Politics Are Not All of Life

There are people who, upon learning that I live in Hungary, immediately ask, “What do you think about its turn toward the right?” I then have to explain that the country is not monolithic, that there is much more to it than Orbán, and that people like Gergely Karácsony, mayor of Budapest and one of the opposition’s potential candidates for the next national election, stands for something markedly different from him. But I would go even farther and say that politics are not all of life, that you don’t have to get riled up over politics to live thoughtfully and conscientiously, and that you can find meaning and relative freedom (whatever freedom is—Gyula Jenei has a remarkable new poem on this topic) in other things, without being any more escapist or selfish than most humans out there. Granted, politics cover many areas of life and involve most of us at some point, whether we like it or not. But even so, we don’t have to get caught up in them beyond what is necessary or in our nature. Nor do they make us virtuous.

“But look at what’s happening around you!” people will yell. Yes, but there are many things happening around me. Only some of them could be called political. The over-politicization of life is a prison in itself. Many writers and others have resisted the pressure to turn everything into a political statement, to go around with banners and slogans.

In the thirty or so years since I first read Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I have often returned in my mind to this passage (in Part 2, Chapter 2, about Karel’s mother, here in the translation of Michael Henry Heim):

But the defect in her sight seemed to explain something much more basic: what was large for them was small for her, what were stones for them were houses for her.

To tell the truth, this characteristic of hers was not entirely new, but at one time it had bothered them greatly. One night, for example, the tanks of a huge neighboring country came and occupied their country. The shock was so great, so terrible, that for a long time no one could think about anything else. It was August, and the pears in the garden were nearly ripe. The week before, Mother had invited the local pharmacist to come and pick them. He never came, never even apologized. The fact that Mother refused to forgive him drove Karel and Marketa crazy. Everybody’s thinking about tanks, and all you can think about is pears, they yelled. And when shortly thereafter they moved away, they took the memory of her pettiness with them.

But are tanks really more important than pears? As time passed, Karel realized that the answer was not so obvious as he had once thought, and he began sympathizing secretly with Mother’s perspective—a big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight. So mother was right after all: tanks are mortal, pears eternal.

Kundera does not make this the last word; this is still close to the beginning, with much to follow. Nor is Karel sure that his mother is right; he just realizes that the answer is not as simple as he had supposed.

That is what I have learned over time, too. This does not mean that politics should be ignored, or that it’s entirely possible to do so. There are some issues, such as Covid, hunger, and global warming, that can only be addressed by countries and individuals together, through concerted work and lucid language. In that sense they are political. There are also times in our daily lives when we have to take action on behalf of a person or principle. That, too, could be considered political. And we all have political duties of one kind or another, at one level or another, from voting to taking part in work meetings. (Workplaces have their own political systems.)

Nor do we have to be uniformly political or apolitical throughout our lives; we go through changes in this regard. I cared intensely about politics, as usually understood, in my late teens and early twenties. After that, less so. I came to distrust and resist the pressure to be political on other people’s terms. Even more than that, I came to dislike the judgments that went along with such pressure. But I have been outspoken on education and other issues, over many years, and have received both praise and flack for this.

What do people know about each other, really? Someone who seems apolitical may actually be doing more for others, and more to improve the surroundings, than someone who jumps into every political argument. Or ther reverse could be true. It is not always obvious, and our judgments are often based on meager information.

There’s a need for people who take up political causes, make political arguments, run for office. But if everyone were doing that, or if those doing it all did it in the same way, we’d end up with a dreary and dangerous world. People have different inclinations, different things that delight and intrigue and trouble them; all these things have a place, as long as they do not harm others. So let there be room in life for the ferns at the top of this post, for the poems being read at festivals this summer, for the things that are hard to say, for the struggle, late at night, with a math problem, or for the rush of a musical idea.

Success and Its Contradictions

I have thought and written about success over the years, but right now I am focusing on its inherent contradiction. Most of us want to do good work by our own standards, in some area of life. But we also want this work to be recognized and rewarded. For a while these desires go hand in hand. But at some point they come into conflict: something you consider your best work falls flat with others, or the things you need to do for recognition seem like a waste of time and spirit. Then you have to choose which way to go.

This conflict also affects how you perceive and present yourself. Many musicians, writers, artists, filmmakers, actors, take pride in an indie (independent) identity. But if you want some kind of financial remuneration, you have to give up at least a sliver of your indie-ness. Some people get so afraid of this that they sabotage themselves, lashing out at their supporters and proclaiming the falseness of the world. Others try to play by the rules at least somewhat, for the sake of the art. The question is serious: how far you can go in others’ eyes before you end up selling your soul. But there’s no formulaic answer.

