Opening the Gates

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A piyut by R. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol (Spain, 11th century) begins, “Sha’ar asher nisgar, kuma petahehu….” (“The gate that is shut, get up and open it…”). Here is a beautiful performance. Filled with echoes of the Song of Songs, the piyut expresses a longing that is both intensely personal and communal, both immediate and bound up in history.

In Hungary, many gates to Jewish history are locked; during the Holocaust, Jewish communities throughout the countryside were destroyed. Many synagogues are now abandoned, and the unanswerable loss hidden away. The synagogue concerts I attended on Sunday and Monday–performed in Albertirsa and Baja by members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra–opened a few gates.

I begin with the ending: in Baja, at the Ady Endre Library, whose building was once the city’s synagogue. After the first piece (the first movement of Brahms’s Sextet, Opus 18), the rabbi (Rabbi Slomó Köves, I believe), who spoke in between the pieces and gave a rousing shofar demonstration, asked someone to open up the ark. It remained open for the rest of the concert and afterward, so we could see the Torah scrolls, siddurim, photographs, hanukkiah, Shabbat candles, tallit, and more. As you can see in the photo above, the musicians performed right in front of the ark. I understood this as a gesture of gratitude and hope. Here is a closer view.

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The Budapest Festival Orchestra inaugurated its synagogue concert series in 2014. This project, initially envisioned by the conductor, Iván Fischer, aims “to fill synagogues that were laid bare by the Holocaust, with life, music and culture once again.” In other words, there is more to this than “just” playing concerts in these spaces; the music and presentations, the gatherings and assemblies, gently transform the people, synagogues, and towns.

This series is one of the orchestra’s many community initiatives. Orchestra members bring concerts to the elderly, the sick, the disabled, pregnant women, disadvantaged children, and people who cannot afford to travel. They give free concerts, open to all, in cities, towns, and villages around Hungary. (On Saturday evening, in Szeged, I attended their wonderful church concert of two Bach cantatas; I will say more about that in another piece. People came from all over the city: on foot, by bike, and by car. One family brought a big Border Collie.) The orchestra hosts an annual “Dancing on the Square” on Heroes’ Square in Budapest; over 500 children of different backgrounds work with teachers for six months to prepare a dance choreography for this celebration.

On the surface, the Albertirsa and Baja concerts had identical programs: the Brahms, Alexander Glazunov’s Rêverie orientale, Jacques Ibert’s Three Short Pieces, and, for the encore, a beautiful melancholic piece, evocative of a Nishmat melody, by a Hungarian Jewish klezmer composer (I will provide both his name and the name of the piece when I learn them). But beyond that, the Albertirsa and Baja concerts differed not only in the architecture and acoustics, not only in the audiences, but in the many layers of present and past. I remember the big echoing sound of Albertirsa and the warm resonance of Baja, but those adjectives say only so much.

I took the train from Szeged to Albertirsa late Sunday morning. Arriving in mid-afternoon, I had some time to wander around and get my bearings. I found my way to the little town square, which has memorial dedicated to the residents of Alberti and Irsa who died in World War II. I sat on a bench there for an hour or two.

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Around 3:30 I saw a stream of people all walking in the same direction: children, elderly people, families. I thought they might be going to the concert, so I followed them. Indeed, that was so. We were all going to the same place.

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I later learned (from Szolongo Szani, the orchestra’s community program coordinator, that when the BFO played at this synagogue in 2015, the building was abandoned and in ruins. It seems that the concert inspired the community to restore and make use off the space, which now serves as a House of Arts (Művészetek Háza). This was a project of spirit and care.

Here’s a view of the inside. I took the photo about twenty minutes before the concert started; by the time it began, the hall was full.

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Each piece in the program had a perfect and memorable ending: the pizzicato of the Brahms, the hush of the Glazunov, the glorious final run of the Ibert, and the encore’s final notes. Those endings stay with me and tug at me. The end of a piece can be a revelation: right then, in those fleeting seconds, you grasp the piece as a whole.

A ending of this kind also seems to say, “Remember and return.” You walk away with something of the piece, and it brings you back to the listening.

