On Learning Turkish

I’ve never not had class on a Friday, and this was the reason why I was dressed, while my roommate, who enjoyed the luxury of spending the entire day at home, had only recently decided to change out of the sweatpants she had worn all day. We were about to walk to a friend’s apartment where we would find a party, our other roommates, more friends, and maybe one or two strangers. While she blew dry her hair, I waited on a rickety Ikea chair next to the island counter. As usual, I had a book in my hand.

At the time, what I had really wanted to read was a Patricia Highsmith novel. I had been in the mood for a smart thriller, but as luck would have it, Powell’s did not have a copy of Talented Mr. Ripley or Strangers on a Train. I picked up The Black Book instead because the blurb on the back cover promised a detective novel-like plot.

In the dim kitchen light, I tried my best to read carefully. Orhan Pamuk’s prose was dense. It was easy to breeze through the pages and still form the images written on the page, but the book also rewarded you for paying attention. The sentences were woven together with an eye for detail that felt lush. They were also long.

Take, for example, this one:

Although the radio was on from the first thing in the morning till the last thing at night, the thick-coated and not-at-all Turkish-looking china dog curled up on top of it never woke from his peaceful slumber.

The first time I read this sentence, I tripped over its syntax. The second time around, I was only half-paying attention. But then I tried again. A radio, a china dog, a peaceful slumber. I reread it one more time before running to my roommate’s room.

When she saw me at the doorway, she held out a skirt in each hand. “Peach or black?”

I pointed to the black one. “Do you know what’s really cool?” I didn’t wait for her to reply. “You can tell that this book was translated from Turkish! I just read this sentence…”

I tried to explain how the verbs in Turkish were always the last words of a sentence and how it was an agglutinative language. My professor had told our class how Turkish sentences and words could often go on forever, with clause after clause and suffix after suffix piled on top of one another. I described how reading through the short, simplified passages in my textbook was strenuous, even on the best of days, because my English-accustomed brain was not used to sifting through so many words to find the actions that drove a sentence. But that was why the sentence about the radio and the china dog was so astonishing. I had just read a string of words that managed to capture how meaning in Turkish revealed itself in peaks and glimpses, and once you understood, you felt a little silly because the message had been there all along, waiting patiently for you to put the pieces together.

The next morning, I read the translator’s afterward at the back of the book. Maureen Freely talked about devrik cümle, or a sentence “in which words appear in an order different from that ordained by custom and practice, and cascading clauses create a series of expectations that are subverted by the verb at the very end.” Quoting the poet Murat Nemet-Nejat, she described Turkish “as a language that can evoke a thought unfolding.” Thinking of my jumbled explanation from the night before, I admired and envied her eloquence. Continue reading “On Learning Turkish”

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A Final Word on John Cheever

In an ideal world, I would have written this post as a fond farewell to the BA that I submitted late April. However, writing that thesis involved sometimes literal blood, sweat, and tears, and by the time the deadline finally rolled around, I was more than happy to wash my hands of the thing for the rest of forever and never talk about John Cheever and the New Yorker ever again. Two months later, I still have no wish to really talk about what I wrote, but I spent an entire afternoon of my spring break thinking about one particular story that eventually did not make an appearance in the final product, even though I had written a nice footnote for it.

The story in question is “Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin,” which Cheever published in the New Yorker in 1963. Like all the other stories in my thesis, its protagonist is a traveler; more specifically, he is an American expatriate who has returned to New York from Paris. While he is in transit, he begins reading graffiti scrawled across the train station walls and bathrooms. And here’s where things get weird. Three of the four scribbles quote from real-life, and at times, literary works. The longest piece of “graffiti,” which spans the length of a magazine page, is an imitation of a gothic Victorian novel. Although the unnamed protagonist does not recognize the allusions of these passages, he is fascinated by it all. He shares his discoveries with his intellectual friends, only to be ridiculed. They conclude that he “had been away too long; [he] was out of touch with decency and common sense.”

