Are you flourishing?—Yes, but not on your terms!

I knew I was in for something spurious when I saw, in the New York Times (to which I subscribe, and which I read daily), the headline “Are You Flourishing? Take the Quiz.” I suspected it would be one of those “The happier you are in all ways, the better! Behhter! Beh-eh-eh-ter!” quizzes, which fail to acknowledge that “flourishing” sometimes happens in the cracks between the rocks. I reserve the right to be a little unsure of myself, a little melancholic, a little unsatisfied, without the Pep Police showing up at my door.

Anyway, the quiz was as bad as I thought. The preface begins, “At Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program, Tyler J. VanderWeele uses this quiz to gauge a person’s overall physical, mental and emotional well-being. While he says there’s no specific score to determine if someone is definitely flourishing, the higher the score, the better.”

Oh, dear. This reminds me of “growth mindset,” whose proponents insist that no matter how much growth mindset you have, you would be better off with still more.

So, what questions are included in the quiz? I will bring up just three here, since otherwise I would be copying the whole piece.

How satisfied are you with life as a whole these days?”

I like my life. I would not give it a 10, because there are still things I hope for, and various problems in the world. But an 8 or 9 would be fair.

“I understand my purpose in life.”

Hell no! I understand what I am doing, I like what I am doing and want to do more of it and better. But is this “my purpose in life”? I have no idea, nor do I have to know.

I am always able to give up some happiness now for greater happiness later.

No, not always. First of all, I am not always in a position to “give up some happiness now.” Second, I am not always sure which happiness is greater: the one right now or the one to come. Third, I can be impulsive sometimes. Fourth, I find the “always” strange.

I had a high score at the end of it all, but the analysis suggested that I take a look at those areas that “need more attention.”

I believe there are areas of my life that need more attention, but not necessarily these. Moreover, attention can bring the score down. When you look closely at something, you start to see its flaws.

Speaking of that, the premises of this quiz crumble upon inspection. Flourishing has little to do with being absolutely happy, confident, or satisfied. It has, rather, to do with motion and perception. You can be sad in some ways and still flourishing because you’re making things, enjoying relationships, and living fully. Or because you have learned how to live on your own terms, not the terms of an online quiz.

Thoughts on Sincerity

In strands of U.S. American culture, there’s a strong prejudice against (or fear of) sincerity, a kind of knee-jerk preference for knee-jerk irony. You are supposed to say things, even in art, with a slight roll of the eyes, a sense of knowing better than most. On the other hand, Americans love public confessions, media-sponsored personal revelations, and so forth. But if you show your feelings, you will often get the response that you were too open, too sincere, too emotional, too naive, or whatever else might accompany the “too.”

In no way am I suggesting that art should be just expression. In art, if you pour out your feelings without giving them form, you will end up with something mediocre. That’s a mistake novice poets often make, writing from the heart and thinking that because they were really sincere, it must be good. On the other hand, if you are so bent on not writing from the heart that you stumble over yourself to be clever, you will end up with something even worse. The fear of sincerity is more dangerous than sincerity’s excesses.

There are cultural differences when it comes to sincerity. In Hungary, for instance, if you ask people how they are, they will often actually tell you the truth (up to a point). It is not considered inappropriate to share personal information. Granted, there are exceptions, variations, and limits, like anywhere, not to mention human nature, but I have found tolerance for things beyond the superficial.

This is not to say that I feel in all ways more at home here than in the U.S. There are many things I miss, and many ways in which I will never fully belong here. For instance, being a single, unmarried woman at my age (and one who isn’t seeking marriage) is quite unusual here, whereas in the U.S. it isn’t; even my married friends don’t perceive it as such. That’s a different subject–I just mean that I’m not trying to say “everything is great here.” It isn’t. I love living here and plan to stay permanently, but the country is far from perfect, as is my own life.

But I have relaxed so much into myself since coming here. Part of it has to do with sincerity. It isn’t looked down upon. Letting people get to know me doesn’t come with the reaction “Whoa…. too much information.” It’s permissible, in many ways (not all ways), to be yourself.

