Time, Time, Time

Getting older (and older and older) is a strange thing; when you’re young, you don’t necessarily know that you’re young (I didn’t, in my twenties and thirties), and then later you see that twenty years went by, just like that, and now you don’t feel old, but for most facts and purposes, and in the eyes of the world, you are. That doesn’t get in the way of much, at least not until the body and mind start to break down, but you know now that you have limited time to work with. That said, a lot can happen during these years: for most of my life I have lived with urgency, but now I do better things with it than before.

But four years go by in what feels like a few months. Four years ago today, and in the two preceding days, I decided to come to Szolnok to teach. I first learned about the opportunity on August 4, 2017—and wrote immediately to Mary Rose, the director of the Central European Teaching Program. In the few days that followed, I looked into it and made up my mind to do it. (I was pretty sure of it that very day, but it was definite, at least in my mind, by August 6.) I had no idea of all the things that would happen over these four years: the teaching, translating, writing, bike rides, music, friendship. What happy years these have been—and they seem like the beginning of much more.

Even twenty years don’t seem so long. Twenty years ago (not exactly, but more or less) I recorded my EP O Octopus at the wonderful analog studio Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. I didn’t release it, because I still had so many CDs from my earlier (homemade) release that I didn’t want to end up with even more boxes. Twenty years later, I think it was actually pretty good; I have uploaded it to YouTube and Bandcamp. All the pressure is off; I don’t have to promote it, but people can listen to it if they like.

Getting older is sometimes easy, sometimes difficult. The easy part is that I have grown stronger over time, with a much clearer sense of what I am doing in the world, and a basic joy in it. The difficult part is that I wish I had at least some of this a few decades ago. I had a terrible lack of confidence—not intellectually, but in other areas of my life, from simple interactions to musical endeavors. Now the confidence has grown, but years have gone by.

This happens to everyone to some degree, but I think my lack of confidence was a bit more than the usual. To others who suffer from that, I can only say: confidence comes from something other than self-affirmation or external praise. It comes from some willingness to be one of billions of people, doing your best and knowing it won’t be perfect: knowing that despite our illusions and fantasies, everyone is filled with imperfections, no one has the answers, and it’s on each of us to do what we can with what we have. But those are rational words, and confidence comes from something else, from daily walking and building. Could it have come to me sooner? Maybe, if I had known what it was.

Not that a person has to be overtly or inwardly confident all the time; there are times of self-doubt, self-criticism, wavering, guilt, regret, shyness. But you don’t have to condemn yourself for these things. That’s really what confidence is about: letting all these things have their place, without mistaking them for the whole. Taking life’s different textures.

I think of the end of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I have quoted here before:

Her teaching had a reflex action upon herself, insomuch that she thought she could perceive no great personal difference between being respected in the nether parts of Casterbridge and glorified at the uppermost end of the social world. Her position was, indeed, to a marked degree one that, in the common phrase, afforded much to be thankful for. That she was not demonstratively thankful was no fault of hers. Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transmit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers. But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who had deserved much more. And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquility had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.

Getting Up and Settling Down

It really snowed last night, so as soon as I got up, I went on a walk: westwards toward the old railroad buildings and then back again. The cats were in a state of excitement too: everything out the window was moving, moving! It snowed all morning.

I taught my British Civilization class–today’s lesson was about the Globe Theatre and Shakespeare, so we didn’t have nearly enough time for everything. But I am glad that the students, now in twelfth grade, have read two Shakespeare plays while at Varga.

Then I taught my American Civilization classes. We have been reading and listening to American speeches, and the students are about to write their own. For an exercise, I asked them to write a short speech welcoming new students to Varga. Their speeches were delightful; I chose ten to be read aloud in class. A particularly funny and sophisticated speech was written by a student whose microphone wasn’t working today, so he nominated another student to read it. Somewhere in the middle, the doorbell rang, and I had a feeling I knew what it was. I asked them to wait just a second, and I went to the door. It was the postman with an official letter. To receive it, I had to show my ID, which I did. I felt the envelope; it had a card inside it. I was opening it on my way back to the computer. So the reading resumed; at the end, I commented on the speech and then told the students what had happened: I had just received my permanent residence permit. Then we went on to hear seven more students’ speeches, and then, with five minutes of class left, I read them Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Snow Storm,” which I quote in full here, because how could I not?

The Snow Storm

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

After that, I headed off to the school, with hopes of finding the financial officer, who would want to photocopy the permit for the school’s records. On the way there and back, I took photos right and left. The sun had come out, and unfortunately the snow was melting–but there was still quite a bit.

