A Documentary, a Full Weekend, and Many Thoughts

There are times when I wish I had a few more hours in a day to think about what happened in it. This afternoon, after getting a lot done (I wrote my Hungarian introduction to the Shakespeare festival, as well as a few words for the Renaissance dance workshop), I headed off to Budapest to see the premiere of Nyílnak befelé ablakok, a documentary directed by Zsófi Szász about Platon Karataev. The film presents the musicians in a human and profound way, with many beautiful moments. The artist Emőke Dobos—the inspiration for many of the songs, the creator of Platon Karataev art of many forms, and the wife of Gergely Balla—figures prominently in it too, as do other essential Platon colleagues (such as the sound engineer Ábel Zwickl). I don’t want to say more about it, because it will eventually be available online, with English subtitles.

But as I watched it, and as I listened to the discussion afterwards (the interviewer asked some superficial questions, which they answered thoughtfully and strongly), I realized once again why we were all there: first of all, for their music and their approach to it, second, to see this wonderful film. Beyond that, we have something in common with them and each other. As they themselves said in the interview, they aren’t sure why there would be a film about them in particular, or why their music in draws such large audiences (in contrast with, say, a superb jazz musician who might play for an audience of ten), but they are trying to give both the music and the situation their best. Their artistic directions and decisions are not for the sake of popularity; if people are drawn to their music, that means something to them, but they aren’t striving for big crowds and rave reviews. Nor do they lead glamorous lives; most of their work takes place behind the scenes, at home or in the studio, or in the long stretches of travel, or even when not much seems to be happening at all. Gergő spoke about how important fatherhood is for him; because of this, he would much rather go on several shorter tours than one or two long ones. The musicians shape their work according to what they hold dear and strive for, alone and together.

During this event, a joy wrapped me up, a new way of realizing (as I have realized many times, then somehow unrealized) that each life has its dignity, that each of us has something to do, and that it doesn’t matter how many people notice and applaud it. Yes, it is important to reach people, to have one’s work understood in some way—but this does not mean getting distracted by the numbers, the outward signs of success. The important thing is to make the work better and better, whatever it is—not only technically, though that too, but internally, in terms of what it is and where it goes. For this, our internal life has only our own secret flashlight shining on it, and sometimes not even that. Essential also are the daily habits and practices, which vary from person to person (some thrive with structure and discipline, while some need a little bit of laziness). Most important of all is to shut out unnecessary noise. Spiritual life (which sometimes we ourselves cannot see) lies at the center of it all, even for those who do not believe in God, because each of us has to contend at some point with the question: what is left when the things we take for granted are gone?

The previous day, I came to a concert that I loved: László Kollár-Klemencz with his band and an array of guest musicians spanning several generations. It was such a rich concert that it ran out of time, so unfortunately Gergely Balla (of Platon Karataev), the last guest musician, could only play one of the songs he had intended to play. That moment of disappointment was nothing more than that, but it brought up memories. I remember playing cello on a few songs at a beloved musician’s concert, in San Francisco—and at the last minute, she crossed one of the songs off the list. I too have had times where I had to shorten a list, or adjust a program. On the surface, it’s a trifling matter, everyone will survive it, there will be more concerts. But in the moment, the person making the decision, or someone affected by it, including an audience member, can feel dismay. There’s a sacrifice here, a tiny one, but a sacrifice all the same. Sacrifice is nothing to fear, though. Without it, life loses meaning.

A couple of weeks ago I brought my students William Faulkner’s Nobel Banquet speech. It turned out to be very important for them, particularly what he says about sacrifice:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Faulkner gave this speech in 1950, when the Cold War was underway, but today too we are beset by fears—not only of global warming, or world war, but of our own insignificance, of not being one of the “important” people. We are fed a daily propaganda that measures people in terms of their numbers, their following. Now, everyone who writes or creates in some way wants an audience. Even outside of creative work, people want to be recognized fairly. But start taking the numbers to heart, start letting them tell you your own worth, and you’re half dead. It’s a big distraction and delusion; it feels rotten. It takes time away from one of the most important things in the world: attention to someone or something beyond the self, which involves everything that Faulkner speaks of, even invisibly.

That will be all for now, because I have to rush off for a full day of school, including a Shakespeare rehearsal. The festival is a week away. May it be good.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it, mostly for flow.

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  1. More on Sacrifice | Take Away the Takeaway

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

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    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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