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.

Zoltán Zelk, “Dorosic Nightfall, 1943”

The original Hungarian text of this poem by Zoltán Zelk has been published many times: most recently, with carefully corrected title, in the literary journal Eső (Winter 2018), where I first encountered it. To my knowledge, the only translation into English is my own, which I present here, in honor of the international Holocaust Remembrance Day. I hope that showing it here on my blog will not stand in the way of its publication elsewhere one day. The poem deserves to be known around the world.

I read this translation aloud at a special private lucheon held by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture and its Cowan Center for Education in the fall of 2019; Gyula Jenei (poet and founding editor of Eső), Marianna Fekete, and I were the featured guests of the Cowan Center’s 2019 Education Forum, of which the luncheon was the closing event. At this luncheon we met Will Evans, founder and publisher of Deep Vellum, who will be publishing my translation of Jenei’s collection Mindig más in February 2022. We also had the honor of meeting the poet Frederick Turner, who has collaborated with the scholar, writer, and Holocaust survivor Zsuzsanna Ozsváth on numerous translations. It was a sincere and momentous occasion, worthy of long memory. We are so grateful for the hospitality of Claudia MacMillan, Larry Allums, all the staff, and everyone who attended the luncheon and other events.

For the Hungarian text (“Dorosici alkony, 1943”), please go here.

Dorosic Nightfall, 1943

Zoltán Zelk

Translated by Diana Senechal

Thirty-three have perished in the pit.
The thirty-fourth collapsed before our eyes.
How many we have buried in two weeks!
we could have stacked the bodies to the skies.

And then we did! The dreadful grey tower!
Too much to bear, even in the sky;
staggering down the tower’s countless stairs,
beside the grave appeared Adonai.

And then he wailed an upward-swelling prayer,
its melody the tint of smoke and char—
and trembling they whirled below the earth,
the typhus-decimated legs and arms.

He tore his chest apart, burned all his rags,
fell to the ground, and soaked himself in mud;
cursing the Sixth Day of his creation,
he called back the Darkness and the Void.

My terrified companions might have whispered:
“An unhinged cantor… burying his brother…”
but I knew well that this was: Adonai!
and each one fallen in the pit, his brother.

Everything here is his brother, child, and sin,
everything that he long ago released:
the fire, the lice, the plague, and the infected
summer nightfall with its sour green taste.

Pounding his forehead into root and stone,
this is why he bows before Affliction,
this is why he moans with barren lip;
he is as speechless as before Creation.

Only the smoke of his terrible song came out,
and even it got stuck on top of a thin
branch, and in the sudden lack of sound,
we felt raw terror freezing on our skin.

And once again the curses and the blows,
—our numbed guards snapped back into their mien—
again the movement throbbing to the bone,
the failing muscles’ lousy dance again.

Always one and the same insensate rhythm.
But our shovels kept on tossing, tossing high,
and clods of earth rained down upon the heavens,
and in this way we buried Adonai.

“The Vanished City Hall”

On Monday, January 13, 2020, around 7:45 a.m., I bicycled past Szolnok’s city hall on my way to school, just to make sure it was still there, and took the above photo. Earlier in the morning, I had read Zsolt Bajnai’s story “Az eltűnt városháza” (“The Vanished City Hall”); while I realized it was satire, I couldn’t discount its plausibility, since the days had indeed been foggy, the story had a bite to it, and such things do happen in the world…. A year and nearly three months later, my translation of the story has been published on the Asymptote Blog, in its Translation Tuesday feature!

https://www.asymptotejournal.com/blog/2021/04/06/translation-tuesday-the-vanished-city-hall-by-zsolt-bajnai/

Good Within Limitations

One of my hopes over this spring break was to take a day and go somewhere with the bike, maybe bike and train. Given the current constraints, I took a short trip to Tokaj today. As it turned out, I could just as well have gone without the bike. I ended up hiking up some hills and visiting a wine cellar, the Hímesudvar, where I have been before, to get something for a special occasion. It was open, along with many other cellars, as well as ice cream places, restaurants with take-out, etc. Tokaj wasn’t crowded, but you could see a fair number of visitors mulling around.

