Disguises upon Disguises

One of the most fascinating and moving aspects of Shakespeare’s plays is the employment of disguise. Hamlet suggests to his companions that he is going to affect an “antic disposition”; Juliet, advised by Friar Laurence, fakes her death; theg witches fool Macbeth with their elusive prophesies; Beatrice and Benedick pretend to abhor each other; and so on. Shakespeare understood what Tom in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie would articulate centuries later: “But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” (But in Shakespeare’s plays, the disguise can work both ways.)

Disguise is filled with irony too; Cordelia’s sincere words frame her as the ungrateful child. Iago’s treachery cloaks itself in the guises of honesty.

The plays may lead us to ask ourselves what disguises we are wearing, what layers of disguises. Even the performances involve disguises: not only masks and costumes, not only the assumption of roles, but other wrappings as well. For example, in the beginning, when we were just starting to prepare the scene from Romeo and Juliet, none of the boys wanted to be Romeo—partly, I think, because of all the lines involved, and partly because of his smittenness. So we broke the part in three: one Romeo notices Juliet at the ball, and then, when the silhouette part begins, a different Romeo says the lines while yet a third takes part in the silhouette. Also, we emphasized the dances in the scene, thus taking some of the pressure off of Romeo and Juliet both. They liked this solution and took to it enthusiastically. Capulet is the one who speaks the most—calling for more fire and light, urging the guests to dance, reminiscing with his cousin, and trying to calm Tybalt down. Although he is not in a mask, as host he wears many disguises, trying to tend to others, while also yearning for a successful party, which not only helps assure his daughter’s future but brings back memories of his youth.

All of this leads me to a beloved song in three versions (and possibly disguises): “Disguise” by Cz.K. Sebő. It has more in common with Shakespearean disguises than may seem on the surface, even though, to my knowledge, it is not directly influenced by Shakespeare’s work. The original version, solo acoustic guitar and voice, was released by Cz.K. Sebő in 2015, when he was in his early twenties; versions by Platon Karataev and capsule boy (Cz.K. Sebő’s electronic subproject) followed. The original Cz.K. Sebő song is my favorite of the three; the bareness, simplicity, and vulnerability come together. It comes close to breaking my heart (but doesn’t, because it soars, and also because I’ve been through so much like this). It brings to mind Hamlet’s “But I have that within which passes show, / These but the trappings and the suits of woe.”

But the next two versions (disguises?) bring something out of it that might not be obvious in the original. The Platon Karataev version not only gives it a big sound, not only makes the guitar part richer, but also reveals a vastness that was there all along. This song is about all of us; we are all wearing disguises, all waiting and hoping that someone or other will talk to us and see us. The Platon version also makes me wonder: what is the “this” in “this is just a disguise”? Even the statement may be a disguise. We’re made of disguises upon disguises; what may seem our deepest, most honest revelation may actually be a mask or shroud, or someone else’s favorite clothes.

Then comes the capsule boy remix of the Platon Karataev version: a return to the origin, in a way (in that Cz.K. Sebő and capsule boy are the same person), but with changes. This electronic version brings out both the terror of the first part (“so please look at me… so please talk to me”) and the possibilities of the second part, which here become downright sweet and playful.

This song is beloved by many because it speaks to our yearning to show someone who we really are. But it also plays with this “really.” Do we know who the “real” self is? Is there one?

I believe that there is a real self, but (as hackneyed as this may sound), to find it we also have to lose it, and it is not discrete but porous, blurry, unbounded. One of my favorite moments of the song is “I am full of yellowness ’cause i was never enough.” The very word “yellowness” is a disguise, because the stress (on the “o”) is different from what I would expect in English. But I love that pronunciation and stress–it sounds like “lowness” and makes a connection between “yellow” and “low.”

I have felt throughout my life that “this is just a disguise,” not because I put on a front, but rather because attention is in short supply. The exceptions are times like now: in the preparations for the Shakespeare festival, it really doesn’t matter what people think of me, as something else is at stake involving many people. We will all be in disguises of many sorts, but through this, we will play ourselves. The disguises enable the release.

“Disguise” is not the most Shakespearean song in the Platon Karataev/Cz.K. Sebő repertoire, but it evokes Shakespeare for me and has been on my mind and in my ears. Platon songs with a more direct Shakespeare connection include “Lady Macbeth” and “Aphelion” (at times I hear “aphelion” as “Ophelia” in disguise; in any case, the song evokes Hamlet strongly) but there are others with subtle allusions and influences—for instance (I think), “Most magamba,” “Litmus Heart,” “Bitter Steps,” and “Light Trap.”

I am moved by my students’ dedication to the project; they have shown openness, excitement, and true attention. One of the challenges, early on, lay in slowing things down: having the opening processional and the later pavane dance be truly slow. Tempo is a disguise in its own right: fast things disguise themselves as slow, present as future, and vice versa. Hamlet says, “There is special providence in the fall of sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.”

