Meanings of Craving

George Szirtes’s wonderful and bracing essay “Landscapes of Desire” in the second issue of The Continental Literary Magazine sent thoughts twining through my mind. He asks about the differences between words with overlapping meanings: desire, craving, lust, passion. He writes:

One might have a craving for food or drink or tobacco, for possession of an object, or for something more abstract, like comfort, or fame. The word implies a form of dependency in that one cannot live without, or cannot resist, the thing craved. In any case, it suggests something potentially illicit. Maybe, in English, it is simply because the word crave rhymes so neatly with the word deprave. It is excessive, intemperate, well beyond the supposed Golden Mean.

Desire is nobler than that. We all claim to understand and indeed to glory in it. It takes the best out of the notion of passion. Passion and desire are the driving forces of a heroic, if potentially tragic life. But craving? Does that not imply something slavish? Isn’t there something a little humiliating about it?

He goes on to discuss the poems in the issue of the journal in terms of the words he brings up. According to Szirtes, desire is elegaic, aware of the loss it contains; craving is aware only of itself and the moment.

Yes. But not quite.

I use the word “crave” repeatedly in my essay “To Crave the Edges of Speech: Reflections on Cz.K. Sebő’s New Album,” which was published in the online version of the same issue of The Continental. After reading Szirtes, I see that I should have defined the word a little, or maybe justified my use of it. I knew what I meant by it, and no, it isn’t quite as enclosed and delimited in my ear as it is in Szirtes’s. Instead, it’s sharp, compelling, and possibly pure.

There’s a kind of spiritual craving where you want something so badly that you are set in motion willy-nilly, even though you may have many reflections on what is going on. There is nothing humiliating about this. It can be surprising and enlightening. It can open up years of learning.

Hermann Hesse writes of this in Demian: “If you need something desperately and find it, this is not an accident; your own craving and compulsion led you to it.” In the original German, this reads, “Wenn der, der etwas notwendig braucht, dies ihm Notwendige findet, so ist es nicht der Zufall, der es ihm gibt, sondern er selbst, sein eigenes Verlangen und Müssen führt ihn hin.” Now, “Verlangen” could be translated as “longing,” but “Müssen” suggests urgency, compulsion. So the sharpness of craving comes through.

Or take Walt Whitman’s “Song of Prudence,” with these lines: “Whatever satisfies souls is true; / Prudence entirely satisfies the craving and glut of souls, / Itself only finally satisfies the soul, / The soul has that measureless pride which revolts from every lesson / but its own.” Here’s a paradoxical idea: that you can crave your way into prudence.

That is exactly where the beauty of craving lies. If we only had longing, desire, etc., we would sit around and do nothing but contemplate the yearning and the loss. Craving sets a person in motion, which can be toward the good. Yes, in craving you are carried. You do not necessarily know where you are going, even if your object seems clear. Some of the best changes in life happen because of this.

It has happened to me with music. I remember distinct times over the decades. Music touches on everything and goes past everything; its motion brings everything along with it. I have been hurled by music. Into the unknown, into new ways of life.

There is nothing humiliating about being hurled into uncertainty. Craving may be certain and specific in some ways. But in others it’s a complete unknown. What you think you want may only be the catalyst.

Craving is immoderate, yes. But even moderation must be taken in moderation. Only excess (not all kinds of excess, not excess to the extreme, not excess that blocks out thought, not excess that treats others badly, but still a certain kind of excess) allows a person to tip over, and sometimes this is the best thing that could happen.

It has its dangers too. People seized by craving can discard responsibilities, histories, awareness of others. But danger lies everywhere, even in the safest of things. It is possible to live too carefully, too courteously, too containedly. Moderation, too, has its excesses. A certain kind of craving keeps them in check.

But that’s not really craving you’re talking about, someone might say. It’s more like a state of spiritual urgency. Well, then, to settle that question (or to unsettle it), let’s look up “crave” in the beloved Online Etymological Dictionary.

Old English crafian “ask, implore, demand by right,” from North Germanic *krabojan (source also of Old Norse krefja “to demand,” Danish kræve, Swedish kräva); perhaps related to craft (n.) in its base sense of “power.” Current sense “to long for, eagerly desire” is c. 1400, probably through intermediate meaning “to ask very earnestly” (c. 1300). Related: Craved; craving.

What is prayer, if not craving of a sort? Where would craft come from, if not from a certain craving?

Art credit: Michael Pickett, The Old Piano.

Weekend of Weekends

This summer break has been fruitful in all kinds of ways. I have been translating, writing, planning for October (the ALSCW conference, the two Platon Karataev duo concerts, and the whole trip), going running every day, and spending time with Dominó and Sziszi. I’m astounded that there are still two more full weeks before we go back to school for our initial meeting—and then more than another week before the school year actually begins. So there’s still time for projects and fun.

But speaking of fun, this weekend was hard to beat. On Friday evening, I first went to a talk and Kabbalat Shabbat service hosted by Bét Orim, our sister congregation. Lee Gordon, co-founder of the Hand in Hand schools in Israel, spoke about the schools, which foster friendship and cooperation between Jewish and Arab children. According to their mission statement, “Hand in Hand’s mission is to build partnership and equality between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel through our growing network of integrated Jewish-Arab schools and communities throughout the country.” The work sounds promising and successful. I was glad to learn about it. The service itself was lovely.

I was a little bit worried about the time, since I had planned to go to a Kolibri concert afterwards, which started at 9:00 p.m. in a different part of the city, across the Danube and southwards.

But it all worked out; I stayed all the way to the end of the service, through the kiddush, and got to the concert a few minutes before it started. I think it was my favorite Kolibri (Bandi Bognár) concert yet. He seemed so much at ease, and the songs were full of soul. Péter Massányi accompanied him on cello; his playing blew me away. The plucked parts were often arpeggios and chords; I loved their timing and sound. The bowed parts had a soft, understated tone, perfect for the songs. I think I will often think back on this candlelit concert at the Kis Présház.

