Gifts

At the end of the year, or at one of the various ends of the year, students seek out their teachers and sometimes exuberantly, sometimes shyly present them with a gift: chocolates, or a flower, or a gift certificate, or maybe a book. I have been given memorable things, including a Balaton bike trip, a volume of Radnóti, a chocolate bar, and more. But on Tuesday a student gave me a gift that she had made, a framed collage, set between glass panes, of lavender and special images that bring up memories of the past few years: of Shakespeare (and Bottom), Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, conversations, cello, singing “This Land Is Your Land,” and playing hangman sometimes in the last minutes of class (and the combination of all of these: serious, playful, whimsical). After wondering where to put it, I chose my desk at home—and if the desk gets too cluttered for it, then it’s time to declutter. It will be a good new habit.

There’s at least a slight risk in gift-giving. You don’t know whether the person will like it and accept it, but you go ahead and give it anyway, and in doing so, you give a little bit more than the gift itself, not only of yourself, but of something beyond yourself. The gift doesn’t have to be fancy. I remember a time when I spontaneously shared my orange with someone, and she later told me that that was her favorite of all the gifts I had given her, because it was unplanned.

Books are sometimes my least favorite gift to receive, because I never get around to reading them, and then I feel bad. But I love a book that I can treasure and read when I want. The Radnóti collections are like that. I think that’s how a book gift should be: something long-lasting, not a book of the moment. But it depends on the recipient too. There are people who will read anything you give them (even by the next day sometimes).

Gifts need a proper occasion and proportion. You can’t give too much to people, or they will start to feel indebted or suspicious, which undoes the very purpose of the gift. I remember when I was fourteen, living in Moscow, and invited a classmate to the Bolshoi theatre or ballet. I think it was the theatre. Afterwards, I told her I wanted to treat her to the evening. She said, “Mne neudobno” (“It’s uncomfortable for me.”) But being a stubborn teenager, I insisted. And so she later treated me to a show too: a performance of Mayakovsky’s Klop (Bedbug), which, while entirely unintelligible to me at the time, still leaves me with fun, fierce memories.

Receiving gifts gracefully is as important as the giving. And that takes some perception. In high school I gave a beautiful Escher kit to someone who wasn’t really a friend yet (she was one of the older sisters of one of my friends). Then I felt embarrassed; maybe she didn’t like it, or didn’t want it from me! So I tried to explain why I had given it to her, and she just said, “That’s perfectly understandable,” which meant she had received it in good spirit. (She was a person of few words, but she meant what she said.)

So yes, when it comes to giving gifts, there’s a tension between honoring the forms and breaking the rules. Both are needed. If you don’t honor the forms, your gifts might come across as eccentric, awkward, or at least inappropriate. But a gift inevitably breaks out of the forms too. It inherently breaks the rule of self-containment. (Is there a rule of self-containment? Yes, I think so: the idea that this is mine, that is yours, and we keep to ourselves unless there’s reason to do otherwise.)

Is it possible to live without breaking the rules at least slightly? No, because most of the rules (no matter how noble their purpose) call for at least a bit of rattling now and then. A gift rattles the universe gently.

I added a lot to this piece after posting it.

Are you done for the day?

This is one of the questions I have the most difficulty answering, because no matter what I say, I feel like I’m lying. If I have come home from school and am not going back until tomorrow, then, yes, in others’ eyes, I am done for the day. But at home I am involved in a different sort of work, some of it related to school (grading, planning, etc.), some of it not. Writing and translating are work for me insofar as they are not hobbies. I may or may not get paid for them, but I don’t define work in terms of the presence or absence of pay. Work is something I have to do, either because it helps me survive or because it’s part of what I live for.

So, if I say, yes, I’m done with work, I’m lying, because the work day for me has still a long ways to go. But if I say, no, I still have more work, people get confused. I try to get around all of this by saying I have lots of “projects.” But yesterday some friends pointed out to me that this concept of “projects” is very new in Hungary and that I seem unusually project-oriented. I think I call them projects to convey that yes, I have a lot to do, I don’t have gobs of free time. The friends who pointed this out understand that way of living. They have lots of projects too, though they might call them something else (in Hungarian, “program” or “terv”).

