Blogging, “Winky,” and More

Blogging is a kind of mental relaxation for me, and a way to start working with ideas that may take a different form later. I have just started to realize how old-school it is. Not that many people blog any more, or when they do, it’s partly to make money. I make no money off of this blog; I pay a little each year to keep adds off of it. I do make money from other forms of writing, but this is a place where I can say what I want, on my own terms and timing, and that’s how I want to keep it.

I have gotten weary of the new economy of punditry. So many people are competing to be pundits, to make ponderous pronouncements about the state of the world, pronouncements aimed at winning followers and subscriptions. Very few of these pronouncements have any lasting quality. The whole thing feels vain to me, and boring. But then, I have my vanities too.

My students (that is, one of my tenth-grade sections) read George Saunders’s “Winky” last week. The other section didn’t read it because we had too few classes left in the year—that is, just one. We have been reading a lot of stories this spring: Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” Alice Walker’s “The Welcome Table,” and now “Winky.” They are so lively and thoughtful in discussion that my planning only goes so far; things come up that hadn’t occurred to me.

It’s hard to talk about “Winky” without giving spoilers. But I’ll try. The story begins at a strange motivational seminar, in which a tacky modern version of a medieval morality tale is playing out on the stage. One of the characters, “You,” is trying to reach “Inner Peace,” but then a number of other actors, including “Whiny,” “Self-Absorbed,” and “Blames Her Fat on Others” get in the way. Finally a GoldHat appears and drags these obstacles into jail. The crowd then bursts into the familiar mantra: “Now Is the Time for Me to Win!”

Then Tom Rodgers, the founder of the Seminars reveals himself and begins telling the audience about how he learned to stop letting people crap in his oatmeal. (This becomes the bizarre ruling metaphor of the session.) Then the participants line up for the Personal Change Centers. Neil Yaniky finally finds himself face to face with Rodgers, who helps him identify the main obstacle in his life—his sister, Winky—and the main problem: “Needs her own place.” Yaniky resolves to go home at the end of the session and tell Winky precisely this.

In our discussion, the students quickly saw through the Seminars and the message they were broadcasting. You can’t just treat people as obstacles in your life, especially people close to you; you can’t solve life problems by cutting people out of your life, sending them away, etc. But they saw this even more when we were taken into the world of Winky.

Winky is unsummarizable. A little bit out there, in her own world, Christian, full of happy fantasies, but also with her shair of pain from being taunted and lonely. We see her catching herself in the middle of daydreaming and realizing she had to get ready for Neil-Neil’s return home at the end of the day. She rushes up the stairs “with a strip of broken molding under her arm and a dirty sock over her shoulder.”

The students saw that Winky adores Neil-Neil, that he is at the center of her world, and that she also takes care of him, cleans for him, cooks for him. One student was very upset by Winky’s Christian faith, her belief that she really should turn the other cheek when people abused her. “How can you let other people bully you and not fight back?” she asked. We talked about this for a while. In the story, it’s complex, because we’re supposed to see Winky’s naiveté, but we also see that she’s happy in her own way.

Neil-Neil has fantasies of his own, as we learn on his way home. A beautiful wife, a Jaguar, a feeling of power wherever he went. But he’s short and bald, and Bev, whom he apparently dated for a little while, left him, so the fantasies are far, far out of reach, except in his mind. But he doesn’t think so as he walks home; he thinks he’s on the verge of winning. The seminar has pumped him up.

And he gets home, and things don’t work out as he planned. But he doesn’t have an epiphany either. I can’t give away the ending. It’s wonderfully mundane and disturbing. I asked the students, why does the story end this way? Why doesn’t it end with him realizing that he was wrong and that he loves his sister?

“This isn’t Disney,” one of them offered.

“That wouldn’t be Neil-Neil,” another said, explaining that he clearly has limitations, and it would be too much out of character for him to have that much insight at once.

Then another student spoke. “I think we all have a little bit of Neil-Neil in us,” he said. We talked about that until the end of class.

And now is it clear why I love teaching at Varga?

We didn’t have time, but I wanted to bring my students an article, in The Economist, about how young adults in the U.S. are increasingly cutting off contact with their parents. At one point the article points to one of the causes (or at least contributing factors): “Those who decide to break off contact with their parents find support in a growing body of books (often with the word ‘toxic’ in the title), as well as online. Threads on internet forums for people who want to break ties with their parents reveal strangers labelling people they have never met as narcissistic or toxic and advising an immediate cessation of contact. This may make it easier to shelve feelings of guilt.”