The financial officer had left, but I found some colleagues, including Csilla Vágóné, who kindly took a photo of me. (The photo below is a different one, though, which I took at home. Csilla took a lovely photo, but the fluorescent light made me look a little pasty-faced. This one, with the warm lighting, suits the occasion better.)

The permanent residence permit means many things. First of all, there’s a symbolic significance. It means that I live here; I’m not just visiting. In that regard it reflects my reality and wishes. Second, I have to renew it only every five years; to renew it, I just pay a fee–there’s nothing elaborate involved. This in turn simplifies all my other paperwork; for instance, my health insurance card can have a longer validity term as well. Third, it means that I can get an address card, which is an essential item here but which temporary residents do not receive (instead, they receive a temporary document). Fourth, it simplifies travel; I have essentially the same travel rights as Hungarian citizens. Especially now, during Covid, this helps; if it turns out that I can go to the U.S. this summer, I won’t risk a situation where I can’t come back here. Permanent residents have other rights similar to those of citizens: they can travel freely within the EU, work anywhere in the EU, etc. So a time could come in the future when I wanted to spend a summer in France or the Netherlands, for instance, and this would be possible.

But there’s something more than all these things I’ve listed, even the first. I consider Szolnok home. I teach at a wonderful school, with great students and colleagues and all sorts of possibilities; outside of work, I can bike and walk around, attend literary and other events (once Covid is behind us), take part in my synagogue and serve as its cantor, and enjoy my sweet apartment. The Hungarian word for a permanent residence permit is “letelepedési engedély.” “Engedély” means “permit” or “permission”; “letelepedés” means “settling, settlement, establishing (oneself somewhere), establishment, homemaking.” The prefix “le-” means “down,” so essentially this is a settling down.

And we ALL know about Hungary….

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For many liberals in the U.S., Hungary has become a symbol of everything abhorrent. Just mention Hungary, and you get the eyerolls and the nods–yes, we all know about Hungary, we all know about Orbán. Which is understandable, except that often the knowledge isn’t there, or it lacks inquisitiveness. Many reporters, not to mention laypeople, opine freely on Hungary without knowing Hungarian, studying Hungarian history and literature, or spending time in the country. Even some U.S. reporters living here insist on seeing certain things and not others.

There is far more to the country than Viktor Orbán, both inside and outside of politics. Those who care about Hungary could help by shedding light on–or at least taking interest in–what is happening here.

Earlier this month, for instance, the editorial board and more than 70 staff members of Index.hu, Hungary’s largest independent news source, resigned in protest over the firing of editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull. There were large protests in Budapest. The dispute continues, and there is much more to it than may appear. The journalist and fiction writer Sándor Jászberényi–not one to soften or mitigate his words–writes in a Facebook post that the freedom of the press has not died in Hungary–or if it has, it died around thirty years ago, when it became possible to buy out a newspaper in the first place. This is the way capitalism works. Jászberényi blames the protesters themselves to a degree, for not bothering to pay for the news that they want to read. His post has 326 comments at this point–and many more comments can be found in the 327 shares. His point is not that freedom of the press is thriving in Hungary. Rather, if people want it, they have to give something for it. Not everyone agrees with him, but his points are worth considering seriously.

In the U.S., I imagine that some were surprised to learn that Index.hu even existed–that there was an independent press in Hungary at all. Look at news about Hungary from the past four years or so. Only a couple of articles mention Index. The recent mentions all follow the narrative that Orbán is taking over the media (which is largely true but needs more careful analysis–consider, for instance, that many people read foreign news online).

Analyses of Hungarian politics sometimes leave out essential information. An otherwise illuminating article by Sahil Handa, published yesterday on Persuasion, states, “Since the outbreak of COVID-19, things have gone from bad to worse. When the epidemic hit, Orbán quickly moved to expand his powers even further. Imposing an open-ended state of emergency, he granted himself the power to rule by decree and made the spread of ‘fake news’ punishable by up to five years in prison. All elections have been cancelled for an indefinite period.” Mr. Handa didn’t mention that the Hungarian Parliament voted on June 16 to end the emergency powers–which officially expired at midnight on June 17. Granted, a new health emergency law has been enacted; many worry that it essentially gives the government continued emergency powers, or at least a mechanism for reinstating them. But it is not the same thing. The point is not to dismiss criticism of Orbán and his party, but rather to sharpen it by making it more precise.

