“Mama Flan, Mama Flan, free samples!”

mama flan

Along with my most recent walk in Fort Tryon Park, today’s errand-running on Dyckman Street may become a favorite memory of the neighborhood. I was heading home, crossing Dyckman at Sherman, when I heard voices calling “Mama Flan, Mama Flan, free samples!” At first I didn’t believe my ears, since flan is one of my favorite desserts. I don’t think I’ve ever been offered a free flan sample out on the street before. But when I turned my head, I saw two young men sitting behind what looked like a flan stand. I walked up to them, and yes indeed, they were giving away free samples. One taste (or even the preceding hunch), and I knew that wouldn’t be enough, so I got a small flan, pictured above, to be savored and finished within the next two days.

This is the first time that I heard that sweet singsong here in Inwood/Washington Heights, the melody of people selling food and other goods outdoors, usually at a market, but sometimes just out on the street. It brings back memories I’m not sure I have–but sometimes those are the best because of their dreaminess. Whether or not the memories are of real things (and they may well be), the flan is real and delicious, and I may go back for more, if there’s time before I leave the country.

After turning the bend, I took a photo of Arden Street (my street for ten more days, but really six, since I’ll be at the ALSCW Conference for four of them). Fort Tryon Park is ahead, my building to the right, and Sherman Street behind. A little girl was skipping down the sidewalk, but she’s out of sight by now.

arden street

 

“The time is out of joint”

fuseli hamlet boydellThis is the second of my blog posts on the pitfalls of moving on. (See the introduction and first post.)

Hamlet is not about the conflict between moving on and looking back, but it’s tempting to see it that way. It has more to do with the conflict between expedient and many-layered language, but there are thousands of possible tiltings.

Early on in the play, Claudius and Gertrude both press on Hamlet to move beyond mourning; Hamlet, for his part, ensures that they remember precisely what they wish to forget (by staging a play that draws out Claudius’s guilt).

Claudius tells Hamlet (in Act 1, Scene 2):

‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; ’tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool’d:
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! ’tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd: whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died to-day,
‘This must be so.’

His argument has as much baseness as logic: he says, anyone will mourn the death of his parent (as a matter of filial obligation, for a term), but to drag it on too long is a sign of immaturity and unmanliness, a stubborn protest against heaven, man, and nature. All fathers die; Hamlet’s father’s father died too, and his father before him. A father’s death is the “common theme” of heaven, nature, reason, and the dead; what grown man would oppose it?

Hamlet insists on remembering–not by erecting a memorial or delivering a speech, but by giving the lie to others’ evasions and euphemisms. If this were all he did, if he had no internal struggles, he would come across as arrogant–but all this wit takes place within an overwhelmed consciousness. His words to others can be sarcastic (“Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables”), cryptic (“for yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward”), scornful (“Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!”), or teasing (“the age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he gaffs his kibe”). On his own, and with the Ghost, he shows still more capabilities, and near the end, when speaking to Laertes and Horatio, still more. His knowledge goes beyond what he knows.

He stages a play, The Murder of Gonzago, into which he inserts his own lines; he not only instructs the actors and arranges the event but provides his own commentary during the performance itself. It is precisely after his explanation (“He poisons him i’ the garden for’s estate. His name’s Gonzago: the story is extant, and writ in choice Italian: you shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife”) that the King cries out, “Give me some light: away!”

It is easy to ally oneself with Hamlet and decry the Claudiuses of the world, those who brush over their actions with the rhetoric of “moving on.” We hear plenty of that rhetoric in politics and workplaces, and it doesn’t inspire trust. In December 2016, in response to inquiries about Russian meddling in the election, Trump said that “we ought to get on with our lives”; he has said similar things since. But the phrase is not purely Trumpian; it’s common coinage. In workplaces after mass layoffs, the managers speak of “going forward”; at least two distinct advice books have the title Moving Forward.

Still, any alliance with Hamlet is artistic, not literal; we can find ourselves in Hamlet again and again, yet no one of us is Hamlet, and the play’s conflicts do not map exactly onto life. Hamlet’s integrity lies not in “looking back,” but in seeing that “the time is out of joint” and seeking “to set it right.” He is endlessly complicated; he goes about things in circuitous ways, evading questions, concocting elaborate scenes, and killing the wrong person. I find an odd comfort in his ruminations, but it is not the “useful” comfort of a sweater. It stays slightly at odds with uses.

Moreover, while the play allows us to believe that Hamlet is not wrong “in the main” (Claudius did kill King Hamlet, and the Ghost was seen first by others), with a little twist of the mind, he could be catastrophically wrong. Suppose his father had died a natural death, yet he imagined Claudius the killer and sought his life. Suppose, moreover, that Claudius had gained the throne legitimately. Hamlet would then threaten not only the stability, not only the people, but even the laws and principles of the state.

