Attainment and Transition

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I have been thinking about attainment and transition in writing: how, when you complete a work–a poem, essay, book–and then later, when you publish it, you both reach a point and push beyond it. Sometimes the very act of publishing takes you to a new perspective; if you were to rewrite the work at this point, you might make some changes (or do something different entirely). The proportion of attainment to transition varies from situation to situation; some works are primarily attainments, others transitions or openings. Neither one is superior to the other; the work that reaches finality is not necessarily more perfect or more worthwhile than the one that opens up changes and new considerations. To the contrary: sometimes the more restless work has the greater liveliness.

Regarding this topic, I sense a cultural difference between the U.S. and Hungary. In the U.S. there is great emphasis on treating your published work as final and perfect; who ever goes back and revises a TED talk, for instance? For a work of nonfiction especially, you are supposed to isolate your “talking points” and say them again and again, in interview after interview. It is uncommon to hear someone say, “My thoughts on this subject have changed,” or “I have altered the wording since the book was published.” Yes, you fix mistakes, but you are otherwise expected to stick to your points. With poetry and fiction, the situation is similar: publishers do not typically want to consider works that have appeared before, even if the author has since revised them. (Part of this has to do with copyright law and economy: publishers compete for “first rights.”)

Here in Hungary I sense something different. My impressions are early and incomplete–I have a lot to learn and take in–but so far I see much less emphasis on finality and newness and much more on seeking, rethinking, and reworking. At least this is what I have found so far. Maybe I found it because I was alert to it. It is all too easy to generalize about a country or to mistake one’s early impressions for the whole. Still, the fragments themselves are promising.

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The poet, playwright, screenwriter, and prose author János Térey (whom I heard twice on Thursday) said in an interview in 2016, “Jó társaság átírni mindig verseinket. Úgy fogom fel, hogy ameddig élek, az utolsó kézvonás joga az enyém.” I would translate this approximately as follows: “It is good fellowship to rewrite our poems continually. As I understand it, as long as I live, the right to the last penstroke is mine.” “Kézvonás,” as I understand it, means a pulling of the hand (i.e., with a pen, over paper), so I translated it as “penstroke” (since “handstroke” has a different meaning); another possibility might be “move,” as in a chess move. I am not sure that I translated the first sentence correctly, but if I did, the meaning may be as follows: revision is fellowship (or company, or society) in itself, since it keeps you in dialogue with your work. It also allows for fellowship with others.

Large revisions are not always more important than small ones; sometimes an adjusted line, a single word change along with an altered word order, can recast an entire poem. Why should a person hold back from trying such changes, if they start growing in the mind?

Some might say that if you are allowed to revise a work as many times as you wish, you never have to take responsibility for your words. This would be true, I think, if, after revising, you erased every trace of the previous versions. But if the previous versions still stand, if they remain in published form, you are still responsible for them in some way, perhaps even more than if you did not change them at all. If you think it is wrong to revise published work, then in essence you relinquish it (“it’s done, it’s out there; what can I do but move on?”). But if you continue to revise your work even after publication, then you extend your responsibility; you not only live with your words but continue to work with them.

I consider Mind over Memes (to be released tomorrow) a better book, but also a more transitional one, than Republic of Noise. It brought me to a different place in my thinking and writing. If I were to revise Republic of Noise, I would make some changes but keep most of the text intact. If I were to rework Mind over Memes, it might become an entirely different book–either that, or it would lead to another one. That does not count against it; rather, it’s part of the book’s meaning. It was meant to open up into questions, and it did, for me at least. It remains to be seen what others think of it.

Probably many will see the actual book before I do; my copies have been held up in customs. I hope they arrive soon. Customs here can be tricky; I have yet to receive a scarf (my own scarf, not an ordered item) for which I completed and returned the customs form several weeks ago. The books may take even longer. The ones held up now are my own copies, but I ordered about thirty more copies for book events. I now more fully understand the meaning of “suspense”–not fully, that is, but more fully than before.

 

I took both pictures in Szolnok this past week. The second one reminds me of several lines from a poem; more about that, possibly, another time. Also, I added a paragraph and made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

Is one ever too busy to think?

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It happened with the first book too: after everything is off to press, I find some delightful sources that, had I read them earlier, I would have quoted and discussed. That’s the inevitable result of working on a book: it opens up subjects that don’t close up along with your deadlines.

First, in his scathing article “The Naked and the TED,” Evgeny Morozov describes the “takeaway” as “the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think.” That’s great. My only qualm is that I don’t think people are really too busy to think; rather, they don’t want to think and use the busyness to excuse this. (We all do this with things we don’t want to do.) I’ll get to that in a moment.