When it comes to art, there’s so much room, and so much need, to be open within the form: to make it beautiful and also unravel yourself in it, even more than you can in real life, at much higher levels. It isn’t everyday sincerity—it’s something different, maybe truer, maybe humbler, becoming part of something else. That is part of what I love in the music of Cz.K. Sebő—who is playing a concert on May 28!—and Kolibri, and Platon Karataev, and Art of Flying, and others. It’s only a part; there’s so much more to say, and so much that isn’t easily said, but it’s there.

I have been writing a lot of stories this year. I don’t post them on the blog, because I am submitting them for publication. One of them, “Immemorial,” appears in the inaugural issue of the bilingual Budapest journal The Penny Truth / Krajcáros Igazság. Others are awaiting decisions from various journals. There’s always something in the works. But I think there’s much more coming, not just in terms of volume, but in terms of quality. In some way, I have been holding things in for years and years, but also not; I have been writing since childhood, but didn’t try hard enough to get the poems and stories published. Now is the time. The poems, unfortunately, I have usually posted online, with the result that they’re now considered “published” and ineligible for publication elsewhere. But there will be more.

And translations, and music. I am shy about the music, but just recently I returned to Marcel Feldmar’s lovely review of my 2000 CD Fish Wigs Hats Rats (a somewhat clumsy, mostly homemade venture). It appears in Issue 49 of the wonderful music magazine The Big Takeover. I couldn’t have wished for words that were more appreciative.

As I have said elsewhere, I wish I had taken more time to get the album right: to treat the current one as a draft and then re-record the real thing.

So that’s really where these morning thoughts are heading: that sincerity is part of the picture, only part, but an essential part, and then you work and work to get it just right, so that every piece belongs. People do this in different ways: some work more spontaneously, whereas others take their work through many stages and layers of revision. There is no single “writing process,” which is why I often get bored with discussions of the subject. You find out what you need to do to make your work the way it is supposed to be.

But sincerity plays a role not only in your own work, but in your appreciation of others’ work too. Why not show the enthusiasm that you truly have? Why hold back, in this brief life? I remember a long time ago, when I attended a musical at my high school (as a high school student). I had wanted to be in the musical but, because of various circumstances, could not be. I loved the performance and ran up to the cast party afterward to ask some of the cast members (fellow students at the school) to sign my program. My parents yelled at me afterwards about the autographs; they said that I was embarrassing myself by asking for them. But on that long ride home I stood up for myself (from a seated, seatbelted position) and said that there was nothing shameful about showing my appreciation, even asking for a signature. My parents ultimately conceded that I was right. This has stayed in my memory, both because it was somehow considered undignified to ask for autographs, and because I stood up for myself, something I wasn’t generally too good at doing.

I hold to that point. Even those fan-ish actions like asking for autographs have a place and a beauty in life. How sad it would be for performers to get no response at all, just because the audience was trying to be cool! People have to be willing to risk the embarrassment slightly. No one has to be a groveling or bothersome fan. That’s not what it’s about. But if I look back on my life so far, one thing I do not regret is letting people know that I love their work. Because those are some of the things that should be said when the words are sincere.

The word “sincere,” by the way, may come from the Proto-Indo-European *sm-ke-ro-, from *sem- “one” (see same) + root of crescere “to grow” (according to the Online Etymology Dictionary). According to the same dictionary, it dates back to the 1530s, with the sense of “pure, unmixed.” Some might argue that nothing is pure, nothing unmixed, but I don’t think that’s true; or, rather, there’s a purity even in our mixed-up selves and ways.

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

Back in the World

Tonight young people are hanging out along the Tisza, as in the old days, playing their boomtubes, and restaurants, cinemas, concert halls, and other places are open. I went to the Tisza Mozi to see the film Spirál (the Hungarian/Romanian film directed by Cecília Felméri and starring Diána Magdolna Kiss, Bogdan Dumitrache, and Alexandra Borbély. I found the film beautiful and strange, a dance of life and death. The actors were outstanding, particularly Dumitrache, and the cinematography dreamy and colorful. The music, composed by Ádám Balázs, made me stay past the end of the credits. I would go see it again.

I was the only person watching this particular screening. It had been a long time since a film was shown in that room. There was a little technical problem at the beginning, but the Tisza Mozi staff worked to resolve it quickly, and apologized to me after the film. No apology was needed. I was so happy to see it and to be back in the world.