I wanted to bike up to Sárospatak and back, but there was too great a risk of missing the return train, and along with that, the curfew. Going up to Sárospatak (through Olaszliszka, etc.) would have been entirely possible if I were then to take the 6:08 train back to Szolnok from Tokaj. But that would have brought me back to Szolnok at 8:20, and curfew starts at 8.

So where to go, then? Up, up, up. I locked up the bike down below and ascended. It was good to climb the steep hills and feel my heart pumping. Its tourist aspects aside, Tokaj is old and tranquil, and you can take a path where you’re all by yourself, with only the sound of wind and birds around you.

Many of the winery-owners were clearly hoping people would stop by. I overheard a conversation where someone was explaining to someone else, “It’s the virus. That’s why they’re not coming.” I saw a number of “Eladó” (for sale) signs outside of wine cellars; I have seen them before, but there were more now. If I were rich, I wouldn’t buy a wine cellar—I would have no idea what I was doing, and it would be too much of an undertaking and distraction—but I might help someone who was trying to get started, or someone trying to keep an old business going. It must be hard for them right now, but not only right now. Many forces make it difficult for a small business, including a wine business, to survive. Not to mention that it takes knowledge and dedication, over many years.

Anyway, I’m glad I made the trip and that something along these lines was possible. On the train I got to read a bit and saw a herd of deer through the window. Once the restrictions ease up and it’s possible to stay in a hotel again, I intend to go back to Sárospatak, and elsewhere too, over time: back to Esztergom, Baja, Szeged, and to places I haven’t visited yet. But for now, within the limitations, this was good.

The Pity of the Project

Spring break, which goes through Tuesday, has begun. When people ask me what I’m doing, and I reply that I am staying home because I have a lot of projects, they sometimes look at me with an expression of pity. But there’s nothing to pity here; I love having time to work on things without rush. I have some things to do: wrap up the Orwell project with a final report (for the grant), prepare a presentation on the same project, write an essay that I have promised for publication, catch up on grading, work on Folyosó (which has some exciting features and pieces in the upcoming issue), write a story that has been in my mind for a while, start putting together the Shakespeare video, and do a little something with music too. All that, and finish the book I am currently reading, and listen to music, and write a few blog pieces. Yes, and I have an appointment for my first Pfizer shot on Friday. That’s already a lot! But I do plan to take a day trip on the bike–maybe take the train to Tokaj and bike around from there, or maybe bike to Tiszafüred again and take the train back. The challenge lies in getting home by Covid-curfew (8 p.m.), but something can be done.

A few announcements, while I’m here:

My translation of Zsolt Bajnai’s story “Az eltűnt városháza” (“The Vanished City Hall”) will be published on the Asymptote Blog on Tuesday. That’s a great honor. (Update: here it is.) Speaking of that, the ALSCW event featuring Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai went splendidly, and we received many appreciative comments afterwards. Thanks again to Ernie Suarez, the Bajnais, and everyone who attended.

Today I had the joy of listening to Art of Flying’s “Song for Iris” on KKFI 90.1 FM, in Mark Manning’s Wednesday Midday Medley. I listened onwards too, for a little while, and look forward to listening again soon.

My “Listen Up” series on this blog has been taking off; the piece on Art of Flying left me with albums in my ear. It is so much fun to delve into favorite music. I haven’t decided yet what the next piece in the series will be, but before too long there will be one on Jacques Brel.

Also, I have started to read the poet János Pilinszky, thanks to references in Cz.K. Sebő’s and Platon Karataev’s music. One poem, “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight Labyrinth”), I recited and put together with a video I made, that same day, of snowfall on the Tisza. You can read Simon Géza’s gorgeous English translation (of this and some other Pilinszky poems) here. My pronunciation has some imperfections, but I decided not to try to fix this particular video. Let it be as is. The poem is what matters.

On the Pesach front, I co-led a virtual seder (at Szim Salom) and attended a virtual family seder. In addition, I have been eating matzah since Saturday, thanks to my friend Éva in Budapest, who sent me two boxes (more than enough for the week, but it’s really tasty, so I’ll just keep on eating it).

And spring is here.

Listen Up: Art of Flying

Photo: Doctor Foxglove. Make-Out Room, San Francisco, 2013.

