The Pilinszky Walk

Yesterday I did something I had wanted to do for months: go on one of the Pilinszky walks hosted by the Petőfi Literary Museum and the Anna Juhász Literary Salon. I think they have been happening monthly, alongside hundreds of events commemorating the centennial of János Pilinszky’s birth. I didn’t have time to do this (especially since it involved going to Budapest); I have several deadlines and am under a lot of pressure. But it was more important than the pressure or deadlines. And it was one of the highlights of my four years so far in Hungary.

Anna Juhász and the actor Zalán Makranczi led the walk. We each received an audio transmittor and earphone, so that we could hear them easily as we walked along. Since the earphone went in just one ear, we could also hear the sounds around us. What a difference that made! I didn’t have to strain to hear them, or try to stay up close; I could just walk along in the crowd and still hear every word. The amazing thing to me was that I could follow every bit of it; I knew what they were talking about and was familiar with most of the poems they quoted. They also emphasized the importance of Pilinszky’s prose; Makranczi read many passages of it.

As we walked along slowly-slowly on this golden autumn day, they showed us different places where Pilinszky had lived, where he had gone to school, a café where he and other writers spent lots of time; they spoke of the different times of Pilinszky’s life, of his family, his love of family, his solitude, his grief over the war, his religious faith, and his continual longing for home. Juhász spoke at length about “Apokrif,” which is central to his work. Makranczi read the first part of it aloud.

At the end of the two-hour walk, where we saw Pilinszky’s last residence, Juhász quoted his words that a person is not complete until death: that life and death, rather than being opposites, actually form a unity together: “Életet és halált lehetetlen nem egybelátni. Élet és halál nem más, mint kettétört öröklét, meghasonlott valóság. Egyik nem több a másikánál, csak aki élt és meghalt közülünk, örökkévaló. Hogy kik vagyunk ezek a mi, ezt nem tudom. Életünket mi csak halálunkkal egészíthetjük ki. Egyik a másik nélkül végleges töredék marad” (“It is impossible not to see life and death as one. Life and death are nothing other than eternity split, reality divided. Neither one is more than the other; but whoever among us has lived and died is everlasting. Who we actually are, I don’t know. We realize our lives only with death. One without the other remains a fragment forever.”)

Pilinszky is beloved in Hungary, but not in a “popular” sort of way. The poems demand privacy. Once one of them reaches you, then Pilinszky enters your life for good. And, I believe, your death.

I first read Pilinszky several years ago at a student’s urging (thank you, Isti!). He recommended his favorite poem, “Egy szenvedély margójára” (“Onto the Margin of a Passion”), which I memorized and recited for the class. But only two years or so later did I read “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight Labyrinth”), thanks to Cz.K. Sebő’s musical rendition. That opened everything up. I have memorized it too and recite it every day. Here you can hear Pilinszky himself reciting it.

And here is an extraordinary translation by Géza Simon:

The Straight Labyrinth
(Egyenes labirintus)

What will it be like, this return flight
that only similes can describe,
like sanctuary, altar,
homecoming, handshake, hug,
under the trees, garden feast,
where there is no first and last guest,
what will it be like in the end,
this free-fall on open wings,
this flight into the fiery
focus, the communal nest? – I don’t know,
and yet, if there is something I know,
I know this blazing corridor,
this labyrinth straight as an arrow,
the heavier and heavier,
exhilarating fact of our fall.

As I have mentioned before, Platon Karataev’s “Wide Eyes” alludes to “Straight Labyrinth”; Pilinszky can be felt in a number of their songs (and is especially important to their main songwriter, Gergely Balla, as well as to the other members). Their “Bitter Steps” (maybe my favorite song on their Atoms album) quotes from Ted Hughes’s translation of “Apokrif”: “[And] this is why I learned to walk! For these belated bitter steps.”

So this October walk, for which I am grateful, brought many things together in one. These are continually opening up into more.

I am planning an ALSCW Zoom event dedicated to Pilinszky and his influence; it will probably take place in March or later in the spring. I should have details soon—but mark it vaguely in your calendars already. I will be inviting everyone I can think of: in addition to friends, family, acquaintances, and colleagues, all the Hungarian language and literature departments I can find in the U.S. (they exist—at Columbia University, for instance), songwriting programs, radio hosts, writers, and others. The featured guests will include Csenger Kertai, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly (Cz.K. Sebő), and possibly one more person (stay tuned!).