After each piece, the audience clapped heartily, in rhythm (a gesture analogous to standing ovations in the U.S.). There was a reciprocity in the room: not only between the audience, musicians, and rabbi, but between past and present. The concert was part instruction, part music for the sake of music; the clarinetist Ákos Ács gave the initial introduction (about the series itself), and the rabbi spoke twice. Since this was all in Hungarian, I missed most of the rabbi’s humor but understood some of the gist: he spoke of the history of the synagogue and of certain Jewish practices (such as the blowing of the shofar). He pointed out where the women once sat and where the Torah scrolls were once kept.

after the concertAfter the concert, there was cake. People stayed and talked outside for a long time. In this photo you can see the cellist Rita Sovány (now one of my favorite cellists) and the violist Barna Juhász. Lingering was part of the spirit o the event; the music was still in our ears, and many of us did not want to leave just yet. We were welcomed to stay.

Afterward I took a leisurely walk back to the train station. I did not even have to ask, “Hol van a pályaudvar?,” which I have had occasion to ask a few times. I remembered my way and had no trouble catching the train. That night I would go back to Budapest–and then, the next morning, head out to Baja.

I have stories to tell about the trip to Baja–for instance, about the delightful little red train I caught in Dombóvár. They will have to wait a little while. When I got there, I fell in love with the townlike city: its leafy park, pastel-colored buildings, and the Stars of David rising up into the sky (from the Ady Endre Library). Here again, I did not have to ask for directions.

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The city and synagogue had a different feel from Albertirsa. The synagogue, which the city purchased from the Jewish community in 1985, bears witness to a thriving past. When converting it to a library, the city restored its many details, including artwork and lettering. When I entered and saw the library staff greeting people warmly, I sensed their pride over this concert. Members of the small local Jewish community were in attendance; during his presentation, the rabbi welcomed comments from people in the audience who knew the synagogue’s history intimately.

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Within its visual splendor, the hall had a warm and subtle feel. At the end of the Glazunov you could hear the sounds so close to silence . The encore (the name of which I will find out) felt like something that happens once in a lifetime, even among hundreds of performances of the same piece. After the concert, as I got up and headed toward the cake, I made eye contact with other audience members; their eyes told me what I would not have been able to understand in words.

I stayed for a little while, took pictures of the ark, and spoke in my bare-beginner’s Hungarian with a library staff member, for whom I recited the first four lines of Ady Endre’s poem “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm,” which seemed appropriate for this night and week.

Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok,
Számban nevednek jó íze van,
Szent mennydörgést néz a két szemem,
Istenem, istenem, istenem….

It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear,
Thy name of names is sweet inside my mouth,
And the holy thunder fills my sight,
My God, my God, my God.

(This is my own attempt at a translation; I used Leslie A. Kery’s as a starting point.)

IMG_3833The gates were opened that night, and so were the skies; that night, as I slept in a little inn in Baja, the rain came pouring down. In the morning, before sunrise, I walked back to the train station through glowing streets.

In Hebrew, HaMakom (“the place”) is one of the names of God. These synagogue concerts were not just concerts played in synagogues; the place and the music were part of each other. This is probably always true, but easily forgotten; in some way, music–the creation, playing, and listening–comes out of knowing who and where you are, even as you search your whole life for the answers, the countless answers, to these questions.

 

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it (and a few more later). Also, thanks to Jenny Golub for editing the sixth photo to make it lighter.

Before Dawn in Baja, Hungary

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At 5 a.m., in a gentle rain after a night of downpour, I walked down this street toward the Baja train station. What a beautiful week this has been. I will soon write two pieces: one about the trip overall, particularly the visit to Szolnok, and one about the Budapest Festival Orchestra concerts in Szeged, Albertirsa, and Baja.

The Red Heifer

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I had read about Iván Fischer’s opera The Red Heifer (A Vörös Tehén), often described as biting political commentary, but did not realize until yesterday that there was a beautiful video of the October 2013 world premiere! It was performed in Budapest by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the Saint Ephraim Male Choir, students of the University of Theatre and Film Arts, and soloists and dancers; conducted by Fischer; and directed by Tamás Ascher and Kriszta Székely. Find an hour to watch it today. It’s in Hungarian (and at one point in Hebrew), but if you do not know these languages, the music will carry you along, and the unobtrusive subtitles will give you the gist.

The Red Heifer accomplishes something rare in art or life: It makes a political statement without reducing anything or anyone. It dives into the difficulty of the matter.

It has the texture of a lyric poem; with taut soul and few images, it takes up a complex historical and contemporary event: the Hungarian blood libel of 1882-1883, also known as the Tiszaeszlár affair, in which Christian townspeople and agitators accused the local Jews of ritually murdering and beheading Eszter Solymosi, a peasant girl (who had gone missing), in order to use her blood for Passover.

