Escape into Truth

Music at its best is an escape into truth: an escape from noise, distraction, circumvention into something that you recognize and know at your core but also learn right there and cannot fully explain. That’s what Cz.K. Sebő’s concert last night at the Központ was like. A full room, most of the audience seated on the floor. A hush. A quality of attention that you don’t often find. A rich, beautiful performance: his own songs (including favorites such as “Out of Pressure,” “Hart,” “Eternal Home,” “Wide Eyes,” “Debris,” and a Hungarian/English rendition of Pilinszky’s “Egy szép napon”) and an array of covers (of songs by Jackson C. Frank, Blaze Foley, Current Joys, Sebő Együttes/József Attila, and Damien Jurado). The covers were an act of gratitude and love, and an opening into music we hadn’t necessarily heard before, or heard in that way.

There was something I learned at the concert, but I can’t explain it. It was a flash of “You must change your life” stretched into an hour. But changing your life doesn’t mean doing everything differently. It might mean, simply, a new alertness, a new way of hearing things, or to borrow from Art of Flying, timeawakenness. It is nothing to take for granted; you have to build room for it and defend it against everything that would chip away at it or knock it down.

So I’ll end here with a beautiful recording and video of Damien Jurado playing “Abilene.” I love how the song ends with a question.

Two Miles (and Who Are We, Anyway?)

This morning I ran over two miles (close to four kilometers) for the first time in years. It used to be my minimum distance, but I haven’t reached it in a long while. Biking is different; I can bike a hundred kilometers in a day without much trouble. With biking, the only thing that really tires me is the position: my hands, back, and rump get stiff after a while. But running’s in some ways the opposite; the elongated posture is relaxing, but the stamina takes time to build. Two and a half miles is a great daily standard; if I can keep it up, I will be in good shape. I was ready for it earlier this summer, but the heat kept me to two kilometers daily. Today, in the blustery weather, I kept going and going.

In childhood, I thought I was not only bad at sports, but fundamentally different from the jocks. The jocks were one type of person, I was another. (How wrong that was—but more about that in a moment.) I couldn’t react quickly on the field. If a ball was thrown my way, I panicked. Some adults told me that this was a sign of intelligence: that people who hesitate are brighter than those who don’t. That’s wrong too; quick thinking and reflexes are a form of intelligence. Anyway, I thought that it was my fate to be bad at sports. And then I discovered that I was good at things that required endurance, such as running. A lot of kids hated running so much that a mile seemed way beyond the pale. I started running a mile daily, out on the sports field.

After a while, some of the older girls—whom I admired to the skies—asked if they could run with me, because I could keep their motivation up. This was great for me; I was thrilled that I had something to offer them, something they weren’t as good at. And a sport, no less! We had conversations while running; I still remember some of them.

But I was still considered an “intellectual” type (and therefore not other things). There is a tendency in American culture to divide people into types. There’s a little less of that here in Hungary, I think, but no matter where you live, some form of typecasting happens. It’s limiting and dumb, because no matter what particular talents and weaknesses any of us has, these do not sum us up or predict what we will do.

Self-knowledge: in some ways a futile pursuit. We can get to know ourselves better over time, but there’s more to each of us than the self, and more than we see at any given moment. Recognition happens here and there in life, maybe often. But it is not necessarily self-recognition. It could be recognition of the truth, or of others, or of correspondences between things. I recognize something when listening to favorite music—but not necessarily myself. Maybe I hear something ancient, maybe a hint of a faraway memory, maybe a crack into a new understanding, maybe a basic sorrow or joy or something murky, maybe a cryptic pattern. Maybe sound and rhythm following and breaking their own rules.

Highlights of the Week

One of the great highlights of this week was reading John Cheever. I bought a big collection of his stories; this was inspired by Benedek Szabó’s online recommendation of “The Swimmer.” Before buying the book, I read “The Swimmer” and two other Szabó favorites, “Goodbye, My Brother” and “The Country Husband” (all three are fantastic) and reread two, “The Enormous Radio” and “Reunion.” Once I had the book, I started opening up to a random place and reading that űstory; in that way I have read (so far) “Clementina,” “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” “A Vision of the World,” “The Music Teacher,” and (my favorite of these five) “Metamorphoses.” Although the female characters sometimes lack depth (and not always), these stories are both brilliant and addictive, a great combination for someone who doesn’t very often sink into reading for sheer fun. My reading is usually slow and preparatory; I am getting ready for class, translation, leyning, or something else. I enjoy that kind of reading, or I wouldn’t do it—but it’s great to have this thick book of Cheever and to know that I’m going to read it fast.

