Passover and Advice to Self

We’re heading into Shabbat and then Pesach (Passover), which, like Yom Kippur but in a very different way, asks for introspection. In particular, the question comes up year after year, in synagogue services and at seders, in relation to the Jews’ exodus from Egypt (Mitzrayim): What is your personal Mitzrayim? What is something from which you have been liberated, or wish to be liberated? Another aspect of Passover is the outward look, toward liberation needed in the world. I often felt uncomfortable discussing both questions: the first was too private, the second (sometimes) too formulaic and pat. But this year I have been thinking of something that applies to both inner and outer life.

If I were to give one piece of advice to my past (or even present) self, it would be this: “Don’t worry about what people think of you. Do worry–to the extent that worrying helps you–about how your actions affect others.”

First I have to clear up that point: Worrying can be helpful sometimes. It allows you to ruminate over something, which in turn may bring you some kind of clarity. Often, through the worrying, you figure out an internal or external response. Worrying gets destructive, though, when it’s frivolous or leads nowhere.

But so much of my worrying, throughout my life, has been about inconsequential things: a slightly awkward conversation; a moment when I was just a little more blunt than I expected to be, or a little less so; a vague feeling that something somewhere went wrong. Sometimes I have carried that worry for days or longer. Sometimes I have even worried about the worrying itself.

On the other hand, certain worries have been right on target: about hurting someone’s feelings, or neglecting some responsibility, or going too far with one idea or another. This doesn’t mean that the worrying was always needed, or needed indefinitely, but at least it drew attention to something important.

How do you sort out the important from the unimportant? That’s a project that never ends. But once it begins, it brings some relief. Some things really don’t matter. In particular: the awkward moments where no harm was done, just things did not feel perfect. Things don’t have to be perfect, and human beings are a bit awkward by nature. Nature itself is awkward, wriggling in and out of life.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover to those who celebrate them, and a happy weekend to all!

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.

The Winter 2020–2021 Issue of Folyosó

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Diana Senechal
English and Civilization Teacher
Editor of Folyosó

The Privacy and Publicity of Religion

Each religion, in its different ways, has both communal and private dimensions; its believers will have different proportions of the two tendencies. Some people take part in a religion primarily for the social aspects, some for the solitary. Judaism emphasizes the communal, but it is not only communal, just as some branches of Christianity, while placing great emphasis on solitude and privacy, do not live in these alone.

Degrees of privacy do not necessarily correspond with degrees of observance. A person can be highly private about religion but also highly observant, or highly private but barely observant at all. All of the combinations not only exist but are needed. In all the possible variety, the greatest danger comes from excessive certainty and self-pride, on both the believing and the nonbelieving ends. The variety helps to mitigate the certainty.

Do we know that God exists? We have no empirical proof of this; faith is different from knowledge. Do we know that sacred texts are true and divine? Again, we have no empirical proof. Yet we believe strongly, one way or another. Those on the opposite ends–those who say the Bible is perfect and divine, and those who say it’s a bunch of rubbish–will likely disparage each other. Those profane atheists who deny the True Way! Those wacky religious fundamentalists who don’t live in the actual world!

But all of us probably need people who are more observant (or believing), and people who are less so, than we ourselves are. (Not that it’s always a question of “more” or “less”–but this imperfect framework will do for now.) From those who are more observant, one can learn a great deal about centuries-old wisdom and practices; from those who are less so, flexibility and openness.

Once, in the U.S., I was in an awkward situation, in a Shavuot all-night study session. I was sitting next to someone who was at the synagogue for the first time, and new to Judaism. She was eager to start learning Hebrew and liturgy, and asked me if I could recommend any resources. I named a few, which she began to write down. Then I saw three rabbis looking intently at me.

It took me a few seconds to realize what was happening. It was a holiday; you aren’t supposed to write on certain holidays (including Shavuot and Shabbat), nor are you supposed to encourage it. They were looking at me because I was the one they knew. Then one of the rabbis approached the woman and gently asked her not to write.

