Conversational method

As you age, you don’t lose the ability to learn altogether, only you lose the the ability to learn things you’ve lost interest in. I’m learning Armenian probably faster than I learned Russian, and certainly faster than I did French. You learn how you learn fastest, and learn that way faster. I’ve never been able to sit down and study and I haven’t learned anything I’ve learned that way.

For me, I need a close relationship with a native speaker to learn a language well. I think I heard the expression learning on the pillow, I think it’s the fastest way. You are close to someone, you understand their trains of thought and the gist of what they are saying more quickly, with less words. Two streams running parallel, one perseveres in the same direction when the other dips underground, and they meet again further along when it returns to the surface. The dark body swimming near you goes along with you, the wet spitting head rejoins you when it returns.

And the other way around, when you go beyond what you can say, when you lose yourself in your speech, the other can extrapolate from their understanding of you and supply the words or figure you need. I don’t know anyone like that yet who speaks that language, or I do know one person, but he lives in a village on the other side of the country and I was only just getting to know him when I left.

Of course given the simplicity of the language I’m able to produce, that I could have a conversation about any interesting topic with him might have misled me into thinking we were closer than we were. We talked about holiness and art, whether there was a relation between them, and what it could be and what it might indicate.

Other than that the most interesting topics I’ve spoken about with people are Georgia and related topics in international politics. From there it’s been a steep drop off to food, fashion, and customs, and there is a weird similarity to these conversations, and then to simple questions of transportation and logistics.

The leap from thought to thought, the seeming leap that you can find the hidden bond behind, that comes from intimacy of thought or a similar cast of mind, is a precious thing and so is often counterfeited. You speak in generalities to avoid knowing that another disagrees, or you are painfully explicit in order to exclude misunderstanding; or you leave gaps, wide gaps, and agree to pretend with another that you both know what belongs in them.

An author imitates it, with a telegraphic style that jumps from topic to topic or scene to scene without indicating their connection; to make the reader feel the author is confident in their intimacy so that the reader can be as well. That’s the irritating thing about this kind of style. It invades your bed and snuggles up against you as if you invited it there, it’s hail-fellow-well-met without being able to remember your name.

Up to date

This year, Armenian schools went from an eleven-year system to a twelve-year system. Last year’s tenth graders are this year’s twelfth graders, last year’s ninth graders are this year’s eleventh graders, and half of the kids who started school this year are put straight into second grade.

The idea is that although it might cause a little chaos now, in twelve years it will be normal, and there’s plenty of time to develop a twelve year curriculum in the meantime. They haven’t quite done it yet but they’ve started. For example, there’s a new seventh grade book and a new fifth grade book for English, but the eleventh grade is using the old tenth grade book, and there is no eleventh grade book.

However: I’m not sure who was doing what this summer, but one of the things that wasn’t done was to adapt the curriculum and textbooks so that, for example, this year’s seventh graders can cover the material that they ought to have learned in sixth grade, which they skipped, and so on down the line. Everyone who was studying this year will have a gap in their curriculum.

And no one seems to have thought this was a problem worth solving until a couple weeks ago, when the Armenian NIE English department called all their regional specialists into Yerevan. They split up the fifth and seventh grade books among eight specialists, including my counterpart, and assigned them to combine their sections of the current-year books with the corresponding sections of the previous-year books, write lesson plans for current teachers including the combined material, that they can use or not, as they choose.

That’s the work I’m currently doing. Officially, my responsibilities are to train the teachers in my city and the region, giving workshops and seminars as needed, observing and critiquing teachers; and also to field whatever work is sent down from the central NIE. And I suppose I am doing all right, and it’s good for the place I’m working at to have free labor – I can touch-type, and I speak English.

But my resume certainly wouldn’t support me doing this kind of work at home. Which puts me in an uncomfortable position, condescending without wanting to. Although I don’t know anything about education, I know the way I would do it if I had ever done it is better than the way you do it. Here, let me show me how. Or: we wouldn’t give this guy a job, here you take him, he’ll be great. Have some of this, it tastes awful.

Shakespeare and dogma

I spoke recently with a friend about Shakespeare, and I realized how far my view of him had changed. In some ways, I still feel the same: I don’t care for the language. It seems somehow overstuffed, inorganic, and too deliberately full of ambiguities; maybe even too full of life, or overstimulated. I don’t know that I would be too interested in defending this point: but it’s the way I feel. Maybe call it taste and leave me to it. So much is constant.