I have already brought up some of the other highlights of the week, but one of them deserves a repetition. Cz.K. Sebő’s instrumental song “4224” is gorgeous. Listen to it here. The cover art is by Fruzsina Balogh.

Two interviews were published or announced this week, one from last week, one taking place next Thursday. My Chametzky Translation Prize interview with Aviva Palencia, summer intern at The Massachusetts Review, can now be viewed on YouTube.

And next Thursday at 2:30 p.m. EDT (8:30 p.m. in Hungary), Matt Barnes and Keil Dumsch will interview me about my ten-year-old book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. Everyone is welcome; to join, you need to be registered on LinkedIn.

Yesterday I had a beautiful day. I went to Budapest for two performances: first, Platon Karataev at the MOMkult, for the opening of the exhibition in memory of Tamási Áron. It was an absorbing and dreamy performance; I think “Tágul” was my favorite, though it’s hard to say.

Then I walked briskly to the Városmajori Szabadtéri Színpad to see the premiere of a musical adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days (in Hungarian: 80 nap alatt a Föld körül). It was lively, funny, and inventive, with colorful song and dance, umbrellas, digital scenery, and a terrific cast. The libretto is by Réka Divinyi, and the music is by the band Lóci játszik. For years I had wanted to see Around the World in 80 Days on stage, having read about a performance in NYC. Here are some photos.

And there was much more: translating, writing, running, preparing for the ALSCW conference and October trip, listening to music, spending time with the cats, thinking, walking around Budapest, discovering new places and buildings. And now the sun is setting, and I will try to rest a little. Shabbat Shalom.

Listen Up: Sonny Smith (and the Sunsets too)

It was late 2000. I was soon to leave San Francisco, where I had lived seven years. Carrie Bradley’s band 100 Watt Smile was playing at Café du Nord. Someone by the name of Sonny Smith, who I had never heard of, was also playing. I was tired and didn’t want to hear two shows; I just wanted to hear Carrie and her band. But since I didn’t know who was playing first, I showed up early, awkwardly early. Then someone started playing who whisked all the gloom and exhaustion out of me. The music had a funk-rap feel (which he soon departed from), and his mordant, playful words spilled out like relaxed magic.

After his set and before 100 Watt Smile, I ran up to Carrie and said, “Sonny Smith was fantastic!” She motioned to her left, and there he was. I felt so awkward I couldn’t say anything more. But that was okay. I have never met a musician who doesn’t understand awkwardness at all. Later we collaborated on a project. But more about that later.

The songs he sang that night are mostly on his early album who’s the monster… you or me? which isn’t available online. I have it on CD but wouldn’t upload it; I think he would have done so if he wanted to. He has so many albums and projects at this point that it’s going to be hard to do them justice. But others have written about him very well, and I’ll take a little of their help. For instance, in a San Francisco Weekly article from January 2001, David Cook writes about the song “Pass the Wine” (one of my favorites to this day) and others. The article begins:

“The secret of writing is in the rhythm of urgency,” noted Jack Kerouac. No Bay Area songwriter understands that principle better than Sonny Smith. His peculiar lyrics pour out in a cascade of images, conjuring crazy characters such as Officer Scalletti, who was “killed by an iron hurled by the lover of his wife/ Who bleached her hair and pierced her tongue for the funeral”; darling, dipsomaniac Molly, “swinging a neon series Louisville Slugger/ Bat chin just a little bit higher than a rave rat’s/ Chance of pulling up his pants”; and Frank, who chased Molly to Dublin but preached “this whole boy meets girl/ Boy gets girl/ Boy loses girl/ Boy spends all his money chasing girl around the world is overrated.”

The amazing thing is that Smith writes the songs almost as quickly as he raps them at local clubs and bars. “It’s like having to tell somebody about these things that happened,” he says of his songs. “You’re just telling somebody really fast, like a little kid telling his mom, and you can’t even get it all out, you can’t possibly do it all justice.” Combining these urgent raps with an authentic funk/blues beat, Smith’s music is as natural sounding as it is unique.

