Go see “Heights and Depths” (Magasságok és mélységek) as soon as it comes your way!

If there’s justice in the world, and if such justice comes the way of Magasságok és mélységeg (Heights and Depths, directed by Sándor Csoma), it will be winning multiple awards at festivals this year. I have seen nothing like it. A tense, meditative film that goes to a difficult place and stays there for a long time… and through this, subtly and slowly, points a way toward hope. Without a trace of a cliché or false solution.

I went to see the film because Platon Karataev’s song “Létra” (to be released this week) is in it. This was not one of those situations where a song ends up in a “soundtrack,” coming through for a few moments and then fading away. Its placement is perfect and gives it full honor. Go see the film, and you will know the song when you hear it, even without having heard it before.

The film steps inside the mind of Hilda Sterczer (Emőke Pál), the wife of a famous mountaineer who dies in a descent from a Himalayan peak. As she tries to contend with her loss, the press and town gossips won’t leave her alone. We don’t always know what she’s imagining and what’s “real,” but we also know that the imagination is as real as anything for her and her six-year-old daughter, Gerda (played lovingly and brilliantly by Enikő Nagy). The question is how to live with its torments. There are no quick or pat answers. But slowly, hope and help come into view. I don’t want to say more.

The acting, the cinematography, the directing, the pacing, and the music are all phenomenal.

The film does not rush out of the agony of loss, or melodramatize it, or frame it in some comprehensible way. Loss is madness itself. You don’t even know if it happened, let alone why. You keep thinking you’re wrong and the person will come back. Or you shut off all hope prematurely. Or you do both at once (which makes no sense from the outside, but still plays itself out).

What do you do, then? The film takes you inside the bewilderment while also showing you rooms shimmering with light, a forest soft with color, roads and windows, snow and mountain peaks, the innards of a freezer, a tent in a downpour, beautiful and suffering faces.

What do you do, indeed? The film has no direct answers, but one character shows such patient, humble wisdom that I wished I could talk to her myself. Speak, the film says, at least. But it says a lot more.

An October of Octobers Ahead

October is my favorite month and has been for decades. It has the foliage, the songs, the jumbled sounds. Bells clanging. A coat wrapped around the body. An urge to walk uphill. To dance against the wayward wind, thrilling in strength. Mourning a little.

But this will be an October of Octobers. First, this school year has started off especially well. I am starting my sixth year at Varga, but it feels in a way like a new arrival. The students are thoughtful, funny, very bright. I have a lot planned. Normally, under these circumstances, I would not want to be absent for eight school days in a row. If someone were trying to send me off to some special program, I’d say, no, no, I have too much to do here. But this October is different.

As I mentioned before, eight adults and a baby are traveling together to the U.S. for the ALSCW Conference and two Platon Karataev duo concerts (the Platon Karataev duo is in our traveling group). The basic details and any important updates can be found here. Still, such details do not come close to summing up what this has been and will be. We have been planning this for six months straight, almost every day, but all the planning in the world doesn’t tell you what it will be like.

There will be New Haven in autumn: for me, memories upon memories, and for them (and me too), something rather new. There will be the conference itself, full of interesting things, and within it, my double-session “Setting Poetry to Music” seminar, which is turning out even richer than I expected. (See the lineup at the bottom of this post.) Then the Platon Karatev duo concerts: at Cafe Nine in New Haven (on Sunday, October 23), then at Arlene’s Grocery in NYC (on Monday, October 24).

Still another exceptional event has presented itself. The duo will be recording on October 24 (during the day) at Leesta Vall Sound Recordings in Brooklyn. You can order your own personalized 7″ lathe cut vinyl song. But hurry—it’s almost sold out!

Here’s the seminar lineup. You can read the full conference program here.

Setting Poetry to Music: Session 1 (Friday, October 21, 10:30-12:30 a.m.)