Upon leaving, I walked through the terrace, where I ran into a colleague and said hello. The terrace was filled with people. It brought back memories of Marcell Bajnai’s concert back in August. Speaking of which, there’s a great video of one of the songs from that concert, “Kopog a szív.”

To be admitted indoors to the places that reopened today, you have to show proof of immunity or vaccination. This is controversial for numerous reasons (some people don’t want a vaccine, some have been but haven’t received their card yet, some want a vaccine but haven’t been able to get an appointment, some want a particular vaccine that hasn’t been made available to them, etc.). I hope the rules will soon relax so that these places will be open to all. With any necessary precautions, but without distinctions. Then we can celebrate with full heart.

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

I must have read Delmore Schwartz’s story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” as a teenager, because it was in the anthologies that I read cover to cover. But it wasn’t until Rabbi Adam Roffman mentioned it in a teaching at Shearith Israel in Dallas that I returned to it, and I have reread it many times since then. Each time I teach it to my students, I admire the language and imagination all over again: the movie theater, the young man watching a grainy, clumsy film of his parents before they got married, the narration in the present, taking us in semi-snapshot style (the snapshots are moving, but not much) from one moment to the next, both on the screen and in the theater itself. I won’t give away the second half, since some of my students are reading it now. But here’s one of my favorite paragraphs, at the end of the third part:

My father and mother go to the rail of the boardwalk and look down on the beach where a good many bathers are casually walking about. A few are in the surf. A peanut whistle pierces the air with its pleasant and active whine, and my father goes to buy peanuts. My mother remains at the rail and stares at the ocean. The ocean seems merry to her; it pointedly sparkles and again and again the pony waves are released. She notices the children digging in the wet sand, and the bathing costumes of the girls who are her own age. My father returns with the peanuts. Overhead the sun’s lightning strikes and strikes, but neither of them are at all aware of it. The boardwalk is full of people dressed in their Sunday clothes and idly strolling. The tide does not reach as far as the boardwalk, and the strollers would feel no danger if it did. My mother and father lean on the rail of the boardwalk and absently stare at the ocean. The ocean is becoming rough; the waves come in slowly, tugging strength from far back. The moment before they somersault, the moment when they arch their backs so beautifully, showing green and white veins amid the black, that moment is intolerable. They finally crack, dashing fiercely upon the sand, actually driving, full force downward, against the sand, bouncing upward and forward, and at last petering out into a small stream which races up the beach and then is recalled. My parents gaze absentmindedly at the ocean, scarcely interested in its harshness. The sun overhead does not disturb them. But I stare at the terrible sun which breaks up sight, and the fatal, merciless, passionate ocean, I forget my parents. I stare fascinated and finally, shocked by the indifference of my father and mother, I burst out weeping once more. The old lady next to me pats me on the shoulder and says, “There, there, all of this is only a movie, young man, only a movie,” but I look up once more at the terrifying sun and the terrifying ocean, and being unable to control my tears, I get up and go to the men’s room, stumbling over the feet of the other people seated in my row.

The description of the waves reminds me of the Coney Island footage that makes up the video of Cz.K. Sebő’s song “Kétezerhúsz,” but beyond that, it sets up a situation where the narrator’s mother and father are watching the ocean, the narrator is watching the ocean and his parents (who have not yet given birth to him), and the reader is watching them all, wondering, and then understanding, why the narrator bursts out weeping. He sees what his parents do not; he sees the force of ocean and sun, he understands that these forces are stronger than us, stronger even than our awareness of them. His parents are participating in something they do not even notice. The lady says to him, “all of this is only a movie, young man, only a movie,” not knowing that the opposite is the case. It is far from “only” a movie; it is happening right now, the sea and sun and forces, and each of us came into the world through others’ oblivion.

One of my students began speaking eloquently and effusively about the story, as we read the first three parts aloud in class. It brought so much to his mind. Others picked up on details. But the story, even at the end, leaves me unsettled, and that’s how I think it is meant to be. It has a message, yes; its strangenesses get somewhat resolved, yes. But it leaves me with the feeling of the movie theater, of sinking into the darkness and watching something unfold that is more true than I can stand, and that I want to protest but can’t, because I am part of it, even without appearing in the film. The protest is not just that of an immature young man. The protest is everyone’s, because much of life we do not see until art, or some other convulsion, brings it right in front of us, and then we’re alone with it while the others gaze absently past it or say, “there, there, all of this is only a movie.”