I have been listening to Art of Flying for more than fifteen years. Their songs seem ancient and modern at once: as though plucked from the sky and rolled in our world. I listen to An Eye Full of Lamp (2000), their first full-length album, and have a hard time selecting particular songs from it, since they form a piece. Many are tightly and beautifully crafted, with attention to each instrument, each part; others are exploratory, a little like driving late at night and taking a different road from the usual, which takes you through forests and fields and stars and scares you just a little, though you want to be there. Listen to the whole album, and all of their albums, and you learn what it means to live in music, to make each note, sound, and word matter; to catch a song’s drift, that thing that makes us want to play it again and again.

At its core, Art of Flying is the duo of David Costanza and Anne Speroni. They have been playing music together for several decades, with other musicians coming and going for short, long, and recurring intervals: first as the Whitefronts (named after a local grocery store), then as Lords of Howling, and then, since the late 1990s, as Art of Flying, which has recorded nine full-length albums, if my count is correct, and several shorter releases. For years they recorded their albums in their own studio, the legendary Barn (in Questa, New Mexico); eventually they had to give up the Barn, but the music continues and changes. While delighted to be on the radio, to receive even brief messages from listeners, to play concerts around the world, they have never let publicity distract them from the music. A big record label might have pressured them to make their songs more packageable; they have no interest in that. They are here to make music the way they hear and imagine it. Their influences range from the Minutemen to Nick Drake; their songs are filled with surprises and treasures. Their listeners respond enthusiastically. The Italian magazine BLOW-UP has called them “the best-kept secret in American music of the new century”; the secret has been spilling slowly. They have been played over the years on independent radio stations such as WFMU and KALX, and received vigorous praise, such as in Lynne Robinson’s article in TaoStyle and J. Simpson’s in Divide and Conquer. Nonetheless, discovering their music is a private experience, since it is best done with full attention and a little stretch of time.

Let’s start with one of my favorites of all their songs, “Born to Follow,” from their 2005 album asifyouwerethesea.* It gives me the shivers, about sixteen years since I first heard it.

arise arise yr work is done
the fields are buried with the dead
how sweet it looks like no one won
some dreams awaken some dreams are dead

and under heaven the thunder rolls
its messages in shadows hid
don’t waste away yr wind
you were only born to follow.

It was hard to choose one song from this album; I also wanted to bring up the opening song, “What the Magpie Said,” as well as “Song for Coins Tossed,” “The Sailor’s Song,” “Song for Orion,” “Butterfly Song,” and, well, the whole album.

But I have to do this in some kind of sequence, so let’s go back to An Eye Full of Lamp and take a few minutes with “Island Song,” whose flugelhorn, played by David, and whose singing, by Anne, sound like they’re coming out of a late-night street in the memory of years ago. I want that horn to come back in the song with the same melody, and the first time it does, but then at the end it doesn’t, and I love that it doesn’t: “But all we wanted was to be together” leads not to the original melody, but to “fireflies and flame-throwers.”

Now let’s turn to Garden of Earthly Delights (2002), the first Art of Flying album I ever heard, thanks to my friend Cory, who sent me a copy, thinking it just might be up my alley. To say that I was blown away is apt here, since the second song is “Blow Away.” This album rolls from one gorgeous and evocative song into the next, from the words “& now yr great & mighty king has got no clothes / & neither does the queen” to the album’s closing lyrics, “& THOUGH I will die without yr kiss / there is more to love than this / in a garden of earthly delight.” Each song feels as if I had remembered it from years and years ago, although I had never heard them before the first listen. This is the album I have given away to people as a gift; this is the one I would still most likely give, along with Escort Mission and a couple of others.

The fifth song, “Tomorrow,” is about as perfect as a song can get in terms of poetry, tune, and harmonies, the alternation between words and “la, la, la,” and the sounds of guitar, piano, tuba, and trumpet. This is a song I could imagine in a classic songbook of some kind, to be sung by future generations.

I leaned my back against an oak
I thought it was a trusty tree
& first it bent & then it broke
my true love had forsaken me
my dream of peace could not come true
the wind had swept our hearts away
& so I sing this song to you
tomorrow blows us all away

Another favorite from this favorite album is “Goodbye Too Soon.” I love the slow dance of its rhythm, the evocation of lullaby, the joining of heartbreak and perspective.