Gergely Balla, Independent Musician/Songwriter, “It Cannot Answer: A Platon Karataev Song Inspired by the Oeuvre of Sándor Csoóri”

Claudia Gary, Independent Writer/Artist, “Song as Conversation”

Emily Grace, Catholic University of America, “A Study of the Interpretive Potential of Two Settings of John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart'”

Todd Hearon, Phillips Exeter Academy, “‘Caliban in After-Life’: Reimagining Shakespeare’s Monster in Words and Music”

Kata Heller, Eötvös Loránd University, “Rap as a New Type of Poetry? A Discussion of the Genre within the Scope of Holi’s ‘Roadmovie’ (‘Sírok és nevetek’)”

Anna Maria Hong, Mount Holyoke College, “H & G: From Novella to Opera”

Csenger Kertai, Independent Writer, “Kaláka’s Musical Interpretation of Attila József’s ‘Tudod, hogy nincs bocsánat’ (‘Mercy Denied Forever’)”

Alyse O’Hara, University of Connecticut,“Performing on the Theme of Consent in Sir Walter Ralegh’s ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’”

Setting Poetry to Music: Session 2 (Saturday, October 22, 1:45-3:45 p.m.)

Lara Allen, Independent Artist, “And All Round Me Spirits: Invoking Harry Partch”

Fruzsina Balogh,Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, and Panna Kocsis,Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design,  “Music and Poetry in the Language of Contemporary Hungarian Visual Art”

Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, Independent Musician/Songwriter, “Accompaniment or Song: Two Musical Approaches to János Pilinszky”

Piotr Gwiazda, University of Pittsburgh, “Listening to Grzegorz Wróblewski on YouTube”

Mary Maxwell, Independent Scholar, “Setting Sulpicia’s Songs”

Jennifer Davis Michael, Sewanee: The University of the South, and Nathan Davis, The New School College of Performing Arts, “Bell of Silence”

Kimberly Soby, University of Connecticut, “Examining Word Painting in the Vocal Works of Earl Kim”

Iris Zheng, Independent Scholar, “Composition as Criticism and Creation” 

Art credit: Leonid Afremov, October Park.

You never know what’s going on in a person…

How well do we know others’ motives, or even our own? Zsolt Bajnai’s play A Hagyaték (“the legacy,” “the inheritance”), which I saw last night in a moving production by the Híd Színház, directed by József Rigó, raises this question (implicitly) within the opening minutes. We find out that the wife, Erzsébet, has invited a woman over for dinner, without informing her husband beforehand. Does she know that something happened between this woman and her husband twenty years ago? And if so, why has she chosen to invite her over? The play starts at a high pitch of intensity and builds from there. I won’t give any spoilers; all I’ll say is that it kept surprising me while also coming together in a unity. A beautiful progression, a passionate performance (by Erzsébet Déri, Sándor Ulviczki, and Anna Kertmari), and an affecting whole. I’m going back tonight (for the last performance, at least for now; it was a three-night run, and I missed the first one).

The Híd Színház (Bridge Theatre), directed by József Rigó, is a terrific amateur theatrical company of senior citizens. When they performed as the witches of Macbeth at the Shakespeare Festival last spring, I was taken by their verve and fearlessness. When I am a bit older, I would love to audition for a role.

The audience was seated in a semicircle around them, close to the action. You could feel so much happening, not only on the stage, but behind the scenes too, whenever a character walked off or the phone rang. Once in a while, an actor forgot a line, but the stage assistant (Éva Márki) instantly gave a prompt, and things moved seamlessly from there. Somehow that added to the full effect; I was reminded that these were real people.

But yes, back to the subject of this post: we do not fully know why people do what they do and what is going on with them.

At least once a week, even to this day, I get asked why I came to Hungary. I tell the simplest version of the story: that I visited Istanbul for two weeks as a guest teacher, then came to Hungary for the first time and bicycled around in Zemplén. And that my great-grandfather was a Hungarian Jew, and that during this visit I went to the village where he and his large family had lived before coming to the U.S.

All of that is true, but it’s only a fraction of why I came. There were other reasons, and reasons I wasn’t even aware of. Something about the Hungarian ways of life (multiple ways) resonated with me, as did the language. Not because of some mystical connection with my roots (which are multiple and multifarious) but perhaps (partly) because of the combination of cultural richness and modesty, the quiet wit that I felt around me. Not only that; from early on, I saw that I had reasons for being here: teaching, translating, absorbing the language, going to performances, going on long bike rides, leading Szim Salom services. Reasons came into being, in other words.

Last night I understood almost every word of the play. There were a few words here and there that I didn’t know, but I understood the dialogue and action from moment to moment. It was thrilling.