Móric Scharf, the teenage son of the synagogue sexton József Scharf, first denied all knowledge of the alleged events but later testified that, while looking through the keyhole of the synagogue, he had seen his own father and others commit the murder. (Many years later, in an interview, he said he had been tortured and threatened before his testimony.) A body with the girl’s clothes was found in the Tisza, with no cuts or evidence of murder–but the mother denied that this was her daughter. Fifteen people were formally accused, and news of the case spread fast and far.

The statesman and lawyer (and former Governor-President) Lajos Kossuth wrote letters of protest, from exile, against the accusations and proceedings; even this did not alter the course of events. Only later, when doctors reexamined the body, did it become clear to all that the girl had died by drowning and that no ritual murder had occurred. On August 3, 1883, all of the accused were acquitted–but the case had inflamed anti-Semitism in the country.  (There’s much more to all of this; I have given a bare summary.)

The opera (whose libretto is drawn from a 1931 novel by Gyula Krúdy) focuses on the boy. What would cause a teenager to accuse his father falsely? What might have been happening inside him, then and afterward? The music and choreography convey the questions and hint at possible answers. The musical idioms and forms–Hungarian and Jewish folklore, opera, fugue, rap, cantillation, and more–express not only cultures but minds. It is not a hodgepodge; as I listen, I find that some of these idioms are part of me, that I, like the characters, walk within many languages. Yet not all of them are home; home requires more than knowledge, more than fluency.

You see Móric (Jonatán Kovács) at the inn, watching the townspeople dance, yearning to be part of things, but moving invisibly in the room, as though not counted or seen. He sees the innkeeper (a Jewish woman, played by Orsolya Sáfár) slipping and sliding drunkenly around, humiliated and still magnificent; you feel him wishing to be included, wishing to be one of the others. But this is not just a matter of a teenager wishing to belong. The crowd and individuals seize and use him.

Móric’s court testimony has stunning musical form; as Alex Ross describes it in The New Yorker, he spits it out “in a terrifying triplet-rhythm rap, with Weill-like chords snapping behind him.” Then he turns to the cheering crowd and makes gestures of egging them on, not realizing that they are the ones controlling him.

Lajos Kossuth (Krisztián Cser) appears later, showing a dignity and a standard absent from the proceedings: something possible in this life, something to grow into. His voice resounds with conscience and experience. You sense that he has suffered.

All of this leads up to the astonishing scene between father and son, after the acquittal and release of the accused. (I will leave it at that; it’s better to watch and hear it for yourself.)

The red heifer itself has several meanings in this work. As Iván Fischer explains in his introduction (at the start of the video), it refers to (a) a cow that stepped on the toes of the girl and thereby provided evidence through which the body could be identified; (b) an inn called The Red Cow, where all the manipulation took place; (c) the innkeeper, who was nicknamed “The Red Cow”; and (d) the red heifer in the Torah (Numbers 19), used for ritual purification.

Maybe there’s a fifth meaning here as well. Maybe the red heifer is the great mistake or mistakes we make in our lives–the mistakes that will eventually teach us how to live. None of us is immune to mistakes; there is no static human purity, only purity of learning and return.

But the lessons of the historical event have not been fully learned. The girl’s symbolic grave in Tiszaeszlár has become a site of pilgrimage by extremists. The accusations were disproven and dismissed in 1883, but some wish to revive them even now. Thus the opera speaks not only to the past and its modern-day analogies, but to an urgent present.

How can art protest cultural and political trends while retaining its complexity and integrity? This opera achieves just that–by speaking in music and poetry and by going into the difficulty. True political life requires rejection of the glib. We are never just one thing or another; we live in conflict with ourselves. Even so, we are responsible for seeking understanding and moving toward the good. The Red Heifer suggests the possibility and profundity of this movement, not long ago or far away, but here and now.

 

 

Image credit: Painting by Yoram Raanan. The painting and opera are unrelated except through the red heifer.

I made some edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

Back to the Map

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This coming week I go to Hungary to prepare for the move there in November and to attend several Budapest Festival Orchestra community concerts (one church concert and two synagogue concerts). These combined purposes will take me to five locations in six days: Budapest, Szolnok, Szeged, Albertirsa, and Baja, which you can see above and in Google Maps. My actual train itinerary will be Budapest-Szolnok-Budapest-Szeged-Albertirsa-Budapest-Baja-Budapest. That is, I will be stationed in Budapest but will stay overnight in Szeged and Baja as well. To put this together in my mind, I have been reading about each of the towns.