Speaking of Platon Karataev, Gergely Balla sent us a wonderful message about the festival:

“Shakespeare drámái az eddigi Platon Karataev szövegekre is hatottak és ez valószínűleg így lesz a jövőben is. Fontosnak tartom a szolnoki Varga Katalin Gimnázium, valamint a Verseghy Könyvtár közös kezdeményezését, mert újra és újra vizsgálnunk kell, hogy mit tudunk meríteni ezekből a művekből. Változatosnak és izgalmasnak ígérkezik a program, mely pont egybeesik két új Poket kiadással (Hamlet, Rómeó és Júlia). Szóval jó fesztivált kivánunk!”


“Shakespeare’s plays have influenced Platon Karataev’s lyrics up to this point and probably will continue to do so. I consider the joint initiative of Katalin Varga High School and the Verseghy Library important, because again and again we must consider what we can draw from these works. The program looks varied and exciting, and it coincides with two new Poket releases (Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet). We wish you a good festival!

I added a lot to this piece after posting it.

A Documentary, a Full Weekend, and Many Thoughts

There are times when I wish I had a few more hours in a day to think about what happened in it. This afternoon, after getting a lot done (I wrote my Hungarian introduction to the Shakespeare festival, as well as a few words for the Renaissance dance workshop), I headed off to Budapest to see the premiere of Nyílnak befelé ablakok, a documentary directed by Zsófi Szász about Platon Karataev. The film presents the musicians in a human and profound way, with many beautiful moments. The artist Emőke Dobos—the inspiration for many of the songs, the creator of Platon Karataev art of many forms, and the wife of Gergely Balla—figures prominently in it too, as do other essential Platon colleagues (such as the sound engineer Ábel Zwickl). I don’t want to say more about it, because it will eventually be available online, with English subtitles.

But as I watched it, and as I listened to the discussion afterwards (the interviewer asked some superficial questions, which they answered thoughtfully and strongly), I realized once again why we were all there: first of all, for their music and their approach to it, second, to see this wonderful film. Beyond that, we have something in common with them and each other. As they themselves said in the interview, they aren’t sure why there would be a film about them in particular, or why their music in draws such large audiences (in contrast with, say, a superb jazz musician who might play for an audience of ten), but they are trying to give both the music and the situation their best. Their artistic directions and decisions are not for the sake of popularity; if people are drawn to their music, that means something to them, but they aren’t striving for big crowds and rave reviews. Nor do they lead glamorous lives; most of their work takes place behind the scenes, at home or in the studio, or in the long stretches of travel, or even when not much seems to be happening at all. Gergő spoke about how important fatherhood is for him; because of this, he would much rather go on several shorter tours than one or two long ones. The musicians shape their work according to what they hold dear and strive for, alone and together.

During this event, a joy wrapped me up, a new way of realizing (as I have realized many times, then somehow unrealized) that each life has its dignity, that each of us has something to do, and that it doesn’t matter how many people notice and applaud it. Yes, it is important to reach people, to have one’s work understood in some way—but this does not mean getting distracted by the numbers, the outward signs of success. The important thing is to make the work better and better, whatever it is—not only technically, though that too, but internally, in terms of what it is and where it goes. For this, our internal life has only our own secret flashlight shining on it, and sometimes not even that. Essential also are the daily habits and practices, which vary from person to person (some thrive with structure and discipline, while some need a little bit of laziness). Most important of all is to shut out unnecessary noise. Spiritual life (which sometimes we ourselves cannot see) lies at the center of it all, even for those who do not believe in God, because each of us has to contend at some point with the question: what is left when the things we take for granted are gone?

The previous day, I came to a concert that I loved: László Kollár-Klemencz with his band and an array of guest musicians spanning several generations. It was such a rich concert that it ran out of time, so unfortunately Gergely Balla (of Platon Karataev), the last guest musician, could only play one of the songs he had intended to play. That moment of disappointment was nothing more than that, but it brought up memories. I remember playing cello on a few songs at a beloved musician’s concert, in San Francisco—and at the last minute, she crossed one of the songs off the list. I too have had times where I had to shorten a list, or adjust a program. On the surface, it’s a trifling matter, everyone will survive it, there will be more concerts. But in the moment, the person making the decision, or someone affected by it, including an audience member, can feel dismay. There’s a sacrifice here, a tiny one, but a sacrifice all the same. Sacrifice is nothing to fear, though. Without it, life loses meaning.

A couple of weeks ago I brought my students William Faulkner’s Nobel Banquet speech. It turned out to be very important for them, particularly what he says about sacrifice:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Faulkner gave this speech in 1950, when the Cold War was underway, but today too we are beset by fears—not only of global warming, or world war, but of our own insignificance, of not being one of the “important” people. We are fed a daily propaganda that measures people in terms of their numbers, their following. Now, everyone who writes or creates in some way wants an audience. Even outside of creative work, people want to be recognized fairly. But start taking the numbers to heart, start letting them tell you your own worth, and you’re half dead. It’s a big distraction and delusion; it feels rotten. It takes time away from one of the most important things in the world: attention to someone or something beyond the self, which involves everything that Faulkner speaks of, even invisibly.

That will be all for now, because I have to rush off for a full day of school, including a Shakespeare rehearsal. The festival is a week away. May it be good.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it, mostly for flow.