Photo of Coney Island courtesy of Wikipedia.

From Shakespeare to Babits to Kisköre and Back

Over the past months I have been working with the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár, students, and colleagues to put out a video that shows what we have in mind for next year’s Shakespeare festival. Hours of gathering, editing, subtitling, testing, rebuilding, consulting…. and the video came out yesterday! Eight students contributed home-recorded Shakespeare performances (of two sonnets, the song “Sigh No More” from Much Ado About Nothing, and monologues or scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, and Othello). There are also a few words from László Molnár, the principal of Varga and from Zsuzsanna Kovácsné Boross, the drama teacher (and teacher of history and Hungarian language and literature). After that, there’s a special contribution by the library: an introduction by Katalin Cserfalvi, a short Shakespeare lecture by ELTE student Györgyi Kovács, and a tour of the library by the library’s director, Katalin Czakóné Gacov. Here it is. Just one important correction: the performer of Bottom’s and Hamlet’s monologues should appear as László Korpás, not Kovács or Korpács. The unfortunate mistake was mine—a result of spending too many hours on the video and not seeing it with fresh eyes. László Kovács is another of my students, and Korpács, though not the same as Korpás, is an actual last name. Well, maybe this is in the spirit of Shakespeare; Györgyi Kovács (yes, Kovács) says of him in her lecture, “His name was spelled in more than eighty ways; even in his own signature, he spelled it differently.”

I was actually pretty tired by the weekend, because in addition to the video, so much has been going on. But I managed to get a new bike on Friday, and made plans to go on a long ride on the birthday itself. On Saturday, after the Shacharit service that I led, Szim Salom honored my birthday in a sweet and heartfelt way; later I also received messages from individuals and from the Szim Salom community as a whole. One person had picked out a Mihály Babits quote for me (from his poem “A második ének“):

Mindenik embernek a lelkében dal van
és a saját lelkét hallja minden dalban.

Everyone has a song in his soul
and hears his own soul in every song.

The verse continues:

És akinek szép a lelkében az ének,
az hallja a mások énekét is szépnek.

And whoever’s soul has beautiful singing,
that one will hear others’ singing as beautiful.

And it actually begins with this:

Megmondom a titkát, édesem a dalnak:
Önmagát hallgatja, aki dalra hallgat.

Sweetheart, I will tell you the secret of song.
Whoever listens to a song hears himself.

So, to put it all together:

Sweetheart, I will tell you the secret of song.
To listen to a song is to hear yourself.
Everyone has a song in his soul
and hears his own soul in every song.
And if your soul has beautiful singing,
you will hear others’ singing as beautiful.

A great birthday gift, if you ask me.

So I took off for Kisköre a little after 10 a.m. on Sunday. I had hoped to go all the way to Tiszafüred but knew it would be tight, since the last train that would get me home before curfew left at 4:15. The day was clear and breezy, perfect for a ride, except that it got quite windy in the middle, and I was slowed down.

Anyway, I saw the Racka sheep near Nagykörű—they’re always there grazing by the side of the bike path. There were some little ones, as I expected there would be.

Nagykörű was in bloom. In a month or so, the cherry trees will be filled with fruit.

I passed by this beautiful little church in Tiszasüly, which I have passed by several times before:

and went on and on. Now it started getting windy, with storm clouds in the distance. But over the whole ride, I only felt a few drops of rain.

The ride was longer than I had remembered before, because of the wind. I thought I might have taken a detour, but then I saw the familiar landmark, which meant I was closer (though not close) to Kisköre.

Then, at long last, arrived in Kisköre! But here the indecision set in. I had hoped to make it at least to Abádszalók and take the train back from there. But there was no way I would make it in time for the last train to arrive back in Szolnok before curfew. In fact, I had missed the last Kisköre train that would get me back before curfew. At a bit of a loss, I biked around a little and came upon the park with a fountain:

I went to the train station, which was closed, and sat on the steps in the back, by the tracks. The next train would get me back to Szolnok, but only at 11:30 p.m., with two transfers along the way (and not really along the way—way out of the way, first in Kál-Kápolna, then in Hatvan). Curfew (part of the Covid regulations) is at 10 p.m., so I wasn’t even sure there would be a train. I thought of ordering a cab, which would be expensive, but maybe worth it. I called one cab company; they said they couldn’t transport a bike. I called another; he thought I wanted him to take me home from the Szolnok train station. When I explained the situation more clearly, he seemed confident that the trains would be running, but welcomed me to call him if I ran into any trouble.