There is a humility throughout the albums: a knowledge that we do not live long, that greatness is not given to most of us, that we can lose anything at any time, and that it’s still possible, to find beauty, or maybe possible only when we know, somewhere down their in our souls, that we don’t possess it. We still try and hope to possess it in some way or another; that doesn’t go away, but we also know better, and learn better, and fail again. There are no pat realizations here; it’s difficult no matter how you go about it, and just when you start coming to terms with it, mortality socks you in the stomach. But music will be there, even then.

I had promised, in the piece about animals in songs, to bring up “The Jaguar Song” here (from their 2014 album I’m Already Crying), and I wouldn’t leave it out anyway. It starts out with a William Blake-like feeling:

the jaguar in his forrest bright,
a river made of tears,
tangled through the longest night
’til stars flew everywhere.

But then it moves into something else:

i watched them from the ferris-wheel
mesmerized by all the lights
the strange things we must see as real
as black & white

and then the chorus, full of sound and spirit, with that wonderful chromatic progression leading in:

they cannot steal our story
they cannot steal our love
they cannot steal the heavens dancing way up above
they say i don’t remember well…
i don’t need to
when i’m holding you

What is this jaguar? So many possibilities come to mind, but to me it is something like music itself, weaving its way through heartbreak, shedding stars as it goes, but taking something from you too, the way he “sets his eyes ablaze /
and licks the lips right off my face.” Both of these things are happening at once: something being taken away, something being untakable.

I will finish with “Hang Around the Water,” the first song from their most recent album, Escort Mission, a sonic masterpiece. (I brought up “Song for Iris” in another piece recently.) I don’t even know what to say except: listen to the album from start to finish, then repeat! Then maybe set it aside briefly, and return to it with the songs now familiar. No matter when it kicks in for you, each listen will bring something new.

Oh, no, I can’t finish this piece without mentioning “ThOUGH the LIGHT Seem SMALL,” on which I had the honor of playing cello (in the recording itself, at the Barn). I love the slightly archaic subjunctive (“seem” instead of “seems”), which by itself does so much for the song. I also love the rhythmic change, between verse and chorus, from a slow 4/4 to a 3/4 (or similar), and the change of texture that goes with this. And the lyrics, which begin:

When the bright unspoken light of Winter takes the world
Gathering each solitary day,
All the pages written you won’t need them anymore
Winter comes & Winds us all away
& Winds us all away!

I hope this piece has introduced a few people to the music of Art of Flying. I’ll just finish with a little story of meeting them for the first time. I think it was in the summer of 2005, just a few months after asifyouwerethesea came out. Or else 2006. I know I had heard that album many times before going there. They (and the wonderfully enthusiastic and talented Larry Yes) encouraged me to come out for SuanFest, and I was excited about doing so, but also nervous, since it isn’t easy to show up at an intimate music fest hosted by musicians you admire. But yes, I flew out Colorado, and then drove southward to Taos in a rental car. They were playing a show in a little club in Taos that evening, and I wanted badly to make it on time. I took a road that led me up steep hills and through pine forests, winding this way and that, and then the sky darkened, and torrents started coming down, the kind of torrents where you really can’t see through the window any more, and I was going along slowly, since there wasn’t even anywhere to stop, and wondering if I would get there at all, never mind on time. But then, as happens in those parts in the late afternoon, the rain suddenly cleared, the sun poured gold onto everything, and I continued on my way, driving through the gold, and got to Taos after sunset, and then to the club, and there they were, and I met them and relaxed into an evening, and then a full weekend, of glorious music. That first night, I stayed in someone’s friend’s house, on Blueberry Hill, which brought to mind Hannah Marcus’s song “Hairdresser in Taos“; at SuanFest itself I stayed outdoors in a tent, like most of the others.

Sixteen years have gone by since then. And their music has gone on and on, growing more and more beautiful, not only with the newer albums, but with the returns to the older ones. Thank you, Art of Flying, for all of this. Oh, and one more song (is it possible to finish, really?), “Butterfly Song” from asifyouwerethesea, with Sare Rane’s lovely and fitting video below.

wings like a butterfly
mouth full of june
I ignored all warnings & flew to the moon
the knife & the fork & the spoon were all there
we cut up the king & we braided the air

peace…where could you be?
held in a dream…more real to me
than all of these magic powers gone

And that’s the end of this beginning.

