The Pilinszky Walk

Yesterday I did something I had wanted to do for months: go on one of the Pilinszky walks hosted by the Petőfi Literary Museum and the Anna Juhász Literary Salon. I think they have been happening monthly, alongside hundreds of events commemorating the centennial of János Pilinszky’s birth. I didn’t have time to do this (especially since it involved going to Budapest); I have several deadlines and am under a lot of pressure. But it was more important than the pressure or deadlines. And it was one of the highlights of my four years so far in Hungary.

Anna Juhász and the actor Zalán Makranczi led the walk. We each received an audio transmittor and earphone, so that we could hear them easily as we walked along. Since the earphone went in just one ear, we could also hear the sounds around us. What a difference that made! I didn’t have to strain to hear them, or try to stay up close; I could just walk along in the crowd and still hear every word. The amazing thing to me was that I could follow every bit of it; I knew what they were talking about and was familiar with most of the poems they quoted. They also emphasized the importance of Pilinszky’s prose; Makranczi read many passages of it.

As we walked along slowly-slowly on this golden autumn day, they showed us different places where Pilinszky had lived, where he had gone to school, a café where he and other writers spent lots of time; they spoke of the different times of Pilinszky’s life, of his family, his love of family, his solitude, his grief over the war, his religious faith, and his continual longing for home. Juhász spoke at length about “Apokrif,” which is central to his work. Makranczi read the first part of it aloud.

At the end of the two-hour walk, where we saw Pilinszky’s last residence, Juhász quoted his words that a person is not complete until death: that life and death, rather than being opposites, actually form a unity together: “Életet és halált lehetetlen nem egybelátni. Élet és halál nem más, mint kettétört öröklét, meghasonlott valóság. Egyik nem több a másikánál, csak aki élt és meghalt közülünk, örökkévaló. Hogy kik vagyunk ezek a mi, ezt nem tudom. Életünket mi csak halálunkkal egészíthetjük ki. Egyik a másik nélkül végleges töredék marad” (“It is impossible not to see life and death as one. Life and death are nothing other than eternity split, reality divided. Neither one is more than the other; but whoever among us has lived and died is everlasting. Who we actually are, I don’t know. We realize our lives only with death. One without the other remains a fragment forever.”)

Pilinszky is beloved in Hungary, but not in a “popular” sort of way. The poems demand privacy. Once one of them reaches you, then Pilinszky enters your life for good. And, I believe, your death.

I first read Pilinszky several years ago at a student’s urging (thank you, Isti!). He recommended his favorite poem, “Egy szenvedély margójára” (“Onto the Margin of a Passion”), which I memorized and recited for the class. But only two years or so later did I read “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight Labyrinth”), thanks to Cz.K. Sebő’s musical rendition. That opened everything up. I have memorized it too and recite it every day. Here you can hear Pilinszky himself reciting it.

And here is an extraordinary translation by Géza Simon:

The Straight Labyrinth
(Egyenes labirintus)

What will it be like, this return flight
that only similes can describe,
like sanctuary, altar,
homecoming, handshake, hug,
under the trees, garden feast,
where there is no first and last guest,
what will it be like in the end,
this free-fall on open wings,
this flight into the fiery
focus, the communal nest? – I don’t know,
and yet, if there is something I know,
I know this blazing corridor,
this labyrinth straight as an arrow,
the heavier and heavier,
exhilarating fact of our fall.

As I have mentioned before, Platon Karataev’s “Wide Eyes” alludes to “Straight Labyrinth”; Pilinszky can be felt in a number of their songs (and is especially important to their main songwriter, Gergely Balla, as well as to the other members). Their “Bitter Steps” (maybe my favorite song on their Atoms album) quotes from Ted Hughes’s translation of “Apokrif”: “[And] this is why I learned to walk! For these belated bitter steps.”

So this October walk, for which I am grateful, brought many things together in one. These are continually opening up into more.

I am planning an ALSCW Zoom event dedicated to Pilinszky and his influence; it will probably take place in March or later in the spring. I should have details soon—but mark it vaguely in your calendars already. I will be inviting everyone I can think of: in addition to friends, family, acquaintances, and colleagues, all the Hungarian language and literature departments I can find in the U.S. (they exist—at Columbia University, for instance), songwriting programs, radio hosts, writers, and others. The featured guests will include Csenger Kertai, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly (Cz.K. Sebő), and possibly one more person (stay tuned!).

Speaking of Csenger Kertai, my translations of two of his poems, “Lake Balaton” and “On Forsakenness,” will be published in the next issue of Literary Imagination!

But speaking of translations, I have deadlines for a different project, so that will be all for now.

