Reputation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Painting: Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam.

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

“Oh come meet me there”: Cz.K. Sebő at the TRIP Terasz

This concert—by Cz.K. Sebő on the Trip Terasz on Friday night—stands out among all the concerts I remember in my life. It left me sad, but in an uplifting way. It opened something up, taught me something, and filled my mind with music that stayed and played onward.

I arrived a little before 4 (the concert started at 7, but the venue had encouraged people to arrive early) and walked around until it was possible to go in. I thought maybe I had arrived much too early, but just minutes later, more people came, and then more and more. So it was wise, not to mention tranquil, to spend a late afternoon on the deck of a stationary ship on the Danube, listening to the sound of water, wind, and traffic. I read Csenger Kertai’s poetry collection Hogy nekem jó legyen from cover to cover, starting at the end, and spent time with particular poems, including “Az elhagyatottságról,” “Dokkolás,” and “A helytartó és a rabszolga.” Now comes the slow reading with the dictionary, but at least I got a feel for the rhythms and some of the meaning.

I was then joined at the table by two friendly people, Zsuzsanna and Timi Mesi, who recognized me from various online comments and who love Sebő’s music. As it happened, Zsuzsanna had her own copy of the Kertai collection with her! Soon Zsuzsanna’s husband joined us too. Now we were a lively table, until the music started and we hushed.

Sebő’s music starts with simplicity and humility, but those are complicated words and can only be part of a complicated reality. Nobody is completely simple or humble. What I mean is that he doesn’t show off, doesn’t rush to the peaks of the songs. He starts playing and lets the songs build on their own. And then when they build, it’s so true that it can break you open. This simplicity can take years to find; you have to play the instrument well and know your voice. Even more than that, you have to be willing to let the music show itself, unforced, both when you write it and when you perform it.

The humility has to do with his admiration of others’ music. This is part of the Platon Karataev foundation too: the knowledge that there’s music greater than their own, but the willingness to give what they have and to keep on searching. The second part of the concert was all covers—carefully chosen and played, and beautiful to the bones. Not for a second does he imitate the author of the original; he sings it as himself. But more about that in a moment.

The place had filled up, and he started out with a thrilling performance of “Eternal Home” (one of the bonus tracks from his Junction EP). Then came “Fear from passing,” then (I think) “Disguise,” then “Junction.” After that, I lose track of the order, but I know two new songs were in there, including “Someday” and one with a Pilinszky poem for the lyrics, in English translation (I believe the poem was “A pokol hetedik kőre,” but I might be wrong). He played “Chamomile,” “Wide Eyes,” “Hart” (which blurred my sight for a while there), “On a fine day,” “Out of Words,” and “The Fox in the Holt,” and there we were, with the sun going down, the water lapping, standing kayakers rowing by, the breeze getting chillier, and these favorite songs living themselves out as they never would again, not in that exact way. The cold was getting a bit stiff; in the break between sets, someone gave him a blanket.

For the second part, he had so much planned, but didn’t get to all of it because the air got still colder. Still, he played at least ten gorgeous covers: first “Purple Rain” (which opened up the song for me, it was so relaxed and genuine), then “In a Year of 13 Moons” by Current Joys, then “Carry on” by Willy Mason, then again I lose track of the order, but one of my favorites was “Rejtelmek” by the Sebő Együttes, whose lyrics are an Attila József poem, and which Sebő had heard many times in his childhood. Another favorite was “The Immigrant Lad” by Eric Burdon and the Animals. He played Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Elvis’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” one faster song whose name I don’t know, another song I don’t know (Damien Jurado must have been in there somewhere, but I don’t know where), and then, to finish things off, a Platon Karataev song in Hungarian, one that I have not heard before unless they played it at Budapest Park in August. (In the beginning, the guitar reminds me of “Fear from passing,” but then it takes a different direction.) You could hear, throughout the set, that these songs had guided his own music in one way or another.

I am grateful that he told us what the songs were. (I missed a few titles when he said them, but he said them.) There was no attitude of “You should know what song this is, and if you don’t, you’re dumb.” The audience didn’t have to prove anything. Being there and listening was enough. I think that’s another part of the humility: being willing to accept your listeners as they are, whoever they are, provided they are listening. Young, old, friends, strangers, cool, awkward, lively, quiet, a great musician can allow for them all, and so can the music.

