A Way of Hearing the World


Isn’t reading literature in the original one of the fundamental reasons for learning a language–and not just a side benefit or frill? Isn’t reading Shakespeare one of the great rewards of learning English? You can’t come close to Shakespeare in a translation, though some are of exceptional quality, or in “Shakespeare made easy” editions (which are watered down beyond pity). You have to plunge into Shakespeare’s language, struggle with it a bit, and then start to see it make glorious sense all around you.

Overall, I admire the gimnázium curriculum here in Hungary. What students learn is valuable not only for their future careers, but for independent thought and life. Literature is central to their learning; they read poems, novels, stories, and more (in Hungarian). They also learn math and sciences (to advanced levels), history (in depth and detail), grammar, technology, languages, arts, and physical education. My two criticisms are (a) that the curriculum is crammed, with little or no flexibility or choice, so that students have no time to absorb what they are learning; and (b) that in the language courses, literature is treated as an extra, something the teacher may add to the lessons if time and inclination permit. (My school has been very supportive of my Shakespeare projects–but still, in relation to the official curriculum, they are something added on.) Language instruction–and all the textbooks I have seen–focus on grammar, vocabulary, and conversation on everyday topics (health, food, family, nature, school, the environment, technology, etc.), which repeat and repeat, at increasingly advanced levels. All of this is good and important–but language instruction without literature is like music lessons without music. I am not the only one who brings literature into class–many teachers do–but still, it may seem an appendage, not an internal organ.

I have sometimes been asked why I am having students read Shakespeare in the original, when they will not need to use Shakespeare’s language later in their lives. My response: they will use it! They will recognize words, phrases, quotes, allusions all around them; they will gain a way of hearing the world; and they can return to the plays and poems throughout their lives.

But to the point: this year, the tenth-grade students (who last year adored A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are getting a little restless with Hamlet, or many are. The reasons are understandable: we read only in class (since the books stay at school, and I am reluctant to add to their already hefty homework); we meet only twice a week, and have not always devoted both sessions to Hamlet; there have been various interruptions and absences, so many students have missed at least one key scene of the play; it’s longer and more difficult than Midsummer; and in my desire to continue onward through the play (so that we can later go back and focus on certain scenes), I have not explained certain passages as well as I could. But we are close to the end; and I am confident that when we go back, reread, and enact particular scenes, the experience will be different.

Also, they have fond memories of Midsummer–and this is a very different sort of work. Comparing the first to the second, they may well feel some disappointment at first (though some have said that they find Hamlet more interesting). Last year their readings and performances were joyous and funny, and here a different mood sets in, though there is plenty of humor in Hamlet too.

Why Hamlet, out of all of Shakespeare’s plays? Well, for one thing, Hamlet is a play of the mind; it takes us into thinking itself. It is also full of play and trickery; the play itself is full of plays, not only the play within the play, but other enactments too–so that we are not always sure whether Hamlet is speaking his thoughts or acting for a perceived audience. Also, there is the question of metamorphosis: what must happen to Hamlet, how must he change, to do what he has set out to do? And the question of “minor” and “major” characters: might Polonius and Laertes be more important than they seem? The whole play has to do with “seeming” and “being”–so that when Hamlet first replies to his mother (in Act 1, Scene 2), his words, in a sense, introduce the play:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

And there you have the beauty of Hamlet: despite all the changing appearances and illusions, despite all the plots and tricks, there is an integrity, something that cannot be reduced to “just” this or that. It can only be revealed, though, through the illusions. We see Hamlet playing with Polonius here (in Act 3, Scene 2):

My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.
Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
Methinks it is like a weasel.
It is backed like a weasel.
Or like a whale?
Very like a whale.
Then I will come to my mother by and by. [Aside.] They fool me to the top of my bent. I will come by and by.
I will say so.
By and by is easily said.