Breaking Glass (my essay in The Nation)

Yesterday, for the first time, I had an essay published in The Nation. It’s about the current push in U.S. schools for curricula that reflects the students’ demographic characteristics. I take issue specifically with NYU Metro Center’s Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecard, which enables teachers, schools, parents, and others to rate their curriculum on the basis of its demographic representation, social justice messages, and inclusive classroom practices. I considered how Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie, which I have read and reread, loved, and taught over the decades, would fare under such a system.

I see diversity, whether in a student body or in the works that students read, as a good or a means toward a good. But diversity is not just demographic; there’s also diversity of thought and character. Nor does it tower above other considerations, especially when it comes to curricula. A curriculum also needs coherence and progression, as well as imagination and substance. When it comes to literature, the works should have room to exist on their own terms: to surprise and challenge the readers, to take them to new places. Literature does not bend to our expectations or squeeze into our categories. Its beauty lies in its way of taking its own way.

Cultural responsiveness is a little different from diversity. It has to do with reflecting the students’ characteristics. Its underlying premise, or one of them, is that students will be more motivated and feel more affirmed if they recognize themselves in the curriculum. While helpful up to a point (self-recognition can indeed be affirming), it runs into two problems. First, students will not necessarily recognize themselves in works that supposedly reflect their own background. Second, students need more than self-recognition; they also need to be challenged and exposed to new ideas.

I remember my disappointment when I first started reading women writers (beyond the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen). I didn’t relate to them more than to male writers; “women’s writing” did not seem particularly close to me. That said, some of the writers fascinated me (and still do), not because they resembled me, but because they were interesting and brilliant in themselves: Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, Alice Walker (particularly in her short stories), Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and others.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the essay, and if you disagree or quibble with it, that’s fine! And do consider attending tomorrow’s online ALSCW event, “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture.”

Image source: Cult MTL.

Upcoming Events

This is the busiest fall I can remember in years, and there have been quite a few busy ones. Teaching is in full swing, with all kinds of interesting things: Hamlet, utopia projects (my students read a few chapters of Thomas More’s Utopia and are now creating utopias of their own), The Glass Menagerie, songs, grammar, lively discussions, test practice, the usual textbook stuff, and more.

Outside of school, just as much is going on: translations, writing, events. Speaking of events, I have two to announce.

On October 15, I will be one of the panelists in an ALSCW Zoom event titled “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture,” which will feature an array of speakers, as well as poetry readings by Edward Hirsch and Yusef Komunyakaa. It should be terrific. The full event description and Zoom information can be found here. The event is free and open to the public.

On October 26, I will be the fourth featured guest in The MacMillan Institute’s online Poetry series (open to the public for an entrance fee of $10.00; please register in advance). The previous guests were Fred Turner, Sarah Cortez, and Dana Gioia. I will be reciting and talking about poetry and translation (both my own and others’). One of the poems I plan to recite is Pilinszky’s “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight labyrinth”), both in the original and in the wonderful translation of Géza Simon. To anyone in Hungary: you are welcome to attend, but please know that it starts at 1 a.m. on October 27 here! Fortunately we will be on spring break, so I can sleep in afterwards.

Speaking of Pilinszky, I should have some news, fairly soon, about an ALSCW Zoom event I intend to host in the spring, dedicated to Pilinszky and his influence. Details are still being worked out, so I will say more when there is more to say.

Also, if all goes well, we (my school and the Verseghy Ferenc Public Library in Szolnok) will hold a Shakespeare festival on April 22! We had hoped to do this last year, but Covid got in the way. This day-long festival will feature lectures, workshops, and student performances (in Hungarian and English) of Shakespeare scenes, sonnets, and songs.

Before that, this fall and winter, there will be two new issues of Folyosó. Submissions are now open for the autumn issue; the international contest focuses on the topic of contradictions in life. I look forward to seeing what pieces come in (I have already read a few) and what shape this issue takes!

At Szim Salom, I am leading four services this month. One took place on Friday; the other three will be this Friday, this Saturday, and Saturday the 23rd. In my case, leading the services means singing all the musical parts, all the melodic liturgy, leyning Torah, and leading the congregation through the parts of the service. When I co-lead with the rabbi (on Saturdays), she leads the spoken parts and usually gives a dróse (a D’var Torah, or sermon). This month, the Saturday services will take place in person, at Bálint Ház in Budapest.

There’s a lot more going on, but I think that’s enough. As for other people’s events, this afternoon I am going to Budapest to hear Csenger Kertai (whose poems I am translating) and several other poets: Krisztián Peer, Katalin Szlukovényi, Dávid Börzsei, and Bálint Borsi. Like the event at the A38 Hajó, but differently, this event will combine poetry with music and visual art.

Also, there’s a concert I’d like to hear on Thursday—a double CD release party for Noémi Barkóczi and Mayberian Sanskülotts—but for various reasons I don’t think I can go. I will listen to their music at home, and if it turns out that I can go, I will.

Other things, other concerts are happening this month, but this is enough for now.

