Different Kinds of Depth

The phrase “a deep person” makes me wary. Everyone is infinitely deep. Some people choose to escape from it, while others look it right in the face. Some keep it to themselves, while some share it with others. Some find their way to it through music and other art; others pound their feet on it when running long distance. Some find it when life socks them in the stomach. Some find it through jokes. Some don’t find it at all but are found with it somehow.

There is no point in judging oneself or others as “deep” or “shallow.” Such judgments usually break down. We don’t know what’s going on in another person, and are in no position to measure it. As for ourselves, who are we to call ourselves “deep,” when we have no basis for comparison? Deep in relation to what? What we think we see in others? What we see and what’s going on are two different things, or maybe three or more.

Still, depth does exist, and it takes different forms. There is music that plunges right away, and music that starts out on the lighter side but takes you deeper and deeper. And music that stays near the surface or flies upward.

Beginning with Atoms—their first album, For Her, is a little different in this regard—Platon Karataev’s music starts out deep with “Ex Nihilo” and goes deeper and deeper from there (if there’s such a thing as deeper than nothing). I can’t wait to hear the whole Partért kiáltó album, which will be coming out soon. Listening to the title song many times, I realize that the best way to approach it is on its own terms: not to squeeze it into existing frames and thoughts, but to take it as it is. It speaks as water, it speaks a language of water, all the layers moving and sparkling and darkening.

Cz.K. Sebő’s music, in contrast, sometimes starts out on the lighter side but then surprises and disarms you as it continues. For instance, “Someday” begins like a casual, melancholic conversation or letter, but each repetition of the sentence “you’ll be alone someday” changes and tilts the tone and sense slightly, until the listener receives these words directly and has to confront their meaning. That each of us will be alone someday, no matter how lucky or unlucky we are, no matter what we do.

One of my favorite songs by Galaxisok, “Elaludtam az Ikeában,” seems entirely lighthearted until you suddenly hear what is going on. It’s a dreamy song about falling asleep at Ikea, and waking up when it’s already dark, and running into an old girlfriend, Diána, who also, as it happens, fell asleep at Ikea. And they walk and talk together, and bring up memories of how one summer, when they were taking a make-up math exam, Peti broke his arm and had to wear a cast the whole time. Later that same summer he learns of another accident, and realizes Diána was in it, but then rejoins, “de felejtsd el, inkább hagyjuk ezt” (“but forget it, let’s drop this”). And then, “Én nem leszek fiatalabb, / te nem leszel öregebb,” “I’m not getting any younger, / You’re not getting any older,” which tells you, when it hits you, that Diána is dead and this dream took place after her death. But the music is so gentle and playful-sounding that you might miss this the first time around. (I missed it the first few times, but I think that’s because I am not a native speaker of Hungarian.) This is only a brief summary of the song; it has beautifully murky and surreal motions and images, such as crawling under the leaves of the indoor palms in the plant department.

No one has to be deep all the time; it can’t be forced. Depth happens when we let ourselves go into something. We know better than anyone else does when this happens and when it doesn’t. But sometimes, in the moment, the word “deep” doesn’t even come to mind. The thing itself draws us in, and only afterwards, in memory or reflection, does it seem profound. At other times, the profundity jumps out at us right away.

Going deep can be important as a practice, for those who want better self-knowledge, or who want to reckon with their actions, or who want to create something. But such practice often takes place in private, through meditation, prayer, or quiet thought. Sometimes it can happen in a long conversation, the kind where the conversants forget the time. Sometimes it can happen when doing something with others: for instance, playing music. But I don’t think it’s social, for the most part.

This does not mean that introversion is necessarily deeper than extraversion; introversion and extraversion can take all sorts of forms. There are people who like to spend evenings alone at home browsing random YouTube videos. There are people who go out in the world and strike up conversations with people out of genuine desire to know them better. Things aren’t what they seem on the surface.