Speaking of Csenger Kertai, my translations of two of his poems, “Lake Balaton” and “On Forsakenness,” will be published in the next issue of Literary Imagination!

But speaking of translations, I have deadlines for a different project, so that will be all for now.

The End of the Trout’s Nose

I am tired today! And with good reason: it has been an intense week, with teaching, writing deadlines, school events, a special occasion, two trips to Budapest, and more. Nor am I the only one tired; I sensed the fatigue in my students this morning. Everyone’s anticipating the autumn break, which is just a week away. (For me it will be busy, but still a change of rhythm.)

Sometimes, when tired like this, I still try to get things done, since there’s so much to do. But resting has its place too. Things do get done.

Also, getting things done isn’t all that matters. Why would it matter at all, if there weren’t something worth resting for too?

That’s a somewhat odd notion, playing on a weary brain, but I’ll try to explain it a little.

The things that matter aren’t exactly what we think they are. No matter who we are, we get caught up in certain vanities: getting things done, doing things well, achieving a desired result, all of which are important, but not to the degree that we imagine. I say “we,” but each of us has private distortions.

What does matter, then? It isn’t just one thing; it can’t be pinned down to one thing. Robert Frost wrote in one of his notebooks, “There is such a thing as sincerity. It is hard to define but is probably nothing but your highest liveliness escaping from a succession of dead selves. Miraculously. It is the same with illusion. Any belief you sink into when you should be leaving it behind is an illusion. Reality is the cold feeling on the end of the trouts nose from the stream that runs away.”

Breaking Glass (my essay in The Nation)

Yesterday, for the first time, I had an essay published in The Nation. It’s about the current push in U.S. schools for curricula that reflects the students’ demographic characteristics. I take issue specifically with NYU Metro Center’s Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecard, which enables teachers, schools, parents, and others to rate their curriculum on the basis of its demographic representation, social justice messages, and inclusive classroom practices. I considered how Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie, which I have read and reread, loved, and taught over the decades, would fare under such a system.

I see diversity, whether in a student body or in the works that students read, as a good or a means toward a good. But diversity is not just demographic; there’s also diversity of thought and character. Nor does it tower above other considerations, especially when it comes to curricula. A curriculum also needs coherence and progression, as well as imagination and substance. When it comes to literature, the works should have room to exist on their own terms: to surprise and challenge the readers, to take them to new places. Literature does not bend to our expectations or squeeze into our categories. Its beauty lies in its way of taking its own way.

Cultural responsiveness is a little different from diversity. It has to do with reflecting the students’ characteristics. Its underlying premise, or one of them, is that students will be more motivated and feel more affirmed if they recognize themselves in the curriculum. While helpful up to a point (self-recognition can indeed be affirming), it runs into two problems. First, students will not necessarily recognize themselves in works that supposedly reflect their own background. Second, students need more than self-recognition; they also need to be challenged and exposed to new ideas.

I remember my disappointment when I first started reading women writers (beyond the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen). I didn’t relate to them more than to male writers; “women’s writing” did not seem particularly close to me. That said, some of the writers fascinated me (and still do), not because they resembled me, but because they were interesting and brilliant in themselves: Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, Alice Walker (particularly in her short stories), Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and others.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the essay, and if you disagree or quibble with it, that’s fine! And do consider attending tomorrow’s online ALSCW event, “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture.”

Image source: Cult MTL.

Notes for a Course on Phonology (Poem)

This is an old poem of mine, and a favorite. It was published in the Spring 1991 issue of Yale Literary Magazine (a journal edited by Yale undergraduates). On October 26 I will recite and speak about this and other poems as a featured guest in the MacMillan Institute’s online Poetry series.

Notes for a Course on Phonology

Diana Senechal

Can I ignore the flagellant good-byes
of flailing trees, who lose as they embrace?
Can I forget the flicker on your face,
the green and blue and auburn in your eyes?
Or will I let it seize me by surprise,
that scoundrel death, who leaves without a trace,
snapping the golden thread that you have spun,
that different reason in the rising sun?

The dance begins with sounds.
Step back, and let the feet perform for you.
The vowels make their rounds.

Some come into the light,
knocking the rest into a different hue.
The pattern blurs my sight;

the artist, steeped in rage,
soaking the paintbrush, draws it lone and stark
across an empty page.

