Different Kinds of Depth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spoken and Unspoken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publications, Honors, and Things

Sometimes I forget that this has been a prolific time. But it has been, and there’s a lot more coming this year and next, I hope. Along these lines, a few updates:

I have the honor of being invited to speak as a guest lecturer on October 26, 2021, in The MacMillan Institute’s online Poetry series. The other sessions are led by Frederick Turner (July 27), Sarah Cortez (August 31), and Dana Gioia (September 28). These sessions are open to the public (with registration in advance); the fee for each session is $10. I will be reciting and speaking about my poetry, the poetry of others, and a translation or two.

My translation of Gyula Jenei’s “Scissors” was published in the Summer 2021 issue (Volume 62, Issue 2) of The Massachusetts Review; this particular issue is devoted to poetry, and it’s beautiful! You can order a copy here.

My essay “Plessy v. Ferguson and the Dissenting Opinion in the Classroom” will be published by Literary Imagination in the fall and is already available online (to those who have access). This is part of a special issue, which you can order with a subscription to Literary Imagination (which includes membership in the ALSCW). I think it will also be available later as a single issue.

And now for a few reminders:

Gyula Jenei’s collection Always Different: Poems of Memory, in my English translation, will be published by Deep Vellum in February 2022—not so far away any more! You can pre-order a copy.

My poem “Apology in Seven Tongues” was published by The Satirist in June. Read it all the way through, if you do read it; it’s saying something different from what it might seem to be saying at first. A reader wrote, “That’s really good. It takes seven unapologetic verses to get to the bottom of the event.” Another reader wrote, “F***ing gorgeous. Loved it.” And another: “Well, that is brilliant.”

My story “Immemorial” and my essay “I Signed to Protest the Blurring” are published in the wonderful inaugural issue of The Penny Truth / Krajcáros Igazság, Budapest’s Bilingual Literary Magazine. You can pick up a copy in Budapest or order one from Booksellers (just call them up).

A long, long heads-up: If all works out, in the spring of 2022 I will be hosting an online ALSCW event devoted to the Hungarian poet János Pilinszky and featuring two guests: the poet Csenger Kertai and the songwriter and musician Cz.K. Sebő (Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly). I will interview them about Pilinszky, and then they will perform, from their own work, pieces that relate to Pilinszky in some way.

And speaking of Cz.K. Sebő, I learned a lot from recording a cello cover of his song “Out of Pressure” (from his 2015 EP The masked undressed). On July 29 I re-recorded the vocals; you can find the new video here. The Hungarian word for “cover” (in this context) is “feldolgozás,” which also means “working up,” “converting.” I think of musical covers as translations of a sort. If they sound just like the original, that can be impressive, but uninteresting. For me, the interesting part of covering someone’s music is seeing what it turns into, which reveals something about what it already is.

Speaking of musical covers, I have wonderful memories of covering Marcell Bajnai’s (and his band 1LIFE’s/Idea’s) song “Maradok Ember” on cello at Varga and at the Summer Institute in Dallas two years ago. And I have started working on a musical rendition of a Sándor Weöres sonnet.

Speaking of music, I put my unreleased 2001 EP O Octopus on Bandcamp and YouTube. Soon I expect to have it on Spotify as well.

And two new translation projects are underway: of poems by Csenger Kertai and stories by Sándor Jászberényi. More about these in good time!

With all of that, I am glad to have a few more weeks of summer break but am also looking forward to the new school year. There are so many things I want to do with my classes. I hope that we will have classes in person all year long, but no matter what happens, there will be a lot to do.

Two-Week Roundup

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

So, a roundup:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is a good way to end the day.

Reuben, Gad, and Ambition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Penny Truth: May the Mischief Continue!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blogging, “Winky,” and More

Blogging is a kind of mental relaxation for me, and a way to start working with ideas that may take a different form later. I have just started to realize how old-school it is. Not that many people blog any more, or when they do, it’s partly to make money. I make no money off of this blog; I pay a little each year to keep adds off of it. I do make money from other forms of writing, but this is a place where I can say what I want, on my own terms and timing, and that’s how I want to keep it.

