What Are Years?

I celebrate three New Years annually: the Jewish New Year, the academic new year, and the Gregorian New Year, which begins tomorrow. They are all different kinds of beginnings. This last one has both the least and the greatest effect on my sense of time: the least because it doesn’t really affect my life rhythm, except that it occurs during our winter break and heralds certain deadlines and beginnings, and the greatest because the it is recognized, marked, and fêted worldwide. I suppose birthdays are a kind of new year too, in which case I celebrate many more than three.

But in all cases, the “year” has to do with the motion of the earth around the sun (or vice versa, as it was perceived in ancient times). Seasons and growth cycles have been part of our conception of time since the earliest antiquity known to us.

New Year’s resolutions may be silly at times, but our sense of starting afresh is not. It’s physical, possible, and good. A person doesn’t even have to wait a year to do this. I often do it from one day to the next, or even during the course of a day. For instance, if I didn’t get nearly as much done as I had hoped, I start over, right then and there, and either get something done or not. Or I do enough of something that I know it will be easy to continue or finish the next day. Being able to “start over” can do, if not wonders, at least more than nothing. Or it can make the “nothing” worthwhile. At times it can simply mean getting a good night’s sleep.

But yes, this year stands out from other years, and the desire for a new start is a bit more urgent than usual, all around the world. Those spared by Covid itself have been hit by Covid fatigue and anxiety. The arts have taken a terrible hit. Travel, events, gatherings are up in the air.

But it’s still possible to read, write, listen to music, watch movies, laugh. So I leave off with just a few recommendations:

The Autumn 2020 issue of my students’ online journal, Folyosó:

Marcell Bajnai’s song “dühöngő” (released in July):

A live video of Dávid Szesztay and his band playing his song “Elindul” (maybe my favorite of his songs):

A brutally funny satirical piece by Dan Geddes, published 19 years ago in The Satirist: “In Memoriam: Dr. Claire Hoyt: ‘Shrink to the Stars’“;

Lara Allen’s art work Fried Liver Attack, whose description begins, “‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ These words, spoken by heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, are the tabula rasa for this work. This punch might be a beginning or an end. It’s supposed that we make art that is about something, or that reflects something, or interrogates something.”

Ishion Hutchinson’s magnificent poem “Little Music,” published in the January 2021 issue of Harper’s;

Martha Hollander’s quietly stunning poem “Friday Harbor,” published in Issue 12:3 of Literary Matters;

And, of course, Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” from which this post’s title comes. It is one of my favorite poems, and it brings back memories of John Hollander’s classes. Since it now appears in various places online, I will copy it below (from the Madison Public Library website). I read it aloud this evening, against a backdrop of rain; here is the recording.

A Happy New Year to all!

What Are Years?

Marianne Moore

        What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
        naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt—
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
        encourages others
        and in its defeat, stirs

        the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who 
        accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment, rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
        in its surrendering
        finds its continuing. 

        So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
        grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
        This is mortality,
        this is eternity.

Against Superiority

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When I read about the massacre in the New Zealand mosques (as of now, 49 people have died, and the suspect is a white nationalist), I felt, in addition to sadness and disgust, a renewed rejection of superiority. Superiority and inferiority are part of life, but their absolute forms–the belief that one person or group is better than another–lead to harm.

Belief in superiority is in all of us and sometimes holds truth. One person may be taller (or shorter) than another. One may be better than another in math, or at playing the cello. One person may be kinder, more professional, more generous than another. Specific superiority cannot be wished away; moreover, we are taught to strive for it and seek it out. It is natural to want to hear a good musician rather than a bad one, or to publish a good poem rather than a slipshod assemblage of words.

But all of this has to do with partial superiority: perceived excellence at certain activities, or in certain qualities. It has nothing to do with absolute superiority over another human being or group. As soon as you entertain thoughts of absolute superiority over others because of your skin color, religion, sex, or anything else, you verge on the kind of thinking that has resulted in mass graves. Not only that, but we have learned through history how wrong it is. Why do we keep on forgetting?

