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. But “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.

My first song in Hungarian: Időköz (first draft)

Writing a song in a language other than your own is no easy matter. You want to take risks, instead of just staying with phrases you’ve heard over and over, yet you don’t know how far you can take it before it really sounds strange to a native speaker. Also, there are all kinds of questions of rhythm, intonation, pacing, the way the melody and lyrics interact.

But all of this opens up possibilities, too, in the music and in language. I definitely use expressions here that I would not use in everyday speech. I am going to talk about the song with Gyula and maybe others, and possibly revise it later. But the revision will probably be an entirely (or substantially) different song. So here is this first draft, a first step. You can see the lyrics below.

The vocals were the hardest part to record (in terms of getting the right timbre and consistency). That’s partly because of the limitations of my equipment; I need a real vocal mic, and I need a way to monitor the sound as I am recording it. (Through the headphones, I can hear the other tracks, but not the one I am recording.) But overall, my recent recordings sound much better than the ones I made years ago in San Francisco—even better than the studio recordings in some ways—and I am still getting my bearings.

I would not say that this music is at all similar to what I’ve been listening to recently. But it is slightly influenced. Especially after Cz.K. Sebő’s concert on Friday, I thought that I would try to find the simplicity in the song and work from there. Most of the recording came easily as a result of this. The lyrics may be just a little bit too busy in places, so in addition to fixing the parts that sound off, I might want to prune them a bit. But again, that will be a new song.

Időköz

Diana Senechal

Éjjel hallgatom
a kétségek mozgását,
én is mozdulok mintha velük táncolnék.

A szíved udvarán
táboroztam.
Végre az idő fölvett és elvitt.

Nem ismerem és nem fogom
ismerni az időközt
amit együtt töltöttünk.

Az ilyen idő idegen,
mégis mélyen megéltük
órafigyelés nélkül.

Reggel hallgatom
a pihenés légzését.
Én is lélegzem, mintha vele aludnék.

A szíved portása
régen kirúgott.
a gőgöm mégis elidőzött tovább.

Az első lépés rémisztő,
mint egylábú keringő
minden hegedű nélkül.

De itt az élet kezdődik,
az időköz túloldalán,
a reggel üres csendjében.

And a rough English translation:

Interval

Diana Senechal

At night I listen to
the movement of doubts
I move too, as if dancing with them.

I have been camping
in the courtyard of your heart;
finally time lifted me and took me out.

I don’t know and will not
know the interval
that we spent together.

This time is foreign,
yet we lived it deeply,
without watching the time/clock.

In the morning I listen to
the breathing of repose;
I breathe too, as though sleeping with it.

The porter of your heart
kicked me out long ago,
still my pride kept hanging around.

The first step is terrifying,
like a one-legged waltz
without any violin.

But here life begins,
on the other side of the interval,
in the morning’s empty silence.

Gyula Jenei’s “Always Different” can be pre-ordered!

It is really coming! The publication date is still about eight months away (February 15, 2022), but Gyula Jenei’s poetry collection Always Different—my English translation of his 2018 volume Mindig máscan already be pre-ordered. The book is that much closer to existence, and the listing comes with a great collection of endorsements:

“One of the great masters of Hungarian free verse.” ―Éva Bánki

“What are we looking for in our childhood when we take stock of such and such events, sins, tragedies?… A silent poet whose every word I hear.” ―Darvasi Lászó

“Real lyrical ingenuity.” ―Simon Ferenc

“One afternoon I read through Gyula Jenei’s Always Different, more than a hundred pages of poetry, and after the first poems I said to myself that yes, this is my world.” ―Fekete Vince

“The culmination of a lyrical material with a rich past.” ―Adam Sebestyén

“One of the most striking registers of Hungarian poetry of the 2000s… So naturally embraces the pulse of the Hungarian language that every memory that is expressed in them thus suddenly emerges from insignificant mundaneness and finds itself confronted with eternity.” ―Balázs Fűzfa

