Listening (new poem)

Listening

Diana Senechal

Today I tried something new
(Or old in a new way):
Saying nothing.

True, many stints of null
Had marked my days before,
But this nothing had

A pluck to it.
Tuning, muting
Its strings, gearing

Up for the miracle
(As anything that comes
From zero is miracle),

It befriended the oval.
Later I thought of how
The hush had given me time

To hear space sing,
To see the clouds converge,
Break up, glitter, and

Spatter the long sands,
Daring me into a brief
Collapse of words.

The words resurged,
But with the glint of return
From a private voyage:

“Later I looked up the name
Of that beach whose waves
Rough-sang the sky.”

Art credit: Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Composition in Oval with Color Planes 1 (1914), oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art.

When Happiness Makes Me Grouchy

The New York Times has been running a weeklong series of articles by Jancee Dunn (informed by a Harvard research project) on how to improve your happiness. Each article has a particular focus coupled with a “challenge”: an assignment for readers to complete. The recurring theme is that people should strengthen their social lives, no matter how robust they might already be. I tried to take this all in stride, reminding myself that it is directed at people who want such advice or who are genuinely miserable. But the premise—that you should make happiness a project, upping the levels systematically and continually—calls for a fat rebuke.

Why on earth should people have to adopt a happiness plan? Probably all of us have areas of our lives that could be happier and that we are addressing in some way (or not). We might jump rope, write in diaries, sing, study languages, climb a mountain with a friend, enter therapy, or do other things that bring us closer to what we want and need. It’s our own business and combines with other priorities besides happiness: for instance, doing things that we consider important, meaningful, or fun; fulfilling responsibilities; being alone and with others; learning about the world around us; allowing for a bit of silliness.

Although each of the tips, taken on its own, has some wisdom to it, I find the overall tone condescending. (“Happiness Challenge Day 3: Chat up someone you don’t know.”) Those producing the series (editors, author, researchers,* others) apparently don’t stop to consider that (a) happiness is an area of liberty, not a homework assignment;** (b) there is no shame in being content with your general level of happiness, even if there are types of happiness that you still pursue; (c) no one is obligated to be happy all the time; and (d) there’s much more to life than being happy, even though we may at different times feel happy, pursue happiness, ponder the nature of happiness, discover happiness in unexpected places, or rediscover a happiness we have forgotten.

The first article comes with a quiz that purports to tell us how strong our social relationships are. My results stated that I was in “tip-top social shape”; they went on to recommend that I “double down” on the relationships that bring me happiness and become “even more proactive” in broadening my “social universe.” Why are they so sure that I need to do this or be told this? They have no idea what my social relationships are like.

The series falls in line with an American assumption that we should all be on some improvement plan that never stops. On and on, up, up, up. Not only that, but we supposedly lack the gumption to create it ourselves. Experts, informed by what “research has shown,” dictate it to us. How sad! A lost opportunity to enjoy life and trust ourselves a little!

Yes, many long for happiness and find it. It comes in all sorts of forms, sometimes in disguise, sometimes by surprise. It mixes with sadness, which is not its opposite, no matter what anyone might say. Happiness does best when not insisted upon, not formulated, not pushed to the supposed next level.

On Day 4, the author advises the readers to “get vulnerable”:


For today’s exercise, we’re going to get vulnerable and tell an important person in our lives how we feel about them. “Think about what they have done for you in your life,” said Dr. Bob Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of the new book “The Good Life.” “Where, or who, would you be without them?”

I see this as a private and delicate matter. Yes, it is good to express gratitude and to receive it from others. But such a declaration can feel strange (to both the speaker and the recipient) if forced. Also, there are friendships that have a certain reserve at their core, a respect for the other’s privacy and our own. We do not have to tell everyone how we feel about them. Such declarations can create pressure; vulnerability is not always kind.

On Day 7, the author, quoting Dr. Waldinger, gives advice on ways to keep the happiness going throughout the year: for instance, to set specific goals.

Dr. Waldinger advised to commit to making strengthening your bonds an ongoing practice. “Be realistic,” he said. “Could you do one small thing a few times a week to promote connections, like send one text or email to someone to say hello? Could your goal be to get together with a friend once each week?” Start small and level up as time allows, he said.