In my book Mind over Memes I devote a chapter to the word “toxic” and the damage it can do when overapplied. (I bring up “Winky” in the chapter too.) Surely some situations are toxic in some way. But to call people toxic, without first trying to understand what is actually going on, can lead to more harm than the so-called toxicity itself. There are situations in life where you do need to cut someone off, and that may even be a family member. But there are many more cases where you actually don’t—where, through learning to say “yes” and “no,” and through learning more about the situation, you can find a way to relate to each other. It can have limits, it can be imperfect, but it’s still a relationship of some kind.

The fad of cutting off relationships, and justifying it blithely, is nothing short of monstrous.

But “Winky” does much more than teach a lesson, and it leaves a lot unresolved. (The story is not punditry, thank God!) The students were able to take this.

The title of this blog piece promised “more,” but that will have to wait until next time.

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

I must have read Delmore Schwartz’s story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” as a teenager, because it was in the anthologies that I read cover to cover. But it wasn’t until Rabbi Adam Roffman mentioned it in a teaching at Shearith Israel in Dallas that I returned to it, and I have reread it many times since then. Each time I teach it to my students, I admire the language and imagination all over again: the movie theater, the young man watching a grainy, clumsy film of his parents before they got married, the narration in the present, taking us in semi-snapshot style (the snapshots are moving, but not much) from one moment to the next, both on the screen and in the theater itself. I won’t give away the second half, since some of my students are reading it now. But here’s one of my favorite paragraphs, at the end of the third part:

My father and mother go to the rail of the boardwalk and look down on the beach where a good many bathers are casually walking about. A few are in the surf. A peanut whistle pierces the air with its pleasant and active whine, and my father goes to buy peanuts. My mother remains at the rail and stares at the ocean. The ocean seems merry to her; it pointedly sparkles and again and again the pony waves are released. She notices the children digging in the wet sand, and the bathing costumes of the girls who are her own age. My father returns with the peanuts. Overhead the sun’s lightning strikes and strikes, but neither of them are at all aware of it. The boardwalk is full of people dressed in their Sunday clothes and idly strolling. The tide does not reach as far as the boardwalk, and the strollers would feel no danger if it did. My mother and father lean on the rail of the boardwalk and absently stare at the ocean. The ocean is becoming rough; the waves come in slowly, tugging strength from far back. The moment before they somersault, the moment when they arch their backs so beautifully, showing green and white veins amid the black, that moment is intolerable. They finally crack, dashing fiercely upon the sand, actually driving, full force downward, against the sand, bouncing upward and forward, and at last petering out into a small stream which races up the beach and then is recalled. My parents gaze absentmindedly at the ocean, scarcely interested in its harshness. The sun overhead does not disturb them. But I stare at the terrible sun which breaks up sight, and the fatal, merciless, passionate ocean, I forget my parents. I stare fascinated and finally, shocked by the indifference of my father and mother, I burst out weeping once more. The old lady next to me pats me on the shoulder and says, “There, there, all of this is only a movie, young man, only a movie,” but I look up once more at the terrifying sun and the terrifying ocean, and being unable to control my tears, I get up and go to the men’s room, stumbling over the feet of the other people seated in my row.

So the narrator’s mother and father are watching the ocean, the narrator is watching the ocean and his parents (who have not yet given birth to him), and the reader is watching them all, wondering, and then understanding, why the narrator bursts out weeping. He sees what his parents do not; he sees the force of ocean and sun, he understands that these forces are stronger than us, stronger even than our awareness of them. His parents are participating in something they do not even notice. The lady says to him, “all of this is only a movie, young man, only a movie,” not knowing that the opposite is the case. It is far from “only” a movie; it is happening right now, the sea and sun and forces, and each of us came into the world through others’ oblivion.

One of my students began speaking eloquently and effusively about the story, as we read the first three parts aloud in class. It brought so much to his mind. Others picked up on details. But the story, even at the end, leaves me unsettled, and that’s how I think it is meant to be. It has a message, yes; its strangenesses get somewhat resolved, yes. But it leaves me with the feeling of the movie theater, of sinking into the darkness and watching something unfold that is more true than I can stand, and that I want to protest but can’t, because I am part of it, even without appearing in the film. The protest is not just that of an immature young man. The protest is everyone’s, because much of life we do not see until art, or some other convulsion, brings it right in front of us, and then we’re alone with it while the others gaze absently past it or say, “there, there, all of this is only a movie.”

Photo of Coney Island courtesy of Wikipedia.

  • “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

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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