I have gotten weary of the new economy of punditry. So many people are competing to be pundits, to make ponderous pronouncements about the state of the world, pronouncements aimed at winning followers and subscriptions. Very few of these pronouncements have any lasting quality. The whole thing feels vain to me, and boring. But then, I have my vanities too.

My students (that is, one of my tenth-grade sections) read George Saunders’s “Winky” last week. The other section didn’t read it because we had too few classes left in the year—that is, just one. We have been reading a lot of stories this spring: Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” Alice Walker’s “The Welcome Table,” and now “Winky.” They are so lively and thoughtful in discussion that my planning only goes so far; things come up that hadn’t occurred to me.

It’s hard to talk about “Winky” without giving spoilers. But I’ll try. The story begins at a strange motivational seminar, in which a tacky modern version of a medieval morality tale is playing out on the stage. One of the characters, “You,” is trying to reach “Inner Peace,” but then a number of other actors, including “Whiny,” “Self-Absorbed,” and “Blames Her Fat on Others” get in the way. Finally a GoldHat appears and drags these obstacles into jail. The crowd then bursts into the familiar mantra: “Now Is the Time for Me to Win!”

Then Tom Rodgers, the founder of the Seminars reveals himself and begins telling the audience about how he learned to stop letting people crap in his oatmeal. (This becomes the bizarre ruling metaphor of the session.) Then the participants line up for the Personal Change Centers. Neil Yaniky finally finds himself face to face with Rodgers, who helps him identify the main obstacle in his life—his sister, Winky—and the main problem: “Needs her own place.” Yaniky resolves to go home at the end of the session and tell Winky precisely this.

In our discussion, the students quickly saw through the Seminars and the message they were broadcasting. You can’t just treat people as obstacles in your life, especially people close to you; you can’t solve life problems by cutting people out of your life, sending them away, etc. But they saw this even more when we were taken into the world of Winky.

Winky is unsummarizable. A little bit out there, in her own world, Christian, full of happy fantasies, but also with her shair of pain from being taunted and lonely. We see her catching herself in the middle of daydreaming and realizing she had to get ready for Neil-Neil’s return home at the end of the day. She rushes up the stairs “with a strip of broken molding under her arm and a dirty sock over her shoulder.”

The students saw that Winky adores Neil-Neil, that he is at the center of her world, and that she also takes care of him, cleans for him, cooks for him. One student was very upset by Winky’s Christian faith, her belief that she really should turn the other cheek when people abused her. “How can you let other people bully you and not fight back?” she asked. We talked about this for a while. In the story, it’s complex, because we’re supposed to see Winky’s naiveté, but we also see that she’s happy in her own way.

Neil-Neil has fantasies of his own, as we learn on his way home. A beautiful wife, a Jaguar, a feeling of power wherever he went. But he’s short and bald, and Bev, whom he apparently dated for a little while, left him, so the fantasies are far, far out of reach, except in his mind. But he doesn’t think so as he walks home; he thinks he’s on the verge of winning. The seminar has pumped him up.

And he gets home, and things don’t work out as he planned. But he doesn’t have an epiphany either. I can’t give away the ending. It’s wonderfully mundane and disturbing. I asked the students, why does the story end this way? Why doesn’t it end with him realizing that he was wrong and that he loves his sister?

“This isn’t Disney,” one of them offered.

“That wouldn’t be Neil-Neil,” another said, explaining that he clearly has limitations, and it would be too much out of character for him to have that much insight at once.

Then another student spoke. “I think we all have a little bit of Neil-Neil in us,” he said. We talked about that until the end of class.

And now is it clear why I love teaching at Varga?

We didn’t have time, but I wanted to bring my students an article, in The Economist, about how young adults in the U.S. are increasingly cutting off contact with their parents. At one point the article points to one of the causes (or at least contributing factors): “Those who decide to break off contact with their parents find support in a growing body of books (often with the word ‘toxic’ in the title), as well as online. Threads on internet forums for people who want to break ties with their parents reveal strangers labelling people they have never met as narcissistic or toxic and advising an immediate cessation of contact. This may make it easier to shelve feelings of guilt.”