Each one is near a body of water: Szolnok and Szeged lie on the Tisza; Budapest and Baja, on the Danube. These waterways have much to do with the cities’ histories. Albertirsa is not near a body of water; its first train arrived in 1847.

Szeged was once a Roman trading post (on an island in the Tisza); its castle, a corner of which remains standing, dates back to the thirteenth century or earlier. The name Szeged may derive from the Hungarian szeg, “corner”; the Tisza bends there. The city had a massive flood in 1879; Emperor Franz Josef promised that the rebuilt city would be more beautiful than the old one. Lajos Tisza, who led the effort, fulfilled the emperor’s promise.

Albertirsa, a small town in the middle of the Great Hungarian Plain, existed first as two habitations: Alberti (mentioned by King Ladislaus IV in 1277) and Irsa (mentioned in the chapter of Buda in 1368). It became Albertirsa in 1950. The town has a rich and painful Jewish history. Moritz Goldstein, father of the mezzo-soprano opera singer Róza Csillag (1832-1892), was a hazzan of Irsa; I hope to learn more about him (and her). The synagogue, opened in 1809, has now been renovated and reopened as Művészetek Háza, House of Arts.

Since 2014, for one of its many community initiatives, the Budapest Festival Orchestra has been playing concerts in synagogues around Hungary, to bring music to local communities and to honor the Jewish history of these places. Here’s Fiona Maddocks’s article about the project (The Guardian, December 12, 2016). I intend to write a piece, possibly for this blog, possibly for another publication, after attending next week’s concerts.

The church concert in Szeged, performed by the orchestra’s Baroque ensemble, consists of two Bach cantatas (“Jesu, der du meine Seele,” BWV 78, and “Christus, der ist mein Leben,” BWV 95). The synagogue concerts in Albertirsa and Baja feature Ibert (Trois pièces brèves), Glazunov (Rêverie orientale), and Brahms (String Sextet No. 1, Op.18). I have been listening to recordings of these pieces; here’s a beautiful video of the Israeli Chamber Project performing the Glazunov.

Speaking of synagogues, I will get to attend services at Sim Shalom in Budapest this Friday and Saturday; I look forward to this with full heart.

Almost first of all, I will go to Szolnok, my first destination after Budapest. How exciting to see the school and visit a few classes! The city is just a 90-minute train ride from Budapest; the school, a direct walk from the train station. Szolnok is known as a crossroads, but it holds its own life–not only an annual goulash festival, not only mayflies, not only an airplane museum, not only a rich music culture (from what I gather), but daily life, with its many walks and ways, and strong education.

I was tempted to post a picture or two here (from other sites), but why not wait until I have taken a few on my own? My thoughts right now are preliminary and anticipatory; I don’t know any of these places yet. Next week I will only start to know them. Still, a start is farther along than a pre-start, which is farther along than no hint of a start at all. Instead of a photo, I’ll post Pál Vágó’s painting of the 1879 flood.

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Image credits: (1) Google Maps; (2) Pál Vágó, painting of Szeged flood of 1879 (Ferenc Mora Museum; image courtesy of the wonderful blog Europe Between East and West).

Update: The concert schedule has changed since my original post: the September 10 synagogue concert will be in Albertirsa, not Balatonfüred. I have changed the map and post accordingly.

Teaching in Hungary!

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It is now official: I will be teaching English–and American and British civilization–at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary, starting in November! I applied through the Central European Teaching Program and was offered this wonderful position; I will be stepping in for a teacher who is going on leave.

In addition, I hope to volunteer for the  Budapest Festival Orchestra; it would be an honor to help with the synagogue project, other community projects, and the orchestra’s work in general.

Szolnok is on Eurovelo 11, the same bike route I took for part of my expedition in May. I look forward to many long bike rides.

In the English classes, my focus will be on English conversation; in the civilization classes, on history and culture. (There may be opportunities to teach electives as well; we’ll see.) I have many ideas for topics, materials, and approaches; I will have still more once I get to know the school and students.