Then it started occurring to me that everything would be fine. I sat and waited for the train. That was actually one of the best parts of the day; the train station was lovely and quiet, except for the breeze in the trees and one worker mulling around. I just listened to the breeze and watched the changing colors. Two dogs came by. The first one tried to pretend to bark at me, but wasn’t convincing; it was more of a half-hearted “grumph” that he kept letting out. The other one, a puppy, came over to say hello.

At last the train came, and the three segments of the ride back home went without a hitch. I might have been the only passenger on two of the three trains, but no one asked me why I was riding so late; the conductors accepted my ticket, and the trains themselves were running just fine, drifting dreamily through towns. Even when I got back to Szolnok, there were no police waiting at the station. I biked home on deserted streets, fed the leaping cats, sat down at the computer for a few minutes to view the streams of birthday wishes, and went to sleep.

And so, to come back to Shakespeare, I end with Sonnet 27:

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts–from far where I abide–
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.
Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.

The photo at the top is from my students’ June 2019 performance of scenes from Hamlet at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár.

The Illusion of “Making It”

There’s a belief in large segments of American culture that if you haven’t made it (in terms of fame and money), your work doesn’t deserve any attention. If there isn’t “buzz” around it, then it’s irrelevant to the world. Most of us know better rationally but are still affected by the lie that our fame equals our worth (or at least the worth of our work). I am thinking of musicians in particular.

When I lived in San Francisco, I often went to hear songwriters and their bands. Some were brilliant; I love their music to this day. Yet a decade later, many had stopped playing music professionally, or had turned toward different projects. There were many different reasons for this, but some of it had to do with their ambivalence about “making it.” Some had wished, early on, for bigger audiences, but at the same time preferred to perform for their familiar crowds. They wanted deals with big record labels, but hated the price: grueling tours, snide reviews, bad publicity ideas, conflicts with fellow musicians. Others just found their interests changing as they got older. Others got tired of the constant financial stress: working low-paying day jobs, never making ends meet. Still others found a way to keep on going. But many were tantalized by the idea that they could make it—and embarrassed when they did not (or even when they did).

In some cases, fame and recognition is well deserved. In others, artists get ignored through no fault of their own. Public attention can be somewhat random; it lands here or there as a result of trends, investments, and whims. If you judge yourself by your fame (or lack of fame), you will soon lose all good judgment. Most of us know this, yet we are still deceived by the glamor, the idea that “if I am worthy, my works will go gold and platinum, even though I don’t really want that, I don’t think.”

There is some justice in the arts. Plenty of people are on the lookout for good work and recognize it when they see it. But this recognition does not always mean numbers, though it can. To survive in the arts—whether as creator, performer, or audience—one must not only see past the trends, but insist and live beyond them too.

Image: The Tightrope Walker by Lucia Masciullo.

An Infinity of Shapes

I love it when an open weekend comes along, with time for thinking, resting, and various things that require long focus. The long focus: a Shakespeare video I am working on, a presentation I am giving on Monday (already prepared, but worthy of a run-through), the upcoming issue of Folyosó, and an essay. There are other things too, such as a new story, but I won’t get to them this weekend. The restful things: reading, listening to music, playing music, preparing next Shabbat’s Torah portion, and taking a bike ride or walk.

Another thing I like about this “alone time” is the chance to do and think things without being classified as this or that. Recently someone remarked to me, by email, “You’re such an intellectual! Such a scholar!” I took this as a compliment but was disconcerted, as I don’t put myself in these categories. Yes, I have an intellectual life, but it revolves mostly around literature, which is intellectual, artistic, linguistic, and visceral, all at once. As for being a scholar, no, I don’t think so. Much depends on definitions, but often when people say, “you’re a scholar,” they’re saying, “you speak a language that’s too far removed from the everyday for anyone else to care about it.” I have had book proposals turned down by agents, article pitches turned down by young assistant editors, because they deemed them “too scholarly,” which to me sounds like an excuse.