Why the assumption that numerical goals—an email or a text a week, or a get-together with a friend—will do any good at all, for oneself or the other person? This could help people who feel isolated and have trouble making contact with others. But what if you have a rhythm of contact that already suits you? What if you and your friends are overloaded with messages? For me, rather than commit to X number of contacts per week, it is more important to think of how I can be a better friend. Sometimes that even means pulling back a little, if a person needs space or is extremely busy. An example: in October when I went to the U.S., there was a friend I wanted to see, but she was in the middle of all sorts of things: preparing for a European tour, performing, getting instruments repaired…. I recognized the situation and went to one of her shows, just hours before flying back to Hungary. That was a joyous meeting, even though we barely said hi.

I added substantially to this piece after a friend wrote to me (not in the comments, but elsewhere) and challenged what I had said. To him, the series is much more nuanced than I have given it credit for. I see his points; I may have been too harsh in some ways. But I still find the series too preachy; it doesn’t recognize how vast and diverse people are, with so many different ways of being happy or not. Nor does it recognize that people have their own deep sensors; they know, better than anyone else can, when something is off and what adjustment might be needed.

Also, there’s a fundamental difference between solicited and unsolicited advice. I like reading The Ethicist, the NYT series by Kwame Anthony Appiah, because he takes ethical questions that have been submitted to him, considers them from different angles, and offers his (complex, humane) opinion. He doesn’t tell his readers how to live, but he gives us important principles to consider, in relation to a specific quandary. Often I agree with him, sometimes I don’t, but in both cases I learn from his way of considering problems.

Or on a different order of things, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: solicited advice, filled with humility. A person, poet or not, can find a friend and guide in it. “You are so young, so before all beginning, and I would beg you, dear sir, as best I can to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books penned in a language most foreign to you.”

The picture above is from a rather happy bike ride I took to Abony last week. Not tip-top happy. But happy enough that (and partly because) I saw things along the way. Could I have made that bike trip happier? No; I would have ruined it by making a happiness task out of it. The best thing about it was that it didn’t have to serve anyone else’s terms, or even my own.

*An afterthought: Psychological research often gets reduced to simplistic takeaways by those reporting on it. I do not equate the NYT series with the research itself—and am grateful to my friend Joyce for making the distinction (see the comments below).

**Another afterthought: The aforementioned friend who wrote to me pointed out that any kind of disciplined activity involves “homework assignments”; a disciplined pursuit of happiness may yield a lot more fruit than a haphazard one. Yes, this is true (and a very important point). But once we reach adulthood and finish formal school, we take on homework voluntarily. Granted, no one’s “making” anyone do the tasks presented in this series. But there’s an I-know-what’s-good-for-you tone to it all.

A Dream School (Varga)

I have been teaching at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium for more than five years now. By now I realize that things aren’t perfect (I realized this long ago), but in an imperfect world, this school glows.

Let’s take yesterday as an example. We had our annual pályaorientációs nap (Career Day), where people from different professions spoke to students about their work. Teachers not giving a presentation were supposed to be present at a session, help the speaker with any technical matters, and take attendance; we could choose which sessions to monitor. I chose those of my colleague Gyula Jenei, who spoke (to three consecutive groups) about the literary journal Eső, now more than twenty years old, of which he is the founder and editor-in-chief. So in other words I got to spend the entire morning in a discussion of literary journals, poetry, editorship, and more. The students seemed quite interested and asked many questions.

Since it was the last day before the break, the teachers then went to a meeting with the principal, László Molnár, who presented gifts to teachers who had achieved a specific milestone (such as a degree or a master’s qualification). He began by speaking about the difficulties with which we live today: not only the poor teaching conditions, but the lack of recourse for teachers—and the war in Ukraine, and how all of this can give us a sense of limited freedom. He went on to speak about freedom, quoting someone (Miklós Jancsó?) who said that every artistic work was about freedom or the lack of it. While this was perhaps an oversimplification, he said, there was still something to it—and so the gifts he had chosen for the teachers were all works of literature, by authors from around Europe and Russia, that had to do with freedom or its lack. He then proceeded to present each one, explaining why he had chosen that particular one for the particular teacher. The presentation was punctuated by three videos: Omega performing their “Ballada a fegyverkovács fiáról” (“Ballad of the Gunsmith Boy”), János Kulka performing Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluja” (in a stunning Hungarian translation) at the Dohány Street Synagogue, and a Christmas song performed by an a cappella group.

I don’t know how many schools in the world have a principal who can speak with such dignity and sincerity—who can bring together philosophy, literature, education, and the world we live in, who neither minces words nor descends into dogma, and who conveys true respect for teachers, students, and the subjects being taught. I think we are very fortunate.