In short, my work day is not done; it rarely is! But as for the details, never mind.

Setting Poetry to Music (25th ALSCW Conference seminar, October 2022)

In October 2022, at the 25th ALSCW Conference at Yale, I will hold a seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music.” Paper proposals have been coming in; for those still hoping to participate, the deadline for proposals is June 10 (please follow the instructions in the Call for Papers)! So far, the seminar participants include three invitees from Hungary and a number of other presenters (from both Hungary and the U.S.). The full roster will be established by the end of June.

The seminar description is as follows:

What questions and problems do composers encounter when setting poetry to music? How can music enhance, transform, or distract from a poem that already stands on its own? How might the music follow or depart from the poem’s inherent rhythms and tones? How might the musical rendition become an artistic creation in its own right? This seminar will explore these and other questions in relation to a wide variety of poems and music. Papers may take one of two directions. Those analyzing others’ musical renditions of poetry should plan to present a short paper (5–10 pages), possibly with an accompanying sound recording. Those presenting their own musical renditions or poetry should play it (through or a recording or on an acoustic instrument) and then comment on it briefly. The poems considered may be in any language, but any poem not in English should be accompanied with at least a basic translation or summary. The presentations should be prepared with a general audience in mind. Composers, songwriters, musicians, poets, scholars, teachers, students, and others interested in the subject are welcome to submit proposals. (Note: This seminar is not about songwriting or poetic song verse in general; it focuses specifically on poetry set to music.)

This seminar will differ in some ways from a literature seminar in that we will spend some time listening to the musical renditions of poems (which participants will either perform or play through a recording). Also, the topic is flexible; some presenters might take it in visual and other directions. I am eager to see what proposals come in.

I am honored that the three featured guests at the Pilinszky event in March will be the featured guests in the seminar as well! Csenger Kertai, Gergely Balla, and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly will all be presenting; they all won Petőfi Literary Fund grants to cover the trip. In addition, Gergő and Sebő (the Platon Karataev duo) will be performing at Cafe Nine in New Haven on October 23. We also plan to hold an event in NYC featuring Csenger as well as the duo. (We will have more details once they exist.)

The ALSCW (Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers) “seeks to promote excellence in literary criticism and scholarship, and works to ensure that literature thrives in both scholarly and creative environments. We encourage the reading and writing of literature, criticism, and scholarship, as well as wide-ranging discussions among those committed to the reading and study of literary works.”

I have attended ALSCW annual conferences in Worcester, Nashville, Dallas, and DC. They are not only interesting but lots of fun. I have held and participated in numerous seminars (sometimes three different seminars in a given conference) and especially love the range of topics, the geniality, the participants’ willingness to hear contrasting views and approaches. Also, the ALSCW supports poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers through grants, prizes, and publications; the poetry and other readings at the conferences have introduced me to writers who have since become favorites. And let us not forget the Saturday night banquet, where the conference comes to a jovial close (there is an ALSCW Council meeting on Sunday morning, but otherwise no conference activities). I am especially excited about this year’s location, since Yale is my triple alma mater (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.), and I spent about fifteen years in New Haven all together (including two years from 2019 to 2011, when I wrote my first book, Republic of Noise).

This year’s conference has many other exciting seminars and panels as well, on topics ranging from Proust to Ulysses to “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture” to “Figures of Civil War” to “The Art of Confession” to “Aesthetics of the Sublime in Japanese Literary Arts.” And it will be our first conference since 2019, since we had to cancel twice because of Covid. Many thanks to David Bromwich, the president of the ALSCW; Ernie Suarez, the executive director; conference committee member Rosanna Warren, and others for bringing this to pass. While nothing is certain until it actually happens, this conference will take place unless a large and unforeseen obstacle arises. It is now only five months away.