Therefore, while one can look to Hamlet for poetry, tragedy, and personal resonance, one cannot look to it for direct life lessons. When it comes to “moving on” and “looking back,” the play offers no guidance. Hamlet offers a language of grappling, but not an answer. There can be no absolute answer; any life moves backward and forward, right and left, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, sometimes with long pauses.

In the last post on this topic I will talk about the zigzags of return and progress.

Image: Robert Thew, after Henry Fuseli, Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus, and the Ghost (1796). Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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

 

 

The Pitfalls of Moving On

summer instituteThis is a brief introduction to an upcoming series of posts. I have noticed a widespread tendency to speak of “moving on” as though it were inherently superior to staying still or looking back. (I am not referring in any way of the organization MoveOn but rather to the colloquial expression and the assumptions behind it.) “Moving on,” people will say, with that nudge of the chin, or “Let’s move on,” or “Time to move on.”

Of course, sometimes it is good to move on, just as it is good sometimes to contemplate the situation at hand or to remember something from the past. Yet each stance on its own, without its counter-perspectives, can lead to disaster. To insist on moving on is to insist on first impressions and superficial interpretations; if you cannot stop to think about what has happened, your understanding will reflect this rush. On the other hand, dwelling in memory can distort the memory itself (and leave you without food); it can isolate you from those who carry different memories. Contemplation of the situation at hand can unravel into infinite complexity; where do you stop? When do you gather up  your thoughts and proceed?

Progress, contemplation, and memory must combine–that’s easy to say–but the challenge lies in finding the right combination, which will vary from situation to situation and from person to person. Each tendency has gifts and dangers. But “moving on” as an expression and phenomenon deserves some special critique, since it has received a bit too much unquestioned approval.

In the next post, I will consider what it means to return to a work of literature.

I took this photo at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

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.

Yearning and Return in Education

It’s already an old joke that the good old days of nostalgia are long gone: that once upon a time it was honorable to look back longingly at the past, but no longer. There’s truth in it; in education discussion I often hear people fault others for harking back to a golden age that never was. Bad, bad, they say; we must stay grounded in facts. Mr. Gradgrind (from Dickens’ Hard Times) works his way into many an argument.

It is dangerous, of course, to paint the past as golden, but there are reasons why we yearn for the past sometimes. We shouldn’t be so quick to push such yearning away. For me, the fall is usually a time of yearning. I find room and urge to take walks, watch the leaves leap and sweep over the sidewalk, and assemble past autumns in my mind. Details work their way in as well: a ribbon on the ground, a cat surveying the neighborhood, or the color of a coat.

As a teacher, I return to the classroom and see the students a little older and taller, excited to tackle books that I first read in high school, and I remember my own teachers and the way they spoke. The beginning of the school year comes with reminiscence. There’s a ceremonial feeling to it, even amidst the confusion of rooms and schedules; when you address each class for the first time, you remember layers of first days.

I remember a high school assembly at the start of my ninth-grade year. The teachers were seated on the stage. One of them, I knew, had gone through a divorce; I wrote in my diary (which I no longer have) that I saw a look of pathos on her face. In retrospect, I doubt it was pathos (I discovered later that she had irrepressible wit), but the word “pathos” was part of that day for me.

Part of the point of education is to learn to select what is good, to bring it into one’s life, and to pass it on; this requires knowledge, discernment, and feeling. Memory helps us make such selections. Those works that come back to us many times over the years, or that suddenly open up on the second or third reading, have a little more to them, in our minds, than the ones we read and forget. With the memory comes a bit of longing. I think back on the Southern Literature course I took in high school, and the advanced verse writing seminar in college; I have often wished to return to those rooms, and have carried a hint of them into my teaching.

By this I don’t mean that people should rely on their memories for guidance. What I hold dear from my high school years may not have been quite as I remember it, nor is it necessarily good for every student. Still, I carry something of the spirit of it, and must do so; it is precisely through holding my past that I can play with it in the present, even transform it.

Andrew Delbanco understands this well. His extraordinarily thoughtful book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (2012) looks back to earlier eras not to portray them as perfect, but to capture their meaning and wisdom. His book resists alarmism and paeans to good old days, but still looks back with nostalgia—wise, temperate nostalgia. I wouldn’t do his book justice with a short quotation here; I hope to write more about it another time.

The literary works that make their way into our memory, the ones that follow us around, contain this treasuring and pondering of the past. What would Job’s lamentations be without this treasuring and pondering? What would Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” be without it? How can a student or a teacher approach this literature without understanding what it means to think back, sometimes with sadness or rage, sometimes with wistfulness or wit?  Why the cultural pressure to regard the past with a cold eye and move on?

Many young people understand the importance of looking back and yearning. They need adults who understand it too and who can help them make sense of the past. They need to find that promising terrain between sentimentality and dismissiveness. Through literature, they learn to store language in memory; through history, they learn to guard against memory’s distortions.

The point is not to live in the past, but rather to hold it, turn it, contemplate it, change one’s mind about it, reconsider it again, forgive it, and sometimes, when necessary, leave it behind.