“Call me what instrument you will….”

When my students were reading and acting out Hamlet III.ii, I interrupted them so that we could look again at this dialogue. The Players have just passed through, playing recorders (that is, woodwind instruments); Hamlet asks for one and resumes his conversation with Guildenstern:

I do not well understand that. Will you play upon this pipe?

My lord, I cannot.

I pray you.

Believe me, I cannot.

I do beseech you.

I know no touch of it, my lord.

‘Tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.

But these cannot I command to any utterance of harmony; I have not the skill.

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call  me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.

This is one of the hundreds of reasons why people should read Hamlet. His trick reveals truth; by seeming to change the subject, by fooling Guildenstern into admitting that he cannot play the recorder, he shows the vanity of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s ploys. (The two have colluded with King Claudius and Queen Gertrude in observing Hamlet’s every move; after each conversation with Hamlet,  they report back to the King and Queen. Hamlet has figured this out.)

But Hamlet’s words go far beyond the immediate place and time. How many people pretend to know what lies inside others–where their stops are, how to sound them; how much of today’s technology is aimed at that very end! Everywhere we go–whether on Facebook or on hard ground–someone sums us up, puts us in a category, predicts what we will do next. Even though the attention isn’t as fixedly on most of us as it is on Hamlet here, we receive “mass personalized” scrutiny, which, while effective at predicting purchasing patterns, voting tendencies (and other such things), fails, fortunately, to determine who we are.

It is not just through social media and marketing that this occurs. There’s a fad of sorting out “good” and “bad” people and sweeping away all vestiges of the “bad.” I see this in certain aspects of the #MeToo movement (for example, many publishers are now halting publication, and sellers distribution, of books by authors who allegedly harassed women, as though the claims of harassment invalidated the authors and their works). I see it in the careless use of the words “fascist” and “monster” to describe people with whom one disagrees. (Yet the modern analogy is flawed, for reasons I will discuss shortly.)

In outwitting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet shows them that they cannot diminish him. “Why, look you now,” he says, “how unworthy a thing you make of me!” To treat a person as playable and knowable is to deny that person’s dignity; even a little instrument cannot just be played at will, and Hamlet much less so.

Hamlet has mastered the very game he derides; he plays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern just as they cannot play him. He calls playing the recorder “as easy as lying” and explains: “govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.” This is indeed what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been trying clumsily to do: to govern (or rather, cover) certain ventages (their true purposes) and play out their deceit. Hamlet does not cover his stops; rather, it seems, he governs them, showing truth when and how he wishes. (There is ongoing controversy over Hamlet’s sanity and self-control; I see him as brilliantly in control here, though not everywhere.)

So there is a problem with Hamlet: he continually resists others diminution, yet in mocking them he diminishes them himself. Many readers, including me, enjoy the way he makes fun of Polonius, whom he has written off as a doddering fool. I wonder whether Hamlet has tricked me too; yes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem false as can be, but might there not be slightly more to Polonius, for instance, than Hamlet would allow? He has nothing close to Hamlet’s wit, but are humans measured by their wit?

It’s a misreading of Hamlet, then, to treat it as a discourse on human dignity. There is something else at stake here, a grappling with truth and doubt. Hamlet has seen his father’s ghost, has heard directly from him about the “foul and unnatural murder,” yet even he worries that his imaginations may have been “as foul / As Vulcan’s stithy.” If the ghost’s revelations are true, then Hamlet must avenge his father’s death; if they are not, he must somehow put this thought aside. To find the truth, he has the Players play a play; “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

The “play” here is not just the actors’ performance, but a series of plays upon plays; he sees the others playing with him, and he outplays them at their games. The one with the truest view–Hamlet–will win, but he can win only by losing.

Literature (at its best) cannot be translated into messages about life, but it can open up language and thought. Hamlet does not say that it’s wrong to diminish others.  But through its poetry it gives us a troubled, unsummable, brilliant soul.