*For the main songs mentioned here, I embedded Bandcamp audio. If you like them, you can go to Bandcamp, listen to more, and purchase the songs or albums. Bandcamp lets you listen to the music for free, without advertisements; if you do decide to buy it, Bandcamp takes 15% and pays the rest to the musicians.

Also, while Art of Flying often put their album and song titles in lowercase, I usually capitalized them here, so that they would stand out visually.

This is the third piece in my “Listen Up” series; the first two were dedicated to Platon Karataev and Cz.K. Sebő, respectively. Each installment focuses on a particular artist or band whose music I love. Your comments are welcome.

Passover and Advice to Self

We’re heading into Shabbat and then Pesach (Passover), which, like Yom Kippur but in a very different way, asks for introspection. In particular, the question comes up year after year, in synagogue services and at seders, in relation to the Jews’ exodus from Egypt (Mitzrayim): What is your personal Mitzrayim? What is something from which you have been liberated, or wish to be liberated? Another aspect of Passover is the outward look, toward liberation needed in the world. I often felt uncomfortable discussing both questions: the first was too private, the second (sometimes) too formulaic and pat. But this year I have been thinking of something that applies to both inner and outer life.

If I were to give one piece of advice to my past (or even present) self, it would be this: “Don’t worry about what people think of you. Do worry–to the extent that worrying helps you–about how your actions affect others.”

First I have to clear up that point: Worrying can be helpful sometimes. It allows you to ruminate over something, which in turn may bring you some kind of clarity. Often, through the worrying, you figure out an internal or external response. Worrying gets destructive, though, when it’s frivolous or leads nowhere.

But so much of my worrying, throughout my life, has been about inconsequential things: a slightly awkward conversation; a moment when I was just a little more blunt than I expected to be, or a little less so; a vague feeling that something somewhere went wrong. Sometimes I have carried that worry for days or longer. Sometimes I have even worried about the worrying itself.

On the other hand, certain worries have been right on target: about hurting someone’s feelings, or neglecting some responsibility, or going too far with one idea or another. This doesn’t mean that the worrying was always needed, or needed indefinitely, but at least it drew attention to something important.

How do you sort out the important from the unimportant? That’s a project that never ends. But once it begins, it brings some relief. Some things really don’t matter. In particular: the awkward moments where no harm was done, just things did not feel perfect. Things don’t have to be perfect, and human beings are a bit awkward by nature. Nature itself is awkward, wriggling in and out of life.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover to those who celebrate them, and a happy weekend to all!

Why the Mass Killings in the U.S.?

Why the mass killings in the U.S.? The first and most obvious answer is that Americans (by which I mean citizens and residents of the U.S.) can obtain guns, including automatic rifles, far too easily. But there are other reasons. Gun control, though essential, won’t solve the problem, since people will find ways around the laws or use something other than guns. The killings have cultural and ideological sources, even though the killers come from widely different backgrounds. There is something particularly American about this.

First, to get this out of the way: some object to the use of the word “American” as an adjective for the U.S.A. I use it because it’s recognized and simple. Every country that I can think of has a one-word (or, at most, two-word) adjective: Russian, Soviet, Danish, Icelandic, Mexican, etc. Yes, it’s true that North America encompasses more than the U.S., and Central and South America are also America. Yet no other country has “America” as its short name, hence the chance of confusion is negligible.

Criminals do not exist or act in complete isolation; they come out of a history, a culture, an infinite set of attitudes and beliefs. Even mental illness cannot be separated from “normal” life. Besides the availability of guns, what conditions in the U.S. might give rise to mass shootings?

I discussed this with my twelfth-grade students yesterday, and several ideas came up. One was that many Americans feel special: entitled to something good in life, angry and wounded if they do not receive this, and convinced of their own right to avenge themselves and pursue their own “happiness,” as it were. The same cannot be said of Hungarians, who view life with a basic pessimism, who don’t think they are owed anything in particular, who believe that they will be lucky if they achieve a fraction of their goals, and who see the absolute importance of helping others and being helped. (There’s both good and bad in both attitudes, which have plenty of variations and exceptions; the point here is not to judge them but to consider where they lead.)

