Stretches of Time, and Illusions of Unimportance

The winter break is coming to an end, and as usual, the thing I’ll miss most about it is the stretch of time, the room for doing things (or not) without rush or interruption. But some of this can be brought into the everyday. The time is sometimes there. Not always, but when so, it can be taken.

It was a great treat last night to go to Budapest for a “törzshely” concert evening featuring Tomi Gimpel and Grand Bleu, with Gábor Molnár officiating. This was one of a series of informal concerts set up to benefit beloved small pubs and clubs in Budapest. Gábor Molnár and Cz.K. Sebő have also played at events I have attended in this series. The atmosphere is friendly, and with these lineups, you can’t go wrong. Grand Bleu was fantastic. I enjoyed Tomi Gimpel too; he told funny stories around his songs. (I especially enjoyed the story about how he won a prize for setting an Attila József poem to song, when he had never done this—they had mistaken the lyrics of his József-themed song for a József poem.)

I got to the area early so as not to be late and so as to have a burrito beforehand. I had enough time for a short walk, so I walked up the hill (in Buda). This, to the left, was a picture I took during the walk.

The event was great, and afterwards I took the 11:43 train back and read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (well worth the lug). I have just started, but I am enjoying it and finding it oddly comforting. “Comforting” is an odd word to use for the book, and probably not one he would have liked, but I think others know what I mean. It’s discomfiting and disturbing too; there’s nothing placid about it. But in that book the non-placidness has a home, and that might be what’s comforting about it. (So far.)

But for the most part I spent vacation at home: translating, writing, reading, listening to music, recording And that leads to the second theme of this post: illusions of unimportance.

Our internet and celebrity cultures have shamed us into thinking that if we’re not famous, we’re deficient. Look at those “important” people doing “important” things! Look at all the “important” people who gave eulogies at David Foster Wallace’s funeral! Look how many followers other people have! Look how few reviews your book has gotten! Look how few people care what you do, unless you post a picture of a cat!

This is a diseased attitude, and it spreads outward and inward. It throws off our balance and perception, affecting people who know better (famous and unfamous alike). Now, hold on, I am not looking for comforting clichés like “It’s who you are as a person that matters,” “Famous people are unhappy,” or “But your work is appreciated!” Hold on, give me room to sort this out.

Fame, recognition, popularity (all slightly different from each other, but related) can come in response to actual quality. Not only that, but they can lead to money, opportunities, invitations, introductions to others.

But often these have nothing to do with the most important things going on in our lives. Just this past week, a new friend underwent cancer surgery. Another friend lost a family member suddenly. Who cares about fame in these situations, or even the daily ups and downs that we all have?

But there’s more. Success and fame, even when well deserved, can confuse, bewilder, distort.

In his 1947 essay “The Catastrophe of Success,” Tennessee Williams wrote, “You know, then, theat the public Somebody you are when you ‘have a name’ is a fiction created with mirrors and that the only somebody worth being is the solitary and unseen you that existed from your first breath and which is the sum of your actions and so is constantly in a state of becoming under your own volition—and knowing these things, you can even survive the catastrophe of Success!”

He was right; if you are “successful” in the eyes of the world, you must not take it too much to heart, because it has little or nothing to do with your work or life, suffering or joy. Fame comes in response to something static, something already made, whereas you are continually coming into being.

Suppose you have several projects. One of them has a big following, another a much smaller one. Is the project with the smaller following inferior? Not necessarily; it might be a place where you take certain risks with your work. The size of the crowd is not the measure, even if at times it tells you something. But we have been insistently conditioned to think that “likes” and “hearts” and follower numbers are something to take seriously, especially on the grander scale.

And how many people have had their work more or less ignored during their lifetime? Popularity feeds itself. People often latch onto things (partly) because they are already popular. People often feel insecure about using their own judgement, listening to something, reading something because it appeals to them, not because others are doing so. So many people and their work get ignored, simply because they aren’t popular.

Beyond that, everyone has a life that goes far beyond their work, or at least far beyond what others perceive as their work. How many of us know what is going on even with our close friends? Some things we will know, others not. A person has many levels and layers. Are the unknown, private levels less important? Sometimes they are the most important, sometimes we don’t know, have no way of knowing, how important they are.

What makes something important, anyway? What does it mean for something to be important? Does it mean there’s a clamor around it? Or does it mean, rather, that a certain necessity moves it, sometimes in the background, sometimes without anyone noticing?

Returning to Wallace, here is a quote from The Pale King, spoken, I think, by a substitute instructor: “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is.” A little later: “Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”

This is a character speaking, not Wallace himself. Quotes like these often get ripped out of context and misused as life wisdoms; moreover, any maxim like this has its limitations and countermaxims. One could just as well say that the important things in life are the things that reach others.