I took the two photos this week.


“And wet snow, and music, and nothing ever”

Poetry has been filling the week. This morning I recorded and submitted an entry–“Six Poems About Endings”–for The Missouri Review’s Miller Audio Prize. Today is the commemoration of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, so we have no school. (Boldog forradalom napot!) It also seems to be Home Repair Day; I heard sawing and hammering for a good two hours in the morning. After that, I was able to record and re-record for an hour or so. Then a neighbor’s stereo started to thump.

Speaking of interludes, my ninth-grade students finished A Midsummer Night’s Dream this week. Here is the Wall performing her monologue (“In this same interlude it doth befall / That I, one Snout by name, present a wall; / And such a wall, as I would have you think,  / That had in it a crannied hole or chink ….”).

midsummer final scene

The previous evening, at our school’s biennial gala performance of music, poetry, theater, and dance, a student from this same class recited János Arany’s poem “Él-e még az Isten?” which I hope to learn over time. There were many beautiful  performances that evening: Hungarian folk dancing and folk songs, classical guitar, rock bands, an brass band, improv comedy, and more.

Late this afternoon I watched a delightful twenty-minute film of Tomas Venclova reciting six of his poems and speaking in English about his work. As he recites his poems in Lithuanian, the screen shows English translations–two by me and four by Ellen Hinsey.

One of the poems ends, in English translation, “And wet snow, and music, and nothing ever.” (Hence the title of this post.)

What holds this all together is the blackbird at the top, not quite at the center, but not far from it either. I took the photo this afternoon when searching for a celebration that had ended two hours earlier. After some walking around–not in wet snow, but in wetter rain–with an enthusiastic neighbor, I came home to the quiet, which now was complete except for stray voices and footsteps.

Quiet doesn’t require completion; it thrives on slight imperfection. It isn’t total absence of sound that makes quiet; rather, it’s a wrapping into rest.

“Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated.”

My ninth- and tenth-grade classes at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium have been reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, respectively. This week, the ninth graders read Act 3, Scene 1; the tenth graders, Act 1, Scene 3. (It’s the only time we’ll have this symmetry, I think.) In preparation for Bottom’s “translation,” I visited Maszka in Budapest, where I found a simple donkey mask (not the rooster mask shown below).

For Midsummer, the students not only read the parts but act them out, moving around the room; the action brings meaning to the words. We discuss the text briefly as well. For Hamlet, students read the parts dramatically and also spend time with specific passages. Eventually the two approaches will converge; if everything works out, we will give some kind of Shakespeare presentation toward the end of the year.

Here below, to the left, Snout speaks to Bottom; to the right, Titania wakes up.

The next two pictures show a different cast. To the left, Bottom returns to his rehearsal, with Puck following behind. To the right, Titania wakes up.

Every time I teach these plays, I find them “translated”; no two readings or discussions are identical. Here in Szolnok, there has been insight after insight, surprise after surprise.


I took all of the photos; the classroom photos are posted with the students’ permission.


On Inconvenience


I returned today from a week in Israel (two nights in Tel Aviv and five in Jerusalem). It’s too soon for me to tell about the trip; I’m still absorbing it. But it turned my thoughts, in various ways, toward the topic of inconvenience. I will knock my way into that topic; the photos will speak for themselves, except where I chime in.

I usually avoid group trips; I travel alone so that I can take things in and think. But this time I went on a trip hosted by B’nai Jeshurun, my beloved New York shul; it was a profound introduction to Israel, not only because of the insights, meetings, and itinerary, but because of the slight messiness of it all. Some of my favorite memories (right now) involve a minor inconvenience of some kind: waiting for someone, being waited for, using someone’s soap by mistake, trying to understand the revised schedule, finding the bus, relaying what was just said–little things, but all part of being physically among others, in this extraordinary place.