Photo of Yale’s Harkness Tower by Chris Randall.

Update: So many people submitted paper proposals for the ”Setting Poetry to Music” that we will have two sessions! The presenters include composers and songwriters, poets and other writers, visual artists, scholars, teachers, and combinations of these. Six of the participants are from Hungary and twelve from the U.S. I look forward to the presentations and discussions!

Hiding Places (new poem)

Hiding Places

Diana Senechal


Everyone who knows you knows
your downhill slope: your poetry reading
in the wind, pages flying, you not knowing
your own poems, so after a few vain dashes
after the leaves, you cut it short, sorrying
sheepishly like so many other times, yet
we told you it was great, because it really
was: those three minutes or so when you
seized a form and vice versa, the bright
brief grip of eyes, words, and wind.
We believe in those three minutes, even now
that they have pared themselves down
to two and a half—even there we glean
a holy poverty in what must be the worst
torque of despair: watching yourself flee from
your own soul, unable to chase yourself
through that elusive tube. “We,” I say,
but the crowds have dwindled as well,
down to the few wild-haired ones you long
ago wrote off as old hat. So you leave
us behind and slink into cooler throngs,
who have no clue how this will all fly
apart and where no one expects you
to be gifted or even good. Smoky blue air,
comfort of nobodyness. I saw you there
one evening—finding solace there too—
and left you alone, didn’t even tap my feet
in time with yours, waited until you had gone
and come from the bar before buying
my next beer, because, illusion or not,
it is the sense of something in common
that swells up in me like a psalm, so that I
too have leaves slipping from me, I too
chase them on a lark, then call it off,
stop still, and let the praise hail down
on me, pelting my pate. It’s a good feeling,
and if it wounds, I slink away to my den.
Praised, you sang, praised be the hiding places.

Image: Imprint Piano, by Kelsey Hochstatter.

On Reading a Lot or a Little

I read a lot on the one hand and very little on the other. That is, I am always immersed in a text, be it a Torah portion, a poem I am translating, a poem I am not translating, a literary work I am teaching, a song I am listening to again and again, or something I am rereading. But I am not one of those people who devour books. I am woefully behind with books I have been wanting to read, books given to me, books I have been planning to reread. Some of them I get to more quickly than others, but some have been sitting on my shelf for years. It would be great to read more of them, but I don’t read fast. That said, I am glad that they are there; it is important to me to have books to reach for. As a result of moving to Hungary, I have pared my book collection way down, but even so, there’s enough here for a lifetime.

An interesting thing I noticed when deciding which books to keep: the poetry, fiction, and drama have endured far longer than most of the nonfiction. Unfortunately, a lot of nonfiction books (for instance, books about education) fizzle out; after one time through, there’s really no reason to return to them again, except for reference. There are exceptions—books with exceptionally compelling writing or interesting topics—but very few people treat nonfiction writing as an art. Not so with good fiction, poetry, drama; they keep opening into more, and a person can come to them in seemingly infinite ways. I say “seemingly infinite” because there’s no telling whether they’re infinite or not.

There’s plenty of ephemeral fiction too, and poetry, and drama, and everything else. But in terms of what’s on my bookshelf, imaginative literature lasts longer than the rest. And there are levels of lasting.

In a tribute to János Pilinszky, just published by Agenda Poetry, Nicole Waldner writes:

In an interview about his wartime experiences, Pilinszky described the journey on the train into Germany in 1944, to the fringes of civilisation’s collapse: “I took a large pile of books with me to war. And I kept throwing them out of the railway carriage one after the other. Every book became anachronistic. But the Gospels underwent a miraculous metamorphosis.” The metamorphosis of which Pilinszky spoke was a “stripping away of lesser realities” and this stripping away, along with his determination to never look away, became his life’s mission.

I just started reading the essay but have to run out the door for the class trip. I will have more to say about it when I return and read it closely. But this passage caught my eye and mind right away. I wouldn’t be so arrogant or foolish as to compare myself to Pilinszky, but that “stripping away of lesser realities” is important to me too. Not an excuse for my reading so little, but maybe a way of thinking about reading.