Then I checked in at a hotel next to the Déli Pályaudvar, because the next morning I was taking the train to Lake Balaton (where I had never been before)! At the end of the 2021-2022 school year, two graduating students gave me a wonderful present: a gift certificate for the “Káli esszencia” Balaton bike tour. As it turned out, I wasn’t able to schedule that particular one, but the BBT managers offered me the Tihany fröccs tour. (Tihany is a historic village on Lake Balaton; fröccs is wine mixed with sparkling water, a Hungarian summertime favorite.) I worried a little that I had chosen something too easy, but that worry disappeared on the tour itself. The tours use ebikes; more about that in a moment.

On the train, I saw a whole car of Hungarian faces light up as soon as the lake came into view. Hungarians love and yearn for big bodies of water (as do people around the world). They don’t have an ocean, so Balaton is essentially their sea. As a result, Balatonfüred (where I got off the train) was very, very crowded. I walked around for a few hours and saw lots of fat ducks and swans (they get fed by the tourists). I even went in the water, but basically determined that the next time I come to Balaton, I’ll go somewhere other than Balatonfüred.

Then I made my way to the meeting place for the bike tour, and the whole day changed. I got there just on time; the group and bikes were all there waiting, and the tour guides were giving some tips on how to use the ebikes. We would be bicycling around the hilly village of Tihany, in particular to some places that aren’t visited by tourists at all. And that’s exactly how it was. We took off and rode through a forest, up and down hills, on bike trails and dirt roads, and alongside the lake. The ride was quite vigorous, even with the ebike, which helps greatly on the hills. It was like riding a silent motorcycle and still getting a workout. The bike’s balance was superb, so after a little bit of overcaution in the beginning, I became more confident with the dips and turns. There were seven of us (including the leaders) in the group, and we seemed to hit a pace that was comfortable for all of us, neither too fast nor too slow.

We saw a few historic places: a rock where a man used to stand and wave a flag to signal to the fishermen; the ruins of a garden where lemons, oranges, and other fruit were grown during the socialist era; and other interesting things. At one point we parked the bikes and walked up a hill and up to the top of a wooden lookout tower. Here is a view from that tower. But unfortunately it doesn’t capture the sense of height and dimension that you experience from up there. In fact, taking pictures was particularly difficult, because so much of the beauty had to do with the three-dimensionality.

After the wooden tower, we bicycled right next to the lake (about a meter from the water) for a stretch, then into woods and up and down hills again, until we came to the fröccs place. There we relaxed with our beverages for a good long stretch, and then wound our way back to the starting point, pedaling faster than ever. It was a delightful ending.

About an hour later, I took a train back to the Déli Pályaudvar in Budapest, took a metro from there to the Keleti station, then took a train to Kőbánya Felső, where I transferred to another train that ended up breaking down in Tápiószele. But another train came to pick up the Szolnok-bound passengers, and I got home not terribly late (around 1 a.m.).

There will be pictures of the bike tour; one of the guides took many and is going to send them to us. I will add at least one of them here.

So, yes. This was a weekend of weekends.

Two Reviews of “Always Different”

When Gyula Jenei’s Always Different came out (my first Hungarian-English translation in book form), I was surprised at first by the silence. How could there be no response? But I remember, again and again, that these things take time. Serious reading, any kind of reading, takes time. Writing thoughts about a poetry collection takes time. So I am honored that two wonderful reviews have appeared so far.

The first, written by Claudia MacMillan (Allums) and posted on Amazon, brings out something of the essence of the collection in just a few words.

There is an urgency pulsing under each of Jenei’s poems here, something compelling one forward into the volume. Simple, unflinching words that are also somehow tender create a tone of wistful hopefulness that never fully reconciles itself into hope, although it is far from despair. I love this book of clear-sighted descriptions, lyrical musings that invite one in with a medias res feeling, the “forty years” refrain providing a lens from which to consider befores and afters strange yet familiar to us all. Jenei’s use of unpretentious language and his dogged attention to small details, people, and things remind me that a poet notices what the rest of us do not, until he show us. The title is a little poem itself. Thank you Gyula and Diana, for this lyrical retreat!

The second review, written by Christie Goodwin and published yesterday in Hungarian Literature Online, weaves through the volume with humble, brilliant insight. As I read it, I thought at moments that I was dreaming. Thank you. I quote from the end:

“Homeroom Teacher” seems to offer a metaphoric key to understanding the poet’s unraveling sense of memory and identity. He looks through the old photographs and notices “and only a few pictures identify me / as the one who took the reel”. He says that “as for the view, / i try to edit it. to the extent possible”. He does the same in his poems – presenting a picture, a shifting and “vague” one, punctuated by emotion and sharp imagistic moments. The poet seems to accept the discrepancy between the child and adult voice – his own unreliability – “i still imagine a future that will not come to pass. but forty years later the lack of it will no longer trouble me – slowly i get used to myself.” This fractured, heartbreaking collection makes us consider what and how we remember. Perhaps, as Jenei says in his poem “Passageways to God” we will encounter memory in a similar way:  “afraid of the depths” and yet unable to get our “fill of / the view”. 

Update: A wonderful review by T.M. has appeared on Amazon.