I remember a philosophy roundtable I led at Columbia Secondary School, on the topic of privacy. One of the texts I included was Marianne Moore’s “Silence“:

My father used to say,
“Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow’s grave
or the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like the cat—
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse’s limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth—
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint.”
Nor was he insincere in saying, “Make my house your inn.”
Inns are not residences.

I had previously interpreted the tone as somewhat admiring: that the father’s words represent a kind of ideal for Moore or at least the poem’s speaker. But the others at the roundtable were having none of it. They pointed out, for instance, that the father’s words take up almost all of the poem, and that the final line, “Inns are not residences,” suggest the coldness of his view. They also pointed to the beginning of the quote: “Superior people” and the absolute adverbs “never” and “always.” They heard something devastating in the father’s pronouncement on “the deepest feeling.”

That evening somewhat, and later even more, I came to believe that they were right: that the poem’s irony lies in the near-silence of the speaker, and that this near-silence is not “superior” but instead full of pain.

This leads me to thoughts of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which I brought to my students early in the year.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Here too, the quoted speech takes up almost all of the poem–and while it is the “traveller from an antique land” speaking and not Ozymandias, the story leaves the main speaker (the poet) with nothing more to say. But it is easy to get caught up in the “lone and level sands” and forget about something earlier: “Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, / Tell that its sculptor well those passions read / Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things.” The sculptor, the unseen character in all of this, has not only portrayed Ozymandias but read those passions “which yet survive.” The long distance of the sands may come down to nothing.

Yesterday in British civilization class I brought up W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” so often quoted and misquoted, with the famously misunderstood lines: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Those lines about the “best” and the “worst,” taken out of context, may seem to mean that uncertainty is inherently superior to intensity. But that is not it; Yeats (who wrote the poem in 1919) is speaking of a particular lack of conviction, a particular kind of passionate intensity–the latter an extreme certainty, a belief in one’s own authority. Something is taking place that we cannot even see or hear; it has come on us slowly, and now it is all around us. Within all of this, “the best lack all conviction” because the current explanations collapse; even the possibility of a “Second Coming” looms with a question. We, the readers, are guided out of conclusions and into troubling images and thoughts. I see that as one gesture of the poem: away from over-certainty.

If education is for anything at all besides preparing us for the workplace, giving us interesting things to think about, and enabling us to continue learning on our own, then it is for this: reminding us, again and again, through literature, music, art, language, sciences, history, and other fields, that no matter how often we think and feel otherwise, no human stands above another–except in specific respects, and even then imperfectly, just for a time, by way of a passing gift.
Image credit: Anselm Kiefer, The Morgenthau Plan (series of paintings, 2012).

On Inconvenience

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I returned today from a week in Israel (two nights in Tel Aviv and five in Jerusalem). It’s too soon for me to tell about the trip; I’m still absorbing it. But it turned my thoughts, in various ways, toward the topic of inconvenience. I will knock my way into that topic; the photos will speak for themselves, except where I chime in.

I usually avoid group trips; I travel alone so that I can take things in and think. But this time I went on a trip hosted by B’nai Jeshurun, my beloved New York shul; it was a profound introduction to Israel, not only because of the insights, meetings, and itinerary, but because of the slight messiness of it all. Some of my favorite memories (right now) involve a minor inconvenience of some kind: waiting for someone, being waited for, using someone’s soap by mistake, trying to understand the revised schedule, finding the bus, relaying what was just said–little things, but all part of being physically among others, in this extraordinary place.

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On another level I felt a great and beautiful inconvenience: the bumping of one culture against another, the walking on my own and others’ holy ground, the pressing up of faith against faith (or lack of faith), thoughts against questions, road against road. Some of us avoid, others treasure these encounters. Or maybe most of us do both.

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On my last day, I met two Bedouin brothers who ran two shops; they showed me dreamy items while treating me to stories, praise, and tea. I understood this as theater and loved it for that; for those few minutes (that turned into more and more), I enjoyed being called their sister and told that I had beautiful eyes; I laughed as they played against each other, each one claiming to offer me the better deal; I admired a silver and garnet mezuzah (that one of the brothers, Hashem, had made) with pomegranate design and Hebrew inscription; and I bought more than I had meant to buy, without regret. Poetry and theater take you out of your way and gather you up, in a shop or anywhere.