The photo is of the Aranytoll (Golden Pen), a pen and stationery shop here in Szolnok. (At least I think that’s what it is; I haven’t been inside yet.)

A Platon Karataev Time Capsule

Last night, when I was listening to a few things on YouTube and elsewhere, a Platon Karataev video popped up that I had never seen before.Beautifully shot by Diána Komróczki, it shows them performing “Prison” on the KERET stage (where I first heard the wonderful Cataflamingo this year) at the Kolorádó Fesztivál in 2017. Their bassist was András Jáky.

KERET is an independent blog and journal about independent Hungarian music. (I support it, by the way, when I can, and I recommend doing the same.) It draws attention to some of the most interesting and gifted—and often little-known—indie musicians performing today. The KERET stage is my favorite thing about the Kolorádó Fesztival. If only there weren’t a thumping drum from a dance area nearby! Although my feelings about the festival were mixed (mostly because of the incessant thumping electronic monotonic drum from several stages and areas there), I would go back for the KERET stage alone.

Anyway, here was Platon Karataev on the KERET stage, playing a song that has not appeared on any of their albums… and why not? Because that was not its fate; it was to transform into another song, “Wide Eyes.” If you listen to this (right here below), and then “Wide Eyes” (below that), and watch these performances too, you will see what an incredible and unexpected journey they have been on. How could they have known, in 2017, where this song and they would go? Also, look at the (sparse and intensely attentive) audience: the young man standing in the very front with two others, the one listening with all his heart, is none other than László Sallai (wearing a “Player 00” shirt, it seems), who would become their bassist in 2019. And I love this “Prison” song; it has a country feel with upbeat, subtle lyrics and the refrain “Let’s look for a better one.” I would have been drawn in on that day.

And now, here’s “Wide Eyes,” which is part of their 2020 album Atoms. I am showing the Live at Gólya performance below, because it’s great, and that way you can see them performing it. It’s slightly slower, the lyrics are mostly changed, but the soul of it is the same, only clearer. The song has found its way. The “straight labyrinth” is a reference to Pilinszky’s poem by the same title, and the reference goes beyond that phrase alone. The song’s essence is close to the poem; when Sebő sings, “Meteors light my mind / I peel layers of my thoughts,” it brings to mind “this free-fall on open wings, / this flight into the fiery / focus, the communal nest” (from Géza Simon’s translation of Pilinszky’s “Egyenes labirintus“).

Besides being part of Atoms and their many performances (I think it’s one of the audience favorites, wherever they go), this song has an extraordinary video starring the actor Ágoston Kenéz, whose zest, instinct, and understanding of the song fill every split-second frame.

On Friday night I heard Platon Karataev play in Szeged, at the beloved Grand Café, where I have previously heard Dávid Szesztay play and Gyula Jenei read. As I listened, I felt how much has happened with them and their music over these past few years. And so much more to go. They had last played in Szeged in 2018. It was a joyous return for them and the crowd. They said they were staying around afterwards to talk with people, and I was tempted to stay and say hi, but I didn’t, even though I was staying the night in Szeged. I actually have never talked with them in person, except to say thank you quickly. I would love to talk with them at some point, but after a show I am a bit shy and don’t really feel the need. I still have the music in my ears and want to carry it for a while. Also, I figured they had lots of Szeged friends waiting to speak with them, and there would be a better time. But I walked out with sounds, thoughts, and pictures in my head (not on camera), one of which was this glimpse of time, of the things that happen that no one expects but that take us closer to our wobbling, plunging truth.

Photo credit: I took it in Szeged on Friday a few hours before the show.

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

An Exceptional Two Days

First, the best news of all: Sziszi is found! Last night I came home late from Budapest, only to find Sziszi gone and Dominó distressed out of his mind. I couldn’t figure out how Sziszi had gotten out of the apartment; a window exit seemed implausible, so I figured she must have followed me out the door at some point. Last night I looked around—in the apartment, in the building, and outside—and couldn’t find her, so I did some frantic online research on escaped cats and read that if they are indoor cats, they don’t tend to go far from home. So I kept my hopes up. Wednesday is my longest day at school, and this morning I ran out the door without my glasses, so during a break I took a cab back home, got my glasses, and went back. Still no sign of Sziszi. When I came home at the end of the day, I looked inside the building, around the neighborhood, and in the courtyard, but no Sziszi. A neighbor came along and tried to help me for a while; we went out to the courtyard again, and out to the front. I brought some cat food, which attracted a large throng of cats, but not Sziszi. It got dark; I decided to try the courtyard once more. I went out there and called her. And then I heard that familiar petulant meow, the meow that could come from no other. She was right there, and she knew I was there; so it was just a matter of minutes before she let me pick her up and take her in. I stopped by my neighbors to tell them I had found her, and then brought her home. She, Dominó, and I are so happy right now. She’s curled up in a cat pouch (pictured above), Dominó is gazing out the window, and I’m here at my desk.

