R.Ring, Galaxisok: Albums of Our Time and Outside It

If there’s any truth pounding upon us, it’s that life is fragile, everything is uncertain, we can’t count on anything being there tomorrow. Anything from abrupt, cataclysmic loss to an unanswered message can hit us at any moment. Covid and other diseases, the war in Ukraine, the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, the extreme storms, and the strange unreality that surrounds us online—all this together makes loss both abstract and intensely personal. Some recent albums take this on without didacticism or dogma. I have talked about Dávid Korándi’s album, one of my favorites so far this year. Two others in this vein of global and personal loss are R.Ring’s War Poems, We Rested and Galaxisok’s Minket ne szeress! (Don’t Love Us!)

R.Ring is the duo project of Kelley Deal (of the Breeders) and Mike Montgomery (of Ampline). I have been listening to Kelley’s music for thirty years. When I first learned of R.Ring and watched their video of their song “Hundred Dollar Heat” (performed at the Texas State Capitol building during SXSW in 2012, I was captivated by the chemistry between them, the glances, the smiles, the sense of friendship, as well as the dreamy song itself. Over the course of many EPs and singles and two full-length albums, they have brought other musicians on board, including Joe Suer on vibraphone, Laura King on drums and Lori Goldston on cello, who play on the new album.

Their music is world-weary, sweet, upfront, and at times downright lovely. R.Ring describes it as “sparse, chaotic, abrasive and lulling, often within the same song”; Sometimes the chaotic and abrasive qualities get too much for me, but I wouldn’t wish them gone. Part of their point, I think, is to make the listener a little uncomfortable.

With War Poems, We Rested, the duo and their fellow musicians have hit something magical, both in the sound and in the searing, large-hearted lyrics that take up addiction and its scars, the craving for ease and relief, the pull toward and away from life, the sweetness and betrayal of sensuality. But there are hidden layers too; the whole album seems to be saying, past the words, look how much there is to be done in the world, look how much we waste, especially in our despair. The final song, “War Poems,” maybe the most beautiful on the album, finds its way into the conscience without words.

And the sound… alternating between bold, resounding rock and dreamy folk, with pauses, resonances, bursts of guitar, intriguing rhythms—for the sound alone, the album calls for many returns.

Galaxisok’s new album, Minket ne szeress! (Don’t Love Us!) surprised me with its brevity, its Everyman-style lyrics, its terrific and subtle sound, and the absence of other qualities that I would associate with Galaxisok. The musicians of Galaxisok are sophisticated and well listened (as well as well read); they draw on influences that many of us have never heard of, from a range of styles and eras (their guitarist, Ákos Günsberger, is also a classical guitarist and composer). To understand a Galaxisok album to the depths, you would have to understand these musical allusions. (Magyar Narancs has a wonderful article about how, on this new album, Galaxisok alludes to 80s pop music without any kind of cheap imitation or nostalgia.) But there’s much to understand, and to come to understand, even if you only know a fraction of their influences.

What surprises me on this album is the persona in the lyrics. On other Galaxisok albums, Benedek Szabó slips in and out of various characters—although they all seem to be him in a way—and tells stories about others too. Here there’s a consistent “I,” and a despondent one. Tongue-tied (yet verbose), bewildered, vaguely desirous, apathetic, astounded, resigned, the speaker of these songs peers at the possible end of the world and can do nothing except say what he feels and sees, if even that. Sometimes a perplexity takes over, as in “Utolsó pillanat” (“Last instant”), one of my favorite songs on the album.

Végre itt a világvége!
Egy fagyit elnyalok,
önfeledten dúdolom
az ismerős dallamot.

Ó, ez nem lehet.
Ó, ki érti ezt?

Ó, ez az utolsó pillanat,
Ó, csak egy másodperc marad,
Ó, ez az utolsó pillanat,
Ó, engedd el magad!

Végre itt a világbéke!
Nem találom a helyem.
Zaklatottan keresem:
valahol itt kell, hogy legyen.
The end of the world is here at last!
I lick an ice cream cone,
obliviously I croon
the familiar melody.