Language, after all, takes you deeper into meanings, if you pay attention to it; there are many ways, quiet and lively, to do so. Yesterday I came upon a poem by Dezső Kosztolányi, “Szeptemberi áhítat” (“September Piety”) that I realized was one of the most beautiful poems I had read in Hungarian. But what does it mean to read it? I have read it silently and out loud; I have listened to the recording of János Pilinszky reading it. But this is just the beginning; I need to take much more time with it, maybe memorize it, maybe translate it (George Szirtes’s translation is good, but I want to go about it differently), maybe even set it to music, with cello. And then come back to reading it in silence, reciting it in my mind.

So where is all of this going? Depth is not something to claim as a title; it can be found through practice, but it also comes to you by surprise, and it’s open to all. Of all the ways we have of judging and writing off others, this is one of the worst; calling someone “deep” or “shallow” is just lying, because we are always undulating and trembling between levels, and have no idea where others (or even we ourselves) will go next.

On (Not) Taking Pictures at Concerts

Last night, for the first time in a long time, I attended a concert without taking any pictures. (It was Cz.K. Sebő with his band—a good though short show.) While I still expect to take pictures at concerts now and then, it was a relief this time not to do so. I didn’t have to worry about anything; I could just listen.

Pictures taken at concerts don’t always come out well. That’s why bands and venues have their own photographers, who go up close, shoot from different angles, etc. In contrast, if you’re in the audience, you want the photo-taking to be as brief and unobtrusive as possible, so you take out the camera (phone), shoot a few, and then put it away again. It’s a bit of a gamble.

Beyond that, when taking a picture, you’re trying to freeze or capture something that isn’t supposed to be captured. One reason for going to concerts is to hear a performance that will never be repeated in that exact same way. The moments are going by, you know they will never come back, and you want to meet them as they pass. A photograph can bring back a memory of a concert, but it can’t bring back the concert itself, and if it could, the concert would lose its meaning.

That touches on another problem: the distraction. Even if you take just one picture during a show, you’re distracting yourself slightly, and maybe others too. Never mind videos. When people hold their phones up in the air to get a video of their favorite song in the set, or just to get a video, period, they block others’ view and insert tiny screens into the picture.

And what about privacy? Yes, a concert counts as a public event, but even public events have a private aspect. Musicians don’t necessarily want their every move to be captured on phones, even on stage. It’s unnerving. And offstage they shouldn’t be subject to unsolicited photo shoots at all. But once people are in photo-clicking mode, they often clickity-clack into the night without restraint.

Last night a woman (in her forties or fifties) was taking repeated pictures of the Platon Karataev members as they talked with each other after the show. (Everyone from Platon Karataev was there.) She might have been a family member, in which case it’s understandable. But I thought she was a stranger, and my blood started to pound. Why couldn’t she leave them alone in their downtime?

Oh, but in this era of ubiquitous photo-clicking, there is no downtime, not even for audience members. Someone included me in a video last night. At many events, people have pointed their cameras my way, and I have seen the not-so-flattering results online a day or two later. You can’t attend an event anonymously any more. Your presence and reactions get recorded. And when people bring their phones and take pictures too, they make this more acceptable, when it shouldn’t be. Granted, sometimes the photos come out well, and sometimes it’s nice to have them. But I am uneasy with the trend.

The picture above (taken on Thursday evening) has nothing to do with this post except for the anonymity of the figures in it. It’s one of the best pictures I have ever taken; I had arrived at the Keleti station in Budapest and saw the shadows and light. So I quickly shot a photo. It has more people than most of my photos do, but no one would be able to identify them except perhaps the woman on the right. I find the silhouettes and shadows soothing.

What would it be like to have no picture- or video-shooting at concerts at all, except by designated photographers? It’s not going to happen, probably—but it would change the atmosphere for the better. In the absence of such a rule or agreement, it’s on each person to consider whether this incessant shooting really brings anything to the occasion. I will probably continue to take pictures here and there, but will keep the phone stowed away for the most part. I have some beautiful photos and don’t need that many more. And how great it is to attend a concert with full spirit and walk away with just the sounds and images in my mind, no token, no souvenir.

“siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél….”

