Are Hungarians Especially Sad?

Yesterday evening a former student wrote to me to wish me a happy Women’s Day and to ask what I thought of a certain Mariana Hernández’s comment on Quora that Hungary is the saddest country in Europe. “I can say I have never seen such bitter, depressed people as the Hungarians,” writes Ms. Hernández, who has been living in Hungary for eight years. She goes on to explain that she loves Hungarians and considers them open-minded, peace-loving, freedom-loving. They just have an extremely pessimistic outlook (in her opinion), don’t believe dreams can come true, and rarely smile.

No, this is not my experience. First of all, I would avoid any sweeping generalizations. I know Hungarians who are generally cheerful, Hungarians who are generally gloomy, and many whose mood and outlook fluctuate. That said, Hungarians do tend to be less optimistic on the surface than many U.S. Americans I know, but they also work toward what they want to do. If that isn’t optimistic, I don’t know what is. There’s a sense that life is difficult but that if you’re alert, clever, and persistent, you can find solutions to problems, and learn things while you’re at it. Also, here people are generally more open about their problems than in the U.S. (where such disclosures can come across as “too much information”). Maybe all of us have sadness, but some cultures show it more than others.

I have a hard time measuring happiness and sadness anyway, because they have so much to do with each other. They are intermeshed. I think of the stanza from W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939“):

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

Or a haunting poem by Endre Ady that I read recently, “A sorsom ellopója” (“Thief of My Destiny”), which begins:

Ki az én sorsomat ellopta,
Láttam,
Nipponban vagy Amerikában,
Nem emlékszem:
Álmomban láttam.

The one who stole my destiny,
I saw,
In Nippon or America,
I don’t remember:
In my dream I saw him.

I wouldn’t say that these poems bring happiness, but they do bring a kind of joy, since they give form to something hidden in us. Form is one of the biggest longings, one of the biggest fears, in a human life; we don’t want imposed forms, outworn forms, forms that fit us badly, but we want form in a deeper sense.

There are certainly Hungarians who believe that the current forms in the country are rotten: that the economy, government, and infrastructure have been overtaken by human greed, and that nothing better can possibly come, since human nature will not improve. But there are others who focus on doing their best with whatever they have and showing kindness to those around them. And having a good laugh here and there. The humor here is wonderful.

Just an example of basic goodwill: last week I went to see my general practitioner for the first time, so that he could enter my information in their system and then let me know when it’s my turn for a vaccination. The doctor’s office is on my street (the address is officially on Indóház, but the entrance is actually on Vörösmarty utca). I waited in the waiting room for just 15 minutes or so, and then I could go in. He and two assistants were in the office; the phones were constantly ringing, and he cheerfully handled the appointment while he or one of the two women took the calls (people calling anxiously with questions about the vaccines). It seemed hectic to me, but they were handling it all so skillfully and calmly, just taking the work as it came along. Doctors don’t get paid much in Hungary, and only the fanciest places have actual receptionists in the waiting area. But they admitted me cheerfully and charged me nothing.

Or another: last week I got an official letter in the mail, written in intimidating bureaucratic language (which I now understand, though I sometimes have to read it slowly), which informed me that I had to appear at the government office to apply for an address card and personal ID (which are required now that I have a permanent residence card), and that I had to bring certain documents, including a birth certificate with official translation. I despaired at this momentarily, because I had sent the official translation to Debrecen when applying for the residence permit, and had not received it back. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would need it again.

Then, just when I was about to go to the translation office, I received word of the new lockdown. All services and stores, except for the essential ones, were to be closed for two weeks. So I raced to the translation office and explained the situation. The OFFI worker looked me up and saw that the translation was still in the system; all I needed was to order an official copy, which she could have ready by Monday. I asked whether the office would be open, and she said she wasn’t sure, but she’d call me on Monday morning, and if I couldn’t come in, she’d mail it to me. “Megoldjuk” (“we’ll solve it”), she said. And indeed: she called me on Monday and said I could come pick it up.

This kind of thing has happened many times, at school as well. There’s a willingness to solve problems, as well as an eagerness to do good even on a small scale. How many times a colleague has left a bag of fruit tea, or a piece of chocolate, on my desk? How many thoughtful gestures have I received? There has to be some kind of optimism in this. But it’s just not the “pumped-up, rah-rah” kind.

This week I brough George Saunders’s story “Winky”—one of my favorite stories in the world—to my twelfth-grade students. Reading it with Hungarians was very interesting (and moving) because of what they understood. They didn’t all grasp the first part, at the Seminar led by Tom Rodgers. They understood that it was a kind of success workshop, and a few figured out that Tom Rodgers was a con man, but the situation itself wasn’t familiar to them. The self-improvement craze hasn’t reached the same extremes here. But the parts they understood profoundly had to do with Neil Yaniky and his somewhat dimwitted but kindhearted sister, Winky. They understood Yaniky’s error: his belief that if he got rid of his sister, if he just told her to leave, he could succeed at last. And they understood how deluded this was.

