The Pity of the Project

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

A few announcements, while I’m here:

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

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

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

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

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

And spring is here.

Are Hungarians Especially Sad?

Yesterday evening a former student wrote to me to wish me a happy Women’s Day and to ask what I thought of a certain Mariana Hernández’s comment on Quora that Hungary is the saddest country in Europe. “I can say I have never seen such bitter, depressed people as the Hungarians,” writes Ms. Hernández, who has been living in Hungary for eight years. She goes on to explain that she loves Hungarians and considers them open-minded, peace-loving, freedom-loving. They just have an extremely pessimistic outlook (in her opinion), don’t believe dreams can come true, and rarely smile.

No, this is not my experience. First of all, I would avoid any sweeping generalizations. I know Hungarians who are generally cheerful, Hungarians who are generally gloomy, and many whose mood and outlook fluctuate. That said, Hungarians do tend to be less optimistic on the surface than many U.S. Americans I know, but they also work toward what they want to do. If that isn’t optimistic, I don’t know what is. There’s a sense that life is difficult but that if you’re alert, clever, and persistent, you can find solutions to problems, and learn things while you’re at it. Also, here people are generally more open about their problems than in the U.S. (where such disclosures can come across as “too much information”). Maybe all of us have sadness, but some cultures show it more than others.

I have a hard time measuring happiness and sadness anyway, because they have so much to do with each other. They are intermeshed. I think of the stanza from W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939“):

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

Or a haunting poem by Endre Ady that I read recently, “A sorsom ellopója” (“Thief of My Destiny”), which begins:

Ki az én sorsomat ellopta,
Láttam,
Nipponban vagy Amerikában,
Nem emlékszem:
Álmomban láttam.

The one who stole my destiny,
I saw,
In Nippon or America,
I don’t remember:
In my dream I saw him.

I wouldn’t say that these poems bring happiness, but they do bring a kind of joy, since they give form to something hidden in us. Form is one of the biggest longings, one of the biggest fears, in a human life; we don’t want imposed forms, outworn forms, forms that fit us badly, but we want form in a deeper sense.

There are certainly Hungarians who believe that the current forms in the country are rotten: that the economy, government, and infrastructure have been overtaken by human greed, and that nothing better can possibly come, since human nature will not improve. But there are others who focus on doing their best with whatever they have and showing kindness to those around them. And having a good laugh here and there. The humor here is wonderful.

Just an example of basic goodwill: last week I went to see my general practitioner for the first time, so that he could enter my information in their system and then let me know when it’s my turn for a vaccination. The doctor’s office is on my street (the address is officially on Indóház, but the entrance is actually on Vörösmarty utca). I waited in the waiting room for just 15 minutes or so, and then I could go in. He and two assistants were in the office; the phones were constantly ringing, and he cheerfully handled the appointment while he or one of the two women took the calls (people calling anxiously with questions about the vaccines). It seemed hectic to me, but they were handling it all so skillfully and calmly, just taking the work as it came along. Doctors don’t get paid much in Hungary, and only the fanciest places have actual receptionists in the waiting area. But they admitted me cheerfully and charged me nothing.

Or another: last week I got an official letter in the mail, written in intimidating bureaucratic language (which I now understand, though I sometimes have to read it slowly), which informed me that I had to appear at the government office to apply for an address card and personal ID (which are required now that I have a permanent residence card), and that I had to bring certain documents, including a birth certificate with official translation. I despaired at this momentarily, because I had sent the official translation to Debrecen when applying for the residence permit, and had not received it back. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would need it again.

Then, just when I was about to go to the translation office, I received word of the new lockdown. All services and stores, except for the essential ones, were to be closed for two weeks. So I raced to the translation office and explained the situation. The OFFI worker looked me up and saw that the translation was still in the system; all I needed was to order an official copy, which she could have ready by Monday. I asked whether the office would be open, and she said she wasn’t sure, but she’d call me on Monday morning, and if I couldn’t come in, she’d mail it to me. “Megoldjuk” (“we’ll solve it”), she said. And indeed: she called me on Monday and said I could come pick it up.

