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.

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.

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.

Looking Back on My Books

Twice, while in NYC, I left a teaching job to write a book. Teaching was too consuming to allow for that kind of writing in spare time; each time, I needed to focus fully on the book. It’s different here in Hungary; teaching here is consuming too, but not nearly as hectic or exhausting. Anyway, in both cases I left the job completely; I didn’t keep any benefits. It was impractical, but it was the best decision for me. Thanks to the second departure (though I had no idea this would happen at the time), I was able to come to Hungary. At that point the book was almost done, and I was ready for a new plunge.

The first book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture (2012) came partly out of my experience teaching in NYC schools, where teachers were expected to incorporate group work in the lesson regardless of the topic or content. The insistence on small group work (in an already noisy environment) came at the expense of sustained thought, dialogue, introspection. The group emphasis was apparent not only in schools, but in the surrounding “culture” (I put it in quotes because it’s a tricky word) and social media. The book also took a closer look at solitude and its complexities, with forays into Petrarch, Sophocles, Newton. In that sense the book came out of something longer and larger: a life of involvement with language and literature, a life of solitude (in many senses of the word) and companionship.

Some people complained that it was too much about education; others complained about the literary and other digressions. Still others complained that it wasn’t like Susan Cain’s Quiet. (Why on earth should one book be like another one?) But overall, it found a wonderful audience and has been quoted in books and articles that I respect. And when I return to it, I am surprised by its details and depth. Work, thought, and life went into it.

With my second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, something went wrong with the marketing and readership. In some ways (though not all) I think this was the better book: tighter, punchier, more concise, but also long-lasting. Unfortunately it reached the wrong readers before it reached the right ones. The initial reader reviews were written by people who clearly hadn’t read even the introduction, or if they had, they had skimmed through it, making their own judgments instead of paying attention to what I was saying. Here’s the full text of a review I received on Goodreads:

When I saw this title on NetGalley I felt it my duty to read this and write the slangiest, most sarcastic review possible. Unfortunately, Diana Senechal has sucked the passion out of my plans. Mind Over Memes is basically a snooty English teacher’s collected opinions on how young people do, and especially how they say everything wrong.

I do have to emphasize that the author is thoroughly learned in what she is writing, and the passion of hers is clear. The problem is that this comes across as incoherent babbling to me; pretentious, holier-than-thou, grammar nazi, babbling.

There are so many tangents and grammatical anecdotes that I really struggled to keep focused on the topic at hand. And really, none of these anecdotes seemed to have any relation to her points. Also, to be frank, this book made me feel like trash, like stupid, illiterate, memeing trash. Here I am, the Meme Queen, crying as I reign over my garbage domain. I try to see what’s up in the adult world and I get slapped in the face. God, this book is depressing.

First of all, the book isn’t about young people or young people’s language at all! All the words and phrases I take up are used by people across the generations. When I did bring up young people in the first chapter, it was sympathetically. I told a story (imaginary, but based on a true story I had been told) about a summer internship interview where high school students had to summarize a project in thirty seconds. I thought this was unfair to those who could not express themselves quite so quickly or glibly. The pressure to be glib is hard on the young and old alike, but maybe especially the young, who are competing for college admission or for their first jobs.

Second, the book isn’t telling anyone, young or old, what they are doing wrong. The point is to call certain words and phrases into question: to think about where they come from and what they mean. There’s no finger-pointing, no English-teacher snootiness here. And for God’s sake, there’s no grammar-Nazi babbling. As for digressions, the chapters are tightly structured and focused, with a little bit of whimsy too.

Third, the review doesn’t mention anything specific about the book. Not a quote, or a detail, or even an overview. What kind of review is that?

So what went so badly wrong? First, there was the problem of the title. I had wanted it to be Take Away the Takeaway, but the editor said the marketing team found that too vague (and subject to misinterpretation in the UK—not that it has received much distribution there). My next choice was Verbal Resistance, which almost made it, but at the eleventh hour the marketing team rejected that as well. They finally settled (with my halfhearted consent) on Mind over Memes, with that lumbering, confusing subtitle (Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies). There are two problems with this: first, the book has nothing to do with internet memes; second, the subtitle gives the impression that a lot of chiding and correcting will be going on. In fact, it seems that the book will be criticizing passive listening and toxic talk themselves. (Not so: one chapter questions whether listening is passive at all, and another questions the overuse of the term “toxic.”)