Now backtracking: last night I went to hear Csenger Kertai give a reading to jazz accompaniment by the Hász Estzer Quintet. It was even more than I had expected: interview, reading, music, improvisation all combined. The music, whether improvised or composed, brought out surprising aspects of the poems. The band’s rendition of “Hold” (“Moon”) was phenomenal, the interview went into questions of privacy, spontaneity, creation and more. But these were not separate elements; they interwove, so that the poems themselves, the discussions of the poems, and the musical interpretations formed something new. I have never seen an interweaving like this before, and it is inspiring some ideas. Here is a video of the event.

The previous evening, I had also gone to Budapest: first to a doctor’s appointmen, and then to a Cataflamingo concert in the basement of a club in Pest. I first heard Cataflamingo at the Kolorádó Festzivál, on the KERET stage; they were my favorite new discovery there. The lead singer and bassist, Áron Csiki, has charisma that draws the audience in but is never over the top. He reminds me slightly of Prince, Billy Corgan, Kid Dakota, David Bowie—but flies in a space of his own. The band is talented and rich with influences (jazz, R&B, rock); their groove keeps lifting into something new. There’s a warmth to the music too; the lyrics are sad and exuberant at once, and the audience sways and sings along. It was thrilling to be there, and I look forward to much more.

All this was on top of teaching, translation, holidays, and thought, each of these a subject in itself. And the week is not yet over! Tomorrow I go to the Tisza Mozi for a premiere of the movie A feleségem története. On Friday I head to Szeged to hear the beloved Platon Karataev. But I take none of this for granted. It’s a shivering gift.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it (as usual, but I was so tired last night that I really left out a few points that I had meant to make). Also, I changed the Cataflamingo selection (from “Megbocsát” to “Kilincs”), because this video gives a sense of their performances, and I love this song too.

Different Kinds of Depth

The phrase “a deep person” makes me wary. Everyone is infinitely deep. Some people choose to escape from it, while others look it right in the face. Some keep it to themselves, while some share it with others. Some find their way to it through music and other art; others pound their feet on it when running long distance. Some find it when life socks them in the stomach. Some find it through jokes. Some don’t find it at all but are found with it somehow.

There is no point in judging oneself or others as “deep” or “shallow.” Such judgments usually break down. We don’t know what’s going on in another person, and are in no position to measure it. As for ourselves, who are we to call ourselves “deep,” when we have no basis for comparison? Deep in relation to what? What we think we see in others? What we see and what’s going on are two different things, or maybe three or more.

Still, depth does exist, and it takes different forms. There is music that plunges right away, and music that starts out on the lighter side but takes you deeper and deeper. And music that stays near the surface or flies upward.

Beginning with Atoms—their first album, For Her, is a little different in this regard—Platon Karataev’s music starts out deep with “Ex Nihilo” and goes deeper and deeper from there (if there’s such a thing as deeper than nothing). I can’t wait to hear the whole Partért kiáltó album, which will be coming out soon. Listening to the title song many times, I realize that the best way to approach it is on its own terms: not to squeeze it into existing frames and thoughts, but to take it as it is. It speaks as water, it speaks a language of water, all the layers moving and sparkling and darkening.

Cz.K. Sebő’s music, in contrast, sometimes starts out on the lighter side but then surprises and disarms you as it continues. For instance, “Someday” begins like a casual, melancholic conversation or letter, but each repetition of the sentence “you’ll be alone someday” changes and tilts the tone and sense slightly, until the listener receives these words directly and has to confront their meaning. That each of us will be alone someday, no matter how lucky or unlucky we are, no matter what we do.

One of my favorite songs by Galaxisok, “Elaludtam az Ikeában,” seems entirely lighthearted until you suddenly hear what is going on. It’s a dreamy song about falling asleep at Ikea, and waking up when it’s already dark, and running into an old girlfriend, Diána, who also, as it happens, fell asleep at Ikea. And they walk and talk together, and bring up memories of how one summer, when they were taking a make-up math exam, Peti broke his arm and had to wear a cast the whole time. Later that same summer he learns of another accident, and realizes Diána was in it, but then rejoins, “de felejtsd el, inkább hagyjuk ezt” (“but forget it, let’s drop this”). And then, “Én nem leszek fiatalabb, / te nem leszel öregebb,” “I’m not getting any younger, / You’re not getting any older,” which tells you, when it hits you, that Diána is dead and this dream took place after her death. But the music is so gentle and playful-sounding that you might miss this the first time around. (I missed it the first few times, but I think that’s because I am not a native speaker of Hungarian.) This is only a brief summary of the song; it has beautifully murky and surreal motions and images, such as crawling under the leaves of the indoor palms in the plant department.

