“How Was It?”

When I come back from a trip–or anything, really–and people ask, “How was it?” I don’t know what to say. “Rich, beautiful, fantastic,” etc.–those are generic words, but if I go into too much detail, I might try anyone’s patience, including my own. Moreover, the most important parts are often the most difficult to sum up. So I put together a slideshow–just a fraction of the photos I took, but a hint of the three weeks. To avoid big downloads and crashes, I put it on YouTube. (I adjusted and re-uploaded it several times; this is the final version.)

Also, I made a short video playlist of musicians I heard on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul. I find myself listening to these songs again and again.

Speaking of “How was it?” yesterday I saw a delightful performance of The Government Inspector, Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s play. The acting, stage set, directing, and the text itself combined into a performance that was part social satire, part panorama of human vice, and part utter silliness and play. I was grateful that that last part, the silliness and play, did not get short shrift; to me, it was the greatest part of all. Afterward there was a discussion with the director, Jesse Berger; the Russian scholar and author Emil A. Draitser; and several members of the cast.

Gogol’s play and the adaptation have the same basic plot: Residents of a small provincial town learn of the imminent arrival of a revizor, or government inspector. They scramble to cover up the town’s far-reaching corruption. In the meantime, Khlestakov, a self-indulgent, imaginative, unsuspecting dandy, has been staying at the inn for a week; once his presence is noted, people assume he is the revizor himself. This plays out hilariously–and in this production, everyone is having fun. But there’s also a sad irony: while believing they are covering up their foibles, the townspeople actually reveal one vice after another, particularly obsequiousness. What seems like concealment unravels into disclosure.

But this does not sum up the play, the adaptation, or the performance; as I was watching, I noticed that each scene, and many moments within the scenes, come across as pictures, po-gogolevski. The wordless scene at the end–the famous “nemaia stsena”–still shifts and staggers in my mind.

This actually brings me back to my trip. The four lessons I taught in Istanbul (to four sections of eleventh-graders) were about the relation between concealment and disclosure in specific works of art, music, and literature: a Degas painting, a Verlaine poem, the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7, a passage from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and Chekhov’s story “Home.” This play would have been a great addition to that syllabus, had there been time for it. In that sense, the study continues.

So my reply to “How was it?” is “Was? No, is.”

Literature Conference in DC!

cuaOnce upon a time, I would not have ended such a heading with an exclamation point. I was weary and wary of literature conferences that focused on newfangled theories and sidestepped the literature. Even at the best conferences, this happened a lot, or so it seemed to me.

I remember listening to someone apply Mikhail Bakhtin’s “chronotope” to Anton Chekhov’s work. There didn’t seem to be much Chekhov there, or even much Bakhtin.  The speaker’s voice would rise in pitch on the last syllable of “khronotop” (Russian). After a while,  all I could hear was “khronoTOP, khronoTOP, khronoTOP.” I held myself together, but as soon as the session was over, I rushed out of the hall and burst out laughing. (I admire Bakhtin but am sometimes giggly about dogmatic Bakhtinians. I have a Bakhtinian parody published on Pindeldyboz.)

Anyway, this conference is about literature. It’s the Twentieth Annual Conference of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW), to be held from October 27-30 at the Catholic University of America. Panel and seminar topics include Milton, Dante and Augustine, humor, poetry translation, Irish poetry, American literature across borders, and David Bromwich’s much-anticipated keynote address, “The Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power.” There will be a poetry reading by Rosanna Warren and Brad Leithauser, a musical performance, and much more.

I will be presenting two papers, reading a poem or two, and leading a seminar (in which I will present a third paper). One paper is on Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose,” another on my translation of Tomas Venclova’s poem “Pestel Street,” and a third on Julio Cortázar’s story “End of the Game.” The seminar, “‘You Must Change Your Life’: The Gesture of Opening in Literature,” features papers by E. Thomas Finan (on Woolf), Ann Marie Klein (on the Iliad), William Waters (on Rilke), and myself.

This should be a great four days. Registration is still open; for details, see the ALSCW website.