Always Different by Gyula Jenei, translated from Hungarian into English by Diana Senechal, offers a form of time travel. The speaker has more life behind him than ahead, yet he relates his childhood not as someone looking back so much as someone who has reentered the time before and now marches forward again through the years, with the dual consciousness of child and adult. The descriptions are rich with sensory detail, first making the mundane come alive—we are fully on the street with him, and in the barn, and at school—and then, in piercing flashes, revealing the turbulent emotional depths below. Children, experiencing so many dynamics for the first time, often don’t know how to interpret what happens to and around them. The adult comes back and, with careful attention, can sift through “last year’s leaf layer, the one before last year,/ the thick, fat litterfall may show its year-rings like/ an archaeological find, but below it the earth may stay/ slimy, wet and cold, with disgusting crawlers, worms,/ earthworms, cocooned lives, deaths.” The verb tenses are often future or conditional, leaving the reader at the precipice—in digging through the past, some outcomes will surely happen again, but changes are also possible; the meaning we make each time we touch a memory is always different.

The Sleight of Hand in Orbán’s July 23 Speech

In response to Viktor Orbán’s July 23 speech at the 31st Bálványos Summer Free University and Student Camp in Băile Tuşnad, Romania, his advisor Zsuzsa Hegedüs resigned. In her resignation letter, she denounced his assertion that “we are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed race.” (By “we” he means peoples of the Carpathian basin.) She called it “worthy of Goebbels” and “a pure Nazi text.” Róbert Frölich, Hungary’s Chief Rabbi, spoke out against Orbán’s statements as well.

I too am alarmed by the speech: not only by this and similar statements, but by the overall argument, which I will summarize and comment on below. I rarely bring up Orbán on this blog, because my interests and focus are elsewhere. I accept and respect that my colleagues, friends, and students hold a range of views, and I usually find that political arguments only scratch the surface of life. But some arguments tip into dangerous zones, and this speech has done more than tip.

It is cleverly written, with (fairly light) literary and cultural references, a few jokes, and what seems like an informed, logical, sophisticated yet blunt argument (here’s the Hungarian text, and here’s an English translation, from which I will be quoting). The basic gist of the first part is as follows. (Note: except when it occurs in block quotes, anything in italics is my summary, not the exact text):

Although the standard of living has been rising around the world, so has a sense of apprehension and despair. The reason for such despondency lies in the fall of Western civilization: not just ideals, but more recently, material resources. Gas and raw materials now lie primarily in non-Western hands. Those non-Western nations and regions, by the way, have no intention of adopting Western values.

Moreover, the West itself, through ethnic mixing and other changes applauded and abetted by the international Left (including the “troops of Soros”), has turned into something that could be called the Post-West. In fact, the “true West” now exists in Central Europe alone; the rest has become the Post-West. (Here’s the exact quote in English translation: “If it were not somewhat confusing, I could say that the West – let’s say the West in its spiritual sense – has moved to Central Europe: the West is here, and what is left over there is merely the post-West.”)

Before continuing, let’s take a look at this rhetorical gesture. Without defining the West, Orbán proclaims: The West as a way of life is dying. It is falling to the East and the Post-West both ideologically and materially. Only we Central Europeans (at least those who agree with me) are the true West.

This part of the speech contains many other rhetorical flourishes: in some places Orbán says “we” when referring to the entire Western world, or all of Europe; at other times he asserts that Hungary is falling victim to alien post-Western forces (and is thus supposedly the only true “we”):

It is important that we understand that these good people over there in the West, in the post-West, cannot bear to wake up every morning and find that their days – and indeed their whole lives – are poisoned by the thought that all is lost. So we do not want to confront them with this day and night. All we ask is that they do not try to impose on us a fate which we do not see as simply a fate for a nation, but as its nemesis. This is all we ask, and no more.

But what is this West that Central Europe supposedly embodies?

According to Orbán, it is a place of racial purity, where, as mentioned before, the peoples mix with each other but not with other races. It is also a place that wants to stay entirely out of “Western lunacy” regarding gender, gay marriage, etc.:

We are asking for another offer of tolerance: we do not want to tell them how they should live; we are just asking them to accept that in our country a father is a man and a mother is a woman, and that they leave our children alone. And we ask them to see to it that George Soros’s army also accepts this. It is important for people in the West to understand that in Hungary and in this part of the world this is not an ideological question, but quite simply the most important question in life.

But homosexuality is not a fad, nor do all Hungarians think and live identically on this issue. There are gay and transgender Hungarians; there are many who work and fight for greater sexual tolerance within Hungary. Orbán states correctly that Hungarians on the whole love their family lives and traditions dearly, or at least the principles underlying them (families here have problems too). I agree that U.S. gender rhetoric often gets carries away with itself; new taboos against using the word “female” or “woman” have come under ridicule there. But that does not mean that gay or transgender people threaten the family as an institution. If anything, families are stronger when their members do not have to suppress or lie about who they are. (Yes, there are legitimate questions about when and how children should be introduced to issues of sexuality. But Orbán sees no questions here; he sees well-funded radicals trying to ruin Hungarian childhood altogether.)

The speech is lengthy and intricate. Orbán talks about the war in Ukraine (he claims, among other things, that Hungarians have been “the only ones, apart from the Ukrainians, who are dying in the war” and that they only want peace. He states, in a curious twist, that “Hungary is a NATO member and our starting point is that NATO is much stronger than Russia, and so Russia will never attack NATO.” He goes on to describe the delicacy of Hungary’s position: being bound by NATO obligations but not wanting to become a formal belligerent. He goes on to blame the West (particularly the U.S.) for inciting the war in the first place by refusing to guarantee that Ukraine will never be a member of NATO. He explains how the four pillars of Western policy in the war have failed, so that the West is operating as if with four flat tires. According to Orbán, Hungary has little to no say in what ultimately happens, yet it will continue to press for peace, the only true solution. (He also suggests that if Trump were still in power, the war would not have happened.)