Oh, this can’t be.
Oh, who understands this?

Oh, this is the last instant,
Oh, just a second remains,
Oh, this is the last instant,
Oh, let yourself go!

World peace is here at last!
I can’t find my place.
Vexed, I look for it:
it must be somewhere around here.

The album has temporary relief from the despondency: the brief sensuality of “Tánc” (“Dance”); the brief but relieved return to nature in “Vissza a természetbe!” (“Back to Nature”), another of my favorites on the album, especially for its chords and interplay of instruments; and the rage, albeit helpless, of “Ez a nyár” (“This summer”). But the overall feeling is deliberately bleak and general. Anyone could step into these lyrics and believe them.

I miss the joy, wistfulness, melancholy, playfulness of the earlier Galaxisok song lyrics, but there are reasons why this album is the way it is. The music itself has those qualities and more; it offsets and plays with the lyrics. I will end here with the video of “Ez a nyár,” the first song on the album (released earlier as a single—I have brought it up here before).

After posting this, I added the rest of the lyrics of “Utolsó pillanat” (they can be heard in the song but don’t appear in the lyrics on Bandcamp).

Continuity and Its Conundrums

A great joy came to me yesterday: copies of Volume 7 of Contrariwise arrived in the mail! That this philosophy journal, which I founded with my students at Columbia Secondary School in 2013, still thrives almost a decade later, would be astounding in itself; but even more wondrous is the Contrariwise spirit coursing through it, a combination of probing, humor, beauty, challenge, and whimsy.

I left Columbia Secondary School in June 2016 to write my second book; at the time I had no idea that I would be coming to Hungary a little over a year later. Leaving did not mean breaking all ties; I have stayed in contact regarding Contrariwise, the Orwell project, and more, and have kept in touch (more or less) with certain individuals. What I didn’t know was that going away would actually make for a new connection with the school. Nine of my students at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium have pieces in this issue; the Orwell project, for its part, brought students from both schools together for joint online classes. In other words, a break can allow for an unexpected continuity.

Continuity, on the whole, seems more responsible, more honorable than breaks, but a person needs both (and maybe the situations do too). I have been wondering lately why I feel busier than in past years, even though the past five years have been intensely busy. The reason is that responsibilities and projects accumulate. There’s teaching, and along with it, Folyosó and the Shakespeare festival; there are the synagogue responsibilities; there’s a large translation project; there’s my writing and music; there are associations such as the ALSCW; and then there’s life itself, which deserves a bit more than an afterthought. All of these have been with me for a while, but not necessarily all at once. Last year at this time, I was focused on putting the Pilinszky event together, and after that, on preparing all the details for the trip to the U.S. in October for the conference on “Setting Poetry to Music.” I was so focused on these that the daily preparations seemed like nothing. But they also took over for a while; once they were over, I had some catching up to do in other areas.

Once in a while a person has to drop something: not abruptly, if that can be avoided, but with advance notice and planning. This might disappoint, but there’s no point in living to please others. There is honor in bringing joy to others, fulfilling responsibilities toward others, or best of all, making it possible for them to do something they couldn’t otherwise have done. But pleasing others can lead to the opposite of honor; you become merely an instrument of something others want.

Behind every project, there is a person with thoughts, hopes, health, sickness, dreams, disappointments, meals, travels, sleep. No one knows what lies beneath a seemingly ordinary life; no one knows, either, when this same life will rear up. Everyone has muffled rhythms, ineffable proportions; no one can know another’s, let alone judge them.

A Bookmarked Thought: Kolibri’s New Album

For weeks I have been meaning to say something about Kolibri’s (Bandi Bognár’s) new album, Nagyon jó, nagyon rossz, nagyon jó (Very Good, Very Bad, Very Good). I was sorry to miss the record release show, which seems to have been terrific. It was sold out; I had bought a ticket long in advance, but I ended up selling it on Ticketswap, just because I needed a weekend at home, not only for rest, but for several projects.

