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.

“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.'”

Is Teaching a Calling?

I have wonderful colleagues who describe teaching as a calling; while I ultimately agree that it is, I find the concept perplexing and will try to tease it apart a little. The term “calling” is too easily misunderstood; one must get rid of the false meanings in order to find the true, if there be such.

First of all, what is a calling? The word “vocation” means roughly the same thing (as its etymology suggests), but its adjectival form, “vocational,” is most commonly used in reference to manual and technical trades. (Both “calling” and “vocation” can denote an ordinary occupation or source of livelihood; I will go beyond that here.) A calling, as I understand it, is an internal pull toward an action or a line or work. A person with a calling does not necessarily want to be called and is not necessarily happy when called. Yet there is something right about heeding the call. Alternatives do not seem satisfactory.

Some people think of a calling as something they love to do, something they would rather do than anything else. I am not sure that it has to be that way. For one thing, the calling might not take shape at first. Teaching is not monolithic. Teaching elementary school is profoundly different from teaching high school; teaching literature, from teaching physics. Its nature can vary greatly from school to school as well. A person may be suited to one kind of teaching and not another. So it may take a while for a new teacher to find his or her way.

Is there something, though, that characterizes all teaching and distinguishes it from other professions? I believe that there is; I discuss it in the fifth chapter of my book, where I bring up Plato’s Symposium to shed light on the problems with the New York City workshop model. A teacher is a translator and mediator who brings the subject to the student and vice versa. To do this well, she must go far into the subject or topic to see what it holds, and then must find a way to bring it to her students.

Unfortunately education leaders and policymakers rarely see education in this way. But such a definition of teaching does help explain what a teacher’s calling might be. It can also offer some clarity to teachers who don’t know whether they’re called or not—who think that they probably aren’t called, because they find themselves wanting out or the profession. “I guess I am not called,” they think, “because a teacher who is called would want to stay, no matter what.”

That brings up the question: does it matter whether you are called or not? Or do you just make the best decisions you can, given your conflicting desires and mixed circumstances? If we could live by trial and error alone, then we’d probably be experimenting until the cows came home and longer. In that case, the only reason to stay in a profession would be practical: you gain the experience, and that helps you do a better job. It hardly matters what it is; you just find something that you can do and do it (or do something else instead). But we do not live by trial and error alone, or for practical purposes alone.

There is such a thing as a soul finding its way. It already has a way, but the world knocks it this way and that, off course and back on, and it tries to make sense of this and steer away from garishness and lies. At some point it starts to know itself and grow sturdy in what it does. But that is not the end of it; the work and the soul may still be at odds with each other, and the latter has to keep knocking around for a while, trying to get stronger and clear out a path. That is what’s involved in responding to a calling.

A few things may indicate that this is indeed going on.

First, a teacher who is “called” and who leaves the field will feel out of sorts in some way. Like Arch Makepeace in Tobias Wolff’s Old School, this person will sense something missing—will walk around detached, no longer belonging to the same worlds as before, and will sense a wrong in this.

When I took two years away from teaching to write my book, I was content with the way of life and would gladly have extended it for another year, had financial circumstances allowed it. I then became a curriculum adviser (at my current school) and could have continued in that role, but things took a different course. To help with curriculum, I found myself jumping in and co-teaching a philosophy class, then writing the high school philosophy curriculum for the school, then offering to teach the high school philosophy courses this year. My own choices brought me back into teaching. I found that I had missed it and that I thrived in it. (I also found, once in the full thick of it, that I missed the quiet time, which I have been enjoying this week.)

Second, a teacher with a calling will find a way to the vitality of the work. There is much humdrum stuff in teaching: paperwork and mandates, things that have a purpose but distract from the immersion in subject matter. The world of education debate and discussion isn’t much better; there’s an awful lot of chatter and very little sustained discourse. Yet the field holds something better than all of this. No matter what the circumstances, it is possible to go farther into the subject matter and learn from others.

In different ways, both teachers and students come to the subject as novices; over time, they become more adept at navigating it but become all the more disarmed by it and opposed to reducing it. That is part of the sadness and joy of teaching. I say sadness because I recognize again and again that I do not live up to the books I teach, do not teach them exactly right, say things in class that I later question and refine, but all the same, somehow, introduce my students to these books and maybe to a way of being alone with them.