In the moment, I was mortified, but I realized that the rabbis were not trying to embarrass either of us. They simply needed to maintain the expected practices in shul, for everyone’s sake. After that incident, I came to realize that this prohibition against writing on specific holidays is upheld by Orthodox and Conservative synagogues but not necessarily by Reform. In addition, I saw that even within Conservatism, individuals differ widely in their practices. Once in a while, on Shabbat, one person might give another a phone number, or an email address, and the other person would step outside, or at least out of the sight of others, to write it down. Some write on Shabbat and other holidays, but not when others are looking. Is this hypocrisy? Not necessarily; it can be seen simply as respect.

But even within a shul, you have those who wouldn’t even consider writing on a holiday, and, on the other end, those who think it’s absurd not to write if you wish to do so. There’s a distinction, moreover, between private and public practice: there are those who justify writing in private, but not in public.

Why does Jewish rabbinic law prohibit writing on holidays? The reason is that writing constitutes a type of creation, which is a form of work. Torah explicitly and repeatedly prohibits work on Shabbat and specific other holidays; rabbinic tradition interprets writing as work. Creation is work in that it brings something into existence that was not there before. The holidays cannot allow for work; they are meant for worship and rest. This has profound meaning and challenge at once. It takes tremendous discipline, but it opens up into beauty. Honoring this in its fullness can be a lifelong project and more: the project of generation upon generation.

On the other hand, there are reasons to question this prohibition. In the case above, where a newcomer has come to the shul, it feels awkward to say, “Yes, I can give you resources, but you shouldn’t write them down.” Or: “If you come back next Shabbat, I’ll give you a list I have prepared in advance.” There are many other times when writing might be both reasonable and helpful. I was surprised, at my (European Progressive) shul here in Hungary, so see people taking notes during Shabbat study sessions. At a basic level, it makes sense; if you are studying something, don’t you want to try to remember it? True, some people remember better when they just listen (I am one of those), but others are greatly helped by being able to underline, jot down words, and so on.

Back to the question of stepping out of view to give someone a phone number: If we do these things in secret, doesn’t this obscure the situation? If people are actually writing, shouldn’t they do so openly, so that others who write know they aren’t alone? Maybe it’s time for a reassessment of writing, especially in the internet era, and during Covid, when it’s a way for people not only to keep in touch, but to lay out their thoughts, to come to terms (or not) with the world.

On the other hand, the public and private questions are truly separate. What you do in public (at shul, for instance) must take into account the expectations and rules of that particular public or community. What you do in private has to do with your own conscience and standards. This is why the private aspect of religion is so important; it allows you to follow what you truly believe, while also participating in a larger whole.

My own beliefs are ambivalent. On the one hand, I see reasons, both sacred and practical, to refrain from writing, and from numerous other activities, at specified times. In our incessantly active world, where we’re expected to be doing, doing, doing, a sacred time for stopping can bring deep restoration. It is extraordinary that Judaism explicitly builds and protects this time. On the other hand, I am uneasy with the taboo and its effects: the guilt, the shame. Some of my best writing happens when I have a stretch of time before me, not when I am caught up in the rush of the week. For the first forty-nine years of my life, Shabbat wasn’t even a concept for me. Since my shul-going days began, I have sometimes written on Shabbat, when the ideas were there and I didn’t think they could wait; when I had a pressing deadline; when I wanted or needed to contact someone; or when I had so much teaching preparation to do (preparing lessons, commenting on students’ writing) that refraining would have put undue pressure on Sundays, leading to exhaustion at the start of the teaching week. That said, when I had left Columbia Secondary School to write my second book, I deliberately structured my writing week so that Shabbat could be dedicated to shul, reading, and relaxing. I loved that rhythm–and had plenty of time for writing, since the weekdays were devoted to it.

I do not think God, if there is one, would condemn me for writing on Shabbat or any other time, unless I were writing mean and vile things. Yet I also believe that the day of rest is a gift that asks something of us not in return, but in response. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath comes to my memory again and again.