No one has to be deep all the time; it can’t be forced. Depth happens when we let ourselves go into something. We know better than anyone else does when this happens and when it doesn’t. But sometimes, in the moment, the word “deep” doesn’t even come to mind. The thing itself draws us in, and only afterwards, in memory or reflection, does it seem profound. At other times, the profundity jumps out at us right away.

Going deep can be important as a practice, for those who want better self-knowledge, or who want to reckon with their actions, or who want to create something. But such practice often takes place in private, through meditation, prayer, or quiet thought. Sometimes it can happen in a long conversation, the kind where the conversants forget the time. Sometimes it can happen when doing something with others: for instance, playing music. But I don’t think it’s social, for the most part.

This does not mean that introversion is necessarily deeper than extraversion; introversion and extraversion can take all sorts of forms. There are people who like to spend evenings alone at home browsing random YouTube videos. There are people who go out in the world and strike up conversations with people out of genuine desire to know them better. Things aren’t what they seem on the surface.

Language, after all, takes you deeper into meanings, if you pay attention to it; there are many ways, quiet and lively, to do so. Yesterday I came upon a poem by Dezső Kosztolányi, “Szeptemberi áhítat” (“September Piety”) that I realized was one of the most beautiful poems I had read in Hungarian. But what does it mean to read it? I have read it silently and out loud; I have listened to the recording of János Pilinszky reading it. But this is just the beginning; I need to take much more time with it, maybe memorize it, maybe translate it (George Szirtes’s translation is good, but I want to go about it differently), maybe even set it to music, with cello. And then come back to reading it in silence, reciting it in my mind.

So where is all of this going? Depth is not something to claim as a title; it can be found through practice, but it also comes to you by surprise, and it’s open to all. Of all the ways we have of judging and writing off others, this is one of the worst; calling someone “deep” or “shallow” is just lying, because we are always undulating and trembling between levels, and have no idea where others (or even we ourselves) will go next.

On (Not) Taking Pictures at Concerts

Last night, for the first time in a long time, I attended a concert without taking any pictures. (It was Cz.K. Sebő with his band—a good though short show.) While I still expect to take pictures at concerts now and then, it was a relief this time not to do so. I didn’t have to worry about anything; I could just listen.

Pictures taken at concerts don’t always come out well. That’s why bands and venues have their own photographers, who go up close, shoot from different angles, etc. In contrast, if you’re in the audience, you want the photo-taking to be as brief and unobtrusive as possible, so you take out the camera (phone), shoot a few, and then put it away again. It’s a bit of a gamble.

Beyond that, when taking a picture, you’re trying to freeze or capture something that isn’t supposed to be captured. One reason for going to concerts is to hear a performance that will never be repeated in that exact same way. The moments are going by, you know they will never come back, and you want to meet them as they pass. A photograph can bring back a memory of a concert, but it can’t bring back the concert itself, and if it could, the concert would lose its meaning.

That touches on another problem: the distraction. Even if you take just one picture during a show, you’re distracting yourself slightly, and maybe others too. Never mind videos. When people hold their phones up in the air to get a video of their favorite song in the set, or just to get a video, period, they block others’ view and insert tiny screens into the picture.

And what about privacy? Yes, a concert counts as a public event, but even public events have a private aspect. Musicians don’t necessarily want their every move to be captured on phones, even on stage. It’s unnerving. And offstage they shouldn’t be subject to unsolicited photo shoots at all. But once people are in photo-clicking mode, they often clickity-clack into the night without restraint.

Last night a woman (in her forties or fifties) was taking repeated pictures of the Platon Karataev members as they talked with each other after the show. (Everyone from Platon Karataev was there.) She might have been a family member, in which case it’s understandable. But I thought she was a stranger, and my blood started to pound. Why couldn’t she leave them alone in their downtime?

Oh, but in this era of ubiquitous photo-clicking, there is no downtime, not even for audience members. Someone included me in a video last night. At many events, people have pointed their cameras my way, and I have seen the not-so-flattering results online a day or two later. You can’t attend an event anonymously any more. Your presence and reactions get recorded. And when people bring their phones and take pictures too, they make this more acceptable, when it shouldn’t be. Granted, sometimes the photos come out well, and sometimes it’s nice to have them. But I am uneasy with the trend.

The picture above (taken on Thursday evening) has nothing to do with this post except for the anonymity of the figures in it. It’s one of the best pictures I have ever taken; I had arrived at the Keleti station in Budapest and saw the shadows and light. So I quickly shot a photo. It has more people than most of my photos do, but no one would be able to identify them except perhaps the woman on the right. I find the silhouettes and shadows soothing.

What would it be like to have no picture- or video-shooting at concerts at all, except by designated photographers? It’s not going to happen, probably—but it would change the atmosphere for the better. In the absence of such a rule or agreement, it’s on each person to consider whether this incessant shooting really brings anything to the occasion. I will probably continue to take pictures here and there, but will keep the phone stowed away for the most part. I have some beautiful photos and don’t need that many more. And how great it is to attend a concert with full spirit and walk away with just the sounds and images in my mind, no token, no souvenir.

