The Movement Around the Edges

eurovelo 11 photo 2Was it a great experience, this week in Hungary and Slovakia after the rich two weeks in Istanbul? Of course, but it was more than experience. Experiences can get in the way. Martin Buber places experience in the I-It realm; to experience, in his view, is to extract knowledge and impressions, and thus to possess and degrade. Even “inner” and “secret” experiences belong to this domain:*

I experience something. If we add “inner” to “outer” experiences, nothing in the situation is changed. We are merely following the uneternal division that springs from the lust of the human race to whittle away the secret of death. Inner things or outer things, what are they but things and things!

I experience something. If we add “secret” to “open” experiences, nothing in the situation is changed. How self-confident is that wisdom which perceives a closed compartment in things, reserved for the initiate and manipulated only with the key. O, secrecy without a secret! O accumulation of information! It, always It!

sunsetHow, then, do you go beyond “experience” into an actual encounter with a place? I thought of putting away the camera (phone) but knew I would regret coming back without pictures. So I tried to stay aware of the movement around the edges, the impossibility of capturing a place or saying anything definitive about it.

durkovIn Budapest I attended two chamber concerts, a jazz concert (by the band Nigun), and an opera (The Tenor by Ernő Dohnányi); visited the Dohány Street Synagogue; and walked all over the place, In Slovakia I went on a private walking tour in Košice and took a bus on my own to Ďurkov (where my great-grandfather Max Fischer lived before coming to the U.S. with his parents and seven siblings). The picture to the right is of Ďurkov, with a stork presiding over it all. In addition, I spent two days biking in northern Hungary. All this in one week; the days spill out of the frame.

Language (or rather, the language barrier) kept me firmly lodged in the ineffable, because I couldn’t say much in Hungarian. One day I was walking through a playground in Budapest. Two little girls (around age six or seven) ran up to me and asked me for something in Hungarian. I had no idea what they wanted and replied that I spoke English. Their eyes lit up. “Yes?” one of them said. They repeated their words more slowly, and one girl touched her knee. I asked (in English) whether they needed a band-aid. “Yes,” the girl replied. I said I didn’t have any. “No,” the other girl said. They started alternating–randomly, it seemed–between “Yes” and “No.” Then they ran away giggling; one of them called out “Have a nice day!”

Nigun bandThere was also the language of hands. In Budapest, I noticed that audiences were much less exuberant with their applause than in the U.S. They clapped but did not cheer. But this initial reserve, I soon realized, allowed for a crescendo. Audiences would clap quietly at first, then build into a rhythm (a sign of enthusiasm), then possibly erupt into a cheer or two. If the audience kept clapping (as it did at the Nigun concert, pictured here), then an encore was in order. In any case, you could sense the gradations of excitement. Yet applause is just one expression of enthusiasm or appreciation; attention is another. The audiences seemed extraordinarily attentive, but how do I know that, really? What do I know about another person’s mind?

swingsetNot only the outside world, but a traveler’s thoughts and moods can become an “experience” (or not). If I think, “I felt melancholy when looking at the swing set,” I deceive myself, because the melancholy, like the swing set, came with so much more. I thought about the engineering; whether the asymmetry was intentional here, because there is only one swing. I thought about what it would be like to swing in this swing; I remembered swings of childhood, the Robert Louis Stevenson poem, and the rope swing in Charlotte’s Web. I imagined the rhythmic creaking sound and the push of feet against grass.

liberty bridgeIn the contrasts between city and country, I sensed all kinds of things below and beyond the appearances. Budapest seemed dormant at first, after the throbbing bustle of Istanbul, but by the end I was walking in liveliness. The towns seemed enclosed, as towns anywhere can be, but everywhere there were histories and stories. With more time and language, I could have learned some of them.

But with all its limitations, the traveling opened up something extraordinary. Before my trip, many people worried that I was putting myself in danger. Yet while I took precautions and stayed alert, I felt distinctly safe. Even traveling alone, a woman, in countries where I did not speak the language (or, except in Slovakia, any language in the same family), I could move confidently on foot, on bike, or by train.

Except for two walking tours, I traveled independently; as I went along, I saw more and more to see. By the end, my toes had barely inched into new and ancient places, but that in itself was something: to see the inches (or centimeters) and the dim shapes beyond.

haftarah scroll from prossnitz

*Quote from Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Scribner, 1986), 21.

The last photo here, taken at the Jewish Museum in Budapest, is of a 1732 Haftarah scroll from Prossnitz, Moravia (now Prostějov, Czech Republic). It is opened to the Haftarah reading for Shabbat Hazon (Isaiah 1:1-27), which we studied in cantillation class this spring for its alternation between Haftarah and Eicha trope. In the left column, seventeen lines down, you can see the great words “Limdu heiteiv” (roughly “learn to do good”).

I made a few revisions and one correction to this piece after posting it.

“I Contemplate a Tree”

buber tree 2On Wednesday I took two of my classes across the street to Morningside Park to look at trees. We had been reading the tree passage in Martin Buber’s I and Thou, which begins with the declaration, “I contemplate a tree.” The speaker first accepts the tree as a picture, “a rigid pillar in a flood of light,” then feels its movement, then observes it as a species, then perceives it as an expression of physical and chemical laws, and then “dissolves” it into a number. “Throughout all of this,” he writes, ” “the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.”

Then comes a shift: “But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.”

I told my students that we could not replicate what Buber described in the passage–that the sheer effort to replicate it would defeat  the purpose. I asked them nonetheless to pay attention to what happened.