I may seem snobbish or antisocial when I turn down or ignore social occasions with Americans here in Hungary. But my reasons and motives have nothing to do with snobbery or antisocialness. I have American friends in the U.S. and stay in touch with them. I am planning a big trip to the U.S. in October. I love my country and know that I will never be a Hungarian in the full sense. But I never would have reached the point of understanding last night’s play if I hadn’t immersed myself in Hungarian day after day. I do not want to live in an English-speaking bubble (as many foreigners here do). The moment you start speaking English, people assume you can’t speak Hungarian, and everything is lost. The Hungarian I know at this point, still far from true fluency, was hard earned, and I am not about to give it up.

The other part is that I don’t usually like socializing for socializing’s sake. Getting together with friends, yes. But when it comes to meeting new people, I prefer to do this through the things that interest me. (And it happens continually.) Sometimes I disappoint people because they would like me to look up such-and-such an American in Budapest, maybe a friend of theirs. But why on earth should I? I have a full life and busy schedule, and if I met someone new, it would be just that, a meeting, probably not to be continued. Felesleges. (Unnecessary.) If I were lonely, isolated, or bored, that would be a different story. But no. If anything, I need a little more downtime, where I don’t have to go anywhere or do anything.

This weekend, the little bit of rest led to a beautiful result, beyond the conquering of exhaustion. There was an annual large trash collection—you could put your unwanted furniture and other large items out on the curbside, and it would be taken away early the next morning. It was actually quite a ritual. Some people were out in their vans or on foot, scouring the neighborhoods for usable items. A family took two chairs that I brought out on Friday afternoon; I was happy to see them go to use. But yes, I got rid of three chairs, one of which was broken, and the other two unsightly and a source of clutter. With that, I saw that I could rearrange the furniture in my bedroom. With just a few minutes of shuffling, it became a sweet, cozy room (it had been a little unwieldy before). I almost took out the cat tree that was in there, the older of two. It is a bit ragged from all the scratching that it has endured. But when I carried it into the hallway, Dominó started crying. I brought it back. Now the cats love the room as much as I do.

And so yes, even in intervals of rest, there’s more going on than we know. In the minds of cats too.

Top photo by István Csabai. For more of his photos of A Hagyaték, go here.

Bottom photo by me.

The “megoldás”

One of the things I most love about Hungarian everyday culture is the concept of the megoldás (solution). When a problem comes up, people don’t fly into hysterics. They don’t typically look for someone to blame. Instead, they (and I) say, “megoldjuk” (“we’ll figure it out, we’ll solve it”). The solutions tend to be reasonable. This isn’t always the case, of course; there are problems in the country that have been waiting for a megoldás for a long time, and not everyone is megoldás-inclined, to put it mildly. But I think of the megoldás as a true cultural characteristic of Hungary. It comes up in my life almost every day.

It has come up at school, at government offices (with regards to paperwork), on public transportation, in conversation with just about everyone, in the plans for the October trip (many times). Some complexity or obstacle arises, but there’s a way through or around it. Hungarians are often perceived (by themselves and others) as pessimistic, not without reason, but they also show a kind of optimism combined with wit when pursuing practical solutions in matters large and small.

I don’t mean that U.S. Americans lack practicality—not at all! But I do see a greater tendency toward making a scene, taking things personally, blaming others, suing others. I participate in this too, often unwittingly (I have never sued anyone); there are times when I get ruffled instead of putting my brain to work. Or times when I panic that something will go wrong, when in fact there’s no reason why it should.

An example: In my first year at Varga, on my birthday, my students suggested we go out to the rose garden across the street. I agreed, and we went. While we were outside, a student discovered an injured pigeon. She knows how to take care of animals, so she decided to take the bird home. She ran off to a nearby store and came back with a cardboard box and some newspaper for filler so that it would be comfortable.

It was the most beautiful birthday gift: to see a student take care of an injured bird. But I panicked (silently) that we would get in trouble later for bringing the bird in the school. (In fact no one complained at all when she brought the bird inside; I think the receptionists offered to keep it with them until the end of the day.) When I later posted pictures from our little excursion, students asked me why I hadn’t included a picture of Hajni and the pigeon. Getting in trouble, getting blamed had been on my mind.

The imaginary voice roared, “You should know better than to bring a bird into the school! It’s unsanitary, and someone will complain, and the school will get cited!” (The voice would not roar about any real danger posed by the pigeon, but rather, once again, about “getting in trouble.”)