Anyway, the album is bracing, first and foremost because Kolibri has found a new sound since a couple of years ago. That, and the songs are so good, one after another. I will say more about some of them another time. As for the sound: the main vocal line is no longer filled with reverb; it has a drier texture, which allows effects to come and go over the course of the songs. The layering of melodies, instruments, effects is soulful in itself; just listen to my favorite song on the album, “Ablak alatt” (“Under the Window.”

It’s exciting to hear a musician hit home. I love some of his earlier songs (such as “Előszoba“), but this album has a new sort of conviction. It also hits a mood, or combination of moods, that brings out interesting sounds and vice versa: a combination of happiness and sadness, anger and tranquility, observation, exhilaration, yearning, humor. The rhythms go into dance beats at times and then retreat into a solitary freeform. The versatility is not only compelling but natural to the songs; there’s a consistency too, a sense of following a train of thought and feeling.

Hats off to the others involved with the album: producers Makumi Kamau and Bence Csontos; sound engineer Tamás Czirják; mix/master engineer Máriusz Fodor; and any others. More another time.

“And thus I received an answer”

I have often passed by the Evangélikus Múzeum (Lutheran Museum) at Deák Ferenc tér and noticed the letters carved through the wall, but last night the letters glowed with the indoor light, and a particular text stopped me in my tracks. Several times I started to walk onward but came back to it. Part of it reads, “Az emberi bűn mérhetetlensége és Isten szeretetének végtelensége mutatkozott meg számomra ebben az álomban, és így kaptam választ a magam és mások kínzó kérdéseire.” (“The immensity of human sin and the infinity of God’s love were revealed to me in this dream, and thus I received an answer to my own and others’ agonizing questions.”) This is by Gábor Sztehlo, about whom I knew nothing, but who, I learned later, saved two thousand Jewish, Roma, and other lives during World War II.

The text is from his diary Isten kezében (In the Hands of God); a longer quote reads,

Az én számomra olyan volt ez az év, mint valami álom. Álom, amit sírva és nevetve, éhezve és jóllakottan, küszködve és boldogan, bizakodva és reményvesztetten, fázva és melegedve; már mindegy, hogy miképpen, de mégis álmodva éltem át. Szinte öntudatlanul cselekedve azt, amit kellett, a mindennapok feladatait, melyek a tegnapból folytak át a mába és a mából a holnapba, anélkül, hogy a holnapután pontos körvonalait láttam volna. Álom volt, és mégis eleven, húsba vágó valóság. Rossz álomnak is nevezhetem: rossz álom, hogy annyi emberi nyomorúság és aljasság létezhet a földön; de csodálatos álom, hogy Isten nyilvánvaló szeretete akkor sem hagyott el bennünket. Az emberi bűn mérhetetlensége és Isten szeretetének végtelensége mutatkozott meg számomra ebben az álomban, és így kaptam választ a magam és mások kínzó kérdéseire.

In rough translation:

For me, this year was like some sort of dream. A dream that, sobbing and laughing, hungry and full, struggling and happy, trusting and hopeless, freezing and warmed, it doesn’t matter how, I lived out, dreaming. Almost unconsciously doing what was needed, the everyday tasks that flowed from yesterday to today and from today to tomorrow, without seeing the exact contours of the day after tomorrow. It was a dream, and yet a living, flesh-cutting reality. I can also call it a bad dream: a bad dream that so much human misery and meanness can exist on earth; but it is a wonderful dream that God’s obvious love did not leave us even then. The immensity of human sin and the infinity of God’s love were revealed to me in this dream, and thus I received an answer to my own and others’ agonizing questions.

I was on my way to a literary and musical evening at the K11 Kulturális Központ: the poet and fiction writer János Lackfi and the songwriter Gergely Balla (of Platon Karataev) in dialogue of their work. It was delightful, moving, and inspiring The combination of the two, and the connections between their pieces, went far beyond the obvious. I was familiar with the songs, at least from concerts and other literary events; the pieces that Lackfi read were new to me. (He is not entirely unfamiliar to me; his work appears regularly in Eső.) His language is not easy for a foreigner, because it’s full of wordplay, references, different registers of speech—but I am now in a position to approach it. This afternoon I plan to look for his Poket book, which consists of selections from his reader-writer project. He had asked his readers to send him themes, and then he wrote poems (in a wide variety of forms) based on them. Some of the “themes” are intricate anecdotes in themselves.

