On the Mixtures of Happiness and Sadness

I remember coming upon Lucky Curtains, the last of Granfaloon Bus’s albums, in a record store and seizing it in its gleaming wrapping. I purchased it, took it home, and for weeks listened to nothing else. It opened up something raw; my editing job (at a company that published career guides) went against who I was, and I knew it was time for a change. It was around then that I decided to become a teacher, and it took another year to make this happen. The music, this album, was part of the catalyst. Why? It’s hard to define and delimit these things, especially after all these years. But listening to the songs now, I hear not only the sadness that hit me then, but a happiness mixed in too, a kind of tentative, mitigated hope or at least ease.

Any mood, any emotion, is more than one thing at once; we are under pressure to name it one thing or another, to give it one emoticon or another, but it usually comes along with its opposite. Often when I am angry, I also see past the anger; often when worried I feel calm. Likewise, happiness and sadness go together so strongly that to separate them means to lose both.

On the Lucky Curtains album, the song “House” has all kinds of emotions together: happiness and sadness, security and tentativeness, expansiveness and enclosedness. Not only opposites, but gradations and hints, something outside of the polarities.

Whenever I mention being sad, there are those who jump in and try to fix it. Don’t! It is part of the happiness; it makes happiness possible. The dreariest thing on earth is one-sidedness. No one has to fall for it.

There are specific, obvious things to be sad about (climate change, the spreading Delta variant, hurricanes and floods, the disaster in Afghanistan, personal losses), but beyond that, sadness is a current in life; loss of some kind is always present. In János Pilinszky’s poetry I find an exceptional compression of happiness and sadness: a seemingly tranquil scene can contain endless grief. An example is his poem “Kegyelem” (“Grace”):

Bogarak szántják a sötétet
és csillagok az éjszakát.
Van időnk hosszan üldögélni
az asztalon pihenő lámpafényben.
Megadatott a kegyelem:
miközben minden áll és hallgat,
egyedül az öröklét működik.

In rough translation:

(Beetles plow through the dark
and stars the night.
We have time for long lingering
at the table in leisurely lamplight.
Grace has become possible:
while everything stops and listens,
eternity works all alone.)

The pivotal word here is “megadatott,” which is not the same as “megadott” (“it is given”). “Megadatott” expresses a tentative possibility. Grace is not certain; it just becomes possible in these still moments, which themselves are rare. The poem holds this rarity.

Last night I was listening again to Cz.K. Sebő’s “kétezerhúsz” (“2020”), a truly sad song. But if there’s a happiness in it, it has to do with being able to sing the sadness as it is, being at peace with it in some way. I think that is a kind of happiness, but not a cheery kind. I understand much more of the song than I did before; not just the literal meaning of the lyrics, but their tones too.

It’s hard to explain that happiness and sadness go together; lots of people know and understand this, but our current vocabulary doesn’t make much room for it. There’s so much pressure to be on the up-and-up, always doing better, feeling better. But literature and music (and other arts) make room for something else.

What is the mood of Dávid Szesztay’s “Késő” (“Late”), for instance? It starts out mournful, but then it lifts up into a kind of exhilaration. The word “but” here is misleading; the one mood follows from the other.

It isn’t just that different moods coexist. Rather, there’s something more important than mood. We (around the world, but particularly in the U.S.) place too much emphasis on being happy, being fulfilled, as though such a thing could be attained and frozen in place, and as though it were more important than the things we do and receive. I don’t mean that mood is unimportant, but it’s a background color, changing and blending and fading, a wash of sky.

Song Series #11: Songs I Reach For, or Vice Versa

What does it mean to love a song? It’s something that comes over time, not usually at first listen. You reach back for the song, or it reaches for you. Something pulls it up and puts it on. The songs you “love” at first listen may stay with you a day, a month, a year, or many years, but you only find out over time.

The first is “Song for Iris” by Art of Flying, on their brilliant 2018 album, Escort Mission, the only vinyl album I have right now in Hungary. (I will eventually bring my records and CDs here and get a recordplayer too.) Here’s a gorgeous performance at the Taos Center for the Arts. You can read the lyrics on Bandcamp (where you can also purchase the album). I have often wished there were an Art of Flying songbook; their songs sound like they come through the ages, but they’re also right here, in our world. They could be sung in so many places and times, alone, with others, by the fire or on a long road. Here’s how “Song for Iris” begins:

I sing for the beautiful old singer
Voice rising higher than the moon
Who sings how trouble hangs around
& pleasure leaves too soon.

Ain’t it the beautifulest thing,
To be lost in the heat of love
I paint a river for your feet
Your blue-eyed sky above.

I can’t see your face at all, but
They say you’re everywhere.