Sonny’s creative energy and bounty breaks norms. By 2000, some of my favorite bands were slowing down or breaking up. Some had been disappointed by the false (or at least contradictory) promises of the 1990s, when indie music seemed to be catching on and so many musicians seemed within a few inches of “making it.” Many musicians reject the conditions for such success: the excessive focus on publicity, the grueling (and sometimes poorly matched) tours, the record deals that fall through or turn out to be ripoffs, the big breaks that ended up embarrassing in one way or another.

But Sonny was on his own roll. Playing, writing, mischief-making. Taking new directions and new projects. I’ll get to those in a minute. But first, it would be wrong to go any further without giving you one of his early songs. Here is “Way to Go,” from his beautiful, low-key album This Is My Story, This Is My Song (2002). Just listen to what happens at each stage of this song. The guitar, the backing vocals, the piano, the humming, the way the lyrics go into your own life and out to the lives of others.

there was a red bird flying
above a black-top road
there was a pinto trying
to pass a motor home
there was a woman singing
on the radio
there was a long, long way to go

Yes, so when I was living briefly in Tucson, I contacted Sonny, imagining he might have some stories to contribute to my new literary journal, Sí Señor. He replied by sending me ten or so. (There were many more to come.) They needed some touching up, so I offered to edit them. He accepted (and liked the edits). So there we were. Sí Señor had catapulted into near-existence. While the first issue was still underway, I moved to NYC, gathered more writing and art, put it all together, sent it off to the printer, and planned the inaugural event, which would consist of a reading and a music performance. Sonny came out to NYC to play. Jack Rabid’s band played too. It was terrific fun.

Oh, yes, but the music part of the event was at a tiny club with a tiny stage and a long bar. People at the bar were talking loudly, and at one point Sonny (in the middle of his set) told them to shut up. A friend grumbled to me that he shouldn’t have done that, that if people aren’t paying attention, it’s the performer’s fault, but I disagreed and still disagree. Sometimes people come to a club to talk, not to listen to the music. That isn’t fair on the musicians or the people who are there to listen. Sonny was right to say something. That reminds me of the one and only time I went to hear Vic Chesnutt (opening for Bob Mould). We were all standing around. He said, “Sit y’all asses down.” No one moved. He said it again, and we sat down, and the room became hushed and focused. It was a gorgeous show. But back to Sonny.

At this point I am going to start getting the chronology a bit mixed up, because various projects overlapped, and each one came in stages. I probably have old emails that could point me to precise dates, but they are stored on old computers, which are locked away in storage in NYC. Anyway, a few years after the Sí Señor event (he played at another one too), Sonny won a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts (in Sausalito) and was staging his project One Act Plays (an album of songs that were just that: one-act plays in the form of songs). It was through this that I first met the voice of Jolie Holland. Here’s one of my favorites, “Donkey Killed the Crow” (featuring Peggy Honeywell, Andy Cabic, and Holland):

I believe Sonny released One-Act Plays at least twice: first on his own, and then through a label. The performance at the Headlands must have happened in between the two. My sister and I went to see it, along with my friend Igor. It was terrific and historic, and afterwards Sonny threw a rollerskating party on the premises. (My sister can rollerskate; I can’t, but I enjoyed watching people go round and round. The DJs were good too.)

I’m pretty sure that the 100 Records project also came out of the Headlands residency. (There had been a few other releases in the meantime.) For this project, he made up a hundred band names and two song titles (an A side and a B side) for each band’s 45 record. A hundred artists then created the album covers, which were given an art exhibit, and Sonny then wrote the 200 songs (his goal was to step into the minds of these fictional bands). He and the artists worked more or less independently, yet the combination worked perfectly. Just poke through Volume 3 to get a sense of the versatility here. And watch the video below to see the gallery and hear Sonny talk about the project.

Around this time, Sonny formed the band Sonny & the Sunsets, who have had a “revolving-door cast” of members (or, as Sonny puts it, “a pretty small, flexible group of disparate personalities”) but have kept on going to this day (and will soon be touring Spain). His description of the band: “Sonny & the Sunsets are a beautiful west coast thing. Birthed from the sand, the surf, and twilight campfires down in Ocean Beach, Sonny & the Sunsets’ busted beach-pop songs spark recollections of doo wop’s otherworldly despair, a dose of goofball humor from the Michael Hurley school, and positive possibilities exuded by Jonathan Richman.”

I heard them play live once, in 2015 (I think), in an out-of-the-way Brooklyn warehouse. The first band was terrible (ear-splitting, uninteresting stuff), the second much more interesting, and then when Sonny & the Sunsets came on, the place was packed, people were singing along, and they played one heck of a show.