One of my favorite details of the evening was the way Lackfi swayed with absorption during Balla’s songs. Also, that there was no moderator or mediator, just the two of them. I loved hearing the songs and the way this event brought something new out of them.

Tonight I was planning to Kolibri’s record release (for a beautiful, exciting album, about which I will say something soon). But the weather is cold and wet, last night’s event was enough to last me a while, and the thought of a full weekend at home is too tempting, especially since I will be going to Budapest twice next weekend. I have a lot to do, and some resting to do too. The show is sold out, and there’s a long waiting list for tickets on Ticketswap; so I listed my ticket there, and it was gone in a minute.

A Musical Breakthrough: Cz.K. Sebő’s “Kesze-kusza nyár”

For about two years now I have loved Cz.K. Sebő’s music (and written about it here and elsewhere). But his new EP Kesze-kusza (Topsy-Turvy), especially the first song (“Kesze-kusza nyár,” or “Topsy-Turvy Summer”), has new depth for me in terms of musicianship alone. The guitar is meditative and rich—he way it lets the pauses ring, the way the notes come forward and retreat. This quality was there before, but it has reached a new level. The acoustic tone (he borrowed an exceptional guitar for this) is so beautiful that I can listen to the whole EP, again and again, for the sake of that sound. You can hear not only wood, strings, and air, but wordless thoughts. On the first song, the accompaniment by Soma Bradák (drums, percussion) and Benedek Szabó (bass) is so subtle that you might not even hear them enter. And then, when you listen to what they are doing, this adds to the wonder.

The lyrics are dreamy and evocative, the syllables so well timed that they sing themselves. This time the words are not hidden. I love the sometimes muffled singing on How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain? (and with that, the ambivalence over words), but this is pure and bare.

The melody may sound familiar; this song inspired Platon Karataev’s “Létra,” the magnificent theme song of the film Magasságok és mélységek (Heights and Depths).

The album is just under fifteen minutes long; it sustains its mood and beauty from start to finish. Three of the other songs on the EP are instrumental (solo guitar, with some effects); the third song, “Értelmet,” also has lyrics. I think the last song, “1012,” is another favorite along with the first. It surprises quietly; it explores and finds its way.

Fruzsina Balogh’s wonderful cover art evokes not only the songs but the experience of listening to the EP.

I don’t think this will be a final musical destination or anything close; his capsule boy album, now in progress, will take different directions. But it touches on infinity.

The EP (and especially the first song) inspired a poem yesterday. The poem isn’t “about” the EP or the song, but this music was a source. If anything, the poem is about holding back from an instant reaction to music, giving myself a chance to take it in. The fourth stanza alludes to the last paragraph on p. 67 of Zàn Coaskòrd’s book A Valóság, Hit és léleK rejtett csodája; the last stanza hints at Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” So I’ll end here with the poem.


Diana Senechal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening (new poem)


Diana Senechal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Happiness Makes Me Grouchy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stretches of Time, and Illusions of Unimportance

The winter break is coming to an end, and as usual, the thing I’ll miss most about it is the stretch of time, the room for doing things (or not) without rush or interruption. But some of this can be brought into the everyday. The time is sometimes there. Not always, but when so, it can be taken.

It was a great treat last night to go to Budapest for a “törzshely” concert evening featuring Tomi Gimpel and Grand Bleu, with Gábor Molnár officiating. This was one of a series of informal concerts set up to benefit beloved small pubs and clubs in Budapest. Gábor Molnár and Cz.K. Sebő have also played at events I have attended in this series. The atmosphere is friendly, and with these lineups, you can’t go wrong. Grand Bleu was fantastic. I enjoyed Tomi Gimpel too; he told funny stories around his songs. (I especially enjoyed the story about how he won a prize for setting an Attila József poem to song, when he had never done this—they had mistaken the lyrics of his József-themed song for a József poem.)