The student is a fool
who disregards the reasons in the dark
to memorize the rule.

The consonants in pairs
come forth, some gliding stoplessly,
the others taking chairs.

Some hold the hands of ghosts,
whose flesh and form can come to be
a question of the company
invited by the hosts.

I envy linguists, chemists, the wealthy ones,
the immortal ones. Peering into the gesture,
breaking the leaves into their particles,
they see the seasons as contiguous,
and similar, and not so harsh. I can’t—
I myself crumble,
for I see the grace
of your veins, your lonely singleness of shape,
your lonely colors. I will hold you close
and whole. The time for dust has not arrived,
though it is near. Then I will hold the dust.
A different reason in the rising sun.

the reasons in the rising
the guises of the seasons
the rise and fall of tidings
the crumbling of our reasons
the reasons for the fall
the falling of the seas
the risings of the tide
the dying of the trees
the scarlet in your eyes
the scars the stains the sores
(would I give up your glance
to analyze your pores?)

Two suns rise together, for different reasons,
and meet. One sees an endless beginning,
and therefore begins with the end: dust,
ghostly with life. Time never ends
in this golden light, nor does it ever begin.
The other sees an end barely beginning,
a trap of beginning and end, embracing you,
dear dying one, dear urgent living one.

My page is blank with forms, yours filled with formulae.
They fall like leaves from the sun, missing each other’s reasons.

Paring Down

Many of us know how satisfying it can be to simplify things, to shed them down to the essential, be it a schedule, a song, a room, or a thought. But this work cannot be unidirectional. We muddle and clutter ourselves up, then let the dross drop. With good reason, too. we want to sweep up the abundance of life, we want to lose it. Again and again. Still, over the long term, a slow paring can happen.

I am going to fewer concerts and other events than I might otherwise this month, because I have so much else to do and want to do it well. I am also thinking more simply, focusing on what I have to do each day (because if I don’t, I am likely to forget something). I have also been thinking of paring down as a principle of poetry—not in the obvious ways (poetry is known for its conciseness) but for the internal shedding that often takes place in a poem, the simplification in motion. A poem is not static. While writing it, you simplify it, but even in its final form it moves into its own kernel.

Upcoming Events

This is the busiest fall I can remember in years, and there have been quite a few busy ones. Teaching is in full swing, with all kinds of interesting things: Hamlet, utopia projects (my students read a few chapters of Thomas More’s Utopia and are now creating utopias of their own), The Glass Menagerie, songs, grammar, lively discussions, test practice, the usual textbook stuff, and more.

Outside of school, just as much is going on: translations, writing, events. Speaking of events, I have two to announce.

On October 15, I will be one of the panelists in an ALSCW Zoom event titled “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture,” which will feature an array of speakers, as well as poetry readings by Edward Hirsch and Yusef Komunyakaa. It should be terrific. The full event description and Zoom information can be found here. The event is free and open to the public.

On October 26, I will be the fourth featured guest in The MacMillan Institute’s online Poetry series (open to the public for an entrance fee of $10.00; please register in advance). The previous guests were Fred Turner, Sarah Cortez, and Dana Gioia. I will be reciting and talking about poetry and translation (both my own and others’). One of the poems I plan to recite is Pilinszky’s “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight labyrinth”), both in the original and in the wonderful translation of Géza Simon. To anyone in Hungary: you are welcome to attend, but please know that it starts at 1 a.m. on October 27 here! Fortunately we will be on spring break, so I can sleep in afterwards.

Speaking of Pilinszky, I should have some news, fairly soon, about an ALSCW Zoom event I intend to host in the spring, dedicated to Pilinszky and his influence. Details are still being worked out, so I will say more when there is more to say.

Also, if all goes well, we (my school and the Verseghy Ferenc Public Library in Szolnok) will hold a Shakespeare festival on April 22! We had hoped to do this last year, but Covid got in the way. This day-long festival will feature lectures, workshops, and student performances (in Hungarian and English) of Shakespeare scenes, sonnets, and songs.

Before that, this fall and winter, there will be two new issues of Folyosó. Submissions are now open for the autumn issue; the international contest focuses on the topic of contradictions in life. I look forward to seeing what pieces come in (I have already read a few) and what shape this issue takes!