Back to the beginning: the public and the private, the greater and lesser degrees of observance, all offer something, for the simple reason that no one has the complete answer, not for others or for oneself. I brought in the example of writing because it affects us all and because it illustrates how perspectives and practices can differ, even among people together in a room. People inevitably judge each other to an extent; this results naturally from setting standards for oneself. But judgments can come with questions. In a world overfilled with certainties and dogma (just as it is overfilled with activity), perhaps the questions should come first: and first among these, the ones we ask inside the soul.

I made a few minor edits to this piece, in several stages, after posting it.

Inside and Outside

With the online teaching, I spend most of the day inside, but try to get outside at some point to run an errand or take a walk. Today I might be able to go on a bike ride, if I get the essential things done in the morning. Some combination of inside and outside is important, but the mixture varies from person to person. In July 2012, my dear friend Cybèle Troyan walked and biked with her husband and daughters from Le Puy en Velay, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain (a distance of 1,500 kilometers); her husband, Bennett Voyles, wrote a book (which I highly recommend) about their pilgrimage. On another occasion, without their daughters, Cybèle and Ben walked from Berlin to Rome. Such a long walk is out of the question for me because of the sun exposure, but I admire it and the love of the outdoors that comes with it. There’s an indoor aspect to such a walk, too; you immerse yourself in the outdoors and are therefore inside it.

I have been thinking about the inside and outside in writing and other art; when and how to speak without reservation, and when and how to hold back. Or what the “inside” and “outside” even are. There is no absolute answer, but I have been influenced recently by Jeremy Bendik-Keymer’s The Wind: an Unruly Living (about which I wrote the other day) and Will Arbery’s play Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which I had the fortune of watching online.

Last night I revised a sonnet I had written over three years ago; I realized that it was too enclosed and didn’t end with what it wanted to say. I changed just three lines of it, and there it was.

At other times obliqueness is not only necessary but truthful; the “direct” our “outward” truth will miss the point somehow. Instead, you need to wind around dimly in the dark.

David Brooks wrote a column titled “Nine Nonobvious Ways to Have Deeper Conversations.” While his advice seems reasonable, I find the formula irritating (some magic number, a list, and an assumption that people need this advice in the first place); moreover, I question the concept of “deep” conversations to begin with. There’s nothing inherently superior about discussing one’s private fears and hopes, or the meaning of life, nor is this necessarily deep. What I have learned over time, sometimes the hard way, is that both people have to want to take part in the conversation, whatever it is about. A sustained, voluntary conversation, even on a supposedly superficial topic, contains much more, and goes much farther, than a “deep” unwanted dialogue.

Back in the days when I used to communicate a lot by email (my emails now are occasional, not regular, except when related to work), I found it hard to sense the other person. Some of my correspondences were one-sided, but I would not realize this for a long time, and when I did, it was too late; in a few cases, the person had gotten deeply annoyed. Our current forms of communication run the opposite risk. They are too fragmented. I often can’t stand them. Sometimes people, out of the blue, will send me a link on Messenger without telling me what it is. I just ignore it, since it could contain a virus. But that’s the sort of thing that goes on.

What, then, if you are not having a conversation, but instead writing for readers, whoever they might be? Something similar still applies. You have to consider the person who might be reading. You don’t know who it is, but you have to uphold this person’s trust, by making the reading worthwhile, helping the reader where necessary, assuming intelligence (on both ends), and letting the work take shape between the two of you. It will always be between two.

The other night I took a walk and saw this tree against the sky. Both tree and sky bringing each other out, after dark. Inside and outside, surface and depth. If you go far enough, the outside becomes inside, as in Robert Frost’s “Come In.”

So no, I am not after “deep” conversations, since the sound of a car driving through puddles can surprise me with its depth, bringing back sounds of old rains, of days when I sat inside, watching the evening, watching my words stumble on the line of what they want to say.

I took these photos on two different walks last week.

When looking online for Frost’s “Come In,” I found David Sutton’s website and began reading his poems. An exciting discovery.

I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

“It is not easy to become a person”

This isn’t a book about the wind; it’s wind about the book, whirling around the words, through the the spaces. It’s a book that brings you into the wind, the wind that messes up your plans and allows you to relate to others through “deep politeness.” It is The Wind: An Unruly Living by Jeremy Bendik-Keymer. When reading it, I had the sense of coming upon a secret treasure, a wisdom quietly waiting but also singing, speaking, bellowing. Taking different forms, circumventing.