Here Hamlet tests Polonius (craftily) to see whether he will continue to agree with him. But Polonius’s continued agreement reveals to Hamlet that he himself is being played with, in a more serious manner–that is, that Polonius has made some plan with the king and queen (or a larger “they”). So the play reveals the play–and Hamlet speaks through it all: “They fool me to the top of my bent,” suggesting that even his outwitting of Polonius may be partly an illusion, as there may be something beyond Polonius that he cannot outwit.

In some ways Hamlet cannot be a group experience. Last year, a few students took strongly to the play, not together but alone, and their responses set the tone for classes. I see this happening this year as well, but it has yet to come through. I believe that this will be worthwhile for everyone, not only now, but later. But to make it worthwhile, I have to think more about the scenes that we will study closely: how to interpret them, stage them, “character” them. Then, I think, good memory will be built.

Image credit: M. C. Escher, Metamorphosis I (1937 woodcut printed on two sheets).

I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.

Time to Take Away the Takeaway

This weekend I bicycled from Szolnok to Szeged–most of it on the first day, and the remaining 2-3 hours on the second. It was a glorious trip, with long stretches through fields and forests, where I saw farm animals, deer, rabbits, storks, red pheasants (?), and many trees in bloom. I had originally planned to spend the night in Csongrád, but arriving there at 3:00 in the afternoon, I decided it was too soon to stop, and headed onward to Ópusztaszer, along the Tisza. I made a reservation at a guesthouse there. I was bicycling through fields, on dirt roads, at sunset, and arrived in town shortly after dark. When I came to the guesthouse, the owner said that they were full–but when I explained that I had made a reservation and paid for it, he decided to look more closely into the situation. He took me to another nearby guesthouse, where a room was available, and we sat down at the computer together. Eventually we figured out what had happened; I had made the reservation online, but before checking his email, he had subsequently rented the room to someone else. He and the host of the other guesthouse (perhaps a married couple) apologized for the situation and offered me a room there. I happily accepted; it was a lovely, elegant bedroom with all the comfort I needed for the night. We worked this all out in Hungarian, which is nothing unusual for me now, but still rewarding, given that they were strangers and this situation was new for us all. So the takeaway might have been, “They messed up,” but the reality was far different. I was treated not only to a room, but to their helpfulness and kindness, and their willingness to look into an error.

While I was biking, a few momentous things happened in the U.S.: Robert S. Mueller released his report on his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign; the investigation also considered whether Trump had obstructed justice. While finding no evidence of collusion or conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign, Mueller explicitly refrained from drawing conclusions regarding Trump’s possible obstruction of justice.

Later (after I returned to Szolnok), Attorney General William P. Barr delivered his own summary and concluded, on his own authority, that Trump had not obstructed justice. This quickly turned into a takeaway: Trump trumpeting that he had been EXONERATED (in capital letters). This is yet another time to “take away the takeaway”: Mueller’s hesitation to draw a conclusion should not be so quickly translated into a certainty. This is out of my hands; what happens or does not happen from here will have nothing to do with me. I was about to say, “if there were ever a time to take away the takeaway, it is now,” but that is not true; there are other times, other occasions, every day. How many times do we rush to conclusions that favor or disfavor us–that confirm, in some way, what we want to think? How many times do we take a tenuous statement as absolute truth? Takeaways have their place, but they should not have the final say; they need courageous unrolling. I will write about this again soon in relation to Hamlet.

(Take Away the Takeaway was the working title for my second book, which became Mind over Memes. It is still the title of the first chapter–and of my TEDx talk, and of this blog.)


The first photo is of Ópusztaszer; the second, of a dirt road near Dóc. If you zoom in on the upper part of the second picture, you can see a jackrabbit on the road. Most of the deer and rabbits were much too fast for the camera, but this one hesitated.

Film, Bike, Evening, Szolnok


A few weeks ago, the faculty at Varga received an invitation to a Tisza Mozi screening of the 2018 documentary Gettó Balboa. Knowing nothing about it except for a basic description, I signed up right away. Tonight a colleague and I went. I stayed at school until 5:00, grading tests and such, and then zipped off on the bike, down Szapáry utca, and then around the corner onto Templom út and to the cinema. Everything was starting to light up: the gallery, the street lamps, the Mayfly Bridge.