From here, he talks about rising energy costs, rising utility bills, and the Hungarian government’s response; he proposes a long view of the next four years and beyond, up to 2030, when Hungary must be in a strong position if it is to survive at all. He concludes with a call for unity among the peoples of the Carpathian basin:

The motherland must stand together, and Transylvania and the other areas in the Carpathian Basin inhabited by Hungarians must stand together. This ambition, Dear Friends, is what propels us, what drives us – it is our fuel. It is the notion that we have always given more to the world than we have received from it, that more has been taken from us than given to us, that we have submitted invoices that are still unpaid, that we are better, more industrious and more talented than the position we now find ourselves in and the way in which we live, and the fact that the world owes us something – and that we want to, and will, call in that debt. This is our strongest ambition.

How on earth will this tiny and beleaguered outpost of “Western values” get its due? Orbán does not explain—but he depicts Hungary and the areas inhabited by Hungarians as the last true Western place on earth, a place that must stay strong (ethnically, morally, economically, geographically) if it does not want to get trampled down. An influx of immigrants would be Hungary’s demise. Racial mixing would be Hungary’s demise. Greater acceptance of gay rights (and the rights of other sexual minorities) would be Hungary’s demise. Greater involvement in the war in Ukraine would be Hungary’s demise. And if greater Hungary were to fall, the “spiritual West” would disappear from the face of the Earth. (Orbán also states in this speech that “Migration has split Europe in two – or I could say that it has split the West in two. One half is a world where European and non-European peoples live together. These countries are no longer nations: they are nothing more than a conglomeration of peoples.”)

The sleight of hand is this (among other things): he defines the “spiritual West” only implicitly, and in a way that bolsters his points: the “spiritual West” is no more and no less than what he claims Hungary is and wants to be. From the very start, without acknowledging as much, he writes off a wealth of other definitions and understandings of the West, a wealth of philosophy, literature, art, religion, ways of life.

Moroever, he ignores gradations. It may well be that Eastern powers have no interest in adopting Western values. But many people within their borders do—or combine Western and Eastern values in thousands upon thousands of ways. Immigrants, likewise, hold a range of attitudes. Some are indeed uninterested in assimilating into the new culture. Others are eager to do so. Still others seek to do so while also preserving something of their heritage. The U.S. is a rich example of this. As a teacher in Brooklyn and Manhattan, I saw students and parents grappling with questions of assimilation. I remember a time when I called a parent to ask permission to cast his two sons in the musical I was directing (the junior version of Into the Woods). He hesitated; he wasn’t sure it was an acceptable activity according to Islam, but then he said, “I trust you, teacher. If you think it will be good for my sons, they can be in the play.” A phone conversation like this does not figure in Orbán’s worldview.

I understand that Hungary is in a particularly vulnerable situation at the edge of the EU. If migrants entered Hungary en masse, they would probably, on the whole, be uninterested in staying there, learning the language, and assuming the Hungarian way of life. Instead, they would have other destinations in mind (Germany, France, etc.) but might not be able to enter these countries right away. Hungary really could end up with a difficult situation. But the solution is not to disparage immigrants, insist on racial homogeneity, or treat the EU as the great cultural destroyer. The reality is subtler than that, with more possibilities.

As for the family, it is already changing in Hungary, with no help from “Soros troops.” Many young people in Hungary—by which I mean people in their late teens through early thirties—yearn for a more open and flexible way of living. Not all women want to be housewives. Not all men want to be served by their wives. They (women and men) want partnerships, cameraderie, friendship, shared interests, joint projects. Some might not want to marry. And many (though not all) young people, whether heterosexual or otherwise, believe that gay people should be accepted and treated with dignity. Young people have a wide range of beliefs, attitudes, feelings on these issues, but they see that this range exists. Orbán denies this range by asserting the existence of a single Hungarian view. Today, especially among the young, there is no such thing. Hungary is far more diverse (ideologically, personally, even ethnically) than Orbán recognizes.

But he resolves this by writing off the Hungarians who don’t fit his model. According to his logic, such people are international leftists, Soros troops, etc., not true Hungarians. They are not even true Westerners! The true spiritual West, according to the speech, survives only in those who will defend the Hungarian peoples from the dogma and distress of the surrounding world. As proof that he represents and understands the true Hungarian view, he would likely cite the fact that the Hungarian people keep voting for Fidesz. But this conceals a more complex situation: Fidesz itself is not monolithic, and not everyone who votes for Fidesz does so enthusiastically, in full agreement with its official ideology. (Never mind gerrymandering, media bias, etc.)

All this said, Orbán is right about some things: bleak times are here and ahead, materially and otherwise. Hungary (and the rest of the world) may well be in serious trouble. The idealistic, spiritual, and quotidian West may well be under siege. But one way to uphold and protect it is to recognize gradations, complexities, contradictions, depths, infinities. No country can be summed up by its leader, no group by its skin color or ethnic origin, no person by others’ judgements, no future by strokes of simplistic prediction.

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

On Individualism (a Brief and Partial Defense)

Yesterday I was talking with someone who had lived in the U.S. for a few years but ultimately didn’t like it there and moved back to Europe. I asked him what in particular he didn’t like. He said that it was the individualism. There wasn’t time for him to explain what he meant, so he gave a specific example: the lack of public transportation. I agree with that particular point. In much of the U.S., you need a car to get around (with reasonable swiftness). I have managed quite well without a car in New Haven, San Francisco, and NYC, but those are exceptions. Morever, it’s difficult to travel from one part of the country to another without a car (or without flying); trains are expensive and don’t necessarily go anywhere near your destination. Buses can be very slow. In Europe overall, it’s much easier to live without a car (though people buy and use cars anyway).

But just as he didn’t have a chance to explain his point more thoroughly, I didn’t have a chance to speak up for certain kinds of individualism. Individualism often gets a bad rap, not only in Europe but in the U.S. too. People often oppose it to “community,” “cooperation,” and so forth, as though selfishness and individualism were one and the same.

But there are different kinds of individualism. There is indeed the “me, me, me” kind, whose agitation is fed by the belief that you (“I”) either are the center of the universe or should be. That your job is to grab whatever you can for yourself, the rest of the world be damned.