I got to the area early so as not to be late and so as to have a burrito beforehand. I had enough time for a short walk, so I walked up the hill (in Buda). This, to the left, was a picture I took during the walk.

The event was great, and afterwards I took the 11:43 train back and read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (well worth the lug). I have just started, but I am enjoying it and finding it oddly comforting. “Comforting” is an odd word to use for the book, and probably not one he would have liked, but I think others know what I mean. It’s discomfiting and disturbing too; there’s nothing placid about it. But in that book the non-placidness has a home, and that might be what’s comforting about it. (So far.)

But for the most part I spent vacation at home: translating, writing, reading, listening to music, recording And that leads to the second theme of this post: illusions of unimportance.

Our internet and celebrity cultures have shamed us into thinking that if we’re not famous, we’re deficient. Look at those “important” people doing “important” things! Look at all the “important” people who gave eulogies at David Foster Wallace’s funeral! Look how many followers other people have! Look how few reviews your book has gotten! Look how few people care what you do, unless you post a picture of a cat!

This is a diseased attitude, and it spreads outward and inward. It throws off our balance and perception, affecting people who know better (famous and unfamous alike). Now, hold on, I am not looking for comforting clichés like “It’s who you are as a person that matters,” “Famous people are unhappy,” or “But your work is appreciated!” Hold on, give me room to sort this out.

Fame, recognition, popularity (all slightly different from each other, but related) can come in response to actual quality. Not only that, but they can lead to money, opportunities, invitations, introductions to others.

But often these have nothing to do with the most important things going on in our lives. Just this past week, a new friend underwent cancer surgery. Another friend lost a family member suddenly. Who cares about fame in these situations, or even the daily ups and downs that we all have?

But there’s more. Success and fame, even when well deserved, can confuse, bewilder, distort.

In his 1947 essay “The Catastrophe of Success,” Tennessee Williams wrote, “You know, then, theat the public Somebody you are when you ‘have a name’ is a fiction created with mirrors and that the only somebody worth being is the solitary and unseen you that existed from your first breath and which is the sum of your actions and so is constantly in a state of becoming under your own volition—and knowing these things, you can even survive the catastrophe of Success!”

He was right; if you are “successful” in the eyes of the world, you must not take it too much to heart, because it has little or nothing to do with your work or life, suffering or joy. Fame comes in response to something static, something already made, whereas you are continually coming into being.

Suppose you have several projects. One of them has a big following, another a much smaller one. Is the project with the smaller following inferior? Not necessarily; it might be a place where you take certain risks with your work. The size of the crowd is not the measure, even if at times it tells you something. But we have been insistently conditioned to think that “likes” and “hearts” and follower numbers are something to take seriously, especially on the grander scale.

And how many people have had their work more or less ignored during their lifetime? Popularity feeds itself. People often latch onto things (partly) because they are already popular. People often feel insecure about using their own judgement, listening to something, reading something because it appeals to them, not because others are doing so. So many people and their work get ignored, simply because they aren’t popular.

Beyond that, everyone has a life that goes far beyond their work, or at least far beyond what others perceive as their work. How many of us know what is going on even with our close friends? Some things we will know, others not. A person has many levels and layers. Are the unknown, private levels less important? Sometimes they are the most important, sometimes we don’t know, have no way of knowing, how important they are.

What makes something important, anyway? What does it mean for something to be important? Does it mean there’s a clamor around it? Or does it mean, rather, that a certain necessity moves it, sometimes in the background, sometimes without anyone noticing?

Returning to Wallace, here is a quote from The Pale King, spoken, I think, by a substitute instructor: “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is.” A little later: “Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”

This is a character speaking, not Wallace himself. Quotes like these often get ripped out of context and misused as life wisdoms; moreover, any maxim like this has its limitations and countermaxims. One could just as well say that the important things in life are the things that reach others.

But maybe Wallace’s character is talking about the willingness to do things without knowing exactly how important they are, without needing the stamp of acclaim, even from ourselves.