Now, let me not be silly about this. It is possible to get in trouble in Hungary too, and if that happens, the consequences are stiff. No one wants a run-in with the police. But in everyday relations, people (often) first seek to resolve the problem rather than point the finger. There are exceptions and complications, but the “megoldás” generally prevails.

The fear of “getting in trouble” can demean and demoralize a person. Instead of devising an umbrella strong enough for hail, or figuring out that it’s not going to hail in the first place, you cower, waiting for the ice stones to tumble down upon you (as you are sure they will do), or scream at whoever you think is bringing them down. I am not sure where the fear comes from (as a cultural phenomenon in the U.S.). It’s peculiarly profound.

It might come from some kind of murky, rumbling pressure to outshine others, to appear successful. When the desired success does not take place or falls short, this same murky force looks for someone to blame. That may be part of it. Another part may be a tendency to think in extremes: if things aren’t going wonderfully, then they’re going terribly. If they are going terribly, then once again, there is someone to blame. Still another part has to do with a cultural tendency toward upheavals. You can never trust that things will just proceed calmly. As soon as you get used to a situation, it will collapse, not because of its own defects, but because someone wanted to destroy it all along.

Hungary has its own murky pressures, but they are of a different kind. People keep many of their opinions (political, etc.) to themselves (and family and close friends), not trusting that they can speak up without consequence. There are plenty of outspoken people, particularly among the young and in particular contexts (workplaces, online debates, political protests), but on the whole, Hungarians stay rather quiet in comparison to U.S. Americans. At first I loved Hungarian quietness and soft-spokenness, and I still do. But it has many layers, not all of which are happy. I miss the American ecstasy of opinion (which has its own pain).

You live in a country for five years, and it slowly, slowly starts to open up to you and in you. That is no surprise. The greater surprise is that your native country does, too.

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

Too Busy for Balaton Biking?

When I do something like go biking in the Lake Balaton area at the beginning of the school year (and a little over a month before a big trip to the U.S.), I can imagine people saying, “Biking at this time of year? You can’t be very busy.” Well, no, I am extremely busy right now, but I make time for this and am glad. Besides, I see no reason to prove that I’m busy. Being busy isn’t always good; some projects, some aspects of life require slowness. So anyway, heck, I went.

In August I had gone on a shorter bike trip around Tihany (a historic village and peninsular district at Balaton). It left me wanting to come back. So when I saw the announcement for an all-day trip, I signed up. I thought things would be somewhat hectic work-wise, but not extremely so. As it turned out, the trip came during several crunches (deadlines, rushes, requests). But oh well! I had paid for the bike tour already! Nothing to be done! (And my advice: When in a crunch, take a bike trip. You come back with energy and perspective and can roll through the things you need to get done. Or at least that was the case this time.)

Getting out to Balaton from Szolnok isn’t all that easy. You have to go to Budapest and then transfer. Doing this early in the morning wouldn’t have gotten me to the starting point on time. So I stayed in Budapest on Friday night. In the evening, I led a service at Szim Salom, then went to my hotel. Around 6 a.m. I headed out to the Déli train station, then caught the train around 7.

It took a little over two hours to reach Balatonfüred. From there I walked to the bike tour’s starting point. It turned out to be a big tour, broken into several groups (by ability level). These bike tours are run in Hungarian and generally draw Hungarians, which is great. No English-speaking nonsense. (I’m kidding—I love the English language—but it is important to me to be speaking Hungarian in my free time.)

When I arrived, Felső Tízezer’s “Semmi pánik 2” was playing over the loudspeaker (maybe from the radio or a Spotify playlist)! I signed in, found my group, met the leader, and waited for things to get organized. After a few announcements and photo shoots, we took off.

We had a great leader and a spirited group. Before my first Balaton bike tour, I didn’t think I liked biking in groups. I love biking alone because of the reflection and quiet that this allows. But one advantage of the group is that you get to experience it together, traverse terrains you never would have known of, and learn from a pro. We went up and down steep dirt-rock paths. We flew through fields. We cycled through many a lovely, old, hilly town. Saw vineyards, cows, horses, rolling hills, the lake in the distance. All day long. There were refreshment stops along the way where we could have a (delicious) snack. At the end, we had dinner and wine-tasting at a restaurant.