A different kind of individualism, one that I cherish, doesn’t deny or trample on others. Instead, it asserts that in this short span of life, I can do what seems best to me or what suits me best, even if the crowd doesn’t approve of it. This kind of individualism can be found in American poets, writers of fiction and nonfiction (and their overlap), songwriters, scientists, athletes, librarians, and many others. I find this kind of individualism in Hungary too, but it isn’t quite as embedded in the way of life. There’s a respect for privacy here—people more or less leave each other alone—but there’s also an expectation that you follow certain norms, and a kind of pity when you don’t. (This is less true in Budapest and other large cities than elsewhere.)

If there’s something I especially love and miss about the U.S., it’s the spirit of finding your own way. (By the way, I hear this spirit in the music I love here in Hungary—in Cz.K. Sebő, Platon Karataev, and others.) It isn’t always present in the U.S. But I share it with friends and colleagues there. “Your own way” isn’t really your own; none of this is really your own or mine. We’re all subject to influences, forces, circumstances that we might not even notice. Moreover, whatever we do is not only for ourselves; it pours out into the world. The self isn’t even the point. But to the extent that each of us gets to choose what to do with our lives, this choice, with all its limitations and pitfalls, is worth defending to the end.

“nem beszélem nyelved, de beszélek emberül”

I would like to look at the magnificent Hungarian language through Platon Karataev’s magnificent song “Elmerül” (the ninth song on their 2022 album Partért kiáltó). This is a song about the place beyond language, but its language resonates inward, outward, and from every angle. I am writing for people who don’t necessarily speak Hungarian, so I will take this slowly and might not touch on all of the song.

I’ll start with one of the refrains:

követ kötök köré, az elme elmerül
nem beszélem nyelved de beszélek emberül

This could be translated roughly as “I tie a stone around it, the mind sinks down / I don’t speak your language, but I speak the human tongue.” Look at the beautiful alliteration and assonance of “követ kötök köré.” “Követ” is the accusative of , “stone.” “Kötök” is the first person singular of köt, “tie.” “Köré” is the directional preposition meaning “around.” Each of these words comes from a different Proto-Finno-Ugric root. The alliteration and assonance is even stronger in “az elme elmerül”; “elme” means “mind or intellect” and “elmerül” means “sinks.” In the second case, the “el-” is a prefix; in the first, it is not. I tried to track down the etymology of “elme” but found nothing; even a Hungarian online etymological dictionary states, “Régi szavunk, de eredetéről semmi biztosat nem tudunk.” (“It’s an old word of ours, but we know nothing certain about its origin.”)

Then comes this beautiful, simple complexity (and an allusion to Pilinszky’s Apokrif): “nem beszélem nyelved, de beszélek emberül” (“I don’t speak your language, but I speak in the language of humans.”) “Beszélem” and “beszélek” both mean “I speak”; why the difference? Most verbs have both an definite form (used with specific objects) and an indefinite form (used with nonspecific objects or no object at all). It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the basic principle. Here, “beszélem” is the definite form and “beszélek” the indefinite form. The definite form is needed the first time because “nyelved,” “your language,” is a specific object, even without an article preceding it. But “emberül” isn’t an object at all; it’s an adverb, so the second time around, the indefinite form is needed.

This refrain actually alternates with a similar one: “követ kötök köré, az elme elmerül / most szembenézek azzal, mit találok legbelül” (approximately, “I tie a stone around it, my mind sinks down / now I’m looking straight into the face of what I find farthest inside”).

After these, the next refrain is just as linguistically rich, though in a different way: “kérdeznem nem kell / egy vagyok a felelettel” (“I don’t have to ask / I am one with the answer”). There’s the alliteration of “kérdeznem” and “kell” but also the -em suffix, which indicates the first person singular. “Nem kell mennem” means “I don’t have to go”; “kérdeznem nem kell” means “I don’t have to ask.” The second part also has subtle alliteration: the “gy” of “egy” and “vagyok” as well as assonance (the repeated “e” sound). There’s also a play of zeroes and ones: the zero of “nem” and the one of “egy.” In addition, these two parts have a kind of mirror symmetry (especially visible in the lyrics book), where “kérdeznem” and “felelettel,” the two longest words, mirror each other as questioning and answer. (In the photo here, the text is slightly skewed; that’s because I was holding the book open.)

But all of this is later in the song, after the three stanzas or short verses, which have to do with the place beyond language, and which is likewise rich with Pilinszky allusions. Here is a rough translation:

mit találsz a szavakon túl?
hol nyelvharang már nem kondul
nem jelöl mit a hangalak
a pusztában hagytalak

mit találsz a szavakon túl?
hol nyelvharang már nem kondul
a lélek önmagába les
a végtelen dadogni kezd

mit találsz a szavakon túl?
hol nyelvharang már nem kondul
a válasz torkomban rezdül
a káosz mélyén rend ül
what do you find beyond the words?
where the tongue-bell no longer tolls
the phonetic form signifies nothing
i leave you in the bare wild

what do you find beyond the words?
where the tongue-bell no longer tolls
the soul spies into itself
the infinite starts to stutter

what do you find beyond the words?
there the tongue-bell no longer tolls
the answer vibrates in my throat
in the depths of chaos, order sits

“Nyelv” means both “tongue” and “language”—but in English, “tongue” can mean “language” too, so I translated “nyelvharang” as “tongue-bell.” This is a Platon Karataev neologism, as far as I know; it could be a play on “nyelvhang,” “lingual consonant.” That would tie in with the word “hangalak,” which is a linguistic term meaning “phonetic form.”

I think the rest explains itself. There’s much more to say, but I don’t want to weigh this down with words. Just returning for a moment to the start of the first refrain: I tie a stone around what? Maybe the answer, maybe the order sitting in the depths of chaos. Maybe the two are the same.