But then I also didn’t get the characters. I couldn’t understand how they changed, what pressures were on them. It was all over my head. But now somehow they’ve exploded into life for me. It’s a little like learning how to open a pop-up book right, so the shapes all stand out in their proper relation. I just didn’t see the depth that was there before, the several simultaneous motions of the unfolding.

I don’t know how to characterize what the difference is. I remember pretending to like him, and I remember feeling that I couldn’t quite get a purchase on him. I felt the plays to be flat without knowing quite what I was missing. It’s funny: I’ve become more dogmatic, in my views on human nature and political realities; or I’ve gotten more of a hold on these things, I’m more opinionated: so I can read him better in these areas. I can understand the pressures on his characters, how they change and how they interact.

Psychology and humiliation

I’m suspicious of psychology. Particularly the kind that does controlled experiments. I don’t know what triggered this thought today, whether I saw something in the news or, I don’t know. Here’s the thought: What are the real motives for the psychological experiments I read about? Is it only disinterested curiosity?

Or is there some other reason people want to blindfold others, or give them electric shocks, or instruct them to give others electric shocks, or make them look at violent pornography with electrodes on while people watch and take notes on their reactions. It’s as if they have no knowledge of psychology, these psychologists: do they think people feel and react normally, in such an unequal power relatinoship? Nobody likes being powerless, nobody is going to be like themselves, in that kind of situation.

Who knows, maybe it’s just science. The pursuit of knowledge, disinterested in itself, allows us to have the satisfaction of humiliating people who knows. Or maybe it’s a problem with journalists, these are the experiments they write about. The interesting ones are the ones which feature humiliation, and all the innocuous ones never make the paper. But I don’t know, and I haven’t found out.

There’s a particular study I heard described on a podcast, and I keep returning to it in my mind. The whole situation seems to encapsulate my distaste for this kind of psychology. The study tries to isolate people’s self-image, or their honesty with themselves.

The subjects are asked whether they would say: that they experience particular satisfaction after taking a dump; that they often imagine raping people, or about being raped; whether they think about having sex with their parents, or siblings; and other, similar questions. The common denominator is that these are not things people admit to, in public. Only people who are honest with themselves will admit these things.

Then the respondants are ranked according to how many shameful things they admit to. And those who admit more are called more honest with themselves. These two groups are tracked: and it turns out those who are more honest with themselves are less successful in a variety of ways: they earn less and are more depressed than the others, the ones who lie to themselves. The dishonest ones just do better in life. To succeed, you have to just lie to yourself, or be arrogant, or have an inflated sense of self-worth; and the deck of life is stacked against people who have an accurate self-image.

But there’s a blind spot here, think about it: Why should we call those who are more likely to admit shameful things about themselves to a stranger, why should those people be called honest? Not that they are dishonest; no, not necessarily: but the study doesn’t test honesty, or self-image accuracy, it tests how likely its subjects are to admit shameful things about themselves to a stranger.

But these are not the same thing. We all know people who are unable to admit good things about themselves, good qualities that are obvious to those who know them. These people are also being dishonest in a way, and even dishonest with themselves, their self-image is not accurate; but these people might be called honest, in this study. Additionally: isn’t it a symptom of depression to believe shameful things about yourself, dwell on them, and bring them to others’ attention in inappropriate fora? – it’s no wonder that people who behave in this way will find themselves being less successful than others. It is difficult to work with someone who tells you shameful things about themself. It’s distracting.

The creators of the experiment described its origin on the podcast where I heard about it. It was like this: They were in a bar, late at night, they took a napkin and began writing down all the shameful things, things people whould not want to admit about themselves, and as they got drunker and drunker the things got worse and worse. The scene is all to clear to me: as they drank more and more, their desire to humiliate others became stronger and hid itself more effectively behind the weakened desire to answer the question.

I don’t know if I’m being fair, or if what I’m describing is accurate or representative. But it’s the impression I have of the science. A science is a big place, lots of things happen in it. My own ignorance is plenty wide, there’s room for a great deal inside of it.

I know I’ve benefited tremendously from therapy. But the kind of relationship I had with my therapist, where we worked together as equals, discussed things and agreed, like two human beings working on a problem, seems miles apart from the scenarios seen in science news reporting about psychology, which seem to have a serious sadistic, faux-objective, humilation obsession.

The dream in Ulysses

A friend of mine and I have been reading Ulysses together over the past year and I had mentioned my impression, I’m sure I read it somewhere, I don’t think I would have come up with it on my own, that Bloom and Stephen and Molly had all had versions of the same dream the night before the day of the action of the book. In our meetings, I was able to recall my impression, but I couldn’t find the evidence. I’ve finally put together the quotes I was thinking of (references are to Gabler). It’s a little less clear than it was in my imagination. I had written 1) a defense of reading Ulysses at all (why do I feel I have to defend that?) and 2) a long interpretation of the passages below that ties them in with a certain aspect of the book’s overall architecture, but I thought better of both. Too much work.