The trip had another wonderful aspect, which I was only vaguely aware of in advance: its theme was the 2022 coming-of-age movie Együtt kezdtük (We started out together), which was set and filmed in the Balaton area; one of the main actors, Toma Hrisztof, was in our group. As it started to dawn on me what was going on—the teenager in our group, Gábor, adores the film and had all sorts of questions for Toma throughout the day, and we visited some of the actual shooting sites—I was actually glad that I hadn’t realized in advance, because it was such a nice surprise. Toma is kind and thoughtful—he took interest in the rest of us and asked me lots of questions about how I learned Hungarian, what brought me to Hungary, etc.

And I just looked and saw that the film will be playing at the Tisza Mozi here in Szolnok beginning this Thursday, so I got a ticket! How exciting: to see the film after visiting some of the filming sites and spending the day with one of the actors and with others who showed so much excitement about the film.

The bike trip ended on a happy note. A delicious beef stew, tasty local wine for dinner. Lots of conversation. Then a few of us took off to catch the earlier train (at about 6 p.m.) and talked along the way. I had originally planned to take the later train, which would have gotten me back to Balatonfüred by 9, but this seemed like a good ending point. The panzió where I was staying had a reception office that was open only until 8. The owner had agreed to give me the key later, but it seemed simpler to check in on time. Then I could relax and maybe leave earlier in the morning than I had planned. I had a lot waiting for me when I came back.

That is how it worked out. I checked in at the lovely Aqua Panzió (where I hope to return) around 7. My room had a little balcony with a view of Tihany, so I relaxed out there for a while, then planned my return trip to Szolnok. It turned out that if I left Balatonfüred at 4:50 a.m. and didn’t miss either of the two transfers, I could get back to Szolnok before 9, which would allow me to reassure and feed the cats and then catch up with a translation. In the morning I woke up very early, dozed off again, and woke up at 4:30. I got up, scrambled, got out the door by 4:40, walked briskly to the train station, and caught the train just barely. Everything went well with the train transfers and the plans; I finished the translation and will soon be going to a klezmer concert at the Szolnok Gallery (formerly one of Szolnok’s synagogues). Then I will still have the whole evening to get ready for tomorrow.

This is probably my last Balaton bike trip of 2022, because so much is happening in the next two months, and then the weather will get cold. But boy was it great.

I will sign off with a video of birds on, around, and above Lake Balaton.

Talking About Solitude Today, Tonight

Solitude is difficult to talk about. I wrote a book about it (Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture) but knew all along that only certain levels of it can go into words. But I have been invited to talk about it—or rather, about the book—on LinkedIn Live. The event will begin at 2:30 p.m. New York time, 8:30 p.m. in Hungary. Keil Dumsch and Matt Barnes will be conversing with me, and the audience will probably participate too. The focus will be on the overemphasis in U.S. schools on small-group work, which severely limits what can be taught, learned, pondered, and created. I am not at all opposed to group work. I use it often in my teaching (it can be good for language practice, for instance, and for activities and projects that inherently involve small groups). But it does not suit all lessons or topics, nor should it replace listening, focused discussion, and quiet thought.

I look forward to the discussion and am honored that Keil and Matt like my book so much. I reread parts of it the other day and was surprised by its freshness (for me) even ten years after its publication. I would write it somewhat differently today, but that’s to be expected.

If you are on LinkedIn, come to the discussion! All you have to do is follow the event link.

Two Miles (and Who Are We, Anyway?)

This morning I ran over two miles (close to four kilometers) for the first time in years. It used to be my minimum distance, but I haven’t reached it in a long while. Biking is different; I can bike a hundred kilometers in a day without much trouble. With biking, the only thing that really tires me is the position: my hands, back, and rump get stiff after a while. But running’s in some ways the opposite; the elongated posture is relaxing, but the stamina takes time to build. Two and a half miles is a great daily standard; if I can keep it up, I will be in good shape. I was ready for it earlier this summer, but the heat kept me to two kilometers daily. Today, in the blustery weather, I kept going and going.

In childhood, I thought I was not only bad at sports, but fundamentally different from the jocks. The jocks were one type of person, I was another. (How wrong that was—but more about that in a moment.) I couldn’t react quickly on the field. If a ball was thrown my way, I panicked. Some adults told me that this was a sign of intelligence: that people who hesitate are brighter than those who don’t. That’s wrong too; quick thinking and reflexes are a form of intelligence. Anyway, I thought that it was my fate to be bad at sports. And then I discovered that I was good at things that required endurance, such as running. A lot of kids hated running so much that a mile seemed way beyond the pale. I started running a mile daily, out on the sports field.