I think a lot of us felt the greatness of this music and this concert. At my table, that was definitely the case. It’s greatness that comes, in part, from not having to be great, not needing to force or feign.

He mentioned that he was going to be playing solo less and less, since future concerts would include a drummer and a bassist. I would wish for both kinds of concerts; a solo concert is unadorned and direct, but I can understand that when other musicians play with you, you have more possibilities of sound and timing.

After the concert ended, I stayed around for a few minutes, but then left so that I could catch the 9:50 train back to Szolnok, a slow local train that gave me time to think back on the concert and hear the songs in my mind, and all the things they were evoking.

I will end this with the concert’s beginning, “Eternal Home,” which led me to start listening to Blaze Foley. Here’s the second verse and chorus:


Whatever is around me
Whatever makes me blind
Balance and composure sleeps inside
And it’s not so hard to find

When I’m walking in the city
And I’m to lose my mind
I’m listening to some Blaze Foley songs
And leave this world behind

Oh come meet me there,
Let’s jump into that blunted head,
Your home is eternal there
Go deep and shut the world out.

That is what happens at a concert like this, if there is any concert like this. You find your eternal home, and you know you can find it again.

I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it. The most recent edits were on June 1.

Update: Watch and listen to this video of Sebő playing his new song “Someday” in a session for the Faded Sun, and read the accompanying interview (in Hungarian).

Back in the World

Tonight young people are hanging out along the Tisza, as in the old days, playing their boomtubes, and restaurants, cinemas, concert halls, and other places are open. I went to the Tisza Mozi to see the film Spirál (the Hungarian/Romanian film directed by Cecília Felméri and starring Diána Magdolna Kiss, Bogdan Dumitrache, and Alexandra Borbély. I found the film beautiful and strange, a dance of life and death. The actors were outstanding, particularly Dumitrache, and the cinematography dreamy and colorful. The music, composed by Ádám Balázs, made me stay past the end of the credits. I would go see it again.

I was the only person watching this particular screening. It had been a long time since a film was shown in that room. There was a little technical problem at the beginning, but the Tisza Mozi staff worked to resolve it quickly, and apologized to me after the film. No apology was needed. I was so happy to see it and to be back in the world.

Upon leaving, I walked through the terrace, where I ran into a colleague and said hello. The terrace was filled with people. It brought back memories of Marcell Bajnai’s concert back in August. Speaking of which, there’s a great video of one of the songs from that concert, “Kopog a szív.”

To be admitted indoors to the places that reopened today, you have to show proof of immunity or vaccination. This is controversial for numerous reasons (some people don’t want a vaccine, some have been but haven’t received their card yet, some want a vaccine but haven’t been able to get an appointment, some want a particular vaccine that hasn’t been made available to them, etc.). I hope the rules will soon relax so that these places will be open to all. With any necessary precautions, but without distinctions. Then we can celebrate with full heart.

An Infinity of Shapes

I love it when an open weekend comes along, with time for thinking, resting, and various things that require long focus. The long focus: a Shakespeare video I am working on, a presentation I am giving on Monday (already prepared, but worthy of a run-through), the upcoming issue of Folyosó, and an essay. There are other things too, such as a new story, but I won’t get to them this weekend. The restful things: reading, listening to music, playing music, preparing next Shabbat’s Torah portion, and taking a bike ride or walk.

Another thing I like about this “alone time” is the chance to do and think things without being classified as this or that. Recently someone remarked to me, by email, “You’re such an intellectual! Such a scholar!” I took this as a compliment but was disconcerted, as I don’t put myself in these categories. Yes, I have an intellectual life, but it revolves mostly around literature, which is intellectual, artistic, linguistic, and visceral, all at once. As for being a scholar, no, I don’t think so. Much depends on definitions, but often when people say, “you’re a scholar,” they’re saying, “you speak a language that’s too far removed from the everyday for anyone else to care about it.” I have had book proposals turned down by agents, article pitches turned down by young assistant editors, because they deemed them “too scholarly,” which to me sounds like an excuse.

So it’s great to have some time just to do things on my own terms, without being called “scholarly” or anything else. People sometimes take confort in classifying others. It helps them make sense of the world. So-and-so is a scholar, so-and-so is a creative type, so-and-so is a lazy bum. Sometimes the categories help; sometimes they’re true; sometimes the people being categorized actually want them. But I often find that for me, they’re beside the point; they don’t quite fit, and I’m glad to take them off at the end of a long day, or at any time for that matter.