But maybe Wallace’s character is talking about the willingness to do things without knowing exactly how important they are, without needing the stamp of acclaim, even from ourselves.

If importance continually takes shape, if we ourselves cannot define it fully, if our sense of something’s importance is only approximate, then maybe importance (internal or external) isn’t the main guide. It isn’t enough to say, “What matters is that it be important to me.” I might not know fully what is important to me.

It might make more sense to set aside the importance or its lack (not completely, just enough so as not to get swept up in it), and do some combination of what I have to do, what I want, what others have asked of me, what I don’t even know I am doing, and what I one day will no longer do—and all of this without a preponderance of the “I.” No one finds the perfect combination of these five; there is none. We (simply or not so simply) do our best, without fully knowing what that means.

Credits: First photo by me, taken last night. Second photo by Mark Thompson.

So before you

On Individualism (a Brief and Partial Defense)

Yesterday I was talking with someone who had lived in the U.S. for a few years but ultimately didn’t like it there and moved back to Europe. I asked him what in particular he didn’t like. He said that it was the individualism. There wasn’t time for him to explain what he meant, so he gave a specific example: the lack of public transportation. I agree with that particular point. In much of the U.S., you need a car to get around (with reasonable swiftness). I have managed quite well without a car in New Haven, San Francisco, and NYC, but those are exceptions. Morever, it’s difficult to travel from one part of the country to another without a car (or without flying); trains are expensive and don’t necessarily go anywhere near your destination. Buses can be very slow. In Europe overall, it’s much easier to live without a car (though people buy and use cars anyway).

But just as he didn’t have a chance to explain his point more thoroughly, I didn’t have a chance to speak up for certain kinds of individualism. Individualism often gets a bad rap, not only in Europe but in the U.S. too. People often oppose it to “community,” “cooperation,” and so forth, as though selfishness and individualism were one and the same.

But there are different kinds of individualism. There is indeed the “me, me, me” kind, whose agitation is fed by the belief that you (“I”) either are the center of the universe or should be. That your job is to grab whatever you can for yourself, the rest of the world be damned.

A different kind of individualism, one that I cherish, doesn’t deny or trample on others. Instead, it asserts that in this short span of life, I can do what seems best to me or what suits me best, even if the crowd doesn’t approve of it. This kind of individualism can be found in American poets, writers of fiction and nonfiction (and their overlap), songwriters, scientists, athletes, librarians, and many others. I find this kind of individualism in Hungary too, but it isn’t quite as embedded in the way of life. There’s a respect for privacy here—people more or less leave each other alone—but there’s also an expectation that you follow certain norms, and a kind of pity when you don’t. (This is less true in Budapest and other large cities than elsewhere.)

If there’s something I especially love and miss about the U.S., it’s the spirit of finding your own way. (By the way, I hear this spirit in the music I love here in Hungary—in Cz.K. Sebő, Platon Karataev, and others.) It isn’t always present in the U.S. But I share it with friends and colleagues there. “Your own way” isn’t really your own; none of this is really your own or mine. We’re all subject to influences, forces, circumstances that we might not even notice. Moreover, whatever we do is not only for ourselves; it pours out into the world. The self isn’t even the point. But to the extent that each of us gets to choose what to do with our lives, this choice, with all its limitations and pitfalls, is worth defending to the end.

The Slowness in the Fastness

People often say that I am going all over the place, always traveling somewhere. That is only partly true; I go to Budapest often, and to other places sometimes, but also often need to go nowhere at all. The slow, still days are some of my favorites, the times when, even if I get nothing done, things start to take shape.

But motion and stillness can be found in each other. Last week I went to Zemplén for just one day (overnight); it was a quick trip, but also quiet and peaceful. The picture above shows the beloved Kisdiófa Panzió és Vendéglő, the bed-and-breakfast place where I stayed for the fifth time; here I was returning to it after my evening walk.

And sometimes when, on the surface, I am doing nothing or close to nothing, so much is happening, whether in the world around me or in my head, that it seems that a fast day is being funnelled through a slow seive, a kind of eternity hourglass.

This is true for everyone, I think; the way we describe time and speed are deceptive, since we only partly understand what they are. At one point in Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive (Eleven éjszaka in Hungarian), one of the characters, Doc, starts talking about how one day we will discover that there are time waves, just as there are light and sound waves. This sounds both silly and marvelously wise; there are things about time we don’t know. We often think of time as a construct, a way of measuring motion, velocity, acceleration. But what if it exists outside of our own conception of it, with its own properties? What if time could disintegrate over time? What if time could lose its directionality and duration?

These questions have been raised many times: in physics, poetry, music, and daydreaming. They are not frivolous; they point to the uncertainties surrounding time.