This kind of thing has happened many times, at school as well. There’s a willingness to solve problems, as well as an eagerness to do good even on a small scale. How many times a colleague has left a bag of fruit tea, or a piece of chocolate, on my desk? How many thoughtful gestures have I received? There has to be some kind of optimism in this. But it’s just not the “pumped-up, rah-rah” kind.

This week I brough George Saunders’s story “Winky”—one of my favorite stories in the world—to my twelfth-grade students. Reading it with Hungarians was very interesting (and moving) because of what they understood. They didn’t all grasp the first part, at the Seminar led by Tom Rodgers. They understood that it was a kind of success workshop, and a few figured out that Tom Rodgers was a con man, but the situation itself wasn’t familiar to them. The self-improvement craze hasn’t reached the same extremes here. But the parts they understood profoundly had to do with Neil Yaniky and his somewhat dimwitted but kindhearted sister, Winky. They understood Yaniky’s error: his belief that if he got rid of his sister, if he just told her to leave, he could succeed at last. And they understood how deluded this was.

Despite all my qualms about spoilers, I have to quote the ending of “Winky” to explain what I mean. At the Seminar, Yaniky has been convinced that Winky is the one who has been standing in his way, (“crapping in his oatmeal,” to paraphrase Tom Rodgers), and that now is the time for him to win. He gets all geared up for his great moment. In the meantime Winky is happily getting ready for her brother to come home, walking around with a sock over her shoulder and a piece of molding under her arm. And when he gets home, he just can’t do it.

… and as he pushed by her into the tea-smelling house the years ahead stretched out bleak and joyless in his imagination and his chest went suddenly dense with rage.

“Neil-Neil,” she said. “Is something wrong?”

And he wanted to smack her, insult her, say something to wake her up, but only kept moving toward his room, calling her terrible names under his breath.

He isn’t happier, he hasn’t had some rosy realization that family is what really matters in the world, but we are the ones left relieved. As a student said, “They have a history together.” Something in him can’t go against that. Maybe it’s cowardice, maybe it’s weakness, but whatever it is, it keeps him from doing that awful thing, and my students knew that it would have been awful, sending Winky out into a world she had no idea how to face.

Human nature is no better in one country than in another. But in my experience, Hungarians know that there’s something to be said for being among others and treating them well, even with imperfections and limitations (on all sides). Like Yaniky, Hungarians may mutter terrible names under their breath, but they (or many of them) reject the ultimate selfishness. And if that isn’t hopeful, I don’t know what is.

Listening All the Way to the End

For the fourth consecutive year, I was one of three teachers administering the oral entrance exams for our school’s bilingual program. For three days, all day long, we interviewed eighth-graders in English. Their scores on this exam, combined with their scores on the written tests, will determine their admission to Varga and to this particular program. The interviews took place in person, but with masks; that added to the challenge. Throughout the examinations, I could see how excited and nervous each student was, each in a slightly different way. It reminded me of when I was little and we would be driving somewhere, and I would be looking at the other cars on the highway and realizing that they were driving somewhere too, and that inside each of those cars were people who said “I” about themselves and lived out that “I.” I could hardly believe it, but I grasped it: that everyone was an “I,” with a particular way of looking at the world and a privacy of experience.

What is it that allows the insular “I” to affect others–maybe just a few people, maybe hundreds, maybe millions, maybe far more than anyone knows? Part of it is that we’re all trying to figure out the puzzle of living, or some part of it. Some people’s way of grappling will inspire others. This morning, before heading off to school, I re-listened to Cz.K. Sebő’s song “Light as the Breeze,” which I had come upon the previous evening. (Cz.K. Sebő, or Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, is one of the two lead singers and guitarists of Platon Karataev; he has many solo releases too.) The song is so beautiful—with hints of Elliott Smith’s “Angeles” and Nick Drake’s “From the Morning,” but with its own soul and meaning—that it kept coming back to my mind in the brief pauses throughout the day, giving things a lightness and a motion. And I wondered: what songs are playing in other people’s minds? What poems, conversations, questions?