As humans, we seek convenience and efficiency; if there are two ways to accomplish a goal, and one way is quicker and easier, we’ll take that way, unless we have reason to want the other. There’s elegance in this. Many inventions offer some form of convenience. My great-granduncle Charles Fischer discovered ways to make daily tasks easier; hence the take-up spring, the book prop, and other gadgets of his devising. When playing an instrument, we seek ease, not difficulty; a bow grip should not strain or contort the hand. That way, the music can come out.

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But take convenience too far, and you’re through with human relations. Instead of “Hell is other people,” the saying becomes, “Inconvenience is anyone outside myself.” To know someone substantially, you must let yourself be thrown off a little (or a lot).

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None of us can handle being thrown off all the time; the other extreme would be unbearable too. Too much stress and uncertainty, and we buckle; too much predictability, and we harden into planks. Nor do convenience and inconvenience come wrapped and ribboned; each one involves the other. If I take the trouble to meet strangers in various countries, I have taken on both an inconvenience and a convenience; we may speak different languages, but our interactions may be fleeting and unencumbered. If I befriend someone who speaks my language and belongs to my general culture, the initial comfort may lead into expectations. “We should really” starts to enter the conversation.

Inequality and equality both carry their conveniences and inconveniences. If I go out of my way, day after day, to help others, I have the inconvenience of attending to their needs but the convenience of automatic moral stature (and possibly escape from other responsibilities). If I relate to others as an equal and devote time to my own projects, I lose both the duties and the moral markers. So the categories break down.

The questions, or a few of many, become: In my combinations of convenience and inconvenience, do I keep enough uncertainty at the center and around the edges? Do I remember how little I know about others and they about me? Am I willing to take on new challenge and ease, not only externally, but internally? Am I willing to live not only intentionally, but with forms that come clear over time?

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This has to do with “aliveness” as described by Sean D. Kelly in a beautiful essay. “There are things that you know must be said,” he writes, “that are necessary, even though you don’t know why. And only later, in your later years, will the necessity and the significance of those statements become clear. Because you grow into them, or they grow into you. Or both.”

Sometimes an inconvenience invites us into something larger than we could explain in the moment; sometimes ease does this too. Sometimes life takes us up in a way we didn’t expect, and we ride the bumps, drink up the view, and later come to understand what we were doing. This is perplexity; this is prosperity. I think of Marianne Moore: not only “What Are Years?” but also “Poetry” and its revisions. Words, even those set down on paper or screen, do not stay still; they turn and glow, catching us off guard. Those startlements hold ease and unease; things seem brilliantly clear, “but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had.” There is simply no saying, yet there is; saying and silence join and then part ways again. For now, that’s all I have to say.

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I took all of these pictures in Jerusalem, except for the second, which I took in Jaffa (of my friends Elenor and Jenny walking together), and the sixth, which someone–Marcy, I think–took of me (in Jerusalem, just a few meters west of the Western Wall).

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

Days of Joy

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senechal-ad

I thank Columbia Secondary School for a joyous weekend of the musical In the Heights. My friends Deb and Eric came down from Peabody, Massachusetts (north of Boston) to see it with me. We went on Friday and Saturday nights; I was planning to go again today, but since all three shows were sold out in advance, I decided to release my tickets so that someone else could see it. The students put full spirit  into the show–and brought out the pulses of the Washington Heights neighborhood itself. At times the musical seemed to open up into my daily life and the lives of those around me.

The above letter went into the program (as a little ad); when I wrote it, I didn’t know whether my friends would be able to come down, but sure enough, they did. Besides attending the shows, we walked in Fort Tryon Park, rode the train downtown to Katz’s Delicatessen, feasted, talked, and laughed.

After last night’s show, on our way back to the subway station, we saw some men working on a new storefront on St. Nicholas Avenue. The sparks mixed with the memories of the musical.