Also, Dave Stein’s terrific blog Lex maniac–which examines “expressions that have entered and established themselves in everyday language in the last thirty years”–observes that the takeaway “refers to the main point you want to drive home but shifts the focus to the receiver of the message from that of the sender. The important thing is not what you say, but what your listeners remember.” In other words, a takeaway produces results, or rather, it is the result. It is the mental product that people carry away from a speech, book, advertisement, or other way of conveying something. (I have no excuse for not reading Lex maniac earlier–I was told about it more than once–but now I visit it often.)

Many people, especially in Hungary, have asked me, “What does ‘Take Away the Takeaway’ mean?” (That’s the title of this blog and of the first chapter of Mind over Memes.) I explain that I am not arguing to get rid of takeaways but rather to remove them temporarily to see what lies below them: what uncertainties, questions, subtleties, and extensions. In other words, don’t let the takeaway replace the larger subject. Like the birds in the photo below, look it up and down; examine it from different parts of the crate. (The birds–maybe flycatchers of some kind?–are a little hard to see, but they’re at the edge of the wooden crate in the foreground. One is looking up, the other down.)

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But back to the question of being too busy to think. No one can do everything, but people find ways to make time for the things they really want to do. No matter how busy you are, there are ways to fit things in and cut other things out. Those who say, “I really want to write; I just don’t have time” have chosen to do other things besides write. The same applies to playing an instrument, reading, or any other voluntary, ongoing activity or action. This is true even for people raising children; even in the most hectic years, many parents make (or find, borrow, conjure, steal, or glean) time for writing, music, and other things.

Now, finding the time for something can involve some big choices and even sacrifices. For any serious writing, I need stretches of time. I don’t work well in small snatches here and there, even though those can supplement the larger work. When writing a book, I have needed to take time off from teaching (which meant leaving my job at the time, since there were no sabbaticals or other leaves that accommodated what I wanted to do.) In contrast, I have not been in the routine of practicing cello lately. I do not like “sort of” playing; if I am going to play, I want to practice two hours a day–and that is a big commitment among others. I already have substantial commitments, including musical commitments, in my time outside of work, so I have chosen not to add more. I do want to return to cello–but at a time when I am willing to set other things aside for it. (“You sure seem to have time for your blog,” someone might say. Yes, that’s part of the point; I choose to have time for it.)

The same holds true for thinking. Yes, a day can leave little room for extended thought, but it’s up to an individual whether or not to find the openings. This choice depends on many things. There are temperamental differences: some people feel uncomfortable when sitting with their own thoughts, whereas others feel something missing if they don’t take time for contemplation, analysis, rumination, play. There are also practices, habits, rituals of thinking, which can be built over time; someone unused to wrestling with a geometry problem may find it frustrating at the outset, whereas someone who does it every day may relish it and seek out trickier problems.

For me, different kinds of thinking need different forms and settings; I enjoy thinking during bike rides but do a different kind of thinking when sitting at the computer, and still other kinds when reading a book, listening to music, or writing a poem.

So then, given the voluntary nature of thought, given the possibility of finding time for thought even in a busy schedule, why does there seem to be a growing cultural impatience with thinking? Why is a “thinker” even viewed as a social nuisance, the one who ruins the fun?

I would attribute at least some of this to the rise of “thinking-lite,” a stand-in for independent thought. It’s a way of having your cake and being told you just had broccoli, or quasi-broccoli. Institutions like TED and media such as Twitter give their audience the sensation of learning something new or participating in something smart. They offer some kind of takeaway. That is all very satisfying, until you realize that these nutritional nuggets were often nothing other than candy.

There are exceptions. Here and there, you will find a TED talk that takes the audience into the subtleties of a subject. Stephen Burt’s talk “Why People Need Poetry” does that, a little–though if he had stayed with one poem, he could have done more. It’s a talk about poetry in general; to its great credit, it ends with something other than a takeaway. It invites the audience to look and listen beyond the usual.

So to make more “time” for thought, a society must raise it up as an honorable thing: it must show, through classes, programs, books, and speeches, what it means to work toward greater understanding, to question assumptions, to find clear language, to return to old works and ideas, to gaze into art, to separate the known from the unknown in science, and to bear with not knowing for sure what you will get out of it all.

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I took these photos in Szolnok. On rainy days it almost looks like fall. But here’s a sunny day, below (also in Szolnok, by the Tisza river). Fall is not the takeaway, nor is rain.

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

Birches and Books

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William Blake got something right in his ruminative “Auguries of Innocence“:

The Princes Robes & Beggars Rags
Are Toadstools on the Misers Bags
A Truth thats told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent
It is right it should be so
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know<
Thro the World we safely go

What a strange and persistent poem; it seems like a long procession of lanterns. I think of it in light of the sad international news of the past few weeks, the joys in my life, the mixture of meanings everywhere.