To get even a hint of this, you have to listen all the way to the end, which is impossible in a way, since life requires us to cut each other off at some point, or at least to cut ourselves off. But within the short segments of time that we have, listening to the end is possible. It has to do with keeping the ears and mind open, recognizing that there’s more. With this song, it’s right near the end when everything starts to dance, the song comes together, something quietly glorious happens.

During a test, the surface goal is much more cut and dry. The examiner is trying to see what the examinee knows and can do. Does this person understand the text? The questions? How well can the person express an idea or talk about a subject on the spot? How accurate and expressive is the person’s vocabulary, grammar, syntax, command of idiom? Will this person be able to handle the demands of the bilingual program in particular? But it’s possible to stay within that specificity, yet recognize that the student exists beyond it. A student who gets a top score may end up not coming to the school, because of a conflicting pull in another direction. A student who receives a lower score may have an excellence in another area, such as history or music. Sometimes it’s a question of timing, too; a student may be having a particularly bad or good day. So we score as accurately and fairly as possible, but there’s so much going on beyond the scores.

I am not opposed to testing or competition. Both are necessary; both can illuminate and even stretch a person’s capacities. The problem lies not with either, but with the excessive authority given to them, their way of claiming the last word. No test, no competition has the last word. It just offers a few words or numbers. Those words or numbers (and the challenges behind them) can tell us something useful. Sometimes they affect our future. But our work goes far beyond them.

Speaking of work, when I arrived this morning, around 7:30, one of the school’s cleaning staff had just finished mopping the floor in the room where we have been holding the exams. When I arrived, she told me that she had just finished in there, and then asked if I would like to keep the window open. She then proceeded on to the next rooms. I don’t have any moral to draw from that, except that she brought something to our day, maybe without realizing it herself, maybe without our knowledge.

The Winter 2020–2021 Issue of Folyosó

It is here! Peruse it with abandon, and leave a comment if you wish! I have copied my Letter from the Editor below.


Folyosó began in the spring of 2020, when school in Hungary had gone online in response to COVID-19. After a brief interlude of in-person classes in the fall, we have been back online since mid-November, with ongoing hopes of returning to school. During this time, students have written essays, stories, short scenes, contest entries, and more; this issue features some of these winter fruits, along with Lilla Kassai’s art.

We proudly present our first international contest, for which students wrote pieces about imaginary inventions. The jury (Judit Kéri, Anikó Bánhegyesi, Nándor Szűcs, Edit Göröcs, and I) had a difficult time ranking the ten finalists; while we eventually chose winners, we are delighted to publish all ten pieces here. It was an honor to receive entries from the Lycée Sainte-Pulchérie in Istanbul, as well as from many Varga students; we hope to bring the two schools and others together for an online Folyosó event this spring.

For the scenes based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, students were supposed to start with something in the play and take it in a surprising direction. The scenes published here—Áron Antal’s “Something Even Stranger,” Gréta Tóth’s “A Midsummer Night’s Gestalt,” Gergely Sülye’s “As from a Voyage,” Dorottya Turza’s “The Surprise of the Century,” Dávid Csáki’s “Let Him Roar Again,” Bertalan Szegi’s “Act 1, Scene 1,” and Zsófia Szabina Gávris’s “A Nice Article”—abound with wit, emotion, and surprise.

This is also the first time that we feature writers from Class 9.B (which I teach once a week); I have been impressed with this class’s imagination and look forward to publishing more of their work.

The winter issue does not include any writings from the Orwell project, but we may publish a few of them in the spring. For this project, Varga students joined with a class of tenth-graders at Columbia Secondary School to read and discuss Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was a great experience; you can read much more about it on the project website.