Does this have anything to do with paradoxes of fastness and slowness? Yes and no. What does it mean for a day to be fast or slow? Typically, if a lot happens within it, it is perceived as fast; if a little, then slow. But a day could have an inherent tempo, regardless of what we fill it with, regardless of the motions of the clocks or even the rotation of the planet. Or there could be levels and layers of time, dimensions within time. These possibilities are palpable somehow. Even over morning coffee, I get a shivering intuition that time tingles around us and is yet to be discovered.

Getting What You Want

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art credit: Goshawk by Alan M. Hunt.

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

Time, Time, Time

Getting older (and older and older) is a strange thing; when you’re young, you don’t necessarily know that you’re young (I didn’t, in my twenties and thirties), and then later you see that twenty years went by, just like that, and now you don’t feel old, but for most facts and purposes, and in the eyes of the world, you are. That doesn’t get in the way of much, at least not until the body and mind start to break down, but you know now that you have limited time to work with. That said, a lot can happen during these years: for most of my life I have lived with urgency, but now I do better things with it than before.

But four years go by in what feels like a few months. Four years ago today, and in the two preceding days, I decided to come to Szolnok to teach. I first learned about the opportunity on August 4, 2017—and wrote immediately to Mary Rose, the director of the Central European Teaching Program. In the few days that followed, I looked into it and made up my mind to do it. (I was pretty sure of it that very day, but it was definite, at least in my mind, by August 6.) I had no idea of all the things that would happen over these four years: the teaching, translating, writing, bike rides, music, friendship. What happy years these have been—and they seem like the beginning of much more.

Even twenty years don’t seem so long. Twenty years ago (not exactly, but more or less) I recorded my EP O Octopus at the wonderful analog studio Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. I didn’t release it, because I still had so many CDs from my earlier (homemade) release that I didn’t want to end up with even more boxes. Twenty years later, I think it was actually pretty good; I have uploaded it to YouTube and Bandcamp. All the pressure is off; I don’t have to promote it, but people can listen to it if they like.

Getting older is sometimes easy, sometimes difficult. The easy part is that I have grown stronger over time, with a much clearer sense of what I am doing in the world, and a basic joy in it. The difficult part is that I wish I had at least some of this a few decades ago. I had a terrible lack of confidence—not intellectually, but in other areas of my life, from simple interactions to musical endeavors. Now the confidence has grown, but years have gone by.

This happens to everyone to some degree, but I think my lack of confidence was a bit more than the usual. To others who suffer from that, I can only say: confidence comes from something other than self-affirmation or external praise. It comes from some willingness to be one of billions of people, doing your best and knowing it won’t be perfect: knowing that despite our illusions and fantasies, everyone is filled with imperfections, no one has the answers, and it’s on each of us to do what we can with what we have. But those are rational words, and confidence comes from something else, from daily walking and building. Could it have come to me sooner? Maybe, if I had known what it was.

Not that a person has to be overtly or inwardly confident all the time; there are times of self-doubt, self-criticism, wavering, guilt, regret, shyness. But you don’t have to condemn yourself for these things. That’s really what confidence is about: letting all these things have their place, without mistaking them for the whole. Taking life’s different textures.

I think of the end of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I have quoted here before:

Her teaching had a reflex action upon herself, insomuch that she thought she could perceive no great personal difference between being respected in the nether parts of Casterbridge and glorified at the uppermost end of the social world. Her position was, indeed, to a marked degree one that, in the common phrase, afforded much to be thankful for. That she was not demonstratively thankful was no fault of hers. Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transmit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers. But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who had deserved much more. And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquility had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.

How to Deal with the Void

Views of space reveal anything but a void—there’s more out there than we will ever come close to knowing—but the void I’m about to discuss is not outer space. It’s a void closer to home: the void that anyone has felt who has “put something out there” (on the internet or anywhere) and gotten no response at all. This can happen to anyone, regardless of their degree of fame. Or at least some version of it can happen. Maybe a famous person always gets responses of some kind, but some of them feel much more real than others. That, at times, can be more depressing than getting no response at all. Anyway, the void, from one angle, makes no sense. Out of the billions of people in the world, and the many millions who could potentially respond to this thing, why would no one bother to do so? What is going on? Is it the sheer overload of stuff that everyone’s expected to take in? Is it a habit of indifference? Lack of interest? Lack of time?

But the first question to ask is: Is it really a void? Most of the time, if we think about it, we realize that people have been responding to what we do, what we make, what we post. Maybe not in huge numbers, but those who do respond, do so genuinely. Waxing overdramatic and telling ourselves that “we’re talking to a void” will just reinforce the solipsism that hurts. There is often someone listening, or reading, or looking.

True, but sometimes it still feels like a void. That is fine. But aside from improving your own work and finding ways to reach more people with it, there’s only one way to respond: by cracking the void yourself, by taking in others’ work, by reading, listening, watching. Every time you do this, you give a work, and the person behind it, an audience. And in doing so, you and the work together create something other than a void.