I got strangely emotional when I read this, because I still remember the day when I spoke to Gyula for the first time, at Varga, where we both teach. This was in September 2018, I think, or thereabouts. I had been in Hungary for almost a year at that point. I walked up to him, told him that I had memorized his poem “Belefárad,” and proceeded to recite it in what must have been quite awkward Hungarian. Around the same time, I started talking a lot with his wife, Marianna Fekete, and upon perusing their writings, I saw that I wanted to translate them both. It wasn’t just that I wanted to; it had to be done. I translated Marianna’s essay about Béla Markó’s haiku poems, and began translating Gyula’s poems from his 2018 collection Mindig más, one after another. I remember the long stretches with these poems: how I would write the first draft of the translation by hand, in a notebook, and then type out the revision. Then, after I had translated a few, Gyula, Marianna, and I would go over them.

Everything took shape from there. Literary Matters published Marianna’s essay and five of Gyula’s poems (in my translation, along with the originals); The Massachusetts Review accepted another (“Scissors,” appearing this summer); we were invited to Dallas, to be the featured guests of the Cowan Center’s 2019 Education Forum; we met Will Evans, the founder of Deep Vellum, who expressed interest in publishing the book; I worked intensively on the manuscript and submitted it in February (nearly four months ago); and now publication is underway. There’s still a lot to be done—final edits and proofreading, publicity, preparations for readings, and more—but the book is coming, and I believe it will reach many people.

Folyosó, a Concert, and More

The past few months have been full, and I think I have finally met all the pressing deadlines. So now it will be possible, while wrapping up the year, to resume work on some projects and go on a long bike ride or two. The summer will be varied; except for ten days in the U.S., I expect to be here, relaxing, working on projects, riding the bike, and going to the Kolorádó music festival in August.

The spring issue of Folyosó (our first anniversary issue) came out on May 17, and it is beautiful. There’s a section with pieces about walls (of many different kinds), a section of short absurdist scenes, a section of miniature stories, a section of speeches, and some beautiful art by Lilla Kassai. Click on the picture to view the contents. If you feel so moved, please post a comment on the comments page.

This evening I am going to my first concert of 2021, a highly anticipated solo concert of Cz.K. Sebő, who is going to treat us to a double program at the TRIP Terasz, the outdoor part of a ship nightclub on the Danube. In the first part, he will play his own songs, including one or two entirely new ones; in the second part, he will play covers of some of his favorite songs. Because a maximum of 80 people can be admitted, and priority is given in order of arrival, I can’t take any chances. So that means: get there very early (when they open at 4 p.m.) and bring something to read, and I have the perfect thing: Csenger Kertai’s poetry collection Hogy nekem jó legyen, which I ordered after listening and relistening to Sebő’s musical rendering of Kertai’s poem “Balaton,” in which Kertai reads the poem and Sebő’s music paints it underneath.

This little book is not easy for me to understand; there are words I don’t know, expressions to puzzle over, meanings to ponder, but so much the better; the time will whisk by (on a ship on the Danube, with a beer), and then the concert will begin, and there will be time to sink into it, and then I can return to the poems later, on the train ride home, and again and again over time. I will say more about all of this later, after it has happened.

Speaking of songs, I wrote my first song in Hungarian and will try to record it over the weekend (I may need more time). The song is mostly set in my mind; it just needs to be played, in its various parts and instruments. The title is “Időköz,” which means “time interval.” It’s my first serious attempt at a song in a language other than English; at age 14 I composed a round with brief Russian lyrics, but that’s it. I don’t even remember the first part, but the second part went, “Счастлив человек, который каждый день слушает музыку.” (“Happy is the person who listens to music every day.”) Before posting “Időköz,” I will run it by a native speaker, just in case there’s something impossibly wrong with the lyrics. A few quirks I don’t mind.

I have to run, so that is all for now.

Song Series #14: One Morning in May

This morning I had the joy of listening to songs with my ninth-grade students, as part of the music unit in the American Civilization course. A few weeks ago, while we were still online, I had introduced them to U.S. American and Canadian songs and pieces from various genres: jazz, blues, folk, country. They then had to choose one of the songs from the playlist and write a reflection on it. From their reflections and songs, I chose five, and added one more (which isn’t American but which is clearly influenced by these traditions, particularly folk): Platon Karataev’s “Orange Nights.” So here was what we listened to, in person, this morning in May.