Some of the pieces in this issue grapple with difficult problems: isolation, introspection, death and grief, political vanity, and disillusionment; others delight in books, friendship, everyday mishaps and mistakes, and visions of the future. The issue’s overall spirit brings to mind William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence“: not just the famous lines

It is right it should be so 
Man was made for Joy & Woe 
And when this we rightly know 
Thro the World we safely go 

but much more. In this issue you will find a procession of experience, thoughts, questions: from Szabina Tamara Da Cunha Carvalho’s essay “The Problem with BLM Movements in Hungary” to Hunor Gangel’s “From Late to Early”; from Gergely Sülye’s “Transformation” to Lili Forgács’s “The Truth”; from Sándor Tor’s “Is This the Future?” to Zsófia Vona’s “A Dream Come True”; from Sándor Szakács’s “Challenging Times” to Adél Mihályi’s “Personalities”; from Bettina Czékus’s “Arbya” to Eszter Aletta Hevesi’s “The Story of Gen E”; from Tamás Takács’s “Michael the Caterpillar” to Botond Vass’s “The Shelter.”

We wish you good health, happy winter reading, and many returns! As ever, we welcome your submissions and comments.

Sincerely,

Diana Senechal
English and Civilization Teacher
Editor of Folyosó

Getting Up and Settling Down

It really snowed last night, so as soon as I got up, I went on a walk: westwards toward the old railroad buildings and then back again. The cats were in a state of excitement too: everything out the window was moving, moving! It snowed all morning.

I taught my British Civilization class–today’s lesson was about the Globe Theatre and Shakespeare, so we didn’t have nearly enough time for everything. But I am glad that the students, now in twelfth grade, have read two Shakespeare plays while at Varga.

Then I taught my American Civilization classes. We have been reading and listening to American speeches, and the students are about to write their own. For an exercise, I asked them to write a short speech welcoming new students to Varga. Their speeches were delightful; I chose ten to be read aloud in class. A particularly funny and sophisticated speech was written by a student whose microphone wasn’t working today, so he nominated another student to read it. Somewhere in the middle, the doorbell rang, and I had a feeling I knew what it was. I asked them to wait just a second, and I went to the door. It was the postman with an official letter. To receive it, I had to show my ID, which I did. I felt the envelope; it had a card inside it. I was opening it on my way back to the computer. So the reading resumed; at the end, I commented on the speech and then told the students what had happened: I had just received my permanent residence permit. Then we went on to hear seven more students’ speeches, and then, with five minutes of class left, I read them Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Snow Storm,” which I quote in full here, because how could I not?

The Snow Storm

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

After that, I headed off to the school, with hopes of finding the financial officer, who would want to photocopy the permit for the school’s records. On the way there and back, I took photos right and left. The sun had come out, and unfortunately the snow was melting–but there was still quite a bit.

The financial officer had left, but I found some colleagues, including Csilla Vágóné, who kindly took a photo of me. (The photo below is a different one, though, which I took at home. Csilla took a lovely photo, but the fluorescent light made me look a little pasty-faced. This one, with the warm lighting, suits the occasion better.)

The permanent residence permit means many things. First of all, there’s a symbolic significance. It means that I live here; I’m not just visiting. In that regard it reflects my reality and wishes. Second, I have to renew it only every five years; to renew it, I just pay a fee–there’s nothing elaborate involved. This in turn simplifies all my other paperwork; for instance, my health insurance card can have a longer validity term as well. Third, it means that I can get an address card, which is an essential item here but which temporary residents do not receive (instead, they receive a temporary document). Fourth, it simplifies travel; I have essentially the same travel rights as Hungarian citizens. Especially now, during Covid, this helps; if it turns out that I can go to the U.S. this summer, I won’t risk a situation where I can’t come back here. Permanent residents have other rights similar to those of citizens: they can travel freely within the EU, work anywhere in the EU, etc. So a time could come in the future when I wanted to spend a summer in France or the Netherlands, for instance, and this would be possible.