After a while, some of the older girls—whom I admired to the skies—asked if they could run with me, because I could keep their motivation up. This was great for me; I was thrilled that I had something to offer them, something they weren’t as good at. And a sport, no less! We had conversations while running; I still remember some of them.

But I was still considered an “intellectual” type (and therefore not other things). There is a tendency in American culture to divide people into types. There’s a little less of that here in Hungary, I think, but no matter where you live, some form of typecasting happens. It’s limiting and dumb, because no matter what particular talents and weaknesses any of us has, these do not sum us up or predict what we will do.

Self-knowledge: in some ways a futile pursuit. We can get to know ourselves better over time, but there’s more to each of us than the self, and more than we see at any given moment. Recognition happens here and there in life, maybe often. But it is not necessarily self-recognition. It could be recognition of the truth, or of others, or of correspondences between things. I recognize something when listening to favorite music—but not necessarily myself. Maybe I hear something ancient, maybe a hint of a faraway memory, maybe a crack into a new understanding, maybe a basic sorrow or joy or something murky, maybe a cryptic pattern. Maybe sound and rhythm following and breaking their own rules.

Highlights of the Week

One of the great highlights of this week was reading John Cheever. I bought a big collection of his stories; this was inspired by Benedek Szabó’s online recommendation of “The Swimmer.” Before buying the book, I read “The Swimmer” and two other Szabó favorites, “Goodbye, My Brother” and “The Country Husband” (all three are fantastic) and reread two, “The Enormous Radio” and “Reunion.” Once I had the book, I started opening up to a random place and reading that űstory; in that way I have read (so far) “Clementina,” “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” “A Vision of the World,” “The Music Teacher,” and (my favorite of these five) “Metamorphoses.” Although the female characters sometimes lack depth (and not always), these stories are both brilliant and addictive, a great combination for someone who doesn’t very often sink into reading for sheer fun. My reading is usually slow and preparatory; I am getting ready for class, translation, leyning, or something else. I enjoy that kind of reading, or I wouldn’t do it—but it’s great to have this thick book of Cheever and to know that I’m going to read it fast.

I have already brought up some of the other highlights of the week, but one of them deserves a repetition. Cz.K. Sebő’s instrumental song “4224” is gorgeous. Listen to it here. The cover art is by Fruzsina Balogh.

Two interviews were published or announced this week, one from last week, one taking place next Thursday. My Chametzky Translation Prize interview with Aviva Palencia, summer intern at The Massachusetts Review, can now be viewed on YouTube.

And next Thursday at 2:30 p.m. EDT (8:30 p.m. in Hungary), Matt Barnes and Keil Dumsch will interview me about my ten-year-old book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. Everyone is welcome; to join, you need to be registered on LinkedIn.

Yesterday I had a beautiful day. I went to Budapest for two performances: first, Platon Karataev at the MOMkult, for the opening of the exhibition in memory of Tamási Áron. It was an absorbing and dreamy performance; I think “Tágul” was my favorite, though it’s hard to say.

Then I walked briskly to the Városmajori Szabadtéri Színpad to see the premiere of a musical adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days (in Hungarian: 80 nap alatt a Föld körül). It was lively, funny, and inventive, with colorful song and dance, umbrellas, digital scenery, and a terrific cast. The libretto is by Réka Divinyi, and the music is by the band Lóci játszik. For years I had wanted to see Around the World in 80 Days on stage, having read about a performance in NYC. Here are some photos.

And there was much more: translating, writing, running, preparing for the ALSCW conference and October trip, listening to music, spending time with the cats, thinking, walking around Budapest, discovering new places and buildings. And now the sun is setting, and I will try to rest a little. Shabbat Shalom.

Meanings of Craving

George Szirtes’s wonderful and bracing essay “Landscapes of Desire” in the second issue of The Continental Literary Magazine sent thoughts twining through my mind. He asks about the differences between words with overlapping meanings: desire, craving, lust, passion. He writes:

One might have a craving for food or drink or tobacco, for possession of an object, or for something more abstract, like comfort, or fame. The word implies a form of dependency in that one cannot live without, or cannot resist, the thing craved. In any case, it suggests something potentially illicit. Maybe, in English, it is simply because the word crave rhymes so neatly with the word deprave. It is excessive, intemperate, well beyond the supposed Golden Mean.