Basic principles can bring some clarity. The work has to be good. There’s no way around that. If it isn’t, it may have a brief heyday, but who cares? It’s more embarrassing, in the end, to come up with a big hit that fizzles, than to create something lasting that fails to catch on. If your work is good, you have a stronghold in it.

But what does it mean for work to be good? We keep trying to make it better and better. At some point we bring it out to the world. That, too, has to be done. But it’s a kind of parting. There’s an understanding that once you publish it, it’s “done.” Nothing is ever done, but at the same time it has to be.

In the end, success is like carrying an umbrella (I had to bring in the photo somehow). You want to stay dry, but you also hope it rains. At least two systems of elements meet each other, and probably three: your own, your work’s, and the world’s. What comes of the meeting is up to chance, dedication, the human beings around you, and earth, air, water, fire.

A Day, a Night, and a Morning

It turned out that the day after returning to Hungary, I needed to spend a full day in Budapest, because I had a doctor’s appointment there in the morning, was attending a Platon Karataev/Kolibri concert in the evening, and saw no point in returning to Szolnok in between. But as it turned out, I also got to meet with a writer whose work I am translating, and in the remaining in-between time I walked around Buda and visited a thermal bath. Here are a few pictures and thoughts from the day.

After the (uneventful) doctor’s appointment, I walked over to the Három Szerb Kávéház, where I heard Csenger Kertai in an interview and reading in June. No, it was not Csenger I met with yesterday, though I am translating a few of his poems–more about that later! Anyway, the meeting was interesting and enjoyable (more about this project later too), and it was good to revisit the Három Szerb Kávéház and its terrace. I was left with about four or five hours of afternoon before the concert. So I crossed the Liberty Bridge and started walking along Gellért Hill. It was there that I came upon the waterfall.

I stood and watched it for a little while, feeling some of its spray, and then headed up the stone steps to see more. But it was a very hot day, and I decided not to go up to the top of the hill. Instead, I continued onward toward the Lukács thermal bath, and saw ferns, trees, shady parks along the way. I came to a park with a large lopped-off tree whose leaves were casting shadows on the trunk. I also stopped inside an enticing antique bookstore, the Krisztina Antikvárium, and bought a volume of Sándor Weöres and another of Mihály Vörösmarty (the latter in part because my street is named after him).

I was looking forward to the sauna at the Lukács thermal bath, where I had never been before, since I was already sweating a lot and figured a sauna and shower would be refreshing and restful. I was not disappointed, and I hope to return sometime.

Then it was already time to head over to the concert. I walked part of the way, took the train the rest of the way, and had about half an hour to sit back with a beer on Szentlélek tér before going into the KOBUCI Kert, a large outdoor concert venue that was soon to be packed.

The concert was the sort of thing that words won’t reach, at least not these words. A loving, wildly enthusiastic crowd that sang along (beautifully) to most of the songs and roared at the end for more and more. A passionate, spot-on performance by both Kolibri (Bandi Bognár) and Platon Karataev. A feeling of togetherness. These guys are rock stars but also brilliant songwriters and musicians; the music is deep and lasting. I felt that I knew the audience just a little bit, even the strangers, because it was so obvious why we were here. We sang along, danced along, hushed along; we waited for favorite moments and took in the new. I can’t wait for the new Platon Karataev album, which will be all in Hungarian; they played some astonishing songs from it.

I am so happy that I will get to hear both Kolibri and Platon Karataev again this summer: both of them at the Kolorádó festival, and Platon also at Fishing on Orfű and (the Platon duo of Gergő and Sebő) in Veszprém. They are playing many more festivals, one after another; these are the ones I can attend, and I am grateful for them. Fishing on Orfű is separate from MiniFishing, though part of the same festival; the latter took place in June, whereas the former will be in August. I can go for only one day and night, because of the school year starting up again, but I can’t wait to go, with bike, tent, and sleeping bag, just as in June. I will get to hear Dávid Szesztay as well, and others too.

At the very end of the concert, I spoke briefly with Ivett Kovács, whom I hadn’t met before but whom I recognized because of her beautiful cover of Cz.K. Sebő’s “Disguise.” I complimented her on the cover, then said goodbye to Zsuzsanna, Atti, Mesi, et al. and headed to the train station.

It was a long ride home, but I wasn’t tired yet; so many thoughts from the day and evening came back. Walking from the train station to my apartment at around 1:30 a.m., I saw hedgehogs in the grass. At home, I stayed up a little longer, then went happily to sleep. In the morning, feeling out of pressure, I was inspired to re-record the vocals of my cover of Cz.K. Sebő’s “Out of pressure.” I like the new recording much better; my voice is more relaxed, and it blends better with the cello. Everything else is unchanged.