I’ll introduce just a few of their songs here. Oh, by the way, in 2018 Sonny founded a record label, Rocks in Your Head Records. They have about eleven releases at this point. (They are under no pressure; they put out music when they want to.) One of their recent releases is the 2021 album At the Time I Didn’t Care by Virgil Shaw, one of my favorite musicians from the Bay Area. Listen to “Wish You Had Come.”

But before this gets much too long, let’s hear the Sunsets. First, from their 2010 album Tomorrow Is Alright, here’s their hit song “Too Young to Burn,” in a fantastic live performance by Sonny Smith, Old Light, and others. I love this video because the musicians are having such a great time. Also, the song’s a classic now.

Jumping ahead nine years, here’s “Someday I’d Like to be an Artist” from their Hairdressers from Heaven album. I like the music’s upbeat, dreamy moroseness, the ambiguity of the lyrics (they seem part satirical, part something else). And the instrumentation is rich and sparse (piano, violin, vocals, bass, drums, handclaps, keyboards, background conversations, etc.).

someday I’d like to be an artist and give myself away
write in my notebook in my bed and listen to the rain
think about the way things could be
and how things really are
wake up from my dreamin with a work of art in my arms

give myself away, give myself away, give myself away,

someday I’d like to be an artist and give myself away
sit at the bar and talk to the other artists all about art
talk about the world and know that it all falls apart
give myself away, give myself away, give myself away

Now I come to a difficult choice. One more song. (After all, you can browse their repertoire and read more about them whenever you want.) Let it be “The Letter,” the last song on their wonderful 2021 album, New Day with New Possibilities. Dear Sonny & the Sunsets, whoever you may be right now, I hope you keep hearing and playing new possibilities for years to come, and I wish you a great tour in Spain. One day, come to Budapest and play a show with you-know-who! Until then, keep on doing what you do. And diverging from it too. Sincerely, Diana. That’s my letter.

For more posts in the Listen Up series, go here.

Songs, Towns, and Time

Cz.K. Sebő’s new instrumental song “4224,” released yesterday, has so much in it that I don’t want to try to sum it up in any way. I love the sound-filled silences and pauses, the beguiling chords, the changes and returns, the acoustic guitar sound, the ending. It is my favorite of his instrumental (wordless) songs so far; three other favorites are “First Day Without,” “Maybe I Should,” and “Interlude II,” but I think this one takes a new musical direction. Fruzsina Balogh’s cover picture is beautiful too.

I first heard it on the road to Szentendre, where I went yesterday evening to hear Galaxisok. Have you ever arrived in a town you have never visited before, and gone off looking for the concert you are about to attend, only to hear them doing soundcheck in the distance and playing “Gyuri elmegy otthonról” (“Gyuri is leaving home”)? And then you know you’re heading in the right direction.

And what a great show it was—on the outdoor stage at the Barlang, with ivy behind them, fir trees, colored lights, and a thrilled, dancing audience. They played so many songs that I love, including “Janó és Dzsó,” “Elaludtam az Ikeában,” “Mondo Bizarro,” the aforementioned “Gyuri elmegy otthonról,” “Focipályák éjszaka,” “Húsvéti reggeli a Sátánnal,” “M6,” “Ez a nyár,” and others.

I left immediately afterwards (to get back to Budapest in time to catch a late train back to Szolnok) but look forward to returning to Szentendre soon.

And now for the subject of time, which the post title promised. It is common to think and say that “summer’s almost over,” “time’s running out,” and so forth, and to bewail how little we got done when time was in abundance. And all of that has some truth. Summer really does come to an end quickly, and most of us don’t get everything done that we plan or intend (including relaxation and fun). But I actually did a lot: not only translating, writing, getting ready for October, but taking care of the cats (who went to the vet on Friday for shots and flea treatment), seeing friends and family, running every day, cleaning my apartment thoroughly, going to some wonderful concerts, biking around Tihany, leading Szim Salom services, and going to Szentendre for the first time. Moreover, the phenomenon of time running out is just mortality, which there’s no getting around anyway. Yes, make the most of “your” time, but is it really yours, and is there any way of knowing what “the most” is? Sure, set goals and deadlines, but also realize that such control is partly vain, and we’re always capable of being slightly wrong about what’s important.

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.