Now listen to the rhythm of the words; so much more will come through the music and sound. The song itself leaves words behind, not just once, but again and again.

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

Looking Back on My Books

Twice, while in NYC, I left a teaching job to write a book. Teaching was too consuming to allow for that kind of writing in spare time; each time, I needed to focus fully on the book. It’s different here in Hungary; teaching here is consuming too, but not nearly as hectic or exhausting. Anyway, in both cases I left the job completely; I didn’t keep any benefits. It was impractical, but it was the best decision for me. Thanks to the second departure (though I had no idea this would happen at the time), I was able to come to Hungary. At that point the book was almost done, and I was ready for a new plunge.

The first book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture (2012) came partly out of my experience teaching in NYC schools, where teachers were expected to incorporate group work in the lesson regardless of the topic or content. The insistence on small group work (in an already noisy environment) came at the expense of sustained thought, dialogue, introspection. The group emphasis was apparent not only in schools, but in the surrounding “culture” (I put it in quotes because it’s a tricky word) and social media. The book also took a closer look at solitude and its complexities, with forays into Petrarch, Sophocles, Newton. In that sense the book came out of something longer and larger: a life of involvement with language and literature, a life of solitude (in many senses of the word) and companionship.

Some people complained that it was too much about education; others complained about the literary and other digressions. Still others complained that it wasn’t like Susan Cain’s Quiet. (Why on earth should one book be like another one?) But overall, it found a wonderful audience and has been quoted in books and articles that I respect. And when I return to it, I am surprised by its details and depth. Work, thought, and life went into it.

With my second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, something went wrong with the marketing and readership. In some ways (though not all) I think this was the better book: tighter, punchier, more concise, but also long-lasting. Unfortunately it reached the wrong readers before it reached the right ones. The initial reader reviews were written by people who clearly hadn’t read even the introduction, or if they had, they had skimmed through it, making their own judgments instead of paying attention to what I was saying. Here’s the full text of a review I received on Goodreads:

When I saw this title on NetGalley I felt it my duty to read this and write the slangiest, most sarcastic review possible. Unfortunately, Diana Senechal has sucked the passion out of my plans. Mind Over Memes is basically a snooty English teacher’s collected opinions on how young people do, and especially how they say everything wrong.

I do have to emphasize that the author is thoroughly learned in what she is writing, and the passion of hers is clear. The problem is that this comes across as incoherent babbling to me; pretentious, holier-than-thou, grammar nazi, babbling.

There are so many tangents and grammatical anecdotes that I really struggled to keep focused on the topic at hand. And really, none of these anecdotes seemed to have any relation to her points. Also, to be frank, this book made me feel like trash, like stupid, illiterate, memeing trash. Here I am, the Meme Queen, crying as I reign over my garbage domain. I try to see what’s up in the adult world and I get slapped in the face. God, this book is depressing.

First of all, the book isn’t about young people or young people’s language at all! All the words and phrases I take up are used by people across the generations. When I did bring up young people in the first chapter, it was sympathetically. I told a story (imaginary, but based on a true story I had been told) about a summer internship interview where high school students had to summarize a project in thirty seconds. I thought this was unfair to those who could not express themselves quite so quickly or glibly. The pressure to be glib is hard on the young and old alike, but maybe especially the young, who are competing for college admission or for their first jobs.

Second, the book isn’t telling anyone, young or old, what they are doing wrong. The point is to call certain words and phrases into question: to think about where they come from and what they mean. There’s no finger-pointing, no English-teacher snootiness here. And for God’s sake, there’s no grammar-Nazi babbling. As for digressions, the chapters are tightly structured and focused, with a little bit of whimsy too.

Third, the review doesn’t mention anything specific about the book. Not a quote, or a detail, or even an overview. What kind of review is that?

So what went so badly wrong? First, there was the problem of the title. I had wanted it to be Take Away the Takeaway, but the editor said the marketing team found that too vague (and subject to misinterpretation in the UK—not that it has received much distribution there). My next choice was Verbal Resistance, which almost made it, but at the eleventh hour the marketing team rejected that as well. They finally settled (with my halfhearted consent) on Mind over Memes, with that lumbering, confusing subtitle (Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies). There are two problems with this: first, the book has nothing to do with internet memes; second, the subtitle gives the impression that a lot of chiding and correcting will be going on. In fact, it seems that the book will be criticizing passive listening and toxic talk themselves. (Not so: one chapter questions whether listening is passive at all, and another questions the overuse of the term “toxic.”)

Another problem was the write-up on the back cover. The endorsements are great. As for the book summary, I wrote the initial version, but then someone on the publisher’s end changed some of the wording. In particular, this inserted sentence could throw the reader off: “Too often our use of language has become lazy, frivolous, and even counterproductive.” This really does sound snooty, old, and weary; it doesn’t convey the tone or content of the book.

Still another problem, I think, had to do with where the galleys were sent for review. NetGalley is not the best place for this; reviewers receive a free advance copy in return for the review but are not bound by any obligation to be thoughtful or even to read the book carefully. The book did receive thoughtful reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Quartz, as well as a superbly insightful review on Amazon by Dana Mackenzie, but beyond those, a few nice comments elsewhere, and the dismissive reviews mentioned earlier, there was silence. I think people were steered away from the book before finding out what it was. (The book events are another matter; I had lovely events for both books, at bookstores and at the Dallas Institute.)

Both books have their flaws. Sometimes I get so carried away with a turn of phrase that I don’t realize how silly it sounds in context. If I were to go back, I would change some of the ornate language to something simpler. Also, Republic of Noise has too many quotes; I could have relied more on my own language and observations. But on the whole, both books are highly readable, and the subject matter is at least as relevant as it was then.