I must run now. But here is a picture of the ferns, since I mentioned them and since they capture something of the day.

From Home to Home

What is home? For some, it’s a particular place, full of objects and memories, maybe the place where they grew up, or went through upheavals, or settled down later. For others, it’s trickier; home might be manifold, or it may have to do more with a state of mind than with physical surroundings.

I came back home to Szolnok today, and this is definitely home. But throughout the trip to the U.S., I had different senses of home in different places. I could not have wished for a richer ten-day trip.

I will not go into details about the personal parts of it, but in short: I visited my mother and stepfather in Northampton, Massachusetts, and celebrated my mom’s birthday there. Then went up to New Hampshire to visit my father and stepmother; we spent the better part of one of those days in Maine, which has years of memories for me and which brings to mind Cz.K. Sebő’s extraordinary song “Maine.” We went up a mountain (Agamenticus) and down into the water.

Then came the New York part: I saw dear friends, moved some things out of storage (and moved the rest into a smaller storage space), attended B’nai Jeshurun on Shabbat, took part in the wonderful service, and chanted Torah, walked around in Fort Tryon Park (bottom photo) and elsewhere, ate some delicious food, picked up an important document from former neighbors in Brooklyn, and state at the sweet and comfortable Hotel Newton, where I hope to return.

The hours in the storage space were surprisingly moving (in multiple senses of the word); I went through CDs and books, got rid of some things, and packed some beloved items to bring back. I also mailed two boxes of CDs; that was enough for now, since shipping is expensive. Now my shelves already have many things that I had been missing, and when the shipments arrive, there will be still more.

But when you’re traveling like this, even without rush, even with so much welcome and warmth, you’re still somewhat on the run. I longed to come back to Szolnok and sit at the desk, as I am doing now, and let the thoughts roll out. I was raring to get back to the writing and translation projects, to the music.

Home isn’t just the desk, though; it’s the place you can start out from. Tomorrow I go to Budapest for a full day: a doctor’s appointment, then lunch with a writer whose work I am translating, then some wandering around, then a Kolibri and Platon Karataev concert over on the Buda side, then a train ride back home. But home is in those things too.

And then the cats. I am so grateful to my colleagues Marianna and Gyula and to their son Zalán, who fed the cats while I was gone (and kindly vacuumed, and filled my fridge with fruits and vegetables so that I would not be hungry when I came back). That made the trip possible and brightened the homecoming. Sziszi and Dominó were healthy and cheerful when I returned, and Dominó gave me a big, long hug (the way cats can do). They played, sat in the window, sat on my lap, walked hither and thither, and then resumed their feline kvetching.

So back to the question of home: maybe it is a place that you rely on as an origin, a place you can set out from. That means there will be lots of homes, like fractals, each one an origin. The other side of home, though, is the return: you take off, but you long to come back. Which of these returns is the real one? Is there necessarily one real one? Or does it come down to a longing, as in János Pilinszky’s poem “Egy szép napon” (“On a Fine Day”)? Here is Géza Simon’s brilliant translation of the poem:

It’s the misplaced tin spoon,
the bric-a-brac of misery
I always looked for,
hoping that on a fine day
I will be overcome by crying,
and the old house, the rustle of ivy
will welcome me back.
Always, as always
I wished to be back.

And here is Cz.K. Sebő’s musical rendition, which introduced this poem to me, and which you may get to hear live at an ALSCW Zoom event next spring. More about this later as it takes shape, but in short, according to hopes and plans: I will be interviewing Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly and Csenger Kertai about Pilinszky, and then, after the interview, they will perform selections from their own work. Mark your calendars; we haven’t set the date yet, but you can highlight, circle, shade, or memorize the spring of 2022 in general until the details roll in.

Looking forward to things is a kind of home too! But that’s a subject for another time.

The photos are of kayaking in New Hampshire, the Hungry Ghost bakery in Northampton, pine trees along the trail up Mount Agamenticus in Maine, Sziszi and Domino at home, and me in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights, Manhattan.

Two-Week Roundup

A lot has happened in the past two weeks. In two weeks from now, I will already be on my way back from the U.S. (I head out there on Friday). I am not bringing the laptop, so any updates during those two weeks are likely to be brief (though you never know).

So, a roundup:

The school year ended, and the faculty went on a trip to the village of Demjén. We visited a winery and thermal bath. It was a beautiful day.