Desire is nobler than that. We all claim to understand and indeed to glory in it. It takes the best out of the notion of passion. Passion and desire are the driving forces of a heroic, if potentially tragic life. But craving? Does that not imply something slavish? Isn’t there something a little humiliating about it?

He goes on to discuss the poems in the issue of the journal in terms of the words he brings up. According to Szirtes, desire is elegaic, aware of the loss it contains; craving is aware only of itself and the moment.

Yes. But not quite.

I use the word “crave” repeatedly in my essay “To Crave the Edges of Speech: Reflections on Cz.K. Sebő’s New Album,” which was published in the online version of the same issue of The Continental. After reading Szirtes, I see that I should have defined the word a little, or maybe justified my use of it. I knew what I meant by it, and no, it isn’t quite as enclosed and delimited in my ear as it is in Szirtes’s. Instead, it’s sharp, compelling, and possibly pure.

There’s a kind of spiritual craving where you want something so badly that you are set in motion willy-nilly, even though you may have many reflections on what is going on. There is nothing humiliating about this. It can be surprising and enlightening. It can open up years of learning.

Hermann Hesse writes of this in Demian: “If you need something desperately and find it, this is not an accident; your own craving and compulsion led you to it.” In the original German, this reads, “Wenn der, der etwas notwendig braucht, dies ihm Notwendige findet, so ist es nicht der Zufall, der es ihm gibt, sondern er selbst, sein eigenes Verlangen und Müssen führt ihn hin.” Now, “Verlangen” could be translated as “longing,” but “Müssen” suggests urgency, compulsion. So the sharpness of craving comes through.

Or take Walt Whitman’s “Song of Prudence,” with these lines: “Whatever satisfies souls is true; / Prudence entirely satisfies the craving and glut of souls, / Itself only finally satisfies the soul, / The soul has that measureless pride which revolts from every lesson / but its own.” Here’s a paradoxical idea: that you can crave your way into prudence.

That is exactly where the beauty of craving lies. If we only had longing, desire, etc., we would sit around and do nothing but contemplate the yearning and the loss. Craving sets a person in motion, which can be toward the good. Yes, in craving you are carried. You do not necessarily know where you are going, even if your object seems clear. Some of the best changes in life happen because of this.

It has happened to me with music. I remember distinct times over the decades. Music touches on everything and goes past everything; its motion brings everything along with it. I have been hurled by music. Into the unknown, into new ways of life.

There is nothing humiliating about being hurled into uncertainty. Craving may be certain and specific in some ways. But in others it’s a complete unknown. What you think you want may only be the catalyst.

Craving is immoderate, yes. But even moderation must be taken in moderation. Only excess (not all kinds of excess, not excess to the extreme, not excess that blocks out thought, not excess that treats others badly, but still a certain kind of excess) allows a person to tip over, and sometimes this is the best thing that could happen.

It has its dangers too. People seized by craving can discard responsibilities, histories, awareness of others. But danger lies everywhere, even in the safest of things. It is possible to live too carefully, too courteously, too containedly. Moderation, too, has its excesses. A certain kind of craving keeps them in check.

But that’s not really craving you’re talking about, someone might say. It’s more like a state of spiritual urgency. Well, then, to settle that question (or to unsettle it), let’s look up “crave” in the beloved Online Etymological Dictionary.

Old English crafian “ask, implore, demand by right,” from North Germanic *krabojan (source also of Old Norse krefja “to demand,” Danish kræve, Swedish kräva); perhaps related to craft (n.) in its base sense of “power.” Current sense “to long for, eagerly desire” is c. 1400, probably through intermediate meaning “to ask very earnestly” (c. 1300). Related: Craved; craving.

What is prayer, if not craving of a sort? Where would craft come from, if not from a certain craving?

Art credit: Michael Pickett, The Old Piano.

Weekend of Weekends

This summer break has been fruitful in all kinds of ways. I have been translating, writing, planning for October (the ALSCW conference, the two Platon Karataev duo concerts, and the whole trip), going running every day, and spending time with Dominó and Sziszi. I’m astounded that there are still two more full weeks before we go back to school for our initial meeting—and then more than another week before the school year actually begins. So there’s still time for projects and fun.