Gettó Balboa depicts a former Budapest mafia man from the Budapest Ghetto who turns to God, turns his life around, and begins to train poor ghetto children and young adults in boxing. One young man in particular, Zoli Szabó, he supports through difficulties that might otherwise have crushed him. Both he and Zoli are of Gypsy (Roma) origin, as is the director, Árpád Bogdán. This is both important to the film and not; the audience was Gypsy and non-Gypsy, and afterward, in the lobby, Gypsy chefs treated us to a delicious stew. But the film was about poverty too and what it does to a person–and about kindness and fighting, which we all know in our own ways. What does it take to help oneself and others? What does it mean to fight with all your soul? The black-and-white cinematography–sometimes crystal-clear, sometimes flattened into silhouettes, sometimes blurred with flashes of light–took me into the hardship and beauty.

After the film, there was a discussion–which came as a surprise to me–I had not known about it in advance–led by the author and journalist Zsolt Bajnai, with Árpád Bogdán (the director), Róbert Bordás (the cinematographer), Attila Poczók (the producer–at least I think he was there), and Mihály Sipos (“Misi,” the protagonist). They discussed, among other things, the process and techniques of filmmaking, the film’s themes and messages, and their own impressions of it.


Then, after eating some stew and saying goodbye to my colleague, I biked up onto the Mayfly Bridge (where I ran into one of my neighbors) and soon afterward turned around. I had thoughts about the nature of kindness: how many directions it takes, how many illusions it can hold, and how simple it can be nonetheless. And about documentaries: how they distill real events into forms, how they can come close to poetry. And about Szolnok, which has opened up to me slowly over the months, and which I am starting to get to know in new ways. And other thoughts, harder to pinpoint, which carried me home.


Without Repetition, Life Would Be Dull


Well, no, this was not the first stork, but the first I have seen in 2019. That there have been thousands before, and will be thousands more, only lifts the event; without repetition, life would be dull.


Against Superiority

When I read about the massacre in the New Zealand mosques (as of now, 49 people have died, and the suspect is a white nationalist), I felt, in addition to sadness and disgust, a renewed rejection of superiority. Superiority and inferiority are part of life, but their absolute forms–the belief that one person or group is better than another–lead to harm.

Belief in superiority is in all of us and sometimes holds truth. One person may be taller (or shorter) than another. One may be better than another in math, or at playing the cello. One person may be kinder, more professional, more generous than another. Specific superiority cannot be wished away; moreover, we are taught to strive for it and seek it out. It is natural to want to hear a good musician rather than a bad one, or to publish a good poem rather than a slipshod assemblage of words.

But all of this has to do with partial superiority: perceived excellence at certain activities, or in certain qualities. It has nothing to do with absolute superiority over another human being or group. As soon as you entertain thoughts of absolute superiority over others because of your skin color, religion, sex, or anything else, you verge on the kind of thinking that has resulted in mass graves. Not only that, but we have learned through history how wrong it is. Why do we keep on forgetting?

I remember a philosophy roundtable I led at Columbia Secondary School, on the topic of privacy. One of the texts I included was Marianne Moore’s “Silence“:

My father used to say,
“Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow’s grave
or the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like the cat—
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse’s limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth—
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint.”
Nor was he insincere in saying, “Make my house your inn.”
Inns are not residences.

I had previously interpreted the tone as somewhat admiring: that the father’s words represent a kind of ideal for Moore or at least the poem’s speaker. But the others at the roundtable were having none of it. They pointed out, for instance, that the father’s words take up almost all of the poem, and that the final line, “Inns are not residences,” suggest the coldness of his view. They also pointed to the beginning of the quote: “Superior people” and the absolute adverbs “never” and “always.” They heard something devastating in the father’s pronouncement on “the deepest feeling.”

That evening somewhat, and later even more, I came to believe that they were right: that the poem’s irony lies in the near-silence of the speaker, and that this near-silence is not “superior” but instead full of pain.