Not that it’s good to spend all one’s free time alone—and I do not, by any stretch. I have obligations, activities, meetings and am happy about that. Not to mention teaching, which, even online, involves contact with others, day after day, and which brings lots of joy. The stretches of unscheduled time, when they happen, offset and complement the schedule, classes, conversations, deadlines.

This is not just about me by any means. Sympathy and empathy, as well as reading and listening, require resisting the temptation to classify others or their words too hastily. Many others besides me wish to be taken on their own terms, or at least on terms that aren’t limiting and dismissive. Go ahead, categorize if you must, but see beyond and into the category too. A rectangle may be a rectangle (and probably is), but if you look into it, you can see an infinity of shapes.

I took this picture looking into the window of the Galéria restaurant on Szapáry utca. You can see the reflection of the synagogue (now a gallery) across the street.

Back When an Időpont Was an Időpont

Doctor’s Office, by Lee Dubin

My experiences with doctors here in Hungary have been mostly good so far. I haven’t been sick or otherwise in need of urgent care, so I’ve been to the doctor just for routine things. Getting the first Pfizer shot on Friday was a perfectly satisfactory experience; the doctors and staff were very organized and on top of things, and I didn’t have to wait long at all, nor did those I saw around me. There were actual appointments, and they were honored. (Granted, getting an appointment for a shot has been a challenge for many; that’s another matter.) Also, my “háziorvos” (general practitioner), whose office is on the same street where I live, has a friendly, accessible style; he and his staff see patients fairly promptly, answer phone calls incessantly, and clearly work hard to give everyone proper care and referrals.

But the system here is far from ideal overall. I have learned, over time, that an “időpont” (appointment) can mean little or nothing. Many doctors’ offices lack any kind of reception staff, so they see patients in order of arrival. In addition, as I learned today, having what seems like an appointment does not mean that the doctor will even be in.

I have an underarm scar, from surgery years ago, that has been acting up. I went to see a dermatologist about it; first she recommended using a prescription cream, then she gave it frozen nitrogen treatment (which brought down the swelling a bit) and referred me to a doctor at the large medical center. The referral said Friday, April 9, at 8 a.m. So I went there early this morning, checked in at the entrance, and was told to go up to the “kiemelt kezelő” department and wait. I went there, sat outside, saw no sign of anyone in the office, but waited. I had cancelled my first class for this appointment and was hoping not to have to cancel my second one too.

About an hour later, I went back down to the receptionist and said that no one was there. She said, “They’re coming, they’re coming, just wait.” So I went back upstairs and waited. And waited. I cancelled my second class (fortunately, my only other class today; my Fridays are light). It was nearly two and a half hours when I went back downstairs and asked the receptionist what was going on. She went into an office, called someone, spent some minutes on the phone, and came back to tell me that I should come back next Friday at the same time, since the doctor wasn’t in today.

Now, I am not going to cancel next week’s classes; I will talk with the referring doctor and find a way to come in later. This kind of situation is not particular to Hungary, by the way. In New York City, when I was working on my second book and had to buy my own health insurance, I first made the mistake of signing up for one of the city plans. It was awful: no real access to doctors, hours of waiting in a crowded clinic filled with poor people who seemed in much more urgent need than I. I switched to Blue Cross, which was substantially more expensive, and magically had access to first-rate doctors, waiting rooms, etc. Here in Hungary, the equivalent would be going to a private doctor in Budapest, or to one of the best hospitals there. I have been warned that medical care in the vidék (provinces) can be subpar.

But anyway, that charmed world of doctors’ appointments and personal attention is really only available at a cost or with good luck, no matter where you are. If you want cheap (or “universal”) health care, you have to put up with the imperfections. This doesn’t mean you can’t get good care, but you need a lot of patience, and you need to know in advance what mistakes not to make. For instance, don’t show up at 8 a.m. when showing up at noon, or not at all, will get you the same result. And don’t assume that an időpont is an időpont, unless it actually is.

Good Within Limitations

One of my hopes over this spring break was to take a day and go somewhere with the bike, maybe bike and train. Given the current constraints, I took a short trip to Tokaj today. As it turned out, I could just as well have gone without the bike. I ended up hiking up some hills and visiting a wine cellar, the Hímesudvar, where I have been before, to get something for a special occasion. It was open, along with many other cellars, as well as ice cream places, restaurants with take-out, etc. Tokaj wasn’t crowded, but you could see a fair number of visitors mulling around.