Weekend of Weekends

This summer break has been fruitful in all kinds of ways. I have been translating, writing, planning for October (the ALSCW conference, the two Platon Karataev duo concerts, and the whole trip), going running every day, and spending time with Dominó and Sziszi. I’m astounded that there are still two more full weeks before we go back to school for our initial meeting—and then more than another week before the school year actually begins. So there’s still time for projects and fun.

But speaking of fun, this weekend was hard to beat. On Friday evening, I first went to a talk and Kabbalat Shabbat service hosted by Bét Orim, our sister congregation. Lee Gordon, co-founder of the Hand in Hand schools in Israel, spoke about the schools, which foster friendship and cooperation between Jewish and Arab children. According to their mission statement, “Hand in Hand’s mission is to build partnership and equality between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel through our growing network of integrated Jewish-Arab schools and communities throughout the country.” The work sounds promising and successful. I was glad to learn about it. The service itself was lovely.

I was a little bit worried about the time, since I had planned to go to a Kolibri concert afterwards, which started at 9:00 p.m. in a different part of the city, across the Danube and southwards.

But it all worked out; I stayed all the way to the end of the service, through the kiddush, and got to the concert a few minutes before it started. I think it was my favorite Kolibri (Bandi Bognár) concert yet. He seemed so much at ease, and the songs were full of soul. Péter Massányi accompanied him on cello; his playing blew me away. The plucked parts were often arpeggios and chords; I loved their timing and sound. The bowed parts had a soft, understated tone, perfect for the songs. I think I will often think back on this candlelit concert at the Kis Présház.

Then I checked in at a hotel next to the Déli Pályaudvar, because the next morning I was taking the train to Lake Balaton (where I had never been before)! At the end of the 2021-2022 school year, two graduating students gave me a wonderful present: a gift certificate for the “Káli esszencia” Balaton bike tour. As it turned out, I wasn’t able to schedule that particular one, but the BBT managers offered me the Tihany fröccs tour. (Tihany is a historic village on Lake Balaton; fröccs is wine mixed with sparkling water, a Hungarian summertime favorite.) I worried a little that I had chosen something too easy, but that worry disappeared on the tour itself. The tours use ebikes; more about that in a moment.

On the train, I saw a whole car of Hungarian faces light up as soon as the lake came into view. Hungarians love and yearn for big bodies of water (as do people around the world). They don’t have an ocean, so Balaton is essentially their sea. As a result, Balatonfüred (where I got off the train) was very, very crowded. I walked around for a few hours and saw lots of fat ducks and swans (they get fed by the tourists). I even went in the water, but basically determined that the next time I come to Balaton, I’ll go somewhere other than Balatonfüred.

Then I made my way to the meeting place for the bike tour, and the whole day changed. I got there just on time; the group and bikes were all there waiting, and the tour guides were giving some tips on how to use the ebikes. We would be bicycling around the hilly village of Tihany, in particular to some places that aren’t visited by tourists at all. And that’s exactly how it was. We took off and rode through a forest, up and down hills, on bike trails and dirt roads, and alongside the lake. The ride was quite vigorous, even with the ebike, which helps greatly on the hills. It was like riding a silent motorcycle and still getting a workout. The bike’s balance was superb, so after a little bit of overcaution in the beginning, I became more confident with the dips and turns. There were seven of us (including the leaders) in the group, and we seemed to hit a pace that was comfortable for all of us, neither too fast nor too slow.

We saw a few historic places: a rock where a man used to stand and wave a flag to signal to the fishermen; the ruins of a garden where lemons, oranges, and other fruit were grown during the socialist era; and other interesting things. At one point we parked the bikes and walked up a hill and up to the top of a wooden lookout tower. Here is a view from that tower. But unfortunately it doesn’t capture the sense of height and dimension that you experience from up there. In fact, taking pictures was particularly difficult, because so much of the beauty had to do with the three-dimensionality.

After the wooden tower, we bicycled right next to the lake (about a meter from the water) for a stretch, then into woods and up and down hills again, until we came to the fröccs place. There we relaxed with our beverages for a good long stretch, and then wound our way back to the starting point, pedaling faster than ever. It was a delightful ending.

About an hour later, I took a train back to the Déli Pályaudvar in Budapest, took a metro from there to the Keleti station, then took a train to Kőbánya Felső, where I transferred to another train that ended up breaking down in Tápiószele. But another train came to pick up the Szolnok-bound passengers, and I got home not terribly late (around 1 a.m.).

There will be pictures of the bike tour; one of the guides took many and is going to send them to us. I will add at least one of them here.