In my book Mind over Memes I devote a chapter to the word “toxic” and the damage it can do when overapplied. (I bring up “Winky” in the chapter too.) Surely some situations are toxic in some way. But to call people toxic, without first trying to understand what is actually going on, can lead to more harm than the so-called toxicity itself. There are situations in life where you do need to cut someone off, and that may even be a family member. But there are many more cases where you actually don’t—where, through learning to say “yes” and “no,” and through learning more about the situation, you can find a way to relate to each other. It can have limits, it can be imperfect, but it’s still a relationship of some kind.

The fad of cutting off relationships, and justifying it blithely, is nothing short of monstrous.

But “Winky” does much more than teach a lesson, and it leaves a lot unresolved. (The story is not punditry, thank God!) The students were able to take this.

The title of this blog piece promised “more,” but that will have to wait until next time.

Saying “Yes” and “No”

One of the most difficult and important skills in life, if it can even be called a skill (maybe it’s a burst of brilliance, or maybe a muscle), is knowing when to say yes or no to things, and doing either one with confidence and grace. Usually when people bring up “saying ‘no,'” they are referring to romantic or sexual relationships, but I have a broader context in mind. In life, there will be people who want various things from you, or at least hope for various things. No one can meet every demand; most people don’t even want to. Yet they often fear to say “no”; instead, they might hedge, or half-promise, or say nothing at all.

I just took on a new translation project, and a big one, and am glad that I did. (More about it when the time is right!) I had to think about it for a few days, because I knew the daily commitment involved, and knew that this would mean saying no to other things. I agreed to do it, and once I started into it, I caught the “bug of immersion”—that is, I wanted to keep on going and going. It’s a fantastic project, and I can’t wait to continue with it day by day.

So, in other words, the “yes” is only possible as a result of various “nos.” A person who says yes to everyone and everything, even to internal urges, will never find a way to focus. Even with concerts, I need to be selective, because so many are happening right now, and each one involves a commitment (getting there, being present for it, listening to it fully, going home, remembering it later).

People often avoid saying no, maybe because it seems negative (which it is, inherently), rude (in some cultures, it is considered very rude), or hurtful, or maybe too strong. But “no” can bring clarity and relief to both parties. The other person stops waiting for an answer, but you yourself, the one saying no, also learn something from doing so. The “no” carves out the contours, shows you what you are actually doing. A “no” doesn’t have to be absolute or all-encompassing; it doesn’t have to take the form of, “no, and I never want to hear anything from you again.” To the contrary, a “no” can keep relationships intact, as it keeps people from being overwhelmed by each other, and it sets the necessary limits.

I have heard people say that women have a hard time saying no. But men do too; it just shows in different ways. Women may try to sound obliging (“I’ll see what I can do”), whereas men might avoid the whole issue by saying nothing at all. (And there are variations and exceptions.) Both men and women could use a bit of no-cultivation.

The Puerto Rican statesman and poet José de Diego wrote about the liberating power and roaring sound of “no” (in his brilliant essay “No“):

In political evolution, in the struggle for freedom, the affirmative adverb is almost always useless and always disastrous, so soft in all languages, so sweet in the Romance tongues, superior in this sense to the mother Latin tongue. Certe, quidem do not have the brevity and the harmony of the Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese si and the French si, when the latter substitutes for oui in the most expressive sentences; si in singing, a musical note (B), an arpeggio of the flute, a bird’s trill, noble and good for melody, for rhythm, for dreaming, for love: more for the protest and impetus, for the paroxysm, for wrath, for anathema, for dry fulminating hate, like the scratching of a ray of light, the no is far better, the rude, bitter O vast, like a roar, round and ardent like a chaos producer of life through the conflagration of all the forces of the abyss.

Even in the day-to-day, “no” brings not just liberation, but concreteness, because only then, when you have said “no,” can you take on the rest, the things you have chosen to do.