My point is not to complain about the publisher (in both cases, Rowman & Littlefield, though the first was specifically R&L Education). They accepted both manuscripts without the intervention of an agent, they were very nice and responsive along the way, and I continue to receive small royalty checks. Nor do I think I could have insisted on a different title (I tried hard) or back cover description; those are areas where the publisher does have the last word. But I think one lesson to learn from this is that the publisher and author must have a common understanding of what the book is. If there’s a misunderstanding, then the publisher will be pulling to present it in one way and the author in another.

I shouldn’t forget, though, what an accomplishment it was to write and publish these books. So many people talk about writing books, or start writing them and never finish. I know that I can pull off something like this and will rearrange my life as needed in order to do so. Also, both books opened up new eras of my life. The first book led to the Hiett Prize and a long association with the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture; the second, in some ways, brought me to Hungary. Who knows what the next book will be and where it will lead.

Yes, indeed, what about the next book? Well, there has been a book of translations, Always Different: Poems of Memory (Deep Vellum, 2022) which was every bit as big a project as these two books. My next book or two will likely be translations too. But then what, after that? I have been submitting stories for publication; if a few get taken up by journals, then I may be able to publish a collection as well. Poems, too, come now and then, and they are getting better. I also have an idea for a nonfiction book, but as with my previous books, I don’t want to talk about it until I have at least a manuscript in hand (which may be a few years from now). In any case, I expect some books of different kinds in the coming years.

That is why I treasure this time at home in the summer; so much is possible in this stretch (which goes by fast). Even though I don’t get as much done as I’d hope, I do a lot. I love the peacefulness of it: having the whole day to focus on things, without having to rush anywhere. This is hard to explain to people who don’t live in this way, but do I have to explain it? No, just live it, and do as much with it (at the different levels of doing) as possible.

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

An Award, A Poem, and Two Concerts

Twice in my life (so far) have I received a translation prize. The first was when I won the Scott Prize in Russian upon graduating from Yale. The prize was in recognition of my senior thesis, which consisted of translations of contemporary Russian poets and commentary. The second came just the other day: an Honorable Mention in the Jules Chametzky Translation Prize, for “Scissors,” my translation of Gyula Jenei’s “Olló.” This Honorable Mention was even more honorable than it may appear; usually this prize has only one winner, and this honorable mention comes with a cash award and an interview. But beyond that, the poem is one of my favorites in Gyula Jenei’s work, and I am fond of the translation too. I am honored that the MR editors and judges loved this poem.

“my grandmother will have other scissors too:”—the poem begins—”smaller, larger, / sharper—but most of all i will love the pair that has, below / the rings, on the wide-opening, ornate handle-necks, / the likeness of a man and woman embossed.” You can no longer make out the faces, but the grandmother claims that they belong to Franz Joseph and Sisi. The poem continues with the grandmother contemplating the two heads through her “one-templed spectacles” and telling stories: of the boy’s own family, of the coronation of Charles and Zita, “heaps / of tales she happily tells.” While she is telling her tales, the boy cuts something or other with the scissors, and the faces come close without actually touching.

only the rings make
a metal clap, and the blades scrape, and then the past
dissolves into the future, and then they bury my grandmother,
and i forget her stories, all i remember about them is their
having been, and only the scissors have remained, and
the sewing box with the thimble, then the thimble got lost too.

It goes on from there to my favorite part, which I won’t quote here, since you can read it. The poem is full of surprising gestures. Here’s a physical object that has remained over the years: the scissors (which I have actually held in my hands, yes, the scissors of this poem)—but they are about as vague as memory itself, since the faces have been worn and polished over time. But through this wearing down, some essence comes through: a statement, a retraction of sorts, and a final image and truth. The poem has tenderness, memory, forgetting, a sweep of history, and a pair of scissors whose clapping and scraping you can hear even if you never get to hold them.

I remember translating the first draft of this poem during a long break in my school day on a Wednesday morning (I think it was a Wednesday, in the fall of 2018). I remember thinking: How do I go back into the world after this? But I did, and it worked out well.

So, that’s what I wanted to say about the award and the poem. As for the two concerts, yesterday I had an exceptional evening. First I went to hear the Platon Karataev duo at the Esernyős in Buda. What a beautiful concert it was, and what an attentive audience. Several times they mentioned how much they appreciated the audience’s quiet attention. Here’s a photo taken by the venue’s photographers, I think.

Sebő then had to rush across the Duna (and southeastward a bit) to the Akvárium’s Petőfi Terasz, where he gave a wonderful Cz.K. Sebő/capsule boy concert. Many of us likewise went, as audience members, from the first concert to the next. There I did take a picture. But much better pictures and videos were being taken (see below); if the official video ends up on YouTube, I’ll include it here too. I loved hearing the songs and sounds find their way: a song he wrote that morning, some songs that are changing over time, some songs still in the works, songs ceding to sound and sound to songs, songs leading into songs, all together forming something joyous, thoughtful, and melancholic that I could get swept into alertly.

At that concert, the (very large) audience was listening closely for the most part, but there were a few loud people as well. Two young women planted themselves in front of me—when they could have stood to the right of me, blocking no one’s view—and proceeded to talk and gesticulate. The woman sitting next to me (around my age or a little younger, and intensely listening too) motioned that I could sit closer to her and see. I was grateful for that. The Petőfi Terasz, being outdoors and free, draws a mixed crowd, some there for the concert, others for entertainment and drinks. The music and listening won out; it was a beautiful show. But I don’t understand people who talk loudly without even bothering to move to the side or the back. (Update: From the photos I later realized that one member of the noisy pair is the lead singer of a band whom I have never heard live but three of whose albums I have. That’s even more disappointing. In the future I’ll just ask noisy people to move or be quiet, whoever they may be.)

So this leaves me with the thought that attention—in the form of reading, listening, conversation, or something else—isn’t just one of the best things to give or receive; it’s also essential. Where would any of us be without it? Isn’t despair the sense that no one is paying (or receiving) attention? And if we can’t give attention to everything (at least I can’t), isn’t it good to have a few people, things, and occasions to devote it to?

