Language and Hyperbole

Last night I had a dream in which a Hungarian person spoke to me in English and I gave a passionate litany, in Hungarian, about why I wanted to speak Hungarian instead. I remember the ending words: “és nagyon fontos számomra, hogy beszéljek magyarul amennyire csak lehetséges!” (“And it is very important to me to speak Hungarian as much as possible!”) My Hungarian has come a long way; I sense it when reading news, reading complex emails with no trouble, participating in conversations on an array of topics, handling a doctor’s appointment, being interviewed for my residence permit, and much more. Yet there is still a long way to go. For instance, the litany could have been a bit punchier, with more colloquialisms.

This is true for everyone. Even at advanced levels, people make mistakes or ignore nuances in foreign languages—that is, languages they didn’t grow up with. English is fairly forgiving of inaccuracy, since so many people from around the world speak English at different levels and in different ways. The language itself stretches to accommodate these levels. Hungarian is like the stone in the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s “Rozmowa z kamieniem.” To get in–to persuade people to speak Hungarian with you at all–you have to be inside the language already, to some degree. Mistakes tend to jar a Hungarian’s ear; Hungarian spoken by a foreigner is a rarity in the first place, except for a tourist’s köszönöm and jó napot. But I love this about Hungarian perfectionism; once you start taking part in it yourself, it’s like playing music; you want to hit the right note even more than others want to hear it.

With a language, you have to get used to going on and on, learning endlessly more and endlessly less, becoming more accurate and flexible in your expression yet still making mistakes, even basic ones, no matter how far you advance. Oh, this makes me think of Nabokov’s Pnin, which I long to reread.

“Information, please,” said Pnin. “Where stops four-o’clock bus to Cremona?”

“Right across the street,” briskly answered the employee without looking up.

“And where possible to leave baggage?”

“That bag? I’ll take care of it.”

And with the national informality that always nonplused Pnin, the young man shoved the bag into a corner of his nook.

“Quittance?” queried Pnin, Englishing the Russian for “receipt” (kvitantsiya).

“What’s that?”

“Number?” tried Pnin.

“You don’t need a number,” said the fellow, and resumed his writing.

Fluency does not come quickly; it goes beyond the highest levels at school. You can be advanced according to the tests but still far from fluent. People used to exaggerate my language knowledge, calling me fluent in Russian when I really was not. I never mastered the Russian verbs with their many prefixes, my vocabulary had gaps, and there were many colloquial expressions I never heard. But because few in the U.S. spoke Russian at all, even conversational proficiency came across as fluency. In graduate school, most of our courses were in English. Only one or two professors taught in Russian. We were allowed to write our essays in English (though I wrote some in Russian); our oral exams and dissertations were in English too, except for quotations.

In college, graduate school, and afterward, I had some opportunities to travel to Russia; I just didn’t take them. I had a strong desire to stay put for a while. For years, going abroad for a long time didn’t hold much appeal, since it had already been a big part of my childhood (we lived in the Netherlands for a year when I was ten, and in Moscow for a year when I was fourteen). It was only later that I wanted to live abroad again—here, where I am now.

Three years in, I am happily in the thick of it all, with heapingly much to do, projects galloping through the mind, kind people in my life, and all of this persisting and growing even during Covid. It’s amazing to me that there’s the book of poetry translations, the Orwell project, Folyosó, regular teaching, my synagogue role, and so much more, and the language all around me, taking form in my ears, in silence, in my dreams.

I took these pictures within the past week. The second one, as you may have guessed, is the view from my windows. I love that view and its many changes.

More on “Free Relation”

PushkinBenchOver the past two days I struggled with the post on The Stone Guest and statues; I realized that the topics were too large and the connections too weak. After revising it many times, I finally let it stand. But something came out of it, at the end: the idea that a “free relation” to a statue or other work of art comes through a spirit of learning. It consists of movement beyond misconceptions, limited understandings, and errors; not only that, but it yearns for such movement. It is the opposite of ignorance, which rests on self-satisfaction and becomes a rut. As Diotima tells Socrates in Plato’s Symposium, “If someone doesn’t think he’s in need of something, he can’t desire what he doesn’t think he needs.”

I think about my relation to Pushkin’s novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin, which I first encountered as a fourteen-year-old in Moscow, through Tchaikovsky’s opera. I loved the opera (which I saw as many times as possible) but in a limited way; I saw myself as Tatiana and understood the work primarily from that perspective.

In brief: Tatiana falls in love with Onegin and writes him a letter; he rejects her; he flirts with Olga, Tatiana’s sister, and ends up killing Lensky in a duel; and five years later, he attends a ball in Petersburg, only to discover that Tatiana is married to a prince. He suddenly falls in love with her–and writes her a letter–but she explains her resolve to be faithful to her husband forever. That’s a crude summary, with many details missing, but I was drawn, in any case, to Tatiana’s torment and courage.

While in Moscow, I obtained the sheet music for the opening duet “Slykhali l’ vy” between Olga and Tatiana and practiced it, hoping to sing it beautifully one day. Here’s a recording of a 2011 performance by the Bolshoi Theatre, with Galina Vishnevskaya as Tatiana and Larisa Avdeeva as Olga:

Seeing myself in the opera, I missed a great deal; even when I read the poem that year, I understood it in terms of the opera (which I saw in terms of me). But at least the opera was in my life; I would return to it many times later.

In graduate school, I read the poem carefully and came to see its subtleties, ironies, and play; it had humor and bite that the opera lacked. I learned that Nabokov considered Tchaikovsky’s libretto “an absurdity and an abomination,” full of “vulgar and … criminal inanities.” I thought my teenage enthusiasm for the opera had been naive.

Still later, I came to love and admire Tchaikovsky’s Onegin again, but on different terms. I saw it most recently at the Metropolitan Opera last April and was moved by the entire performance, but especially by Prince Gremin’s aria, performed by Štefan Kocán, in which he tells Onegin of his love for his wife, Tatiana, whom Onegin previously rejected. This aria, rich in life and tranquility, is nowhere in the poem itself; the narrator has some of these words but gives them different meaning. I have found no recording of Kocán’s performance online, but here’s one with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and here’s the sheet music:

I outgrew both the teenage attachment to Tatiana and the later deference to Nabokov (whom I also questioned and satirized, even then). Pushkin’s novel in verse and Tchaikovsky’s opera are two distinct works, each to be taken on its own terms, over a lifetime. Sometimes the understanding is intellectual, sometimes visceral, sometimes learned, sometimes intuitive; but it builds and changes over time. I have much to learn about both works; I returned to them today to see how much I had missed before.

So a “free relation” to art is one that moves beyond error, safety, and limitation. A person returns to a work, learns from it, learns about it, and understands it in a different way from before, all the while staying alert to more. Maybe, like Gremin, the person moves toward simple joy, the joy of not needing to own or sum up what one loves, the joy, sometimes difficult, of living among things that change in beauty and meaning.

Image: Photo of a statue of Pushkin at Tsarskoe Selo. Courtesy of the MadOpera Blog.

I made a few changes 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.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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