Following an Instinct, Going to Prague

If I had told anyone that I was going to Prague this weekend—by train, from Szolnok—to hear Platon Karataev and to visit the city for the first time, some would have instantly understood, whereas others would have thought it (and maybe me) a bit nuts. But I realized I could afford it (for one thing, a fee I will receive this month as a seminar guest speaker equals what I spent on travel and lodging, and for another, my birthday is coming up), and something told me that this was exactly the right thing to do this weekend. The trip itself showed me why. After you read this story, you will see why too. (The trip isn’t over; I still have the morning here.)

Platon Karataev is on a short tour of Warsaw, Kraków, Prague, and Vienna, with the band The Devil’s Trade (whom I heard for the first time last night in Prague and loved—soulful, exhilarating metal folk). The other three concerts were out of reach for me, because of my work schedule, but Prague was possible.

To get to Prague, I had to go to Budapest, then transfer to an international train. I found an inexpensive round-trip itinerary with a reserved window seat for the longer part of the trip. I would need to leave home at five on Saturday morning, catch the 5:25 train out of Szolnok, arrive in Budapest a little before seven, transfer, and depart for Prague at 7:29. This would bring me to Prague a little before three in the afternoon; there would be several hours for exploring before the concert, and then the next day I could explore all morning before heading back in the early afternoon, returning to Szolnok before eleven in the evening. I figured I could take work with me, though I didn’t know how comfortable it would be to work on the train. (By “work” I mean going over edits to my translations of Tomas Venclova’s poems for a new book in the works—and preparing for Pesach and next Shabbat.)

For lodging, I reserved a self-service apartment in the Mala Strana district, near Petrin Hill, which figures in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I could walk there (a long walk) from the train station—and from there it would supposedly be only half an hour’s walk to Klub 007 in the Strahov district, where the concert would be. Each walk contained something I wanted to see: the Metronome and Petrin Tower, respectively, as well as views of the city from various heights.

I left my apartment on time, got to the train station on time, got to Budapest by seven, had plenty of time for the transfer, and then found that my seat had a table and there was no one sitting beside or across for me—so I could set up the laptop and work without interruption. It proved restful and productive. I was only distracted by the views through the window and an intriguing situation across the aisle from me.

Two women, I quickly gleaned, were going to Prague as well and were very excited. They looked vaguely familiar; it started to dawn on me that they, too, might be going to hear Platon Karataev, or that this was part of their plan. (This was correct—more about that later.) One was wearing a long black dress; I too had brought a long black dress for the evening. I felt like a spy; at one point they went to the dining car, and a little while later, I went there too, but sat at a distance from them so as not to bother them. I had eggs and coffee and felt on top of the world.

The train ride itself was great fun—like being at my desk all day but with a big window and changing scenes in front of me. We passed through Visegrád (with the prominent castle on the hill), Bratislava (no views of the old city, but lots of highrises), Brno, and many smaller cities and towns. I could take in the Slovak, and later the Czech, countryside: hills, rivers, a field full of deer, forests upon forests. Because of a detour, the train took (I think) an industrial route, so I saw a train carrying loads of new cars, and another one churning what seemed to be cement or gravel. The skies were dramatic with changing clouds, passing rains, and bursts of sun; I had a feeling I would see a rainbow that day, but it didn’t happen during the train ride.

When we arrived in Prague, I bounded off the train and in the general direction of my apartment, through a vast, leafy park that opened up into a view of the city. After a while, I could see the Vltava river down below and the city gleaming on both sides of it, I wended my way south and westward and saw a group of people marching for peace. Immediately after that, I saw the Metronome.

Now comes one of the best parts of the trip. I walked along winding roads, trying to figure out how to get down to the part of the city. It started to rain, and then the sun burst out of the clouds. “Now for a rainbow!” I thought. I looked around and saw it! I started running toward it and pointing, trying to alert others to it. They ignored me and kept on walking. I did get some people to take a picture of me under it, though, and I got a few good shots of it myself.

Finally I made my way down to the city and was entranced by the stone streets, old buildings, and shops, particularly an English language bookstore and a marionette shop.

Once I got to the apartment (spacious and comfortable, on a quiet street), I hurried up, took a shower, and headed up Petrin Hill to the tower. The tower itself was closed for climbing (as of 6 p.m.), so I headed down the hill, toward the club, or at least I thought I was heading toward it. This was where the problems began. The compass on my phone did not always tell the truth, nor did Google Maps tell me my exact location. I asked people how to get to the Strahov district, but if they knew at all, they would point me in contradictory directions, with instructions like, “Follow that road all the way around the hill, around and around, and then turn left.” I would follow the directions only to find myself even farther from the destination. I had thought I would get to the club early, but now the show was about to start; I stopped in a little convenience store, and the woman showed me on her computer that I needed to go up the hill again and around, way around…. I ran with all my might, tried to flag down a car for a ride (was ignored), asked more people directions, got pointed this way and that, saw different times on the different clocks, walked and ran, walked and ran, tears starting to come down, and then, as I approached another winding road, ran into a family. Definitely Czech, definitely familiar with the city. I asked them, “Please tell me how to get to Strahov, I have been told so many different directions, and now I’m late.” The older man said with a grin, “You just follow that winding road, and you will be in Strahov!” He was right; winding and winding around, and then (as someone earlier had said) passing through an apartment complex, I found the place and arrived only a few minutes late (Platon Karataev was playing “Apbelion,” their third song that night).