Photo by Diána Komróczki.

The Past Few Weeks in a Fell Swoop

I have been so busy catching up over the past few days (with grading, projects, etc.) that I haven’t had a chance to catch up here. Even the full scope of everything that happened in my life is only a minuscule fraction of everything that happened. I have no clue about most of it all, even things happening right around me. But as far as my life goes, I’ll give a few blog-worthy updates.

In short: the Varga graduation ceremonies, or most of them (there will be a few more in June), took place in beautiful weather and exuberant, melancholic moods. There was the school serenade and the individual serenades (where students serenade individual teachers just before their last class with that person), the school graduation, and the citywide graduation, which involved a big procession around the block to the Rose Garden, where some thousand seniors let go of their balloons, all at once. Gifts were given, tears shed, words of gratitude exchanged.

My mom and stepdad visited for a whole week and had a lovely time, as did I. Lots of walks around Szolnok, delicious meals at restaurants, a delightful concert at the Tisza Mozi. They visited one of my eleventh-grade classes and got to see some of the Shakespeare performances (after the festival itself). They also attended the school serenade and the citywide graduation. It was their first time in Szolnok, and they received a wonderful impression and warm welcomes.

A project for October took definite shape, when Csenger Kertai and Gergely Balla both won grants from the Petőfi Literary Fund to present as invited guests in my seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music” at the ALSCW’s 25th Annual Conference, which will take place at Yale from October 20 to 23. Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly will also be presenting as an invited guest (update: he also won a Petőfi Literary Fund grant). Kata Heller will be presenting as a graduate student. We will have a large Hungarian delegation and a terrific conference! While in the U.S., we will have other events as well—more about that soon.

And then the books finally arrived—my translation, published by Deep Vellum, of Gyula Jenei’s Mindig más. We have now started to plan book release events here in Hungary. My trip to the U.S. this summer will be fairly short, just 10 days—so I won’t have any events there. But we might have an international online event, and in any case we intend to have live events in both Szolnok and Budapest.

I have some projects in the works: two translated manuscripts, soon going out as book proposals, and some stories that have been floating around and getting highly complimentary, highly personalized rejections from the editors-in-chief of top journals…. I know that some of these stories will make it into print, and new ones will too, but I need to give them time and thought again. Speaking of writing, I am very proud that The Continental Literary Magazine published my essay on Cz.K. Sebő’s album. Since writing the essay, I have come to hear the album in still new ways, but that is what writing and listening can do. A friend said that my essay seems to be listening to the reader. I like that idea.

And there have been concerts: an absolutely beautiful Árstíðir/Platon Karataev concert at the KOBUCI, where my joy can be seen in this audience photo (taken by Tibor Kristóf Fekete). I think this was during Platon Karataev’s encore, during their cover of VHK’s “Halló mindenség,” but I could be wrong. Next week, I get to attend both a Cz.K. Sebő concert and a Galaxisok concert; the following week, Cataflamingo, whom I haven’t heard in a while; and the following week, Grand Bleu and Cappuccino Projekt (together in the same evening).

This is why I am not looking to add activities to my life. I have so much going on and need to think and rest too. Not only think and rest, but exercise; I badly need to return to running and biking. With vigorous exercise, I get a lot less tired in the evenings, but it has been hard to work it in. I love the long bike rides for the kind of thinking, endurance, and relaxation that they allow, not to mention exploration of the countryside. Two graduating students gave me a fantastic gift: a ticket to a bike tour around Balaton (where I have not been yet). I plan to schedule that as soon as possible, and to find a time to go up to Zemplén too.

But tomorrow we go on a class trip (with 11.C) to Sopron and then Austria! It’s just an overnight trip, but we have a lot packed into it, and I look forward to riding (by bus) through the hills.

I made a few additions to this piece after posting it, and even with that, I left a lot out.