The situation is much more complex than U.S.-based analysis tends to acknowledge. Just about everyone on the left says that Hungary has swung to the far right–but this is not true across the board. In October 2019, Budapest and a number of other cities elected liberal mayors. In December 2019, Gergely Karácsony, the new mayor of Budapest, joined with the mayors of Bratislava, Prague, and Warsaw to sign a Free Cities Pact, which promised to promote “common values of freedom, human dignity, democracy, equality, rule of law, social justice, tolerance and cultural diversity.” I have seen no articles about this in the U.S. press, except for a piece by the Associated Press. Doesn’t this deserve attention? Or are people committed to equating Orbán with Hungary?

What bothers me is not U.S. liberal criticism of Hungary, but the lack of curiosity about the country, the eagerness to use it as a punching bag. This is giving Orbán part of what he appears to want: first of all, a reason to ridicule liberals for their misrepresentation of the facts, and second, an equation between himself and Hungary. This lack of curiosity is bad for discussion itself; it deflects introspection and touts caricatures.

Moreover, when criticizing politicians or governments, one should also acknowledge things they have done well. No one slamming Hungary bothers to mention that the country takes the coronavirus pandemic seriously, has heeded the recommendations of Cecilia Müller, the chief medical officer, and has managed to limit the outbreak. Restrictions have been lifting gradually. Did Orbán and Fidesz take advantage of the situation for their own political benefit? There are legitimate arguments that they have. Did they also take appropriate measures to protect public health? Evidently so, as did local leaders. To my knowledge, there was no one demonizing the medical experts, no one ranting that the pandemic was a hoax. If such rants exist here, they are rare.

I am not immersed in Hungarian politics. My interests lie elsewhere. But from what I have seen, one of Orbán’s weaknesses lies in his dismissal of all criticism as liberal nonsense and propaganda. Over time, such a stance backfires; people stop believing what the government says, since it’s so formulaic. To gain the trust of the public, a leader must be willing to look at a situation from more than one side and to acknowledge when someone else is right. Journalists can contribute to the public good, in Hungary, in the U.S., and elsewhere, by setting an example.

One can add to all this that there is more to a country than its politics. I have made that point many times, and it’s a large subject in itself. But if you are going to talk politics, look past the surface, be willing not to know everything, be willing to see things that don’t fit your preconceptions, and don’t just repeat what you’ve heard from others.

I made a few minor stylistic edits to this piece after posting it.

Surprises of Sameness and Difference

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I was standing in line at the supermarket with my little basket of groceries. Ahead of me was a blond woman in a pale green mini-dress, with tanned legs and an enormous cartful of goods, which she loaded slowly onto the conveyor belt: cleaning supplies, a big bag of chicken, various household items, beverages, and so on and on. While I was waiting, masked, I found myself imagining that she would then load the goods into her big car (not an SUV–I don’t see those around here much) and drive out to her house in Szandaszőlős (a suburb of Szolnok). The Golden Retriever would come bounding and leaping out to greet her, the kids and her husband would help her bring the groceries in, and then they’d all go out for a ride on their motorboat.

These thoughts were continuing as I paid for and bagged my own items and went out to my bike. As I was unlocking the bike, something caught my eye. There was the woman, across from me, unlocking her own bike and loading her groceries onto it. For all I know, the rest of my imaginings were accurate. But a key link in the chain had just been broken. I tried not to stare, but I was amazed.

Discovering something in common breaks up prejudice. But commonality has its pitfalls too; it’s easy to imagine that you share this or that with someone else, when in fact their experience of that thing is fundamentally different from yours. Respect requires recognizing both commonality and differences.

I was struck by Tiffanie Drayton’s NYT piece “I’m a Black American. I Had to Get Out.” Although she supports the protests strongly (while worrying for her friends’ safety and health), she speaks in somewhat different terms from the slogans and mantras. I learned something from the common ground I found with her as well as the contrasts.

She writes of the conditions that led her to flee the country–the violence against black people, the cost of living, and the ultimate catalyst: the court’s finding in 2013 that George Zimmerman was “not guilty” of murdering Trayvon Martin.

Then she looks back to a much brighter childhood–in America (where she had moved with her mother, at age four, from Trinidad and Tobago), in an ethnically mixed New Jersey town outside of New York City.

In school, I learned to pledge allegiance to the American flag. “With liberty and justice for all,” I proudly recited every morning. I was an honor-roll student who felt adored and supported by my teachers. I roamed the town with friends, stopping at the pizza parlor for a dollar slice, or the bodega for an empanada.