The show was special to me because it was Platon Karataev, and because it was at a small club with all that goes along with that—a distinctive atmosphere, in this case a dedicated stage and sound crew, but also a sound system that gave a bit of distortion to the songs, bringing back memories of hearing favorite musicians in tiny clubs in San Francisco, the brilliance bursting through the gritty sound. In Hungary, you can no longer hear Platon Karataev in a small club; whether playing as a duo or as a full band, they are so highly respected and draw such a crowd that they get booked at the top venues with superb sound systems, which suit their music well because of its many tones and shades. Only once or twice have I heard them play when the sound system wasn’t up to par. But this little bit of grit in the sound last night was wonderfully bracing. Some of the highlights for me were “Halló mindenség / Aláírhatatlan történelem” (their Vágtázó Halottkémek cover), “Partért kiáltó,” “Nem felelhet,” and the “Ocean/Wolf Throats” finale. The small audience loved the show—and yes, the two women from the train were there! They explained to me afterward that this trip was their gift to each other for their birthdays, which had taken place in January.

I stayed for The Devil’s Trade, of course, not having to rush back to Szolnok for a change. They were amazing. The music was full-hearted and dark, with rich vocal cadences, rhythms, sound (yes, distorted too, but again, that only added to its beauty this time). I bought a CD from them and will be listening to them more. They too are from Hungary; their songs are in both Hungarian and English.

Afterwards I wound my way back around the hill, this time knowing where I was going. The city is both spooky and stunning at night. It wasn’t easy to take night pictures (the lights don’t come out very well), but I took a few.

And here I am after a thick sleep, wrapping this up so that I can spend a few hours walking in the old city, across the river. I’m taking it slow because I walked and ran so much yesterday and because this apartment is so peaceful—but I’ll head out shortly. There will be more to say about today (and more thoughts on yesterday)—but I will add that later, in a separate post. The trip has played out the lines from Platon Karataev’s “Partért kiáltó,” “Ezért a mondatért jöttem, ezert a mondatért, ezért az emberért jöttem, ezért az emberert….” (Translated liberally: “This is the sentence I came here for, this is the sentence here. This is the person I came here for, this is the person here.”) I don’t mean this in the more obvious sense—that I came out to hear them, though that also is true—but rather that there is an encounter that each of us will travel distances for. Maybe it’s an encounter with music. Maybe with a city. Maybe with a person. But in any case, it’s the same, because it’s singular, there’s nothing like it, and the moment it happens it’s gone. And as soon as it’s gone, it is there forever, somewhere in the air.

Right after The Devil’s Trade, Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin'” came over the loudspeakers. I lingered to listen to it. Without knowing it, I had come for that song, too.

I added a few details and made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

A Musical Breakthrough: Cz.K. Sebő’s “Kesze-kusza nyár”

For about two years now I have loved Cz.K. Sebő’s music (and written about it here and elsewhere). But his new EP Kesze-kusza (Topsy-Turvy), especially the first song (“Kesze-kusza nyár,” or “Topsy-Turvy Summer”), has new depth for me in terms of musicianship alone. The guitar is meditative and rich—he way it lets the pauses ring, the way the notes come forward and retreat. This quality was there before, but it has reached a new level. The acoustic tone (he borrowed an exceptional guitar for this) is so beautiful that I can listen to the whole EP, again and again, for the sake of that sound. You can hear not only wood, strings, and air, but wordless thoughts. On the first song, the accompaniment by Soma Bradák (drums, percussion) and Benedek Szabó (bass) is so subtle that you might not even hear them enter. And then, when you listen to what they are doing, this adds to the wonder.

The lyrics are dreamy and evocative, the syllables so well timed that they sing themselves. This time the words are not hidden. I love the sometimes muffled singing on How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain? (and with that, the ambivalence over words), but this is pure and bare.

The melody may sound familiar; this song inspired Platon Karataev’s “Létra,” the magnificent theme song of the film Magasságok és mélységek (Heights and Depths).

The album is just under fifteen minutes long; it sustains its mood and beauty from start to finish. Three of the other songs on the EP are instrumental (solo guitar, with some effects); the third song, “Értelmet,” also has lyrics. I think the last song, “1012,” is another favorite along with the first. It surprises quietly; it explores and finds its way.

Fruzsina Balogh’s wonderful cover art evokes not only the songs but the experience of listening to the EP.

I don’t think this will be a final musical destination or anything close; his capsule boy album, now in progress, will take different directions. But it touches on infinity.

The EP (and especially the first song) inspired a poem yesterday. The poem isn’t “about” the EP or the song, but this music was a source. If anything, the poem is about holding back from an instant reaction to music, giving myself a chance to take it in. The fourth stanza alludes to the last paragraph on p. 67 of Zàn Coaskòrd’s book A Valóság, Hit és léleK rejtett csodája; the last stanza hints at Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” So I’ll end here with the poem.


Diana Senechal

Today I tried something new
(Or old in a new way):
Saying nothing.

True, many stints of null
Had marked my days before,
But this nothing had

A pluck to it.
Tuning, muting
Its strings, gearing

Up for the miracle
(As anything that comes
From zero is miracle),

It befriended the oval.
Later I thought of how
The hush had given me time

To hear space sing,
To see the clouds converge,
Break up, glitter, and

Spatter the long sands,
Daring me into a brief
Collapse of words.