I added a little to this piece after posting it. The last picture is by Dávid Bodnár, courtesy of the Akvárium Klub Official. You can see the whole album here.

The Platon Karataev Duo: In the U.S. in October!

I have mentioned this in a few blog posts already, but here it is front and center: The Platon Karataev duo (Gergely Balla and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, two of the four members of Platon Karataev) will be performing twice in the U.S. in October: on October 23 at Cafe Nine in New Haven (their U.S. debut) and on October 24 at Arlene’s Grocery (their NYC debut). Come and hear them! Tell everyone about it!

The exclamation points don’t do justice to these occasions, though. Their music is (in a way) the opposite of an exclamation point. It goes inward and beyond into something else. “Csak befelé vezet ki út,” the first song of their new album sings. (“Only inwards does the road lead out,” or maybe more simply, “The only way out is inward.”) You can hear them sing “Csak befelé” (and four more songs) here:

I keep posting that particular video not only because I particularly love it, but also because videos of their duo performances are rather rare. A couple of others include the Grain Sessions and the video of their performance on the water stage at Fishing on Orfű last summer. As for videos of the whole band, there are many: artistic videos, videos of live performances, videos of interviews, and more.

Both Sebő and Gergő—and Csenger Kertai, Kata Heller, Fruzsina Balogh, and Panna Kocsis—will be presenting, alongside twelve others, in my seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music” at the 25th ALSCW Conference at Yale in October. These concerts follow upon the conference.

It is not easy to travel to the U.S. Just about everything is more expensive than it was a year ago. Hotel costs in NYC have doubled. Who knows where things will go from here—but for now, these are rare occasions. Any good concert is inherently rare, but these two concerts go beyond the usual rareness. Who knows when and if anything like them can happen again?

And if something can, so much the better. All the more reason to go hear them now. To be able to hear something like them again, and wait for favorite parts, and be surprised.

I took the photo last summer at the duo’s concert on the TRIP Hajó. Also, I added to this piece after posting it.

Song Series #18: Hungarian Songs I Missed While Abroad

I have returned from the U.S. It is good to be back. Many thanks to everyone who was part of the trip in any way: the person who fed Sziszi (update: I found Dominó and brought him back inside today!), the friends and family I saw in the U.S., the events I attended (including a play, a Kandinsky exhibition, a musical, and a songwriter showcase), all the staff at the various places I visited, the wonderful morning minyan service at B’nai Jeshurun on Thursday morning (which feels like this morning, not yesterday).

I had Hungarian songs in my head throughout the trip, not always the ones I would expect, but no big surprises either. These are background favorites, I’d say. Songs that hold their own whether I am listening to them or not. In this piece, I will not be translating the songs, but I think they come across (in large part) through the music itself.

One that kept coming to my mind was Cappuccino Projekt’s (Dávid Korándi’s) “Vidáman se.” Too hard to explain in a short space, but sad and exhilarating at the same time. It captures life somehow. Here it is.

Another was Noémi Barkóczi’s “Dolgom volt” (approximately “I had something to deal with,” narrated by someone who has been out of touch with others for a while). Barkóczi sometimes seems to me (slightly) like a Hungarian Joni Mitchell in the 2020s. I love the true-to-life lyrics, the chords, the rhythms, the swooping and diving of the vocals. Here’s the video.

Galaxisok was in my ears most of the time. Which song? Hard to choose, but let’s take “Focipályák éjszaka” (“Football Fields at Night”), since I listened to it in the rental car several times, and there’s this live video.

Felső Tízezer’s “Semmi pánik 2” (“No Panic 2”) figured in there somewhere. Here’s their delightful infomercial-style video of the song.

A song that I played for others (from my phone, not on an instrument, unfortunately) was Kaláka’s “Hajnali rigók” (Dawn Thrushes), a poem by Lőrinc Szabó, which they set to music. They have a whole album and songbook of bird songs (and many, many albums on other themes: bicycles, various poets, musical instruments, psalms, and much more). I can’t wait to hear them again in August. They are legendary; just as Russian literature, it has been said, came out from under Gogol’s “Overcoat,” so contemporary Hungarian song comes out from under Kaláka.

On a tangent: At Arlene’s Grocery on Tuesday, I heard Noah Chenfeld play his song “Orioles,” which was inspired by the rhythm of an oriole’s call. I like it. Although it isn’t Hungarian, I’ll include it, because it was part of the week, and because there’s something interesting going on here. I look forward to more of his music. (My favorite music of the evening was SugarSugar—especially their song “Cruel Things“—that’s another tangent, but you can listen to them and watch their wonderful “Unbreakable” video.) By the way, the Platon Karataev duo will be headlining at Arlene’s on October 24!

Lots of Platon Karataev songs played in my head, some of which haven’t been released yet. From Partért kiáltó, “Csak befelé” (“Only inward”) came up again and again. Here’s a performance of the song by the Platon Karataev duo, whom I will get to hear on Tuesday.

And to finish off, Cz.K. Sebő’s musical rendition of Pilinszky’s “Egy szép napon” (“On a Fine Day,” in the translation of Géza Simon) played itself persistently, as did other favorites from his work, including “Pure Sense.” I have brought up “On a Fine Day” many times here, but there’s always room for repetition. Who knows: maybe he will play it tomorrow night.

On A Fine Day
(Egy szép napon)

János Pilinszky, translated by Géza Simon

It’s the misplaced tin spoon,
the bric-a-brac of misery
I always looked for,
hoping that on a fine day
I will be overcome by crying,
and the old house, the rustle of ivy
will welcome me back.

Always, as always
I wished to be back.

Shabbat Shalom and a happy weekend!

For other posts in the Song Series, go here.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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