“But that was the thing that I was born for.”

marlinWhen I taught English as a Second Language at a middle school in Brooklyn (from 2005 to 2008), I had my students read The Old Man and the Sea, which they adored. One of our liveliest debates was about whether the old man enjoyed being alone; they found that a single textual passage could serve as evidence for either side. Moreover, they found it possible that he could like being alone and not like it at the same time.

For a side project, I had students select and illustrate a favorite quote. This illustration (pictured here) moved me; the student told me I could keep it. The quote reads, “Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for.” Here, in the drawing, you see the skeleton of the marlin against a desolate beach, with driftwood and a restaurant table and chair. The scene looks desolate and broken, but there’s something grand about it too. The marlin’s skeleton looms much larger than the furniture; there’s something beyond what humans know and see. The juxtaposition, too, is interesting: the quote occurs well before this near-final scene. (The final scene, if one can call it that, is of the old man dreaming about the lions as the boy watches him.)

As I looked at this picture again, I began thinking about my students’ work over the years. They have made some remarkable things. I mention here the few that have links.

There was my students’ production of The Wizard of Oz in 2006.

One student wrote a terse, gorgeous poem that I quoted in full (with her permission and her mother’s) in my book, Republic of Noise.

When I began teaching philosophy at Columbia Secondary School, I found myself learning from (and sometimes roaring over) my students’ work. One line I recall often: “What have we here? It appears that I have arrived at exactly the perfect time. For the perfect time is always now.” (Context: the hermit from Tolstoy’s story “Three Questions” walks into a scene based on Gogol’s story “The Nose”; Epictetus and Erasmus’s Folly are also involved.)

Most recently, as readers of this blog know, my students created a philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, and had a great celebration in May. We look forward to an exciting second issue; in early fall, the editors-in-chief will call for submissions and announce contests.

These are all published things, known things, or soon-to-be-revealed things. Much more happens every day–in discussions, on homework assignments, on tests–that goes back into the mind, where it becomes part of other shapes and thoughts.

Why does the approaching new year bring up memories? I think a new year has a way of doing that–especially when it comes at this time of year. I remember my teachers too.


Note: I made an addition to this piece after posting it.

Accuracy of Imagination: Part 2

seizethedayYesterday I examined William Duff’s Essay on Original Genius (1767), with particular attention to the phrase “accuracy of imagination,” which I first encountered in David Bromwich’s A Choice of Inheritance. Today I will consider how “accuracy of imagination” plays out in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. My students finished reading it last week; we had memorable discussions of the ending.

The briliance of this novel has to do with the elusive Dr. Tamkin (among other things). There are plenty of ways for a writer to get Tamkin wrong; Bellow somehow got him right. But whom did he get right, and how did he do this? I will attempt an approximation of an answer.

As I stated yesterday, Duff perceives “accuracy of imagination” as a requirement of philosophical science, where “allocations of ideas will be perfectly just and exact” and “no extraneous ones will be admitted; it will assemble all that are necessary to a distinct conception and illustration of the subject it contemplates, and discard such as are no way conducive to those purposes.” Extending this to literature, I see it as a quality of inevitability—the sense, as one reads, that there is nothing makeshift, extraneous, or compromised.

Seize the Day is the story of a pivotal day in the life of Tommy Wilhelm, a middle-aged man who has lost almost everything, or so it seems—family, dreams, job, money, and pride. He has moved into the Hotel Gloriana on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the same hotel where his father lives. In this same hotel resides the psychologist Dr. Tamkin, who has convinced Wilhelm to speculate in lard with him—and to hand over his remaining seven hundred dollars. Unlike Wilhelm’s father, who has no sympathy for him, Tamkin claims to understand what’s wrong with him and to know how to set things right. Wilhelm doesn’t trust him, doesn’t believe his stories, yet can’t resist placing faith in him. He loses, of course, and this loss propels him to the beautiful and surprising ending.