From there, she writes of having to move at least twice because of the rising cost of living: to Orlando and then back to New Jersey. The dream of living in a safe, tranquil neighborhood had ended: “The only colors that penetrate those dark memories are the blue and red lights of police vehicles parked on every other street corner, swirling all night long.”

In a very different way, I have felt the effects of rising living costs in America–the near impossibility of leading a simple but comfortable life without working yourself to exhaustion. In San Francisco, where I lived for seven years, rents and real estate prices have risen so high that I could probably never live there again, even if I wanted to. In New York, similarly, to afford an apartment, you have to move far out to the outskirts, which are rising in cost too. The stress of commuting and barely getting by, while living in noisy, crime-filled neighborhoods, affects people of any race, but it will have a much worse effect on those who have no alternative.

I have relaxed and come into my own since coming to Hungary–partly because I can afford and enjoy a simple life here, biking around with my groceries and all, partly because my work–both at school and outside–has opened up new possibilities, and partly because I feel accepted and appreciated, not only by my friends, but in general. So I could relate–and not relate–to Ms. Drayton’s words:

The privilege of dual citizenship afforded me sanctuary in Trinidad and Tobago. As I settled here, my life slowly became colorful and vibrant again. I paraded through the streets for Carnival in blue, teal and purple beads and feathers, surrounded by faces of every color — descendants of enslaved people from Africa, indentured servants from India, and the Amerindians who were here when Europeans arrived. I strolled through black neighborhoods with my two children in tow, with no concerns about whether we stood out as outsiders. I sat on my patio with my mother and sipped coffee, finally at peace.

And I gave myself space to mend my broken version of blackness.

Much of this is true for me too, and much of it isn’t. I know what it means to be at ease, and in joy, after years of outsiderness of different kinds (though I miss my U.S. friends badly). I am an outsider here in Hungary; I will never be a Hungarian or regarded as one. But in a basic way I have a place here and am in my element. While this will go through ups and downs, it isn’t superficial or transient.

But I can never know what it means for a black person to mend her own broken version of blackness–how deep the breakage must be, how exhilarating and yet how painful the mending. I have been through something of slightly similar shape, but it is not the same.

I look forward to Ms. Drayton’s book. I also hope to find more common ground and difference, and to shed the fear of both, in all my encounters and missings, whether in line at the supermarket, in the lines of books, or face to face.

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Both pictures were taken from my new apartment: the first through the mirror, and the second through the window.

The Lantern Bearers

IMG_1903An extraordinary essay by Megan Craig, “The Courage to Be Alone” (NYT, May 1, 2020), is about much more than its title suggests: not only the courage to be alone, but also the hidden light and joy in people’s ordinary lives. She describes taking a walk through the woods with her youngest daughter, and talking both with her and apart from her, listening and not listening, being quiet and being pulled back into conversation. She hopes that these walks will stay with her daughter and one day give her strength. They are not just about being present for each other, or for nature, or for anything; rather, they are about glimpses along the way, those sudden streams of words, or the sight of a flower on the path, incomplete, unfinished, and never fully known. She writes:

Suddenly I am reminded of William James’s essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” in which he writes about the difficulty of being present to another person’s life. James uses a Robert Louis Stevenson story of young boys who form a secret club of “lantern bearers,” hiding small tin lanterns under their heavy coats as a secret emblem of participation. From the outside they look just like anyone else hurrying by in the cold night. But when they meet one another, they lift the edge of their coats to reveal a hot burning light hanging from a belt loop. I have always loved the image of these kids hiding fire, their faces momentarily illuminated to one another in lamplight, triumphant in their allegiance to the game.

Her references to William James and Emmanuel Lévinas–as well as songs by Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, and September 67–demand time and patience, since to understand them, you need to go read and listen to them (again, if you already have). In a sense, this time and patience is the point of it all: being willing to listen to someone else, even to oneself, without looking at the watch and rushing off to the next thing. But this listening will always be flawed, even at its best; there is always something that we miss, not just in the details, but at the center of it all. So part of the “courage to be alone” has to do with understanding the imperfection, resisting the temptation to sum up others, or an encounter, or the world at large, in our minds. “And now,” asks James, “what is the result of all these considerations and quotations?” (His essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” quotes Stevenson, Wordsworth, Whitman, and others.) He replies:

It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations. It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field.