I wanted to bike up to Sárospatak and back, but there was too great a risk of missing the return train, and along with that, the curfew. Going up to Sárospatak (through Olaszliszka, etc.) would have been entirely possible if I were then to take the 6:08 train back to Szolnok from Tokaj. But that would have brought me back to Szolnok at 8:20, and curfew starts at 8.

So where to go, then? Up, up, up. I locked up the bike down below and ascended. It was good to climb the steep hills and feel my heart pumping. Its tourist aspects aside, Tokaj is old and tranquil, and you can take a path where you’re all by yourself, with only the sound of wind and birds around you.

Many of the winery-owners were clearly hoping people would stop by. I overheard a conversation where someone was explaining to someone else, “It’s the virus. That’s why they’re not coming.” I saw a number of “Eladó” (for sale) signs outside of wine cellars; I have seen them before, but there were more now. If I were rich, I wouldn’t buy a wine cellar—I would have no idea what I was doing, and it would be too much of an undertaking and distraction—but I might help someone who was trying to get started, or someone trying to keep an old business going. It must be hard for them right now, but not only right now. Many forces make it difficult for a small business, including a wine business, to survive. Not to mention that it takes knowledge and dedication, over many years.

Anyway, I’m glad I made the trip and that something along these lines was possible. On the train I got to read a bit and saw a herd of deer through the window. Once the restrictions ease up and it’s possible to stay in a hotel again, I intend to go back to Sárospatak, and elsewhere too, over time: back to Esztergom, Baja, Szeged, and to places I haven’t visited yet. But for now, within the limitations, this was good.

Song Series #12: Songs with Animals

For some reason I started thinking about songs with animal references, of which there must be millions, and put together a playlist of eleven. Animals have a special relationship to songs for all sorts of reasons: music and animals move in a similar way, according to a particular kind of knowing; animals fill literary language; many of us feel, at times, that an animal is in our soul; animals have song and rhythm; an animal view allows us to see ourselves from a new angle; animal sorrow can be the profoundest sorrow of the world; animals need no reasons at all. It’s no coincidence, then, that some of my favorite songs have animals in them, and that their roles in the songs are about as different as can be. I have many to choose from but will discuss songs by Cz.K. Sebő (of Platon Karataev fame), Art of Flying (the focus of my next “Listen Up” piece), Robyn Hitchcock, Belle and Sebastian, and Marcell Bajnai/Idea.

I have already talked about Cz.K. Sebő’s “Hart” (from his Junction EP) in my most recent “Listen Up” piece, and I don’t want to overdo it. But there is one point I wanted to mention, regarding the way the hart comes up. When you listen to the song, it sounds as though he is singing, “I was hart and I remember the stars,” but then the printed lyrics say, “I was like a hart, and I remember the stars.” The sung version is perfect to me. In spoken English we don’t usually say “I was cat,” or “I was bird”; if we say it at all, we say it with an article, e.g., “I was a cat.” But if you leave out the article, you are referring to the essence, the name. To say “I was hart” is unusual but poetically permissible (with a beautiful archaic sound); it means something like, “I was a hart in my essence.” It is one of my favorite moments in the song, because it brings up something that I understand but cannot explain. The second part of that sentence, too: “and I remember the stars”: how being hart becomes not only a memory, but a way of seeing the world, at least for a moment.

For the Art of Flying song, it’s difficult to choose between “Armadillo” and “The Jaguar Song.” I’ll choose the former (from their album An Eye Full of Lamp), because the latter will come up in the “Listen Up” piece. “Armadillo” is one of my favorite Art of Flying songs; haunting, mysterious, moving, and untranslatable. I don’t know what it means rationally, but in a different way I understand it well. I had the joy of playing it with Anne Speroni (one of the Art of Flying duo) when visiting in Taos for the music festival they held for many years. I accompanied her on cello for a few songs–something I would only have dreamed of. Being inside the song, part of its sound, comes back vividly when I think of it years later. I won’t type out the lyrics here (for fear of getting them wrong), except for the chorus, “this is where we didn’t go, following the armadillo.” I think the song has something to do with taking a different path from others in life, and reflecting on what that other way might have been, “following the armadillo.” But the song makes no direct statements about this; instead, it paints the difference through the music. The armadillo itself feels ominous: separated from the singer through time and habit, but a danger for anyone. Yet that’s just one way of hearing the song.