Platon Karataev’s song “Partért kiáltó” (“Crying for the Coast,” or “Shouting for Shore”), the title song from their forthcoming album, can be heard in so many ways that anything I say about it is just a temporary thought, different from what others hear in it, and different from what I might hear in it next time. I wrote recently about the silences in it, and that was just a fragment of a beginning.

One line, “siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél” was puzzling me in terms of grammar alone. The words mean, in sequence, “hurries who is faster than the forest,” but I realized it had to be a special construction. I first thought it might be something like “fut ki merre lát” (“people are running every which way,” “people are running for their lives”). In that case, it would mean, approximately, “everyone is hurrying faster than the forest.” But instead, I think the “ki” is equivalent to “aki,” in which case this would mean, “he/she hurries, who is faster than the forest,” or “whoever is faster than the forest, hurries.”

de te maradj, ha idáig eljöttél
siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél

(but stay, if you came all the way here,
whoever is faster than the forest, hurries)

The other possibility that occurred to me is a kind of poetic inversion of word order: that this might mean the same as “ki siet gyorsabb az erdőnél,” or “who hurries faster than the forest.” In that case, it would refer back to “te.”

but stay, if you came all the way here,
you who hurry faster than the forest

But I have never seen an inversion like that, so for now I will stay with “whoever is faster than the forest, hurries.” That could mean something like “stay still, there is no rush,” or “time has a different scale here.” It has the ring of a saying or proverb.

These lines begin to unlock the song. At one level it seems to be about a relationship. The speaker, the water, addresses someone who has come to him out of love maybe, someone to whom he feels he has nothing to give. But this person came the distance for him, and is invited to stay here, in this space and time that are different from the world’s. No one else is there, not even rain: just the sea and the one who came to the sea.

Because that’s how it is in both solitude and love. No one else is there. Just the one or the two.

The song, as I hear it right now, has something to do with the hopelessness and hope of love: the human condition of pain and restlessness and infinity, but also the hope and change that can come from another’s presence. The final words could be coming from the water, from the other person, or from both, like a dialogue:

ezért a mondatért jöttem
ezért a mondatért
ezért a emberért jöttem
ezért a emberért

I came for this sentence
for this sentence
I came for this person
for this person

But even with that interpretation, it doesn’t stay still; different parts stand out at different times, taking on new tones, and I am not sure that it’s about a relationship at all, or about what we usually call relationship. The lyrics are absolutely beautiful and carry the beauty of the Hungarian language with them. The music carries its own dimensions of meaning; just as with the lyrics, you can listen to it in many ways, over and over, to each instrument and to the whole. I think Platon Karataev has reached a new level with this song.

In a distant way, the song reminds me of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche,” which similarly has to do with an infinity of pain, an inability to love, but then a turn toward some kind of hope, if only the hope of longing. But Cohen’s lyrics are more bitter, at least until the last two verses. “Partért kiáltó” has all of the pain, or some memory or echo of pain, but none of the bitterness. But now I am not sure that “pain” is what’s going on in it. There’s something else.

Even as I write this, I start hearing the song in different ways. It could also be a call to the listener, a kind of “invitation au voyage,” except that here the voyage consists in staying still and listening, letting the song go down into you. But that understanding, too, will change, and others will hear the song in still different ways, so I will leave off here.

I made a few additions and changes to this piece after posting it, most recently on September 3. I won’t keep on revising it, though, because there will always be more to the song than I can put down here, and this was meant just as a start.

P.S. When the full album Partért kiáltó comes out, the lyrics booklet will include English translations. But since translation is what I do (or a big part of it), and since I moved to Hungary in large part for the language, I like to ponder these things.

P.P.S. Thanks to David Dichelle, the DJ of WFMU’s Continental Subway, for including the song in his show on September 2.

Cats and Their Sense of Company

So much has been said about cats’ intelligence, emotions, personalities, and special gifts. But we still underestimate them. When I say “we,” I mean “I,” coupled with a high suspicion that I am not alone.