Who is this Tamkin? He is neither this nor that. He has tinges of Nikolai Gogol’s Chichikov and Vladimir Nabokov’s Quilty but is distinct from them, insofar as he can be distinct at all. Enthusiastic, optimistic, involved in everything, a shrewd wheeler and dealer, yet somehow removed from everyday urgencies, somehow out of reach; full of ludicrous stories and warm understanding, of lies mixed with truth; preposterous, infuriating, endearing, yet vague and easy to lose, this Tamkin could be the stretch of sordid hope—the hope that we know we shouldn’t have but have anyway—yet is too lively to be reduced to that. He is America itself, one might say, but there’s also something Russian and Jewish about him. A “tamkin” is a tampion (a wooden stopper for the muzzle of a gun, or a plug for the top of an organ pipe), but it also suggests the Russian word “tam,” “over there.” (This is morphologically improbable—“tamkin” would not be formed from “tam” in Russian—but the suggestion is still there, as I hear it.)

What is the effect, then, of Tamkin’s disappearance, just when the stocks have fallen and Wilhelm has lost all his money? My students spent some time discussing this. (I just realized, to my dismay, that I left my copy of Seize the Day at school—so I will have to go with memory and whatever quotations I can find.) When Tamkin and Wilhelm leave the brokerage office for lunch, the rye has risen and the lard is holding steady. Of course, Tamkin takes much longer with lunch than Wilhelm would like. When they return to the office building, they see the blind Mr. Rappaport coming out. Rappaport asks Wilhelm to take him across the street to the cigar store. Dismayed, Wilhelm assents. When they return, the lard and rye have fallen, and Tamkin is nowhere to be found.

Wilhelm tries to control himself, to keep from showing tears. He hears someone ask him, “…going away?” Apparently Tamkin had told the man that he (Tamkin) was going to Maine for  summer vacation; the man thought Wilhelm might be going too. Wilhelm enters the restroom and sees a grey straw hat with a cocoa-colored band; he thinks it might be Tamkin’s. (It isn’t.) He returns to the hotel and manages to enter Tamkin’s room; Tamkin is gone, but his pills and books are there. In all of this, Tamkin is still there and not there; there are hints of a physical presence, but he is gone from the hints.

Wilhelm approaches his father for help; his father wants nothing of it. He calls his wife; his wife wants nothing from him but money, and finally hangs up on him. He heads out into the street again and sees a large funeral at a chapel. There, in the pressing crowd, it seems to be Tamkin who is “speaking so earnestly, with pointed shoulders, to someone under the canopy of the funeral parlor.” Then he thinks he spots him at the canopy-pole, “that damned Tamkin talking away with a solemn face, gesticulating with an open hand.” Wilhelm tries to follow him, but he gets pushed and drawn into the crowd, into the chapel, where he forgets Tamkin and instead gets swept into something that I won’t reveal here, since it would be ruined out of context. Several of my students approached me to tell me how moved they were by the ending; one student was disappointed in it. But the ending would be nothing without Tamkin.

It is “that damned Tamkin” who led him there, in more ways than one. My students recalled Tamkin’s earlier words about the “true soul” and “pretender soul”: “In here, the human bosom—mine, yours, everybody’s—there isn’t just one soul. There’s a lot of souls. But there are two main ones, the real soul and a pretender soul. Now! Every man realizes that he has to love something or somebody. He feels that he must go outward. ‘If thou canst not love, what art thou?’ Are you with me?” He goes on to say, “The true soul is the one that pays the price. It suffers and gets sick, and it realizes that the pretender can’t be loved. Because the pretender is a lie. The true soul loves the truth.” All of these truisms spiral down the drain to nothing—or almost nothing. There’s a sliver of substance here, enough to entice Wilhelm.

There is also the eclectic diction. Tamkin’s elusiveness lies not only in his disappearances, not only in his combination of nonsense and wisdom, but also in the strange concoction that is his speech. This is especially clear in the poem he gives Wilhelm—a dreadful four-stanza jingle that is just peculiar enough to be interesting. I will quote the first two stanzas:

If thee thyself couldst only see
Thy greatness that is and yet to be,
Thou would feel joy-beauty-what ecstasy.
They are at thy feet, earth-moon-sea, the trinity.

Why-forth then dost thou tarry
And partake thee only of the crust
And skim the earth’s surface narry
When all creations art thy just?