Another song I reach for, again and again, over the years is “24” by Red House Painters. I say this reluctantly; I didn’t want to love this music, even back in the 90s, but forget it, it does its own work. This is from their 1992 album Down Colorful Hill. The lyrics begin:

So it’s not loaded stadiums or ballparks
And we’re not kids on swingsets on the blacktop
And I thought at fifteen that I’d have it down by sixteen
And twenty-four keeps breathing in my face

But it’s the guitar I especially love, its slow descent, the way it lets the voice swing slowly on it.

Another that comes back again and again is “Oh, My Girl” by Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter. I don’t know what the song is about, but I dance in it. The way her voice goes up on “Girl,” the way the voice, lead guitar, and viola talk to each other, the way the song paints a room with afternoon light, all of this is what I can name, but like any beautiful song, it goes from there into its own language.

There are so many more to bring up here–but one that has been in my ears is “Part of Joy” by Grandfaloon Bus, one of the hardest songs of theirs to describe, but one that goes far beyond whatever you hear in it the first time around. I wrote about it some years ago; somewhere, on an old computer, my thoughts are stored, I think. But I love how it leads, part by part, to its ending, “Here’s the last words that were said before the line went dead, before failure went to your head and so you lie instead of admitting you’d sing for your supper too.” That “sing” sounds sad and exuberant at the same time, and then the instruments take over. It’s one of my favorites on the album and in the Granfaloon Bus repertoire–though if “Say Cheese,” “Free Gold Halo,” “Sugar Museum,” and others were online too, I would have had a hard time choosing one.

I love songs somewhat in the same way I love stories–for their taut form, their imagination, their possibilities inside the brevity, and their way of calling you up out of nowhere. These are just a few.

To read my other posts in the Song Series, go here.

Song Series #10: Song Endings

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One of the most important parts of a song is its ending. There are many ways to end a song, and the ending matters. It gives something to the song; it is also really hard to do well. Many artists rely on the fade-out, which is fine for some songs, but lazy as a general approach–unless you truly believe that your songs shouldn’t end. Today I am going to bring up a few favorite song endings–all from songs by California musicians (or musicians who lived at some point in California), since I am watching the news of the terrible wildfires and thinking of friends and others who are suffering right now. I made a token donation to the Wildfire Relief Fund, but I wish I could do much more.

One way to end a song is simply to stop, maybe with a few percussion beats at the end, maybe without. A brilliant example of this is “Borders” by Granfaloon Bus (from their album Good Funeral Weather), which has to do with the borders of many kinds–inside people, between people, and in time, in the course of life. The refrain has a beautiful cadence that alternates between the “you” and the “I”: “You’re payin’, while I run, you’re still crying, well I’m all done.” The song ends with “done” and a few quiet drumbeats that come to a stop.

You can hear a similar kind of ending in a very different kind of song: 20 Minute Loop’s brooding, increasingly frantic “Everybody Out,” where the repeating chorus or culmination is “If it don’t stop, if it don’t stop,” and then it just stops with that! This video is from a 2008 performance at Bottom of the Hill.

Another way of ending is by going into a new mode, often instrumental, that comes to its own conclusion. A favorite example is from one of my favorite songs, “Green Glass” by Carrie Bradley, performed and recorded by her band Ed’s Redeeming Qualities. Watch the whole video–it begins with a historic mishap where the one string on Dan’s butterfly bass breaks. The song is intense with words–they go fast and urgently, leaving you chasing after the strands as they fly by: “In the belly of a bar, on a back street, there’s a couple of people I’d tell you about if I weren’t in the habit of just thinking out loud…” Wow. That’s just the beginning. “Small bar, back street, mostly residential, nothing to worry about, nothing much to do. A blue neon sign in the window says Burgies on Beacon, and the street lights brood. The blue light features bugs, floating around, like craters, like something in your eye, like astronauts, like black holes, like black stars….” A man and a woman meet, and they get each other’s jokes, there’s something there, and eventually the woman says, “Isn’t there something between talk and sex, is there a place between obsession and apathy?” and he says, “I know a place like that, it’s, uh, 216 Center Street, Apartment D12, it’s up to you,” and she says, “I’m talking about faith, I’m talking about beauty, I’m talking about green glass in a junkyard, I’m talking about faith, I’m talking about beauty, I’m talking about ordinary flies in a blue light,” and then the song lyrics end, “and he says, ‘I know that, it’s up to you,’ and he left.” So you have this moment where the thing that they both understand is hanging there in the air, about to happen, and the music takes it over.

Where even to go from here? How about Dieselhed’s silly, majestic, iconic “B A Band,” about how some day they won’t be a band? And indeed, they are no longer a band together; they long ago continued on to other musical projects. At the shows, the lighters came out for that song–they waved in the air, like the phone lights last night in Budapest when Idea played “Sötét van.” This song–which features Jonathan Segel on violin–combines two kinds of endings: the crescendo (a common and effective way of ending a song: building up to a wild intensity and then–in some cases, but not here–crashing into the final note) and the coda, which in this case goes forward in time: “Now I’m just sitting here on my barstool / bragging to the barman about a show we once had in Fort Bragg / if my stories seem a little bit thin / I’ve got something brewin’ deep within.”