What I forget, in particular, is how much it matters to cats (well, not all cats, but Dominó and Sziszi definitely) to spend time with a human. Not just to have a human in the room, but to do something together: play together, nap together, watch a storm together. Sometimes Sziszi will be meowing, and I don’t know what’s wrong, but as soon as I toss toys around, she enters a state of delight–only she wants to keep on playing for a while, and she wants me involved. She and Dominó play with each other, too, but they both want me to play with them every day. It isn’t just the exercise they want, the vigor of chasing things I toss; it’s the company. I don’t take naps often, but when I do, they come and cuddle next to me and could stay that way for hours. And they like to experience things together too; just now we watched a storm through the window.

What they don’t like is when I sit at the desk for a long, long time. They perceive that it has nothing to do with them, that my attention is turned away. It isn’t that they need attention from me all the time. They just don’t understand why I would be staring at this screen, which means nothing to them. There are exceptions. Once in a while, Sziszi hears music coming through my headphones, and some of it she likes so much that she cuddles on my lap for it. At other times, either one of them will just sit on my lap for a while, or Sziszi will nap behind the laptop. But generally they wish me away from that thing.

In other words, I think cats have something to teach us (i.e., me plurified). Sziszi and Dominó are always reminding me that it’s good to be in the world, with others, namely them. And they are right. If they understood what was happening at the laptop, they might view it with more appreciation, but then again, maybe not.

A Day, a Night, and a Morning

It turned out that the day after returning to Hungary, I needed to spend a full day in Budapest, because I had a doctor’s appointment there in the morning, was attending a Platon Karataev/Kolibri concert in the evening, and saw no point in returning to Szolnok in between. But as it turned out, I also got to meet with a writer whose work I am translating, and in the remaining in-between time I walked around Buda and visited a thermal bath. Here are a few pictures and thoughts from the day.

After the (uneventful) doctor’s appointment, I walked over to the Három Szerb Kávéház, where I heard Csenger Kertai in an interview and reading in June. No, it was not Csenger I met with yesterday, though I am translating a few of his poems–more about that later! Anyway, the meeting was interesting and enjoyable (more about this project later too), and it was good to revisit the Három Szerb Kávéház and its terrace. I was left with about four or five hours of afternoon before the concert. So I crossed the Liberty Bridge and started walking along Gellért Hill. It was there that I came upon the waterfall.

I stood and watched it for a little while, feeling some of its spray, and then headed up the stone steps to see more. But it was a very hot day, and I decided not to go up to the top of the hill. Instead, I continued onward toward the Lukács thermal bath, and saw ferns, trees, shady parks along the way. I came to a park with a large lopped-off tree whose leaves were casting shadows on the trunk. I also stopped inside an enticing antique bookstore, the Krisztina Antikvárium, and bought a volume of Sándor Weöres and another of Mihály Vörösmarty (the latter in part because my street is named after him).

I was looking forward to the sauna at the Lukács thermal bath, where I had never been before, since I was already sweating a lot and figured a sauna and shower would be refreshing and restful. I was not disappointed, and I hope to return sometime.

Then it was already time to head over to the concert. I walked part of the way, took the train the rest of the way, and had about half an hour to sit back with a beer on Szentlélek tér before going into the KOBUCI Kert, a large outdoor concert venue that was soon to be packed.

The concert was the sort of thing that words won’t reach, at least not these words. A loving, wildly enthusiastic crowd that sang along (beautifully) to most of the songs and roared at the end for more and more. A passionate, spot-on performance by both Kolibri (Bandi Bognár) and Platon Karataev. A feeling of togetherness. These guys are rock stars but also brilliant songwriters and musicians; the music is deep and lasting. I felt that I knew the audience just a little bit, even the strangers, because it was so obvious why we were here. We sang along, danced along, hushed along; we waited for favorite moments and took in the new. I can’t wait for the new Platon Karataev album, which will be all in Hungarian; they played some astonishing songs from it.

