The Millefoglie of Success

graduation 2017

Yesterday the fourth graduating class of Columbia Secondary School did what a graduating class is supposed to do: graduate. Heralded with cheers, a mini-orchestra, thoughtful speeches, and a gathering on the steps of the Low Library, the students passed from one stage of life to the next. Yet I sensed that many of them had already done this internally; while relieved to graduate, they had already entered college in their minds and plans. For others, the ceremony may have held some sadness; maybe they had no family there, or they knew they would miss their friends. Still others went into the ceremony with great pride. Most of them, I imagine, had layers and mixtures of these and other emotions.

Success is not understood simply; maybe it is like a millefoglie in motion, with the “thousand” layers sometimes coming together in elegant pastry, sometimes flying past each other, sometimes jumbling in a heap. Any given moment holds more possibilities than can be grasped. Even out on the steps, congratulating and saying goodbye to students, I felt and sensed changing mixtures of elation, pride, affection, melancholy, distance, memory, dignity, hilarity, impatience, restfulness, and more, inside and outside myself. Yet all together they made up something beautiful.

It is a CONTRARIWISE piece from two years ago that brings the millefoglie to mind: “Carpe Diem” by Andrea Sarro, Margherita Pelliconi, Giulia Dall’Olio, Maria Sole Venturi, and Giovanni Mastropasqua. They write that “the millefoglie for dessert is the future, because we have different paths to take as the different pastry layers.” I would add that within each of us there are many simultaneous paths, making for a complex pastry indeed, hard to imagine in time, even less on a plate.

Yesterday, to my great honor, I found that a Rabbi Howard Jacoby Ruben, head of the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, had referred to my article “The Cult of Success” in his moving summer sendoff piece “The Summer Ahead: Looking for Wonder,” which explores the nature of success and wonder through the examples of a mathematician (Grigori Perelman), two musicians (Joshua Bell and Chance the Rapper), and a rabbi (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel). The piece is rich with references; at one point Rabbi Ruben paraphrases Pirkei Avot 4.1, which “urges us to identify wisdom in those who learn from everyone, wealth in those who appreciate their own unique portion, and honor in those who honor others.”

I found myself thinking about the Pirkei Avot passage long afterward. We often juxtapose external and internal success; external success, we realize, often distracts us from what matters. But the passage reminds me that it is we who define external success. We decide whom we will call wise, wealthy, and honorable; those definitions and designations affect those around us. “Societal views” are not just handed to us; we shape them through our thoughts, words, and actions.

As I remember members of this graduating class–whom I taught for two years, and for whom I wrote many college recommendations–I think of their kind and appreciative words for others, spoken many times over time. Seeing the good in others is no meager act or capacity; it influences everything. To see the good, you must also acknowledge that you do not see everything, that what you see and know literally is only a glimpse. The good, after all, comes in glimmers; the cynical dismiss it as illusion, but the courageous see through to its form.


Images: I took the first photo yesterday (June 22) after the Columbia Secondary School graduation ceremony and the second photo on May 30 on Eurovelo 11.

Solitude of Time

The subject of solitude seems trickier and trickier, the more I think about it–and more and more important. Yet it is important only in relation to things that require it. There is no sense in pursuing or defending solitude for its own sake. Also, it is possible (and even common) to seek solitude for the wrong reasons–such as escape and self-defense. They are “wrong” insofar as they involve closing off the mind and the experience. To make things even more perplexing, it is possible to seek  solitude for “right” and “wrong” reasons at the same time.

But what is this solitude? In his treatise De vita solitaria (On the Solitary Life), Petrarch posits three kinds of solitude: solitude of place, solitude of time, and solitude of the mind. For a long time, it was the third that interested me the most; recently, I have been thinking about solitude of time.

Solitude of time comes in many forms. There is solitude of chronos, the procession of time; solitude of kairos, the right moment for things, and solitude that combines the two.

We often think of time as a material possession: “I have time” or “I have no time.” When viewed as such, it seems closely related to money; a wealthy person has leisure time, whereas a poor person must work.

But it is possible to view time not as possession, but as vastness and structure. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes of the “architecture of time“–in particular, Shabbat, which opens up an infinity of time. “The higher goal of spiritual living,” he writes, “is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” He makes clear that he does not disparage information-gathering for a higher good: “What we plead against is man’s unconditional surrender to space, his enslavement to things. We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.”

It is easy to forget the difficulty and unpopularity of Heschel’s words. They come from solitude; they demand solitude. They ask us to set aside our trinket-gathering, if only for a little while.

The artist Karen Kaapcke (who happens to be a parent at my school) articulates something similar (albeit quite differently) on her “Drawing 50 Blog“–her project, beginning on her 50th birthday, of drawing a self-portrait every day for a year. “This is surprising to me,” she writes–“the path of these drawings is less about me, my 51st year, how do I look as I age – and more about what living as a draftsperson, being-in-the-world as a draftsperson, means. And so, I am finding that sometimes the drawings, while starting with myself, do not have the sense of being about only myself, but a connection to a state that might be, almost, universal.”

There is something solitary about recognizing time. That recognition can take different forms–but one is alone in it. On the day that my students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, arrived in boxes, I had come to school just for that occasion (I had no classes on that day). But even when the boxes were within feet of me, I knew it wasn’t time to open the first one; that had to wait for the editors-in-chief. That was a short wait–but I remember the utter clarity of it.