I haven’t even gotten to other kinds of endings, like returns to the beginning, or switches to a cappella singing (as in Platon Karataev’s “Elevator“), but this sure was fun. I’ll leave off with “Elevator” itself. No explanation needed. If you have favorite song endings, or ways of ending a song, please mention them in the comments. And let us hope the fires end soon.

For earlier posts in the song series, go here.

What Is Joy, and What Is Joy in Learning?

This morning I read a piece by Annie Murphy Paul titled “Fostering Joy, at School and at Work.” She begins by describing the efforts of Menlo Innovations to create a joyous workplace (a great success, according to the CEO). Unsatisfied with the unscientific nature of this report, Paul then turns to research by the Finnish educators Taina Rantala and Kaarina Määttä on the subject of joy in schools. They conclude that (a) “teacher-centric” instruction does not foster joy (in their words, “the joy of learning does not include listening to prolonged speeches”), whereas student-centered instruction does; (b) students are more joyous when allowed to work at their own pace and make certain choices about how they learn; (c) play is a source of joy; and (d) so are collaboration and sharing. Before taking apart these findings (which hold some truth but are highly problematic), let us consider what joy is.

Joy is not the same as cheer, happiness, or even enjoyment. It does not always manifest itself in smiles and laughter. It is a happiness that goes beyond regular happiness; it has to do with a quality of perception—of seeing and being seen, of hearing and being heard. When you suddenly see the solution to a geometry problem, you are also seen, in a way, because your mind has come forward in a way that was not possible before. When you listen to a piece of music that moves you, it is as though the music heard you as well. Joy has a kind of limitlessness (as in “Zarathustra’s Roundelay” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra) and stricture (as in Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?”). One thing is clear about joy: when it comes, it marks our lives. It is not to be dismissed.

So, let us look at the first of the research conclusions cited by Paul: that “teacher-centric” learning does not foster joy. My personal experience contradicts this flat out: some of my greatest joy in school (K-12, college, and grad school) happened when I was listening to a teacher or professor who had insights into the subject. The listening was not passive; to the contrary, it woke up my mind. Likewise, as a teacher, I have known those moments when students are listening raptly—not necessarily because of something I have done, but because the subject itself is so interesting.

Of course, students need a chance to engage in dialogue as well. I am not advocating for one-way discussion. Nor do I consider a lecture necessarily “teacher-centric”; it may be the most “student-centered” thing the students have encountered all day, in that it gives them something interesting to think about. Or maybe it is subject-centered. Whatever it is, there is no need to rush to put it down. Take a closer look at it first. Consider the great freedom of listening–and the great gift of something to listen to.

Working at one’s own pace—yes, there may be joy in finding one’s own velocity and rhythm. But in the higher grades, this normally takes the form of homework. In the classroom, one is discussing the material; such discussion can meet several levels at once. In a discussion of a literary work, for instance, some students may be puzzling through it for the first time, whereas others may be rereading it and noticing new things. The class comes together in discussion—but outside of class the students may indeed work at their own speed and in their own manner (while also completing assignments on time).

(I can already hear someone objecting that the researchers focused on early elementary school. Yes—and that is how they should present their findings. They should make clear that their research does not comment on “joy” in general—in school or anywhere else. Onward.)

As for play, it too can be well or ill conceived. There is play that leads to amusement, and play that leads to joy. (Amusement is not a bad thing, but it is not joy.) Also, play does not always bear the obvious marks of a game, although it can. There is play in considering an untried possibility or taking an argument to its logical conclusion. There is play in questioning someone’s assumptions or taking apart an overused phrase. My students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, is full of play of different kinds—and it’s also intellectually serious. An academic essay can be filled with play in that the author turns the subject this way and that. If you are immersed in a subject, you end up playing with it. Thus, when there is no play in a classroom, something is wrong, and joy is probably absent—but this doesn’t mean that students should be playing “algebra badminton” (whatever that is—I just made that up) every day.

As for the researchers’ last point—about collaboration and sharing—yes, those can be rewarding. But did the researchers consider how much joy can also come from working alone, or, even better, from a combination of solitude and collaboration? As long as I can remember, I have loved to sing with others, but I don’t think that would have had meaning if I didn’t also sing alone, in private. It is there that one comes to know the song. If you have ever gone out into the woods to sing—or even sang quietly while walking to the subway—then you know what it is like. It seems sometimes that the song must be solitary in order to exist at all. I am only touching on this subject, which I have discussed at length elsewhere; in any case, sharing and collaboration are only a part of joy.

Joy is not always happy. The other day I experienced joy when reading “Winky” by George Saunders. The ending was so unsettling and perfect, so beautiful in its botching of a plan, that I cried “yes,” in not so many words. Maybe joy is a kind of wordless “yes.”

 

Note: I made a few minor edits after the initial posting; on February 6, 2017, I made a few more.

  • “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.

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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.

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