From there, after a toast (the students had long gone home), we proceeded to the cafeteria for a delicious feast.

On my way home, I ran into a former student who graduated in 2020. I don’t want to repeat all of what she said, because it was so moving and sincere. But she thanked me for what I had brought to the English and Civilization classes—both the spirit and the literature. She brought up Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” which I had introduced to her class and which has been on my mind recently too). I was left with a sense of wonder: that this had all happened in the first place, that it had stayed with her, and that five years had gone by since my first few months at the school (and with her class, which was in the tenth grade then).

There has been disillusionment of a sort. The national situation is distressing: the teachers’ low pay and lack of curricular freedom (does curricular freedom exist in public school systems overall?), the various short strikes that have taken place to no avail, the government’s firing of certain teachers who took part in civil disobedience. For a combination of reasons, I did not join the strikes: I am vulnerable as a non-citizen (if I inadvertently did something illegal, I could get kicked out of the country); it would feel false to strike over a job I love, even though I agree with the strikers on certain points; and I am uncomfortable with slogans and political movements overall, since they don’t fully represent my views. Yet I respect the strikers for acting on their convictions. I think about half of our faculty has taken part in the strikes in some way. I see integrity on both sides (which doesn’t make things easy; it would be easier to believe that one side or the other was totally misguided or fake).

That, and I often wish I were a literature teacher, not a language teacher, so that the literature I brought in would be the essence of the course, not something extra that I add on, time and resources permitting. But maybe there’s something to be said for this quiet insertion. It’s a shame that literature is not a core part of the language courses, but if it were, it would probably be botched by the textbooks. The language textbooks (most of them published by Oxford University Press) are not all bad; they have useful grammar and vocabulary and the occasional interesting text. But the topics are often so condescendingly presented (“Let’s hear what five teenagers have to say about friendship!”) that it’s better that they don’t lay their hands on literature at all.

It is also a strange time for writing. I love working on Folyosó but have yet to reach the point where many students are submitting work on their own initiative. A few do this—and I am grateful—but for the most part I select work from assignments that I give. There lies the problem: I can never be sure that the students wrote the piece themselves. That is, I can tell when it is their own work (a certain character and vivacity comes through, along with non-native use of English), but when I think something isn’t theirs, I have no way of proving it, since the cheating has become so sophisticated, with AI programs and such. Students would have no reason to submit a piece they didn’t write, since submissions to Folyosó are entirely voluntary, but many will cheat on homework. A few students have actually come forward on their own and admitted that they didn’t write a particular piece, but usually I am left to struggle with doubt (especially when a piece is suspiciously polished, without much of a personal element).

But a great thing about being a teacher is that you can open up a different way of looking at the world. The students are paying attention, even when it doesn’t seem so. Or rather, all of us pay attention even when we don’t realize it. I remember explaining to students (a few years ago) why writing was important and not just a dull duty. I mustn’t forget the importance of such explanations. Also, we are all contradictory human beings. I have a student who claims to be interested in nothing but technology and sports, but who makes exceptionally insightful comments about the stories we read. A subject can become interesting at any instant.

I often think back on my years at Columbia Secondary School and the times when the principal, Miriam Nightengale (a wonderful leader and person) would remind me to keep a sense of humor about it all. “Trick them into taking interest,” she would say with a twinkle. In the beginning there, I took the class disruptions too much to heart. There were students with very low patience thresholds, who would shout or chatter continuously. Over time, the students started to trust that the philosophy classes were important and interesting—and showed this in class, philosophy roundtables, Contrariwise, and hallway conversations—but I see now how I might have won them over earlier. I had little sympathy for the disruptors; it’s hard for me to understand why anyone would chatter or call out rudely during a lesson (or talk while someone else is speaking, period), since it’s so jarring. But even they would agree with me; they too wanted calm, focused classes. Once again, we are full of contradictions. The one who shouts may be longing for quiet. The one who interrupts with off-topic comments may take interest when you least expect it.

One of my favorite moments, with one of my most difficult classes at CSS, was when a student gave a speech that was full of rhetorical pathos but absolutely illogical (and he knew perfectly well what he was doing). It was patently an argument that we should be kinder to the homeless, but it made very little sense. The students listened first with curiosity, then with expressions of befuddlement. Then they burst out laughing. Then, in the discussion, they pointed out every fallacy. (This was the ninth-grade Rhetoric and Logic course, for which every student had to write and deliver a speech.)

Another favorite memory from the difficult times was the “Locke and Beads” incident.