The words resurged,
But with the glint of return
From a private voyage:

“Later I looked up the name
Of that beach whose waves
Rough-sang the sky.”


This week, outside of school, I was absorbed in preparing to chant Genesis 28:10-22, the verses about Jacob’s dream, in which he sees a ladder stretching from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending it. Then God appears beside him, reveals who he is, and promises to stay with Jacob and his descendants (who will be as the dust of the earth, spreading west, east, north, and south) and bring them back to this land. When Jacob wakes up, it dawns on him that God might have been present. As far as I know, his words are the first expression of awe in the Bible:

יז  וַיִּירָא, וַיֹּאמַר, מַה-נּוֹרָא, הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה:  אֵין זֶה, כִּי אִם-בֵּית אֱלֹהִים, וְזֶה, שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם.17 And he was afraid, and said: ‘How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

What is this ladder? After our service at Szim Salom today, we gathered around a table to discuss this question. Many ideas came up, including the possibility that the ladder is Jacob himself: that he is a conduit between heaven and earth, like certain rare people with a special quality of holiness. Another possibility that the ladder is internal—that it has something to do with his struggles and dichotomies (just a few verses later, he vows that if God fulfills his promises, he will accept him as his own God).

But I don’t think you can come to any kind of understanding of these verses through group conversation. You have to consider them in quiet. At most, a group conversation can point you to a particular insight or allusion. In that light, it is worthwhile.

Various people brought up literary references to ladders: in particular, Sándor Weöres’s poem “Szembe-fordított tükrök” (“Facing Mirrors”):

Örömöm sokszorozódjék a te örömödben.
Hiányosságom váljék jósággá benned.
Egyetlen parancs van, a többi csak tanács: igyekezz úgy érezni, gondolkozni, cselekedni, hogy mindennek javára legyél.
Egyetlen ismeret van, a többi csak toldás: Alattad a föld, fölötted az ég, benned a létra.
Az igazság nem mondatokban rejlik, hanem a torzítatlan létezésben.
Az öröklét nem az időben rejlik, hanem az összhang állapotában.

Here is my tentative translation:

May my joy be multiplied in your joy.
Let my defects become goodness in you.

There is only one commandment, the rest is just advice: Try to feel, think, act so that you exist for the good of everything.
There is only one precept, the rest just follows from it: Below you is the earth, above you the sky, within you the ladder.

Truth dwells not in sentences, but in undistorted existence.
Eternity dwells not in time, but in the state of harmony.

Listen also to Dániel Gryllus’s musical rendition of the poem.

I brought up the film Magasságok és mélységek (Heights and Depths), which I had been hoping to go see for the third time. The film’s theme song, which plays from start to finish in the credits and answers the entire film, is Platon Karataev’s “Létra” (“Ladder).

I knew that the film would be playing in Hungary for just a few more days, so, after leaving Bálint Ház (where we hold our services), I checked to see where it was playing. It turned out that I could see it at 2:45 at the Művész Mozi, not far from the Nyugati train station. It worked out perfectly.

The film is a somewhat fictional (and also faithful) rendition of the true story of the mountaineer Zsolt Erőss, who died in a Himalayan descent; it focuses on his wife, Hilda Sterczer (played brilliantly and profoundly by Emőke Pál), who has to contend with his loss and help her daughter do the same. This viewing opened up new levels of the film for me, both because I had seen it twice before and because I was thinking of the ladder. I realized how important it is that Hilda herself is an exceptional mountaineer. Once a mother, she gives it up, but she understands her husband’s expeditions as those around her cannot. Her excellence and her dependence are part of the same ladder. Slowly she begins to climb (down or up, it could be seen either way).

For instance, after gathering three million forints for a helicopter rescue mission (which proves futile), she decides not to undertake further rescue efforts—maybe partly because she wants to end the waiting and doubt, but also because she knows what it means to be up in the mountains, in weak condition, in extreme cold. She also knows that a mountaineer thinks in terms of survival, and that if her husband died, as she understands he did, he would have wanted her to survive. In other words, what others perceive as her coldness or lack of faith is actually her knowledge.

Also, her struggle with the loss, her difficulty living as herself, is not just the plight of an overly dependent wife. It comes from her strength and talent. Her strength and weakness are like the angels in Genesis going up and down the ladder. Maybe the resolution is the “undistorted existence” of the Weöres poem.

Back to the passage in Genesis: the angels ascending and descending could mean that what we take as a descent might sometimes be an ascent, and vice versa: that we are continually moving up and down at once. For Jacob, this seems true; his acts of trickery (descents from one point of view) have something holy to them, since they allow God’s plan to be fulfilled. In a more mundane way, each of us must do things at times that others disapprove of, for the sake of something greater. Last night (at the Kabbalat Shabbat service, which had an exciting new musical rendering), I was anxious because I wanted and needed to leave right after the kiddush: the blessing over the wine and challah bread, after the official service. I felt guilty (because others wanted me to stay for the dancing and socializing) but needed to get back to Szolnok, into my quiet, to rest and prepare for the next day. I did this, and it was a good decision.