I knew the author long ago, when I was a graduate student at Yale and he was an undergraduate. Some of our conversations have stayed with me over the years; one in particular had such an effect on my thinking and understanding that I have returned to it in my mind many times. But I have not seen or spoken with him for over twenty-five years.

The book is not a philosophical tract, though it draws on the Stoics and other philosophers, but an exploration in intertwining forms, like wind itself–ruminating exposition and questioning, journal, poetry, contrapuntal texts, tilted text, etymologies, a passage that you have to turn upside down to read. It is not a self-help book; it offers no steps to follow, no pat answers. It does not sell anything, and in that way it stands out. That is at its heart; the book tears up our notions of self-possession and throws them into the wind. Why do we insist that we possess ourselves? What damage does this insistence do?

But it moves in a direction, even with its twists and loops; by the end I understand something I had not understood before. Something comes together that I had been puzzling over for years. At the risk of a slight spoiler, I will say a little about it right now. The book explains that it is not only possible, but essential to be practical in a true relation with another. We often think of practicality as self-serving, as a way of getting what we want. But to be considerate of another (and the author points out the Latin root of “considerate,” sidus, sideris, which means “star, heavenly body”), one must be practical as a human being: one must have the practices of listening, speaking, circumventing; treating people as people, not as problems or obstacles.

The book is more optimistic than I am about community. Community often makes me wary, so often have been the times that I have felt stifled in it. The best communities, in my experience, are those that do something together, but where the others also let each other be. A community must have respect for solitude, and not many do.

So I do not “agree” with everything in the book, and on the one hand, that isn’t the point; it isn’t a position paper. On the other hand, the disagreement is exactly the point; and at the risk of another little spoiler, I will say that toward the end, the book talks about how disagreement is essential to relation. It gives the two people something to consider together, something to work through. This does not mean that they will come to an agreement; who knows? But at the very least, they will come to understand each other better.

I used to have trouble stating my disagreement with people. I would just stay quiet or nod, since the disagreement felt so disruptive. Over time, I have become more outspoken, but I still have trouble sometimes, in the moment, saying “I don’t see things that way.” I might just let the matter go, which also means, to a degree, letting the relationship go. Two people cannot know each other if they do not let themselves disagree.

And so, as the book reminds us, “it is not easy to become a person.” Things like disagreement can take a lifetime.

Having read The Wind once, I like to pick it up and open it anywhere and read. It is that kind of book; once you know it, you can play with the sequence. The writing is so clear and bold that something will rise up from any passage, something that didn’t before.

I will write to Jeremy one of these days, probably soon. But what a great conversation, right here, with and within this book.

Respect for What Is Other and Different

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Since the killing of George Floyd by police officers–just one of a long line of incidents of police violence against black people–the public has come to recognize the need for profound changes. Not only the Black Lives Matter protests, but countless formal and informal discussions have taken up the topic around the clock. Yet within the drive for racial justice, an injustice is taking hold. People are being shamed, canceled, driven out of their jobs–for saying the wrong thing, saying the right thing but not strongly enough, or saying the right thing, strongly enough, but not coupling it with immediate and acceptable action. Such shaming hurts not only the individuals involved (including the shamers, who bring out the worst in themselves), not only democracy, language, and human dignity (a handful already), but even the protests. There will be no real progress against racism in America if people cannot participate with integrity, if they cannot speak their minds, doubts, and feelings, if they cannot hear others out. Instead there will be heartbreak as the movement fails not only the larger public, but its own participants and supporters.

On June 6, Mayor Jacob Frey was booed out of a protest rally in Minneapolis because he stated–upon being questioned repeatedly–that he did not support the full abolition of the police. You can watch the exchange here.

Another video suggests that many members of the crowd were not booing him but rather letting him pass through. If this is accurate, the booing does not represent the whole, but still drowns out everything else.