I have been painting the smaller room of my new place (not the room pictured here, which I will leave as is). I am not an experienced painter–I have painted before, but not in a long time–but I have been finding my way into it. It’s a small enough room that I can give it several coats without trouble. I start to work out a technique and a rhythm. And now I understand what friends over time were trying to convey when talking about their home remodeling projects. When you are alone with the materials and your place, you get to test things out, make mistakes, try again. It’s exciting when you finally get it right, but even the errors have their fun when they aren’t disastrous.

I have been exploring the new neighborhood on bike and on foot–looking at walls, through empty buildings, down streets.

It is not just their beauty that excites me, but the thought of getting to know them little by little over time, seeing them through the seasons, and sometimes not fully noticing them. There is something reciprocal in this. In giving time to a person or place, in letting the acquaintance be imperfect, I, too, am given time; I too, have a chance to be known and unknown and unfinished. So we meet like lantern bearers.

Elmarad (“Cancelled”)

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Everywhere I go, the event posters say “Elmarad” (“[It Is] Cancelled”). In response to the coronavirus, the Hungarian government has banned indoor public events with 100 or more people, as well as outdoor public events with 500 or more. Our school’s beloved Suligála has been cancelled. Films, concerts, exhibitions, readings–cancelled, cancelled, cancelled. Schools and universities are still open, but school trips abroad have been called off, and more restrictions may be coming. Hungary has 13 known cases of the virus at this point, but if it spreads fast, the medical facilities will be overwhelmed. So it makes sense to take these measures. It’s just sad and strange.

What can we do? Take care of ourselves, stay informed and sane, support the events we would have attended, look for ways to help, visit the local fruit and vegetable store as long as it stays open, stay in touch with others, and hope that this passes soon.

Zsolt Bajnai points out in blogSzolnok that cultural institutions and artists holding events online will suffer financially, since they won’t be able to charge for tickets, merchandise, or refreshments. Those funded by the government will survive, but those who depend on the market will quickly go broke. (I think it makes sense to donate to them here and there, when possible.)

It’s unclear how long we will have to go without public events. It’s sort of like watching a cartoon character eat a two-dimensional meal; you can imagine the real thing, but you don’t get filled. One day there will be a song, story, poem, or play called “Elmarad.” It will speak of these days, and we will get to hear and see it in a three-dimensional physical place with coat hooks, creaky chairs, other people, and all.

In the meantime, I hope we deal well with what is happening now, without forgetting the things that matter over the longer stretch.

 

Old School in Hungary: Part 5

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Whenever I go into the classroom to teach Tobias Wolff’s Old School, I am in for surprises. Sometimes the class is lively, sometimes slow and contemplative, but in both cases it can take unexpected turns. Most of the students disliked Ayn Rand (the character) and readily explained why the narrator changes his view of her writing after hearing her speak. One student, though, resisted this line of thinking. If he had loved her writing before, she argued, shouldn’t he still love it now? Shouldn’t he be able to separate the writing from the person?

These questions brought us back again and again to the passage on pp. 92-93, where the narrator admits to something complex. He acknowledges that he has his own personal reasons for rejecting her writing, reasons that have more to do with his own shame and self-pity than with the writing itself.

The self-pity I felt at this betrayal [by Ayn Rand’s characters Dominique and Roark, who wouldn’t have shown up in the sickroom while he was sick–DS] dressed itself up as fierce affection for Grandjohn and Patty, who had done all this for me. I found myself defending them against Dominique and Roark as if they, not I, had turned up their noses at these loyal, goodhearted bores.

So the narrator admits that at the time of turning away from Rand’s writing, he was blaming her for things he had done himself–for the scorn he had felt toward his grandfather and grandfather’s wife, “these loyal, goodhearted bores.”

In the next paragraph he continues this thought:

I blamed Ayn Rand for disregarding all this [that is, his family’s difficulties and struggles, and human struggles in general–DS]. And I no doubt blamed her even more because I had disregarded it myself–because for years now I had hidden my family in calculated silences and vague hints and dodges, suggesting another family in its place. The untruth of my position had given me an obscure, chronic sense of embarrassment, yet since I hadn’t outright lied I could still blind myself to its cause. Unacknowledged shame enters the world as anger; I naturally turned mine against the snobbery of others, in the present case Ayn Rand.

But is that all there is to his criticism? In the next paragraph, he suggests otherwise. “This part of my reaction was personal and unreasoned,” he says. “But there was more. It had dawned on me that I didn’t really know anyone like Roark and Dominique.”

