The Spoken and Unspoken

I have been thinking about what goes on this blog and what doesn’t, and how this changes or rotates over time, and, more generally, the relation between the spoken and unspoken in our lives. There are some who say that the deepest feelings are those we don’t put into words. This is only sometimes true, especially for those who work with words and search for words. Sometimes the things said in words, and published, are the essence of it all. But sometimes not. It’s important to rotate between words and silence.

I have been writing a lot about music (mainly songs, albums, favorite musicians, and shows), but there will probably come a time when I want to be quieter about this and when another topic becomes my outward focus. At various times, the blog has focused on education, literature, general reflections, thoughts on life in Hungary, thoughts on Hebrew texts and Judaism, and more. I like that flexibility and also like being able to take these topics both outward and inward.

And what is the difference, besides the obvious? When you hold your thoughts inside, you not only don’t have to find words for them (though you probably find something, just to be able to think), but you have room in your privacy. The thoughts can stretch to their true size. You can discover new things about the topic and yourself. There’s also a great security to this: you don’t need others’ responses at all; it’s enough to be thinking, feeling, and receiving.

But when you put your thoughts down, there’s the challenge and pursuit: you want to find the right words, and in looking for them, you also go inward and discover new things. Also, when the words reach someone, that’s exciting: such a connection isn’t shallow at all. There’s also a great openness to it: you are sharing what you think, observe, and feel, and that in itself is good, if you aren’t precious or bombastic about it.

As prosaic as this blog may be, I often go back to old posts and touch them up, changing a word for a clearer one, or fixing little errors, or making a sentence flow better. Probably not many people notice, but I am continually trying to get it right.

So neither wordlessness nor wordmaking is inherently superior to the other. Both depend on each other, and both have their rhythms and seasons.

I have been thinking a lot about Elul, the month in the Jewish calendar that has just begun and that leads into the High Holidays. Traditionally this is a month of reflection and introspection: we are supposed to look at what we have done well and poorly, begin to make amends for our wrongs, and enter the High Holidays with the intent of atonement and renewal, of making a new start.

But my wrongs are on the subtle side. Have I raised my voice in the past year? No. Have I spoken badly of anyone (beyond frank criticism, which is not wrong)? No. Have I failed to keep a commitment? No. Have I lied? Not in any big way; I have told a partial story once in a while. There are times, actually, when it might have been good to get a little angrier, to stand up for myself and others a bit more. Anger is not in itself a terrible thing; only when it’s taken too far, past the point of justice, can it be considered wrong.

Although looking at your wrongs is important (and my own catalogue goes farther than this), it isn’t the only point of Elul. We also look at collective wrongs, and there’s something more, too: a search for the true liveliness of things, a fullness of spirit. One of my favorite verses in all of Torah, which was part of last week’s parsha, “Re’eh” (“See”), is Deuteronomy 12:5: “But unto the place which the LORD your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put His name there, even unto His habitation shall ye seek, and thither thou shalt come.” That last part, “even unto His habitation shall ye seek, and thither shalt thou come,” consists of four words in Hebrew: “l’shichno tidr’shu, uvata shama.” The first two of these are particularly rich in association: “l’shichno” (“to his habitation”) has the same root as “shechina,” a word for God’s manifestation in the things around us, while “tidr’shu” (“seek”) has the same root as “drash,” a word that can mean close interpretation of Biblical texts. So to me these words suggest reading closely into the liveliness.

And that, in itself, is a meaning of Elul: taking time with the texts, taking time with the world around us, reading it closely, listening to it closely, finding its life, and living more fully.

“You live quite fully already,” some might say. “I don’t think you need much help in that regard.”

True, for the most part. But everything, even full living, requires practice, and Elul is also a time of practice. Also, it’s a time for rebalancing and tempering. There’s a lot to it, and infinite angles on it, and just as with this blog, the emphases will change for a person over time. It’s a month of return, “teshuva,” but it’s also a return to the return itself, with a new understanding of what that is.

What do we return to, when we return? There’s always a part that returns and a part that does not, whether in life, religious practice, a song, a friendship. This mixture of coming back and moving on means that each combination, each encounter, will be completely new. That comes back to the spoken and unspoken: some of this will want its way into words, and some of it will not, but the parts and the proportions will also change, and both language and silence will rear up into life.

  • “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



    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.


    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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