At the surface, “Mene Mene” seems pretty cut-and-dry: American returns home and discovers that he does not belong. But as several academics have pointed out, Cheever was quite the experimental writer, especially given the fact that he published in the New Yorker, which was not interested in what Harold Ross called “overly impressionistic.” Impressionistic might not be quite the right word to describe why this short story is so strange. In the likely event that you never read it, here’s a short list of my observations:

  • The title is an allusion to a story from the Book of Daniel. Daniel is called upon to interpret this phrase and concludes that the Babylonian kingdom is on its way out. Indeed, that very night, the king is killed.
  • The first piece of writing comes from “Spartacus to the Gladiators,” written by Elijah Kellog for a oratory competition. You can read the speech reprinted in a local newspaper here.
  • Based on some extensive Google searching, the longest excerpt is Cheever’s creation, but it harkens to Adam and Eve and the fall of man.
  • The third passage comes from an essay written by Leigh Hunt in his paper, London Journal. Hunt was a Romantic writer who did a little bit of everything-poetry, literary criticism, being friends with Keats and Shelley, being destitute, etc.
  • The narrator ends by seeing a quote from John Keats’s “Bright Star.”
  • The narrator has a surprising amount of geological knowledge. When he describes the walls of the train station, he notes, “The marble was a light brown–it might have been a giallo antico, but then I noticed Paleozoic fossils beneath the high polish and guessed that the stone was a madrepore.” In the men’s bathroom, he also comments, “The wall agains were marble. This was common limestone–a silicate of calcium and magnesium, grained with some metalliferous gray ore.”
  • Generally, the narrator might be kind of crazy. He’s erudite, but prone to over-interpretation. He’s shocked by trashy paperback books. He describes the train’s warning bells “like a coronary thrombosis.” He wears yellow pointed shoes, which I’ll leave up to your imagination.

What does this all mean? And why did it get published? I’m half-convinced that John Cheever and/or the editors of the New Yorker were playing a joke on their middlebrow audience. There’s nothing quite like the irony of having a seemingly scholarly and cosmopolitan character being bewildered by bathroom grafitti that actually quotes from works that were all the rage back in the nineteenth century. Also, just as interesting as all this is that the story suggests that John Cheever knew a lot of stuff. Most of his biographies are more interested in his turbulent personal life, from his fraught relationship with his brother to his alcoholism to his sexuality, but here is a glimpse of another version of him. I wonder what I could find on his bookshelf.

Ultimately, I cut any mention of this piece because it deserved time and attention that I neither had the time nor energy to give. More importantly, I felt myself sliding into referential mania, more interested in unpacking allusions and tracking down clues rather than doing the type of in-depth literary analysis that gets you places when you’re writing an English paper. As Cheever wisely said in his Paris Review interview, “The easiest way to parse the world is through mythology…It seems to be a superficial parsing.” I will say that having this background knowledge must help though (and not to mention kind of fun), but I’ll leave it to the academics of the world to connect the dots (which may be a while because not a lot of stuff has been written about Cheever in comparison to other authors). Anyway, at the end of the day, I’m glad I bumped into “Mene Mene.” It’s a nice reminder of everything that is interesting about Cheever.

People Watching #5

Hyde Park is a disaster once the end of the quarter rolls around. This is what happens when you have students sleep-deprived and stressed out by their last round of finals, visiting families, and/or graduation. Signs of chaos include:

  • Students wheeling luggage, often upset when the humidity causes their shirts to stick to their skin
  • Students loading their belongings into the trunks of 5-passenger sedan, often upset by size constraints of said vehicles in addition to the humidity
  • Students hauling furniture across town, which is just about the most terrible part of moving that you can ever imagine
  • Son and father at the post office with a giant crate of books that probably weighs more than several small children–the father looks stoic as he tapes the box shut and thinks of the cost of international shipping
  • Local residents peering curiously into the overflowing dumpsters for interesting finds–one man looks on as Hannah and I deposit cardboard boxes into the dumpsters on 53rd and Greenwood and looks disappointed when we drive away without leaving behind anything worthwhile
  • Speaking of overflowing dumpsters, the local garbage collectors must hate us all