The student who raised the initial objection stayed staunch in her argument. “If Ayn Rand’s writing made him realize all of this,” she said, “then it must have had something.” This prompted a distinction that might not have come up otherwise. There’s no question that the narrator breaks with Ayn Rand’s writing here–partly for personal reasons, partly because he finds it lacking, and partly because he is now drawn to something else. This complex mixture of reasons cannot be summed up as a judgment against Rand’s attitudes and characters. It is that but also more. Moreover, Rand’s writing deserves some credit: after all, it was able to wake him up.

This week we read Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” in one lesson, and, in another, the Parable of the Prodigal Son and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29–all of them to help students understand allusions and references, but also for their own sake. Each of these pieces set off a discussion; “Indian Camp” had the students enthralled. As for the parable and sonnet, we read each of them carefully; then I asked the students what the two had in common. I finally asked them what they had to do with Old School (so far). The responses could fill several blog posts and more. But this is all for now.

 

This is the fifth in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

An Early Answer to a Difficult Question

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Friends, acquaintances, and strangers in the U.S. often ask me, “How much anti-Semitism is there in Hungary today?” To answer, I would need much more knowledge than I have right now. I would need to be fluent in Hungarian to understand the many layers of conversation around me. I would need to know Hungary’s history; my knowledge right now is elementary and spotty at best. Beyond that, I would need to speak with a range of people, of different backgrounds and walks of life. Here I will try to convey (much too briefly) what I understand as of now: that Jews in Hungary have a rich and painful history, as does Hungary itself, and that my personal experiences so far have been of profound kindness.

First, for those who do not know it, a little about my ancestry. My mother is Jewish (of Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian origins); my father is not (his ancestors came from France, Norway, Ireland, Holland, and elsewhere). I consider myself fully Jewish but not only Jewish; I am heritage, experiences, education, choices, practices, languages, and the millions of things that make up a person. I was not brought up Jewish; how I came to it six years ago is a longer (and wonderful) story, possibly for a much later time. But yes, I am a Jew, by lineage and practice–not strict practice, but practice nonetheless.

From what I understand, Jews in Hungary date back at least to the Kingdom of Hungary in the Middle Ages. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Jews had assimilated into Hungarian life, occupying a range of professions and trades, attending school with non-Jews, and intermarrying. At the same time, undercurrents of anti-Semitism could erupt in violence at any time. I don’t know what drove my great-grandfather’s family to leave Györke, Hungary (now Ďurkov, Slovakia) in 1890–but their lives may have been affected by the Tiszaeszlár Affair–the blood libel of 1882–and its repercussions.

The Hungarian Holocaust was swift and brutal, but with long antecedents. Jews and non-Jews–or many, anyway–are now grappling with what happened during those years. There are memorials, commemorations, studies, but also efforts to forget or to deflect responsibility–and bitter controversies over the way history is portrayed or apportioned. There are new beginnings, too. At Szim Salom (my synagogue in Budapest) we sometimes have newcomers who are looking into their heritage, or exploring their Judaism, for the first time; some are Holocaust survivors or children of survivors, while others may have just discovered that a parent or grandparent was Jewish.

But what about anti-Semitism today? Is it strong? I have heard varying responses to this, from Jews and non-Jews alike. I have met only one person who said anything anti-Semitic in my presence: an old man in the village of Pácin, who was standing with me under the eaves of a grocery store, waiting for the downpour to stop. He began ranting about Jews and the Holocaust until he realized I was Jewish. His theory (if I understood it correctly–this was all in Hungarian, and his speech was slurred) was that Jews didn’t really die in the Holocaust, and that Viktor Orbán was now bringing them back.

Orbán is contradictory, for that matter, as is his milieu; his anti-Soros posters have obvious anti-Semitic tropes, as do some of his anti-liberal statements. Yet he also supports Israel (in some way) and Jewish life in Budapest (in some way). Jewish life in Budapest is thriving–with about 22 active synagogues, kosher stores, Jewish festivals, Jewish schools, and more. It may be one of the safest places in Europe, or even in the world, for Jews today.

But Orbán’s policies and statements do not account for everything; there are also rules, spoken and unspoken, in workplaces and elsewhere, with long histories of their own. Some people have told me that they never bring up being Jewish, except among other Jews or others they especially trust. There is still a fear of abrupt loss, or subtle ostracism and exclusion. It is also rude, I am told, to ask people whether they are Jewish (or Roma, or any other Hungarian minority); if they are, it’s up to them to decide whom to tell. Many people keep their heritage under wraps, from what I understand.