Another difference is that in the U.S., there’s a much greater value placed on being in the spotlight, having your fifteen minutes of fame (or more, if you can manage it). Appearing on the front page of the NYT–wow! Getting mentioned on TV–wow! The most interesting essay I have read on this subject is David Bromwich’s “How Publicity Makes People Real.” People will go to great lengths, even to the extremes of self-debasement, for a bit of media attention. In contrast, Hungarians tend to eschew the spotlight. This is changing, inevitably, with all of the influences of social media, but there’s a strong belief, with origins in the communist/socialist era and earlier, that you are better off if people aren’t paying much attention to you. Writers, artists, and others want their work to be known, like anywhere else, but children aren’t typically encouraged to “put themselves out there,” except in formal academic, artistic, and athletic competitions.

This Hungarian reticence is refreshing but also has its drawbacks. Whenever I teach Shakespeare, there are some students who play their roles brilliantly in class but absolutely refuse to take part in a public performance. I have had dreams of putting on a musical at Varga, but just persuading enough students to take part would consume an entire year. In contrast, at my former school in NYC, the annual musical might have a cast of a hundred students or more. A hundred students, singing and dancing together on stage and through the aisles. When I taught there, the challenge was the opposite: to encourage quiet thought, which exists here in spades. I love the thoughtfulness of Hungarian culture and feel at home in it–but also come across as exuberant and enthusiastic in comparison with most Hungarians. I think others would agree. So it’s a complex matter: what a culture does and doesn’t emphasize, and what it brings out of a person. Many of us have combinations of cultures in our lives and hearts.

Crime exists here in Hungary too, as does violence, but they’re both usually of a surreptitious, inconspicuous sort: muggings, domestic violence, theft. People aren’t trying to make a splash or get in the news. On the other hand, you can be fooled into thinking you are completely safe here, and you aren’t; you have to be careful and alert here, as anywhere.

So, if you put these three conditions together: availability of guns, sense of entitlement, and desire for attention, and consider them as particularly American, coming out of the country’s history, culture, and beliefs, you can see part of the source of so many mass killings. This doesn’t explain everything, or even close, since you can seek attention and believe in your own specialness without dreaming of killing anyone. In fact, you can hold these attitudes and lead a life of kindness and gentleness. (I’m special and you are too!)

But this is a start.

Song Series #12: Songs with Animals

For some reason I started thinking about songs with animal references, of which there must be millions, and put together a playlist of eleven. Animals have a special relationship to songs for all sorts of reasons: music and animals move in a similar way, according to a particular kind of knowing; animals fill literary language; many of us feel, at times, that an animal is in our soul; animals have song and rhythm; an animal view allows us to see ourselves from a new angle; animal sorrow can be the profoundest sorrow of the world; animals need no reasons at all. It’s no coincidence, then, that some of my favorite songs have animals in them, and that their roles in the songs are about as different as can be. I have many to choose from but will discuss songs by Cz.K. Sebő (of Platon Karataev fame), Art of Flying (the focus of my next “Listen Up” piece), Robyn Hitchcock, Belle and Sebastian, and Marcell Bajnai/Idea.

I have already talked about Cz.K. Sebő’s “Hart” (from his Junction EP) in my most recent “Listen Up” piece, and I don’t want to overdo it. But there is one point I wanted to mention, regarding the way the hart comes up. When you listen to the song, it sounds as though he is singing, “I was hart and I remember the stars,” but then the printed lyrics say, “I was like a hart, and I remember the stars.” The sung version is perfect to me. In spoken English we don’t usually say “I was cat,” or “I was bird”; if we say it at all, we say it with an article, e.g., “I was a cat.” But if you leave out the article, you are referring to the essence, the name. To say “I was hart” is unusual but poetically permissible (with a beautiful archaic sound); it means something like, “I was a hart in my essence.” It is one of my favorite moments in the song, because it brings up something that I understand but cannot explain. The second part of that sentence, too: “and I remember the stars”: how being hart becomes not only a memory, but a way of seeing the world, at least for a moment.