This leads me to thoughts of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which I brought to my students early in the year.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Here too, the quoted speech takes up almost all of the poem–and while it is the “traveller from an antique land” speaking and not Ozymandias, the story leaves the main speaker (the poet) with nothing more to say. But it is easy to get caught up in the “lone and level sands” and forget about something earlier: “Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, / Tell that its sculptor well those passions read / Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things.” The sculptor, the unseen character in all of this, has not only portrayed Ozymandias but read those passions “which yet survive.” The long distance of the sands may come down to nothing.

Yesterday in British civilization class I brought up W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” so often quoted and misquoted, with the famously misunderstood lines: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Those lines about the “best” and the “worst,” taken out of context, may seem to mean that uncertainty is inherently superior to intensity. But that is not it; Yeats (who wrote the poem in 1919) is speaking of a particular lack of conviction, a particular kind of passionate intensity–the latter an extreme certainty, a belief in one’s own authority. Something is taking place that we cannot even see or hear; it has come on us slowly, and now it is all around us. Within all of this, “the best lack all conviction” because the current explanations collapse; even the possibility of a “Second Coming” looms with a question. We, the readers, are guided out of conclusions and into troubling images and thoughts. I see that as one gesture of the poem: away from over-certainty.

If education is for anything at all besides preparing us for the workplace, giving us interesting things to think about, and enabling us to continue learning on our own, then it is for this: reminding us, again and again, through literature, music, art, language, sciences, history, and other fields, that no matter how often we think and feel otherwise, no human stands above another–except in specific respects, and even then imperfectly, just for a time, by way of a passing gift.
Image credit: Anselm Kiefer, The Morgenthau Plan (series of paintings, 2012).

More on Cellos

I am dreamy over my new cello. It plays easily and richly; it has a deep tone and lovely balance. But the old cello is not forgotten; it will have its day again too. The old bow, on the other hand, I will never play again; it lost its tension long ago. For years I was trying to make it work, getting it repaired, etc. But it was ultimately irreparable.

The old cello–the first good cello I ever had, and my only cello from then until now–went through a series of misfortunes. First of all, I now suspect that my parents bought it (from a violin and cello maker in the Black Forest in Germany, after our year in Moscow) when it was just a little too new. The varnish hadn’t hardened completely. But the bigger mistake was to bring it to the U.S. in a soft case. When we arrived and I opened it, I found that the cello’s fingerboard had come off. That was just the beginning of the troubles.

We then got a hard case, but the fuzz on the lining started to stick to the cello’s varnish (maybe because the varnish hadn’t hardened). So I had to wrap the cello in silk before putting it in the case. Then the strap that held the bow in place kept coming off, so the bow would knock around inside the case. Just why we didn’t get a new case immediately, I don’t know–but the expense probably had something to do with it. We were not rich; the cello itself was a big expense, and we didn’t realize how many accompanying costs there would be. I have since learned this about many purchases: consider not only the item itself, but also the upkeep.

Then there were other accidents, including ceiling leaks. Whenever a drop of water hit the cello–and this happened several times–it would take some of the varnish off. We took the cello to someone who restores instruments, but all she could do was patch up the varnish.

The little mishaps continued. I tend to bump into things; this meant that the cello bumped too. I was supposed to change the bridge twice a year–and to adjust the bridge every time it started to warp–but with my astigmatism I don’t have a good eye for that, so I had to take it into a shop. Over time I did this less frequently. I sometimes had to change the strings–and probably threw off the balance just a little each time.

Then, much later, when I was recording songs and playing in or with bands, I made the mistake of using a pickup microphone that attached with adhesive to the tailpiece. I have since removed it, but I would not again attach anything with adhesive. There are other ways to attach a microphone (and it is a wonderful thing sometimes).

But an instrument can be restored–and when looking up the person who made that particular cello, I came upon his grandson’s website. The grandson restores string instruments and has his workshop in Vienna, a short train ride from Budapest. So, when the time comes, I will bring the cello over from the U.S., make an appointment with him, and see what a restoration would involve. I may or may not decide to undertake it–but there could be no better person in the world to advise me on this than he.