I went to three concerts over the past two weeks: Cz.K. Sebő and Felső Tízezer (at the A38 Hajó), then a performance by Zsolt and Marcell Bajnai (at the Szolnoki Művésztelep), then the Platon Karataev duo at the TRIP Hajó. In addition, I attended two literary events at the Szolnoki Művésztelep (at the ARTjáró Összművészeti Fesztivál): one featuring the literary journal Eső, and one featuring Légszomj, Gyula Jenei’s Covid diary in verse with György Verebes’s art. I also attended an online event featuring the poet and translator George Szirtes. All of this is enough to fill the mind and soul for a long time.

As far as writing goes, the inaugural issue of The Penny Truth is out and about, My long semi-satirical poem “Apology in Seven Tongues” was published by The Satirist, and my newest poem, “Day of Rage,” received some nice comments here on this blog. I am working on two translation projects (poetry and short stories), both of which are an honor for me. I will say more about them later.

Two weeks ago, I posted my cover (with cello, guitar, and voice, and a homemade video) of Cz.K. Sebő’s “Out of pressure.” I learned a lot from playing the song.

Radio also figured prominently in these past two weeks. I have been enjoying WFMU”s Continental Subway, and also listened to Marcell Bajnai’s interview on Megafon.

Speaking of songs, I have a few to recommend. Two have come up on this blog already, but that’s all the more reason to mention them again.

The first is Cz.K. Sebő’s “First Snow.” Listen to the whole song, the lyrics, the drums. This song sounded especially beautiful at the concert at the A38 Hajó; I have been hearing it in my mind ever since.

The second is Felső Tízezer’s “Majdnemország,” about which I have written here.

The third is Lázár tesók’s (the Lázár Brothers’) new video, “Olyan egyszerű” (“So simple”). The song is from their debut album, Hullámtörés. If you just listen to the melody and watch the video, you might think it’s about how nice it is to be out on Lake Balaton together. But the song is not nearly so cheery, and that’s part of what makes it beautiful: the combination of moods and colors. And that they composed and performed it so well.

And then, to wrap it up, Marcell Bajnai’s most recent song, “legjobb metaforám,” which I have heard in three forms so far: as a recording, in live performance, and read aloud as a poem (during the radio interview; the interviewer, Marci Lombos, read it aloud, and Marcell read “Forróság környékez” by Norbert Siket. This might be my favorite of Marcell’s solo songs; it is certainly one of them.

And that is a good way to end the day.

Reuben, Gad, and Ambition

In Matot, the first part of the double Torah portion to be read in synagogues this Shabbat, the children of Reuben and the children of Gad tell Moses that they would rather settle east of the Jordan instead of crossing over the river, since they see that this land is good for their cattle. Moses asks them angrily whether they intend to abandon their brothers, who will need to fight for their new land, and why they are turning the Israelites’ hearts away from God’s promise, as their fathers did before them. They reply that they will set up sheepfolds and cities here, then go forth and lead the battle. When it is won, and when every man has received his inheritance (ish nahalato), then they will turn back and settle here. Moses accepts this offer, provided they fulfill their promise.

In this passage, Moses’ main concern is to fulfill God’s will for the people; he objects not to Reuben’s and Gad’s children’s wish to stay here, but to the betrayal that this would involve. They make clear that they will not betray the people, or God, or the plan.

I am now going to make a leap into the present, which means misinterpreting this text a bit, or at least leaving it behind momentarily.

A modern-day leader, in contrast with Moses, might chide the children of Reuben and Gad for not being ambitious enough. Why are you settling here? Don’t you want to go for the best? Don’t you have any drive, any will to succeed, any growth mindset?

One of the great illnesses of Western society (particularly the U.S., I think) is the belief that people should always be striving for more on others’ terms: more money, more prestige, a higher position, a bigger house, the next big thing. There are actually workplaces that push you out if they see that you aren’t striving to move up.

But what if you are striving for things, just not on others’ terms? It may look, on the outside, as though you are just sitting still, not moving ahead in life, but that stillness can contain a lot of movement.

Also, a person doesn’t always have to be in motion. Stillness is good, too: for finding calm in yourself, for contemplating things, for taking in music, poetry, speech, for making sense of a bewildering world.

But there’s more to Ruben’s and Gad’s children’s decision than a desire for stillness (which doesn’t come up in the passage). They recognize the land as good for them and their cattle. They see no need to move further when this place is already suitable.

That’s another reason for staying still sometimes: you recognize that what you have, where you are, is good. Why do you have to go off in pursuit of something else, when you have what you want and need?