A Holocaust Memorial, Spoken at School

In addition to being the last day before our spring break, this was also our Holocaust Memorial day. Hungary’s Holocaust memorial falls on April 16; since that falls in our spring break, we commemorated it today.

The music teacher, Andrea Barnáné Bende, had envisioned an event where we (the whole school) would gather in the courtyard and recite János Pilinszky’s “Ravensbrücki passió.” Before this, there would be music; afterwards, a minute of silence; then music again and the conclusion of the ceremony.

She was dedicated to bringing this about: helping students learn the poem, announcing the event many times, stressing its importance, talking about it with individual colleagues, and reminding us of it at the last minute. I memorized the poem about ten days beforehand and brought it to my students numerous times. Other teachers did the same. And there were students who took the lead in learning the poem and leading the recitation.

I had no idea how focused and moving this would be. Thanks to Andrea and the whole school.

You Might Call This a Full Week

Things are so busy right now, with so many details to keep track of, that I have several running lists of things to do, and a calendar that I repeatedly check. Without these, I would probably forget something big.

There are two things coming up that I am very excited about but can’t mention yet (until they come closer to reality). One is a project for the fall, the other a publication. More about the former sometime in May or June, if all goes well; more about the latter this week (again, if all goes well).

So, let’s backtrack to April 2. That evening I went to hear Santa Diver (Luca Kézdy, Dávid Szesztay, and Dávid Szegő) at the Mom Kulturális Központ in Buda. It was emotionally, soulfully, technically, rhythmically thrilling. No matter what kind of music you listen to, I think it would be hard not to be amazed by them. My favorites were the somewhat slower, melancholic pieces, but the whole concert was superb.

Sunday I tried to catch up with things, and the day went by too fast, as it is doing now as well. Monday was a regular busy teaching day.

On Tuesday, my colleague Gyula (whose poetry I have translated—the book is already out!) approached me about a literary event he was holding at school that afternoon. The performing duo Mariann Talliánn and Balázs Lázár, who give many literary dramatic performances, were going to perform poems by Mihály Vörösmarty. It is no accident that I live on Vörösmarty Street; I wanted the street name to have some meaning for me, even though I wasn’t well acquainted with Vörösmarty’s poetry at the time. So, after initial hesitation—I had way too much to do—I went. I was surprised at how fresh and contemporary Vörösmarty’s poetry sounded. I keep returning to “Az Éj monológja” (“Monologue of the Night.”)

That evening I had an online oral exam practice session for students, as I have been doing on Tuesday evenings for a little while now.

Then on Wednesday after school I rushed off to Budapest for an evening doctor’s appointment. (All is well; I had had a very small surgery two weeks earlier, and the doctor removed the stitches. I am very glad to be on top of this and in such good care.)

On Thursday afternoon, I gave a “professional development” presentation about Folyosó. Only three people came (two of them from my school), but that was all right; my presentation was somewhat spontaneous anyway, and still a lot came out of it that was of interest to us all, I think. (Toward the end, we talked about what directions Folyosó could take in the future.)

On Friday afternoon, after school, I went to Budapest again; first I met with Csenger Kertai, whose poems I have been translating. Then I went to a Demodino/Capsule boy concert (featuring the electronic music projects of Bandi Bognár and Cz.K. Sebő). I had originally planned to go to a literary/drama event, but didn’t want to miss this; except for a couple of songs, I didn’t know what their electronic projects were like.

I have never seen or heard anything like this, although it wasn’t blatantly experimental. They both performed the whole show together, trading off with the microphone but staying within and moving to each other’s songs. The sound was (for me) unexpectedly and wonderfully quiet: no booming, thumping beats but rather a volume and rhythm that you could relax into. The music was lively, melancholic, friendship-filled, genuine, and deep. And it was at the Babicska, a funky underground gallery and club, filled with a hearty audience. After their duo performance, they continued on to DJ for a while, but I left for my hotel, since I needed to get some sleep.