Why did it take me so long to do any of this? For years I had a complex relationship with the cello. It seemed to carry so many expectations from others. They didn’t want me to become a professional cellist–that was too hard a life, and it would take extra effort for me to succeed, since I was behind technically–but they always associated the cello with me, wherever I went and whatever I did. They also associated it with classical music; I could see the sharp drop in approval when I started playing other kinds. This question of “approval” plagued me for years; I was showered with it as a teenager, then broke away from it, and then, over time, learned to accept it without letting it define or control me.

I don’t think I’m alone in this ambivalent relationship to the cello; I have met other cello players and professional cellists who went through something similar. Part of this has to do with the cello’s size. It’s an imposing instrument; it takes space and can be difficult to carry around (unless you have a lightweight hard case). It makes big sound, too–great in performance, if you play well, but not so great when you are playing scales and arpeggios or learning a new and difficult piece. People often say, “I love the cello,” but they understandably don’t love the sound of practicing. You start feeling like an imposition. A default apology, or preparation for apology, sets in. There are exceptions, though. When I was living in Brooklyn, I had a downstairs neighbor who, unbeknownst to me, was very ill. (He has since died.) One day I ran into him in the hallway. “I am very angry with you,” he said. Startled, I asked him why. “I haven’t heard you practicing the cello lately,” he replied. He told me that the sound lifted his spirits.

Often I was the one who didn’t like the sound of my playing. Choosing, somewhat by default, not to become a professional musician, I got stuck in an in-betweenness that I could not accept. I hate “sort of” playing; I want to play seriously or not at all. But playing seriously does not mean the same thing to me that it means to others; I like to play many styles of music and create my own too. I love and admire classical music–certain pieces are essential to me, and I continue to encounter and treasure more–but I do not consider it the only worthy music. I love good songs; I consider songwriting as worthy an art as composing a symphony. It may not be as complex musically, but it is full of subtlety. Nor is “classical” music absolutely definable; many compositions cross categories.

Nor do I think that you have to play incessantly to play well. I took pride, as a teenager, in practicing four hours a day, but I doubt that all of those hours were productive. They may have even hurt; I developed serious tension that interfered with the playing. I have since learned the importance of taking a few breaks and staying relaxed in posture. You can accomplish a lot in two hours if you go about it the right way.

Having my own cello, one I bought for myself, carries symbolic and practical meaning: I can now play it on my own terms, having learned from past mistakes and taken the matter (wood, strings, and all) into my hands. I look forward to the new sounds, even with their imperfections.

Image credit: Zhana Viel, Geel Cello.

Why Bring a Cello to English Class?

cello4 (2)
I have brought my cello to various classes over the years, and I remember these occasions. But today was one of the happiest of them all. In one of my ninth-grade classes, the students have been practicing songs from The Wizard of Oz for a possible short performance: not a full play, but a little concert of songs.

I promised them that I would bring the cello this week. In between the promise and the fact, I purchased it. It is the first time that I have bought one for myself; my other cello, now in storage in New York City, was purchased by my parents when I was 14. I got a good case to go with it: a hard but lightweight one with backstraps. Never before has it been so easy to carry.

I have been out of practice, so it will take me a few weeks to get back into shape. But that isn’t the point. The sound of a musical instrument changes things in a classroom. Everyone starts to listen in a different way; the room becomes quiet and relaxed. I wouldn’t bring it to every class every day; we have many other things to do, and the lessons are short. But there are times for this. We sang, and then I invited them try the instrument (no one had tried to play a cello before), and then we sang some more.


In the afternoon, I brought it to one of my twelfth-grade classes. In the last ten minutes of class, we sang (or I played, or both) “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and then, at their request, I played Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

But that wasn’t all. Before the twelfth-grade class, I had a free period, and it occurred to me to find an empty room (in the annex) and play for a while. It has been years since I was able to practice without worrying about bothering the neighbors. That’s essential for a musician, even an amateur;  you need a place where you can play without worrying at all: where you can sound bad if you have to, repeat passages again and again if you have to, and find your way into the music.