But yes, there is a roar to it indeed, a foam, a froth, a cosmic mess. Without its counterpart “yes,” it would seem like the ultimate negation, the door to complete cacophony.”Yes,” too, takes strength, when truly meant, and if it weren’t for “no,” “yes” would lose all muscle; it would come to mean “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” or any combination of these. And then, as often happens in the world, you wouldn’t know what the speaker was saying. You would either wonder and wonder, or shrug your shoulders. Indifference would finally win. “Yes” and “no” are the bulwarks against indifference, because when said with full intent, they mean different things.

Painting credit: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Diogenes (1860, Walters collection).

Reputation

This Saturday, in addition to leading the Szim Salom service along with our rabbi, I will chant Torah, as I do at all our Saturday morning services. Over time, preparation has become much quicker and easier than it used to be. I remember, back in New York, spending hours an evening over the verses, learning the sounds and meanings, bringing them into myself, and pondering them. That was, for me, the most important aspect of Jewish life: immersing myself in the ancient language, texts, and melodies, learning the system of cantillation, learning liturgy. The more recent ease means less time spent on the verses each evening, which means more time for other things (and I’m glad of that), but less time hearing the texts from the inside. And time makes a difference.

So this week, when I found myself pondering Saturday’s reading (from Numbers 14), it reminded me a bit of the old days. Moses has sent spies out to the land of Canaan, to see what the land was like. They have come back with a grim report; the people there are giants, and they (the spies) were like grasshoppers in their own sight and that of the Caananites. Then the children of Israel begin to wail: would that we had died in Egypt! Or here, in the desert! Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, speak out and say that the land is in fact good; in response, the people call for their stoning.

God then loses all patience and asks Moses: “How long will these people despise me?” He declares that he will smite and kill them all, and make of Moses a greater nation.

Moses’s response is (at one level) one of the most peculiar passages I have read in the Torah. He essentially reminds God: If the Egyptians knew that you killed the very people that you brought up from Egypt, they would tell other people that You, who have been in the midst of Your people, going before them “in a pillar of cloud by day, and in a pillar of fire by night,” have killed them because you could not able to fulfill your promise to them. The Hebrew syntax of these verses is complex, as are the various referents, but the gist seems to be, “What will happen, God, to your reputation?”

There is so much to say and think about Moses’s argument (which ultimately persuades God not to kill all the people, just the older generation)—thousands of commentaries have been written about it—but the question that bothered me was, why would God care what the Egyptians and others say?

The most direct answer is that God would not be able to replace the children of Israel easily, if he damaged his own reputation in this way. Everyone would have heard about his failure and would be reluctant to accept him. So this is Moses’s way of reminding God, “Do not take us for granted, even with all our faults.”

But at a deeper level this suggests that the relationship between humans and God has to be reciprocal. Reputation here is not just gossip and babbling; it can lead to—or stand in the way of—encounter. A God who fulfills his promises and stays faithful to his people will already mean something to the outside world. Even if they believe in other gods, they will keep, in the back of their mind, this image of presence, glory, and mercy. (Verse 18 repeats most of the “thirteen attributes” associated with God.)

In our own lives, reputation has a form analogous to what is suggested here. It isn’t good to get caught up in worrying about what others think of you, but if you keep your promises, fulfill your projects, and treat others kindly, your reputation (in the best sense of the word) will open up the world for you. This kind of reputation is an early rumbling of relationship. So in other words, sometimes it does matter what other people say, when this is a reflection of what you actually have done.

This makes sense in our immediate world. It’s somewhat baffling that this would also be the case with God, but it’s an important bafflement. We get to wrestle with the idea that God is somewhat vulnerable and has something to lose, and that the words of humans matter not only in our sphere, but beyond. Maybe liturgy itself is a way of carrying reputation. The verb שמע (to hear, listen), along with the related שֵׁמַע (hearing, report), which in turn is suggestive of שֵׁם (name), has an essential role in these verses, and in liturgy too: hearing, and hearing the name, and listening closely, all have to do with building a relationship with God.

