Dear Beck: I Draw You a Circle

circleDear Beck,

Don’t worry, I’m not writing to you about divorce, shapeshifting, or Scientology. This isn’t even about your music, although it might inadvertently touch on a song or two. If you’ve ever had a summer afternoon when, finding your soul sucked dry, you head down to your rowboat to splash your oars for a while and pay no mind to the fakery of politics and love, the painted eyelids, the accusations, and Lord only knows what other dead melodies; if, even when rowing, you find yourself trapped in a broken train of thought, so you pull back up to shore, get out, walk a little ways, and sit down by the side of the road, only to see an ambulance taking an emergency exit onto a sidestreet a few feet from you, missing your outstretched arm by a hair; when you remember you had promised to call a friend, and you reach into your pocket, only to discover that your cellphone’s dead and you’re condemned to rely on yourself, a necessary evil for which you will stay unforgiven by your own soul until sunrise; when you walk to the town park, sit down on a bench, and stay up all night trying to see through the dark places both inside and outside yourself—when all of this and more has occurred, you may just happen to be ready for what I am about to tell you: things could be worse, better, or in between.

I’m sure you’ve heard people say that things could be worse. And indeed they could. Take any mishap and multiply it by two, five, or ten. Throw in some unexpected bullshit. Mix it all with a rotten mood. And that’s only the beginning. There are many other roads toward worsening, which I won’t bring up right now because that would be depressing, and I’m about to switch to the next point: things could be better.

Yes, things could be better. Everyone has something that they wish they had more of, or less of, or that they wish they could care more about, or less about. More is not always better, and less is more, so less is not always better either. That right there is the problem. When trying to make things better (because they could be better), we often don’t know whether to aim for more or less, and of what in particular. If we knew exactly how to make things better, we would probably go for it. But oftentimes, when trying, we get it wrong, causing new problems in the process.

So far, all of this is fairly intuitive. I’m sure you have not only followed my logic, but arrived at it on your own long ago. But now we’re coming to the jawdropper, the dazzler, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Things could also be somewhere in between better and worse—that is, sort of as they are, but with a few gives and takes. It’s a bracing possibility. Think about it. When hoping for things to get better, many of us fear that they actually won’t. This fear holds some truth; life does have its letdowns. Likewise, when fearing that things will get worse, many of us hope that they won’t. This hope, too, has a connection to reality; bad things don’t always happen. So basically a person could live, all the time, in some combination of hope and fear. But in that middle place, you don’t really need either one. There’s nothing to hope for, because it already is. There’s nothing to fear, because it has already happened.

That middle place is the worst of all, you might say. It’s limbo, apathy, indecision, rot. Well, it might be. But if that’s the case—and I believe you are right, if that’s what you believe—then the hopes and fears aren’t so bad after all. They have something to do with being alive.

So let’s backtrack from the park bench. While sitting there, you saw lightning, and it kind of freaked you out, but not much, because in the moment that you cried out for your dear life, you realized that life was in fact dear to you, and that illumination cheered you up. So now it’s morning, and even though you’re feeling a tad youthless after a night of no sleep, you have no complaints, since old age has its wisdoms and oblivions. As Yeats wrote, “There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.” Hell yes. So you go round the bend, back to the road you were sitting beside before—it’s a beautiful way—and you stop to marvel at the lazy flies zigging and zagging without any sense of rush. This is happiness minus the most important component—but now you know you’re getting there. You see water ahead. You walk to it. You figure, “time to get in the boat and steal my body home.” But the boat is gone—someone stole it in the night—and you feel like you’ve got one foot in the grave. But then you realize, whoa! That means I’ve got feelings! And then it turns out that you had just taken the wrong path to the river. You see your boat tied up where you left it, a little farther along, past some brambles. Even the oars are there. So you get in the boat and paddle it back to the beginning. Or maybe somewhere else entirely.

Sincerely,

Diana Senechal

This fictional piece (which alludes to thirty songs from Beck’s fourteen studio albums) received a complimentary, non-form-letter rejection from a publication that I have enjoyed and respected (and at times railed at) for many years. So I publish it here.

Against Superiority

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When I read about the massacre in the New Zealand mosques (as of now, 49 people have died, and the suspect is a white nationalist), I felt, in addition to sadness and disgust, a renewed rejection of superiority. Superiority and inferiority are part of life, but their absolute forms–the belief that one person or group is better than another–lead to harm.