For the Art of Flying song, it’s difficult to choose between “Armadillo” and “The Jaguar Song.” I’ll choose the former (from their album An Eye Full of Lamp), because the latter will come up in the “Listen Up” piece. “Armadillo” is one of my favorite Art of Flying songs; haunting, mysterious, moving, and untranslatable. I don’t know what it means rationally, but in a different way I understand it well. I had the joy of playing it with Anne Speroni (one of the Art of Flying duo) when visiting in Taos for the music festival they held for many years. I accompanied her on cello for a few songs–something I would only have dreamed of. Being inside the song, part of its sound, comes back vividly when I think of it years later. I won’t type out the lyrics here (for fear of getting them wrong), except for the chorus, “this is where we didn’t go, following the armadillo.” I think the song has something to do with taking a different path from others in life, and reflecting on what that other way might have been, “following the armadillo.” But the song makes no direct statements about this; instead, it paints the difference through the music. The armadillo itself feels ominous: separated from the singer through time and habit, but a danger for anyone. Yet that’s just one way of hearing the song.

The next one is Robyn Hitchcock’s “Lizard.” I am grateful to my friend Tara for introducing me to his music, years ago. This is from his debut solo album Black Snake Dîamond Röle (1981); he has released about 20 more full-length albums since then (in addition to EPs and compilations) and, most recently, has been giving streamed concerts with Emma Swift during the pandemic. This song has a wonderful eerie bass line and lyrics that mention the lizard in almost every other line. Brilliant rhymes, brilliant stretching of this idea across the verses of the song. I don’t think it needs any explanation.

You wear the lizard’s shoes
And afterwards you get confused
You wear the lizard’s coat
And afterwards you fail to float
You take the lizard’s path
But look who’s lying in the bath
You wear the lizard’s skin
No man can be a god and win at all
Ahh

One song that I wanted badly to bring up here but am going to put off is Kurt Vile’s “One Trick Ponies,” because it has so much character and fun. It doesn’t really refer to ponies, though; “one-trick pony” is a common expression. I will save it for the next installment of this song series. It has the classic line “cuz I’ve always had a soft spot for repetition,” and the next piece in this series will focus on repetition itself.

So, let’s go on to Belle and Sebastian’s “The Fox in the Snow,” from their album If You’re Feeling Sinister. It has been covered by Grandaddy and many others; many treasure it as an anthem of suffering. But there’s a joy to it; it has to do with survival, but also that chance at survival, the chance that can be taken at any moment.

Fox in the snow, where do you go
To find something you could eat?
‘Cause the word out on the street is you are starving
Don’t let yourself grow hungry now
Don’t let yourself grow cold
Fox in the snow

In the next verses, instead of a fox, or along with the fox, it becomes a girl, a boy, a kid, and then that kid becomes all of us, “second just to being born, second to dying too, what else would you do?” There’s also a slightly bitter, but matter-of-fact “When your legs look black and blue” and “It’s not as if they’re paying you.” And the song dances and dances and ends on a graceful slowness.

The final song for this piece is specially chosen for today, since this evening (3 p.m. EDT, 8 p.m. CET), at an ALSCW Zoom event, I will be interviewing both the songwriter, Marcell Bajnai, and his father, Zsolt Bajnai, and after the interview, Zsolt will read some of his stories, and Marcell will play his own songs between them. Do come! The Zoom information is here.

I have written about this song before and covered it on cello. Marcell Bajnai has performed it both solo and with his band Idea (formerly 1LIFE); it’s the eighth song on the band’s debut album, Nincsen Kérdés. The song proceeds through a series of metaphor-pairs, of possibilities: “I could be” a boat, “you could be” the river, then cloud and rain, then forest and bird, and then fool and king. The bird comes up just once, in this little part, but it’s one of my favorite parts, musically and lyrically:

lehetnék erdő, te meg
lehetnél a madár
bújj el bennem, és ígérem
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

It’s so fleeting and fragile, you sense that that’s part of the meaning of the whole song: that being human means having a life full of imperfections and mistakes; the song captures something universal in a humble and beautiful way.

That concludes the twelfth installment of the song series. For the full series, go here. Stay tuned for the next “Listen Up” piece, which will appear in the next few weeks. And we hope to see you tonight (or at whatever time of day it will be for you)!

  • “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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