The lengths people go to move in and out into their apartments, while quite impressive, is never quite as fascinating at the people I see at the airport. As I’m writing this, my flight has been delayed by one hour due to some eastward bound thunderstorms, and the people around me deserve a brief mention. They include:

  • A pair of sisters with matching red-dyed hair and Duck Dynasty sweatshirts; one sister sports a giant tattoo of New Jersey on her left calf
  • Elderly Russian couple: the wife asks me to accompany her husband because we have the same boarding positions on our Southwest flight and offers to “save me a good seat” and a handful of mini-Oreos in return; husband nods politely and continues reading a translated version of an Isabel Allende novel while also eating mini-Oreos
  • Man and woman conversing next to me: Man is dressed in business suit while the woman, who has a book in her bag, seems ready for a vacation. But based on the number of times they have mentioned HIPPAA, FDA regulations, and physician assistants (apparently PA stands for more than Pennsylvania), they not only know each other, but also must work in something health related. The woman talks about her seventeen-year-old daughter who is dying her hair for the first time, and the plot twist: she has to pay for it herself!
  • Also, they are clearly sitting in the wrong gate. Health professional man and woman are soon replaced with family consisting of mother, father, and young daughter.
  • Daughter is well-behaved and quite happy with a pacifier in her myself and her mother’s tablet in her lap. The stroller carries the mother’s Michael Kors handbag, child-size juice box of apple juice, child-size container of McDonald’s French fries, empty container of milk with hot pink label that matches daughter’s backpack, and the most bizarre thing I’ve seen in a while: purified drinking water bottled in a soda can.
  • Mother on the phone, twice to two separate people: “This is like the worst trip to New York ever.”*
  • Snarky airplane captain comforts cranky passengers on the loudspeaker: “We apologize for the delay folks. Newark has been congested for the past ten years.” Truer words have never been spoken.

*Little did she know that in addition to being delayed for one hour, we would sit on the tarmac for another sixty minutes, and upon our arrival, we would sit in the plane for another forty-five minutes because of course, our gate is occupied.

My Love Letter to UChicago

I’ll begin with the chairs. My plan had been to run some errands and then find a shady park bench on Harper Quad to read  a couple of chapters of my book (The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk). My finals were done, my room half-packed, my time blissfully unscheduled. I have an obsession with the Main Quad because even after four years, I’ve never gotten over the fact that it’s just so pretty. In all seasons–covered with snow, dressed with bright flowers, slick with muddy rain–there’s just no getting over the majestically gorgeous buildings, the neat diagonal walkways, the careful landscaping. Which brings me back to the chairs that they started setting up for Convocation. As I walked across the Quad, there were strange people setting up rows of plastic folding chairs, an invasion of ugly lawn furniture in the places where students once threw frisbees and read Freud in the afternoon sun. Last week, it had been the white marquees and tents for Alumni Weekend, and when I finally reach Harper Quad, I discover that the benches had already been taken away. When I finally decided to go home, I walked by those chairs again, more annoyed and upset about their presence than I could have expected them to be.

Mostly, it’s because I wanted the Quad to look exactly how I always want to remember it–those sunny afternoons after class that I spent on those shade-covered park benches, eating lunch or dodging the occasional wasp while I finished my Turkish homework, notebook open on my lap. There were also the times during the winter when I walked from the Reg from office hours or a newly checked-out book in my bag to Harper, the snow-covered lamps and the aching cold catching my breath. Autumn was always my favorite season. There is a peculiar kind of joy that can only be found when you walk to class surrounded by the bold, blazing colors of aging ivy and fallen leaves.

If you asked me what I love so much about UChicago, I would give you all these fragments. The iced teas and hot chocolates I’ve bought from the Div School cafe, where the drinks are always better and twenty-five cents cheaper. Those terrifyingly old couches in the Breck lounge where I stayed up talking to my friends until the sun rose, just because I could. The stacks of the Reg, where it was easy to get lost in so many different ways. How we walked in the frozen streets after Snowpocalypse to grab dinner at the dining hall. The awe that came from learning my Civ professor chatted weekly with Sartre in the Parisian cafes on the Left Bank. All the tacos, lasagna, and stir-fried chicken that I made and shared with my roommates around our island counter.