If importance continually takes shape, if we ourselves cannot define it fully, if our sense of something’s importance is only approximate, then maybe importance (internal or external) isn’t the main guide. It isn’t enough to say, “What matters is that it be important to me.” I might not know fully what is important to me.

It might make more sense to set aside the importance or its lack (not completely, just enough so as not to get swept up in it), and do some combination of what I have to do, what I want, what others have asked of me, what I don’t even know I am doing, and what I one day will no longer do—and all of this without a preponderance of the “I.” No one finds the perfect combination of these five; there is none. We (simply or not so simply) do our best, without fully knowing what that means.

Credits: First photo by me, taken last night. Second photo by Mark Thompson.

So before you

Brief Thoughts on Word Games

I like to play a word game or two every day: to wake up, relax, or just see how well I can do. My favorites are Spelling Bee, Sedecordle, and Semantle; all of them are moderately challenging and don’t take very long. Of the three, Semantle is my favorite, though I have a few reservations about it.

First of all, why not crosswords? I enjoy them but rarely have patience or time for them, except for the mini variety. I’m not good at them; they typically involve lots of cultural references (to TV shows, for instance, or celebrity culture) that I don’t know. What I do enjoy about mini-crosswords, though, is that I can start off not knowing any of the answers, and then—without looking up any information or taking any hints—figure out one word, then another, then all of them. Out of seemingly nothing, an entire edifice takes shape.

Spelling Bee (pictured here) is fun because all you have to do is form words from the letters given. You may use a letter more than once, but each word must contain the center letter. Each word must have at least four letters. For instance, in this puzzle, “laud” would count, but “lucid” would not, since the “a” is missing. As you form valid words, you rise up the ranks until you hit “genius.” (There might be higher levels than that, but I usually stop there. It’s fun to be called a “genius,” no matter what the Growth Mindset police might say. Who knows: maybe I will win a “genius grant” at some point. I’m kidding; I bring it up because an eight-year-old satirical article about Mark Oppenheimer’s “genius grant” aspirations caught my eye the other day. And who knows: maybe there are MacArthur fellowship nominators watching for Spelling Bee geniuses! I’m not in the habit of announcing my wins online, though, so these triumphs probably go unnoticed.)

Sedecordle and Semantle are both spinoffs of Wordle. I got bored with Wordle quickly; it involves at least as much luck as skill, and it’s fairly easy to win. For Wordle, you have to guess a five-letter word in six tries. For each try, you are told (through colors) whether you guessed any of the letters, and whether you guessed both a correct letter and its correct place. I suppose winning in two or three tries is exciting, but again, that requires at least as much luck as skill. (Just now I won in four; according to the WordleBot’s analysis, I ranked 95 out of 99 points in terms of skill, and 57 out of 99 in terms of luck. So there you go.)

Sedecordle raises the bar a bit. You have 21 tries to guess 16 words. You’re guessing them all at once, so you can see how close you are with each. You can scroll up and down and choose which word to focus on. But even this game gets a bit easy after a while. A slightly more challenging variant is Sedecorder, where you must guess the words in order.

Now for Semantle. This is the most interesting, I think. You have to guess a word out of the blue–no set letter count, no set topic, nothing. If your word is far away from the secret word, the program responds with “cold.” If you get within a certain range, then you see “tepid.” And then, as soon as you come within 1,000 words’ proximity of the secret word, things start to heat up; the word is ranked exactly in terms of proximity, and you know that you are close.

But what does proximity mean? Words considered “close” to each other are the ones most commonly associated with each other (in a GoogleNews dataset). They might even have opposite meanings. So you have to think of words that might be found together. (Here’s an article on the technology used.)

The game is supposed to be maddenly difficult, but I have won 9 out the 11 games I played so far, without taking too long (I used a hint only once). I start out by guessing wildly different words until something comes close. Then I start homing in but not too narrowly; I still test a range of possibilities. Then when I get within the 1,000 range, I try to think of words that might be used in the same context as this “close” word. Then boom—I hit upon it.