Another problem was the write-up on the back cover. The endorsements are great. As for the book summary, I wrote the initial version, but then someone on the publisher’s end changed some of the wording. In particular, this inserted sentence could throw the reader off: “Too often our use of language has become lazy, frivolous, and even counterproductive.” This really does sound snooty, old, and weary; it doesn’t convey the tone or content of the book.

Still another problem, I think, had to do with where the galleys were sent for review. NetGalley is not the best place for this; reviewers receive a free advance copy in return for the review but are not bound by any obligation to be thoughtful or even to read the book carefully. The book did receive thoughtful reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Quartz, as well as a superbly insightful review on Amazon by Dana Mackenzie, but beyond those, a few nice comments elsewhere, and the dismissive reviews mentioned earlier, there was silence. I think people were steered away from the book before finding out what it was. (The book events are another matter; I had lovely events for both books, at bookstores and at the Dallas Institute.)

Both books have their flaws. Sometimes I get so carried away with a turn of phrase that I don’t realize how silly it sounds in context. If I were to go back, I would change some of the ornate language to something simpler. Also, Republic of Noise has too many quotes; I could have relied more on my own language and observations. But on the whole, both books are highly readable, and the subject matter is at least as relevant as it was then.

My point is not to complain about the publisher (in both cases, Rowman & Littlefield, though the first was specifically R&L Education). They accepted both manuscripts without the intervention of an agent, they were very nice and responsive along the way, and I continue to receive small royalty checks. Nor do I think I could have insisted on a different title (I tried hard) or back cover description; those are areas where the publisher does have the last word. But I think one lesson to learn from this is that the publisher and author must have a common understanding of what the book is. If there’s a misunderstanding, then the publisher will be pulling to present it in one way and the author in another.

I shouldn’t forget, though, what an accomplishment it was to write and publish these books. So many people talk about writing books, or start writing them and never finish. I know that I can pull off something like this and will rearrange my life as needed in order to do so. Also, both books opened up new eras of my life. The first book led to the Hiett Prize and a long association with the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture; the second, in some ways, brought me to Hungary. Who knows what the next book will be and where it will lead.

Yes, indeed, what about the next book? Well, there has been a book of translations, Always Different: Poems of Memory (Deep Vellum, 2022) which was every bit as big a project as these two books. My next book or two will likely be translations too. But then what, after that? I have been submitting stories for publication; if a few get taken up by journals, then I may be able to publish a collection as well. Poems, too, come now and then, and they are getting better. I also have an idea for a nonfiction book, but as with my previous books, I don’t want to talk about it until I have at least a manuscript in hand (which may be a few years from now). In any case, I expect some books of different kinds in the coming years.

That is why I treasure this time at home in the summer; so much is possible in this stretch (which goes by fast). Even though I don’t get as much done as I’d hope, I do a lot. I love the peacefulness of it: having the whole day to focus on things, without having to rush anywhere. This is hard to explain to people who don’t live in this way, but do I have to explain it? No, just live it, and do as much with it (at the different levels of doing) as possible.

I made some additions and edits to this piece after posting it.

Why “Liking” Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

I saw a wonderful play this evening: Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive, performed in Hungarian (Eleven éjszaka) by the Szkéné Színház, who came to Szolnok to perform it. It was funny, sad, somewhat absurd, and strangely relevant. Even though the plot is removed from my life in almost every possible way, it seemed to hit something I am going through right now, some kind of question I am wrestling with. I can say that I liked the play, but that’s really shorthand for something more. “Liking” is beside the point here.

I have written about this subject before: how “liking” isn’t as important as it is made out to be, how the things that affect us the most are not always the things we like, and so forth. Liking implies a smoothness of reaction, a lack of resistance, but some of the most interesting works, people, places we encounter are the ones that strike some kind of rebellion in us, or at least a vigil of sorts. There are unpleasant but profoundly intelligent and moral people; there are works that leave us somewhat uneasy, in the best of ways.

For years I didn’t like the songwriter Mark Eitzel or his erstwhile band, the American Music Club. People were dismayed when I told them this. “How could you not like Mark Eitzel?” they wailed. But I didn’t. The music sounded too glossy to my ear. I didn’t understand what it was about. Only now, years later, do I hear the brilliance of those songs. I will now walk through his repertoire slowly. I might come to love it. And I might still not like it.