The next one is Robyn Hitchcock’s “Lizard.” I am grateful to my friend Tara for introducing me to his music, years ago. This is from his debut solo album Black Snake Dîamond Röle (1981); he has released about 20 more full-length albums since then (in addition to EPs and compilations) and, most recently, has been giving streamed concerts with Emma Swift during the pandemic. This song has a wonderful eerie bass line and lyrics that mention the lizard in almost every other line. Brilliant rhymes, brilliant stretching of this idea across the verses of the song. I don’t think it needs any explanation.

You wear the lizard’s shoes
And afterwards you get confused
You wear the lizard’s coat
And afterwards you fail to float
You take the lizard’s path
But look who’s lying in the bath
You wear the lizard’s skin
No man can be a god and win at all
Ahh

One song that I wanted badly to bring up here but am going to put off is Kurt Vile’s “One Trick Ponies,” because it has so much character and fun. It doesn’t really refer to ponies, though; “one-trick pony” is a common expression. I will save it for the next installment of this song series. It has the classic line “cuz I’ve always had a soft spot for repetition,” and the next piece in this series will focus on repetition itself.

So, let’s go on to Belle and Sebastian’s “The Fox in the Snow,” from their album If You’re Feeling Sinister. It has been covered by Grandaddy and many others; many treasure it as an anthem of suffering. But there’s a joy to it; it has to do with survival, but also that chance at survival, the chance that can be taken at any moment.

Fox in the snow, where do you go
To find something you could eat?
‘Cause the word out on the street is you are starving
Don’t let yourself grow hungry now
Don’t let yourself grow cold
Fox in the snow

In the next verses, instead of a fox, or along with the fox, it becomes a girl, a boy, a kid, and then that kid becomes all of us, “second just to being born, second to dying too, what else would you do?” There’s also a slightly bitter, but matter-of-fact “When your legs look black and blue” and “It’s not as if they’re paying you.” And the song dances and dances and ends on a graceful slowness.

The final song for this piece is specially chosen for today, since this evening (3 p.m. EDT, 8 p.m. CET), at an ALSCW Zoom event, I will be interviewing both the songwriter, Marcell Bajnai, and his father, Zsolt Bajnai, and after the interview, Zsolt will read some of his stories, and Marcell will play his own songs between them. Do come! The Zoom information is here.

I have written about this song before and covered it on cello. Marcell Bajnai has performed it both solo and with his band Idea (formerly 1LIFE); it’s the eighth song on the band’s debut album, Nincsen Kérdés. The song proceeds through a series of metaphor-pairs, of possibilities: “I could be” a boat, “you could be” the river, then cloud and rain, then forest and bird, and then fool and king. The bird comes up just once, in this little part, but it’s one of my favorite parts, musically and lyrically:

lehetnék erdő, te meg
lehetnél a madár
bújj el bennem, és ígérem
itt senki nem talál

I could be a forest, and you
you could be the bird
hide in me, and I promise
no one will find [you] here

It’s so fleeting and fragile, you sense that that’s part of the meaning of the whole song: that being human means having a life full of imperfections and mistakes; the song captures something universal in a humble and beautiful way.

That concludes the twelfth installment of the song series. For the full series, go here. Stay tuned for the next “Listen Up” piece, which will appear in the next few weeks. And we hope to see you tonight (or at whatever time of day it will be for you)!

The True Plague for Us

The other day, in my post “Are Hungarians Especially Sad?” I told about how a former student (from Varga, now at university) had asked me what I thought of a Quora comment that Hungarians are the saddest people in Europe. He also wrote (I am quoting this with his permission) that “the true plague for us is this permanent inability to feel contented, without envy and avarice.” In other words, in his view, life in Hungary is not so terrible, relative to life in general, nor is everyone bitter and depressed, but there are many young people who think they could have a better life elsewhere. This is the plague: the thought that other people, other countries have it better, and if I could just whisk myself over into their position, I would be fine.

A certain kind of discontent is necessary for life and for the things we want to do well. I am continually revising my writing, whether for sound, language, meaning, accuracy, or something else. Musicians play and play, even at the highest levels, to come closer to what they imagine and hear. Athletes train and train, and compete and compete. But in all those cases, you are working on something in yourself; you are the locus of improvement.