At Szim Salom, I am leading four services this month. One took place on Friday; the other three will be this Friday, this Saturday, and Saturday the 23rd. In my case, leading the services means singing all the musical parts, all the melodic liturgy, leyning Torah, and leading the congregation through the parts of the service. When I co-lead with the rabbi (on Saturdays), she leads the spoken parts and usually gives a dróse (a D’var Torah, or sermon). This month, the Saturday services will take place in person, at Bálint Ház in Budapest.

There’s a lot more going on, but I think that’s enough. As for other people’s events, this afternoon I am going to Budapest to hear Csenger Kertai (whose poems I am translating) and several other poets: Krisztián Peer, Katalin Szlukovényi, Dávid Börzsei, and Bálint Borsi. Like the event at the A38 Hajó, but differently, this event will combine poetry with music and visual art.

Also, there’s a concert I’d like to hear on Thursday—a double CD release party for Noémi Barkóczi and Mayberian Sanskülotts—but for various reasons I don’t think I can go. I will listen to their music at home, and if it turns out that I can go, I will.

Other things, other concerts are happening this month, but this is enough for now.

The photo is of the Aranytoll (Golden Pen), a pen and stationery shop here in Szolnok. (At least I think that’s what it is; I haven’t been inside yet.)

Listen Up: Hannah Marcus

This “Listen Up” piece, the fourth in the series, is long overdue; I dedicate it to the wonderful Hannah Marcus, who has released album after album over the years, in a changing style of her own, and who collaborates with many musicians across genres. Many people love Hannah’s songs not only for their dark tones and themes, not only for their musical imagination, but also for their humor, curiosity, and generosity, which I hope to touch upon today. This is a short piece, partly because not all of her songs are available online. But I hope it’ll introduce her music to a few people.

I first met her music in a curious way. A friend and bandmate of mine, no longer alive, pulled Hannah’s song “Demerol” out of his closet one evening. “This song is you,” he said, and put it on. It was a stunning song and equation; afterwards I tried to remember the songwriter’s name—which was fitting, because the song begins, “What is your name? Tell me, child of grace, what is your name? What a thing for an R.N. to say, what is your name? Here’s some Demerol to ease the pain, can you tell me what occurred today?….” She starts out slowly, gently, in alto notes, then soars up with “today” into the celestial part of the song.

A few years later, another friend asked me, out of the blue, “Have you heard Hannah Marcus’s music?” She told me where to find some of the albums, and I was off to the record store. It turned out that Hannah was living in San Francisco now (where I was too), so I attended a couple of her shows, and we started to become acquainted. Over time, a friendship formed, which continues to this day.

Another favorite early-ish song, from her 1997 Faith Burns album, is “Face in the Moon.” Like “Demerol,” it rises slowly. A friend told me he got all choked up over the word “joy” (when it first comes up, on a high note). So do I, returning to the song now. It is a song to ride along with, to sink into, to rise up through. The song spills longing like moonlight, and then a joy takes over. “If there is such a thing as joy in this life, let it rise, illuminated, into life.”

The songs have complex qualities and moods; there’s a subtle chuckle even in the saddest of them. One of my favorites on her Black Hole Heaven album is “Los Alamos,” which describes personal abandonment in an eerily changing world, a world marked by fires, genetic experimentation, and mythology. The wry lyrics are punctuated with samples of Richard Burton’s Hamlet (“Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of innnnfinite space, were it not that I had bad dreams”). The phrases “innnfinite space” and “bad dreams” recur throughout the song.

Another long-time favorite, which I brought up in my “Song Series” piece on American epic sadness, is “Hairdresser in Taos,” from her Desert Farmers album. Like “Los Alamos,” it moves from personal crisis or loss into a view of something vaster, in this case a confusion and lostness going far beyond the self, into a cry that becomes hymnal, “Lord if only I could find a road, I’d take it.” The song is sadly comic too, especially the part about the hairdresser in Taos who “stuck my head in the sink and put red dye all over my hair…” and then “I ran out of the house with the red dye still on, I even left him my only copy of Blonde on Blonde…:” with the piano mounting and dancing.