There is much more to say about the school, the teaching, and other projects and plans. (I may have an update on my book as well.) For the next two months I will be busy with preparations. In September I intend to make a short trip to Budapest (and four other cities) to submit paperwork, meet people, and attend concerts. At the end of October, I will be leading a seminar and presenting a paper at the ALSCW Conference in Dallas. Then off to Hungary (with my two cats) and into the classroom!

 

The photo above is of Szolnok’s former synagogue; the building now houses the Szolnok Gallery. Courtesy of the website of the Damjanich János Múzeum.

I updated this piece after posting it.

“Viva la libertà!”

I now have a new reason to keep my mind sharp into old age: I want to remember last night’s Don Giovanni performance–directed and conducted by Iván Fischer, and performed by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, eight singers, and sixteen young actors from the University of Theatre and Film, Budapest–for the rest of my life. After it ended, I wanted to see and hear it all over again, from start to finish.

First of all, the opera is magnificent; it hits so many tones of comedy and pathos, and plays out the characters so tangibly, that you feel like a participant from early on. It’s full of play on sound and words, from “si” and “no” to the musical quotations from Figaro, etc. Leporello is my favorite character; he seems a bumbling, astute, playful, corporeal Ariel longing for release from his master. (Don Giovanni is anything but a Prospero, though.) Yet every character became my favorite at times, partly because of the music, partly because of this particular performance.

This was no run-of-the-mill opera production. As Mr. Fischer explained in the question-and-answer session before the performance, while opera productions usually have a stage director and a conductor, each one with a particular focus, he could not approach the work this way; he had to be both director and conductor. This could be felt throughout. He brought together singers and musicians, stage and score, into a single life and form.

There were the silent actors, who served as props–a seat, a gravestone, a table, a building, a garden with fountain, a coach, villagers, dancers, and figments of the imagination. They appeared with moonlike glow and pallor. This had the effect of making everything physical and breathing (though also dreamlike). You could see the world through Don Giovanni’s eyes. The music was the great reality, in the subtle textures, the mandolin, the stage musicians, the trombones that accompanied the Commendatore, every single instrument, and the extraordinary voices.

That might have been the greatest brilliance of all: to let us (at moments) into Don Giovanni’s mind. It is easy to condemn him. But this performance brought us into him; not only did the objects breathe and move, but each aria, each terzetto seemed more beautiful than the last. You wanted to catch each one without fail;  you would fall in love with one only to find yourself chasing the next. I disagree with James Jorden, who praises this production to the skies (in his New York Times review) but ends with the claim that it lacks “an indefinable spark of the divine.” No, it lacks no such thing. The divine is palpable, not only in the sensuality that implicates you and melts your everyday judgments, but in the surprises of beauty and soul and structure.

One of my favorite scenes of all was Zerlina’s aria “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto.” Many find this aria troubling and hard to interpret, but here the interpretation was natural and unhindered. Masetto’s look of anguish–sustained throughout the aria, up almost to the end–tells us that he would not beat Zerlina, and that Zerlina knows this. Her “Batti, batti” shows such confidence, such tenderness, that she can move closer and closer to him and find, at the end, no rancor, just jealousy and pain.

It’s easy to be fond of Zerlina and Masetto–but I also found myself entranced by Don Ottavio, the “straightest” of them all, and by Elvira, that troubled soul. I can’t just consider them singly, though; right  now I am remembering the duet of Leporello and Don Giovanni in the finale of Act I, “tornerete a scherzar e ballar.” (I have been looking up favorite parts in my score this morning.) Later in the finale, Don Giovanni’s ominous “Viva la libertà!” first plays against the others’ “Siam grati a tanti segni di generosità” but then becomes the refrain of all; they sing these words as though not knowing what they (the words or they themselves) mean. There’s something mad and reckless in that “libertà,” but for a moment, all are swept into it.

But I did not always see things through Don Giovanni’s eyes, nor did Mozart’s composition or the performance encourage that. Not only is he ultimately contained and swallowed up in flames, not only do the others go on with their lives, but throughout the work there are scenes of censure, scenes where Don Giovanni faces the disapproval, disgust, and disdain of each of the others, who, with all their fallibility, understand something about living. His excess froths, centerless–and the music itself, while gorgeously enticing, contains itself as it contains him. Don Giovanni contains and moves beyond Don Giovanni. Mr.  Fischer chose the Prague version of this opera, which, besides being the original version, stands out for its balance and unity. Through this balance and unity, the opera (as I hear it) responds to Don Giovanni  himself.