People here in Hungary are often surprised that I enjoy living in Szolnok. How is that possible? they ask. Especially after New York? Well, I don’t need everything that New York has; in fact, it can be overwhelming. Here in Szolnok, I have good work, friends, surroundings; and I can easily get to Budapest and other cities if there’s something I want to attend there. Besides, a lot of what I do is at my desk, or in my room; I don’t need a lively external environment all the time. My life is far from staid; I am writing, translating, playing music, teaching, learning, taking in others’ work, exploring places on bike. No one who knows me would call my life dull. Some of this, or maybe most of it, would have been impossible if I had tried to lead a so-called successful life on others’ terms.

This does not mean that moving up in the world is inherently conformist or compromising; it’s good to be recognized for what you do and to exceed your past limits. Sometimes internal and external success go together; the convergence can be beautiful. My point is only that we don’t always have to be moving up in a recognizable way, or fulfilling what others think should be our plans.

Some of the best times in my life, and the most fruitful, were when I was in simple surroundings, with a job that allowed me to get by. It would have been nice to have a little more money, but the jobs that offered more money often expected you to believe in this money too. If you didn’t, you were a slight heretic.

This reminds me of a beautiful song that David Dichelle played yesterday on WFMU’s Continental Subway: Frank London, Lorin Sklamberg, and Rob Schwimmer’s rendition of the Yiddish song “Tsuzamen Mitn Gelt” (“Az Nisht Keyn Emune”), which begins (the English translation is under each line):

Az nit keyn emune tsuzamen mitn gelt, vos-zhe arbetstu af der velt?
     Without faith, together with your money,
     what good is it to work in the world?
Az nit keyn bine tsuzamen mitn gelt, vos-zhe bistu af der velt?
     Without understanding, together with your money,
     what good is your being in the world?

My comments here are tangential to the text; they aren’t about the text, except in passing. The text is about something other than success; it’s about God’s plan and promise, and the people’s duty to fulfill their part in it. But it arrives at an ingenious solution to a conflict: the children of Reuben and Gad will fulfill their duty, but also follow their desire and judgment. Beyond that, the passage is about recognition: that the good life is right there, under their feet, “vehineh hamakom, m’kom mikneh.”

Painting: Benjamin West, “Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant” (1800).

“Why didn’t they just tell me that?”

I remember one day in high school—I was sixteen or seventeen—when I was discussing Oscar Wilde with an English teacher. Wilde had been one of my favorite authors since childhood; from the age of eight or nine, I had begun reading and even memorizing his plays and stories. An adult in the family had hinted to me that Wilde had gotten in trouble with the law because of his personal life, but I didn’t know what that meant. I mentioned this to my teacher, who said, “Wilde was homosexual.”

“Oh,” I said. “Why didn’t they just tell me that?” The question remained unanswered.

I got to college, where for the first time in my life I met people who were coming out as gay. The issue overwhelmed me. I had never encountered it directly before. I had no adults to talk to about it. I thought I must be gay too, that this would explain the differences I had felt for so long. In my early twenties I had a relationship with a woman (considerably older than me—I read her obituary a few years ago). Over many years, I have come to know myself as heterosexual, but this came after years of self-doubt. I wish I had had someone to discuss this issue with, in high school and later: an adult who understood something about it and who wouldn’t be hurt by my ambivalence. I needed room to think and speak, room not to feel terrible about anything I said and did. There were a few such people later on, and I am grateful for them.

I support gay rights and believe that many people, gay or not, have had some kind of attraction to the same sex. Maybe the attraction is sexual, maybe not, but homosexual attractions have existed as long as we know. At the same time, I know how difficult the subject can be for a young person, and how badly it can be mishandled. Today’s teenagers are much more aware than my generation was; through social media and popular culture they learn about things that many of us were shielded from. Many of them have strong opinions on the subject (or cluster of subjects), but they do not have a place to air these opinions without being applauded or attacked.

So Hungary’s new “anti-gay amendment,” which, among other things, prohibits the inclusion of pro-gay or pro-transgender material in classrooms with children under 18, will not accomplish what its supporters in the most generous interpretation hope to accomplish: the protection of children from pressures and ideas that they are not prepared to handle. High school students, and even younger students, are exposed to these issues anyway, through social media and their own lives.

On two occassions, my students have asked to debate the topic of gay rights, which, we found, was not the needed approach, since it made the conversation divisive and antagonistic. Nor is my classroom the place for the topic. But there are ways to discuss it calmly, in the upper high school years, ways that would help students make sense of what they already see around them and what they might be feeling. A calm, unpressured, voluntary discussion can protect young people by helping them get a footing, no matter who they are. It should probably take place in a sex education class (these do exist in Hungary) or in another context where it is understood that the discussion will take place.