So, yes. This was a weekend of weekends.

Two Reviews of “Always Different”

When Gyula Jenei’s Always Different came out (my first Hungarian-English translation in book form), I was surprised at first by the silence. How could there be no response? But I remember, again and again, that these things take time. Serious reading, any kind of reading, takes time. Writing thoughts about a poetry collection takes time. So I am honored that two wonderful reviews have appeared so far.

The first, written by Claudia MacMillan (Allums) and posted on Amazon, brings out something of the essence of the collection in just a few words.

There is an urgency pulsing under each of Jenei’s poems here, something compelling one forward into the volume. Simple, unflinching words that are also somehow tender create a tone of wistful hopefulness that never fully reconciles itself into hope, although it is far from despair. I love this book of clear-sighted descriptions, lyrical musings that invite one in with a medias res feeling, the “forty years” refrain providing a lens from which to consider befores and afters strange yet familiar to us all. Jenei’s use of unpretentious language and his dogged attention to small details, people, and things remind me that a poet notices what the rest of us do not, until he show us. The title is a little poem itself. Thank you Gyula and Diana, for this lyrical retreat!

The second review, written by Christie Goodwin and published yesterday in Hungarian Literature Online, weaves through the volume with humble, brilliant insight. As I read it, I thought at moments that I was dreaming. Thank you. I quote from the end:

“Homeroom Teacher” seems to offer a metaphoric key to understanding the poet’s unraveling sense of memory and identity. He looks through the old photographs and notices “and only a few pictures identify me / as the one who took the reel”. He says that “as for the view, / i try to edit it. to the extent possible”. He does the same in his poems – presenting a picture, a shifting and “vague” one, punctuated by emotion and sharp imagistic moments. The poet seems to accept the discrepancy between the child and adult voice – his own unreliability – “i still imagine a future that will not come to pass. but forty years later the lack of it will no longer trouble me – slowly i get used to myself.” This fractured, heartbreaking collection makes us consider what and how we remember. Perhaps, as Jenei says in his poem “Passageways to God” we will encounter memory in a similar way:  “afraid of the depths” and yet unable to get our “fill of / the view”. 

Update: A wonderful review by T.M. has appeared on Amazon.

Always Different by Gyula Jenei, translated from Hungarian into English by Diana Senechal, offers a form of time travel. The speaker has more life behind him than ahead, yet he relates his childhood not as someone looking back so much as someone who has reentered the time before and now marches forward again through the years, with the dual consciousness of child and adult. The descriptions are rich with sensory detail, first making the mundane come alive—we are fully on the street with him, and in the barn, and at school—and then, in piercing flashes, revealing the turbulent emotional depths below. Children, experiencing so many dynamics for the first time, often don’t know how to interpret what happens to and around them. The adult comes back and, with careful attention, can sift through “last year’s leaf layer, the one before last year,/ the thick, fat litterfall may show its year-rings like/ an archaeological find, but below it the earth may stay/ slimy, wet and cold, with disgusting crawlers, worms,/ earthworms, cocooned lives, deaths.” The verb tenses are often future or conditional, leaving the reader at the precipice—in digging through the past, some outcomes will surely happen again, but changes are also possible; the meaning we make each time we touch a memory is always different.

The Sleight of Hand in Orbán’s July 23 Speech

In response to Viktor Orbán’s July 23 speech at the 31st Bálványos Summer Free University and Student Camp in Băile Tuşnad, Romania, his advisor Zsuzsa Hegedüs resigned. In her resignation letter, she denounced his assertion that “we are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed race.” (By “we” he means peoples of the Carpathian basin.) She called it “worthy of Goebbels” and “a pure Nazi text.” Róbert Frölich, Hungary’s Chief Rabbi, spoke out against Orbán’s statements as well.

I too am alarmed by the speech: not only by this and similar statements, but by the overall argument, which I will summarize and comment on below. I rarely bring up Orbán on this blog, because my interests and focus are elsewhere. I accept and respect that my colleagues, friends, and students hold a range of views, and I usually find that political arguments only brush the surface of life. But some arguments tip into dangerous zones, and this speech has done more than tip.