I am so happy that I will get to hear both Kolibri and Platon Karataev again this summer: both of them at the Kolorádó festival, and Platon also at Fishing on Orfű and (the Platon duo of Gergő and Sebő) in Veszprém. They are playing many more festivals, one after another; these are the ones I can attend, and I am grateful for them. Fishing on Orfű is separate from MiniFishing, though part of the same festival; the latter took place in June, whereas the former will be in August. I can go for only one day and night, because of the school year starting up again, but I can’t wait to go, with bike, tent, and sleeping bag, just as in June. I will get to hear Dávid Szesztay as well, and others too.

At the very end of the concert, I spoke briefly with Ivett Kovács, whom I hadn’t met before but whom I recognized because of her beautiful cover of Cz.K. Sebő’s “Disguise.” I complimented her on the cover, then said goodbye to Zsuzsanna, Atti, Mesi, et al. and headed to the train station.

It was a long ride home, but I wasn’t tired yet; so many thoughts from the day and evening came back. Walking from the train station to my apartment at around 1:30 a.m., I saw hedgehogs in the grass. At home, I stayed up a little longer, then went happily to sleep. In the morning, feeling out of pressure, I was inspired to re-record the vocals of my cover of Cz.K. Sebő’s “Out of pressure.” I like the new recording much better; my voice is more relaxed, and it blends better with the cello. Everything else is unchanged.

I must run now. But here is a picture of the ferns, since I mentioned them and since they capture something of the day.

From Home to Home

What is home? For some, it’s a particular place, full of objects and memories, maybe the place where they grew up, or went through upheavals, or settled down later. For others, it’s trickier; home might be manifold, or it may have to do more with a state of mind than with physical surroundings.

I came back home to Szolnok today, and this is definitely home. But throughout the trip to the U.S., I had different senses of home in different places. I could not have wished for a richer ten-day trip.

I will not go into details about the personal parts of it, but in short: I visited my mother and stepfather in Northampton, Massachusetts, and celebrated my mom’s birthday there. Then went up to New Hampshire to visit my father and stepmother; we spent the better part of one of those days in Maine, which has years of memories for me and which brings to mind Cz.K. Sebő’s extraordinary song “Maine.” We went up a mountain (Agamenticus) and down into the water.

Then came the New York part: I saw dear friends, moved some things out of storage (and moved the rest into a smaller storage space), attended B’nai Jeshurun on Shabbat, took part in the wonderful service, and chanted Torah, walked around in Fort Tryon Park (bottom photo) and elsewhere, ate some delicious food, picked up an important document from former neighbors in Brooklyn, and state at the sweet and comfortable Hotel Newton, where I hope to return.

The hours in the storage space were surprisingly moving (in multiple senses of the word); I went through CDs and books, got rid of some things, and packed some beloved items to bring back. I also mailed two boxes of CDs; that was enough for now, since shipping is expensive. Now my shelves already have many things that I had been missing, and when the shipments arrive, there will be still more.

But when you’re traveling like this, even without rush, even with so much welcome and warmth, you’re still somewhat on the run. I longed to come back to Szolnok and sit at the desk, as I am doing now, and let the thoughts roll out. I was raring to get back to the writing and translation projects, to the music.

Home isn’t just the desk, though; it’s the place you can start out from. Tomorrow I go to Budapest for a full day: a doctor’s appointment, then lunch with a writer whose work I am translating, then some wandering around, then a Kolibri and Platon Karataev concert over on the Buda side, then a train ride back home. But home is in those things too.

And then the cats. I am so grateful to my colleagues Marianna and Gyula and to their son Zalán, who fed the cats while I was gone (and kindly vacuumed, and filled my fridge with fruits and vegetables so that I would not be hungry when I came back). That made the trip possible and brightened the homecoming. Sziszi and Dominó were healthy and cheerful when I returned, and Dominó gave me a big, long hug (the way cats can do). They played, sat in the window, sat on my lap, walked hither and thither, and then resumed their feline kvetching.