There are the things I learned. Facts, figures, Foucault. My bookshelf testifies to the knowledge that is now lodged somewhere in my brain. But there are other things too. I have also discovered that yes, I can write a 12-page paper if given twenty-four hours and an absolute deadline. It is also possible not to feel the cold if you wear enough layers. Along the way, I’ve learned how to distill a life’s worth of belongings into a couple of cardboard boxes, how to run across a busy intersection to catch a bus, how to gracefully cry in a public place, how lucky it is to have perfect timing on the CTA. I’ve learned about how capable I actually am, even when everything seems to be crumbling like dry cookie dough (and in most cases, everything is never that messy anyway).

Perhaps most importantly, there are the people, especially those crazy brilliant kids who I have the honor of calling my friends. It’s cliche to call anyone unique, but I think I’ve found the group of people who fit the definition. I can always count on them for a clever pun and a get-out-of-Hyde-Park adventure. They are just as excited as I am when I chatter on about a book I’m reading for class or a weird factoid that I discovered on the Internet (or at the very least, they humor me for which I will always be grateful). They will argue with me when I’m wrong. They are cosmopolitan–we’ll be scattered across three continents next year. They know so much about so many things. There have been too many moments to count when I’m simply so happy that they have made their way into my life.

I’ve spent a week writing this note, piecing it together sentence by sentence during the few short breaks I had to myself. I realize now that this is not really a love letter in any traditional sense, but I will say that my four years here at UChicago have still been a love story of sorts. I can’t imagine my life without this place constantly hovering in my mind. I’ve grown more than a little attached, and Convocation, with all its goodbyes and separation, will hurt my heart. But this heartache is to be expected if you’re leaving a place that has felt so much like home. My four years were an education in every possible sense of the word. It has been such a privilege to have lived through all of this.

Couscous and Montaigne

Going back to the basics, the reason why I even have this fantastic opportunity to live in Paris for three months is because I’m taking Civ classes. I have class for about three a day: a French class that runs throughout the quarter and three compressed classes about European history with an emphasis on France. Forgive me, I’m a little biased when it comes to UChicago’s Core. I absolutely love the classes that I’ve taken to fulfill the requirements, and Civ has been no exception. One of the best things about the Civ and the Core in general is that you read everything first-hand. Core classes revolve around primary documents; there is no barrier between you and the original content (except perhaps a translator or two). Best of all, taking Civ abroad means that you’re guaranteed to be in a small discussion class as opposed to a larger lecture and an emphasis on facts and figures that I might have found if I had taken Civ back on campus.

During our first three weeks, we started off with the Renaissance and main theme was the rise of the individual. It seems like such a simple concept – to be an individual. But back in the Middle Ages when the likelihood of death was just around the corner and you were a serf who had to work in the fields, there wasn’t much time to spend on being your own person. The idea of individuality is a concept that is easy to take for granted. It seems that it might be something that comes naturally, but once you get down to it, it’s actually a product of a culture and history.

Our professor was Philipe Desan. He’s a Montaigne scholar with his own Wikipedia page and quite a vivacious personality. In between lectures on Martin Luther or Machiavelli, he would regale us with the mischievous adventures of his Catholic school days or reminisce about his time as a Trotskyist during his college years. One day, he casually mentioned how he used to have philosophical discussion with Jean-Paul Sartre, who was “kind of a jerk.” Our entire class did a double take. Apparently, to be worthy of Sartre’s time, he had to read a philosophical text every day, which he did for several years. Somewhere along the way, Professor Desan also attended the lectures of a young Michel Foucault. Playing the degrees of separation game became infinitely more interesting after our first weeks of class.