It is cleverly written, with (fairly light) literary and cultural references, a few jokes, and what seems like an informed, logical, sophisticated yet blunt argument (here’s the Hungarian text, and here’s an English translation, from which I will be quoting). The basic gist of the first part is as follows. (Note: except when it occurs in block quotes, anything in italics is my summary, not the exact text):

Although the standard of living has been rising around the world, so has a sense of apprehension and despair. The reason for such despondency lies in the fall of Western civilization: not just ideals, but more recently, material resources. Gas and raw materials now lie primarily in non-Western hands. Those non-Western nations and regions, by the way, have no intention of adopting Western values.

Moreover, the West itself, through ethnic mixing and other changes applauded and abetted by the international Left (including the “troops of Soros”), has turned into something that could be called the Post-West. In fact, the “true West” now exists in Central Europe alone; the rest has become the Post-West. (Here’s the exact quote in English translation: “If it were not somewhat confusing, I could say that the West – let’s say the West in its spiritual sense – has moved to Central Europe: the West is here, and what is left over there is merely the post-West.”)

Before continuing, let’s take a look at this rhetorical gesture. Without defining the West, Orbán proclaims: The West as a way of life is dying. It is falling to the East and the Post-West both ideologically and materially. Only we Central Europeans (at least those who agree with me) are the true West.

This part of the speech contains many other rhetorical flourishes: in some places Orbán says “we” when referring to the entire Western world, or all of Europe; at other times he asserts that Hungary is falling victim to alien post-Western forces (and is thus supposedly the only true “we”):

It is important that we understand that these good people over there in the West, in the post-West, cannot bear to wake up every morning and find that their days – and indeed their whole lives – are poisoned by the thought that all is lost. So we do not want to confront them with this day and night. All we ask is that they do not try to impose on us a fate which we do not see as simply a fate for a nation, but as its nemesis. This is all we ask, and no more.

But what is this West that Central Europe supposedly embodies?

According to Orbán, it is a place of racial purity, where, as mentioned before, the peoples mix with each other but not with other races. It is also a place that wants to stay entirely out of “Western lunacy” regarding gender, gay marriage, etc.:

We are asking for another offer of tolerance: we do not want to tell them how they should live; we are just asking them to accept that in our country a father is a man and a mother is a woman, and that they leave our children alone. And we ask them to see to it that George Soros’s army also accepts this. It is important for people in the West to understand that in Hungary and in this part of the world this is not an ideological question, but quite simply the most important question in life.

But homosexuality is not a fad, nor do all Hungarians think and live identically on this issue. There are gay and transgender Hungarians; there are many who work and fight for greater sexual tolerance within Hungary. Orbán states correctly that Hungarians on the whole love their family lives and traditions dearly, or at least the principles underlying them (families here have problems too). I agree that U.S. gender rhetoric often gets carries away with itself; new taboos against using the word “female” or “woman” have come under ridicule there. But that does not mean that gay or transgender people threaten the family as an institution. If anything, families are stronger when their members do not have to suppress or lie about who they are. (Yes, there are legitimate questions about when and how children should be introduced to issues of sexuality. But Orbán sees no questions here; he sees well-funded radicals trying to ruin Hungarian childhood altogether.)

The speech is lengthy and intricate. Orbán talks about the war in Ukraine (he claims, among other things, that Hungarians have been “the only ones, apart from the Ukrainians, who are dying in the war” and that they only want peace. He states, in a curious twist, that “Hungary is a NATO member and our starting point is that NATO is much stronger than Russia, and so Russia will never attack NATO.” He goes on to describe the delicacy of Hungary’s position: being bound by NATO obligations but not wanting to become a formal belligerent. He goes on to blame the West (particularly the U.S.) for inciting the war in the first place by refusing to guarantee that Ukraine will never be a member of NATO. He explains how the four pillars of Western policy in the war have failed, so that the West is operating as if with four flat tires. According to Orbán, Hungary has little to no say in what ultimately happens, yet it will continue to press for peace, the only true solution. (He also suggests that if Trump were still in power, the war would not have happened.)

From here, he talks about rising energy costs, rising utility bills, and the Hungarian government’s response; he proposes a long view of the next four years and beyond, up to 2030, when Hungary must be in a strong position if it is to survive at all. He concludes with a call for unity among the peoples of the Carpathian basin:

The motherland must stand together, and Transylvania and the other areas in the Carpathian Basin inhabited by Hungarians must stand together. This ambition, Dear Friends, is what propels us, what drives us – it is our fuel. It is the notion that we have always given more to the world than we have received from it, that more has been taken from us than given to us, that we have submitted invoices that are still unpaid, that we are better, more industrious and more talented than the position we now find ourselves in and the way in which we live, and the fact that the world owes us something – and that we want to, and will, call in that debt. This is our strongest ambition.