One thing that doesn’t get said enough is that not all attractions are sexual or have to express themselves sexually. We live in a highly sexualized culture, on the heterosexual front as well as everywhere else. Many young people think they have to have sex to be valid at all, or to know that they are loved. But some of the most beautiful relationships in life are friendships, acquaintanceships, family relationships, mentorships, collegial relationships, or even encounters with strangers, where two people see something special in each other but also respect each other’s autonomy and privacy. Such relationships can be between people of the same sex or of different sexes, of the same age or different ages, of the same or different walks of life.

Sexual relationships are particular. They are precious but fragile, because sexual wounds go deep. It is good to protect children from such wounds, and to give them the tools to protect themselves. The best protection is to teach them to cherish themselves and their feelings for others, to recognize that feelings do not have to be sexual, and to take romantic and sexual feelings in healthy directions when the time is right. “Healthy” means true to them, true to the other person, capable of being nourished over time, and not subject to coercion. Abuse can happen in any type of relationship; it’s possible to learn to avoid abuse and to foster the good.

No one can protect another from pain; parents try to do this, but it’s futile. Pain will happen. Hearts will be broken. But if the children (or people of any age) have a footing, they can stop short of complete devastation. Conversation alone will not give them such a footing, but it can contribute. Maybe more than anyone realizes at the time.

But big discussions aside, there are other times when the topic of sexual orientation will come up. Many writers, artists, composers, and others have had same-sex attractions and relationships; this comes up in their biographies, and sometimes in their work too. It is better not to make this a taboo topic, because that will just create confusion. Just acknowledge it when it comes up; that is not propaganda.

I know that many Hungarians are worried about what they see as Western extremes of gender-fluidity, pansexuality, and so on. Even some liberals here cringe at the idea of asking young people which gender pronoun they would like to use, which they see as a fad. And I have heard young people say that they support the basic ideas behind gay rights, etc., but not to the extreme to which they are sometimes taken in the U.S.

Instead of decrying these concerns as dumb or narrow-minded (or as fronts for homophobia), one can acknowledge the importance of approaching the topic conscientiously, considerately, and sanely, in the right contexts and forums. And the dangers of just shutting it off. The world, whether internal or external, does not go away when you make it taboo.

Some of my friends might say I’m being too gentle here, too compromising. But God, gentleness is needed. People need to be able to live and find their way without getting screamed at. To hear, in a secular context, Paul Tillich’s words, “You are accepted.” That doesn’t mean we accept everything that others do or say, but we can accept who they are, who we ourselves are. It has taken me years to reach this point. I am finally here.

“Majdnemország” and Political Songs

Should songs be political? There’s no “should” about it. No one has to insert political content in a song. However, if a songwriter has something to say that could be taken as political, but holds back from doing so out of fear or apprehension, that’s a loss to the musician and the music. Try things out, say what you want to say in the form that suits it best.

But know that others might not take well even to your lighthearted endeavors.

On May 10, Felső Tízezer (Upper Ten Thousand, or Upper Class) released a new song, “Majdnemország,” about how we don’t live out our true beliefs and desires but instead give in to the forces at hand. As a result of this passivity, the song sings, we live in a “majdnemország,” which could be translated as “Almost-Country,” or “Republic of Not Quite” or something along those lines. It could also be a pun on “Majomország” (Monkey-Country), a poem by Sándor Weöres that appears on the Sebő-együttes’s 1986 album Cimbora, a collection of children’s songs and poems.

The song begins,

Majdnemországban élni, ahol nem köszönnek vissza,
ahol az ajtóban megállnak, aztán se jobbra, se balra.
Majdnemországban élni, ahol azt mondják, hogy mindegy,
úgyse tudod megcsinálni, inkább azt csináld, amire kérnek.

A rough translation:

To live in Almost-country, where they don’t return your greeting,
where they halt in the doorway, then go neither right nor left.
To live in Almost-country, where they say it doesn’t matter,
that you can’t do it anyway, so do instead what they ask.

Within a day or so of the song’s appearance on YouTube, nasty comments started pouring in. One after another–from people who didn’t seem to have listened to the song but assumed it was an attack on the country or government. That was what struck me: that the comments were not about the song, and that there were so many of them. A familiar scenario! (Since then, the irrelevant comments have been removed, but the comments about the song itself, including negative comments, have remained.)

I saw no point in responding to those commenters, so I posted an independent comment, in which I praised the bracing quality of the song and suggested that it could apply to many countries, not only Hungary: that it was speaking about the tendency to give in to political, personal, and social systems and orders.