Compared to Hungarian Jews, I am in a fairly secure position; as a foreigner, I am already different, and as a teacher of English, I am needed and appreciated. So far I have felt genuinely respected for who I am and what I do. In Szolnok as well as in Budapest, I have been open about my Jewishness, and here are some things I have seen.

My colleagues–and other adults I know–show respect for Jews and Jewish history in their words and actions. On the day of the Holocaust commemoration, two colleagues arranged for a chorus of students to sing at the main event at the gallery (the former synagogue, shown in the picture above). Another colleague told me about the Holocaust memorial run at the end of that day; we both joined the run, along with another colleague. Two more colleagues introduced me to the people in charge of the gallery so that I could discuss the possibility of holding an event there. The event took place, and it was beautiful. I have colleagues who wish me well at the time of the Jewish holidays–and the school has allowed me, every year so far, to take a day off each for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Around me I hear people discussing Judaism, Jewish writers, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and more–and the discussion is thoughtful and searching. There are people who readily admit–with shame and pain–not only to Hungary’s role in the Holocaust, but to Szolnok’s as well.

As for students, I am reluctant to repeat their words on this blog, especially on sensitive subjects–but they often bring up Jewish writers, films, and musicians, as well as Jewish history. They are curious about Judaism as well; they ask questions about it and read about it on their own. Several students cited Miklós Radnóti’s “Nem tudhatom” (“I cannot know”) as a favorite poem; one recited it from memory. I later memorized it too and recited it for one of my classes one day; a student said, “That was amazing. But do you know what it means? Do you know what it means?” I began to explain what I thought it meant, and I saw the vague nods, meaning, yes, yes, but there is much more.

Jews and non-Jews are not entirely separate or separable here; as I mentioned before, many non-Jews have someone Jewish in their family, and the synagogues–many of them now used as galleries, concert halls, libraries, museums–stand side by side with the churches. During the Holocaust, some courageous Hungarian gentiles risked their lives to save Jews; Zsuzsanna Ozsváth describes one such person in her memoir When the Danube Ran Red. In addition, Hungarians, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, have suffered sieges, wars, relocations, regime changes, impoverishment; it is a lot to put together in the mind and heart. One should not relativize history–the suffering of Jews and other Holocaust victims cannot be likened to anything else–but Hungarians are familiar with trauma. An outsider comes to understand it in glimpses; a story, a saying, or even a bitter joke lets you see, for a split second, what people here have gone through.

I will not be surprised if I eventually encounter negative attitudes toward Jews, even coming from people I like. In the U.S. I have met people who are resentful of certain Jews’ money and power, or baffled by certain Orthodox practices, or critical of certain Israeli government policies. The dangerous error here–as with all prejudices–lies in turning a particular criticism, dislike, or misunderstanding into a judgment of an entire people, or even an entire person. Criticism has its place, but generalized criticism loses the very faculty of discernment and becomes tragically uncritical.

Here in Hungary people have told me, again and again, how much they appreciate my open-mindedness–and have shown me kindness and openness too. But how people treat me is just a fragment of what I want to learn and understand. The experience in a country is inevitably personal, but it can also be more–not through abandonment of the personal aspect, which is there no matter what, but through attention to things outside the self. Give me a few years. I will come back to the question that started off this piece, perhaps with more of an answer.

I took the photo of the Szolnok gallery (formerly the synagogue) on Friday.

I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

The Grip of Nonchalance

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In a beautifully concise 1956 review of Saul Bellow’s novella Seize the Day (a work I especially love, and about which I have written), Alfred Kazin writes,

Tommy finds himself prowling through a New York day searching for a place of support or rest. By the end of it, he has tossed away the last of his money on the market and is desperately frightened. Yet he gains an unexpected release when he is swept by the passing crowd into the funeral of a man he has never known — and, looking down at the dead man’s face, at last finds himself able to feel, to accept his own suffering. Thus, at last, he is able to confront that larger suffering which (as we can see only at the end of the story) has been the dead weight of existence pressing on him without any release or passion in him of understanding.

People often ask me how I could live in Hungary, a country whose leaders have taken a turn toward the far right. My replies–“not everyone supports Viktor Orbán and his party”; “there are other things going on here”; “people here are very kind”–seem inadequate. That isn’t quite it. In any country, you will find people who disagree with the prevailing ideology. You will find kind people too. No, there is something else. Through a series of events, a combination of circumstances, I found my way to just the right place. I don’t think I would be as happy living in Budapest, though I go there regularly for synagogue, which I love. The people I am getting to know, the the school where I teach, the place where I live (just a few steps away from the swan I photographed this morning) are more than dreams come true; they teach me about who they are, who I am, what matters in life, what questions lie open. I can take on these questions without embarrassment. The Hungarian language is now coming to me in spades, and I am still at the cusp of speaking. Much more lies ahead.