But there’s something more than all these things I’ve listed, even the first. I consider Szolnok home. I teach at a wonderful school, with great students and colleagues and all sorts of possibilities; outside of work, I can bike and walk around, attend literary and other events (once Covid is behind us), take part in my synagogue and serve as its cantor, and enjoy my sweet apartment. The Hungarian word for a permanent residence permit is “letelepedési engedély.” “Engedély” means “permit” or “permission”; “letelepedés” means “settling, settlement, establishing (oneself somewhere), establishment, homemaking.” The prefix “le-” means “down,” so essentially this is a settling down.

A Colorful February

The days have been muddy and rainy, not as in the photo above (which I took a week ago), but still beautiful in an indoor way. The Orwell project—in which my students in Class 10.C joined Professor Attridge’s tenth-grade class at Columbia Secondary School for a series of joint online discussions of 1984—went so well that we decided to have an online gathering, which took place yesterday evening and was great fun.

Then this morning I had the honor of announcing the results of Folyosó’s first international contest. The decision was extremely difficult, because the ten finalists were so good. There were five of us on the jury: my colleagues Judit Kéri, Edit Göröcs, Anikó Bánhegyesi, Nándor Szűcs, and myself. The winners are as follows:

  • Grand Prize: Bernadett Sági (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), Virtual or Reality
  • First Place: Deniz Pala (Lycée Sainte-Pulchérie, Istanbul), Stronger Links
  • Second Place: Gergely Sülye (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), In an Arm’s Reach, and Kázmér Kaposvári (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), Salvation or the End
  • Third Place: Defne Lal Koçer (Lycée Sainte-Pulchérie, Istanbul), Life Consists of Choices, and Lilla Kassai (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), Bringing Dragons to Life
  • Honorable Mention: Lili Forgács (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), The Language-Capsule; Ahmet Yavuz Kaya (Lycée Sainte-Pulchérie, Istanbul), Muter3000; Eszter Aletta Hevesi (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), The Portal; and Alexandra Klaudia Süveges (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), Camping with a Little Bit of Magic.

All of these pieces, along with many others, will be published in the Winter 2020-2021 issue of Folyosó, which appears on Monday.

That has to be all for now; much more is coming soon. I’ll just add that even in the rain, things can be colorful, outside as well as in.

Language and Hyperbole

Last night I had a dream in which a Hungarian person spoke to me in English and I gave a passionate litany, in Hungarian, about why I wanted to speak Hungarian instead. I remember the ending words: “és nagyon fontos számomra, hogy beszéljek magyarul amennyire csak lehetséges!” (“And it is very important to me to speak Hungarian as much as possible!”) My Hungarian has come a long way; I sense it when reading news, reading complex emails with no trouble, participating in conversations on an array of topics, handling a doctor’s appointment, being interviewed for my residence permit, and much more. Yet there is still a long way to go. For instance, the litany could have been a bit punchier, with more colloquialisms.

This is true for everyone. Even at advanced levels, people make mistakes or ignore nuances in foreign languages—that is, languages they didn’t grow up with. English is fairly forgiving of inaccuracy, since so many people from around the world speak English at different levels and in different ways. The language itself stretches to accommodate these levels. Hungarian is like the stone in the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s “Rozmowa z kamieniem.” To get in–to persuade people to speak Hungarian with you at all–you have to be inside the language already, to some degree. Mistakes tend to jar a Hungarian’s ear; Hungarian spoken by a foreigner is a rarity in the first place, except for a tourist’s köszönöm and jó napot. But I love this about Hungarian perfectionism; once you start taking part in it yourself, it’s like playing music; you want to hit the right note even more than others want to hear it.

With a language, you have to get used to going on and on, learning endlessly more and endlessly less, becoming more accurate and flexible in your expression yet still making mistakes, even basic ones, no matter how far you advance. Oh, this makes me think of Nabokov’s Pnin, which I long to reread.

“Information, please,” said Pnin. “Where stops four-o’clock bus to Cremona?”