It seems that this comment was on target, because it came up in an interview in ContextUs with two of the band’s members, László Sallai (the band’s frontman and songwriter) and Gallus Balogh (the bassist). The interviewer quoted it, and Sallai said that it came closest to an understanding of the song. (Yes, I am honored! But that is not the point here.)

In the interview they talked about how they like to take different directions with their music instead of always repeating the same thing. Their second album, Majd lesz valahogy, is about relationships, but they went on from there, with A bonyolult világ, to sing about complexities of life more broadly.

When the discussion moved toward political songs, the two had somewhat different things to say. Balogh said that he doesn’t bring politics into his music because for him, music is intimate. But he saw “Majdnemország” as only slightly political and was startled by the reactions. Sallai said that a person should not be afraid of writing about political themes, but he doesn’t blame those who don’t, if it’s not what interests them. He went on to say that the climate today is prohibitive, that musicians lose audiences even because of something they have said outside of the music. Later he spoke of how the large news portals have been giving less and less attention to culture.

It’s a fascinating interview because of the frankness, the ideas, the take on political music and Hungarian life. I agree with Sallai: I don’t think musicians have to be political at all, if it isn’t how they see the world. There’s much more to life and music than politics. But if it is part of what they want to do and say, then they shouldn’t be punished for that. Saying, writing, or singing what you think, even tentatively and playfully, deserves room and more. Until recently, I thought that music in Hungary was a great domain of freedom. Now I see some of the restrictions and censure that musicians face. I am glad that there are people speaking about it.

I added to this piece after posting it and made slight corrections to the translation of the lyrics as well.

How to Deal with the Void

Views of space reveal anything but a void—there’s more out there than we will ever come close to knowing—but the void I’m about to discuss is not outer space. It’s a void closer to home: the void that anyone has felt who has “put something out there” (on the internet or anywhere) and gotten no response at all. This can happen to anyone, regardless of their degree of fame. Or at least some version of it can happen. Maybe a famous person always gets responses of some kind, but some of them feel much more real than others. That, at times, can be more depressing than getting no response at all. Anyway, the void, from one angle, makes no sense. Out of the billions of people in the world, and the many millions who could potentially respond to this thing, why would no one bother to do so? What is going on? Is it the sheer overload of stuff that everyone’s expected to take in? Is it a habit of indifference? Lack of interest? Lack of time?

But the first question to ask is: Is it really a void? Most of the time, if we think about it, we realize that people have been responding to what we do, what we make, what we post. Maybe not in huge numbers, but those who do respond, do so genuinely. Waxing overdramatic and telling ourselves that “we’re talking to a void” will just reinforce the solipsism that hurts. There is often someone listening, or reading, or looking.

True, but sometimes it still feels like a void. That is fine. But aside from improving your own work and finding ways to reach more people with it, there’s only one way to respond: by cracking the void yourself, by taking in others’ work, by reading, listening, watching. Every time you do this, you give a work, and the person behind it, an audience. And in doing so, you and the work together create something other than a void.

The void does not get erased, though. It isn’t the internet, though the internet exacerbates the anxiety. On the one hand, it’s fate, and on the other, a fundamental feeling. The fate is everyone’s. We all die one day, and whether or not our own works and actions survive us, we descend into nothingness of some kind. That is true even if you believe in an afterlife. The afterlife transcends the nothingness, but the nothingness is still there. We will never come back.

The feeling is real too: no matter how full our lives are, we’re always dealing with the abyss in some way: maybe up close, maybe from a distance, maybe consciously, maybe unconsciously. We know that what we do matters intensely, and we also know that it does not; it will all be gone one day, and we’re just one speck in the human population, which in turn is a speck in space. The void is not just the silence from the world. The void is inside us, at the center of our knowledge and intuition.

Cz.K. Sebő’s song “First Snow,” one of my favorites, has something to do with this theme, so I recommend it here, both for that reason and for itself.

So a second response, which can accompany the first, is to acknowledge the void. Instead of trying to get rid of it, laugh and cry into it, say whatever you want to it, sing into it.

And there the fun begins. Because the void is there, but it’s not the only thing there. Music exists alongside it. Maybe that’s what heaven is: the music that gleams on the edge of the void and admits anyone who hears it.

Image credit: Hubble Extreme Deep Field NASA/ESA, courtesy of Vox.

The Penny Truth: May the Mischief Continue!

Receiving The Penny Truth in the mail is one of my postal highlights of 2021 so far. I have two pieces in it, a story and an essay, and won’t talk about those; instead, I’ll comment on what makes this bilingual literary journal exciting for a first-time reader.