On another level I felt a great and beautiful inconvenience: the bumping of one culture against another, the walking on my own and others’ holy ground, the pressing up of faith against faith (or lack of faith), thoughts against questions, road against road. Some of us avoid, others treasure these encounters. Or maybe most of us do both.


On my last day, I met two Bedouin brothers who ran two shops; they showed me dreamy items while treating me to stories, praise, and tea. I understood this as theater and loved it for that; for those few minutes (that turned into more and more), I enjoyed being called their sister and told that I had beautiful eyes; I laughed as they played against each other, each one claiming to offer me the better deal; I admired a silver and garnet mezuzah (that one of the brothers, Hashem, had made) with pomegranate design and Hebrew inscription; and I bought more than I had meant to buy, without regret. Poetry and theater take you out of your way and gather you up, in a shop or anywhere.

As humans, we seek convenience and efficiency; if there are two ways to accomplish a goal, and one way is quicker and easier, we’ll take that way, unless we have reason to want the other. There’s elegance in this. Many inventions offer some form of convenience. My great-granduncle Charles Fischer discovered ways to make daily tasks easier; hence the take-up spring, the book prop, and other gadgets of his devising. When playing an instrument, we seek ease, not difficulty; a bow grip should not strain or contort the hand. That way, the music can come out.


But take convenience too far, and you’re through with human relations. Instead of “Hell is other people,” the saying becomes, “Inconvenience is anyone outside myself.” To know someone substantially, you must let yourself be thrown off a little (or a lot).


None of us can handle being thrown off all the time; the other extreme would be unbearable too. Too much stress and uncertainty, and we buckle; too much predictability, and we harden into planks. Nor do convenience and inconvenience come wrapped and ribboned; each one involves the other. If I take the trouble to meet strangers in various countries, I have taken on both an inconvenience and a convenience; we may speak different languages, but our interactions may be fleeting and unencumbered. If I befriend someone who speaks my language and belongs to my general culture, the initial comfort may lead into expectations. “We should really” starts to enter the conversation.

Inequality and equality both carry their conveniences and inconveniences. If I go out of my way, day after day, to help others, I have the inconvenience of attending to their needs but the convenience of automatic moral stature (and possibly escape from other responsibilities). If I relate to others as an equal and devote time to my own projects, I lose both the duties and the moral markers. So the categories break down.

The questions, or a few of many, become: In my combinations of convenience and inconvenience, do I keep enough uncertainty at the center and around the edges? Do I remember how little I know about others and they about me? Am I willing to take on new challenge and ease, not only externally, but internally? Am I willing to live not only intentionally, but with forms that come clear over time?


This has to do with “aliveness” as described by Sean D. Kelly in a beautiful essay. “There are things that you know must be said,” he writes, “that are necessary, even though you don’t know why. And only later, in your later years, will the necessity and the significance of those statements become clear. Because you grow into them, or they grow into you. Or both.”

Sometimes an inconvenience invites us into something larger than we could explain in the moment; sometimes ease does this too. Sometimes life takes us up in a way we didn’t expect, and we ride the bumps, drink up the view, and later come to understand what we were doing. This is perplexity; this is prosperity. I think of Marianne Moore: not only “What Are Years?” but also “Poetry” and its revisions. Words, even those set down on paper or screen, do not stay still; they turn and glow, catching us off guard. Those startlements hold ease and unease; things seem brilliantly clear, “but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had.” There is simply no saying, yet there is; saying and silence join and then part ways again. For now, that’s all I have to say.



I took all of these pictures in Jerusalem, except for the second, which I took in Jaffa (of my friends Elenor and Jenny walking together), and the sixth, which someone–Marcy, I think–took of me (in Jerusalem, just a few meters west of the Western Wall).

I made a few minor revisions to this piece after posting it.

“The time is out of joint”

fuseli hamlet boydellThis is the second of my blog posts on the pitfalls of moving on. (See the introduction and first post.)