But to return to yesterday: after the feast, I went home for a couple hours and then headed to the Tisza Mozi (Szolnok’s art cinema, which also hosts plays, concerts, and other events) for the Híd Szinház performance of Zsolt Bajnai’s play A hagyaték (The Bequest), which I had seen twice before at a different venue. This, too, had connections to Varga; Kata and Marcell Bajnai both graduated from Varga, and Kata was there at the play, visiting from Spain, where she now lives. The director, József Rigó, is the father of Eszter Rigó, who attended Varga as well. It’s a remarkable one-act play, which I understood slightly differently each time.

Earlier in the week, on Monday night, I went to the Tisza Mozi for an inspiring book presentation by my colleague István P. Nagy, who just published a poetry collection. Gyula Jenei interviewed him and the publisher, and István’s wife and colleague, Judit Méri, read aloud from the book. (And last week I went there for an Eső event.)

Let me not forget to mention the annual tradition of caroling, which the eleventh-grade bilingual students perform each year. They travel from classroom to classroom throughout the day, so that by the end of the day, every student in the school has seen the show (which involves a short skit as well as songs). This year’s show was absolutely joyous, with one student leading on guitar and everyone singing with full voice. Here is just one minute from one of the performances.

Several colleagues wished me a happy Hanukkah this week. (I am comfortable with “Merry Christmas” wishes too—I grew up with Christmas and am fond of it—but was touched by my colleagues’ thoughtfulness.)

So yes, Varga is a dream school for me, and for many students too. It’s not hard to see why.

Returning to Hesse’s Demian

My painted dream-bird was on its way in search of my friend. In what seemed a miraculous fashion a reply had reached me.

—Hermann Hesse, Demian, tr. W.J. Strachan

When I was twelve or thirteen, reading one Hesse novel after another, adults used to tell me, “You’ll outgrow Hesse when you get older.” Not only did this not happen—I have returned to Hesse’s work repeatedly over the years—but I now see that both they and I misunderstood his writing in different ways. I will focus here on Demian. (If you have not read it but intend to, please hold off on reading this post.)

“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?” This quote from the fifth chapter, which often also appears at the beginning of the book, has a complex meaning. The adults probably saw the concept of self-searching as immature; for my part, I probably took the characters of Demian and Eva, and the magic of the book as a whole, too literally. On my last reading, completed today, I understood much more.

In 2017 or 2018, when I had not been living in Hungary for long, I purchased a copy of Demian in Hungarian translation. Because of my beginner-level Hungarian, it was slow going (even with such a familiar text), so I set it aside for another time.

That time came last week, when the Poket edition came out—with a wonderful preface by Gergely Balla, who was to be interviewed and play his music at a Poket event in Budapest, on November 10. I wanted badly to attend the event but had to supervise a physics competition from 6 to 7 p.m. So, in the afternoon before my supervision duty, and during the hour itself (I just had to be in the room keeping an eye on things), I read the first three chapters from the Poket edition. Today I finished the book. It took a while for the Hungarian to resonate with me; my memories were bound to the English phrases and rhythms. But by the fifth chapter or so, the text was singing in my mind. Here, though, I am quoting from several English editions and translations.

The adults in my teenage years probably thought that “self-searching” loses importance when you grow up and have to take care of others. But Emil Sinclair’s self-searching in Demian is not solipsistic or narcissistic. The book’s philosophical refrains play against the changing, moving life of a young man in the world, so that with each repetition (about breaking out of the egg, or differing from the herd, or bearing a sign on your forehead), a new nuance is added. Moreover, the book moves continually through paradox. Seeking your true self requires the recognition that this is impossible; that there is something inside you that moves, acts, and knows but that does not reach the rational mind. It is through painting that Sinclair starts to find out who he is—but it is not only himself that he finds there.

Early on, through a conversation with Max Demian and through his own thoughts, he discovers that he must leave falsity behind: false oppositions (between “good” and “bad,” for instance), false morals, false education, false company, false occupations—or, in contrast, to accept them all as true, insofar as they accompany him a part of the way.

But Sinclair’s struggle goes farther and deeper. He asks Demian, and later his mentor Pistorius, whether following your fate means you are allowed (and even obligated) to kill people whenever you feel the urge to do so. Neither one gives a full answer, but both suggest that this is not the case. Being true to the self does not mean following every urge or feeling. Pistorius suggests that when you feel an urge to kill a person, it’s actually the person’s mask that you want to kill, because the human below the mask is like you. But even this thought remains unfinished, for Sinclair to work out on his own.