The right time is not always “now.” (The hermit in Tolstoy’s story “The Three Questions is wrong.) The right time is now only when one recognizes that it is now.  Sometimes the right time is “not yet”; that very stretch of time between “not now” and “now” is solitary.

Timing in speech and music–a sense of tempo, rhythm, cadence, pause–is another way of recognizing time, of grasping the intersection between the stream and the moment. One knows when the timing is right, yet such timing is entirely singular, never to be repeated exactly. Even if it were repeated exactly, it might not be right the second time.

Time is not just a segment or line; it has dimension. Solitude lets you see into the dimension. One could reword a line from Zarathustra’s Roundelay, to say “Die Zeit ist tief” instead of “Die Welt ist tief”–but they  mean something similar, since it is the deep midnight speaking here. (It is part of the answer to the question posed in the first two lines: “O Mensch! Gib acht! / Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?”

There are times when possessible time dries up and crumbles, and the true time opens up. But we always return to the illusion of possessible time. (We must, in order to “do” anything with time.) Is it that simple, though? Does time divide up like that, into the illusory and the real? Or is it necessary to “grab” time in order to see past the grabbing? I think the latter: “material” time can lead to “matterless” time, as long as we allow this to happen.  For example, a person can get things done by a certain time in order to have a stretch of doing nothing. Also, the completed things, once done, are there for good, even if they decay materially.

Why is the solitude of time important? When one finds it, one is no longer subject (entirely) to group demands and rush. One has to meet certain demands, but one also stands outside them. It’s like having a mansion that costs no money and isn’t in the least bit gaudy.

 P.S. Those interested in solitude may wish to tune in to The Forum (BBC World Service) this weekend.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece (for style and clarity) after posting it.

A Dream of Uncertainty

Yesterday I sat for a while on a bench in Riverside Park, listening to the water and the wind (and traffic). I had a chance to sort through the many events and conversations of the week. It has been an exhilarating and exhausting time: my students’ philosophy journal received a great review, a paperback edition of my book just came out, and my classes have been lively. More exciting events lie ahead—and, as usual, I have piles of homework to grade and a backlog of errands and duties.

In the midst of this, I have a slight ache, which goes back to the subject of my book. It has been a long time since I heard someone praise—or even acknowledge—singularity and independent thought. (The one recent exception was Susannah Heschel, who gave a wonderful lecture yesterday about her father, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and his relationship with Rabbi Marshall Meyer [1930-1993]). One thing she said that struck me is that we have a responsibility to let ourselves be uncertain.

In general, what I hear all around me is “Go Team.” People are praised insofar as they serve the team; teams are praised insofar as they are teams. (G. K. Chesterton would have had a field day with this phenomenon.) The word “community” likewise comes in hardened dogmatic form (as David Bromwich notes in his 1992 book Politics by Other Means). As it is commonly invoked, the “community” doesn’t make allowances for those who don’t fit its strictures or who make a regular practice of walking away.

I am not deploring the concepts of team and community; my complaint is that they have been taken too far. There is too little room for the counterpart, which could be called solitude. Solitude and company (or community, or collaboration, or friendship) exist in complex relation. Solitude, like community, can be understood crassly. It is not just time alone, or space apart. It is part of the mind, soul, and sinews. (Yes, there’s solitude even in dusting the furniture—the private glimpse of the shining wood and the specks flying up in the air.)

My students recently read part of A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. There’s a passage (in the final chapter) where the sight of a man and woman coming together on the street and entering a taxicab sets off a stream of thoughts about how our creative work requires the coming together of the male and female in our minds. In this very passage, there’s solitude (the stream of thought) and company (the man and woman entering the taxicab). Who could separate them? What would the stream of thought be without the encounter, or vice versa?

My most important projects have had a combination of solitude and collaboration. The philosophy journal could not have existed without the individuals who worked on it. Yes, we had to bring the many efforts together, but without the singularity of the contributions, there wouldn’t have been much to bring. The wit, thoughtfulness, and beauty did not come from a team. At the same time, we spent much time meeting and deliberating over matters of many sizes.

My book, which was largely a solitary effort, involved some collaboration as well. I sent individual chapters to scholars and others who had special knowledge of the subject. Whenever I quoted texts, I did so with care—taking the larger context of the work into account, tracking down first editions for the bibliography, and so on. Beyond that, many of the ideas in the book were inspired by people who had influenced me along the way: teachers, students, mentors, friends, and family members.

All of this is obvious yet difficult to describe. Solitude is not completely solitude, nor company completely company. The problem I see around me is a sealing of terminology. People speak of “the team” as though that’s all that existed and mattered. There’s little recognition that it’s only a part. The same can be said for invocations of community; the community would be a great thing, were it allowed to be a little less than great.

This brings me to the title of the post: “A Dream of Uncertainty.” I long for a language that questions itself, that recognizes its own indefinite edges. I long for a community that does not pretend to be everything, to include everyone, or to be more glorious than it is. Uncertainty allows for an opening—a way of existing with things that go beyond us, that slip away from us, that hum a song beyond our understanding.