Belief in superiority is in all of us and sometimes holds truth. One person may be taller (or shorter) than another. One may be better than another in math, or at playing the cello. One person may be kinder, more professional, more generous than another. Specific superiority cannot be wished away; moreover, we are taught to strive for it and seek it out. It is natural to want to hear a good musician rather than a bad one, or to publish a good poem rather than a slipshod assemblage of words.

But all of this has to do with partial superiority: perceived excellence at certain activities, or in certain qualities. It has nothing to do with absolute superiority over another human being or group. As soon as you entertain thoughts of absolute superiority over others because of your skin color, religion, sex, or anything else, you verge on the kind of thinking that has resulted in mass graves. Not only that, but we have learned through history how wrong it is. Why do we keep on forgetting?

I remember a philosophy roundtable I led at Columbia Secondary School, on the topic of privacy. One of the texts I included was Marianne Moore’s “Silence“:

My father used to say,
“Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow’s grave
or the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like the cat—
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse’s limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth—
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint.”
Nor was he insincere in saying, “Make my house your inn.”
Inns are not residences.

I had previously interpreted the tone as somewhat admiring: that the father’s words represent a kind of ideal for Moore or at least the poem’s speaker. But the others at the roundtable were having none of it. They pointed out, for instance, that the father’s words take up almost all of the poem, and that the final line, “Inns are not residences,” suggest the coldness of his view. They also pointed to the beginning of the quote: “Superior people” and the absolute adverbs “never” and “always.” They heard something devastating in the father’s pronouncement on “the deepest feeling.”

That evening somewhat, and later even more, I came to believe that they were right: that the poem’s irony lies in the near-silence of the speaker, and that this near-silence is not “superior” but instead full of pain.

This leads me to thoughts of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which I brought to my students early in the year.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Here too, the quoted speech takes up almost all of the poem–and while it is the “traveller from an antique land” speaking and not Ozymandias, the story leaves the main speaker (the poet) with nothing more to say. But it is easy to get caught up in the “lone and level sands” and forget about something earlier: “Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, / Tell that its sculptor well those passions read / Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things.” The sculptor, the unseen character in all of this, has not only portrayed Ozymandias but read those passions “which yet survive.” The long distance of the sands may come down to nothing.

Yesterday in British civilization class I brought up W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” so often quoted and misquoted, with the famously misunderstood lines: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Those lines about the “best” and the “worst,” taken out of context, may seem to mean that uncertainty is inherently superior to intensity. But that is not it; Yeats (who wrote the poem in 1919) is speaking of a particular lack of conviction, a particular kind of passionate intensity–the latter an extreme certainty, a belief in one’s own authority. Something is taking place that we cannot even see or hear; it has come on us slowly, and now it is all around us. Within all of this, “the best lack all conviction” because the current explanations collapse; even the possibility of a “Second Coming” looms with a question. We, the readers, are guided out of conclusions and into troubling images and thoughts. I see that as one gesture of the poem: away from over-certainty.

If education is for anything at all besides preparing us for the workplace, giving us interesting things to think about, and enabling us to continue learning on our own, then it is for this: reminding us, again and again, through literature, music, art, language, sciences, history, and other fields, that no matter how often we think and feel otherwise, no human stands above another–except in specific respects, and even then imperfectly, just for a time, by way of a passing gift.
Image credit: Anselm Kiefer, The Morgenthau Plan (series of paintings, 2012).

Phases and Counterpoints

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Popular psychology often describes human life in terms of stages: the five stages of grief, the four stages of culture shock, and so on. Such formulations are simplistic and untrue, except as general templates. Our lives cannot be chunked; we may go through phases, but they blend and combine and sometimes appear out of order.

Still there are reasons to mark points in time, to honor life events, whether of the past, present, or future, whether our own or someone else’s. The point is not to dictate joy and sorrow but rather to create a counterpoint. My own thoughts and feelings do not disappear during a ritual, but I hear them alongside something else; in this way they turn into something new. Ritualized mourning will not match my own mourning, nor ritualized celebration my own joy; so the ritual lifts me both out of and into myself.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that one can think of Jewish ritual as “the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.” He notes that the first time that the word qadosh, “holy,” is used in the Bible, it is applied to the seventh day–that is, to time. Shabbat is art and architecture of time in that we ourselves shape it. It is artifice in the best sense of the word; it comes out of intention and imagination.