The void does not get erased, though. It isn’t the internet, though the internet exacerbates the anxiety. On the one hand, it’s fate, and on the other, a fundamental feeling. The fate is everyone’s. We all die one day, and whether or not our own works and actions survive us, we descend into nothingness of some kind. That is true even if you believe in an afterlife. The afterlife transcends the nothingness, but the nothingness is still there. We will never come back.

The feeling is real too: no matter how full our lives are, we’re always dealing with the abyss in some way: maybe up close, maybe from a distance, maybe consciously, maybe unconsciously. We know that what we do matters intensely, and we also know that it does not; it will all be gone one day, and we’re just one speck in the human population, which in turn is a speck in space. The void is not just the silence from the world. The void is inside us, at the center of our knowledge and intuition.

Cz.K. Sebő’s song “First Snow,” one of my favorites, has something to do with this theme, so I recommend it here, both for that reason and for itself.

So a second response, which can accompany the first, is to acknowledge the void. Instead of trying to get rid of it, laugh and cry into it, say whatever you want to it, sing into it.

And there the fun begins. Because the void is there, but it’s not the only thing there. Music exists alongside it. Maybe that’s what heaven is: the music that gleams on the edge of the void and admits anyone who hears it.

Image credit: Hubble Extreme Deep Field NASA/ESA, courtesy of Vox.

Thoughts on Privilege

Any discussion of privilege has to make room for three contrasting truths. Every society, every economy, every political system favors some groups over others in unjustified and sometimes brutal ways. It is essential to examine and address this without flinching. At the same time, the picture is more complicated than we may realize; groups are not internally uniform, nor is their external treatment; neither of these can be understood properly without a careful study of history. Beyond that, no one knows the sum total of another person. We have little idea what those around us have gone through, good, bad, or mixed. Nor are they obliged to tell us. Any discussion of privilege must respect privacy and the unknown.

Everyone’s life contains a mixture of advantages and setbacks. There is no way to calculate the sum total. That doesn’t mean group privilege, such as privilege resulting from one’s race, class, or sex, should be ignored. It can just be approached discerningly.

Privilege comes in many different forms. Some of it is accorded to us, or withheld from us, on account of our race, class, sex, sexual orientation, or even looks or mannerisms. (David Brooks has a compelling opinion piece on “lookism.”) Some of it comes to us in response to things we do. Some responds to how we see the world. It’s hard to isolate the things that we received passively, through no work of our own, from the ones we and those around us had a hand in. One of the biggest complications here is that parents tend to want every privilege in the world for their children. Even if they try to make their children aware of the privilege, they would not want to take it away.

What some people call privilege, others call blessings; yet the two words have profoundly different connotations. Blessings come from God or from unnamed sources; they may be earned or unearned, but a person is supposed to see them, give thanks for them, rejoice in them. Privilege, on the other hand, is a distinctly secular concept. It comes from the world, not from God, and while one can feel grateful for privilege, it’s generally considered wrong to rejoice in it, because it comes at someone else’s expense. The goal of at least some discussions of privilege is to change the system of distribution.

But privilege is only partly objective. Two people in near-identical circumstances can have opposite views of their fortune, and their views can change considerably over time. This does not erase the circumstances themselves, buf it adds a twist to them.

Once you have identified some privileges and inequalities, what then? Efforts to rectify the latter can have terrible (or, at best, mixed) consequences. Social justice movements can be myopic, ignoring some of the injustices in their midst. Take, for example, the teaching profession in the U.S. In many parts of the country, teachers and their unions have succeeded, over time, in securing higher salaries. But in return for these raises and new salary scales, they have agreed to do additional work, such as daily meetings, hall and cafeteria monitoring, regular parental contact, detailed documentation of everything. The job can be so exhausting and packed that it leaves little time for what should be at its heart: thinking about the subject matter and considering how to teach it. The privilege of the higher salary comes at the expense of contemplation. Here in Hungary I have a drastically lower salary than I would in the U.S., but I have considerable freedom and flexibility (as well as a curriculum, mind you), which allow me to do my work better. I would not exchange that for more money. Teachers should be paid more here, much more, but we should be careful about what we agree to give in return.

Discussions of privilege should involve the following questions: What do we mean by privilege? How might our view of it be limited or distorted? How much do we know of another person’s privilege or lack thereof, or even our own? What are we hoping to accomplish? What might be some unintended consequences of our efforts? Who is “we” here? Such questions, if taken up boldly and thoughtfully, would deepen the discussion and action.

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. 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 can read, though I sometimes have to go at 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

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

  • 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 April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

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

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

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

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

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

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

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

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

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

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

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

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