On the Mixtures of Happiness and Sadness

I remember coming upon Lucky Curtains, the last of Granfaloon Bus’s albums, in a record store and seizing it in its gleaming wrapping. I purchased it, took it home, and for weeks listened to nothing else. It opened up something raw; my editing job (at a company that published career guides) went against who I was, and I knew it was time for a change. It was around then that I decided to become a teacher, and it took another year to make this happen. The music, this album, was part of the catalyst. Why? It’s hard to define and delimit these things, especially after all these years. But listening to the songs now, I hear not only the sadness that hit me then, but a happiness mixed in too, a kind of tentative, mitigated hope or at least ease.

Any mood, any emotion, is more than one thing at once; we are under pressure to name it one thing or another, to give it one emoticon or another, but it usually comes along with its opposite. Often when I am angry, I also see past the anger; often when worried I feel calm. Likewise, happiness and sadness go together so strongly that to separate them means to lose both.

On the Lucky Curtains album, the song “House” has all kinds of emotions together: happiness and sadness, security and tentativeness, expansiveness and enclosedness. Not only opposites, but gradations and hints, something outside of the polarities.

Whenever I mention being sad, there are those who jump in and try to fix it. Don’t! It is part of the happiness; it makes happiness possible. The dreariest thing on earth is one-sidedness. No one has to fall for it.

There are specific, obvious things to be sad about (climate change, the spreading Delta variant, hurricanes and floods, the disaster in Afghanistan, personal losses), but beyond that, sadness is a current in life; loss of some kind is always present. In János Pilinszky’s poetry I find an exceptional compression of happiness and sadness: a seemingly tranquil scene can contain endless grief. An example is his poem “Kegyelem” (“Grace”):

Bogarak szántják a sötétet
és csillagok az éjszakát.
Van időnk hosszan üldögélni
az asztalon pihenő lámpafényben.
Megadatott a kegyelem:
miközben minden áll és hallgat,
egyedül az öröklét működik.

In rough translation:

(Beetles plow through the dark
and stars the night.
We have time for long lingering
at the table in leisurely lamplight.
Grace has become possible:
while everything stops and listens,
eternity works all alone.)

The pivotal word here is “megadatott,” which is not the same as “megadott” (“it is given”). “Megadatott” expresses a tentative possibility. Grace is not certain; it just becomes possible in these still moments, which themselves are rare. The poem holds this rarity.

Last night I was listening again to Cz.K. Sebő’s “kétezerhúsz” (“2020”), a truly sad song. But if there’s a happiness in it, it has to do with being able to sing the sadness as it is, being at peace with it in some way. I think that is a kind of happiness, but not a cheery kind. I understand much more of the song than I did before; not just the literal meaning of the lyrics, but their tones too.

It’s hard to explain that happiness and sadness go together; lots of people know and understand this, but our current vocabulary doesn’t make much room for it. There’s so much pressure to be on the up-and-up, always doing better, feeling better. But literature and music (and other arts) make room for something else.

What is the mood of Dávid Szesztay’s “Késő” (“Late”), for instance? It starts out mournful, but then it lifts up into a kind of exhilaration. The word “but” here is misleading; the one mood follows from the other.

It isn’t just that different moods coexist. Rather, there’s something more important than mood. We (around the world, but particularly in the U.S.) place too much emphasis on being happy, being fulfilled, as though such a thing could be attained and frozen in place, and as though it were more important than the things we do and receive. I don’t mean that mood is unimportant, but it’s a background color, changing and blending and fading, a wash of sky.

Kolorádó, Home and Not-Home, and More

The Kolorádó Fesztivál is beautiful, with one big drawback, which I’ll get to in a moment. That said, I felt distinctly out of place there. The feeling of being out of place disappeared during the shows themselves and during some quiet hours in the kunyhó, the miniature cabin where I stayed. Also, the whole experience was made bearable, even joyous, by the shows outside the festival before and afterwards: the Platon Karataev acoustic duo at Papírkutya in Veszprém, and Felső Tízezer and Jazzékiel at Monyo Land in Kőbánya-Kispest.

Kolorádó is a fairly large but intimate music festival (with some theater and other arts as well) in the Buda hills. It has large and small stages, renowned and lesser-known musicians. Being able to hear Platon Karataev, Galaxisok, and Kolibri on three consecutive days was just great. Granted, not everything there went perfectly. Buses didn’t run often enough. There was only one phone-charging station in the whole place. Etc. Those, to me, are minor issues, things that can happen anywhere. My one big complaint is that there was a constant thumping of an electronic drum, in at least one location, almost all day and night, without any pause except for a few minutes here and there. Absolutely unnecessary—and a terrible interference with the concerts on the KERET stage. I am not against electronic music in itself—it can be brilliant and beautiful—but this was just loud and ugly. Turn it off. Or if you must have it, consign it to a few hours only. That is my one complaint and recommendation. Other than that, the festival is great.