First was the remastered version of Freddie Hubbard’s “Mirrors,” which an eleventh-grade student had strongly recommended to me. I listened to it and understood why he thought I should hear it. A person could listen to this piece alone and fall in love with jazz. One ninth-grader wrote, “In the first second when I heard the jazzy piano, I knew
that this song was going to be good. The wind instruments are played like they are the singers I’m a fan of. It is really calm and smooth.” Another mentioned that he might include a sample from this piece in one of his own musical projects.


The next one was Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” which I have brought up on this blog before. While Cohen was Jewish and observant, as well as being involved with Buddhism, the verse that describes Jesus is heartbreaking. That is part of the song’s opennness; Suzanne in the song carries the spirit of openness, the ability to feel with the world and to love with a purity that sweeps up everything.

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And then you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind

The next was “Little Red Rooster” by the great blues musician Howlin’ Wolf. A student found it intriguing because nowadays teens don’t listen to this kind of music. “I noticed his beautiul energetic voice,” he wrote, “which is incredible.” He gave some brief background on Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett), his teenage life on a cotton plantation, and his musical evolution.

The next one was Sarah Jarosz’s “Song Up In Her Head,” this version recorded during the Music Fog sessions at the 2010 Americana Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee. The students who had written about this song had been taken by her voice and the way the song gets you to sing along. “I personally think that the lyrics are catchy,” one wrote; “they are easy to memorize. After listening to the song two or three times, you can already sing along easily. There aren’t many too high or too low notes, because the focus is more on the instruments, as the genre is bluegrass.”

From there, we moved along to Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” which had appealed to several of the students. The song has layers and layers of memories for me. I love the languourous mood, the characteristic soaring of the voice, and the way the song tells a story and then, in the last verse, moves into the first person.

People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin
But I lost the ring
She was born in spring
But I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate

To wrap it all up, we listened to Platon Karataev’s “Orange Nights,” which they hadn’t heard before. I chose it because it is gorgeous and because it fit so well with the rest; also, because they could hear how a Hungarian band draws on U.S. folk traditions in a genuine and original way. The music wraps you up and carries you along; you can hear and see the orange nights in Pest. The lyrics are full of textures and meanings. One of my favorite aspects is the rhyme of “Pest” (“pesht”) with “detest,” “rest,” “best,” and “chest”; another is the pair of lines “Solitude, you’re with me in the end / We salute as old friends,” with “salute” pronounced with a stress on the first syllable, so that it sounds very close to “solitude” and brings out this beautiful paradox of solitude and greeting. No native English speaker would come up with this, and it’s perfect; the song, after you listen to it a few times, starts playing in the mind and limbs.

What a happy lesson, and a rare treat at school: to be able to listen to songs like this, one after another. The students were tranquil and thoughtful, and several commented at the end that they had enjoyed this. One of them doesn’t like slow songs, so it wasn’t quite as enjoyable for her; but others were strongly enthusiastic (one especially loved “Orange Nights”), and in any case, this is an opening into more: for instance, the full albums, or these same songs again, or something else. Who knows where listening will lead?

To see all the posts in the Song Series, go here.

“The Vanished City Hall”

On Monday, January 13, 2020, around 7:45 a.m., I bicycled past Szolnok’s city hall on my way to school, just to make sure it was still there, and took the above photo. Earlier in the morning, I had read Zsolt Bajnai’s story “Az eltűnt városháza” (“The Vanished City Hall”); while I realized it was satire, I couldn’t discount its plausibility, since the days had indeed been foggy, the story had a bite to it, and such things do happen in the world…. A year and nearly three months later, my translation of the story has been published on the Asymptote Blog, in its Translation Tuesday feature!

https://www.asymptotejournal.com/blog/2021/04/06/translation-tuesday-the-vanished-city-hall-by-zsolt-bajnai/

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.

  • “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.

  • Recent Posts

  • ARCHIVES

  • Categories