For the sake of what? Mayor Frey had already said that systemic change was needed. The woman with the microphone pressed him further by asking him repeatedly whether he supported defunding the police. What does that even mean? The Minneapolis City Council has since vowed to dismantle the police force, but no one knows what the end result will look like. In other words, a mayor was driven out of a rally–which he had come out to support–for the sake of something unknown.

The ganging up on perceived enemies has affected not only politics, but medicine, poetry, theater, art, science, sports, and other spheres. It is not exclusive to the left. Health workers and officials have been pushed out of their jobs and subjected to harassment and death threats by groups protesting coronavirus protection measures–groups that regard the coronavirus as a hoax perpetrated by Jews, for instance. According to The New York Times, Dr. Amy Acton, the state health director of Ohio, dealt with “anti-Semitic attacks and demonstrations by armed protesters on her front lawn,”. While widely different in political orientation and aim, groups from the right and left punish those who do not meet their demands exactly. Whether Trump sets an example here or follows an existing trend, he displays a similar tendency in his tweets to all the world.

Back to the left, or a segment of it. A letter to the Poetry Foundation–presented by thirty individuals, most of them Poetry Foundation Fellows, and signed by over 1,800 individuals–demanded that the Foundation replace its president, take specific action to eradicate racism and other discrimination, acknowledge the harm it has committed already, move toward redistributing its funds, and more. All signatories pledged not to work with the Poetry Foundation until the demands had been met “to a substantial degree.” The president, Henry Bienen, has already stepped down. The letter came in response to the organization’s antiracism statement, issued on June 3, which was not deemed strong enough:

The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine stand in solidarity with the Black community, and denounce injustice and systemic racism.

As an organization we recognize that there is much work to be done, and we are committed to engaging in this work to eradicate institutional racism. We acknowledge that real change takes time and dedication, and we are committed to making this a priority.

We believe in the strength and power of poetry to uplift in times of despair, and to empower and amplify the voices of this time, this moment.

The Guggenheim Museum and other museums, theaters all over the country, and other institutions are being told to espouse certain values, statements, and actions or face consequences. Those who delay in doing so are named on lists; those who comply are often suspected of not meaning it. A public Google spreadsheet, titled “Theaters Not Speaking Out” and open for anyone to edit, lists 486 theaters as of this writing. According to the Los Angeles Times:

More disturbing than the slowness to speak out, [Marie] Cisco said, was the language of the statements themselves, many of which fell back on pledges of support without acknowledgement of the historical diversity problem in theater or commitments to take concrete steps to support black artists.

As theaters posted statements to social media and emailed them to their supporters and the press, Cisco and her crowd-sourced contributors recorded when each company’s message went public, whether it cited Black Lives Matter specifically and whether the institution had donated to the cause or pledged “actionable commitments,” among other criteria.

Beyond the arts, countless corporations are churning out antiracism statements–and it is no surprise that some of them ring hollow. In a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” environment, many probably figure that they can mitigate their damnation somewhat with a consultant-crafted mission statement.

I think back on the words of O’Brien in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain.” As the tactics of shaming and demanding become a way of life, so does the damage. The tactics hurt much more than the targeted individuals and institutions.

First of all, they hurt democracy. If, to be treated as an acceptable human being or institution, one must adopt a prescribed line and course of action, then there can be no exchange of views. Without an exchange of views, there is no democracy. We have already seen this, in different form, with Trump’s long series of purges. Democracy depends on a plurality of opinions–an opportunity to discuss, deliberate, and decide. It also depends on a mixture of priorities. Social justice–as usually conceived–is not the only kind of justice worth fighting for, nor can it stand alone.  To be viable, it must consider and combine with other justices, including justice within an individual, justice between two, and public justice.

Second, these tactics hurt language. If those making the demands reject all criticism and challenges, they lose a chance to exercise imagination and logic. In a bizarre Rolling Stone article, EJ Dickson argues that Olivia Benson, a police officer in the TV show Law and Order, (that’s right, a fictional character) should be canceled because she appears as a good cop and could therefore confuse viewers about the true nature of the police force. What, should Marge Gunderson be canceled too for her smarts and tough charm? Should fictional characters from other professions–teachers, mayors, doctors, priests–be nixed as well, while we’re at it? And what price will the mind pay for this? How can anyone “reimagine” the police, for instance, if we are not supposed to imagine in the first place? (Not to mention that literature would disappear.)