Despite all my qualms about spoilers, I have to quote the ending of “Winky” to explain what I mean. At the Seminar, Yaniky has been convinced that Winky is the one who has been standing in his way, (“crapping in his oatmeal,” to paraphrase Tom Rodgers), and that now is the time for him to win. He gets all geared up for his great moment. In the meantime Winky is happily getting ready for her brother to come home, walking around with a sock over her shoulder and a piece of molding under her arm. And when he gets home, he just can’t do it.

… and as he pushed by her into the tea-smelling house the years ahead stretched out bleak and joyless in his imagination and his chest went suddenly dense with rage.

“Neil-Neil,” she said. “Is something wrong?”

And he wanted to smack her, insult her, say something to wake her up, but only kept moving toward his room, calling her terrible names under his breath.

He isn’t happier, he hasn’t had some rosy realization that family is what really matters in the world, but we are the ones left relieved. As a student said, “They have a history together.” Something in him can’t go against that. Maybe it’s cowardice, maybe it’s weakness, but whatever it is, it keeps him from doing that awful thing, and my students knew that it would have been awful, sending Winky out into a world she had no idea how to face.

Human nature is no better in one country than in another. But in my experience, Hungarians know that there’s something to be said for being among others and treating them well, even with imperfections and limitations (on all sides). Like Yaniky, Hungarians may mutter terrible names under their breath, but they (or many of them) reject the ultimate selfishness. And if that isn’t hopeful, I don’t know what is.

Ady Endre, “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm”

117_Ady utolsó fényképeToday I found an astonishing poem by the Hungarian poet Ady Endre (1877–1919; Ady is the surname). I know only a few Hungarian words, phrases, and basic forms, but even this much lifted the latch, with the help of translations. Immediately I saw some of the difficulties of translating this work.

You can hear a recording on YouTube and read both the Hungarian and Leslie A. Kery’s translation in the Babel Web Anthology. There’s another translation, by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner, in Light within the Shade: Eight Hundred Years of Hungarian Poetry. Both brought me closer to the poem yet stopped before coming too close. I sense something burning here, something a translator might try to make cooler and softer.

Let us consider first the title, “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm,” which means “I thank you, I thank you, I thank you” (root “köszön” + personal suffix -“öm”; the “you” is implied). Kery translates the title as “My Thanks to Thee” (making the address to God explicit and removing the repetition). Ozsváth and Turner translate it “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You,” keeping the repetition, making God less explicit, but dropping the sense of “I,” which in turn allows for a sense of relation. It’s a difficult call, whether or not to keep some sense of “I”; “köszönöm” is basically an equivalent of “thank you,” and an added “I” might seem stilted. In any case, the repetition is important, as is the sense of relation; each translation conveys one or the other.

Now let’s look at the first four lines. These are enough to make a person fall in love with the poem, and they only hint at what’s coming.

Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok,
Számban nevednek jó íze van,
Szent mennydörgést néz a két szemem,
Istenem, istenem, istenem,

Here’s Kery’s translation:

It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear,
Thy name is tasting sweet within my mouth
And my eyes, oh Lord, oh God of mine,
behold the holy thunder.

Here’s what Ozsváth and Turner do:

Dazzling in my ears is the roar of the sun,
Sweet in your mouth the savor of your name,
Loud in my eyes your holy thunder,
Lord of light, lord of sweetness, lord of wonder;

What a difference! I am torn between them. I like the bareness of Kery and the incantation of Ozsváth and Turner. But neither seemed to want the “Istenem, istenem, istenem” (“My God, my god, my god”) in bare form; the one turned it into “oh Lord, oh God of mine,” the other into “Lord of light, lord of sweetness, lord of wonder.”I see what they are doing–they’re conveying the nuances within the repetition–but I miss the repetition itself.

What are the alternatives in English? “My God, my god, my god” lacks the cadence and subtlety of “Istenem, istenem, istenem,” and anything with “O my god” would sound too casual. Maybe the best way around this is to read the original and translations side by side (and listen to the original).

But I jumped ahead. The first line lets us hear the rays of sun:

Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok,

“[It is] the sunbeams’ hum that I hear,”

The onomatopoeic”zúgása” (“the hum”), which reminds me of the Russian жужжанье, comes right after “Napsugarak,” “of the sunbeams.” In these very sounds, you can hear the beams humming. “amit hallok” means “that I hear.” Here I prefer Kery’s translation (“It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear”): the euphony and syntax work beautifully. Ozsváth and Turner‘s “Dazzling in my ears is the roar of the sun” seems cranked up too loud; moreover, it loses the sense of a question. “It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear” answers the implied “What is it that I hear?”

The third line, “Szent mennydörgést néz a két szemem,” does something spectacular with the first. “Szent mennydörgést” means “holy thunder” (as direct object); “néz,” “watch”; “a két szemem,” “my two eyes”; together, “my two eyes behold the holy thunder.” This is directly followed by “Istenem, istenem, istenem,” which looks like thunder itself. The hum of the sunbeams and the view of thunder go together–but what matters here is not just the joining, but the person who hears and sees.

I have only inched into the poem here. If this post encourages someone to read and listen to it, I will be glad. Over time, I hope to understand it more accurately and deeply. In the meantime, I adopt it into my life.

 

Image credit: Photograph of Ady Endre, courtesy of the Babel Web Anthology.

  • “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.”

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    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.

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    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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