I took two pictures during intermission: one of the harpsichord tuner (above) and one of a member of the stage crew who mopped, sprayed, and mopped the floor over and over (below). Thanks to them, to the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center, and to everyone who brought this performance about.

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

When the Statue Nods

stoneguestIn anticipation of Don Giovanni, which the Budapest Festival Orchestra will perform at Lincoln center on August 17, 18, and 19, I reread Alexander Pushkin’s dramatic poem The Stone Guest, which was inspired by a Russian-language version of Mozart’s opera. I had not read it in years; this time, I was amazed by the part where Don Juan (spelled “Дон Гуан” in Russian) orders Leporello to invite the statue of Dona Anna’s* deceased husband (whom he himself murdered) to come watch Don Juan meet with her in her home. (In Don Giovanni, it is the father of Donna Anna, not the husband, whom Don Juan has murdered and who later appears as a statue.) Leporello starts to speak to the statue but can’t finish; the scene is rendered in tense, broken iambic pentameter, where the silences hold little time and great weight. Leporello finally works up the nerve to invite the statue, who nods his assent. Don Juan does not see this; he finally invites the statue himself and, seeing him nod, cries, “Oh God!” Leporello: “What? I tried to tell you…” Don Juan: “Let’s get out of here.”

Here’s the Russian text of this passage (you can see the trepidation in the broken lines themselves). You can listen to a recording too; the quoted lines begin at 35:38 and end around 37:45. This is from a 1962 performance by the Alexandrinsky Theatre.

Лепорелло

                                Охота вам
Шутить, и с кем!

Дон Гуан

                            Ступай же.

Лепорелло

                                                Но…

Дон Гуан

                                                        Ступай.

Лепорелло

Преславная, прекрасная статуя!
Мой барин Дон Гуан покорно просит
Пожаловать… Ей-богу, не могу,
Мне страшно.

Дон Гуан

                        Трус! вот я тебя!..

Лепорелло

                                                    Позвольте.
Мой барин Дон Гуан вас просит завтра
Прийти попозже в дом супруги вашей
И стать у двери…

Статуя кивает головой в знак согласия.

                            Ай!

Дон Гуан

                                    Что там?

Лепорелло

                                                    Ай, ай!..
Ай, ай… Умру!

Дон Гуан

                        Что сделалось с тобою?

Лепорелло
(кивая головой)

Статуя… ай!..

Дон Гуан

                        Ты кланяешься!

Лепорелло

                                                        Нет,
Не я, она!

Дон Гуан

                    Какой ты вздор несешь!

Лепорелло

Подите сами.

Дон Гуан

                        Ну смотри ж, бездельник.

(Статуе.)

Я, командор, прошу тебя прийти
К твоей вдове, где завтра буду я,
И стать на стороже в дверях. Что? будешь?

Статуя кивает опять.

О боже!

Лепорелло

                Что? я говорил…

Дон Гуан

                                                Уйдем.

There’s comedy and horror in this scene; both Leporello and Don Juan must each experience the statue alone; hence the eruptions and ellipses. Yet for all its jagged appearance, this dialogue keeps up the iambic pentameter as if propelled along. In the recording, the statue’s nod is signaled by music, which both interrupts and intensifies the rhythm. There are references to nonsense, death, God, and madness; exclamations of “ay!”; and a simple yet terrifying nod. The statue is more than a likeness, more than a stone carving. It holds hidden life; it traps time in a solid.

Having started to think about statues, I think of Charlottesville, yet the connection here seems tenuous. For Don Juan, the statue becomes his witness and demise; confronting it, he spirals into himself. It’s the poetry itself that nods. This statue moves in verse.

For us today, in the U.S. and elsewhere, a statue holds the history that will not go away, that shows up at the door. Even without great historical significance, even at its most mundane, a statue pulls at the imagination. Because of its dimension and its presence among us, because of its gesture (sometimes seeming in motion), it tempts us to sit on its lap, shake its hand, take pictures with our arms around it, put a cap on its head, and so on. Or it can offer much more. Simulating a body, it simulates hidden thoughts.

The white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville claim that nonwhite and non–”Aryan” groups (e.g., blacks and Jews) have robbed them of their rights, that life would be much better for them if others were put in their place or destroyed. For people who hold this view, a Confederate statue may express the restitution they desire. To move the statue is to rob them of their perceived rights; some will sooner kill others than let that statue go. The statue becomes their defender–theirs, not other people’s. It is their fantasy, oxidized and towering, astride a seemingly permanent horse.