Third, these tactics hurt human dignity–the presence, in each person, of something that goes beyond measure, beyond others’ knowledge. If people are so sure of their assessments of others, so quick to name enemies of the cause, then anyone, at any moment, can be flattened to enemy status; not only that, but the flattening will become a way of life and thought. The “I-Thou” relation as described by Martin Buber and referenced in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” becomes a thing of the past, a relic in an antique shop.

Fourth, these tactics hurt the Black Lives Matter protests themselves–not only over the longer term, but now. To accomplish something durable, protesters must be willing to work and speak with a range of people, including those who disagree with them on some points, express ideas differently, or have different priorities. Through such work, the protest efforts can grow and strengthen over time. But just within the coming months, the protesters’ conduct will influence the outcome of the election in swing states. Setting a principled example, showing regard for others, the protesters can help the country overcome Trump (along with his effects and affects) and move toward a saner and kinder world.

The alternative–the extreme self-righteousness, the thronged castigation of dissenters–will dishonor the protests, harm decent people, and destroy the very things worth fighting for.

Painting: Marc Chagall, The Revolution (1937). “I think the Revolution could be a great thing if it retained its respect for what is other and different,” Chagall had written in My Life (1923).

Correction: The Minneapolis rally mentioned here took place on June 6, not June 7.

Update: See “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published online in Harper’s on July 7. It will also appear in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue.

Bike Rides and Their Layers

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One thing I love about long bike rides is that they allow me to think without interference. I can sift through many things over those hours. Another thing I love is the discovery: exploring towns and countryside, taking detours here and there. A third is the return: coming to know a place better through visiting it again and again. Then these three things start to play with each other in counterpoint: the thinking, exploring, and return, so that the bike ride becomes a kind of music.

Music! someone might say. What are you doing talking about music? There’s no time for that. You should be out on the streets protesting.

But music is not an escape. It is protest of its own kind. It demands and allows truth.

I stayed in Vajdácska, at the bed-and-breakfast I have visited four times now, in four consecutive years. The owners are welcoming, the food is delicious, and the place is lovely and full of original touches. The photo at the top was the view from my window. Here, below, is a view from about 300 meters away. (The church on the left is Hungarian Greek Catholic; the one on the right, Protestant.)

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In 2017, when I first visited, I biked around the surrounding towns and villages. In 2018 and 2019, I bicycled up to Kassa (Košice) and took a train back; this time, I biked to Tokaj and back. Tokaj is famous for its wines, especially sweet white wine–but it is the dry Furmint that especially appeals to me.  Anyway, I had more than one reason for going to Tokaj: I wanted to stay within Hungary, see Tokaj itself, see what this southbound route was like, and start figuring out a future bike trip–about two and a half days long–from Szolnok to Vajdácska.

But this bike ride took me beyond what I had expected. In Vámosújfalu, I noticed that every house had a well next to it. That is, everyone drew their own water. The next village, Olaszliszka, had something magical about it, but I didn’t start to understand it until the way back. Then in Szegilong there were storks in nests, one after another, all of them feeding their young. (There had been storks before, but this was the first time that I saw them in a row.)

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As I drew closer to Tokaj, I started seeing wineries and vineyards, one after another.

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Then Tokaj itself–a place where you were invited to take a rest and enjoy yourself. A statue of Bacchus, by the sculptor Péter Szanyi, sets the mood in the town square. (Tokaj legends include a cult of Bacchus, thanks in part to the Jesuit teacher and poet Imre Marotti.)

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I had some goulash at the Bacchus Restaurant, then visited a wine cellar (the Borostyán Pince, over 350 years old), where I bought some Furmint and talked for a while with the owner, who showed me the currency he had received from visitors from around the world and asked me many questions about how I ended up coming to Hungary to live and teach. (All the conversations on this trip were in Hungarian.)