The dangerous kind of discontent occurs when we want something “over there”: something someone else has, something in another country, something belonging to a particular social group. Surely there are people we admire and would like to emulate—but when we aggressively try to get what they have, or resent them for having it, we make a mess of our lives.

Is this a particularly Hungarian tendency? I doubt it. But it may play out in a particular way in Hungary, especially among young people who tire of the government’s isolationist rhetoric and long to see the world. It’s easy, in that position, to imagine that life in the U.S., Denmark, the Netherlands would be not only more comfortable, but more exciting too, with more of an opening to the world, more opportunity, more of a future. And for some individuals, this might be somewhat true. But beyond that, it’s human error all over again.

First of all, it involves “comparing your insides to other people’s outsides” (as a wise person said to me long ago). New York looks like an incredible, bustling city bursting with talent and all walks of life. And that it is. But if you live there, as I did for fifteen years, you don’t necessarily want to take it in. The work days and commutes are long, and at the end of it all you might want to go home and listen to music in your room. That is, if you have a place that’s quiet enough for that. When I was living in Brooklyn, there were block parties in my neighborhood that boomed so loud that my chair and desk shook. And so many people in NYC live in cramped, crowded spaces and still have to pay exorbitant rent. Don’t get me wrong: the city lives up to its reputation. But living there is different from seeing it from afar.

Second, when you covet something to extremes (when you go beyond mild envy toward action), you start to become ugly inside. You think of others not in terms of who they are, but in terms of what they have. You find ways to put them down in your mind, to level them with you or even bring them below you. I see more of this in the U.S. than in Hungary, but maybe that just comes with familiarity. I imagine it happens all over the world.

But back to the original quote from my former student: if this kind of envy or dissatisfaction is “the true plague,” then it goes beyond the individual. It spreads from person to person; it becomes a worldview. That’s the worst aspect of it; by indulging in that kind of discontent, you affect others too. You show them, through your attitude and actions, that simple joys in life are to be scorned, that the only valid happiness is “over there,” wherever “there” may be. People start believing that they are unworthy if they don’t have a house, or make a certain amount of money, or have a beautiful boyfriend or girlfriend, or look lovely and skinny themselves.

I believe that this is universal but multifarious; different cultures exhibit it in different ways. Many Hungarians I have met attach importance to material attainments. Some do not, but overall it seems to be assumed that you’re doing well if you have a house and car. (This exists in the U.S. too, but there are many countertendencies.) On the other hand, people here are not enraptured, generally, with hype and fame; quality comes first. In the U.S., hype is a way of life. Kids learn to promote themselves before they learn to make something worth promoting.

How do you go about combating this plague? First, see it for what it is, in yourself and others, and then turn the attention to things that matter: doing things well, treating others decently, contributing something to the world. But this requires a lot of strength and vigilance. It’s not for nothing that at least five of the Ten Commandments (the number depends on how you interpret them) forbid envy or its consequences; envy is all around us and can tear a person, a relationship, a society apart.

Sometimes happiness does exist “over there.” Sometimes it does make sense to move to another city, country, apartment, or whatever the case may be. It isn’t all delusion, which makes the matter more complicated. But the delusion is always close at hand, and oh so tempting because of the shortcuts it dangles before us: not only shortcuts to wealth or success, but an exit from ourselves and those around us.

Art credit: James Ward, Ignorance, Envy and Jealousy (oil on canvas, 1837).

Wishing You Warmth, Light, and Water

Often, when we say, “I wish you warmth and light,” we mean it partly figuratively, but right now the literal comes first. The storms and outages across the U.S.—from Oregon to Texas to Tennessee to New York—have left millions without heat, electricity, or safe drinking water. I hope that this emergency ends soon and that there will be much better protection against future ones.

Here in Hungary, the weather is mild again (9 degrees Celsius in Szolnok at the moment); the coldest it is supposed to get in the coming week is zero (tonight). The snow has melted, and the Tisza is swollen.

This looks like it will be a quiet weekend at home, a rare one without any pressing deadlines around the corner, a chance to catch up with things, read, rest, play cello, get ready for next week, and go out on the bike. I am enjoying the beautiful poncho that my sister crocheted for me. And grateful for the warmth, light, and water.

Getting Up and Settling Down

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

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

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

The Snow Storm

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

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

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

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

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

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

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

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

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

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

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

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

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

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