The Joy of Negativity

The joy of negativity? On the one hand, I am using “negativity” in a specific sense here: yesterday’s PCR test came back negative, so now I have officially recovered from Covid (after feeling well for over a week, and barely feeling sick at all before that). This has all kinds of good consequences: first of all, Rabbi Katalin Kelemen and I can lead Shabbat service together (in person) tomorrow, the occasion of a bar mitzvah ceremony that we have been looking forward to for a long time. If the test had come back positive (as the previous two had), the rabbi would have had to make some big last-minute adjustments, but now I can be there and do my part.

The second is that I returned to teaching on Wednesday, after a week at home, and am relieved to know that my students and colleagues don’t have to worry about catching Covid from me. I’m also relieved that this didn’t turn into something long and drawn-out.

Third, there are two events I was particularly looking forward to and that I can now attend, without worries, on Sunday and Monday, respectively. The first is a literary and artistic event with Miklós Vecsei and guests Anna Szabó and Gergely Balla, featuring Szabó’s translation of Frida Kahlo’s diary, on Sunday. The second, on Monday, is Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly’s “capsule boy” concert (featuring his electronic music project). There are other events too, but I have to pace myself, since I have a lot to do as well—not just “things to get done,” but things I have to slow down and take time with, particularly writing and music.

But back to the original subject of the joy of negativity. It doesn’t only apply to PCR tests. While getting stuck in the negative probably doesn’t help anyone, a certain amount brings the relief of truth, since life contains mixtures of the positive and negative wherever you go. The pressure to be positive all the time can be stifling. I think there’s a little more pressure on women than on men to be cheery, since women are supposed to be smiling, comforting, upbeat, whereas men have a bit of brooding license. Also, women are supposed not only to protect, but to be protected from the difficult things of the world. So I only have to mention sadness, and people will swoop in with cries of alarm and advice “Are you all right? Look on the bright side,” etc., when all I want is a little room for the slightly gloomy. Is there a law that everyone must spout positive platitudes at all times?

So when I came upon Hannah Marcus’s “Ain’t No Way to Love Me,” set stunningly to video by Jason Bogdaneris, it was a balm for my soul.

Moreover, the painting at the top of this post is one of a series of rain-paintings by Mike Barr. I love rain (not all the time, but at times) and feel silly in small-talk about the weather, when the assumption is that “sun=good” and “rain=bad.” It doesn’t always work that way. Rain is needed, but beyond that, it brings out colors, textures, and sounds that you will never see or hear on a sunny day.

In a Platon Karataev interview with, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly said, “A melankóliában van valamiféle derű, amit a mélység megtapasztalása, majd a felszínre jövés okoz.” (“In melancholy there is some kind of serenity caused by experiencing depth and then coming to the surface.”) Yes, that is it, or part of it. Melancholy can bring serenity, even joy at times, because you get to see and live the layers.

Painting credit: Mike Barr, Rain on Grenfell Street.

The Right to Be Astonished

Lazy days do not come often for me, but I love them when they come. A time for slow movement and stillness. A time to look at the paintings on my wall. A time to think things over. A time to listen to music without having to rush anywhere afterward. A time to go on a longer run than usual. I do have a few things to do today, but with the exception of one assignment I need to create for my students, there’s no immediate deadline. And the winter break (short but substantial) is around the corner.

Thoughts pass through my mind, weaving around each other. I think about an essay that a student wrote about human abilities. The essay concludes (I am quoting with the student’s permission): “In the end we shouldn’t forget that to be amazed by something or give an opinion on it is also an ability. Day after day we keep getting impressed by others. We should keep going like this, and affect the future, who will also have the right to be astonished.”

The right to be astonished! I was astonished by the phrase itself. Astonishment is often put down as naive. People hesitate to show it or even feel it. What a shame and loss. People hold back from astonishment because they don’t want to be embarrassed or look like fools. But the world would be better with such fools. Awe and astonishment are indeed abilities, and they are real. They mean that something reached you, some kind of beauty or meaning, and that you were able to receive it. No single person receives it everywhere, but each of us takes part in a larger perception.

If we hold back out of shame or self-consciousness, the student suggests, we are not only denying our own astonishment, our own ability, but affecting the future too. To say (in words or otherwise) that “this is beautiful” is to allow such things to be said.

A few things have astonished me in the past week, including Cz.K. Sebő’s album How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?, the Torah portion that I chanted yesterday (Genesis 50:15-26), the Sándor Csoóri event that I attended yesterday (a discussion, held at the Petőfi Literary Museum, between Miklós Vecsei and Gergely Balla, with music by Balla—a song he wrote that draws on nine Csoóri poems), a video premiere of the Platon Karataev duo performing “Partért kiáltó,” and passages in Hamlet, which my eleventh-grade students are close to finishing now.

Then last night I came upon something that topped it all off. A student had posted a new photo of herself on Facebook. (Here it is common for teachers and students to be “friends” on Facebook and even to use Facebook for classroom-related communication, so I see these updates from time to time.) Another student commented, “you caught my eyes just like the pirates caught Hamlet.” (We had just read the scene where Hamlet tells Horatio in a letter about having been captured, and thereby rescued, by pirates.) What a beautiful Hamlet reference! That’s why it’s possible to read Hamlet again and again; there’s no end to what it can evoke, what associations it can form in different minds, lives, stages of life.

Oh, and I forgot one other thing. After the Csoóri event, I had a little time before my train back to Szolnok, so I walked to the Keleti station and had two slices of pizza at a nearby chain restaurant. It isn’t always easy to find good pizza in Hungary (by which I mean pizza with a crackling thin crust and light, fresh toppings), but this place has them, and this time they had plain (tomato sauce and cheese) slices. And those slices were so delicate and delicious that I could have eaten two more, but by then it was time to catch the train, which was just as well, because I also had chicken soup waiting for me at home.

So yes, I claim my right to be astonished, and I will not give it up.

The photo is of three paintings by Cz.K. Sebő. Instead of selling physical CDs, he is selling a series of tiny mood-paintings, which come with download codes (so that they include the full album as well as two forthcoming demo songs). I bought this series of three and intended to give two away as gifts—but love what they give to the room and will not part with them.

  • “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

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)



    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 April 2022, Deep Vellum published 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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