A statue strangely joins life and death; it takes something that can never walk again in the world and puts it in our midst. But it matters how we regard it. We can have a free relation with it, taking it on its own terms and coming to understand it better. Or we can see it as an emblem of our rights and wishes, in which case we are bound to it. At its best, education moves toward the many languages and forms of free relation.

Image credit: V. Favorsky, to “The Stone Guest” by A. Pushkin.

I revised this piece substantially after posting it. I am still not satisfied, but the dissatisfaction itself is on the right track.

*A spelling correction: In the Russian text, it’s Dona Anna, not Donna Anna. In Spanish it would be Doña Ana.

 

In Praise of Lingering

fort-tryon-6Our culture extols “moving on”–that is, putting the past behind you, dropping all negative influences from your life, and steamrolling your way into satisfaction. Yet neither lingering nor “moving on” is inherently good or bad; both can participate in virtue, and both can be taken to extremes. Of course it isn’t helpful to hold on to an old grudge or wait for someone who has willfully left your life. But there is a place for memory and waiting; maybe it’s just a little place–a rock out in the woods–but still a place, and worth a pause.

In a stunning interview with Joe Fassler (in The Atlantic), George Saunders, whose novel Lincoln in the Bardo came out this week, speaks about the unsettlement of fiction–with particular attention to Anton Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries.” Saunders understood Chekhov for the first time when hearing Tobias Wolff read three of his stories aloud:

I was a first-year grad student at Syracuse when I went to see Tobias Wolff, who was our teacher, do a reading at the Syracuse Stage. He was feeling under the weather that night, so instead of reading from his work he said he was going to read Chekhov. He read three Chekhov short stories known as the “About Love” trilogy, and “Gooseberries” is the middle component. It was a huge day for me because I’d never really understood Chekhov at all. I’d certainly never understood him to be funny. But when Toby was reading him, he captured this beautiful range of feelings: beautiful, lyrical sections and laugh-out-loud-funny things.

It reminds me a little of what I heard yesterday in the third movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (I went to an open rehearsal at the New York Philharmonic). It is described as parody–and indeed there’s a great deal of that–but there’s also something soulful, something that doesn’t let you put it aside. Here’s a video of Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra performing it. You might end up listening to it again and again.

Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” seems to be saying one thing about happiness–and then, as Saunders points out, it takes a turn, but not just one. Even the digressions, even the passing details, have something to do with happiness. One tone turns into another. The story within a story lets us think, for a while, that we know what the story is, only to find out later that we do not.

In a very different (and ferocious) way, this happens in Saunders’s story “Winky,” which he does not bring up in the interview. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read it–but it starts out with a cult approach to happiness, in which, to attain “Inner Peace,” the willing must identify the human obstacles in their life, erect protective barriers against them, and confront them with this new state of things:

“First, we’ll identify your personal Gene. Second, we’ll help you mentally install a metaphorical Screen over your symbolic oatmeal. Finally, we’ll show you how to Confront your personal Gene and make it clear to him or her that your oatmeal is henceforth off-limits.”

This is so ridiculous (yet recognizable) that we know it will break down somehow. But what makes this story stand out (not only among stories, but in my life) is the poetry of the breakdown. I am left with a little ache; instead of feeling vindicated, of being reassured that this stuff is as stupid as it sounds, I am brought into something more important, where I am not entirely justified or right. I can’t just walk away; I have to stop for a little bit.

Near the end of the interview, Saunders says, “Fiction can allow us a really brief residence in the land of true ambiguity, where we really don’t know what the hell to think.” He adds that it’s impossible to dwell there forever–but even a few minutes can do tremendous good.

To boot, insistent, dogmatic “moving on” can do great harm. If we not only march forward in brazen confidence, but also look down on those who linger and question, then we stigmatize conscience itself. I have seen this happen a lot, not only on the political front, but in everyday contexts: people say, “move on, move on,” implying that those who pause, even briefly, are doing something wrong or, worse, standing in the way of progress.

Lingering is not inherently good either; all depends on its form and meaning. But just a little bit, a hint of “maybe I was wrong,” could offset some of the cruelty in the world and open up the imagination.

 
Photo credit: I took this picture a few days ago in beloved Fort Tryon Park.

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