So back to the question of home: maybe it is a place that you rely on as an origin, a place you can set out from. That means there will be lots of homes, like fractals, each one an origin. The other side of home, though, is the return: you take off, but you long to come back. Which of these returns is the real one? Is there necessarily one real one? Or does it come down to a longing, as in János Pilinszky’s poem “Egy szép napon” (“On a Fine Day”)? Here is Géza Simon’s brilliant translation of the poem:

It’s the misplaced tin spoon,
the bric-a-brac of misery
I always looked for,
hoping that on a fine day
I will be overcome by crying,
and the old house, the rustle of ivy
will welcome me back.
Always, as always
I wished to be back.

And here is Cz.K. Sebő’s musical rendition, which introduced this poem to me, and which you may get to hear live at an ALSCW Zoom event next spring. More about this later as it takes shape, but in short, according to hopes and plans: I will be interviewing Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly and Csenger Kertai about Pilinszky, and then, after the interview, they will perform selections from their own work. Mark your calendars; we haven’t set the date yet, but you can highlight, circle, shade, or memorize the spring of 2022 in general until the details roll in.

Looking forward to things is a kind of home too! But that’s a subject for another time.

The photos are of kayaking in New Hampshire, the Hungry Ghost bakery in Northampton, pine trees along the trail up Mount Agamenticus in Maine, Sziszi and Domino at home, and me in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights, Manhattan.

“Majdnemország” and Political Songs

Should songs be political? There’s no “should” about it. No one has to insert political content in a song. However, if a songwriter has something to say that could be taken as political, but holds back from doing so out of fear or apprehension, that’s a loss to the musician and the music. Try things out, say what you want to say in the form that suits it best.

But know that others might not take well even to your lighthearted endeavors.

On May 10, Felső Tízezer (Upper Ten Thousand, or Upper Class) released a new song, “Majdnemország,” about how we don’t live out our true beliefs and desires but instead give in to the forces at hand. As a result of this passivity, the song sings, we live in a “majdnemország,” which could be translated as “Almost-Country,” or “Republic of Not Quite” or something along those lines. It could also be a pun on “Majomország” (Monkey-Country), a poem by Sándor Weöres that appears on the Sebő-együttes’s 1986 album Cimbora, a collection of children’s songs and poems.

The song begins,

Majdnemországban élni, ahol nem köszönnek vissza,
ahol az ajtóban megállnak, aztán se jobbra, se balra.
Majdnemországban élni, ahol azt mondják, hogy mindegy,
úgyse tudod megcsinálni, inkább azt csináld, amire kérnek.

A rough translation:

To live in Almost-country, where they don’t return your greeting,
where they halt in the doorway, then go neither right nor left.
To live in Almost-country, where they say it doesn’t matter,
that you can’t do it anyway, so do instead what they ask.

Within a day or so of the song’s appearance on YouTube, nasty comments started pouring in. One after another–from people who didn’t seem to have listened to the song but assumed it was an attack on the country or government. That was what struck me: that the comments were not about the song, and that there were so many of them. A familiar scenario! (Since then, the irrelevant comments have been removed, but the comments about the song itself, including negative comments, have remained.)

I saw no point in responding to those commenters, so I posted an independent comment, in which I praised the bracing quality of the song and suggested that it could apply to many countries, not only Hungary: that it was speaking about the tendency to give in to political, personal, and social systems and orders.

It seems that this comment was on target, because it came up in an interview in ContextUs with two of the band’s members, László Sallai (the band’s frontman and songwriter) and Gallus Balogh (the bassist). The interviewer quoted it, and Sallai said that it came closest to an understanding of the song. (Yes, I am honored! But that is not the point here.)

In the interview they talked about how they like to take different directions with their music instead of always repeating the same thing. Their second album, Majd lesz valahogy, is about relationships, but they went on from there, with A bonyolult világ, to sing about complexities of life more broadly.

When the discussion moved toward political songs, the two had somewhat different things to say. Balogh said that he doesn’t bring politics into his music because for him, music is intimate. But he saw “Majdnemország” as only slightly political and was startled by the reactions. Sallai said that a person should not be afraid of writing about political themes, but he doesn’t blame those who don’t, if it’s not what interests them. He went on to say that the climate today is prohibitive, that musicians lose audiences even because of something they have said outside of the music. Later he spoke of how the large news portals have been giving less and less attention to culture.