Hamlet is not about the conflict between moving on and looking back, but it’s tempting to see it that way. It has more to do with the conflict between expedient and many-layered language, but there are thousands of possible tiltings.

Early on in the play, Claudius and Gertrude both press on Hamlet to move beyond mourning; Hamlet, for his part, ensures that they remember precisely what they wish to forget (by staging a play that draws out Claudius’s guilt).

Claudius tells Hamlet (in Act 1, Scene 2):

‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; ’tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool’d:
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! ’tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd: whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died to-day,
‘This must be so.’

His argument has as much baseness as logic: he says, anyone will mourn the death of his parent (as a matter of filial obligation, for a term), but to drag it on too long is a sign of immaturity and unmanliness, a stubborn protest against heaven, man, and nature. All fathers die; Hamlet’s father’s father died too, and his father before him. A father’s death is the “common theme” of heaven, nature, reason, and the dead; what grown man would oppose it?

Hamlet insists on remembering–not by erecting a memorial or delivering a speech, but by giving the lie to others’ evasions and euphemisms. If this were all he did, if he had no internal struggles, he would come across as arrogant–but all this wit takes place within an overwhelmed consciousness. His words to others can be sarcastic (“Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables”), cryptic (“for yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward”), scornful (“Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!”), or teasing (“the age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he gaffs his kibe”). On his own, and with the Ghost, he shows still more capabilities, and near the end, when speaking to Laertes and Horatio, still more. His knowledge goes beyond what he knows.

He stages a play, The Murder of Gonzago, into which he inserts his own lines; he not only instructs the actors and arranges the event but provides his own commentary during the performance itself. It is precisely after his explanation (“He poisons him i’ the garden for’s estate. His name’s Gonzago: the story is extant, and writ in choice Italian: you shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife”) that the King cries out, “Give me some light: away!”

It is easy to ally oneself with Hamlet and decry the Claudiuses of the world, those who brush over their actions with the rhetoric of “moving on.” We hear plenty of that rhetoric in politics and workplaces, and it doesn’t inspire trust. In December 2016, in response to inquiries about Russian meddling in the election, Trump said that “we ought to get on with our lives”; he has said similar things since. But the phrase is not purely Trumpian; it’s common coinage. In workplaces after mass layoffs, the managers speak of “going forward”; at least two distinct advice books have the title Moving Forward.

Still, any alliance with Hamlet is artistic, not literal; we can find ourselves in Hamlet again and again, yet no one of us is Hamlet, and the play’s conflicts do not map exactly onto life. Hamlet’s integrity lies not in “looking back,” but in seeing that “the time is out of joint” and seeking “to set it right.” He is endlessly complicated; he goes about things in circuitous ways, evading questions, concocting elaborate scenes, and killing the wrong person. I find an odd comfort in his ruminations, but it is not the “useful” comfort of a sweater. It stays slightly at odds with uses.

Moreover, while the play allows us to believe that Hamlet is not wrong “in the main” (Claudius did kill King Hamlet, and the Ghost was seen first by others), with a little twist of the mind, he could be catastrophically wrong. Suppose his father had died a natural death, yet he imagined Claudius the killer and sought his life. Suppose, moreover, that Claudius had gained the throne legitimately. Hamlet would then threaten not only the stability, not only the people, but even the laws and principles of the state.

Therefore, while one can look to Hamlet for poetry, tragedy, and personal resonance, one cannot look to it for direct life lessons. When it comes to “moving on” and “looking back,” the play offers no guidance. Hamlet offers a language of grappling, but not an answer. There can be no absolute answer; any life moves backward and forward, right and left, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, sometimes with long pauses.

In the last post on this topic I will talk about the zigzags of return and progress.