How on earth will this tiny and beleaguered outpost of “Western values” get its due? Orbán does not explain—but he depicts Hungary and the areas inhabited by Hungarians as the last true Western place on earth, a place that must stay strong (ethnically, morally, economically, geographically) if it does not want to get trampled down. An influx of immigrants would be Hungary’s demise. Racial mixing would be Hungary’s demise. Greater acceptance of gay rights (and the rights of other sexual minorities) would be Hungary’s demise. Greater involvement in the war in Ukraine would be Hungary’s demise. And if greater Hungary were to fall, the “spiritual West” would disappear from the face of the Earth. (Orbán also states in this speech that “Migration has split Europe in two – or I could say that it has split the West in two. One half is a world where European and non-European peoples live together. These countries are no longer nations: they are nothing more than a conglomeration of peoples.”)

The sleight of hand is this (among other things): he defines the “spiritual West” only implicitly, and in a way that bolsters his points: the “spiritual West” is no more and no less than what he claims Hungary is and wants to be. From the very start, without acknowledging as much, he writes off a wealth of other definitions and understandings of the West, a wealth of philosophy, literature, art, religion, ways of life.

Moroever, he ignores gradations. It may well be that Eastern powers have no interest in adopting Western values. But many people within their borders do—or combine Western and Eastern values in thousands upon thousands of ways. Immigrants, likewise, hold a range of attitudes. Some are indeed uninterested in assimilating into the new culture. Others are eager to do so. Still others seek to do so while also preserving something of their heritage. The U.S. is a rich example of this. As a teacher in Brooklyn and Manhattan, I saw students and parents grappling with questions of assimilation. I remember a time when I called a parent to ask permission to cast his two sons in the musical I was directing (the junior version of Into the Woods). He hesitated; he wasn’t sure it was an acceptable activity according to Islam, but then he said, “I trust you, teacher. If you think it will be good for my sons, they can be in the play.” A phone conversation like this does not figure in Orbán’s worldview.

I understand that Hungary is in a particularly vulnerable situation at the edge of the EU. If migrants entered Hungary en masse, they would probably, on the whole, be uninterested in staying there, learning the language, and assuming the Hungarian way of life. Instead, they would have other destinations in mind (Germany, France, etc.) but might not be able to enter these countries right away. Hungary really could end up with a difficult situation. But the solution is not to disparage immigrants, insist on racial homogeneity, or treat the EU as the great cultural destroyer. The reality is subtler than that, with more possibilities.

As for the family, it is already changing in Hungary, with no help from “Soros troops.” Many young people in Hungary—by which I mean people in their late teens through early thirties—yearn for a more open and flexible way of living. Not all women want to be housewives. Not all men want to be served by their wives. They (women and men) want partnerships, cameraderie, friendship, shared interests, joint projects. Some might not want to marry. And many (though not all) young people, whether heterosexual or otherwise, believe that gay people should be accepted and treated with dignity. Young people have a wide range of beliefs, attitudes, feelings on these issues, but they see that this range exists. Orbán denies this range by asserting the existence of a single Hungarian view. Today, especially among the young, there is no such thing. Hungary is far more diverse (ideologically, personally, even ethnically) than Orbán recognizes.

But he resolves this by writing off the Hungarians who don’t fit his model. According to his logic, such people are international leftists, Soros troops, etc., not true Hungarians. They are not even true Westerners! The true spiritual West, according to the speech, survives only in those who will defend the Hungarian peoples from the dogma and distress of the surrounding world. As proof that he represents and understands the true Hungarian view, he would likely cite the fact that the Hungarian people keep voting for Fidesz. But this conceals a more complex situation: Fidesz itself is not monolithic, and not everyone who votes for Fidesz does so enthusiastically, in full agreement with its official ideology. (Never mind gerrymandering, media bias, etc.)

All this said, Orbán is right about some things: bleak times are here and ahead, materially and otherwise. Hungary (and the rest of the world) may well be in serious trouble. The idealistic, spiritual, and quotidian West may well be under siege. But one way to uphold and protect it is to recognize gradations, complexities, contradictions, depths, infinities. No country can be summed up by its leader, no group by its skin color or ethnic origin, no person by others’ judgements, no future by strokes of simplistic prediction.

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

On Individualism (a Brief and Partial Defense)

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)



    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.


    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.


    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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