As a teenager, I misconstrued Demian himself. (He is an intense, reflective boy, a few years Sinclair’s elder, who befriends Sinclair and shares with him what seems like uncanny, otherworldly wisdom.) I took him too literally; I thought I would find a Demian in my own life and was disappointed when it turned out that no one, no matter how exceptional or caring, could live up to the role. Today I see Demian as a metaphor, or maybe a perfection and elongation of certain encounters that do happen.

In contrast, Pistorius, the organist and mystic, seems to be of flesh and bone. His relationship with Sinclair reminds me of many I have had in my life (whether I was the mentor or the one being mentored). My favorite passage in the book is where Sinclair breaks with him without meaning to, by saying a word that hurts him. The passage is tender and vivid—but also a metaphor in its own way, since our lives are filled with teachers and students, formal and informal, with whom we must make a break at some point, or who must break with us. In fact, this may be the essence of education itself: reaching the point where you break away.

For a long time we stayed in front of the dying fire, in which each glowing shape, each writing twig reminded me of our rich hours and increased the guilty awarness of my indebtedness to Pistorius. Finally I could bear it no longer. I got up and left. I stood a long time in front of the door to his room, a long time on the dark stairway, and even longer outside his house waiting to hear if he would follow me. Then I turned to go and walked for hours through the town: its suburbs, parks, and woods, until evening. During that walk I felt for the first time the mark of Cain on my forehead.

(Tr. Michael Roloff and Michael Lebeck.)

This time, rereading the book, I took in every detail of Sinclair’s relationship with Pistorius: the way it begins (with Sinclair secretly listening to Pistorius playing the organ, first from outside, then from within the church), the things they talk about, the idea of Abraxas, the break with its guilt and acceptance, the memories of Pistorius long afterward.

What sets Sinclair apart, even from Demian, are not only the breaks he has to make with others, but his hesitations, pauses, misgivings along the way. Profoundly attracted to Eva, Demian’s beautiful, hauntingly androgynous mother, he does not know what to do with his desire, but it finds its own form, which has to do with the tender respect between them, his dreams at night, his painting, and the changes in the world that will soon force him to go his own way. Eva, like Demian, seems more god than human, but also part of Sinclair himself, even before he meets her.

The world itself does not stay still in Demian. At the end, a war is breaking out; a sadness and worry sets over things. Demian speaks at length about the dark times ahead. Sinclair has to say goodbye to Demian and Eva (but also learns how to find them) and give himself over to a duty that troubles and heartens him at the same time. The possible optimism (thoughts of a new world coming into being) are offset by the painful last kiss and Sinclair’s statement that everything since then has hurt.

But back to the search for self: Hesse may be hinting, throughout Demian, that while each person has a singular fate, unlike anyone else’s and not governable by social morals and rules, the self is not discrete but instead bound up with others; that we call out to others, even in silence, and they answer. In this sense and others, self-knowledge and self-loss may join together. This unity requires courage and brings loneliness and uncertainty. As Eva tells Sinclair, there are no everlasting dreams; one dream replaces another, and we can’t cling to a single one. If we could, though, would paintings, music, and literature exist? Would we? Don’t we depend on dreams’ coming and going?

Tossing a Bad Idea

Shortly upon returning to Hungary, I started looking at possible grants for the future. Surely there was a grant, in Hungary or the U.S., that would fund one of my projects or reimburse me for a trip. I found something with an imminent deadline—a book grant—and began feverishly assembling materials. (I won’t go into details, since I hope to apply for this grant in the future and don’t like to talk about projects before they take shape.) After spending some twenty hours on it, I realized that my proposal had some problems that could not be worked out in a week or two. The grant is awarded annually, so why not take a year to put together an outstanding proposal? Reviewers have specific goals for the grant money and take care to award it appropriately. Beyond that, I myself wasn’t convinced by the premise of my project.

There’s some relief in abandoning a flawed idea: not just deciding that it is flawed (which can happen within minutes of coming up with it) but seeing exactly where it goes wrong. For one thing, no one is obligated to take on an independent project that one does not believe in. Let it go, and there’s time for other things. For another, the insight helps in all sorts of ways. Third, the motives for cobbling together something may be questionable in the first place. In this case, I wanted to apply for the grant. That is still possible—but only over time, and with an idea and proposal that I can stand behind.