This return to quiet was necessary in its own way. In this and other ways, I am moving up and down the ladder, both at once.

It is never a resolved matter; our most important conflicts do not have a definite, final answer. For me, retreating into quiet is essential, but calling it “quiet” is somewhat deceptive, since it may be a kind of turbulence I retreat to. Also, there are times when I need to fight against this pull, and (more) times when I need to trust it. Beyond a few basic precepts, the “right” way to be in the world is not fixed; we must perceive it again and again, and let it be different from what others assume.

But what I hear in these verses, beyond everything, is awe: Jacob’s sense that God was present, and his willingness (conditionally, tentatively) to trust that and act upon it. The words he speaks (such as hamakom, nora) are sparse but full of depth. Whatever the ladder and the motion of the angels might be, it suggests something divine in motion.

Platon Karataev’s “Létra” has something to do with all of this. I end with a translation, once again tentative.

by Platon Karataev

másznék már, de a szó visszaránt
létrám szelídíti a mélységet
magasságot egyaránt

kérdésem rétegeket hánt
elmémről, felelet gyanánt néha
fogadd el a talánt

tékozolja magasát a menny
hullajtja nagyságát a hegy
lépek: a mostban gázolok

érintsd meg a szél két oldalát
kulcsod majd ez lesz, odaát
nem kell, és visszaadhatod

a magasba, hol a szél is gyalogol
mélybe, hol ölel a pokol
tudd meg, mindkettőhöz tartozol

az óceánt zsilipelem éppen át
magamon már elhagytam
a szavak zátonyát

imádságaim közé egy istenfej szorult
végre csak legyen az, ami
by Platon Karataev

I would be climbing by now, but
the word pulls me back
my ladder tames both depth and height

my question peels layers
of my thoughts, sometimes “maybe”
is the answer you must accept

the heavens squander their height
the mountain sheds its greatness
I walk: I wade in the now

touch both sides of the wind
this will be your key, over there
it’s unneeded; you can return it

to the height, where the wind
also treads deep, where hell embraces you
know that you belong to both

Now I’m sluicing through the ocean
alone I already left the reefs
of words behind

a godhead is squeezed between my prayers
I let it go,
at last let it be only what it is

Art credit: Helen Franenthaler, Jacob’s Ladder, 1957 (on view at the Museum of Modern Art).

I added a little to this piece after posting it (and made two small edits to the translation of “Létra”).

Update: Here is my musical rendition of the Weöres poem:

“See, there’s magic hiding in every departure…”

That is a loose translation of a line from Platon Karataev’s “Lombkoronaszint,” “lásd, hogy varázs rejlik minden indulásban.”* Most of the traveling group is now on route to the U.S.; the rest of us will join them on Wednesday. Over the past six months, we all have been planning and preparing, adjusting to circumstances, changing certain plans, preparing the conference papers and presentations (I am presenting too, in a different seminar), scheduling concerts, canceling them, handling vaccinations, lodging, passports, visas, gathering everything together, packing—and now here we are, right at the bundle of moments.

We had to cancel the two concerts in New Haven and NYC because, as we learned, foreign musicians traveling to the U.S. need a special artist visa to perform in any capacity, even for free. Even if we had known about this long in advance, Sebő and Gergő might not have been able to get the visas in time, since they require many steps and extensive documentation (and cost a fortune too). So there will be no Platon Karataev duo concerts at all, but the trip itself and the conference remain intact. (At the 2022 ALSCW conference at Yale, I am leading a seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music,” in which six members of the Hungarian group and twelve composers, writers, and scholars from the U.S. will be presenting.) In some ways it’s even better this way, since we will have more time to enjoy the trip, with less rush from one event to the next.

The concerts leading up to this trip have been some of my favorites in all my five years in Hungary. On Friday night, Cz.K. Sebő, Gábor Molnár, and Grand Bleu held a concert at the cozy Borpatika, the first in a series of concerts intended to help Budapest’s tiny clubs and pubs survive. I think Sebő—and maybe the others who performed that night—created the series. The idea is not only to hold concerts in little pubs, but to give them a personal and relaxed atmosphere. The musicians talk with the audience, tell stories between songs, welcome requests, etc. It was so beautiful and genuine that I had a weird attack of happiness.

In more ways than one, I was not alone. One person invited me to join her and her friends at a table; another treated me to a glass of wine and told me he liked my blog (this one here). These are people I have seen at various concerts and online but never met before. I stayed almost until the end of the concert, then took the latest train back to Szolnok and got home around 2:00 a.m. I didn’t even feel the lack of sleep the next day, which was a work day for us, but an easy one: the “Katalin Day” celebration (an annual tradition: a humorous competition and induction for the ninth graders, along with the equally traditional and legendary skit in which students from Class 11B parody the teachers).

After the celebration, I went home for a few hours and then headed out to Budapest again, visited a favorite Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and then set out for the Táncszínház, where Platon Karataev gave a rich, charged performance, just hours before Gergő, Sebő, and the others would head out to the airport. It had been a few months since I had last heard the whole band (the last time was at Fishing on Orfű). This time I heard new textures in the songs, or combinations of textures. Some of the high points for me were “Most magamban,” “Wide Eyes,” “Lassú madár,” “Elmerül,” “Tágul,” the cover of VHK’s “Halló mindenség,” and “Elevator.” But I was so excited about the trip that even sitting there in the hall was a high point: magic hiding in a departure, and a departure hiding in the act of sitting still.