David Bromwich writes (in the fifth chapter of Politics by Other Means):

The novice literature instructor was never expected to contribute to the higher learning from a freshman class on Hamlet or Augustine’s Confessions. It was merely assumed that what the instructor had to say would add to the student’s sense of taking part in a conversation larger and other than that supplied by the daily surroundings. This understanding had to do with an acknowledgment of great writing not as familiar and acceptable but as unfamiliar, and worthwhile under a description one can only make for oneself. The tradition that a teacher thought of evoking was an awareness of the impalpable links that bind one person to others remote in time or space, the recognition Burke thought more vital to humanity than any social contract, and which he called “a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art.”

I will return to this passage later, providing more context, when I discuss the fifth chapter of Bromwich’s book. The meaning is subtle: the teacher of a freshman class (like the high school teacher) opens up the way to these books so that the students may find a different way of life in them—not because the literature tells the reader what to think and how to live, but because it draws him or her into something private, something out of the ordinary, and thus into a partnership without social contract, a tradition that comes from not following what others think.

So that’s it, right there: the recognition that the most important part of teaching may lie in its imperfection. Not that a novice teacher’s offerings are equal to those of an advanced scholar; that is not the case or the point. But even the advanced scholar opens up a subject for the students so that they may enter it; the students may misunderstand what the scholar says, and yet, if they take to the solitude behind the words, will learn the most important thing one can learn: that there is more, and that one can come to see it more keenly.

There is the teacher’s calling: whatever it is that says “do not stop opening up the subject for others. Do not complain that you did it poorly. Do it better, but recognize that even your poor offering had value, because once the subject is ajar, it has no end.”

For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.

A Book Club for Overlooked Masterpieces

Cynthia Haven’s blog The Book Haven is one of the richest and most thougthful blogs I have encountered. I love reading her pieces on Joseph Brodsky, Tomas Venclova, Czesław Miłosz, and others. So, it was an honor to see that one of my recent pieces had inspired her to listen to a recording of Tomas Venclova reading his own poetry.

Today, when I visited her blog, I read a post that answered some questions that have been on my mind: How does one draw attention to a book one loves, a book that has been in some way overlooked, and how does one give such a book to others?

Cynthia Haven and Tobias Wolff have found a way to do just that. They created a book club devoted not to the book of the moment, but to overlooked masterpieces. It’s called “Another Look” and will debut on November 12, at Stanford University, with a discussion of William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.

I was so happy to read this news that I trekked out to the local bookstore in Park Slope (about two neighborhoods away from me) to purchase Maxwell’s novel, which I have not read. I rarely have room for book recommendations; I read slowly and am severely backlogged. But this was something too special to pass over.

I hadn’t been out since the storm, except to get coffee, so this was my first stretch of the legs in several days, in the midst of tourist-like residents who were taking photos of fallen branches. Fortunately that was the extent of the damage, from what I could tell, in this part of Brooklyn.

The bookstore didn’t have the novel on its own, but it did have a volume of Maxwell’s later novels and stories, which I gratefully seized (and purchased). I came home and read two of Maxwell’s short stories: “The Man Who Had No Friends and Didn’t Want Any” and “A Fable Begotten of an Echo of a Line of Verse by W. B. Yeats.” Now I know I have a treasure in my hands, or many treasures.

I will read So Long, See You Tomorrow by November 12 so that I can imagine the book discussion. What a great thing for Wolff, Haven, and the other participants to do.

Wolff’s own stories need no recommendation from me–but if anyone wishes for a place to start, I recommend his collection In the Garden of the North American MartyrsHis novel, Old School, has been on my mind a great deal lately. I commented on it recently and may say more about it soon.

Tobias Wolff’s Old School: Truth, Tangent, and Return

After yesterday’s post on yearning and return, I realized I had omitted something that had been on my mind for a long time. Here it is.

If you have not yet read Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School (2003), please read it before reading this piece, which will reveal some of the ending. I also encourage you to put off reading reviews until you have read the book. Though widely praised, it has been strangely misunderstood by some, including Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times. Such are the pitfalls of reviewing: the best reviews draw attention to good work (or preserve us from mediocrity), while the worst sacrifice the book to the reviewer’s own needs and frailties. Few reviewers are consistently insightful; they succumb to their own stuff, as we all do at times. That’s how I see Kakutani’s review. Enough of that.

I am writing about this book because, from the first reading in 2003 through the third and most recent one yesterday, I have been carrying it around in my mind. I pick it up (literally or in the imagination) and return to favorite passages. It says more about education than many an education book; it is part of my own education. It is the ending that seizes me, though everything else builds slowly to it—an ending that seems a tangent but becomes a return and revelation. I will look at this return today.