Also, this impulse came out of leftover momentum. I still need time to absorb the conference and trip; there hasn’t been time to rest, since things are so busy at school and elsewhere and I am a bit under the weather (not with Covid, just with a mild bug of some sort). Many people coming back from a trip or project find a kind of estrangement: what for months was one of the most important things in their lives is now a memory, and what’s more, most people don’t care about it. Some students and colleagues (as well as a few friends and fans of the Hungarian group) have asked about the trip, but overall people have their own preoccupations, which is understandable. No one can be expected to understand what this was for me and others. Nor can I be expected to explain, beyond giving basic summaries. Instead, those days will find their way into the folds of everyday life. Things are different because of them.

But even that takes time to get to know. It requires rest and reflection, listening and reading, leisurely attention to daily things. No one has to jump from one project to the next or immediately take a given accomplishment “to the next level” (a particularly American concept that I have discussed with my students in Civilization class). At times (and when possible) it is good to hold back from the next thing. That will be the subject of a future blog piece.

(Speaking of the conference, some of the papers and other materials from the “Setting Poetry to Music” seminar can be found here. More may be added later.)

Art credit: Timothy Jones, The Quiet Muse (oil on panel).

From a Distance, a Mourning: László Ipacs

Yesterday László Ipacs, one of the founding members of the legendary Vágtázó Halottkémek (Galloping Coroners) died at the age of 65. I never heard them play in concert. I only began listening to them and reading about them last February—and slowly found my way to recordings that include the original lineup. One of these is the exhilarating album A Halál móresre tanítása from 1988. If I put that together with descriptions of their live shows, I can start to imagine what it might have been like to be at one of their concerts during the Soviet era, when no such thing was allowed and no one else was making music like this.

The founding guitarist, Sándor Czakó, is the father of Cz.K. Sebő; Platon Karataev sometimes covers “Halló mindenség.” That, along with “Élő Világegyetem,” “Nincs más megoldás” and “Hunok csatája” are some of my favorites so far, but there’s lots more to hear.)

The loss to Hungary is profound. The Galloping Coroners did what no one else had done before and no one to my knowledge has done since. All three founding members were physicists and musicians. They had no fear, at least no visible fear. They took to the stage (starting in 1975, I think) and played ecstatically until the police broke the concerts up. Clubs that allowed them to play would get fined. Clubs invited them anyway. According to legend, they were used to playing extremely short shows—because they would always get halted by the authorities—but one night, no one interrupted them, and they suddenly had to improvise. The resulting concert ended up influencing their music to come.

It wasn’t just their daring onstage that made them stand out (in my understanding), but their defiance of typical divisions between academic and popular pursuits, between classical, punk, and other music, and between who knows what else.

The band went through lineup changes over the years, but it could never have existed without the original members, whose music still offers hope of a beautiful, soulful outspokenness. I am sorry that one of them is gone.

Photo courtesy of Recorder.blog.hu.

I made some additions to this piece after posting it.

Happy New Year

In a few hours I will be heading off to Budapest to co-lead the Erev Ros Hásáná service at Szim Salom. We have the unconventional tradition of reading Torah at the evening service, since we don’t hold a morning service for Rosh Hashanah (for Yom Kippur we do, but not this year, since we will be observing the holiday together with several congregations). So tonight I will also be leyning Genesis 21:1-21), a beloved and perplexing passage. (In another post I have explained, in very basic terms, what leyning is.) The High Holiday cantillation trop (melodic system) is especially beautiful, so this is one of the highlights for me.

The year is new for me in more ways than I can enumerate. I have so much happening this fall and so much to attend to in general. But my dear friend Joyce posted a quote the other day that set off some thoughts, so I will respond to it here.

“Forgiveness is not a matter of exonerating people who have hurt you. They may not deserve exoneration. Forgiveness means cleansing your soul of the bitterness of ‘what might have been,’ ‘what should have been,’ and ‘what didn’t have to happen.’ Someone has defined forgiveness as ‘giving up all hope of having had a better past.’ What’s past is past and there is little to be gained by dwelling on it. There are perhaps no sadder people then the men and women who have a grievance against the world because of something that happened years ago and have let that memory sour their view of life ever since.”

—Rabbi Harold S. Kushner

We often have it backwards. When we think we are waiting for forgiveness (or at least reconciliation, or acceptance, or kindness) from someone else, it is often we who are not forgiving them, not letting them take their own direction. In other words, forgiveness is primarily on us, not on the other people, and in some ways it’s also for us, not for them. Rabbi Kushner also points out, wisely, that forgiveness is not the same as exoneration. In some cases, you do not have to arrive at an acceptance of what they did. Still, you can go on with your life without having their actions hover over you forever.