After Desert Farmers, Hannah Marcus’s music took all sorts of directions. The Wingfield Community Singers was (and I hope still is) a happy convergence of gifts: the composer David Grubbs, the writer Rick Moody, Hannah Marcus, and other members along the way. I loved the concerts and treasure the songs. Listening to this band is like having your random impulses and thoughts poured into graceful sculpture (that then begins to dance around the room). On the solemn side, one of my favorites is “Night, Sleep, Death, and the Stars,” whose lyrics combine two Walt Whitman poems. Another favorite is “Blue Daisy.”

During this time, Hannah was also learning fiddle, specifically bluegrass, and attending bluegrass festivals and conferences. (I went with her once to a bluegrass conference in the Catskills; it was quite an experience.) She has now plays fiddle/violin (as well as her other instruments) on numerous projects, in a range of genres. On Matana Roberts’s 2019 album Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis, she plays electric guitar, nylon string guitar, fiddle, and accordion, and sings backing vocals. This is another side of her musicianship: her support of other musicians, her admiration of their talent, her love of playing with others and continuing to learn new things: new instruments, new styles, new ways of thinking about music, new things about people.

In some ways, music can only come out of an individual, in private and in quiet. That’s why there are solo musicians, or leaders of bands and ensembles: the individual has something so powerful and different to bring. Music would not exist if it had to be entirely communal. But the wisest musicians recognize that it doesn’t begin or end with them, that music stretches far beyond them, and all they can do is play within that expanse. And that’s the joy of it: when it’s not about you, but about the music itself, wherever you find yourself in it. I admire Hannah for finding it in so many places and for playing on and on.

I made a few small changes to this piece after posting it. For other pieces in the “Listen Up” series, go here.

A Platon Karataev Time Capsule

Last night, when I was listening to a few things on YouTube and elsewhere, a Platon Karataev video popped up that I had never seen before.Beautifully shot by Diána Komróczki, it shows them performing “Prison” on the KERET stage (where I first heard the wonderful Cataflamingo this year) at the Kolorádó Fesztivál in 2017. Their bassist was András Jáky.

KERET is an independent blog and journal about independent Hungarian music. (I support it, by the way, when I can, and I recommend doing the same.) It draws attention to some of the most interesting and gifted—and often little-known—indie musicians performing today. The KERET stage is my favorite thing about the Kolorádó Fesztival. If only there weren’t a thumping drum from a dance area nearby! Although my feelings about the festival were mixed (mostly because of the incessant thumping electronic monotonic drum from several stages and areas there), I would go back for the KERET stage alone.

Anyway, here was Platon Karataev on the KERET stage, playing a song that has not appeared on any of their albums… and why not? Because that was not its fate; it was to transform into another song, “Wide Eyes.” If you listen to this (right here below), and then “Wide Eyes” (below that), and watch these performances too, you will see what an incredible and unexpected journey they have been on. How could they have known, in 2017, where this song and they would go? Also, look at the (sparse and intensely attentive) audience: the young man standing in the very front with two others, the one listening with all his heart, is none other than László Sallai (wearing a “Player 00” shirt, it seems), who would become their bassist in 2019. And I love this “Prison” song; it has a country feel with upbeat, subtle lyrics and the refrain “Let’s look for a better one.” I would have been drawn in on that day.

And now, here’s “Wide Eyes,” which is part of their 2020 album Atoms. I am showing the Live at Gólya performance below, because it’s great, and that way you can see them performing it. It’s slightly slower, the lyrics are mostly changed, but the soul of it is the same, only clearer. The song has found its way. The “straight labyrinth” is a reference to Pilinszky’s poem by the same title, and the reference goes beyond that phrase alone. The song’s essence is close to the poem; when Sebő sings, “Meteors light my mind / I peel layers of my thoughts,” it brings to mind “this free-fall on open wings, / this flight into the fiery / focus, the communal nest” (from Géza Simon’s translation of Pilinszky’s “Egyenes labirintus“).

Besides being part of Atoms and their many performances (I think it’s one of the audience favorites, wherever they go), this song has an extraordinary video starring the actor Ágoston Kenéz, whose zest, instinct, and understanding of the song fill every split-second frame.