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So far, this sounds more or less like a typical tourist trip, or tourist bike trip. But I had been noticing some other things too. When I entered Tokaj, I passed by a large Jewish cemetery, larger than the one in Sátoraljaújhely. It was closed, so I just looked at it for a few minutes. (To take this picture, I passed my hands through the gate.)

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On the way back, I was thinking about how some of the villages were entirely inhabited by Roma people (“Gypsies”), others by white Hungarians, others by both. I thought about how each village had its own history–sometimes a violent history–of ethnic conflict. I didn’t know anything yet about Olaszliszka, but on the way back, I took a little more time to look at it. It seemed to be all Roma–I saw children playing in the streets, parents pushing their babies in strollers, teenagers chatting outside a corner store. I saw medieval ruins overgrown with greenery.

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I saw a sign pointing the way to a Jewish synagogue and cemetery–and biked in that direction but found nothing. Later I learned that this was a famous center of Hungarian Hasidism–where the first Lisker Rebbe, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Friedman, lived. The village apparently still has a memorial synagogue site.

The village was also the site of a murder in 2006, which became part of the subject of a play by Szilárd Borbély. A white Hungarian biology teacher, Lajos Szögi, was driving through with his two daughters when his car hit a little Roma girl, who fell down but was unharmed. The family attacked the man and beat him to death in front of his daughters. The father of the little girl later received a life sentence; all the others involved received stiff punishments. There have been some discussions of why this happened, but for many, the incident confirmed existing prejudice and hatred. (There has been repeated violence against Roma people too.)

A village like this keeps everything secret and tells all. Knowing nothing of this yet, I stopped to listen to the swooping birds. I hope to go back and see more, including the synagogue memorial.

Before and after, I was thinking about the U.S., about police violence, about the protests. I support the protests in that they call out truths and necessities. I do not stand with protesters who shame and debase people who disagree with them even in part (for instance, those who booed and shamed Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis when he said that he did not support abolishing the police force). This leads to no good; it alienates some possible allies and coerces others into false agreement. It makes deliberation impossible.

On the other hand, protests need their fire. Many protesters are understandably tired of moderate arguments; too often moderation has squirmed away from its promises.

The next day, on my way to the Sárospatak train station, I passed by a rose garden. It was beautiful, so I stopped. The gardener saw me and cut a rose for me. I thanked him and headed on. Then I turned back and asked him if he would take a picture. He obliged. (There is much more to say about Sárospatak, and far more to learn.)

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I wondered, throughout the trip, whether my own uncertainty (over politics and many other things) was a sign of strength or weakness. I don’t think I can answer that yet (or maybe ever). But for better or worse, uncertainty is part of what I do, what I have to offer. I know that I don’t know the entirety of another person, a country, myself, or a crumbling building. But I want to come back and learn more.

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

Wending Its Way to Readers

mindovermemesWhen you write a book, there’s great excitement and anticipation around its publication. Who will read it? How will they respond to it? Then come the book events. Then the reviews–maybe many, maybe few. A few responses from friends. Then a few interviews. Then the wait. Sometimes a long silence.

My book events–in Dallas, Budapest, Szolnok, and New York–were dreamy and lively. I couldn’t have wished for better. They come back as happy memories. The responsible reviews were encouraging too. (A few Goodreads reviews were irresponsible in that their authors showed no signs of having read the book or knowing what it was about.) But overall, the book went under the radar.

People have so much to read, they are so bombarded with stuff, that they don’t rush to read your book unless they have a particular interest in it or have been hearing about it from everyone. That is why so many publishers and publicists compete to create “buzz” around a book even before it is published.

My book opposes buzz, though; that’s part of its point. It is about thinking carefully about what you want to say and saying it on your own terms, in your own time. It is about questioning those catchwords and phrases–“the team,” “creativity,” “the good fit,” “toxic people,” and others–that do so much damage when thrown about carelessly.  It is about recognizing that we don’t have the last word about the people around us, the ways to lead life, or the meaning of a text.