So it’s great to have some time just to do things on my own terms, without being called “scholarly” or anything else. People sometimes take confort in classifying others. It helps them make sense of the world. So-and-so is a scholar, so-and-so is a creative type, so-and-so is a lazy bum. Sometimes the categories help; sometimes they’re true; sometimes the people being categorized actually want them. But I often find that for me, they’re beside the point; they don’t quite fit, and I’m glad to take them off at the end of a long day, or at any time for that matter.

Not that it’s good to spend all one’s free time alone—and I do not, by any stretch. I have obligations, activities, meetings and am happy about that. Not to mention teaching, which, even online, involves contact with others, day after day, and which brings lots of joy. The stretches of unscheduled time, when they happen, offset and complement the schedule, classes, conversations, deadlines.

This is not just about me by any means. Sympathy and empathy, as well as reading and listening, require resisting the temptation to classify others or their words too hastily. Many others besides me wish to be taken on their own terms, or at least on terms that aren’t limiting and dismissive. Go ahead, categorize if you must, but see beyond and into the category too. A rectangle may be a rectangle (and probably is), but if you look into it, you can see an infinity of shapes.

I took this picture looking into the window of the Galéria restaurant on Szapáry utca. You can see the reflection of the synagogue (now a gallery) across the street.

Song Series #13: “A soft spot for repetition”

At the ALSCW Zoom event in which I interviewed Zsolt and Marcell Bajnai and they gave a performance, I asked Marcell about the repetitions and subtle variations in his songs. He began by saying that repetition is part of the foundation of songs. His comment, and Kurt Vile’s song “One Trick Ponies,” which has the line “cuz i’ve always had a soft spot for repetition,” brought out thoughts for this piece.

It is difficult to think of a song that does not involve repetition of some kind. There are repetition of melody, rhythm, refrain. There are repetitions of phrases within a verse, of words within a line. There are repetitions of syntax, musical phrases, chords, syllables, single consonants or vowels, guttural sounds. Why is repetition, when done well, essential to a song?

Some of it goes to our childhood. Remember how babies love to play the same games over and over, hear the same stories over and over, sing the same songs again and again? You see them anticipate the next word, the next peak. The fun lies in the anticipation of that known and beloved moment. Adults know that kind of anticipation too. That’s partly why I love to return to favorite songs, poems, stories; I can’t wait to hear that phrase, to see that turn of words again.

Also, repetition allows us to take the songs into ourselves. Within a short while, we know them well enough to sing at least part of them to ourselves. Soon afterward, we know the whole thing, and after that, we have room to hear more details and to imagine the song being played in different ways. They become part of our waking and walking. There’s discovery too: the repetition allows us to hear the changes and variations, which would not stand out if the song as a whole were changing all the time.

I will begin with a classic form of repetition in a song: the verse/refrain structure, where the refrain repeats more or less exactly, and the verses change. (There are many songs where the refrain changes, where the verse contains repetitions, or where verse and refrain cannot be separated, but let’s start here.) The Velvet Underground’s song “Pale Blue Eyes” not only keeps to this structure but does something extraordinary with it. This slow, gentle song carries you along, verse through verse, refrain after refrain, building a story of forbidden love. You don’t realize the heartbreak until you’re right in the middle of it.

The refrain seems simple: “Linger on your pale blue eyes.” But what does it mean, even grammatically? Is someone lingering on the pale blue eyes, or are the pale blue eyes lingering on (enduring)? Is it a command, a yearning, or a statement? The phrase seems to float, like a subjunctive wish, sometimes coming closer to the present, sometimes receding away. Lou Reed’s voice cracks on the “on” itself, the word that is drawn out the longest.

The guitars, bass, tambourine, Hammond organ, and voice carry the song in such an understated way that you hardly notice the sound growing fuller. There are no dramatic shifts, just a sound and a story wrapping around you.

The second song I am including here, Péter Jakab’s “Te vagy az ellenség bennem” (“You are the enemy inside me”) has a different kind of repetition entirely: the repetition, over and over, of that single title sentence. I know nothing about Péter Jakab except that he is the frontman of Jazzékiel, that he released his first solo album, Nem fontos személy, in February 2021, and that Norbert Kristóf (who, along with Szabolcs Puha, recorded Cz.K. Sebő’s EP Junction) released a remix of this particular song. This kind of repetition is millennia old, part of prayer and incantation. Just as when you say a word many times in succession, it starts to sound strange or holy, so when you do this in a song, you become more detached from the words, and at the same time more involved in them. They take on a meaning of their own, apart from where they started out. This song is wonderfully surprising and haunting.