Image: Robert Thew, after Henry Fuseli, Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus, and the Ghost (1796). Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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



Reading and Rereading

kosice bookstoreThis is the first of three blog posts on the pitfalls of moving on. (See the introduction here.) Of all the examples of fruitful return, rereading stands out as both obvious and splendid. For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed rereading more than first-time reading; in remembering and rediscovering the book (or poem or play), I not only see new things in it but grasp a different whole. For this to happen, the work does not have to present explicit difficulties; I can reread Lorca’s poem “La guitarra” (in his Poema del cante jondo) and find new clarities and darknesses in it, even though nothing seemed to stump me on the first round.

Continual rereading has its own pitfalls; if you never get around to new books, you will limit the rereading itself. To reread a book, you must have read it in the first place; you must put those old favorites aside and take up this bulky thing that you do not yet know. This is my main “reading difficulty”: those stacks of unread books in my good intentions.

Rereading, then, can only accompany first-time reading. But our culture and economy seem tipped toward the latter: the latest book, the book club selections, the titles that everyone is talking about for a short while. Many of these books disappear as quickly as they come, but if they manage to squeeze some fame and sales out of the air, the publishers and publicists will not complain. Publishers do care what comes out of their presses, but they have to prosper too. So they will publish many urban daylilies along with a few bristlecone pines.

One possible measure of literary quality is longevity: how many times, or over how much time, a work can be read with new understanding and pleasure. A few publishers base their entire work on this principle. Library of America “champions our nation’s cultural heritage by publishing America’s greatest writing in authoritative new editions and providing resources for readers to explore this rich, living legacy.” Thus the Library of America’s work consists not only of republishing but of rereading too–and reading works that have been there for decades or centuries but that we barely acknowledged with a soporific quote.

A spirit of rereading makes room for first-time readings too. When you look back, you make room for those works you missed. Cynthia Haven’s “Another Look” book discussion series, which she founded with Tobias Wolff, focuses on books that deserve more attention than they have received. For many, these books may be first-time reads, but the club’s name, “Another Look,” suggests return. The series kicked off with William Maxwell’s short novel So Long, See You Tomorrow. I had not read it before; although I could not attend the discussion, I purchased a Library of America edition, read it in time for the event, brought it into my life, and now look forward to a third reading.

So returns and rereading can dissolve the highways of popularity and bring newness out of dust. But it is a complex matter. Exclusive rereading (with no new books) and exclusive first-time reading (with no returns) both constrict. Nor is there a perfect proportion; the balance or imbalance may vary. But rereading can offer a strong corrective to a culture bent on “moving on” to the next new thing. What just came out is not necessarily more important than what came out years ago.

Each summer, at the Dallas Institute, my colleagues and I teach literature: epic in the odd-numbered years and tragedy and comedy in the even-numbered years. This year, when returning to King Lear, I admired the scene where Edgar (in the guise of a stranger) pretends to assist his blinded father, Gloucester, in jumping off a cliff but actually saves him. Having attained the make-believe cliff, which actually is nothing, they have the following exchange (Lear 4.6.25-41):

Edgar. Give me your hand: you are now within a foot
Of th’ extreme verge: for all beneath the moon
Would I not leap upright.

Gloucester.                            Let go my hand.
Here, friend, ‘s another purse; in it a jewel
Well worth a poor man’s taking. Fairies and gods
Prosper it with thee! Go thou further off;
Bid me farewell, and let me hear thee going.

Edgar. Now fare ye well, good sir.

Gloucester. With all my heart.

Edgar. [Aside] Why I do trifle thus with his despair
Is done to cure it.

Gloucester says farewell to the world, jumps, “falls,” and is rescued by Edgar in the guise of another stranger, who speaks of his miraculous survival.

Edgar. Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
So many fathom down precipatating,
Thou’dst shivered like an egg: but thou dost breathe;
Hast heavy substance; bleed’st not; speak’st; art sound.
Ten masts at each make not the altitude
Which thou hast perpendicularly fell:
Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.