My students did a good job of pointing out the bad grammar and false archaisms. (They didn’t notice the false archaisms right away, but slowly they caught on.) Beyond the grammar, the bad rhymes and rhythms, and the absurd “Why-forth,” there’s the carelessness with meaning. If it is wrong to “tarry” and “partake thee only of the crust,” what is one to do, then? Hurry up and eat it all? (That’s precisely what Tamkin has been refusing to do.) How does one “tarry” and “skim the earth’s surface” at the same time? But the most perplexing question is: why do I come back again and again to this terrible poem? I come to laugh, yes; I come for the sheer perplexity of it; but I also come to figure out what on earth it is.

The paradox of Bellow’s “accuracy of imagination” is that it has captured a supremely vague entity—or rather, something in between the vague and the specific. I don’t trust Tamkin one bit, but like Wilhelm, I think I glimpse him in a crowd. For reasons I can’t explain, I draw closer to find out; I do not find out, but in all of this I have been interested, even seduced. Despite Tamkin’s garish presence and maudlin meanings, despite my loss of an imaginary seven hundred dollars, there’s a blessing in this seduction.

Wieseltier’s “Going to Melody” and the Language of Lament

We aren’t expected to lament much today. If we have a complaint about the state of things, we’re supposed to back it with data. It will not do, for instance, to say that children don’t have enough time to roam. We must argue, instead, that research has shown that the lack of roaming affects a particular area of children’s brains.

This puts us in a bind. Research has its place, but if it replaces lamentation, we lose something of humanity (and I won’t provide brain data for that). Lamentation has thousands of known years beneath it, and even more unknown years. It has the toughness  of memory and treasure. It is about those things that we will not give up even when the world says we must. It is David weeping for Absalom; it is Jean Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma tourterelle”; it is the narrator in a Gogol story who exclaims, “It’s dreary in this world, gentlemen!” It is private, but its sorrow and roughness reach us. We thirst for those quirky cries so close to our own.

So it was with thirst that I read Leon Wieseltier’s piece “Going to Melody” (The New Republic, February 2, 2012). It’s about the uninspired greed of large businesses such as Amazon—how their “hunger for profit exploits a hunger for meaning.” As they drive bookstores and record stores to the ground, they kill the activities that take place in those stores, particularly browsing. Browsing is the opposite of searching, writes Wieseltier: “Search is precise, browsing is imprecise. When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for.”

Granted, there is browsing within searching and vice versa. But the distinction stands—and there’s still more too it. Browsing makes room for uncertainty and serendipity, for those books we didn’t expect to find, let alone continue reading. Amazon doesn’t have room for serendipity. “After all,” Wieseltier explains, “serendipity is a poor business model. But serendipity is how the spirit is renewed; and a record store, like a bookstore, is nothing less than an institution of spiritual renewal.”

Where’s his evidence? The memories of Melody Records, for instance, which for thirty years stimulated him and “provided a sanctuary from sadness and sterility.” Or his father’s furniture store, where Wieseltier as a boy sold sofas to U.N. people who lived nearby—by talking to them about the crises in Iran and Cyprus. He knows the foe, too: he describes Amazon’s Price Check, the app that allows customers in a bookstore to scan an item’s bar code and transmit the information to Amazon, which then offers a discount if the store’s price stands to compete with its own.

The evidence lies not only in these memories and details, but in the language of the piece, its amblings and rhythms and visions. As I read it, I too experienced a “sanctuary from sadness and sterility.” I found myself in the record store, listening to the advice of the staff, enjoying this song, or at the bookstore, picking up a book and reading it without rush. I came in with worries and sadness, which loosened and fell away, and with petty complaints, which fizzled in their silliness. I was not loftier than before, but somehow the piece lifted me a little, the way a parent lifts a child up to the window.

Kudos to Wieseltier for not citing brain research here (or any research, for that matter). It would have taken something away from this piece. Yes, there may be research indicating that our loss of real-life interactions has correlated with an increase in stress. Yes, it may be interesting and important. But the point of such a piece is to say, with full risk of disapproval, that I have lost something dear to me, be it a surprising piece of music or a store my friend owned or a place where I can be renewed and revived.

At least we have not yet lost the language for robust lamentation. Let us take care not to lose it. Let us not ask it to be anything else.