Away from music and into personal relations: there are people I have respected, admired, loved, and not necessarily liked—people with serious faults, quirks, disagreeable aspects. I would not wish likeability on them in a million years. They are better as they are. God, they drive me crazy sometimes. But I am glad they exist.

Liking is somewhat lazy. That doesn’t deplete it of value. It’s good to have some people, some food, some things in your life that you just like without resistance. People you feel comfortable around, whose company you enjoy. Art, music, books that give you pleasure. Meals that make you smile after you have finished your chewing and swallowing. But pleasure doesn’t have the final word.

None of this is mutually exclusive. You can struggle with something, come to love it, and then, over time, take a liking to it too. Or in reverse order. But if you don’t like something, that doesn’t render it worthless. Your reckoning with it might be one of the most important battles of your life.

This question has many implications for education. Is it important for students to like what they study? Yes and no.

On the one hand, if they absolutely detest what they are learning, or are bored by it, then something is probably going wrong (in terms of curriculum, instruction, or study practices). On the other hand, if they judge the curriculum according to their liking of it, and if the school and teachers encourage such judging, then everyone is missing the point. School should not be pure torture or pure entertainment. It is a chance to come to know something that you didn’t know before. This can bring both exhilaration and discomfort. Let us honor the not-quite-liking.

I will be presenting on this topic (in particular, how it pertains to education) at the ALSCW Conference in October, in the seminar on “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture.”

Getting What You Want

In (U.S.) American life, the concept of happiness has been tragically confused with “getting what you want.” No one knows exactly what Thomas Jefferson meant by “pursuit of happiness,” but insofar as he was drawing on John Locke, he understood that happiness is a complex matter, not reducible to the satisfaction of ambitions, wishes, or desires. These might deceive us, after all, and what we want for ourselves at a given moment might not be good for others (or even ourselves, for that matter). So the pursuit of happiness involves restraint and reflection.

Over time, this idea of restraint has ceded to the dogma of “going for it,” “living your dream,” and so forth, so that people often feel ashamed if they are not hell-bent on attaining that fantasy in their head. What’s wrong with you? Do you have fixed mindset or something? Why aren’t you going after your goal with everything you’ve got and more? And I suspect that there’s at least a small element of this in mass shootings. The murderer gets an idea in his head and then starts to believe that he has to carry it out, that not doing so would be a colossal failure, a life not worth living. I don’t mean that this explains the mass shootings, only that it might contribute to a much more complex explanation.

Locke wrote in his 1690 “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” “God Almighty himself is under the necessity of being happy; and the more any intelligent being is so, the nearer is its approach to infinite perfection and happiness. That in this state of ignorance we short-sighted creatures might not mistake true felicity, we are endowed with a power to suspend any particular desire, and keep it from determining the will, and engaging us in action.” Then, a little later, under the heading “The necessity of pursuing happiness, the foundation of liberty”:  “As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty.” In other words, pursuing happiness involves suspending our desires until we have examined them closely and determined whether they will bring us to true happiness. This is an ancient concept; it can be found in the Bible, in Plato, in the writings of the Greek and Roman Stoics, and elsewhere. But only after living in Hungary for four and a half years did I see the extent to which it is missing from areas of American life.

In the U.S., if you want to do or accomplish something, you throw yourself into it with full spirit and often a certain recklessness. You believe that your dreams will come true if you let nothing stand in the way of them. Some people go about this more prudently than others, but almost everyone believes in the pursuit of goals (more than they believe in reflection upon these goals and upon the means of pursuit). In my case, this often meant that I threw money into a project, just to make it possible. I didn’t worry about whether money was coming back to me (and it usually wasn’t). That was the primary reason why my literary journal, Sí Señor, folded (and why so many other literary journals do the same): my desire to see it in existence overrode my practicality. After four issues, each of which cost a couple thousand dollars to produce, I couldn’t afford it any more. I don’t regret the journal, or even the money I spent on it; if I had been more cautious, it might not have happened at all. Still, it reflected a belief that if you want something, you go for it, no holds barred. You do whatever it takes.

In Hungary, people are markedly more cautious and hesitant—especially with money, but with other matters too. They will generally wait before making a big purchase or investment; they want to make sure they have the best deal possible and are really going to make use of it. They are likewise circumspect with dreams and plans, unsure whether they will really pan out and whether they will be worth the effort. There are exceptions and complications to this, but the tendency comes through strongly. At the extremes, it is no better than the American goal-pursuit. If you don’t take risks, you miss all kinds of opportunities; you don’t let yourself even think of projects that seem beyond your reach. Still, I have learned from Hungarian caution.