I have read and loved this scene many times. But on this reading, Edgar’s aside stood out: “Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it.” This may seem an unnecessary explanation; the audience can already guess that Edgar intends to save his father’s life. But Edgar speaks here not of saving a life, but of curing despair; he makes a striking connection between “trifling” with the despair and “curing” it. He invents a lightness, which then surrounds Gloucester’s unfatal fall. “Thy life’s a miracle,” says Edgar–but what makes it a miracle is this very trifling, this creation of precipice, fall, and survival out of level land.

That’s what happens with rereading: it is choreography of words, where the dancers surprise you even after you think you know the whole dance. Rereading holds you up to the book and says, “There’s more, there’s more.”


I took the photo in Košice on May 29.

Havel havalim (Koheleth)


Reading Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), I sit up in awe, drop stray thoughts, and listen again and again to the second verse (translated as “vanity of vanities,” etc.). Then I start hearing its cadences everywhere: in Shakespeare (as do others), in Mahler, in poem after poem, song after song, film after film. This poem holds millions of breaths.

I was first introduced to Koheleth as a teenager, through Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” via Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Here’s Orwell:

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

For a long time, that was all I knew of it. I understood that its language was vivid and lilting and that it looked askance at the world. I read parts of it here and there–but did not begin to understand the whole until I first heard it chanted in Hebrew (just a few years ago). Then I sensed its coherence–not quick meaning, but unity and movement–and a joy mixed in with the sadness, a joy of walking through life.

Just a week ago I started learning the first few verses, with trope and all. It was then that I fell in love with the second verse.

Havel havalim, amar Koheleth; havel havalim, hakol havel.

The whole verse sounds like a sigh; this is no coincidence, as “hevel” originally meant “vapor” or something similar.

The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament states (in volume 3, p. 315): “In virtue of its supposed onomatopoeic origin, hebhel consistently retains the meaning of “breath” and, especially with reference to the visible aspect, although possibly delimited by the stronger ruach, “vapor, mist, smoke.” … Ideas of transitoriness and fleetingness are associated with the word when it means “breath,” and these tend to point toward an abstract connotation (cf. the LXX). This tendency is aided by the capability and openness of onomatopoeic words for new meanings.” This paragraph continues–and it’s part of a much longer entry–but I want to get back to the second verse and the joy.

The noun hevel (or hebel), with root heh-bet-lamed, appears in this verse in three forms:

  1. havel (with a long “e” and a stress on the second syllable): the construct form of hevel. This indicates that it accompanies the noun that follows.
  2. havalim: the plural of hevel.
  3. havel (with a short “e” and a stress on the first syllable): the pausal form of hevel.

This verse not only shivers with alliteration (not only of havel, havalim, and havel, but also of hakol and Koheleth), but takes a single word and turns it around and around.

Vapor of vapors, says Koheleth; vapor of vapors, all is vapor.

But even this does not recreate the morphology and cadences. Here is my recording of the first three verses. Here, also, is a wonderful recording (and video of the text) by Rabbi Moshe Weisblum.

What is it about this verse (and the poem as a whole) that brings joy?

Koheleth is not conducive to takeaways. Its message is not “enjoy life” or “fear God”; it holds up both. In terms of theology and philosophy, it stands out as one of the most puzzling Biblical texts. (I would love to take Stephen Geller’s course on it; I have taken his course on the Psalms.)

Still, for all its complexity, the poem has a gesture of learning, of seeing beyond illusions.

If success, fame, power, labor, even wisdom are all vapors, then life is anything but futile. It is possible to understand a little more each day and to walk with understanding. Koheleth is a long and wistful walk.

Image credit: I took this photo today in Fort Tryon Park. It reminded me of the second verse.

Calendar Synaesthesia Hoax (I Wish)

hulaI wish it were a hoax, because then I could cachinnate without guilt. As it is, I still laugh, but with trouble in the belly. I am sorry about the gullibility in the world.