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One of the chapters in my new book is about joy: how people often associate it with outward cheer, but how it often accompanies difficulty. I thought about how this applied even to such an enjoyable weekend. In the Heights has difficulty and sadness: death, loss, failures, disappointments, stress. But the rapturous music and the characters’ spirited goodwill lift the story into beauty. I realized just now that the musical doesn’t have a single villain. Yet at the same time it’s anything but pat and rosy; it shows people in subtle conflicts, internal and external, short and long.

Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” has been in my mind for years, day after day, but it seems especially appropriate now.

… satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
nnnnn This is mortality,
nnnnn this is eternity.

What Is Joy, and What Is Joy in Learning?

This morning I read a piece by Annie Murphy Paul titled “Fostering Joy, at School and at Work.” She begins by describing the efforts of Menlo Innovations to create a joyous workplace (a great success, according to the CEO). Unsatisfied with the unscientific nature of this report, Paul then turns to research by the Finnish educators Taina Rantala and Kaarina Määttä on the subject of joy in schools. They conclude that (a) “teacher-centric” instruction does not foster joy (in their words, “the joy of learning does not include listening to prolonged speeches”), whereas student-centered instruction does; (b) students are more joyous when allowed to work at their own pace and make certain choices about how they learn; (c) play is a source of joy; and (d) so are collaboration and sharing. Before taking apart these findings (which hold some truth but are highly problematic), let us consider what joy is.

Joy is not the same as cheer, happiness, or even enjoyment. It does not always manifest itself in smiles and laughter. It is a happiness that goes beyond regular happiness; it has to do with a quality of perception—of seeing and being seen, of hearing and being heard. When you suddenly see the solution to a geometry problem, you are also seen, in a way, because your mind has come forward in a way that was not possible before. When you listen to a piece of music that moves you, it is as though the music heard you as well. Joy has a kind of limitlessness (as in “Zarathustra’s Roundelay” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra) and stricture (as in Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?”). One thing is clear about joy: when it comes, it marks our lives. It is not to be dismissed.

So, let us look at the first of the research conclusions cited by Paul: that “teacher-centric” learning does not foster joy. My personal experience contradicts this flat out: some of my greatest joy in school (K-12, college, and grad school) happened when I was listening to a teacher or professor who had insights into the subject. The listening was not passive; to the contrary, it woke up my mind. Likewise, as a teacher, I have known those moments when students are listening raptly—not necessarily because of something I have done, but because the subject itself is so interesting.

Of course, students need a chance to engage in dialogue as well. I am not advocating for one-way discussion. Nor do I consider a lecture necessarily “teacher-centric”; it may be the most “student-centered” thing the students have encountered all day, in that it gives them something interesting to think about. Or maybe it is subject-centered. Whatever it is, there is no need to rush to put it down. Take a closer look at it first. Consider the great freedom of listening–and the great gift of something to listen to.

Working at one’s own pace—yes, there may be joy in finding one’s own velocity and rhythm. But in the higher grades, this normally takes the form of homework. In the classroom, one is discussing the material; such discussion can meet several levels at once. In a discussion of a literary work, for instance, some students may be puzzling through it for the first time, whereas others may be rereading it and noticing new things. The class comes together in discussion—but outside of class the students may indeed work at their own speed and in their own manner (while also completing assignments on time).

(I can already hear someone objecting that the researchers focused on early elementary school. Yes—and that is how they should present their findings. They should make clear that their research does not comment on “joy” in general—in school or anywhere else. Onward.)

As for play, it too can be well or ill conceived. There is play that leads to amusement, and play that leads to joy. (Amusement is not a bad thing, but it is not joy.) Also, play does not always bear the obvious marks of a game, although it can. There is play in considering an untried possibility or taking an argument to its logical conclusion. There is play in questioning someone’s assumptions or taking apart an overused phrase. My students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, is full of play of different kinds—and it’s also intellectually serious. An academic essay can be filled with play in that the author turns the subject this way and that. If you are immersed in a subject, you end up playing with it. Thus, when there is no play in a classroom, something is wrong, and joy is probably absent—but this doesn’t mean that students should be playing “algebra badminton” (whatever that is—I just made that up) every day.

