants to be. It can involve a few individuals or more.

I took the photo yesterday afternoon outside my school here in Szolnok (after a day of faculty meetings). That’s my bike parked on the right.

I made some edits to this piece after posting it. Also, I am considering “American vagueness” as the topic for my next book. There is much more to say on this subject.

Condescension, Contempt, and Beyond

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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,
      Condescend
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.

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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?

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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

Presidential Languages (or Lack Thereof)

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It isn’t that a U.S. president who spoke two or more languages would be wiser, humbler, or even more learned than one who didn’t. Such a person would not necessarily respect other countries and cultures, support language education, or recognize the gifts that immigrants can bring. Yet he or she could strengthen and enrich the country in the following ways.

Language learning would become a recognized good. A president who learned a second language would inspire others do do the same, or at least deflate the notion that speaking languages other than English makes you un-American. Learning languages and being American (i.e., United States American) would come together.

A president who had learned a second language at home–for instance, from immigrant parents or grandparents–would understand what it means to translate from language to language, country to country, generation to generation; to switch languages upon entering and leaving the home; to know certain registers of a language but not others; to have a feeling for a language and its cadences; and more.

A president who had learned a second language through study would know what it was like to understand little or nothing, initially, of what others were saying, and then come to understand it over time. Such a president would recognize that understanding comes gradually and is never complete.

A president who spoke more than one language would earn respect both abroad and at home, for a good reason: he or she does not expect others to speak English all the time but can return the linguistic gesture.

Granted, a president could have all of these qualities–and more–without knowing a second language. About half of the U.S. presidents so far knew at least one language besides English, or a little of a language–but many esteemed ones, including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, did not. John Quincy Adams studied many languages, including Dutch, Italian, and Russian, but his intellectual appetite was rare. Barack Obama speaks only English (and a little Indonesian, perhaps) but has tried many languages, even a few phrases here and there.

Far on the other end of things, Trump might know a little Gaelic (from his mother’s side of the family) and German (from his father’s), but I see no sign that he takes interest in these languages or does anything to increase his knowledge of them. If he did, his presidential demeanor and attitude would be different.

Once again: learning languages does not make you a better person, but it does make you aware of things you don’t know. Besides that, it’s interesting, and it’s good to do interesting things and learn to do them better, whether you’re a president, teacher, high school student, professional athlete, train conductor, magician, dolphin, or cat.

Yes, and despite the apparent disregard for languages at the presidential level, young people today have far more ways to study abroad, practice languages, meet native speakers, etc., than they did a few decades ago. Dual language schools have become increasingly common; study-abroad programs have taken new forms. Languages are not on the wane in the U.S., but they need more recognition. They need to inform the way we think and speak.

Still, I see small signs of an uplift in public discussion: more calls for listening to others, more admission of fallibility, more recognition of the issues at stake. Maybe in the upcoming elections we (across the political divides) will choose leaders who not only know things about the world but seek, in their daily work and leisure, to learn more. Maybe we will begin by doing the same ourselves. Maybe intellectual life, long demeaned in the U.S., will find its way over time to new respect and honor. And maybe languages will play a part.

A little addendum: Speaking of languages, I can now say the rather meaningless sentence “The most important thing is what we are doing now” in Hungarian: “A legfontosabb dolog az, amit most csinálunk.” Six months ago I could have memorized it, but now I understand more of the grammar and can put it together logically. “Fontos” means “important”; to say “more important,” you add the suffix “-abb,” and to say “most important,” you add the prefix “leg-” to this. “Dolog” can mean “matter,” “thing,” or “work.” “Amit” (“which” or “that”) is a subordinating conjunction consisting of “mit” (“what”) and the prefix “a-.” You can form other subordinating conjunctions in a similar manner: “ahol,” “amikor,” etc. Bit by bit, the language is taking shape in my mind.

 

In the photo above, Minnaloushe is looking intently at the Hungarian word “macska.” You can see from the slight blur that this did not last long.

 

 

These Swift, Full Days

IMG_6518When I came back to Hungary, I knew sour cherries would be out of season, or at least hard to find—and so they are, sadly—but plums and grapes spill over. Yesterday I saw a blue-fruited plum tree by the side of a bike path on the outskirts of Szolnok. There were signs saying “do not eat,” but of course I ate. It was the best roadside plum I have ever tasted. (I have never tasted a roadside plum before.)

The plums remind me that there’s little left of summer. For me this means not the end of vacation but rather the approach of deadlines and events. I am preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; I will be leading the musical parts of these services at Szim Salom, my synagogue in Budapest. Beyond that, I am preparing for my book release and turning my thoughts toward the school year. The main vacation-like thing here is the flexibility of days; for the next week, I can plan each day as I wish. We teachers return to school on August 24; from then onward, I will have a fixed schedule (probably on the looser side until the students return, then full and busy every day). I look forward to this year with its four aspects: teaching, writing, religious life, and personal life (which will include biking and learning Hungarian). It looks overfull, but I would not give up any of it. It isn’t frantic, just abundant and demanding in the best of ways.

So it is great to get on the bike and go in any direction the whim suggests. I only have to step outside to see the heather along the Zagyva river; to come to unexpected places, I need only ride along the river, but there are many other options and directions.

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The other day I followed a dirt road, along the Zagyva, that I had taken twice before but had found too muddy both times. This time, it was completely dry, so I could go on and on. The photo of the horses and the video of the water are both from that ride. (I also saw cows, storks, and a deer.)

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But given the swiftness of days, some planning is in order too. So I intend to take the train to Baja (with bicycle) on Sunday, bike southward along the Danube, possibly into Croatia, and return to Szolnok on Monday. I loved Baja on my first visit (eleven months ago) and was able to reserve a room just now at the same beautiful bed-and-breakfast place where I stayed before.

The day itself is going by too fast, so I will end here.

“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.

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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.

 
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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.

The Revolt of Job (soon)

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Not long ago I promised to say something about the Hungarian film Jób lázadása (The Revolt of Job, released in 1983)–but when I started putting thoughts together, I realized it would take more than a few hours to say enough and to say it sparsely. I expect to write and post the piece on Sunday or Monday.

This image is a screenshot from the film (directed by Imre Gyöngyössy and Barna Kabay; written by Gyöngyössy, Kabay, and Katalin Petényi). Gábor Fehér plays Lackó.