The next song, Leonard Cohen’s “The Partisan,” has yet a different kind of repetition: that of syntactic rhythm. I learned just recently, when listening to Jeffrey Davison’s Shrunken Planet program on WFMU, that Cohen didn’t actually write this song. (I should have realized this long ago; I have had the album Songs from a Room for many years, and it was one of the handful that I brought it to Hungary.) The song was originally written by Anna Marly during World War II. It is not clear to me whether she wrote the original lyrics herself, in Russian, or whether the lyrics were originally written by Emmanuel d’Astier, but the music was Marly’s, and the song became an anthem of the French Resistance. In the 1960s, Hy Zaret adapted it and translated it into English (changing some of the words and meanings). Leonard Cohen’s version is based on Zaret’s—but he simplifies the texture and adds a few verses of the French lyrics to it. If you listen to Marly’s, Zaret’s, and Cohen’s versions, you can hear how Cohen draws from both of his predecessors but gives the new version a soul of its own. (That’s another kind of repetition right there.)

The syntactic repetition is this: in each of the verses, the first three lines constitute an idea, and then the fourth line responds to it somehow. In Hebrew cantillation, there would be an etnachta trop, a melodic phrase indicating a semicolon-like caesura, between the third and fourth lines. Here you can hear it in the vocal pause, the stretch of rumbling guitar, between the last word of the third line and the first word of the fourth.

When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender
This I could not do
I took my gun and vanished.

I have changed my name so often
I’ve lost my wife and children
But I have many friends
And some of them are with me

And so on, up to these aching words:

Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing
Through the graves the wind is blowing
Freedom soon will come
Then we’ll come from the shadows

There’s also repetition through the translation itself, or the almost-translation; when the French verses come along, they seem like a distant memory, with the backing vocals and the feeling of wind. And just like memory and wind, the “wind” verse comes back in English at the end, and within it, the repetition of “wind” and “blowing.”

Speaking of translation, this past Sunday was Poetry Day in Hungary, and I had the occasion to think about how poems get translated into song. This often involves a kind of repetition: the songwriter might repeat words and lines that occur just once in the original poem, and may rearrange them somewhat too. This repetition and rearrangement in music gives something new to the meaning. One example of this is Marcell Bajnai’s reworking in song, released on Sunday, of Krisztián Peer’s poem “Félteni magadtól” (“Fearing Yourself”). It would be too complicated to explain and translate everything here, but I particularly like how he saves two lines until a little later in the song, and then again for the very end:

Minek simogatsz, amikor dicsekszem?
Szereted a vesztes ügyeket?

(What do you caress when I brag?
Do you love lost causes?)

This not only highlights the two lines, which have everything to do with the title, but also brings everything together. To me, it is supposed to be this way.

Cz.K. Sebő’s song “On a Fine Day,” whose lyrics are the János Pilinszky poem “Egy szép napon” in Simon Géza’s beautiful English translation, does something similar, though different, through repetition.

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.

After singing through the poem, the song returns to the four lines,

I will be overcome by crying,
and the old house, the rustle of ivy
will welcome me back.

That ends the song, so that those lines become the return itself: the return to the words becomes the return to the old house, and so I, the listener, have returned to the house without even realizing it.

This is just a dip into the topic of repetition in songs, which gave me a chance to bring up two old favorites, a recent favorite, and two that I heard for the first time this past week. I look forward to hearing them all many more times.

To read the other pieces in the Song Series, go here.

My Hungarian Jewish Great-Grandfather

I come from many different places, both in terms of my own life and in terms of ancestry. I have lived in the U.S. (my birthplace and citizenry), Brazil, the Netherlands, the former Soviet Union, and now Hungary; within the U.S., I have lived in Arizona, Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, and New York. As far as ancestry goes, I am Jewish on my mother’s side (from Hungary, Ukraine, and Lithuania); on my father’s side, a mixture of French (with many generations in Canada), Irish, Norwegian, German, Dutch, and more. Each branch that I know anything about has an interesting history; I am proud of the mixture.