I would add that in life we are given some people who understand us (up to a point), and others who do not, just as we understand some of the people in our lives, and others not. Being misunderstood and mistaken feels rotten, but it is simply going to happen. No one is understood by everyone, and no one understands anyone perfectly. Still, understanding of a certain kind does come.

I think again of Genesis 21:1-21. When Sarah tells Abraham to send Hagar away, Abraham does not understand at first; the request upsets him deeply. But God tells Abraham to listen to her, because there is a larger plan. “‘Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to thee.”

This is strange to the modern ear, because the modern mind would be likely to judge Sarah for her jealousy (even though we’d be at least as jealous and upset in her shoes). It might not even be jealousy as much as a sense of disorder. Casting Hagar and her child out seems cruel, especially since it was Sarah who first suggested that Hagar bear Abraham a child. But in the world of this text, the cruel act will allow Isaac to be the head of a great people, and Ishmael too. Staying together in the same home, they would not accomplish this.

As remote as the story and text are from our time, they have truth today too. The losses in our lives seem harsh, but they also make it possible for us to create new things. I think back on times when I have been “cast out” by someone—not kicked out of a house, but told, essentially, “we need to go our own ways.” At the time, I was dismayed. But the wonderful things that followed could not have happened if we had not made such a break. That does not mean everyone has to break with everyone; it is much better, when possible, to uphold relationships over time, let them deepen, and tackle problems that arise. But some breaks (not necesarily romantic, but also in friendships, associations, etc.) open up a world.

That is all, because I have a lot to do before heading off to the train station. Happy New Year!

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

Downtime

For a long time I had been looking forward to tonight’s Platon Karataev concert (opening for Vad Fruttik) in Budapest Park. I had planned to go just for Platon, then head over to Pontoon to hear Henri Gonzo if there was time. But when I started trying to figure out how to do it, things got more complicated, since I am leading a Szim Salom service tomorrow morning in Budapest. First I thought I’d go to the concerts, come back to Szolnok, then go to Budapest again in the morning. Then it seemed to make more sense to stay overnight at a hotel. I found something affordable and made a reservation. But then I realized that to pull this off, I’d have to rush to the train station after school, take the train to Budapest, check into the hotel, make my way out to Budapest Park (barely in time for the show), attend the Platon concert, zip out in a cab to Pontoon, listen to Henri Gonzo, go back to the hotel, wake up the next morning, go to Bálint Ház to lead the service, and return to Szolnok around 5 p.m. on Saturday. The more tired I got over the course of the week, the less this prospect appealed to me. I then returned to the idea of going to Budapest twice, but that seemed even more hectic; in the meantime, my body had started clamoring for a quiet evening. So I decided to stay home from the concerts, get a good night’s sleep, and go to Budapest tomorrow morning.

There are times when you have to do that. I know, it’s the very point of Shabbat. For me, Shabbat does not preclude Friday night concerts, train rides to Budapest, or anything like that. But tonight an evening of rest at home seemed not only wise but imperative. The week has been thick with teaching and ALSCW conference preparations. Rosh Hashanah is around the corner. The trip to the U.S. is a month away. So much has gone into it, we are all excited about it, and I want to be rested when it happens.

So not only is it good to stay home tonight, but maybe a little more rest overall is in order. Shabbat Shalom.

Is “Being” Happy (or Sad or Anything Else) a Misconception?

How often has someone or other said, “I want to be happy” or “I want you to be happy”? But what if there were no such thing? What if, instead, what we call “being happy” were really a state of awareness of a happiness that is always there? What if all emotions existed eternally (or at least beyond any measurement that we are capable of), inside and outside of us, and, instead of “having” them or “being” them, we simply heard them with varying clarity at different times in our lives? This is not an original idea; I think of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha listening to the river. I think of Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” But it is an idea that perhaps has been forgotten or brushed aside.

It would help explain why people are capable of feeling multiple and contradictory emotions. It’s possible to feel happiness and sadness, anger and forgiveness, fear and calm—and maybe all of these are always there, just fading in and out of prominence in our minds. Yes, we do something with them. We choose whether to entertain them, whether and how to act on them. But in some sense they exist beyond us; they are not ours, though our responses are.

This is a short post, but the thoughts continue. I have a lot happening at once: the wonderful start of the school year, the upcoming trip in October, and even right now, this weekend, a few events in tight succession. So this is all for now.