It’s a fascinating interview because of the frankness, the ideas, the take on political music and Hungarian life. I agree with Sallai: I don’t think musicians have to be political at all, if it isn’t how they see the world. There’s much more to life and music than politics. But if it is part of what they want to do and say, then they shouldn’t be punished for that. Saying, writing, or singing what you think, even tentatively and playfully, deserves room and more. Until recently, I thought that music in Hungary was a great domain of freedom. Now I see some of the restrictions and censure that musicians face. I am glad that there are people speaking about it.

I added to this piece after posting it and made slight corrections to the translation of the lyrics as well.

Thoughts on Privilege

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day of Rage (new poem)

kandinsky glass painting with the sun

Day of Rage

Diana Senechal

From the first morning tremor of my toes,
I recognized this as the day of rage,
so I arose at dawn to choose the cloth
to wear up to the highest nearby hill
with hopes of being heard by the bored sky.

A red dress? No, that would knock the wind
out of my words, and I meant to be heard.
The deep blue one was of the essence now,
the one the sky had dropped on me by chance.
That was to be the vestment of my rage.

As for shoes, sneakers would have to do.
Who cares how the feet look when their role
is just to take me up the mount of rage?
There it’s the mouth that matters; pure ire
has no release except through syllable,

so I brushed my teeth and downed half a liter
of sparkling water to levitate my thoughts.
Time to set out. The hill I chose was some
twenty kilometers away. I took the bike,
even at risk of burning off some spleen,

and pedaled up it, proud to have arrived
at the place in life where I can finally say
exactly what I mean, unsanded by
shame or apology, just the words
that fall loose from the craters of the mind.

But what came out wasn’t at all like rage.
First, nothing. I looked around the droopy
still-waking fields and thought it might be rude
to rush their rhythms all for the sake of my
sloppy paean to problems shared by none.

Then, when I kicked away that sham excuse
(what do the fields care?) and began to sing,
I saw that there were other hills nearby,
each of them topped with someone a bit like me,
staking their day on a hope of being heard,

and then I knew. Even now, even
with every ounce of ire my will could cast
into a form of sound, whatever, whoever
it was that hadn’t answered me before
wouldn’t be shaken into answering.

Worse still, I wasn’t mad. Nor were the others
who cried on dots of hills from sea to sea.
This is where music comes from, the unanswered
prayer, text message, private turn of thought,
this cry into the vault that turns away.

Had our hills been closer, our eyes might possibly
have met. We might have spent the day together:
skies to each other, forests interleaving,
words interchanging, tempered in their timing,
finding their harmony in joined rage.

“But you just said there was no rage!” No,
I said I wasn’t mad. That’s not the same.
The rage is everywhere. I’m going home,
but tomorrow I’ll get up early again,
put on a different dress, head for the hill,

and thrill up there with all the holy gadflies,
and maybe, one blind day, the rage will sing
such thunder that the sky will clap and smile,
and I will do the same, knowing at last
that I, too, am the vault that turns away.

Image: Wassily Kandinsky, Glass Painting with the Sun (Small Pleasures), 1910.

I made a few changes to the poem after posting it. Thanks to Jon Awbrey (see comments below) for the “holy gadflies” in the final stanza.

The Synagogue Concert in Szentes

After all this time, we are so happy to come back together for concerts; by “we” I mean last night’s musicians and audience at the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s concert at the former Szentes synagogue, now the town library. Szentes is a beautiful town by the Tisza river in Csongrád county; I have only been there once before, to make a train transfer, but had never walked around until yesterday.