I learned about it from Cari Romm’s piece in New York Magazine. The title grabbed me: “There’s a Form of Synesthesia Where People Literally See Time in Front of Them.” I thought: That’s quite something, seeing time! I imagined some kind of visual perception of a non-spatial continuum of events. Some sort of visible yet invisible flow.

Instead, the “calendar synaesthete”–one subject in a study with eight controls–could picture the months of the year in geometrical arrangement. For this subject, they took a V shape;  for a subject of a previous experiment, the shape of a hula-hoop.

The authors call their paper (published in Neurocase) the first “clear unambiguous proof for the veracity and true perceptual nature” of calendar synaesthesia. Really? This got published in Neurocase and reported in New Scientist and New York Magazine?

Synaesthesia (also spelled “synesthesia”) is the name for what happens when an event that stimulates an experience in one sensory or cognitive pathway also stimulates it in a second (and unexpected) one. For instance, some synaesthetes see sounds, associate letters of the alphabet with specific colors, or smell numbers. The phenomenon exists. But does this particular study tell us anything about it?

This is one of several experiments that led to their “clear unambiguous proof” (the quote below is from the New Scientist article):

Next they asked ML and eight non-synaesthetes to name the months of the year backwards, skipping one or two months each time – a task most people find challenging. They figured that ML should be able to complete the task quicker than the others as she could read it from her calendar. Indeed, ML was much quicker at the task: when reciting every three months backwards, she took 1.88 seconds per month compared with 4.48 seconds in non-synaesthetes.

First of all, what does any of this have to do with visualizing time? From what I can tell, it’s about recalling and manipulating the sequence of months. There may or may not be a visual component in such calculation; either way, this experiment shows no synaesthesia per se. Second, who takes 4.48 seconds to recite every third month backwards? I can do it in under 2 seconds per month, without seeing any V shape, donut, hula-hoop, or Moebius strip.

Here’s what the paper says:

In control subjects, the average RT for reciting all of the months backward (n = 8) was 1.46 s/month. For skipping 1 or 2 months – the average was 2.54 and 4.48 s/month respectively. For ML, the average RT for the same 3 tasks were (A) 0.58 s/month, (B) 1.63 s/month, and (C) 1.88 s/month (see legends in Figure 2).

There were eight controls and one subject. Yes, just one. (Nor does the study explain how the subject and controls were selected.) Their study of  a second subject, HP, was incomplete: “We then studied the second subject – HP – but for practical reasons – were only able to conduct a subset of the experiments that we had performed on ML.” (She was able to recite the months as quickly as ML, though.)

To supplement the findings, perhaps, they mention EA, a subject from a previous study:

Indeed, on a previous occasion, we had informally tested a synesthete EA, who might have qualified as a higher calendar synesthete. Her calendar form was shaped like a hula-hoop (the most common manifestation of calendar forms) in the transverse plane in front of her chest. Unlike ML, though, when EA turned her head rightward or leftward, the calendar remained stuck to the body, suggesting that it was being computed in body-centered, rather than head (and eye) centered coordinates. The variation across calendar synesthetes, in this regard, reminds us that even in neurotypical brains there are probably multiple parallel representations of body in space that can be independently accessed depending on immediate task demands.

How did they get from the hula-hoop to “multiple parallel representations of body in space”–and from any of this to “clear unambiguous proof” of the existence of calendar synaesthesia?

I do not doubt that people can picture calendars; people can picture all sorts of things, and calendars are already visual representations of a model of time. I see no synaesthesia in the ability to picture something that is already a picture.

I recognize that this is the authors’ very point: that for this subject, the calendar  is something more than a strong mental picture. Yet the experiments do not prove this.

Note: I made some revisions and additions to this piece after posting it–and deleted one sentence that in retrospect seemed excessively sarcastic. Also see Shravan Vasishth’s comment and my response. I may have been too caustic overall–but I hold to my view that the researchers went too far in declaring “proof.” See my followup post.