Jews vary widely in our observance of Shabbat. Many do not observe it at all, many observe it strictly, and many do something in between (or change over time). Differences aside, even an awareness of this day can affect how we go about our lives. It contrasts with our everyday timing, urges, and impulses. Moreover, it is we who have to build it; it has been observed and described for centuries, but we contribute to its structure, not just once, but again and again. We lay down a block or beam; we set a window.

Something similar can be said for other holidays (inside and outside of Judaism). They are ways of honoring and structuring time: not our personal time, but the time of a larger entity.

This Friday and Saturday, as Szim Salom, we celebrated Shabbat Shira, the special Shabbat that includes the Shirat Hayam (the Song of the Sea) in the Torah reading. Shabbat Shira takes place once a year. Traditions vary from place to place, but it is common for the entire congregation to rise for the Song of the Sea and to sing certain verses responsively.

In the cantillation course I took at JTS last year–taught by the wonderful Cantor Perry Fine–we devoted much time to the Song of the Sea because of its importance and complexity. The leader must know how to alternate between regular Torah trope and the responsive melody; moreover, he or she must be steeped in the text, capable of giving it cadence and tone.

800px-Song_of_the_seaFor this responsive reading at Szim Salom yesterday, we made many preparations; on Friday night, after service, we went over the melody and verses; the rabbi spoke about the significance of the responsive verses and their difference from the rest of the text. On Saturday morning, we invited everyone to come up to the scroll to see the Shirat Hayam, which has a different layout from the rest of the text. Before beginning the Torah reading, we reviewed the melody and verses again. From there, things swelled; the reading was truly responsive and joyous. It is not for description here; it happened there and is now wrapped up in memory.

Shirat Hayam (in Chapter 15 of Exodus) tells how Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, which parted left and right for them, and how Pharaoh’s horses, riders, chariots, and captains perished in the waves. While most of the text relates a succession of events, the responsive verses have a sound of eternity. They are part of Jewish (and sometimes Christian) regular liturgy, hymns, and piyutim; people readily recognize verse 15:11, “Who is like unto Thee, O LORD, among the mighty? who is like unto Thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” and 15:18, “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever.”

In this way, right there in the Shirat Hayam, you feel the counterpoint of timelessness and time: a song rising up out of a tale, or a ritual out of history.

As I thought about this, before and afterward, I remembered Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (“That is no country for old men. The young…”) I started thinking about some lines that I had not given as much attention before. When I think of the poem, I usually remember the second stanza first of all:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

All of this I thought I understood. But just a little later, at the end of the third stanza, a phrase takes me by surprise: “the artifice of eternity.”

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

This is supposed to be strange, I think; it goes against notions that eternity just happens. Eternity is created, magnificently created; it opposes nature, which “is begotten, born, and dies.” The speaker yearns to become artistic form and creation; the fourth stanza begins,

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,

“Once out of nature”–this phrase is peculiar too. What does it mean? Perhaps “released from the phases of life,” released from the body and its decay. Once out of nature, I will take a new kind of form, the speaker suggests, and it will not be “from any natural thing.” But there are still more surprises to come:

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

There is a lot to say about the repetition of “gold” (“goldsmiths,” “hammered gold,” “gold enamelling” and “golden”) and the sardonic “keep a drowsy Emperor awake.” But it is the ending that catches my thoughts: “Or set upon a golden bough to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” How is it that the golden form, “out of nature,” sings of time and passing, “Of what is past, or passing, or to come”? It is the singing that sets it apart; to sing of time is to gather it up.

This singing is not only external; it involves studying “monuments of its [tjat is, the soul’s] own magnificence.” Here, to study is to sing; through study you rise up into form. This poem invites its own study; it seems easy to understand but keeps startling you (as though you were a drowsy emperor). It draws you into a continuous puzzle that, with each solution, brings new meanings to the whole. Its iambic pentameter (with aberrations) both lulls and wakes the ear; the stresses and counter-stresses make the song.

That’s only the beginning, though; if you read the poem along with its companion, “Byzantium,” you understand it in still more lights and tones.

So it is with the phases of life; they exist not on their own, or even in combination with each other, but in counterpoint with the things we read and sing, the time we honor, the words we slowly come to understand.

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Dave Pearson, Sailing to Byzantium (gouache and ink)

Dave Pearson’s Sailing to Byzantium is part of his Byzantium series.