There are many questions to consider, with respect to any plan or dream: how practical and attainable it is, whether it benefits us and others, whether it can be sustained, whether something lasting will come out of it, whether there are any risks or dangers involved, and so forth. Some of this is unknowable, but at least it’s worth asking. That doesn’t mean that a plan should be abandoned if it fails to satisfy the criteria. Sometimes the riskier projects and endeavors bring great rewards, not necessarily material ones. But the questions can help us avoid needless failure and waste. Not only that, but this kind of reflective mediation will help with the steps along the way.

This applies even to areas like friendship. When do you ask your friend for something, and when not? When do you disclose something, and when not? There isn’t just one right answer. It’s a fallacy that true friends are “always there for you” or privy to “your deepest secrets.” It isn’t true that if you hold back from revealing or asking for something, you are shortchanging yourself. Friendship can have depth even without constant presence or absolute openness. People are allowed to have their own preoccupations, their own privacies.

In general, there’s good reason to relieve oneself of crushing ultimatums: “Either I accomplish X, or I’m a total failure”; “either you accept everything about me and are there when I need you, or you aren’t a friend at all.” There’s no happiness, or even pursuit of it, in these choices. The world does not and should not bend to any one person’s will.

A kind of exuberant, dreamy ambition, combined with practicality, industry, moral sense, and regard for others, would be, if not “the best way,” at least a rich disposition. How do you cultivate this? Through daily life, introspection, projects, education—and often through not getting what you want.

Art credit: Goshawk by Alan M. Hunt.

Update: A comment from Michelle Sowey: Hi Diana, thanks for continuing your ever-thoughtful blog. Your third-last paragraph reminded me of another Kundera passage, from Testaments Betrayed, which expresses an even stronger and more uncompromising version of the idea: “…since childhood I had heard it said that a friend is the person with whom you share your secrets and who even has the right, in the name of friendship, to insist on knowing them. For my Icelander, friendship is something else: it is standing guard at the door behind which your friend keeps his private life hidden; it is being the person who never opens that door; who allows no one else to open it.”

Thoughts on Cancelling Russia

Not too long ago, during a train ride, someone asked me what I thought about cancelling Russia. I said I considered absolute cancellation a mistake. She looked disappointed, so I listened to what she had to say. She considered cancellation—by which she meant refusal to engage with Russian people, things, and culture—absolutely necessary for the time being. She emphasized that it should be temporary but strong.

I thought about it over the following weeks and came to agree with her more than before. Still, I see many dangers in cancellation overall. My views are less about Ukraine in particular and more about cancellation itself.

First, “cancellation” is difficult to define; there are so many different kinds, ranging from economic boycotts to actual cancellation of events to a cutting of ties with individuals. So-called “cancel culture” can even take the form of brutal online attacks, destruction of people’s careers and personal lives, etc. So it’s important to be precise about what kind is at stake and why.

In a war like this one, economic boycotts are justifiable and may convey strong messages. Their effects aren’t always fair—they can hurt people who have nothing to do with the war and don’t support it in any way—but then, no powerful response is fair. During World War II, many German bakeries in NYC went out of business because people stopped buying from them. This was unfair on the bakeries themselves (in many cases humble businesses with no ties to Nazis), but understandable in context.

I also see reason at times to cancel (or simply stay out of) high-profile cultural events, especially those that celebrate an aggressor country and its achievements. I was sad for the pianist himself when Alexander Malofeev’s concerts with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra were cancelled, but at least the orchestra made clear that this was not directed at him personally.

There are thorny questions aroud “Russian-ness” itself. The Yale Russian Chorus, as far as I know, is still considering a Russia tour in August. They have stated that they will include more Ukrainian songs in their repertoire. However, that hardly makes things better; according to Oleksii Antoniuk, if they sing Ukrainian songs, they should change their name from the Yale Russian Chorus to something else. If they do not, they are implying that Ukrainians are just “small” Russians. I see the point there and believe that this all needs to be sorted out.

But boycotts and large cultural events aside, what kinds of cancellation are appropriate? I don’t have an answer; the answer will vary from person to person, situation to situation. But I see dangers in knee-jerk cancellation.