As for the researchers’ last point—about collaboration and sharing—yes, those can be rewarding. But did the researchers consider how much joy can also come from working alone, or, even better, from a combination of solitude and collaboration? As long as I can remember, I have loved to sing with others, but I don’t think that would have had meaning if I didn’t also sing alone, in private. It is there that one comes to know the song. If you have ever gone out into the woods to sing—or even sang quietly while walking to the subway—then you know what it is like. It seems sometimes that the song must be solitary in order to exist at all. I am only touching on this subject, which I have discussed at length elsewhere; in any case, sharing and collaboration are only a part of joy.

Joy is not always happy. The other day I experienced joy when reading “Winky” by George Saunders. The ending was so unsettling and perfect, so beautiful in its botching of a plan, that I cried “yes,” in not so many words. Maybe joy is a kind of wordless “yes.”

 

Note: I made a few minor edits after the initial posting; on February 6, 2017, I made a few more.

The Importance of Saying Nothing

A piece about saying “nothing” seems like a contradiction, since the words preclude the “nothing” in themselves. But there is a “nothing” worth considering in words. It is the “nothing” of taking things into the mind without pushing anything out immediately: of spending an evening reading, thinking,  listening to music, working on a problem, or talking with a good friend. For those who write and blog frequently, it can be difficult to seize such “nothing.”  

Writers sense pressure to put something forward, over and over. They think they’re supposed to have something to say, day after day, even if it isn’t substantial. Supposedly, through scraping their feet on the surface of things, they will make a mark over time. Unfortunately, that sort of scraping will not be remembered in fifty years.  To have something to say, you must build it; to build it, you need to be quiet for long intervals. We are nervous about taking that time.  

The problem is not particular to the Internet era. The writer’s “voice” always risks crumbling into noise. Part of this is due to our culture of “empowerment,” which tells people to believe in themselves and to show this by putting themselves forward. Aspring writers are told to write, write, write—and publish, publish, publish. Practice is good, of course, but silence is also practice. We do not hear enough about the importance of slow research and reading, of holding the pen (or pattering fingers) still, or waiting before publishing a piece.  

What happens to the writer who takes the time to read and think? The view widens; objects come into clearer focus and arrangement. Patterns, rhythms form in the mind; phrases come back to memory. The writer sees how much has been said before—and instead of being intimidated, he or she perks up. The challenge now is not to churn things out but to join this interchange. I want to speak with Epictetus about his purple thread, with Ralph Waldo Emerson about the “glass tripod,” and with William Butler Yeats about “the winds that blow through the starry ways.” Of course, this will not take the form of interviews; I am not concerned with their explanations or motives, nor could I ask about them even if I wished. Rather, such conversation will show itself in a stronger sense of language, of rhythms and thoughts that have come before me.  

A bit of quiet allows a person not only to take things in but to form sound ideas and opinions. Sometimes we don’t know what we think about an event, policy, or tendency; while there is no harm in putting forth a hypothesis, a tentative view, it is sometimes even more satisfying to wait and see. One can treat oneself to reserve as though to a jewel.   

A carefully formed opinion can be both strong and tranquil. In 1931, Henry McBride wrote in the New York Sun: “Dr. Valentiner … has the typical reserve of the student. He does not enjoy the active battle of opinion that invariably rages when a decision is announced that can be weighed in great sums of money. He gives his opinion firmly and rests upon that.” (Marianne Moore quotes this in her poem “The Student.”) This restfulness is liberty, a house.  

Granted, writers are not made for vows of silence. They are garrulous at heart—or some are (most generalizations about writers are wrong). If they are fortunate, they have something to say and know how to say it well. But under their writing, some pressure of knowledge and discernment must build. It must swell up until the right phrases take shape and other possibilities fall away. That’s worth a bit of quiet, a gentle tumbling out of date and out of fame.