One of Those Catch-Up Posts


Mostly announcements this time:

The 2019 ALSCW Conference (Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers) will take place from October 3-6, in Worcester, Mass., at the College of the Holy Cross. I will be leading a seminar titled “What Is Great Literature?” Students, teachers, writers, professors, and readers are welcome to submit a paper proposal (by June 1). See the guidelines here. There will also be seminars on oratory, Melville, Frederick Douglass, Shakespeare and the Hebrew Bible, and much more–in addition to poetry and prose readings, panels, and a banquet.

Twenty of my ninth-grade students are rehearsing Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, which they will perform at the National English Language Drama Festival in Veszprém (in late May). I will have more to say about that as the date approaches.

My book events in Szolnok and NYC are now bright memories; you can see pictures of the Szolnok event here and of the NYC event here and here. Also, the podcast of my interview on “Leonard Lopate at Large” is available on SoundCloud and other sites.

The band 1LIFE is vying for the chance to open for the Grenma at the Dürer Kert in Budapest on April 27. You can vote for them through Friday. I wrote a piece about one of their songs (as a sort of English-language plug).

Soon I will post some thoughts on Hamlet (and teaching Hamlet), the Hungarian language, cello, and more. This is all for now.

No Ordinary Song


The Hungarian band 1LIFE released their debut CD, Nincsen Kérdés (“There Is No Question”), in February 2019. Here are some thoughts on one of their songs, “Maradok ember” (“I will stay human”).* My translations and interpretations are imperfect; fortunately you can listen to the song itself.


As with their other songs (such as “Kapcsolj ki“), the words and music go together well.  Here the lilting, descending melody, simple and repeating, makes room for the musical changes–the pauses, drum patterns, bass octaves, textures–and the wistful, cryptic lyrics. But the lyrics also follow the music, keeping to its rhythm and form. The song begins,

lehetnék hajó, te meg
lehetnél a folyó
úgysem engednéd, hogy benned
elmerüljek én

This translates approximately as

I could be a ship, and you
you could be the river
you would not at all allow
me to be submerged in you

It is as if the lyrics were the ship, and the music the river. But all of this is to occur in the future. The first word of the song, “lehetnék” (“I could be”) is the first person conditional of the verb “lesz” (“to become” or future “to be”) with the potential suffix “-het”: lesz + -het + nék = lehetnék. The song’s fifth word, “lehetnél” (“you could be”) is the second person singular. Both suggest the possibility of becoming something. Also, the ship is not preceded by a definite article (or any article at all), but the river is. Thus the first image of the pair is not specified–it’s a ship, any ship, or a generic ship–but the second thing is specific, existing in relation to the first. This pattern–of verbs and definite article–persists through the subsequent three pairs of images in the first verse. (But part of the initial pattern gets broken too: the “úgysem” segment occurs only twice. I like this about the band’s songs in general: that patterns are detectable but not overdone, and that they change at just the right time.)

At first the images and even the action seem common: just as people hold each other up, the river will not let the ship sink. I think I have heard this metaphor before. But there’s an ambivalence: is the river protecting the ship from danger and disaster, or keeping it from what it wants to do? Is there some kind of danger and loss in the protection itself? The next stanza extends the puzzle:

lehetnék felhő, te meg
lehetnél as eső
úgysem engedném, hogy végül
zápor legyünk

I could be a cloud, and you
you could be the rain
in the end I would never let us
turn into a shower

It seems, at first glance, that the cloud is holding things together, preventing the downpour from happening–but the rain is already falling, and so the cloud could be holding back from the action, refusing to join in, refusing to become “us,” even though it is made of the same matter as the rain. There might be some separation, some breakage, in this restraint.