Oh, and before I begin: the editors are holding a magazine release party in Budapest tomorrow at 8 P.M., on the Budapest Garden Fröccs Térász. Join them if you can! Because of prior commitments, I can’t go, but I hope a lot of people show up, and I hope to be at the next one.

This is the inaugural issue, over a year in the making. The editors, Will Collins and Kristen Herbert, borrowed the journal’s title from Jaguar, a 1914 novella by Jenő Heltai. In their words, “The story follows the adventures of a newspaper called The Penny Truth, staffed by (among others) an unfrocked priest masquerading as a society columnist and a penniless hussar. We have no clerics or cavalry officers on our masthead, but we hope to revive the spirit of Heltai’s paper.”

Through The Penny Truth: Budapest’s Bilingual Literary Magazine, the editors seek to revive the spirit of the old Budapest cafes, particularly their intellectual ferment and adventure. By bringing together, in print, a lively selection of pieces in Hungarian and English, they also hope to bring writers and true readers together. “Reading a magazine,” they write, “requires a degree of focus that is increasingly scarce in our Internet-addled age.” They offer readers a reprieve from Internet distractions, through a journal that follows Heltai’s blueprint: “An interesting, fresh, lively paper, above all inexpensive … and it would always have to tell the truth and nothing but the truth.” This means mischief, because truth is frequently mischievous, especially when it goes into writing.

And then it came: big, gorgeous in its layout, enticing. I carried it around with me with hopes of reading it on trains, but the reading began in earnest when I sat down with it at home.

I didn’t start with the first story, by Scott Beauchamp; it caught my eye with its title (“Budapest, New Mexico”) and the character Babits, but for whatever reason I skipped ahead. Now it’s one of my favorite pieces in the journal, possibly my very favorite. It’s brilliant, dark, and off-guard-catching. “Babits” appears in two forms: as a character in the story and as a quotation from the poet Mihály Babits (known for his brooding, ecstatic work, his linguistic adventurousness, his religious themes.) The quotation, from Babits’s “Jonah’s Prayer” in the translation of Peter Zollman, appears on the screens of Billy’s cargo container studio, and ultimately projects onto his skin. But wait, who is Billy? He’s the protagonist of the story, a young software developer who believes he has discovered the secret of advertising. The story begins with him pitching it to Babits, not the poet Babits, but another Babits, who has a blue whale tattoo “surfacing from the depths of his collar and beaching itself on his pock-marked cheek.” I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but the connections start to project onto you, and then you start getting it in flashes and convulsions. A great start to the journal.

Some of the stories and poems in the journal appear in both Hungarian and English; that means one treat after another for those interested in languages and literary translation. I do find myself disputing the translations, in places, in my head, but that’s part of the spirit of it all, I think. If they get you to think about language, they are doing their work. One of my favorite bilingual pieces is the poem “Ars Poetica” by Ádám Nádasdy, translated by Anna Bentley; another is Ottó Tolnai’s poem “Az a kő olyan keserű volt” (“A bitter stone it was,” translated by Miriam Grunwald). Still another is the story “Hús” (“Meat”) by Attila Mucha, translated by Timea Balogh, about generational conflict and the slaughter of a rabbit.

There’s a lot to learn from these pages, too; one of the editors, Will Collins, contributed a fascinating essay on the minaret of Eger, “the most visible reminder of Eger’s cosmopolitan history.” There are also two travelogues: “A Beginner’s Guide to Ukraine” by Paul Brian, which got more and more absorbing as I continued reading it, and “Mindig. Örökre – Dél” by Péter L. Varga (“Always. Forever – South,” translated by Kristen Herbert. (Both Will and Kristen have stories in the issue as well; I look forward to reading them soon.)

I love what the journal is doing and hope that it continues into a second issue and more. The editors devoted hundreds of hours to it before it came out, and the work—now distribution, publicity, fundraising—goes on and on; someone has to bring copies to bookstores, for instance. Now numerous Budapest bookstores carry it, and several cafes have reading copies. A partial listing can be found at the end of the review by Hungarian Literature Online. But while the work must be exhausting at times, I sense that they are having great fun with it. The mischievous art on the front cover, Alex Collins’s adaptation of a painting by Zalán Kertai (who, as it turns out, is Csenger Kertai‘s father!), shows a hussar wearing a Covid-suggestive mask and riding a wild-eyed horse. May the mischief continue!

Update: International readers can order a copy of The Penny Truth by contacting the Budapest bookstore Booksellers directly.

  • “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.

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