Despite (or in addition to) all the famous thinkers he has met, Michel de Montaigne is Professor Desan’s academic soulmate. He had quite a lot to say on all the texts we read, but when we reached Montaigne on our syllabus, he radiated enthusiasm – the mere mention of his name seemed to make our professor beam from ear to ear. Montaigne wrote in the 16th century and was one of the leading lights of the French Renaissance. His most important invention was the essay. The essay? It seems that there were essays and treatises from the very beginning of time! But Montaigne developed the essay as a literary form of personal expression. Before, you had to a relatively important person, a serious academic, or a theologian to have anything published, but Montaigne did this ingenious thing where he picked a topic. With a random topic as his premise, such as coaches, he meandered and interwove his thoughts and opinions to make a point about more substantial subjects. In the example of “Of Coaches,” he moves from modes of transportations to a criticism of excess to a criticism of the violent and harsh treatment that the Europeans directed towards the native inhabitants of the Americas. Voilà! After Montaigne, anyone can now share their views as long as you reference your original choice of topic every now and then.

How much does Professor Desan love Montaigne? Not only is he one of his most famous scholars, he is also one out of five (maybe six) people who has ever handled one of the original published manuscripts that is now kept air-sealed in a vault somewhere in France, specifically Bordeaux I think. While passing a thick volume of the scanned images from these archives, Professor Desan told us about a hair in the pages of the book while he was working with the manuscript. Knowing that he was one of the few people to be in such close proximity to the pages and using some intuition that I have yet to understand, he promptly concluded that it must be a beard hair from Montaigne himself! Montaigne, in all his pictures, sported facial hair, and according to our professor, all the other librarians that have handled the manuscript were definitely clean-shaven. Besides, the book was lost for a hundred years or so, which means no one even saw it for a century or so. Thus, he collected the hair and keeps it in a test tube. He plans to find a brilliant scientist in the biology department at UChicago to run a DNA sequence test to confirm that he indeed has in his possession, Montaigne’s hair.

My class had the honor of dining with our professor, and we discovered his life was even more interesting, if that were possible. He knows French, English, and Japanese. His wife is from Japan, and he rotates between Chicago, Paris, and Japan. His favorite part of Paris is, of course, the Left Bank. His university was closed in the 1970s after accidentally conferring degrees to a pair of horses, and he started his academic career in sociology before studying French Literature and eventually reaching Renaissance literature and other cool things like that. Professor Desan has also been to South America (I want to say Brazil) for a Montaigne dedication ceremony of some sort and spent time with an indigenous people. He passed around his iPhone in class to show us the pictures.

Dinner was at Chez Bebert, a North African restaurant in Montparnasse known for its couscous. It was a novel experience. The only instances when I’ve ever had couscous were in the dining hall where it was always included in a cold salad that had an unpleasant acidic tinge from the dressing. We started with complimentary appetizers, which included pickled carrots, samosas, and other vegetables. For your actual meal, you ordered a serving of meat while the couscous, accompanying broth, stewed veggies, and beans came in infinite quantities. I tried merguez, which is a type of lamb sausage, while others chose lamb, chicken kebabs, beef, or some combo of the above. The meat arrived sizzling on a bed of lettuce and the meat fell off the bone. Professor Desan taught us how to assemble our meal, first taking a plateful of the fluffy grains, heaping the couscous with vegetables and beans, and adding spoonfuls of salty broth, the most important step or otherwise the couscous will expand in your stomach and eventually kill you if you misjudge the quantity you eat. (This last part might not be true, but he said it with a half-seriousness that I couldn’t figure out.) It was hearty, delicious meal that was a nice break from the usual meat, creamy sauce, and bread that is found in French cuisine. It was a novel experience too. I think when I return home, I’ll see if I can recreate my couscous meal to some degree, after I finally eat some turkey, of course.

Montaigne writes a lot about his experiences. In fact, he has an essay called “Of Experience,” and it meanders through a whole slew of thoughts – books, knowledge, the ridiculousness of the legal system, and kidney stones. “Que sais -je?” is his motto. “What do I know?” The point is not to attain knowledge, but learn from your day-to-day experience. Read books, not to learn about the ancient Greeks, but to understand yourself, the most important goal you can undertake. Despite his kidney stones, I like to think that Montaigne was a jolly fellow who found ultimate contentment in writing his essays and building all this self-knowledge. I also think that he would have liked couscous.