Art credit: Andrew Walaszek, Departure (1989). Platon Karataev concert photo credit: sinco. I took the three pictures in the middle of the post: (1) of the entrance to the Borpatika, (2) of Cz.K. Sebő and Gábor Molnár, and (3) of Grand Bleu.

*Update: I later learned that the line from Lombkoronaszint is a quotation from Hermann Hesse’s poem “Stufen” (“Stages”), “Und jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne, / Der uns beschützt und der uns hilft, zu leben.”

Highlights of the Week

One of the great highlights of this week was reading John Cheever. I bought a big collection of his stories; this was inspired by Benedek Szabó’s online recommendation of “The Swimmer.” Before buying the book, I read “The Swimmer” and two other Szabó favorites, “Goodbye, My Brother” and “The Country Husband” (all three are fantastic) and reread two, “The Enormous Radio” and “Reunion.” Once I had the book, I started opening up to a random place and reading that űstory; in that way I have read (so far) “Clementina,” “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” “A Vision of the World,” “The Music Teacher,” and (my favorite of these five) “Metamorphoses.” Although the female characters sometimes lack depth (and not always), these stories are both brilliant and addictive, a great combination for someone who doesn’t very often sink into reading for sheer fun. My reading is usually slow and preparatory; I am getting ready for class, translation, leyning, or something else. I enjoy that kind of reading, or I wouldn’t do it—but it’s great to have this thick book of Cheever and to know that I’m going to read it fast.

I have already brought up some of the other highlights of the week, but one of them deserves a repetition. Cz.K. Sebő’s instrumental song “4224” is gorgeous. Listen to it here. The cover art is by Fruzsina Balogh.

Two interviews were published or announced this week, one from last week, one taking place next Thursday. My Chametzky Translation Prize interview with Aviva Palencia, summer intern at The Massachusetts Review, can now be viewed on YouTube.

And next Thursday at 2:30 p.m. EDT (8:30 p.m. in Hungary), Matt Barnes and Keil Dumsch will interview me about my ten-year-old book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. Everyone is welcome; to join, you need to be registered on LinkedIn.

Yesterday I had a beautiful day. I went to Budapest for two performances: first, Platon Karataev at the MOMkult, for the opening of the exhibition in memory of Tamási Áron. It was an absorbing and dreamy performance; I think “Tágul” was my favorite, though it’s hard to say.

Then I walked briskly to the Városmajori Szabadtéri Színpad to see the premiere of a musical adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days (in Hungarian: 80 nap alatt a Föld körül). It was lively, funny, and inventive, with colorful song and dance, umbrellas, digital scenery, and a terrific cast. The libretto is by Réka Divinyi, and the music is by the band Lóci játszik. For years I had wanted to see Around the World in 80 Days on stage, having read about a performance in NYC. Here are some photos.

And there was much more: translating, writing, running, preparing for the ALSCW conference and October trip, listening to music, spending time with the cats, thinking, walking around Budapest, discovering new places and buildings. And now the sun is setting, and I will try to rest a little. Shabbat Shalom.

“nem beszélem nyelved, de beszélek emberül”

I would like to look at the magnificent Hungarian language through Platon Karataev’s magnificent song “Elmerül” (the ninth song on their 2022 album Partért kiáltó). This is a song about the place beyond language, but its own language resonates in all directions. I am writing for people who don’t necessarily speak Hungarian, so I will take this slowly and partially.

I’ll start with one of the refrains:

követ kötök köré, az elme elmerül
nem beszélem nyelved de beszélek emberül

This could be translated roughly as “I rope a rock around it, the mind meanders down / I don’t speak your language, but I speak the human tongue.” Look at the beautiful alliteration and assonance of “követ kötök köré.” “Követ” is the accusative of , “stone.” “Kötök” is the first person singular of köt, “tie.” “Köré” is the directional preposition meaning “around.” Each of these words comes from a different Proto-Finno-Ugric root. The alliteration and assonance is even stronger in “az elme elmerül”; “elme” means “mind or intellect” and “elmerül” means “sinks.” In the second case, the “el-” is a prefix; in the first, it is not. I tried to track down the etymology of “elme” but found nothing; even a Hungarian online etymological dictionary states, “Régi szavunk, de eredetéről semmi biztosat nem tudunk.” (“It’s an old word of ours, but we know nothing certain about its origin.”)

Then comes this beautiful, simple complexity (and an allusion to Pilinszky’s Apokrif): “nem beszélem nyelved, de beszélek emberül” (“I don’t speak your language, but I speak in the language of humans.”) “Beszélem” and “beszélek” both mean “I speak”; why the difference? Most Hungarian transitive verbs have both an definite form (used with specific objects) and an indefinite form (used with nonspecific objects or no object at all). It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the basic principle. Here, “beszélem” is the definite form and “beszélek” the indefinite form. The definite form is needed the first time because “nyelved,” “your language,” is a specific object, even without an article preceding it. But “emberül” isn’t an object at all; it’s an adverb, so the second time around, the indefinite form is needed.