The next morning, I led a service at Szim Salom. What really struck me was how it seemed to be a continuation of the previous evening, not a departure from it. The incantatory music, the togetherness, the good cheer, the subtle shifts of mood, all seemed to be coming from a similar source, at least as I receive them. I am starting to see that the seeming fragments in people’s lives are often (though not always) illusory; that there are unities behind our various components and compartments, or at least intersections between them. Others might not always see or understand the unities and intersections, but so be it.

Afterwards I rushed back to Szolnok, because I had to get ready to participate (through Zoom) in my cousin Julian’s bar mitzvah ceremony (in Portland, Oregon). But I also had the thought that if I got back to Szolnok in time, I could see the Varga Drama Club perform at the library. And it worked out; I arrived just in time to see them perform their interpretation and rendition of István Örkény’s story (poem? prose-play?) “Egy magyar író dedikációi” (“A Hungarian writer’s dedications/inscriptions”). It was zestful and graceful in its movement, articulation, music, humor. And I know many though not all of the students.

The bar mitzvah ceremony transcended all of the Zoom quirks; Julian radiated joy and goodness. I was exhausted afterwards; after a little bit of thought, I went to sleep.

This morning, I caught up on grading and Shakespeare festival planning. This afternoon I go back to Budapest for Gergely Balla’s Partért kiáltó lyrics book release, in which he will speak with Vecsei H. Miklós and perform some of the songs. I couldn’t possibly miss that, given that I can actually go. And it’s in the afternoon, so I will have some evening time when I return.

Much more is ahead: the Shakespeare festival, the spring issue of Folyosó, the graduation events and ceremonies, the arrival of the books (copies of Always Different) and still more… but I need some slow days too, and will have them during our short spring break.

The first two photos are self-explanatory (in the context of this post); the third I took this afternoon in the Keleti train station.

I made some edits to the piece after posting it. As usual, as usual.

Today

It will take a lot for the opposition to win today’s general elections in Hungary (though the possibility is much higher than it was four years ago), and if they do win, it will not necessarily work out well. The opposition is a coalition of parties whose long-term alliance is not a given, even though they have worked hard to come together. They would be faced with a war, a sinking economy, and an energy crisis, among other problems. If they floundered, this would just be taken as proof that they weren’t capable of leading the country in the first place. An extreme counter-reaction could follow.

It does seem possible, though, that Fidesz will lose its supermajority in Parliament. That could mean, over time, that other voices will have more of a say. That would be uplifting and productive, as long as the debates don’t get stuck in bickering. I don’t believe that everything Fidesz does is bad, but its distortion and dismissal of all things “liberal” does more than alienate young people; it also puts the country in a tight spot where it can’t respond to changes in the world. Rejecting these changes wholesale, through strawman putdowns, is not a response; it’s a reaction that can’t hold out indefinitely.

I do not always agree with “the left” (if it even exists as a unity), with “liberals” (variously defined), or with “conservatives” (also variously defined). Both the left and the right have blind spots and can get carried away with themselves. But I do believe in basic individual liberty combined with social responsibility. In Hungary, liberty exists, but it’s still a highly traditional society, especially outside of Budpest and the other big cities. Going outside the norms is largely frowned upon. I get a break because I am from the U.S., but if I were Hungarian, I would likely be criticized for not living like a typical woman (not being married with children, not keeping perfect house, etc.). As for social responsibility, it is emphasized and strongly valued, but selectively. A fresher view of both liberty and responsibility would shake things up in a good way.

This, I think, is part of what attracts many Hungarians to the U.S.: the freshness, the openness to change, the belief that things can happen if you dare to bring them about, and the knowledge that you have a right to protest what you consider unjust. I miss that about my country of origin too. Here in Hungary, there’s no end to the projects I can start or join, and people eagerly support them. There’s an intellectual and artistic richness that I cherish and take part in. But I bring my background to everything I do.