Meanings of Craving

George Szirtes’s wonderful and bracing essay “Landscapes of Desire” in the second issue of The Continental Literary Magazine sent thoughts twining through my mind. He asks about the differences between words with overlapping meanings: desire, craving, lust, passion. He writes:

One might have a craving for food or drink or tobacco, for possession of an object, or for something more abstract, like comfort, or fame. The word implies a form of dependency in that one cannot live without, or cannot resist, the thing craved. In any case, it suggests something potentially illicit. Maybe, in English, it is simply because the word crave rhymes so neatly with the word deprave. It is excessive, intemperate, well beyond the supposed Golden Mean.

Desire is nobler than that. We all claim to understand and indeed to glory in it. It takes the best out of the notion of passion. Passion and desire are the driving forces of a heroic, if potentially tragic life. But craving? Does that not imply something slavish? Isn’t there something a little humiliating about it?

He goes on to discuss the poems in the issue of the journal in terms of the words he brings up. According to Szirtes, desire is elegaic, aware of the loss it contains; craving is aware only of itself and the moment.

Yes. But not quite.

I use the word “crave” repeatedly in my essay “To Crave the Edges of Speech: Reflections on Cz.K. Sebő’s New Album,” which was published in the online version of the same issue of The Continental. After reading Szirtes, I see that I should have defined the word a little, or maybe justified my use of it. I knew what I meant by it, and no, it isn’t quite as enclosed and delimited in my ear as it is in Szirtes’s. Instead, it’s sharp, compelling, and possibly pure.

There’s a kind of spiritual craving where you want something so badly that you are set in motion willy-nilly, even though you may have many reflections on what is going on. There is nothing humiliating about this. It can be surprising and enlightening. It can open up years of learning.

Hermann Hesse writes of this in Demian: “If you need something desperately and find it, this is not an accident; your own craving and compulsion led you to it.” In the original German, this reads, “Wenn der, der etwas notwendig braucht, dies ihm Notwendige findet, so ist es nicht der Zufall, der es ihm gibt, sondern er selbst, sein eigenes Verlangen und Müssen führt ihn hin.” Now, “Verlangen” could be translated as “longing,” but “Müssen” suggests urgency, compulsion. So the sharpness of craving comes through.

Or take Walt Whitman’s “Song of Prudence,” with these lines: “Whatever satisfies souls is true; / Prudence entirely satisfies the craving and glut of souls, / Itself only finally satisfies the soul, / The soul has that measureless pride which revolts from every lesson / but its own.” Here’s a paradoxical idea: that you can crave your way into prudence.

That is exactly where the beauty of craving lies. If we only had longing, desire, etc., we would sit around and do nothing but contemplate the yearning and the loss. Craving sets a person in motion, which can be toward the good. Yes, in craving you are carried. You do not necessarily know where you are going, even if your object seems clear. Some of the best changes in life happen because of this.

It has happened to me with music. I remember distinct times over the decades. Music touches on everything and goes past everything; its motion brings everything along with it. I have been hurled by music. Into the unknown, into new ways of life.

There is nothing humiliating about being hurled into uncertainty. Craving may be certain and specific in some ways. But in others it’s a complete unknown. What you think you want may only be the catalyst.

Craving is immoderate, yes. But even moderation must be taken in moderation. Only excess (not all kinds of excess, not excess to the extreme, not excess that blocks out thought, not excess that treats others badly, but still a certain kind of excess) allows a person to tip over, and sometimes this is the best thing that could happen.

It has its dangers too. People seized by craving can discard responsibilities, histories, awareness of others. But danger lies everywhere, even in the safest of things. It is possible to live too carefully, too courteously, too containedly. Moderation, too, has its excesses. A certain kind of craving keeps them in check.

But that’s not really craving you’re talking about, someone might say. It’s more like a state of spiritual urgency. Well, then, to settle that question (or to unsettle it), let’s look up “crave” in the beloved Online Etymological Dictionary.

Old English crafian “ask, implore, demand by right,” from North Germanic *krabojan (source also of Old Norse krefja “to demand,” Danish kræve, Swedish kräva); perhaps related to craft (n.) in its base sense of “power.” Current sense “to long for, eagerly desire” is c. 1400, probably through intermediate meaning “to ask very earnestly” (c. 1300). Related: Craved; craving.

What is prayer, if not craving of a sort? Where would craft come from, if not from a certain craving?

Art credit: Michael Pickett, The Old Piano.

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

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  • 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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