Even here, the meanings have not been revealed; we don’t know what the ship and river, cloud and rain are, except that they express relations of some kind. Things take a turn with the next stanza, where living beings (as opposed to inanimate matter) come into play:

lehetnék erdő, te meg
lehetnél a madár
bújj el bennem, és igérem
itt senki nem talál

I could be a forest, and you
you could be the bird
hide in me, and I promise
no one will find [you] here

This picture seems peaceful, except for the suggestion of a threat: that the bird needs to hide from those pursuing it. It’s idyllic and fragile at the same time. But then the next stanza casts new meaning on what has occurred up to now (or the possibilities that have been suggested):

lehetnék bolond, te meg
lehetnél a király
mondd csak, minek is játszanék, hisz itt
mindenki bánt

I could be a fool, and you
you could be the king
tell me what part I should play, since here
everybody hurts

Now it seems that all of the images from before–ship and river, cloud and rain, bird and forest–are roles being played, like the fool (or jester) and king, and that no matter what part you play, you do not escape the basic pain and your own ability to hurt others. As I understand it, “bánt” is transitive, so the hurting is inflicted as well as suffered.

But then comes the chorus, which seems joyous, almost:

nem leszek több, mint aminek látsz
nem leszek jobb, mint amire vágysz
maradok csendben, maradok ember
nem leszek szebb, mint ez a világ
nem leszek bölcsebb mint az apám
maradok csendben, maradok ember

I will not be more than what you see
I will not be better than what you desire
I will stay quiet, I will stay human
I will not be lovelier than this world
I will not be wiser than my father
I will stay quiet, I will stay human

Is this the true victory: staying human, staying quiet, not succumbing to the pressures toward extremes? If so, this song seems to stand up against the hyperbole of our times, the pressure to be the best, the first, the loudest, the fastest. Or maybe it is not protest, but an admission, a promise, or a hope. (“Maradok csendben, maradok ember” could also be speaking of the present: “I remain quiet, I remain human.”)

The second verse–only half as long as the first–gives a new dimension to the puzzle. It returns to the first two pairs of images, but not the second two. Now, instead of looking ahead at possibilities, it looks back on what has happened.

te voltál a folyó, és látod
én voltam a hajó
vigyáztam de te mégis
partra vetettél

You were the river, and you see
I was the ship
I was careful but all the same
you threw [me] onto the shore

te voltál az eső, és látod
én voltam a felhő
azt mondtad, hogy minden rendben végül
viharrá lettél

you were the rain, and you see
I was the cloud
You said everything was fine in the end
you turned into a storm

All the cautions and protections come to nothing: the ship is tossed ashore, and the rain turns into a storm. Also, the becoming has come to an end; the primary verb is now “voltál”/”voltam,” the past tense of “van.” The phrase “viharrá lettél” caught my attention: “vihar” (“storm, tempest”) is of Slavic origin, and it appears here in the translative case, “viharrá,” which gives a sense of transformation (“into a storm”). From what I gather, the translative case has a slightly archaic or poetic feel. And then there’s “lettél,” the second-person singular past form of “lesz,” the verb I brought up in the beginning. It’s a past future of sorts: in the past, you became.

The forest and bird, fool and king, do not return, but they do not have to; we can decide for ourselves how they end up–how we end up, since we are they. How far do we hide? What and whom do we play? At what cost? To what end?

Then comes the chorus again, several times, along with interjections of “és látod” (“and you see”) and “és hát” (“and well”), and changes of musical texture. What does it mean, staying human? What does it consist of? Maybe being human has to do with two opposite things: protecting each other and yet failing to fully protect or be protected. Or maybe we play parts, well or poorly, while human pain and joy take their own course. Or we lighten our lives and mend the breaks with interjections (“well, you see”).

These words, patterns, melodies, and layers make “Maradok ember” no ordinary song. I sense that these musicians have much more coming, but right now they deserve to be heard.

Image: Marc Chagall, The Enchanted Forest (1945).

*I originally wrote the piece to support the band in an online poll. The winner will open for the Grenma at the Dürer Kert in Budapest on April 27. The band didn’t win the poll, but they did well, and the music transcends this stuff anyway. Also, they have an exciting show coming up: on March 23, when I will be on a bike trip to Szeged, they will open for Belmondo in Törökszentmiklós.