From Stephen’s day:

After he woke me last night same dream or was it? Wait. Open hallway. Street of harlots. Remember. Haroun al Raschid. I am almosting it. That man led me, spoke. I was not afraid. The melon he had he held against my face. Smiled: creamfruit smell. That was the rule, said. In. Come. Red carpet spread. You will see who. (3:365-9).

Last night I flew. Easily flew. Men wondered. street of harlots after. A creamfruit melon he held to me. In. You will see. (9: 1207-8)

Mark me. I dreamt of a watermelon… (Extending his arms.) It was here. Street of harlots. In Serpentine Avenue Beelzebub showed me her, a fubsy widow. Where’s the red carpet spread? (15: 3922, 3930-1)

From Bloom’s day:

Dreamt last night? Wait. Something confused. She had red slippers on. Turkish. Wore the breeches. Suppose she does? Would I like her in pyjamas? Damned hard to answer. (13: 1240-2)

Leop. Bloom there for a languor he had but was now better, he having dreamed tonight a strange fancy of his dame Mrs Moll with red slippers on in pair of Turkey trunks (14: 507-9)

He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melonsmellonous osculation. (17: 2241-3)

From Molly’s day:

he was on the cards this morning when I laid out the deck union with a young stranger neither dark nor fair you met before I thought it meant him but hes no chicken nor a stranger either besides my face was turned the other way what was the 7th card after that the 10 of spaces for a Journey by land then there was a letter on its way and scandals too the 3 queens and the 8 of diamonds for a rise in society yes wait it all came out and 2 red 8s for new garments look at that and didnt I dream something too yes there was something about poetry in it (18: 1314-1321)

Id love to have a long talk with an intelligent well-educated person Id have to get a nice pair of red slippers like those Turks with the fez used to sell (18: 1493-5)

Language learning

Learning a language is a neat trick. I’m not sure I understand how it’s done. I’ve done it before, but I don’t think I quite caught myself in the act, I don’t know the trick of the trick. I can speak French with some confidence and read without a dictionary, although when I took French in high school, I did poorly at it, understanding very little.

However when I got to college I found I could read it and understand it, and even do it for pleasure. However, then I didn’t know how to speak it, and I had little confidence I would ever learn. But after a week or so of exposure, I found I could use it for any of my needs, I could communicate about myself and who I was, and I could understand what was communicated to me.

The same thing happened with Russian; more quickly than I myself noticed, I went from understanding and knowing little, struggling to put letters together into words, to being comfortable expressing myself in a range of settings with this new instrument: like using a pen that is at first unfamiliar and then seems to recede into your hand and be only an extension of it; and then when I began to read, I found with time I could read it, and enjoy reading, and lose myself in a book. And it happened at a different speed than I experienced it, I was talking above my level, or making elementary mistakes without noticing after a long period of having an advanced skill.

I don’t think applied study is the answer. It’s not like learning facts. It isn’t simply repeated exposure either, I’ve been exposed to much that I haven’t learned the first thing about. It’s more like: there’s a tug of war between what you’re hearing and what you’re trying to express. You hear something new, and understand it, you try to put it in your speech. You try to say something new, fail, and then you suddenly hear how it should be said. It’s a triangular tug of war, in the back and forth see-saw, you drift slowly towards knowledge. As you hear better you speak better, as you improve how you speak you begin to hear things you had not heard before.

I haven’t ever really applied my self to learn, successfully. It’s a knack you get from repeated practice, but taking it faster than it wants to go is only going to frustrate me, and intimidate me. I started Armenian less than a week ago; I haven’t learned the alphabet yet, but I know a few phrases, some of the grammar is starting to become clear; I can tell an infinitive from a participle, and I know a few pronouns. I can’t hear the difference between the aspirated and unaspirated letters yet, and I don’t know anything about its conjugations, tenses, or declensions, but these things will come in time. I look a little, I listen a little, daily, without goals or any intentions.

It might be a little like getting to know a person: it’s only accomplished over time. You recognize their face first, you get to know thing slowly about their style, you see their face in only a limited range of expressions, then over time you come to know them better, only if you try to get to know someone as a deliberate project, they are more likely to hide themselves from you, hide what is essential to them, and make the process longer.