During our dinner, we didn’t mention Montaigne at all and mainly pestered Professor Desan about his impressions of Jean-Paul Sartre. Still, if you say couscous, I will think of Montaigne  Even though I didn’t like reading his essays at all (he was too all-over the place for my taste), but it’s hard not to respect someone who takes the task of living so seriously. Montaigne’s personable, kind-of stream-of-consciousness writing is at times entertaining but mostly confusing because he jumps from thought to thought. However, if you’re patient, it eventually congeals into extraordinary insight.

Have you been able to think out and manage your own life? You have done the greatest task of all.

Montaigne writes this at the end of “Of Experience.”  Isn’t it something to have someone who died over four hundred years ago say something that can still resonante so profoundly right now? I’m no Montaigne scholar, but I can see why he can be someone to which you devote part of your life. Even if I forget everything else that I’ve read in those first three weeks, I’ll always remember seeing these two lines at 2 in the morning and thinking, “Thanks, Montaigne. That was really good.”

Finals Week

1. Pack a bag with study essentials, such as dense texts written by long-gone thinkers, headphones, laptop charger, etc.  Take said bag with you to the library, which you haven’t set foot in all quarter.  At the library, feel like a college student having a quintessential college experience.

2. Open a blank word document.  Write name, professor, class, date, and “Title” where a cool, catchy one-liner will summarize your masterpiece of a paper.  Decide this is a good progress and open Facebook.

3. Catch up with old high school friends.  Hey, you haven’t seen them in a while.  You might as well.

4. Read New York Times articles and click around on NPR.  Current events are important.

5. Consider blogging.  Actually blog.  Realize that blogging takes thinking too.  Close web browser.

6. Open web browser again to check email.  Just in case.

7. Plug in headphones to drown out dead silence/friend’s conversation/heavy breathing of anonymous person sharing your table.  Put playlist on shuffle and rediscover music collection.  A surprise with every listen!

8. Read Anna Karenina.  Feel accomplished because reading a Russian novel that can bludgeon hippos to death cannot possibly be form a procrastination.

9. Think of a Brilliant Idea.  Spend the next half hour perfecting a paragraph by including the important tenants of the Brilliant Idea.  Decide that there is productivity in anonymity.  Find value in your expensive college education because you understand the Big Ideas.  Repeat sporadically over the course of five hours.

10. Wonder why you decided to attend the University of Chicago.  Wonder why your reading period is only two days.

11. Look up in alarm as a crowd of adults snap pictures of the library and exclaim loudly about insignificant things.  Glare angrily.  Remember that it is Alumni Weekend.  Remember that it is also Finals Week and glare even more intensely.

12. Quick: yogurt or potato chips.  Which one is the better snack food?

13. Half-ass a conclusion.  Reread paper and proofread.  See that it is not up to standard and close laptop in resignation.  Reread it again later and decide it’s fine.  You would rather watch Disney movies for the rest of the day anyway.

14. Wake up too late the next morning and spend two hours at breakfast anyway.  Begin work by deciding how to color code your math notes.  Call it an afternoon well-spent when you’ve finally made your decision.

15. Freak out because your math exam is tomorrow, and you know nothing.  Memorize theorems.  Flip through papers desperately.

16. Remember that math exam is actually not tomorrow.  You’ve lost track of the days because time really doesn’t seem to work normally under these conditions.

17. Revel in newly found free time.  Feel that anything is possible and act responsibly by taking advantage of the day and going to the museum instead of reviewing notes.

18. Around midnight, stop thinking, not because you’re tired, but because your brain has actually stopped reacting to the outside world.  Finals Week has become a state of mind.

19. On some specified day, print and turn in paper/write email/take math exam/conduct inventory of writing utensils afterward/curse yourself for forgetting the answer to supposedly easy question/tell yourself to stop thinking about the paper or test/feel vague sense of relief that it’s over.

20. After two hours, forget everything that has happened and carry on with life as if the last week were no big deal.  Later, describe the time to your friends and family as “all right” and “not too bad”.