I say all of this, by the way, as someone who does not always believe in God. Sometimes I clearly do; sometimes I am not so sure. It is great to be able to stay with these texts and to chant them in Hebrew, no matter how my own thoughts and feelings fluctuate. That is what I have been learning, as I serve as Szim Salom’s primary cantor (now for three and a half years, going strong). I don’t always feel religious, or observant, or sure of what I am doing. But I love the role and Szim Salom itself, and have found so much good in staying with the responsibilities and finally owning them. For a long time I was shy about calling myself a cantor, since the word has such grand associations for me. But cantors come in great variety, and this is good. I give what I can, and I learn as I go along. I am always seeking to do better.

Here is a picture of the rabbi and me outside the Methodist church in Buda where we used to hold services back in 2017 and early 2018. (Before we moved to Bálint Ház, we had no place, so the very kind minister, Gábor Iványi, and his congregation offered us the space on Shabbatot.) It is no wonder that he has a reputation as a holy man.

The image of the Hebrew text and translation, from Numbers 14, is courtesy of Mechon Mamre.

Painting: Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam.

As usual, I made a few edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

Sliding Love (a new Hungarian film)

Even before the film started last night, you could feel the emotion in the room: the excitement of being back at the Tisza Mozi for a a special film event: this time a pre-screening of Viktor Oszkár Nagy’s film Becsúszó szerelem (Sliding Love), followed by a discussion, led by Zsolt Bajnai, with the director, the lead actress (Viola Lotti Gombó), and another cast member (Ádám László Piller). István Demeter, the owner of the Tisza Mozi, welcomed us heartily.

I loved the film and understood about 95% of it, the most I have understood so far when watching a Hungarian film without subtitles. It’s a somewhat eccentric, melancholic romantic comedy about a couple that wants to have a baby but can’t conceive because the husband, a football “ultra,” is sterile. At an adoption orientation that they attend, prospective adoptive parents are asked what they would hope for in a child. The husband says, “A Hungarian,” and makes clear that he does not want to adopt a Gypsy; this and a few other missteps more or less kill their prospects. Then one day the wife brings home a pregnant Roma (Gypsy) girl, Lüszi, with the idea that they will adopt her child. Things take unexpected turns from there.

The film explores the football (soccer) fan subculture: the rough-and-ready groups of buddies who follow their favorite team all over the place and keep getting into fights and scrapes. It takes on Hungarian racism against Roma people. And it shows a vulnerable, spunky young Roma woman who, over the course of the story, shows and finds out who she truly is. It has heaps of satire too: of various self-help groups, of the justice system, and of the lives of petty thugs.

The lead actors were the ones who enchanted me: András Ötvös as Gyula, and Viola Lotti Gombó as Lüszi. Viola Lotti Gombó has extraordinary range and grace: in the beginning, she plays crass and bored, annoyed with everything; slowly, as the film develops, she lets Lüszi unravel into beauty. I am eager to see what she does in the future.

There’s that moment, at the Tisza Mozi’s special screening, when the film is over, the credits are still playing, and the lights start coming back on, signaling that the discussion will shortly begin. The photo below is from that very moment. “Hang” means “sound”; that was the sound credit, and you can see the light shining onto the chairs below the screen.

During the discussion, Zsolt Bajnai asked the director about the origins of this film, about how it differs from his previous work, about how he learned about the football fan subculture, and about the casting. The football fan subculture part was particularly interesting; he said that he had made contact with various people, friends of friends, and visited some of the games to see and experience this world, and the world of football-hooligans too. Mr. Bajnai asked Viola Lotti Gombó a few questions too. From her responses, you could see how much she loved this role and what it meant to her to be in the film. There were a couple of questions from the audience. Then István Demeter thanked everyone for coming and brought the evening to a close.

On my way out, I had a chance to say hi to the Bajnais, whom I haven’t seen in person for months, and then I zipped home on the bike, happy and full of thoughts.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

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

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

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

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

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

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

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

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

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

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

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

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

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