If those doing the “cancelling” know what they are cancelling and why, then there might be some principle involved. But if they don’t, their actions will come out of ignorance and generate more of the same. If, say, people were to refuse to read Russian literature because it’s Russian, they would only be limiting their own education and that of others. If this kind of action spread, anyone could refuse to learn about anything at all. Not only that, but the refusal would come with a self-righteous attitude.

Where would it stop? No country, no entity is exempt from blame. For instance, what if people in the U.S. started cancelling all things Hungarian because of Orbán’s illiberal populism? This would just spread illiberalism. If you write off an entire country just because you disagree with its leader, you give the leader more power and credence than he already has. Anyone can do the same back to you and yours.

What about personal cancelling—the targeting or absolute cutting off of someone you know? I would reserve that for the most extreme circumstances, where you have really tried and failed to hear the person out, or where your safety is at risk. Yet personal cancellation remains in vogue: “freeing yourself of toxic people.” People who cut others off may pride themselves on their social justice or sense of personal liberation. But there is no social justice or liberation involved here, no willingness to find out what the person really thinks, or at least offer the benefit of the doubt. I realize that I am wandering into somewhat different territory here, yet it all falls within the larger concept of cancelling.

In short, I understand that certain kinds of cancelling have their place, especially during this war. But when it comes to the larger question of cancellation, I would say: define what you are doing and why, keep it to a minimum, keep it as humane as possible, remember that you do not know everything about another person or place, and follow your own conscience and knowledge. Because in wartime (or any time, really) these are among the few things you can keep.

Image: Anton Chekhov, by Osip Braz (1898).

Folyosó, Contrariwise, and Whimsy

In the Second Anniversary Issue of Folyosó, which came out yesterday, there is a section of short pieces inspired by Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America (an excerpt of which the students read in class). That is, the pieces use the phrase “trout fishing in America” in any way they please: to refer to an object, an action, a place, a person, a concept, or something indeterminate. It’s one of the most peculiar assignments I have given, but the results are delightful. The students understood the possibilities and took them in all sorts of directions.

Here is Hédi Szabó’s “A Good Feeling” in full:

The sunshine was lighting up the whole coffee shop. Delightful weather like this brings an awesome mood to everyone. This morning, our coffee shop was completely full of people who just wanted to enjoy what a lovely time we were having. Everyone was sitting outside the cafe bar. We had a busy morning. Just brew and brew the dark caffeine-full drink, we haven’t got a calm three minutes. But of course this is what we love the most. For a minute I just thought about how I’m living the life that I’ve always imagined for myself. I was deep in my thoughts when suddenly I realized somebody had come up to the counter. For a moment I felt a bit embarrassed, because I didn’t know how long she had been waiting for me. With a smile, I asked what she wanted to drink. She told me she wanted to order a drink which was suitable for “trout fishing in America.” At first, I thought I had heard it incorrectly. But she repeated it. I started to panic a little because I started to overthink it. Is this a phrase that I don’t know? Is she kidding me? Is she just bad at English? Everyone could have easily said about me that I was really confused. So fortunately, she quickly explained it to me. Trout fishing in America is a feeling you get when you are happy for no reason. Nothing special has happened to you, you just have the feeling your life is good the way it is. You can literally smile because you are satisfied with things around you at the moment you are in. After that guest, my life changed, to put it bluntly. Every time I feel unreasonably happy, I say I’m feeling “trout fishing in America.” I wish for everyone to feel “trout fishing in America” more often.

I think back on Contrariwise and its beginnings. Eight years ago we celebrated the first issue with a whimsical event at Word Up Community Books in Washington Heights, NYC; the celebration included readings, “empirical Shakespearean experiments,” spontaneous jokes, surprises, moments of solemnity, a song, and even a cake with the image of the journal on its surface.

Perhaps there’s a common thread here. I think most people would call me a serious person, but I never saw a contradiction between seriousness and playfulness. Or rather, I think they need each other. One of the reasons that I didn’t go into academia was that in academic settings, playfulness, when it did occur, was so contained, cautious, and tame (with just a few exceptions). People weren’t willing to risk their professional image by being wholeheartedly silly. But silliness requires full spirit. It loses life when reduced to a limp chuckle. Now, I am not silly most of the time, nor is Folyosó. But Folyosó makes room for silliness, and I hope it always will. The same goes for Contrariwise.

Silliness of a certain kind can make room for a greater seriousness. Letting yourself play with possibilities, you sometimes hit upon something nontrivial.