“Right across the street,” briskly answered the employee without looking up.

“And where possible to leave baggage?”

“That bag? I’ll take care of it.”

And with the national informality that always nonplused Pnin, the young man shoved the bag into a corner of his nook.

“Quittance?” queried Pnin, Englishing the Russian for “receipt” (kvitantsiya).

“What’s that?”

“Number?” tried Pnin.

“You don’t need a number,” said the fellow, and resumed his writing.

Fluency does not come quickly; it goes beyond the highest levels at school. You can be advanced according to the tests but still far from fluent. People used to exaggerate my language knowledge, calling me fluent in Russian when I really was not. I never mastered the Russian verbs with their many prefixes, my vocabulary had gaps, and there were many colloquial expressions I never heard. But because few in the U.S. spoke Russian at all, even conversational proficiency came across as fluency. In graduate school, most of our courses were in English. Only one or two professors taught in Russian. We were allowed to write our essays in English (though I wrote some in Russian); our oral exams and dissertations were in English too, except for quotations.

In college, graduate school, and afterward, I had some opportunities to travel to Russia; I just didn’t take them. I had a strong desire to stay put for a while. For years, going abroad for a long time didn’t hold much appeal, since it had already been a big part of my childhood (we lived in the Netherlands for a year when I was ten, and in Moscow for a year when I was fourteen). It was only later that I wanted to live abroad again—here, where I am now.

Three years in, I am happily in the thick of it all, with heapingly much to do, projects galloping through the mind, kind people in my life, and all of this persisting and growing even during Covid. It’s amazing to me that there’s the book of poetry translations, the Orwell project, Folyosó, regular teaching, my synagogue role, and so much more, and the language all around me, taking form in my ears, in silence, in my dreams.

I took these pictures within the past week. The second one, as you may have guessed, is the view from my windows. I love that view and its many changes.

A Kind of Puzzle

I am almost always working on a story in my head; eventually it gets down on paper. Somewhere along the way, I run into the story’s puzzle. When it’s in its beginning stages, I know where it’s going, more or less, but don’t know what it’s about, until something clicks, a piece that fits right in the middle, or a little off to the side. One of these years, I will have a story collection out, even though publishers, I hear, avoid story collections like grilled dill pickles with chilled vanilla filling. It has been a long-term dream; years ago, I intrigued an agent slightly with my collection-in-progress The Dog Park, and Other Tales of a Wounded Ego. The title will be different, but the collection will come.

I was recently reading Tad Friend’s great, long piece in The New Yorker on Bill Hader, which mentions that Hader met with George Saunders and Tobias Wolff for dinner at one point. I had a flash of jealousy: why did he get to have dinner with them, two of my favorite story writers? Why did they get to have dinner with him, one of my favorite actors, screenwriters, comedians, interviewees, lovers of literature? (Here he is on SNL with one of his classic Keith Morrison impressions.) Why do celebrities float around in a world where they need only utter a wish, a dinner invitation, and it’s “Open Sesame”? Not that that’s really how it is. But then I felt better when I learned that Saunders and Wolff would be speaking over Zoom at the Bay Area Book Festival–about Russian literature, no less! (The event, “Writing, Reading, and Being All Too Gloriously Human: George Saunders with Tobias Wolff on the Storytelling Greats,” takes place today at 7 p.m.—so, 4 a.m. tomorrow my time.) I signed up and paid the registration fee, only to be informed that the event was only for people in the U.S., according to the terms of a contract. My registration fee was refunded, but the excitement was not. Oh well. (Update: The Bay Area Book Festival kindly sent me the link to the video they made of the talk, so I will be able to hear it after all.)