Protest is muted here, partly because of the laws. I was completely unprepared for the way the teachers’ strike would feel. I imagined picket lines, slogans, chants. Instead, the striking teachers were inside the building, quietly going about their day, a portion of which was devoted to deliberate, structured abstention form work. Except that certain classes and teachers were affected, you wouldn’t know that a strike was (and still is) going on. There is no way that a strike in the U.S. would take place so quietly.

This comes from a cultural difference as well. U.S. Americans can be very loud. Here the decibel level is much lower overall. Women typically speak more quietly than men (who themselves are rather quiet), even when addressing a large group. Sure, loud protests occur from time to time, but in general you wouldn’t hear women (or men, for that matter) shouting. The younger generations can be a bit louder, but not much. (I hear that people get very loud at home, behind closed doors, but that’s another matter.) I love the general quietness and thoughtfulness here but realize that some of it comes from despondency: many people have convinced themselves that they shouldn’t or can’t speak up. This is “Majdnemország” or “Papermache Dreams” at work.

I don’t mean that loudness itself is any kind of virtue. Its implied vigor, confidence, and “umph” are largely illusory. The quietest voices can be the strongest, especially if the quiet reflects humility and thought. But if the quiet is a sign of self-suppression or apathy, that’s a different matter.

As I write this, I see the complications and contradictions in what I am saying. While Hungarians tend to be on the quiet side, they are also quite verbose in comparison with U.S. Americans. Back in the U.S., we are told to emulate the “elevator pitch” or Power-Point slide: to get our point across in a short, snappy way. In Hungary, people express themselves in long paragraphs, sometimes even ornate speeches. But often I sense that they don’t think anyone is paying attention. There’s a longing for “figyelem” (true attention).

With this in view, it’s commendable that musicians have been holding benefit concerts in support of the striking teachers, for instance. I say this with full heart and respect even though I am not striking. It’s encouraging to see people challenging the status quo and supporting better pay for teachers—out loud, through music. (I dislike the term “status quo” because it can be used manipulatively and deceptively. But there is definitely a “status quo” here, of a kind that I had never known before.) The musicians almost convinced me to strike too. I can’t at this point, because I would ruin the Shakespeare festival if I did, and I have many twelfth-grade érettségi classes, which I would need to teach anyway. But the musicians’ gestures brought me closer to striking than before; I saw the importance of what they were doing.

The “status quo” is not all bad. Not only does it offer comfort and familiarity, but it has some cherished and needed elements. Hungary would be an entirely different society without its maternal leave benefits, its support of the arts and literature, its rural and village life, its relatively low cost of living, and its overall safety and tranquility. The status quo even offers temporary protection during wartime. Bring in substantial changes, and you will also bring losses and dangers. But some changes have been knocking on the walls for a long time. They can’t be kept out forever. And they might surprise us with their good.

Dominó and Sziszi (in the picture at the top) are very happy with the status quo. But they are even happier (wildly delighted, in fact) when I open the window to the strange, scented world.

A Good Picture

I have needed some new portrait photos for a while. But I wanted something different this time. In the past, session photographers wanted me to smile, because if I didn’t, the picture came out awkward. I wanted someone who could take good pictures of me when I wasn’t smiling. I also wanted them to be relatively natural. Any professional photo gets touched up a little, but I didn’t need to look twenty-five. It didn’t matter that I had imperfections. I wanted the photos to convey something of who I am.

I found the right person for this: Diána Komróczki. I loved the pictures she had taken of musicians and others, and I thought she would know how to take pictures of me. She did.

The first thing she did was put me at ease. When I arrived at her studio, some of my favorite music was playing. We talked for a little bit. Then she took a series of many photos, in different light, with different backgrounds, with me doing different things (writing, reading, thinking). The whole session was so relaxed that a lot of good photos came out of it. I now have something to provide when publications and others ask me for a photo. But beyond that, I came to a greater appreciation of what a portrait photographer does. A gifted photographer can see you and bring you out. That is nothing to take for granted.

Photos by Diána Komróczki.

  • “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

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • 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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