What I miss from the U.S. are my dear friends, my family (though any of them can tell you that I have an independent streak), my former school, and the Dallas Institute. But there’s something I don’t miss at all: the American pressure toward nonchalance, casualness, lightness, changing the subject when it gets too serious, cutting off people who seem too intense. Do not get me wrong: I love humor and do not like to wallow in gloom. But in the U.S. I have found a pressure to curb myself with every sentence, to watch carefully in case the other person thinks the conversation is getting too “heavy.” (I do not find this with my friends, which is part of the reason the friendships have lasted. But it has put a strain on some acquaintanceships throughout my life.)

In the U.S. I have been told, from a young age, that I am very intense and “intellectual,” yet I did not receive that comment from people in other countries. It was a particularly American descriptor. “Intense” and “intellectual” are not meant as compliments. It’s acceptable to be intense about politics–when you know exactly what you think and can express it with vehemence–but any kind of extensive searching threatens people, unless they happen to be drawn to that kind of thing. I found my home here and there–at the philosophy roundtables I led, in some of my classes, etc. But overall I learned to be wary of myself, to accept that my way of thinking and speaking would be too much for some people. There is a certain American ideal expressed in Edie Brickell and Kenny Withrow’s song “What I am,” “I’m not aware of too many things, I know what I know if you know what I mean….” I could not attain that ideal if I tried, and it does not interest me anyway.

The pressure to be light, to avoid taking things too seriously, does not exist in the same way in all cultures. Here I have found not only a release from it, but a welcome into serious thinking and conversation (which has plenty of wit and humor wrapped up in it). Intellect is not frowned upon; intensity (if that is even the right word) carries no shame. Granted, Hungary has its anti-intellectuals; just look at some of the politicians! In addition, the economic conditions are driving many thoughtful people to leave the country; this will change the culture (and not for the better). I do not see Hungary as anywhere near perfect; it has massive problems. But in this particular way, in the room people make for grappling, in the honor they give to literature, I am not only at home, but in the middle of a new way of living.

It makes teaching a joy. When we returned from winter break, I introduced my students to Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” (The link points to a page with both the original text and István Jánosy’s Hungarian translation). Eleven different classes, from grades 9 through 12, read the poem with me; each discussion brought something different out of the poem. One student heard, in the final two lines “And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” a kind of insistence and self-persuasion, as though the speaker wanted to believe that sleep (and death) were still far away. Some students detected fear in the poem; the speaker could only stay in that dark wood for so long before it became too much. Some found meaning in the punctuation at the end: the difference between a comma and a period is greater than appears on the surface. Over the course of these discussions, I noticed something for the first time: throughout the poem, despite the tranquility of the scene, there is a slight disturbance of some kind, a disturbance so subtle that you might not notice it. At first, it is the disturbance of being on someone else’s property:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Next comes the horse’s disturbance, his sense that something is different, his shaking of the harness bells:

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

Finally, there is the disturbance of time: the speaker’s knowledge that this moment must come to an end, that he must go on to other things.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

What is it that unites these various disturbances, these various rattlings of the mind and wind? Could it be that they are necessary to the beauty? Could it be that without them, there would be no stopping by woods?

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I took both pictures this morning. Also, I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.

Along the Dirt Road

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In the late afternoon I got on the bike, pedaled north on the Zagyva walkway, crossed the railroad tracks, and continued onto the dirt road, which goes on and on. Here and there, with long stretches in between, I came across walkers (including one of my students), runners, bikers, and a slow jeep–as well as horses, sheep, cows, chickens, and cats.

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I saw swans for the first time this fall; approaching them, I saw someone sitting by the water, absorbed in thought. (That person does not appear in the picture.)

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Earlier on, before the swans, I dipped my foot in the Zagyva for the first time; here is the ripple.

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Soon I will have been here for a year. My two favorite seasons here are late spring (when the sour cherries spill over the crates) and the entire fall, from start to finish. There’s still a good bit of fall left, and while I will be away for part of it, I still hope for some hearty bike rides.

More soon on other things. I meant this post to be about books, but the dirt road had its own say. Speaking of say, here are some sounds from the bike ride.

  • “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

  • 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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