I had been thinking about parallels among three of my favorite stories: George Saunders’s “Winky,” to which I have returned again and again, Tobias Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” and Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat”; also, in a way, “Fat Phils Day” by Hubert Selby Jr. These stories all end with a swift motion into some kind of revenge, retribution, or release–except that in the case of “The Overcoat,” it’s a bit of an oddity, a coda in the form of a ghost story, which seems disconnected from the main story but also not. And in the case of “Winky,” the ending seems both a victory and a defeat at the same time: Yaniky’s victory over the cult nonsense he has been fed, a gut inability to carry it through, but also, in his mind at the time, a terrible failure, because he will never be able to liberate himself from plain old life. But what I find in common is not the message of these endings, nor even the particular quality, but the motion itself, the way it brings everything together.

A great thing about writing is that you don’t have to meet other writers in person. In fact, if I did, I probably woudn’t know what to say, or even want to say much. Just by virtue of reading and writing, you are part of that world, and your work will speak for itself, as theirs does to you. I’m not saying this to console myself. It’s true: I would feel awkward at a party with writers I admire, though I’d happily take their classes or attend their readings. The work is the thing I am drawn to, though once in a while in my life, the writer has also become a friend. Some of this is set up in advance, by others; we know only of work that we have access to. Some writers’ work never makes it into print, unless they self-publish; some gets published here and there, and some takes off. There’s both justice and injustice to it all; lots of good work gets published, lots of mediocre stuff does too, but somewhere along the way, sooner or later, writers and readers find each other.

Therefore reading is part of the puzzle. If there weren’t readers, there would be no reason to write in the first place, and so reading completes the act, or maybe just continues it, since the things worth reading are worth reading again and again. I don’t read nearly as much or as quickly as I would like–but the reading that does take place is a kind of participation in the work itself. Today the Orwell project begins; a few of my students and I will join Columbia Secondary School students on Zoom to discuss the first few chapters of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Over the next two weeks, we will read the entire novel together. And because this first joint class is happening in just a few hours, and I have some errands to run beforhand, I must leave off here.

I took these pictures yesterday.

On Loyalty and Its Dangers

Last night I checked the New York Times and saw that they were livestreaming the Congressional debate over the certification of the Electoral College results. I started watching and then realized that some students, particularly in my eleventh-grade American Civilization classes, might be interested, so I posted a link on Google Classroom. When I returned to the livestream, it was no longer going on; there was uproar in the hall and loud noises coming from outside. Lawmakers were huddling on the floor or hurrying out. Then sounds of crashing and yelling, rioters bursting into the room. It was probably the strangest event that I had watched live on TV or through streaming. A debate and then, suddenly, a broken debate.

There is little to say about it that hasn’t already been said; I watched for a couple more hours on ABC News; nothing seemed to happen but more and more chaos, Republican rebukes, a bizarre video from Trump, people scaling the walls of the Capitol. Finally the police and Secret Services managed to clear the rioters out of the building. In the morning I tuned in again to see that the certification process had resumed. Within an hour or two, it was complete, and Biden’s victory had been officially accepted by Congress. But the tumult isn’t over; for one thing, it has to be dealt with in many different ways, and for another, it could resume.

I don’t know whether any of my Civilization students tuned in–we meet just once a week–but if they did, right then, the sight must have been surreal: first democracy in action, then mobs.

Plato was right that democracy runs the risk or encouraging selfishness and self-satisfaction. But that is part of the reason why the Constitution was written so carefully, why so many procedures and checks and balances were set in place. The unwieldy structures and processes of U.S. representative democracy are supposed to prevent and restrain extremism of various kinds. What, then, has gone wrong?

This question has been discussed endlessly–but one word that kept coming up in the news interviews was “loyalty”: the idea that the rioters felt loyalty to Trump and were doing this largely out of loyalty, because he had incited them toward it. As someone mentioned, he himself classifies people terms of loyalty: who is loyal to him–that is, never criticizes him–and who is not.

A certain kind of loyalty can destroy a government, a relationship, an institution. It is the loyalty that usurps integrity and ethics, that goes on reckless attack, that gives up anything just to prove itself again and again. This loyalty comes with a thrill: of imagined belonging, acceptance, revenge. It is horrifying but not far away. Probably each of us has known a speck of it at some point in our lives, either in ourselves or in those close to us. The one who doesn’t dare say anything critical about so-and-so, because that would be unloyal.