But speaking of fun, this weekend was hard to beat. On Friday evening, I first went to a talk and Kabbalat Shabbat service hosted by Bét Orim, our sister congregation. Lee Gordon, co-founder of the Hand in Hand schools in Israel, spoke about the schools, which foster friendship and cooperation between Jewish and Arab children. According to their mission statement, “Hand in Hand’s mission is to build partnership and equality between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel through our growing network of integrated Jewish-Arab schools and communities throughout the country.” The work sounds promising and successful. I was glad to learn about it. The service itself was lovely.

I was a little bit worried about the time, since I had planned to go to a Kolibri concert afterwards, which started at 9:00 p.m. in a different part of the city, across the Danube and southwards.

But it all worked out; I stayed all the way to the end of the service, through the kiddush, and got to the concert a few minutes before it started. I think it was my favorite Kolibri (Bandi Bognár) concert yet. He seemed so much at ease, and the songs were full of soul. Péter Massányi accompanied him on cello; his playing blew me away. The plucked parts were often arpeggios and chords; I loved their timing and sound. The bowed parts had a soft, understated tone, perfect for the songs. I think I will often think back on this candlelit concert at the Kis Présház.

Then I checked in at a hotel next to the Déli Pályaudvar, because the next morning I was taking the train to Lake Balaton (where I had never been before)! At the end of the 2021-2022 school year, two graduating students gave me a wonderful present: a gift certificate for the “Káli esszencia” Balaton bike tour. As it turned out, I wasn’t able to schedule that particular one, but the BBT managers offered me the Tihany fröccs tour. (Tihany is a historic village on Lake Balaton; fröccs is wine mixed with sparkling water, a Hungarian summertime favorite.) I worried a little that I had chosen something too easy, but that worry disappeared on the tour itself. The tours use ebikes; more about that in a moment.

On the train, I saw a whole car of Hungarian faces light up as soon as the lake came into view. Hungarians love and yearn for big bodies of water (as do people around the world). They don’t have an ocean, so Balaton is essentially their sea. As a result, Balatonfüred (where I got off the train) was very, very crowded. I walked around for a few hours and saw lots of fat ducks and swans (they get fed by the tourists). I even went in the water, but basically determined that the next time I come to Balaton, I’ll go somewhere other than Balatonfüred.

Then I made my way to the meeting place for the bike tour, and the whole day changed. I got there just on time; the group and bikes were all there waiting, and the tour guides were giving some tips on how to use the ebikes. We would be bicycling around the hilly village of Tihany, in particular to some places that aren’t visited by tourists at all. And that’s exactly how it was. We took off and rode through a forest, up and down hills, on bike trails and dirt roads, and alongside the lake. The ride was quite vigorous, even with the ebike, which helps greatly on the hills. It was like riding a silent motorcycle and still getting a workout. The bike’s balance was superb, so after a little bit of overcaution in the beginning, I became more confident with the dips and turns. There were seven of us (including the leaders) in the group, and we seemed to hit a pace that was comfortable for all of us, neither too fast nor too slow.

We saw a few historic places: a rock where a man used to stand and wave a flag to signal to the fishermen; the ruins of a garden where lemons, oranges, and other fruit were grown during the socialist era; and other interesting things. At one point we parked the bikes and walked up a hill and up to the top of a wooden lookout tower. Here is a view from that tower. But unfortunately it doesn’t capture the sense of height and dimension that you experience from up there. In fact, taking pictures was particularly difficult, because so much of the beauty had to do with the three-dimensionality.

After the wooden tower, we bicycled right next to the lake (about a meter from the water) for a stretch, then into woods and up and down hills again, until we came to the fröccs place. There we relaxed with our beverages for a good long stretch, and then wound our way back to the starting point, pedaling faster than ever. It was a delightful ending.

About an hour later, I took a train back to the Déli Pályaudvar in Budapest, took a metro from there to the Keleti station, then took a train to Kőbánya Felső, where I transferred to another train that ended up breaking down in Tápiószele. But another train came to pick up the Szolnok-bound passengers, and I got home not terribly late (around 1 a.m.).

There will be pictures of the bike tour; one of the guides took many and is going to send them to us. I will add at least one of them here.

So, yes. This was a weekend of weekends.

  • “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

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)



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

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


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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