The image of the Shirat Hayam in a Torah scroll is borrowed from Wikipedia. As for the photo at the top, I took it last week on my way to school. The gold behind the trees looks like a sea or a lake, but it isn’t. That morning, there was a straight cloud line that hung low over the horizon; where the cloud line ended, the sun’s rays spread. A few minutes later, this sea of gold vanished, as the sun rose up past the line, into the clouds.

There was a problem with the formatting of this post; it is now fixed.

The Cat and the Candles

hanukkahOne of my two cats, Minnaloushe (pictured here to the left) is named after the cat in W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Cat and the Moon.” The other, Aengus, is named after Yeats’s “The Song of Wandering Aengus” (not about a cat, but fitting all the same).

Minnaloushe and Aengus show some of the complications of personality. Minnaloushe is friendly to everyone–rushes up to strangers and rubs against them–but does just fine without company for long stretches of the day. Aengus, on the other hand, hides from people he doesn’t know but craves and seeks affection from the select few (including Minnaloushe, who sometimes plays with him, sometimes rubs up against him, and sometimes pushes him away).

Despite appearances, I’d say Aengus is more “extraverted” than Minnaloushe, in that he seeks company more determinedly. But he’s also reserved and selective in his affections, which makes him, well, complex and difficult to define. If cats are difficult to define, what about humans?

I got sidetracked here; I meant to talk about Minnaloushe and the candles! Just before I took this photo, Minnaloushe was gazing at the candles with an expression of awe (or something that looked like awe to me, given my tendency to read into things). But now both cats seem oblivious to the fire. One is bathing, the other sleeping. So, if this suggests anything about humans, I suspect we experience, from moment to moment, only a fraction of the possible awe. But even that is quite a bit.

The Importance of Saying Nothing

A piece about saying “nothing” seems like a contradiction, since the words preclude the “nothing” in themselves. But there is a “nothing” worth considering in words. It is the “nothing” of taking things into the mind without pushing anything out immediately: of spending an evening reading, thinking,  listening to music, working on a problem, or talking with a good friend. For those who write and blog frequently, it can be difficult to seize such “nothing.”  

Writers sense pressure to put something forward, over and over. They think they’re supposed to have something to say, day after day, even if it isn’t substantial. Supposedly, through scraping their feet on the surface of things, they will make a mark over time. Unfortunately, that sort of scraping will not be remembered in fifty years.  To have something to say, you must build it; to build it, you need to be quiet for long intervals. We are nervous about taking that time.  

The problem is not particular to the Internet era. The writer’s “voice” always risks crumbling into noise. Part of this is due to our culture of “empowerment,” which tells people to believe in themselves and to show this by putting themselves forward. Aspring writers are told to write, write, write—and publish, publish, publish. Practice is good, of course, but silence is also practice. We do not hear enough about the importance of slow research and reading, of holding the pen (or pattering fingers) still, or waiting before publishing a piece.  

What happens to the writer who takes the time to read and think? The view widens; objects come into clearer focus and arrangement. Patterns, rhythms form in the mind; phrases come back to memory. The writer sees how much has been said before—and instead of being intimidated, he or she perks up. The challenge now is not to churn things out but to join this interchange. I want to speak with Epictetus about his purple thread, with Ralph Waldo Emerson about the “glass tripod,” and with William Butler Yeats about “the winds that blow through the starry ways.” Of course, this will not take the form of interviews; I am not concerned with their explanations or motives, nor could I ask about them even if I wished. Rather, such conversation will show itself in a stronger sense of language, of rhythms and thoughts that have come before me.  

A bit of quiet allows a person not only to take things in but to form sound ideas and opinions. Sometimes we don’t know what we think about an event, policy, or tendency; while there is no harm in putting forth a hypothesis, a tentative view, it is sometimes even more satisfying to wait and see. One can treat oneself to reserve as though to a jewel.   

A carefully formed opinion can be both strong and tranquil. In 1931, Henry McBride wrote in the New York Sun: “Dr. Valentiner … has the typical reserve of the student. He does not enjoy the active battle of opinion that invariably rages when a decision is announced that can be weighed in great sums of money. He gives his opinion firmly and rests upon that.” (Marianne Moore quotes this in her poem “The Student.”) This restfulness is liberty, a house.  

Granted, writers are not made for vows of silence. They are garrulous at heart—or some are (most generalizations about writers are wrong). If they are fortunate, they have something to say and know how to say it well. But under their writing, some pressure of knowledge and discernment must build. It must swell up until the right phrases take shape and other possibilities fall away. That’s worth a bit of quiet, a gentle tumbling out of date and out of fame.