The secret word is never obscure, nor is its relationship to the “close” words subtle. That leads to my main qualm with this game; in the early stage, when I’m just trying to hit on something vaguely close, I rapidly try far-flung words in succession, but once I’m close, if I want to win, I have to think like the program, which to me is not the most interesting way of thinking, not the way I thinkwhen writing a poem or story, for instance. How boring it would be to write stories where the words chosen are the ones most likely to appear together in a Google dataset. It’s a weird flattening of language.

But for a quick game it’s fun.

Many other games exist, but I’m content with this little set—again, I don’t want to spend much time on them.

One of my students wrote (in a short piece published last spring in Folyosó) that puzzles are pointless because someone has set up the solution in advance. You aren’t really discovering anything; you’re just hitting upon a predetermined solution that others are going to find too. I agree. But then, you could say that playing scales is pointless because everyone does it, you aren’t composing anything new with them. Or that going on a walk is pointless because someone has already laid out the paths for you. (I know, that’s stretching it.) I think of word puzzles and word games as light exercise, nothing grander than that. Also, delightfully and drearily, they have no real stakes. No one cares if you guess wrong.

Mark Baczoni’s translation of Karinthy’s The Tragedy of Mannikins, a satire of Madách’s The Tragedy of Man

In October 2022, the AALITRA Review published a special issue, “Enriching the Global Literary Canvas: Celebrating Less Translated Languages.” (AALITRA stands for The Australian Association for Literary Translation.) There’s a lot to explore and enjoy in this issue, but one piece in particular caught my eye: Mark Baczoni’s translation of Frigyes Karinthy’s The Tragedy of Mannikins (Az emberke tragédiája), a satire on Imre Madách’s verse drama The Tragedy of Man (Az ember tragédiája), a beloved classic, part of the high school curriculum, but sadly, as Baczoni points out, little known abroad. (It has been translated several times into English, most recently by George Szirtes.)

Even less known is Karinthy’s satire in verse, published posthumously in 1946, and untranslated into English until now. (I was completely unaware of its existence.) Baczoni writes in his introduction about everything he took into account: the meter, the archaic language, the wordplay, the references not only to Madách’s work but to historical events, literary tendencies, and more. He consulted with a number of people, rethought and revised the translation, and concludes his introduction by saying that he hopes that “the text’s journey does not end here.” I share the hope!

What I love about this translation is its sense of fun and play, combined with attention to nuances, allusions, layers of meaning. The original is perhaps a hundred years old, archaic in tone and funny as all get out. Not something that people are translating because it’s hot off the shelves. It’s a bold endeavor too: translating a treasure that makes fun of a classic (neither of which is widely known outside of Hungary). The translator has a good ear. He takes liberties to convey the essence, and I think he hits the right notes.

In the AALITRA Review, the translation appears side by side with the original. It isn’t very long; you can read it in a sitting and then reread it. Here’s just one stanza from the first part:

Utcu Lajcsi, hopsza Lenke,
Volt egyszer egy jó Istenke,
Azt gondolja magában:
Mit ülök itt hiában?
Megteremtem a világot,
Hogy olyat még kend nem látott.
Hogy ha látod, szádat tátod,
Mesterségem megcsodálod.
Hello children, how d’you do?
Once there was a Lordy-pooh:
“I should not sit around like this,
When it’s time for Genesis!
I’ll make a world just like a dream,
The likes of which you’ve never seen.
When you do, your eyes will pop,
Praising me you’ll never stop.”

I have never met Mark Baczoni (or even heard of him until this). His bio in the AALITRA Review reads as follows: “Mark Baczoni was born in Budapest and raised in London. He studied at Cambridge and translates from Hungarian. His work has appeared in Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, The White Review, Cordite, and Exchanges (Iowa). He is the translator of two novels for Corvina in Budapest, Alexander Lénárd’s Stories of Rome and Jenő Rejtő’s The Fourteen Carat Car. His first UK novel-length translation, János Székely’s Temptation was published by Pushkin Press in the UK and NYRB in the US.” I also see that he is a former editor of Hungarian Literature Online. Best wishes to Mr. Baczoni—and to this translation in particular!

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

  • Always Different



    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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