Full disclosure: Two of the band members attend the school where I teach in Szolnok, and one of them is in one of my weekly classes (through April). A colleague told me about their CD, and I purchased it, listened to it, and then listened more. I write about this song because it (along with the rest of the album) has had an effect on me and because I would like others, particularly English speakers, to know about it.


A Similar Gaze


Yesterday I received a letter from a stranger (copied here with permission):

Dear Ms. Senechal,

I fortuitously discovered your work and simply adore your thinking, your whole orientation towards education, your perceptions about culture could not be more nuanced, intelligent, and deeply inspiring! I am writing to thank you for your work and also to ask you if you could offer some sort of reading list that might help a reader develop a similar gaze. I love your counter-culture thinking, but it is not dismissive and hostile, but rather critical and informed. You tight-rope walk a very subtle line, and I really appreciate it. Most academic writing is AWFUL to read—-horrid prose, jargons, and not very impressive ideas. Your work is a breath of fresh air, and I would love to read others like you and those who have shaped your thinking.

I thought of writing a response here, because this gives me a chance to recognize some of the writers who have influenced my thinking. But when I started assemble it in my mind, I became overwhelmed by the task. First of all, my thinking is continually changing; I expect the next book to differ from my latest one, and I rethink things day by day.

I suppose the letter-writer was referring to nonfiction, but my greatest influences have been poetry, music, and certain kinds of fiction–as well as nonfiction that has been influenced by these. I am drawn to those writers who have an ear for language–who hear the overtones and undertones of words, who know how to set words to rhythm, who set and break patterns. I love Aeschylus and Sophocles, the Psalms and Koheleth–but if I start listing names, I won’t end.

Nikolai Gogol: perhaps the writer who influenced me the most overall. His sentences are works of art: building up and breaking down, toying with sounds and meanings, and bursting with comedy and sadness.

I grew up on classical music but love rock too, and folk, and other kinds; music can take the humblest of forms and still shake a life. It depends on subtle things.

Of essayists, I am drawn toward the ruminative and the keen (in combination): Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf, David Bromwich, to name just three.

But as long as I can remember, some of my greatest influences have been the people around me every day: colleagues, students, friends, family, acquaintances. Some of them I admire for their work, character, or both; some challenge me in everyday conversation by putting things in a way that I hadn’t considered before. That’s one reason why I hope to continue teaching as long as I can give it full mind and strength.

I don’t think I have fully answered the question, though. The person who wrote to me found something in my writing that differed from the usual jargon. This difference is still building, but even in its elementary versions, it has come with some risk and pain. It isn’t just that I read particular writers, although I do. It isn’t just that I am inspired by those around me, although I am. It is that I took my own way, more than once, and learned what was there. For instance, in the middle of graduate school I decided that I didn’t want to go into academia–that is, to become a professor. I left graduate school, moved to San Francisco, finished my dissertation a few years later, for its own sake, and received my degree. Many people were initially upset that I had turned away from academia, but I don’t regret the decision; teaching high school gives me a full intellectual life, with freedom to move between subjects (philosophy, literature, language, drama, etc.). I don’t have life answers; I wouldn’t advise anyone to take or avoid my path. Each person faces different dilemmas and conundrums, so any advice must be tentative.

Nor have I attained the writing that I am after. Even with blog posts, I keep looking for the right word, rhythm, or mixture. When I finish writing something more substantial, such as a book, I outgrow it it a little; the mind keeps going past the final draft, and I start tinkering with ideas for the next work, whatever it may be. This is not a “process” (dreary word) but a pursuit of something I can barely see and hear.

Back to the question of things to read: I recommend Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and Bromwich’s Moral Imagination. Each of these will lift the thinking; if you take them in slowly, they may exhilarate too. I choose them because I return to them again and again.


I revised this piece a few times after posting it. The photo shows part of my bookshelf (and just a fraction of my books, since I was able to bring only a few to Hungary); the record cover at the top is of Art of Flying’s Escort Mission.