There is so much unstated pressure, not only in academia but elsewhere, to be one thing or another: silly or serious, academic or non-academic, happy or sad, progressive or conservative, etc. I have never fit, or wanted to fit, such limiting classifications, and I challenge them without even thinking about it. It’s important to know that you don’t have to be or do just one thing.

As so often happens in the morning, I suddenly have to hurry, so that will be all.

Three Upcoming Events for “Always Different”

What better place to start than at the school where the translator and poet are colleagues, and where the director, librarian, and others have eagerly offered to support the event? On Tuesday, May 24, the school library will host the first launch event for Always Different, Gyula’s poetry collection Mindig más in my English translation, published by Deep Vellum in April 2022. This has special meaning for me, because if it hadn’t been for the school, I might not have met Gyula in the first place or embarked on the translation of his poems. Also, early in my second year at Varga, before I had even started the translations, one of my students brought up Gyula’s literary events. “He brings writers to talk to us; it’s really great,” he said. “Sándor Jászberényi came to talk to us. Do you know him? You should read him; he’s really interesting.” I started coming to those events, which opened up into others. So in several ways, this is where it started.

The second event will be on June 8, during Book Week, at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár (the public library here in Szolnok that hosts and supports so many projects, including the Shakespeare festival that we held for the first time this year). Marianna Fekete will be our beszélgetőtárs (“talking partner”—that is, the person who interviews us). This, too, is a great honor for me; I have attended and participated in many Verseghy Library events, but this one stands out in all sorts of ways.

The third will be on June 25, at the evocative and cozy Nyitott Műhely in Buda. I first went there in February for an event featuring Csenger Kertai and the pianist Loránt Péch. I loved the event and the place. I started dreaming about having an event there one day. Now it is happening, and Csenger will be our beszélgetőtárs.

There will be still more events for the book over the coming months—online events, U.S. events, and others—but this is an exciting beginning. Details for the second two events are forthcoming, but in short: the one at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár will begin at 5 p.m., and the one at the Nyitott Műhely at 6.

On Reading a Lot or a Little

I read a lot on the one hand and very little on the other. That is, I am always immersed in a text, be it a Torah portion, a poem I am translating, a poem I am not translating, a literary work I am teaching, a song I am listening to again and again, or something I am rereading. But I am not one of those people who devour books. I am woefully behind with books I have been wanting to read, books given to me, books I have been planning to reread. Some of them I get to more quickly than others, but some have been sitting on my shelf for years. It would be great to read more of them, but I don’t read fast. That said, I am glad that they are there; it is important to me to have books to reach for. As a result of moving to Hungary, I have pared my book collection way down, but even so, there’s enough here for a lifetime.

An interesting thing I noticed when deciding which books to keep: the poetry, fiction, and drama have endured far longer than most of the nonfiction. Unfortunately, a lot of nonfiction books (for instance, books about education) fizzle out; after one time through, there’s really no reason to return to them again, except for reference. There are exceptions—books with exceptionally compelling writing or interesting topics—but very few people treat nonfiction writing as an art. Not so with good fiction, poetry, drama; they keep opening into more, and a person can come to them in seemingly infinite ways. I say “seemingly infinite” because there’s no telling whether they’re infinite or not.

There’s plenty of ephemeral fiction too, and poetry, and drama, and everything else. But in terms of what’s on my bookshelf, imaginative literature lasts longer than the rest. And there are levels of lasting.

In a tribute to János Pilinszky, just published by Agenda Poetry, Nicole Waldner writes:

In an interview about his wartime experiences, Pilinszky described the journey on the train into Germany in 1944, to the fringes of civilisation’s collapse: “I took a large pile of books with me to war. And I kept throwing them out of the railway carriage one after the other. Every book became anachronistic. But the Gospels underwent a miraculous metamorphosis.” The metamorphosis of which Pilinszky spoke was a “stripping away of lesser realities” and this stripping away, along with his determination to never look away, became his life’s mission.

I just started reading the essay but have to run out the door for the class trip. I will have more to say about it when I return and read it closely. But this passage caught my eye and mind right away. I wouldn’t be so arrogant or foolish as to compare myself to Pilinszky, but that “stripping away of lesser realities” is important to me too. Not an excuse for my reading so little, but maybe a way of thinking about reading.

Photo by Diána Komróczki.

  • “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)

  • 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 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.

  • 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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