Great, yes, but not for me. If I go again, it will be just for the concerts I want to hear. The festival is aimed at a distinctly younger crowd, and at people who come not only to listen to music, but to party through the night. I felt out of place for being older and for being by myself. Almost everyone I saw there was much younger (not the case at all music festivals here—Fishing on Orfű, for instance, has a mix of generations) and with someone else, or with a group. In fact, when I bought a Kolorádó bus ticket there on Thursday, the person at the counter asked me if I was working there. She may have asked this just to offer me a discount, but had I been younger, I doubt she would have asked.

But my feeling out of place has nothing to do with the quality of the festival; these are two separate things. It’s fine that it’s for younger people. And as I walked around and took it in, I discovered more and more of its wonders: the campfire open to everyone, the tents upon tents, the beautiful wooded valley with the bridge running over it, where people go to be quiet and read, the delicious food (which you have to buy, but still—while there, I had two burritos, a serving of fish and chips, and a gyros pita sandwich), the different performances happening, the brilliant music, the natural surroundings. (All the more reason to get rid of that thump, thump, thump!)

I stayed in a kunyhó, a kind of triangular miniature cabin equipped with a mattress, blanket, pillows, an LED light, and a lockable storage space. That was a great choice, because when the festival and hot sun were too much for me, I retreated there and read Pilinszky for hours.

That brings me to the next point. I had planned months before to attend Kolorádó and originally intended to be there the whole time. But then it turned out the the Platon Karataev duo (Gergő and Sebő) were playing in Veszprém, and if I went there first and stayed the night there, I could easily head on to Kolorádó the next morning. I was about to say “I could not have made a better decision,” but a still better one was to come. Anyway, the concert was beautiful, and I saw Zsuzsanna and Atti there and had a lovely stay at the Éllő Panzió.

At the festival itself, on Thursday I heard Mordái (very interesting but a little bit over the top for me), Platon Karataev (an exuberant and gorgeous show), Csaknekedkislány (whom I liked), and a few sound checks and bits of other concerts. On Friday, at the KERET stage, I heard Cataflamingo (my favorite new discovery from the festival—they were wonderful), the tail end of ДEVA (beautiful voice), Galaxisok (just fantastic), a little bit of Carson Coma (first time hearing them), and a few other bits and snatches. Then on Saturday I heard Kolibri (again at KERET) and took off immediately afterwards.

Let it never be said of me that I treated a Felső Tízezer concert as a “B-terv” (Plan B). That is not what happened. I had bought the ticket weeks ago, before realizing that it coincided with a few shows at Kolorádó that I was going to want to hear, particularly Ben Leavez. So until Friday morning, I wasn’t sure whether to stay at Kolorádó or to take off right after the Kolibri show and go hear Felső Tízezer and Jazzékiel at MONYO Land in Kőbánya-Kispest. But after a night of thumping electronic drums, my mind was made up, and I figured out the logistics, which were not simple.

It was good to hear Kolibri except for that thumping drum in the background, just a few meters away, through the trees. I almost went to ask them to turn it off just for this show, or at least to turn it down, but realized that the set was very short and I would end up missing too much of it. So I stayed still, and then took off.

To get to MONYO Land, I took the Kolorádó bus to the Hűvösvölgy stop, took the tram from there to Széll Kálmán tér, took the subway to Blaha Lujza tér in hopes of catching the special MONYO Land bus, realized I was going to miss that bus, took the subway back to Déli pályaudvar, took a train from there to Kőbánya-Kispest (with a transfer at Kelenföld), took a taxi from there to the venue, and arrived a little before Felső Tízezer took to the stage. The security guards kindly held my luggage for me.

I was so happy to be there. A mix of ages, a friendly open-air atmosphere. A feeling of home, though I had never been there before.

And Felső Tízezer, and then Jazzékiel, thank you for crowning these past few days so gloriously! I danced my heart out to songs I knew and loved, and songs I was hearing for the first time. “Majdnemország” was one of the highlights of the week. So were some songs whose names I don’t know.

I realized at the concert that I had heard László Sallai play on three consecutive nights, in three different bands: Platon Karataev, Galaxisok, and Felső Tízezer, the last of which he fronts. That is a first for me—I have never heard a musician play a public concert on three consecutive nights, not to mention in three different bands, not to mention bands that I love, and terrific shows to boot—and an astounding accomplishment from him, not just the three nights, but the years of work and inspiration that made them possible. So thank you, Laci and all your bandmates.

As for Jazzékiel, I had heard a few of their songs before, and commented on a song by their frontman, Péter Jakab, but the show drew me in completely, and I will be hearing much more.