Today many students were out of the classroom, attending a special event, so I took my eleventh-grade classes to the park, where we went in different directions, looked at something for five minutes, and then converged again to show each other what we had seen. In one session I found roses blooming upward; in another, a weeping birch in the wind.

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During this time, things have been coming along with the book, which now has a jacket design:

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To top it all off, or to lift it up from the foundation, the CONTRARIWISE copies arrived here in Szolnok today! A copy goes to each of the contest winners from my school, another one to the school, and one to me. CONTRARIWISE prevails. I will say more soon.

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Panaceas and Toxins (and Their Discontents)

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Throughout my adult life (and some of my childhood as well), I have objected to the worship of panaceas and toxins, which now has reached screeching peaks in private, social, and political life. There’s a human temptation to swoon before all-encompassing solutions and all-destroying poisons, or things that claim such status. In reality, grand solutions and grand destructors are rare; most things fall short of such extremes.

I have known people who believed in a single answer to all of life, be it Amway, herbal medicine, or a political stance. Similarly, I have seen national leaders blame a single enemy (say, George Soros or the media) for many if not all of the country’s ills. I have seen self-help books by the dozens that claim to help you get rid of toxic people, find your true fulfillment in six steps, and so forth.

It is easy to see how sweeping solutions can do more damage than good. It’s more difficult to figure out why they have such wide and profound appeal. Part of the reason is obvious: people want answers for the difficulties they encounter in life. Big answers seem to promise big relief. But there’s a more fundamental reason: such solutions offer their believers an identity. If you believe in a panacea, then you automatically become part of the in-group, not part of the problem. Likewise, if you call out a “toxic” person or thing, then you are one of the non-toxic, one of the worthy members of humanity. In both cases, you get to identify with a group of “acceptables” and to join with them against the enemy. Such group membership, whether subtle or overt, offers definition and comfort.

No one escapes this entirely. Probably everyone, at some point, has subscribed to some solution or pinpointed some enemy. Nor is this always wrong; such clarity and simplicity can allow for important action. The danger, or part of it, lies in doing this for the sake of an identity rush or a sense of vindication. Identity does not come from here, and vindication can bring new grief.

Worldviews that depend on panaceas and toxins leave no room for “discontents”–that is, those who object and those who fail to be contained. Throughout history, the dissident who has said “I am not contained, and I refuse to be contained, in this plan of yours” has revealed an ideology’s narrowness and insistence on conformity. There are dissidents today whom few recognize as such; they speak courageously against false formulas. (I do not herald myself as one of these; to be a dissident, I would need to speak up a bit more.)

A few of the essays in Mind over Memes–“Take Away the Takeaway,” “Social and Unsocial Justice,” “The Toxicity of ‘Toxic'” (also the title of a blog post), “In Praise of Mixed Mindsets,” and “A Good Misfit”–challenge our penchant for big solutions and ostracisms. I take it up elsewhere as well: for instance, in “The Folly of the Big Idea.”

Yet my contributions are minuscule compared to what has been done; literature, by its nature, resists reduction, whether subtly or explicitly, whether thematically or through its syntactic turns. I think of the ending of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge:

Her teaching had a reflex action upon herself, insomuch that she thought she could perceive no great personal difference between being respected in the nether parts of Casterbridge and glorified at the uppermost end of the social world. Her position was, indeed, to a marked degree one that, in the common phrase, afforded much to be thankful for. That she was not demonstratively thankful was no fault of hers. Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transmit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers. But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who had deserved much more. And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquility had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.

Here Hardy does much more than to say that “people can find sustained happiness in adulthood, even after unhappy childhoods.” He takes the reader through subtlety after subtlety: Elizabeth-Jane recognizes her good fortune but is not demonstrably thankful; her life experience does not call for effusiveness, yet she also realizes that others have deserved far more than they received. She is thus “forced to class herself among the fortunate,” but even within this stricture, she wonders “at the persistence of the unforeseen.” Even this tracing of the paragraph does little justice to it; the phrase “Her teaching had a reflex action upon herself” must be understood in light of the previous paragraph, which in turn reflects on what comes before.

I think of many other stories, poems, songs–Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” comes to mind now–that in some way break out of their summaries. When you read them,  you break out of your own, “for here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.”

I took the photo yesterday.  Please click on it for the full-size image; if you zoom in, you can see the stork in flight. At least one stork frequents the Zagyva these days; he (or she) pecks at things in the water and grass, struts around, and soars over the water.