It was imperfect, of course, because we had little time and had to stay together. One or two students moved a little apart from the group; others clustered together and moved close to the tree of their choice. I saw them fingering the needles, observing the crinkles of the bark, noticing a long worm on the ground.

I had to keep an eye on everyone and everything, so I could not focus on a tree–but as I looked around, I was struck by each tree’s insistent form. Some were bare and gnarled; others showered you with color. Some had leaves falling from them as we watched; others stood warm and firm with their needles and cones. Some had berries or nuts; others, nothing but trunk and branches. Yet these had more than appeared at first glance. You could follow the lines in their bark as though listening to a story.

For my students, too, this was imperfect. Street noises and other distractions made it difficult for them to focus. All the same, they appreciated taking a few minutes to look at a tree; it was something they didn’t get to do very often.

On the way back to school, I thought of taking a picture of one of the trees. It seemed to go against the spirit of our outing, so I didn’t. Later in the day, I returned and took a shot. This set off a stream of thoughts about the nature of pictures and other mementos.

When you take a picture of something, you are turning it into a possession of sorts–something you “have” and can pull out at will. In one discussion of Buber, a student spoke of the satisfaction of Polaroid cameras–of seeing that tangible object emerge from the camera soon after the photo is taken. So, in the taking of a photo, there is some wish or effort to possess what is not really yours–to claim what cannot be claimed, to hold what cannot be held.

Yet it is also possible, when taking or looking at a photograph, to see it as a hint of something else–not as an object or possession, but as a reminder of something not possessed or contained. (Much of the early controversy over religious icons had to do with these different ways of regarding a picture.)

There is still a third possibility: the photograph can be a work of art and can take on its own life and limitlessness. It is then no longer merely a representation of something else. Buber writes about the creation of art:

The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. And yet I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experienced world. Not as a thing among the “internal” things, not as a figment of the “imagination,” but as what is present. Tested for its objectivity, the form is not “there” at all; but what can equal its presence? And it is an actual relation; it acts on me as I act on it.

To “actualize” a form, as Buber describes, one must allow oneself the confrontation–yet this cannot happen through effort of will alone. Is there a way, then, to make it possible, or does it just happen? In other words, can Buber’s words be “applied” to life and to ethics, or are they for contemplation only?

I believe that they can be applied, if one defines “applied” cautiously. Buber’s words cannot in themselves take us to the You–but they can make us aware of our tendency to claim and circumscribe things. (Buber stresses that we cannot survive without the It–but that the It cannot involve our whole being.)

So I take a picture, but with slight regret. First, my picture is far from a work of art, so it does not exist at that level. Second, it reminds me of the outing but leaves out almost everything. Third, while on the outing I resisted taking the picture, but later I caved in–so the picture is both removal and compromise. Yet it is pretty: the branches, leaves, and texture, the sense of something more.

Whenever I take a picture, I have ambivalence of this kind; it is usually wound into a tight thought, but it is present all the same. Here, the thought unravels. To “apply” Buber, then, is not to encounter a tree fully, nor to stop taking pictures, but to come closer to knowing one’s intentions.

“Thank God There’s Still the Dictionary”

That is an untranslatable line from Tomas Venclova’s poem “Sutema pasitiko šalčiu.” In my translation (in Winter Dialogue and The Junction), the line reads, for the sake of rhythm, “Thank God for the dictionary,” which misses some of the wit. I was never satisfied with my translation of that line, but the alternatives were awkward. In Lithuanian, it’s brilliantly terse and ironic: “Ačiū Dievui, dar esti žodynas.” This poem comes to my mind almost every day, so it seems fitting to bring it up at Thanksgiving.

I enjoy giving thanks but keep them scant when saying them out loud. This entry is much shorter than my thoughts.

I had a beautiful few days at the annual meeting of the National Association of Schools of Music, where I gave a talk on Monday. I will be thinking about the event and the conversations for a long time.

A few books have taken up residence in my life: Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking by David Bromwich; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (thanks to Cynthia Haven and, indirectly, Tobias Wolff for bringing it to my attention); and Taking the Back off the Watch: A Personal Memoir by Thomas Gold.

In addition, I have returned to a few favorites, including The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy and Reflections on Espionage by John Hollander.

I generally avoid mentioning my students on this blog, as I respect their privacy and try to keep my teaching separate from my writing. But something happened today that clinched my gratitude.

My tenth-grade students are reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou. For today’s lesson, I planned to discuss a few passages involving “confrontation” with the You, such as the one on p. 59 (of Walter Kaufmann’s translation):

When I confront a human being as my You, and speak the basic word I-You to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things.

He is no longer He or She, limited by other Hes and Shes, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is You and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.

After we read this and another passage, I had my students listen to Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which has to do, in a way, with such a confrontation and is worth reading for itself.

My students (in one particular section) were full of ideas and eager to talk about the Buber. Then, when I introduced the Rilke poem to them, a few of them lost their certainty. They didn’t understand how a headless torso could see the person or what that might mean.

They grasped that this was an extraordinary encounter–that the statue’s radiance and life exceeded what the person (addressed as “you” in the poem) had known before, and that he had to confront his own partial life. Several students said this in different ways. They understood the meaning of Apollo; they could imagine how a headless statue might radiate from the inside. But how could it see anything?

I told them that one day they might come in contact with something–a piece of music, a book, a painting, or a poem–that seemed to see and know them. (That’s only an approximation of Rilke’s meaning, but I wanted to give them an entry.)

Then one student said solemnly, “I have a poem that does that. ‘Jabberwocky.'”