But yes, the boy in the photograph is my great-grandfather Max Fischer, at the time of his bar mitzvah (around his 13th year, which would have been 1898 or so). He and his family came to the U.S. from Györke, Hungary (now Ďurkov, Slovakia) when he was five or six. They spoke Hungarian at home. I have tracked down the ship passenger records, which list Györke as the town of origin, as well as many census records from the U.S., but so far have found no records from Hungary or Slovakia. That may still come.

Max’s eldest brother was Charles Fischer, whose inventions I have described both here on this blog and in Mind over Memes. About Max I know little except that he had a great sense of humor and met my great-grandmother, Flora Samuels, at an Edwin Markham poetry reading.

This branch of the family has been somewhat de-emphasized in family lore; I can’t complain, since that gave me some room to do my own research, which has been rewarding. I wouldn’t say that I came to Hungary—or chose to stay here—for the sake of my roots, but the roots exist, along with many others. I wish I could have met Max Fischer, who died four years before I was born. And how the protagonist of Rushmore ended up with the same name must be just another simple twist of fate.

Back When an Időpont Was an Időpont

Doctor’s Office, by Lee Dubin

My experiences with doctors here in Hungary have been mostly good so far. I haven’t been sick or otherwise in need of urgent care, so I’ve been to the doctor just for routine things. Getting the first Pfizer shot on Friday was a perfectly satisfactory experience; the doctors and staff were very organized and on top of things, and I didn’t have to wait long at all, nor did those I saw around me. There were actual appointments, and they were honored. (Granted, getting an appointment for a shot has been a challenge for many; that’s another matter.) Also, my “háziorvos” (general practitioner), whose office is on the same street where I live, has a friendly, accessible style; he and his staff see patients fairly promptly, answer phone calls incessantly, and clearly work hard to give everyone proper care and referrals.

But the system here is far from ideal overall. I have learned, over time, that an “időpont” (appointment) can mean little or nothing. Many doctors’ offices lack any kind of reception staff, so they see patients in order of arrival. In addition, as I learned today, having what seems like an appointment does not mean that the doctor will even be in.

I have an underarm scar, from surgery years ago, that has been acting up. I went to see a dermatologist about it; first she recommended using a prescription cream, then she gave it frozen nitrogen treatment (which brought down the swelling a bit) and referred me to a doctor at the large medical center. The referral said Friday, April 9, at 8 a.m. So I went there early this morning, checked in at the entrance, and was told to go up to the “kiemelt kezelő” department and wait. I went there, sat outside, saw no sign of anyone in the office, but waited. I had cancelled my first class for this appointment and was hoping not to have to cancel my second one too.

About an hour later, I went back down to the receptionist and said that no one was there. She said, “They’re coming, they’re coming, just wait.” So I went back upstairs and waited. And waited. I cancelled my second class (fortunately, my only other class today; my Fridays are light). It was nearly two and a half hours when I went back downstairs and asked the receptionist what was going on. She went into an office, called someone, spent some minutes on the phone, and came back to tell me that I should come back next Friday at the same time, since the doctor wasn’t in today.

Now, I am not going to cancel next week’s classes; I will talk with the referring doctor and find a way to come in later. This kind of situation is not particular to Hungary, by the way. In New York City, when I was working on my second book and had to buy my own health insurance, I first made the mistake of signing up for one of the city plans. It was awful: no real access to doctors, hours of waiting in a crowded clinic filled with poor people who seemed in much more urgent need than I. I switched to Blue Cross, which was substantially more expensive, and magically had access to first-rate doctors, waiting rooms, etc. Here in Hungary, the equivalent would be going to a private doctor in Budapest, or to one of the best hospitals there. I have been warned that medical care in the vidék (provinces) can be subpar.

But anyway, that charmed world of doctors’ appointments and personal attention is really only available at a cost or with good luck, no matter where you are. If you want cheap (or “universal”) health care, you have to put up with the imperfections. This doesn’t mean you can’t get good care, but you need a lot of patience, and you need to know in advance what mistakes not to make. For instance, don’t show up at 8 a.m. when showing up at noon, or not at all, will get you the same result. And don’t assume that an időpont is an időpont, unless it actually is.

  • “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

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.

  • 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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