On Friday night I heard Platon Karataev play in Szeged, at the beloved Grand Café, where I have previously heard Dávid Szesztay play and Gyula Jenei read. As I listened, I felt how much has happened with them and their music over these past few years. And so much more to go. They had last played in Szeged in 2018. It was a joyous return for them and the crowd. They said they were staying around afterwards to talk with people, and I was tempted to stay and say hi, but I didn’t, even though I was staying the night in Szeged. I actually have never talked with them in person, except to say thank you quickly. I would love to talk with them at some point, but after a show I am a bit shy and don’t really feel the need. I still have the music in my ears and want to carry it for a while. Also, I figured they had lots of Szeged friends waiting to speak with them, and there would be a better time. But I walked out with sounds, thoughts, and pictures in my head (not on camera), one of which was this glimpse of time, of the things that happen that no one expects but that take us closer to our wobbling, plunging truth.

Photo credit: I took it in Szeged on Friday a few hours before the show.

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

An Exceptional Two Days

First, the best news of all: Sziszi is found! Last night I came home late from Budapest, only to find Sziszi gone and Dominó distressed out of his mind. I couldn’t figure out how Sziszi had gotten out of the apartment; a window exit seemed implausible, so I figured she must have followed me out the door at some point. Last night I looked around—in the apartment, in the building, and outside—and couldn’t find her, so I did some frantic online research on escaped cats and read that if they are indoor cats, they don’t tend to go far from home. So I kept my hopes up. Wednesday is my longest day at school, and this morning I ran out the door without my glasses, so during a break I took a cab back home, got my glasses, and went back. Still no sign of Sziszi. When I came home at the end of the day, I looked inside the building, around the neighborhood, and in the courtyard, but no Sziszi. A neighbor came along and tried to help me for a while; we went out to the courtyard again, and out to the front. I brought some cat food, which attracted a large throng of cats, but not Sziszi. It got dark; I decided to try the courtyard once more. I went out there and called her. And then I heard that familiar petulant meow, the meow that could come from no other. She was right there, and she knew I was there; so it was just a matter of minutes before she let me pick her up and take her in. I stopped by my neighbors to tell them I had found her, and then brought her home. She, Dominó, and I are so happy right now. She’s curled up in a cat pouch (pictured above), Dominó is gazing out the window, and I’m here at my desk.

Now backtracking: last night I went to hear Csenger Kertai give a reading to jazz accompaniment by the Hász Estzer Quintet. It was even more than I had expected: interview, reading, music, improvisation all combined. The music, whether improvised or composed, brought out surprising aspects of the poems. The band’s rendition of “Hold” (“Moon”) was phenomenal, the interview went into questions of privacy, spontaneity, creation and more. But these were not separate elements; they interwove, so that the poems themselves, the discussions of the poems, and the musical interpretations formed something new. I have never seen an interweaving like this before, and it is inspiring some ideas. Here is a video of the event.

The previous evening, I had also gone to Budapest: first to a doctor’s appointmen, and then to a Cataflamingo concert in the basement of a club in Pest. I first heard Cataflamingo at the Kolorádó Festzivál, on the KERET stage; they were my favorite new discovery there. The lead singer and bassist, Áron Csiki, has charisma that draws the audience in but is never over the top. He reminds me slightly of Prince, Billy Corgan, Kid Dakota, David Bowie—but flies in a space of his own. The band is talented and rich with influences (jazz, R&B, rock); their groove keeps lifting into something new. There’s a warmth to the music too; the lyrics are sad and exuberant at once, and the audience sways and sings along. It was thrilling to be there, and I look forward to much more.

All this was on top of teaching, translation, holidays, and thought, each of these a subject in itself. And the week is not yet over! Tomorrow I go to the Tisza Mozi for a premiere of the movie A feleségem története. On Friday I head to Szeged to hear the beloved Platon Karataev. But I take none of this for granted. It’s a shivering gift.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it (as usual, but I was so tired last night that I really left out a few points that I had meant to make). Also, I changed the Cataflamingo selection (from “Megbocsát” to “Kilincs”), because this video gives a sense of their performances, and I love this song too.

Different Kinds of Depth

The phrase “a deep person” makes me wary. Everyone is infinitely deep. Some people choose to escape from it, while others look it right in the face. Some keep it to themselves, while some share it with others. Some find their way to it through music and other art; others pound their feet on it when running long distance. Some find it when life socks them in the stomach. Some find it through jokes. Some don’t find it at all but are found with it somehow.

There is no point in judging oneself or others as “deep” or “shallow.” Such judgments usually break down. We don’t know what’s going on in another person, and are in no position to measure it. As for ourselves, who are we to call ourselves “deep,” when we have no basis for comparison? Deep in relation to what? What we think we see in others? What we see and what’s going on are two different things, or maybe three or more.

