The practice of learning new languages is a humbling exercise. The act transports you back to your toddler self, vulnerable to mistakes; at once you are morphed into a Socratic state of awareness that you have so much more to learn.
“Unless one practices medicine or works with medical literature, one is unlikely to encounter the enormous mass of words used to describe the things that go wrong with us. But the words are out there, multisyllabic and waiting.”
For my last semester in college, in an effort to be practical, I signed up for a graduate humanities course called “How to Live.” On the first day, the professor discussed the syllabus at length, then asked us to introduce ourselves. The air had drained from the room, and as I waited for my turn I could already tell there was a problem.
The artists I know are perfectionists, heartlessly so, because that is required. They will paint right over a failed canvas; they will rip out every stitch and start anew. The artist comes to her material with an mix of control and surrender, and her success seems to rely on her ability to grasp a material’s specific demands, while reconciling those with her own vision. There is something there, in the material, that works against you—which requires rigor, but might bring relief.
In January, I shared with regular readers of this blog my experience reading as many editions of Moby-Dick as I could get my hands on in a university small town. I found fancy illustrated versions, and even fancier illustrated versions, and modest versions for the 1930s Everyman, and versions that had been subjected to undergraduate scribblings, and even a children’s pop-up version—albeit one so intricately cut and lovely that you would cringe to see a toddler’s hands pulling on its riggings and sails. Each edition different from the next, in its own distinctive way. And yet, they each share one thing in common. None of them know how to speak Hebrew.