Jews have lived in Szentes at least since the mid-eighteenth century; a Jewish community was officially established in 1800. The synagogue was built in 1871. The community flourished, from what I can tell (though the detailed history is probably much more complicated), and contributed in numerous ways to the town. During World War II, Jews in Szentes were increasingly restricted by new laws, subjected to vandalism and violence, and then confined to a ghetto. In June 1944, they were sent in cattle cars to Szeged, and from there either to Auschwitz or to labor camps in Austria. Some survivors returned to Szentes; others left for Israel or America.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra began its synagogue concert series in 2014 with the goal of playing in every synagogue in Hungary and bringing life to these spaces through music. Some of them, like the one in Szentes, have been converted to libraries or cultural centers, some into stores or other buildings (the synagogue in Békés is now a pálinka distillery). A few still function as synagogues; still others have fallen into disrepair. They all, to different degrees and in different tones, evoke a way of life in which Jews and Christians lived side by side. Those days should not be idealized; they had their conflicts and troubles. The Holocaust did not occur in a void.

These concerts bring people together for the music and for the memory of the synagogue. Life and memory mix. These are joyous events; the musicians put all their heart into it. The first part of the program is not specifically Jewish in nature (last night, it was Donizetti’s Sinfonia for Winds in G minor and the first movement of Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet in B minor); the second part consists of rapturous klezmer. But you can feel continuity between the two parts, so in the music, too, different traditions, different livelinesses come together.

In the picture to the left, you can see Ákos Ács’s clarinet on a chair, and behind the chair, to the right, the synagogue’s Torah scroll in a case. It is open to the end of Parashat Beshallach and the beginning of Parashat Yitro–the transition between the Israelites’ escape from Egypt and God’s revelations at Mount Sinai.

This was the seventh synagogue concert that I had attended since 2017; the others were in Albertirsa, Baja (before I had moved to Hungary), Szeged, Békés, Gyula, and Mátészalka. Looking back, I remember that this concert series was part of what inspired me to come to Hungary. I had learned about it in some way or another and had written to the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s conductor, Ivan Fischer, to offer my support. I said that I would gladly help the orchestra with English-language proofreading (which I did for a while, maybe a year or so, until I got very busy in Hungary with teaching, translating, and more). Then, when I decided to come teach in Hungary, I planned a short visit to Hungary, my second, before the official start date. During this visit, I spent a day at Varga and also attended the Albertirsa and Baja concerts.

I love going again and again, to the extent possible: hearing some of the same pieces, some different ones, in different synagogues and towns, with different acoustics and angles of light, different exuberances and melancholies. I love hearing the introductions by Ákos Ács and the and the short lectures by the rabbis. Over time, I have understood more and more of the Hungarian; last night I understood almost everything, except that a few names escaped me, so I don’t know who the rabbi was and still don’t know who composed the klezmer pieces. But all of that in good time. I learned last night that at previous concerts, they have served kosher flódni afterwards, so I have had flódni without even realizing it!

The rabbi spoke of the Jewish traditions in Szentes: the Shabbat traditions, including the meal (which on Friday nights consisted of fish) and the drosé (the rabbi’s commentary on the Torah portion). He spoke of how not only Szentes but the entire region was overwhelmingly Neolog (the Hungarian Jewish movement, still predominant in Hungary, that broke away from Orthodox Judaism in the late nineteenth century out of a desire to modernize and assimilate somewhat). He pointed out architectural features that reflect this: for instance, in Orthodox synagogues, the bima, from which the Torah is read, is in the center of the room, whereas in Neolog synagogues it is in front, as you would find in Christian churches.

I have loved Rita Sovány’s and Ákos Ács’s musicianship from the start, but last night had moments where I felt the whole room’s jaw drop. In the Brahms, there was one particular exchange between cello and clarinet that I have to track down and listen to again. Throughout the concert, the ensembles brought this about; the music was filled with play and soul, with conversations that have no translation.

After the concert, I headed down the stairs and saw the beautiful arch of books under the archway; then walked outside and took a backward glance; then walked around Szentes for a while and stopped for a chicken burger dinner; then took the train back home. I thought this would be my only synagogue concert this spring, but now, if possible, I intend to go to the one in Szekszárd on Sunday. It’s a bit of a trip, and I am very busy with translating, but I can work on the train. That will be the last concert in this series until fall, and I have never been to Szekszárd, so everything in me says: go.

For more blog posts in the synagogue concert series, go here.

  • “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.

  • Recent Posts

  • ARCHIVES

  • Categories