So it was a delight to be interviewed by Marci Mazzarotto at the New Books Network. She is an Assistant Professor of Digital Communication at Georgian Court University in New Jersey. We had an unrushed, enjoyable conversation about the book and its ideas. The podcast appeared online today.

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A good interview brings out some new aspect of a book or author, or at least something that hasn’t been emphasized yet. In this case, we talked about the presence or absence of empathy in language. For instance, when people write others off as “toxic,” they often haven’t taken the trouble to speak with them, learn who they are, or address the particular problem at hand. To call someone “toxic” is to say, “I don’t have to bother with you.”

Empathy is a tricky matter. It can bring its own illusions. But as a rejection of over-certainty about others, it is good. As an acknowledgment that others cannot be summed up, that they have lives and thoughts of their own, it can help us out of many errors.

The book was written well before COVID-19 appeared, but today I notice various ways of writing off the disease–not by calling it or its victims “toxic,” but by somehow describing those affected in a way that separates them. It’s tempting to believe that the virus comes just to the old, the sick, the faraway–as though anyone could escape any of those states with just a bit of willpower. It is easy to trick yourself into this kind of thinking, even in mild forms, until you know someone who has been ill.

When I reread the book now, I see that it says important things that hold up over time. There are a few superfluous sentences and phrases that I would cut today, but they don’t overwhelm the text. In any case, it is wending its way to readers, and I have thoughts for the next book.

Don’t Take This Advice

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I see all kinds of advice online about how to handle the coronavirus isolation. Some articles tell you to get in touch with more people, to do more things in Zoom groups, to join more clubs. Others tell you how to say “no” to invitations and claim some space for yourself. What they all have in common is an assumption that people need to be told how to lead their lives.

Why this barrage of advice? Adulthood is full of laws, rules, and limitations, so shouldn’t people be able to make the most of what freedom they have? Why hand it over to those eager advice-givers who don’t know a thing about you?

In particular, isn’t it each person’s prerogative to find the combination of aloneness and company, of solitude and companionship, that suits him or her? Each person is different in this matter. The divisions do not fall along introvert/extravert lines; many self-described introverts may find themselves lonely, whereas many self-described extraverts may need a break from others. It has more to do with your existing obligations and with what you actually want.

An example: If you teach online, you have built-in, daily online contact with others-not only with your students, but also with your colleagues and others. So you may not be eager for Zoom chats in your free time. In addition, if you have things that you need to do on your own, with minimal distractions, then you might also want to limit your online social activity. On top of that, if you actually enjoy doing things alone, or offline, or both, there’s yet another reason not to leap into every virtual club or happy hour.

But there are other considerations too, including where and how you may be needed. If you are part of an organization that is turning toward online events, then you may be expected, and may expect yourself, to contribute something. That means that even more of your time is already allotted online–so the free time is even scarcer and matters even more.

There are different ways, also, of being in touch with others online. Some people prefer video conversation or text chat; others (like myself) prefer audio or email. Some prefer quick, immediate chats; others like to take time between messages. So there are many ways to do these things, not just one–and if there seems to be a trend toward one, well, no one has to be part of the trend, especially not in free time.

So, my advice is, don’t worry about all the advice that the world is giving you, unless you sorely need it! Look at your own obligations and wishes, and make your own choices, where choices are possible.

But then each of us has times when we need advice–and if that is true for you, just disregard this advice against taking advice! Advice, though, has built-in limitations. If it comes from a stranger, it lacks insight into your particular situation. If it comes from someone who knows you, it lacks objectivity. Still, every so often, a gem of advice comes along, objective or not. We know it by its truth. There are pieces of advice that I have carried with me for years.

But I think that good advice comes from wisdom, which in turn comes from learning, listening, and discerning over time. Good advice is not formulaic; it takes into account the many possibilities and uncertainties surrounding another person. But when it needs to be strong, it is.

So the upshot is: Do what you want and need. Take advice, don’t take advice. Have fun with the taking and not taking. When the time comes, give some careful advice of your own, keeping in mind that it might not be right.

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I took these photos yesterday by the Tisza and the Zagyva.

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

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

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

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

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

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

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

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

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

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

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

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

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

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

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

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

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