I just don’t get it; see below

Reading about Nagorno-Karabakh. Sometimes it’s reported as if, or maybe it’s me, it’s just another example of third-world ethnic conflict, something civilized nations don’t understand, something to do with ancient hatreds. But of couse the conflict is between two states, not two ethnicities, and what is more, it is not irrational. You can figure it out: there is a clear territorial dispute at its heart. It was Soviet ethnic Azeris who were expelled, beaten, burned, raped and killed in Armenia; ethnic Azeris from Iran, who currently conduct most of Iranian trade with Armenia, are not harassed, expelled, or abused and are on the contrary welcomed. The story is not new and is not confined to one part of the world: a co-ethnic minority in a neighboring country requires our help, so we annex their territory. Sudetenland, Texas, etc. Nationalism only happens in ethnics when it is a defining term for nation, not otherwise. When loyalties go that way.

Certainly there are such things as ethnic differences. Groups linked by lineage and marriage share customs, language, and material culture. The traditional line from the civilized world, or maybe it’s just me again but that’s how it seems to me, the traditional line on these conflicts is incomprehension: why do people fight so viciously over such small or superficial or inconsequential differences. But they are not fighting over these differences. The differences are not a cause of war, the conflict is over incompatible claims put forward by political entities, which may or may not be defined by ethnicity, but are defined in some way, and ethnicity is one of many handy ways to define and mobilize a political entity. It is only one of many.

There’s a mythical kind of thinking I try to resist: Once upon a time, ethnic differences became a cause of war. Before that time, there were differences between human groups, but they were irrelevant to conflict, which had to do with power, not identity. That is to say, there was war, which was bad, and there were differences, which were good or neutral. States were ruled by a trans-national elite, and wars were not inspired by broad-based hatred. Then came the time of pollution, the rise of nationalism, where ethnic differences became part of what defined a state or nation. Good or neutral things became infected with evil.

This myth ignores many things. Ethnic cleansing, far from being a modern invention, has been around at least since the Babylonians deported the Hebrews from Palestine. Armed conflict breaking out along ethnic lines is as old. And occasional ethnic conflict doesn’t disqualify groups from living in peace most of the time. Pogroms and riots in 1905 and 1920 and mass deportations in the 1940s didn’t keep Armenians and Azerbaijanis from living together as neighbors, friends, coworkers and often even family until the 1980s. The point is that ethnicity is just one mobilizing force among many. It is a way to mobilize large groups quickly, like a fault line, or a wiring system connecting individuals. But nearly any difference between individuals can act be acted upon in this way: age, income, region, education status, dialect. People are wired to one another in multitudinous ways.

Each person has multiple identities. Each identity has its own loyalty. I am a son-in-law, a transplanted Oregonian, a Peace Corps volunteer, a college graduate, an atheist, a religious sympathizer, et cetera, and my actions are in part determined by these loyalties, in certain circumstances. All other things being equal, assuming no conflict with any other loyalties, I want the best for Oregon. I don’t think it’s possible to eliminate these loyalties, any more than you could eliminate differences between individuals or their tendency to identify in groups. They are extensions of healthy self-interest. So far from being the cause of conflict, the increase of them can tend to reduce or complicate conflict. It is easier to kill the Kurd who you have never met than the one who is your uncle’s son-in-law and neighbor, who you have drunk tea with and sung songs with.

The point is there is nothing about ethnicity or ethnic differences that necessarily leads to war. Azeris and Armenians, interviewed now about the past, will say: we always lived together normally. While that wasn’t entirely true, it was generally true. They did live together. The peoples of the Caucasus have shared territory for a long time.

This is another pattern of mythic thinking I notice in myself: to imagine the current national borders follow some natural, pre-existing ethnic reality. The Armenians are from Armenia, look it’s right there on the map, the Turks belong in Turkey, and the Bulgarians have a space all there own there in Bulgaria.

Whereas: It’s commonly known that Armenians inhabited much of eastern Turkey, as well as Istanbul, Izmir, and other major cities. But in those same places as ethnic Armenians lived Kurds, and Turks, and Turkmen and Greeks, as well as members of other ethnicities. Armenia’s current capital, Yerevan, was a provincial town until the emigrations from Turkey in 1915; before that time then the capitals of Armenian culture were Van, now in Turkey, Tblisi, now in Georgia, Baku, now in Azerbaijan, and Istanbul, which is still not again the international city it once was. Eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus were in general much more mixed. There were plenty of “muslims”, probably Turkish-speaking, Shi’ite Azerbaijanis, in Yerevan and Gyumri. There were Turks in Georgia, and Greeks were found all over the Black Sea coast, including Turkey, Russia, the Ukraine, until Ataturk in the 1920s and Stalin in the 1940s homogenized the regions under their control.