Many thanks to Marianna and Gyula’s son Zalán for feeding Dominó and Sziszi while I was gone. The past few days were an important experience. I not only heard some of my favorite music and made some discoveries, but recognized that I was not at home at Kolorádó and that this did not detract from the festival itself. One’s feelings about a thing are not the same as the thing itself or its quality. And being not at home, I still managed to find my way into some beauty (quite a bit of it, actually). And then to come back home in stages, first to MONYO Land, then here, and last of all, after some sleep, to this quiet morning.

The Spoken and Unspoken

I have been thinking about what goes on this blog and what doesn’t, and how this changes or rotates over time, and, more generally, the relation between the spoken and unspoken in our lives. There are some who say that the deepest feelings are those we don’t put into words. This is only sometimes true, especially for those who work with words and search for words. Sometimes the things said in words, and published, are the essence of it all. But sometimes not. It’s important to rotate between words and silence.

I have been writing a lot about music (mainly songs, albums, favorite musicians, and shows), but there will probably come a time when I want to be quieter about this and when another topic becomes my outward focus. At various times, the blog has focused on education, literature, general reflections, thoughts on life in Hungary, thoughts on Hebrew texts and Judaism, and more. I like that flexibility and also like being able to take these topics both outward and inward.

And what is the difference, besides the obvious? When you hold your thoughts inside, you not only don’t have to find words for them (though you probably find something, just to be able to think), but you have room in your privacy. The thoughts can stretch to their true size. You can discover new things about the topic and yourself. There’s also a great security to this: you don’t need others’ responses at all; it’s enough to be thinking, feeling, and receiving.

But when you put your thoughts down, there’s the challenge and pursuit: you want to find the right words, and in looking for them, you also go inward and discover new things. Also, when the words reach someone, that’s exciting: such a connection isn’t shallow at all. There’s also a great openness to it: you are sharing what you think, observe, and feel, and that in itself is good, if you aren’t precious or bombastic about it.

As prosaic as this blog may be, I often go back to old posts and touch them up, changing a word for a clearer one, or fixing little errors, or making a sentence flow better. Probably not many people notice, but I am continually trying to get it right.

So neither wordlessness nor wordmaking is inherently superior to the other. Both depend on each other, and both have their rhythms and seasons.

I have been thinking a lot about Elul, the month in the Jewish calendar that has just begun and that leads into the High Holidays. Traditionally this is a month of reflection and introspection: we are supposed to look at what we have done well and poorly, begin to make amends for our wrongs, and enter the High Holidays with the intent of atonement and renewal, of making a new start.

But my wrongs are on the subtle side. Have I raised my voice in the past year? No. Have I spoken badly of anyone (beyond frank criticism, which is not wrong)? No. Have I failed to keep a commitment? No. Have I lied? Not in any big way; I have told a partial story once in a while. There are times, actually, when it might have been good to get a little angrier, to stand up for myself and others a bit more. Anger is not in itself a terrible thing; only when it’s taken too far, past the point of justice, can it be considered wrong.

Although looking at your wrongs is important (and my own catalogue goes farther than this), it isn’t the only point of Elul. We also look at collective wrongs, and there’s something more, too: a search for the true liveliness of things, a fullness of spirit. One of my favorite verses in all of Torah, which was part of last week’s parsha, “Re’eh” (“See”), is Deuteronomy 12:5: “But unto the place which the LORD your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put His name there, even unto His habitation shall ye seek, and thither thou shalt come.” That last part, “even unto His habitation shall ye seek, and thither shalt thou come,” consists of four words in Hebrew: “l’shichno tidr’shu, uvata shama.” The first two of these are particularly rich in association: “l’shichno” (“to his habitation”) has the same root as “shechina,” a word for God’s manifestation in the things around us, while “tidr’shu” (“seek”) has the same root as “drash,” a word that can mean close interpretation of Biblical texts. So to me these words suggest reading closely into the liveliness.

And that, in itself, is a meaning of Elul: taking time with the texts, taking time with the world around us, reading it closely, listening to it closely, finding its life, and living more fully.

“You live quite fully already,” some might say. “I don’t think you need much help in that regard.”

True, for the most part. But everything, even full living, requires practice, and Elul is also a time of practice. Also, it’s a time for rebalancing and tempering. There’s a lot to it, and infinite angles on it, and just as with this blog, the emphases will change for a person over time. It’s a month of return, “teshuva,” but it’s also a return to the return itself, with a new understanding of what that is.

What do we return to, when we return? There’s always a part that returns and a part that does not, whether in life, religious practice, a song, a friendship. This mixture of coming back and moving on means that each combination, each encounter, will be completely new. That comes back to the spoken and unspoken: some of this will want its way into words, and some of it will not, but the parts and the proportions will also change, and both language and silence will rear up into life.

  • “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

  • Always Different

  • 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.

  • Recent Posts

  • ARCHIVES

  • Categories