Stretches of Time, and Illusions of Unimportance

The winter break is coming to an end, and as usual, the thing I’ll miss most about it is the stretch of time, the room for doing things (or not) without rush or interruption. But some of this can be brought into the everyday. The time is sometimes there. Not always, but when so, it can be taken.

It was a great treat last night to go to Budapest for a “törzshely” concert evening featuring Tomi Gimpel and Grand Bleu, with Gábor Molnár officiating. This was one of a series of informal concerts set up to benefit beloved small pubs and clubs in Budapest. Gábor Molnár and Cz.K. Sebő have also played at events I have attended in this series. The atmosphere is friendly, and with these lineups, you can’t go wrong. Grand Bleu was fantastic. I enjoyed Tomi Gimpel too; he told funny stories around his songs. (I especially enjoyed the story about how he won a prize for setting an Attila József poem to song, when he had never done this—they had mistaken the lyrics of his József-themed song for a József poem.)

I got to the area early so as not to be late and so as to have a burrito beforehand. I had enough time for a short walk, so I walked up the hill (in Buda). This, to the left, was a picture I took during the walk.

The event was great, and afterwards I took the 11:43 train back and read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (well worth the lug). I have just started, but I am enjoying it and finding it oddly comforting. “Comforting” is an odd word to use for the book, and probably not one he would have liked, but I think others know what I mean. It’s discomfiting and disturbing too; there’s nothing placid about it. But in that book the non-placidness has a home, and that might be what’s comforting about it. (So far.)

But for the most part I spent vacation at home: translating, writing, reading, listening to music, recording And that leads to the second theme of this post: illusions of unimportance.

Our internet and celebrity cultures have shamed us into thinking that if we’re not famous, we’re deficient. Look at those “important” people doing “important” things! Look at all the “important” people who gave eulogies at David Foster Wallace’s funeral! Look how many followers other people have! Look how few reviews your book has gotten! Look how few people care what you do, unless you post a picture of a cat!

This is a diseased attitude, and it spreads outward and inward. It throws off our balance and perception, affecting people who know better (famous and unfamous alike). Now, hold on, I am not looking for comforting clichés like “It’s who you are as a person that matters,” “Famous people are unhappy,” or “But your work is appreciated!” Hold on, give me room to sort this out.

Fame, recognition, popularity (all slightly different from each other, but related) can come in response to actual quality. Not only that, but they can lead to money, opportunities, invitations, introductions to others.

But often these have nothing to do with the most important things going on in our lives. Just this past week, a new friend underwent cancer surgery. Another friend lost a family member suddenly. Who cares about fame in these situations, or even the daily ups and downs that we all have?

But there’s more. Success and fame, even when well deserved, can confuse, bewilder, distort.

In his 1947 essay “The Catastrophe of Success,” Tennessee Williams wrote, “You know, then, theat the public Somebody you are when you ‘have a name’ is a fiction created with mirrors and that the only somebody worth being is the solitary and unseen you that existed from your first breath and which is the sum of your actions and so is constantly in a state of becoming under your own volition—and knowing these things, you can even survive the catastrophe of Success!”

He was right; if you are “successful” in the eyes of the world, you must not take it too much to heart, because it has little or nothing to do with your work or life, suffering or joy. Fame comes in response to something static, something already made, whereas you are continually coming into being.

Suppose you have several projects. One of them has a big following, another a much smaller one. Is the project with the smaller following inferior? Not necessarily; it might be a place where you take certain risks with your work. The size of the crowd is not the measure, even if at times it tells you something. But we have been insistently conditioned to think that “likes” and “hearts” and follower numbers are something to take seriously, especially on the grander scale.

And how many people have had their work more or less ignored during their lifetime? Popularity feeds itself. People often latch onto things (partly) because they are already popular. People often feel insecure about using their own judgement, listening to something, reading something because it appeals to them, not because others are doing so. So many people and their work get ignored, simply because they aren’t popular.

Beyond that, everyone has a life that goes far beyond their work, or at least far beyond what others perceive as their work. How many of us know what is going on even with our close friends? Some things we will know, others not. A person has many levels and layers. Are the unknown, private levels less important? Sometimes they are the most important, sometimes we don’t know, have no way of knowing, how important they are.

What makes something important, anyway? What does it mean for something to be important? Does it mean there’s a clamor around it? Or does it mean, rather, that a certain necessity moves it, sometimes in the background, sometimes without anyone noticing?

Returning to Wallace, here is a quote from The Pale King, spoken, I think, by a substitute instructor: “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is.” A little later: “Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”

This is a character speaking, not Wallace himself. Quotes like these often get ripped out of context and misused as life wisdoms; moreover, any maxim like this has its limitations and countermaxims. One could just as well say that the important things in life are the things that reach others.

But maybe Wallace’s character is talking about the willingness to do things without knowing exactly how important they are, without needing the stamp of acclaim, even from ourselves.

If importance continually takes shape, if we ourselves cannot define it fully, if our sense of something’s importance is only approximate, then maybe importance (internal or external) isn’t the main guide. It isn’t enough to say, “What matters is that it be important to me.” I might not know fully what is important to me.

It might make more sense to set aside the importance or its lack (not completely, just enough so as not to get swept up in it), and do some combination of what I have to do, what I want, what others have asked of me, what I don’t even know I am doing, and what I one day will no longer do—and all of this without a preponderance of the “I.” No one finds the perfect combination of these five; there is none. We (simply or not so simply) do our best, without fully knowing what that means.

Credits: First photo by me, taken last night. Second photo by Mark Thompson.

So before you

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  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

  • Always Different



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

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


    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.


    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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