Still, depth does exist, and it takes different forms. There is music that plunges right away, and music that starts out on the lighter side but takes you deeper and deeper. And music that stays near the surface or flies upward.

Beginning with Atoms—their first album, For Her, is a little different in this regard—Platon Karataev’s music starts out deep with “Ex Nihilo” and goes deeper and deeper from there (if there’s such a thing as deeper than nothing). I can’t wait to hear the whole Partért kiáltó album, which will be coming out soon. Listening to the title song many times, I realize that the best way to approach it is on its own terms: not to squeeze it into existing frames and thoughts, but to take it as it is. It speaks as water, it speaks a language of water, all the layers moving and sparkling and darkening.

Cz.K. Sebő’s music, in contrast, sometimes starts out on the lighter side but then surprises and disarms you as it continues. For instance, “Someday” begins like a casual, melancholic conversation or letter, but each repetition of the sentence “you’ll be alone someday” changes and tilts the tone and sense slightly, until the listener receives these words directly and has to confront their meaning. That each of us will be alone someday, no matter how lucky or unlucky we are, no matter what we do.

One of my favorite songs by Galaxisok, “Elaludtam az Ikeában,” seems entirely lighthearted until you suddenly hear what is going on. It’s a dreamy song about falling asleep at Ikea, and waking up when it’s already dark, and running into an old girlfriend, Diána, who also, as it happens, fell asleep at Ikea. And they walk and talk together, and bring up memories of how one summer, when they were taking a make-up math exam, Peti broke his arm and had to wear a cast the whole time. Later that same summer he learns of another accident, and realizes Diána was in it, but then rejoins, “de felejtsd el, inkább hagyjuk ezt” (“but forget it, let’s drop this”). And then, “Én nem leszek fiatalabb, / te nem leszel öregebb,” “I’m not getting any younger, / You’re not getting any older,” which tells you, when it hits you, that Diána is dead and this dream took place after her death. But the music is so gentle and playful-sounding that you might miss this the first time around. (I missed it the first few times, but I think that’s because I am not a native speaker of Hungarian.) This is only a brief summary of the song; it has beautifully murky and surreal motions and images, such as crawling under the leaves of the indoor palms in the plant department.

No one has to be deep all the time; it can’t be forced. Depth happens when we let ourselves go into something. We know better than anyone else does when this happens and when it doesn’t. But sometimes, in the moment, the word “deep” doesn’t even come to mind. The thing itself draws us in, and only afterwards, in memory or reflection, does it seem profound. At other times, the profundity jumps out at us right away.

Going deep can be important as a practice, for those who want better self-knowledge, or who want to reckon with their actions, or who want to create something. But such practice often takes place in private, through meditation, prayer, or quiet thought. Sometimes it can happen in a long conversation, the kind where the conversants forget the time. Sometimes it can happen when doing something with others: for instance, playing music. But I don’t think it’s social, for the most part.

This does not mean that introversion is necessarily deeper than extraversion; introversion and extraversion can take all sorts of forms. There are people who like to spend evenings alone at home browsing random YouTube videos. There are people who go out in the world and strike up conversations with people out of genuine desire to know them better. Things aren’t what they seem on the surface.

Language, after all, takes you deeper into meanings, if you pay attention to it; there are many ways, quiet and lively, to do so. Yesterday I came upon a poem by Dezső Kosztolányi, “Szeptemberi áhítat” (“September Piety”) that I realized was one of the most beautiful poems I had read in Hungarian. But what does it mean to read it? I have read it silently and out loud; I have listened to the recording of János Pilinszky reading it. But this is just the beginning; I need to take much more time with it, maybe memorize it, maybe translate it (George Szirtes’s translation is good, but I want to go about it differently), maybe even set it to music, with cello. And then come back to reading it in silence, reciting it in my mind.

So where is all of this going? Depth is not something to claim as a title; it can be found through practice, but it also comes to you by surprise, and it’s open to all. Of all the ways we have of judging and writing off others, this is one of the worst; calling someone “deep” or “shallow” is just lying, because we are always undulating and trembling between levels, and have no idea where others (or even we ourselves) will go next.

  • “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

  • 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 February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish 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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