No one teaches this in school, except through literature and history. There is a virtuous loyalty that has room for criticism. There’s a kind of patient, rugged loyalty that does not lose its mind. But there’s another kind that tries to rid itself of mind, because thinking seems like treason itself. This can happen on the right and on the left. It can happen outside of politics. It is only a fraction of what was happening yesterday in DC, of what has been happening in the U.S. and around the world. It falls far short of explaining everything. But for what it holds, it is worth bearing in mind. Its ruins have no end. The burdens of the mind are light compared to this.

I took the above photo yesterday afternoon from inside Szolnok’s Holocaust memorial. I did not intend any sort of connection between the Holocaust and what happened yesterday. They are profoundly different and should not be trivialized through comparison. But it occurs to me now that a dangerous kind of loyalty runs through both.

What Are Years?

I celebrate three New Years annually: the Jewish New Year, the academic new year, and the Gregorian New Year, which begins tomorrow. They are all different kinds of beginnings. This last one has both the least and the greatest effect on my sense of time: the least because it doesn’t really affect my life rhythm, except that it occurs during our winter break and heralds certain deadlines and beginnings, and the greatest because the it is recognized, marked, and fêted worldwide. I suppose birthdays are a kind of new year too, in which case I celebrate many more than three.

But in all cases, the “year” has to do with the motion of the earth around the sun (or vice versa, as it was perceived in ancient times). Seasons and growth cycles have been part of our conception of time since the earliest antiquity known to us.

New Year’s resolutions may be silly at times, but our sense of starting afresh is not. It’s physical, possible, and good. A person doesn’t even have to wait a year to do this. I often do it from one day to the next, or even during the course of a day. For instance, if I didn’t get nearly as much done as I had hoped, I start over, right then and there, and either get something done or not. Or I do enough of something that I know it will be easy to continue or finish the next day. Being able to “start over” can do, if not wonders, at least more than nothing. Or it can make the “nothing” worthwhile. At times it can simply mean getting a good night’s sleep.

But yes, this year stands out from other years, and the desire for a new start is a bit more urgent than usual, all around the world. Those spared by Covid itself have been hit by Covid fatigue and anxiety. The arts have taken a terrible hit. Travel, events, gatherings are up in the air.

But it’s still possible to read, write, listen to music, watch movies, laugh. So I leave off with just a few recommendations:

The Autumn 2020 issue of my students’ online journal, Folyosó:

Marcell Bajnai’s song “dühöngő” (released in July):

A live video of Dávid Szesztay and his band playing his song “Elindul” (maybe my favorite of his songs):

A brutally funny satirical piece by Dan Geddes, published 19 years ago in The Satirist: “In Memoriam: Dr. Claire Hoyt: ‘Shrink to the Stars’“;

Lara Allen’s art work Fried Liver Attack, whose description begins, “‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ These words, spoken by heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, are the tabula rasa for this work. This punch might be a beginning or an end. It’s supposed that we make art that is about something, or that reflects something, or interrogates something.”

Ishion Hutchinson’s magnificent poem “Little Music,” published in the January 2021 issue of Harper’s;

Martha Hollander’s quietly stunning poem “Friday Harbor,” published in Issue 12:3 of Literary Matters;

And, of course, Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” from which this post’s title comes. It is one of my favorite poems, and it brings back memories of John Hollander’s classes. Since it now appears in various places online, I will copy it below (from the Madison Public Library website). I read it aloud this evening, against a backdrop of rain; here is the recording.

A Happy New Year to all!

What Are Years?

Marianne Moore

        What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
        naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt—
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
        encourages others
        and in its defeat, stirs

        the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who 
        accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment, rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
        in its surrendering
        finds its continuing. 

        So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
        grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
        This is mortality,
        this is eternity.
  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

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

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

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

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

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

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

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

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

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

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

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

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

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