This refrain actually alternates with a similar one: “követ kötök köré, az elme elmerül / most szembenézek azzal, mit találok legbelül” (approximately, “I tie a stone around it, the mind meanders down / now I look straight into what I find farthest within”).

After these, the next refrain is just as rich, though in a different way: “kérdeznem nem kell / egy vagyok a felelettel” (“I don’t have to ask / I am one with the answer”). There’s the alliteration of “kérdeznem” and “kell”; the second part also has subtle alliteration: the “gy” of “egy” and “vagyok” as well as assonance (the repeated “e” sound). There’s also a play of zeroes and ones: the zero of “nem” and the one of “egy.” In addition, these two parts have a kind of mirror symmetry (especially visible in the lyrics book), where “kérdeznem” and “felelettel,” the two longest words, mirror each other as questioning and answer. (In the photo here, the text is slightly skewed; that’s because I was holding the book open.)

But all of this is later in the song, after the three stanzas or short verses, which have to do with the place beyond language, and which is likewise rich with Pilinszky allusions. Here is a very rough translation:

mit találsz a szavakon túl?
hol nyelvharang már nem kondul
nem jelöl mit a hangalak
a pusztában hagytalak

mit találsz a szavakon túl?
hol nyelvharang már nem kondul
a lélek önmagába les
a végtelen dadogni kezd

mit találsz a szavakon túl?
hol nyelvharang már nem kondul
a válasz torkomban rezdül
a káosz mélyén rend ül
what do you find beyond the words?
where the tongue-bell no longer tolls
the phonetic form has no sense
i leave you in the wilderness

what do you find beyond the words?
where the tongue-bell no longer tolls
the soul spies into itself
the infinite starts to stutter

what do you find beyond the words?
there the tongue-bell no longer tolls
the answer vibrates in my throat
in the depths of chaos, order sits

“Nyelv” means both “tongue” and “language”—but in English, “tongue” can mean “language” too, so I translated “nyelvharang” as “tongue-bell.” This is a Platon Karataev neologism, as far as I know; it could be a play on “nyelvhang,” “lingual consonant.” That would tie in with the word “hangalak,” which is a linguistic term meaning “phonetic form.”

I think the rest explains itself.

I made some edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

An Award, A Poem, and Two Concerts

Twice in my life (so far) have I received a translation prize. The first was when I won the Scott Prize in Russian upon graduating from Yale. The prize was in recognition of my senior thesis, which consisted of translations of contemporary Russian poets and commentary. The second came just the other day: an Honorable Mention in the Jules Chametzky Translation Prize, for “Scissors,” my translation of Gyula Jenei’s “Olló.” This Honorable Mention was even more honorable than it may appear; usually this prize has only one winner, and this honorable mention comes with a cash award and an interview. But beyond that, the poem is one of my favorites in Gyula Jenei’s work, and I am fond of the translation too. I am honored that the MR editors and judges loved this poem.

“my grandmother will have other scissors too:”—the poem begins—”smaller, larger, / sharper—but most of all i will love the pair that has, below / the rings, on the wide-opening, ornate handle-necks, / the likeness of a man and woman embossed.” You can no longer make out the faces, but the grandmother claims that they belong to Franz Joseph and Sisi. The poem continues with the grandmother contemplating the two heads through her “one-templed spectacles” and telling stories: of the boy’s own family, of the coronation of Charles and Zita, “heaps / of tales she happily tells.” While she is telling her tales, the boy cuts something or other with the scissors, and the faces come close without actually touching.

only the rings make
a metal clap, and the blades scrape, and then the past
dissolves into the future, and then they bury my grandmother,
and i forget her stories, all i remember about them is their
having been, and only the scissors have remained, and
the sewing box with the thimble, then the thimble got lost too.

It goes on from there to my favorite part, which I won’t quote here, since you can read it. The poem is full of surprising gestures. Here’s a physical object that has remained over the years: the scissors (which I have actually held in my hands, yes, the scissors of this poem)—but they are about as vague as memory itself, since the faces have been worn and polished over time. But through this wearing down, some essence comes through: a statement, a retraction of sorts, and a final image and truth. The poem has tenderness, memory, forgetting, a sweep of history, and a pair of scissors whose clapping and scraping you can hear even if you never get to hold them.

I remember translating the first draft of this poem during a long break in my school day on a Wednesday morning (I think it was a Wednesday, in the fall of 2018). I remember thinking: How do I go back into the world after this? But I did, and it worked out well.

So, that’s what I wanted to say about the award and the poem. As for the two concerts, yesterday I had an exceptional evening. First I went to hear the Platon Karataev duo at the Esernyős in Buda. What a beautiful concert it was, and what an attentive audience. Several times they mentioned how much they appreciated the audience’s quiet attention. Here’s a photo taken by the venue’s photographers, I think.

Sebő then had to rush across the Duna (and southeastward a bit) to the Akvárium’s Petőfi Terasz, where he gave a wonderful Cz.K. Sebő/capsule boy concert. Many of us likewise went, as audience members, from the first concert to the next. There I did take a picture. But much better pictures and videos were being taken (see below); if the official video ends up on YouTube, I’ll include it here too. I loved hearing the songs and sounds find their way: a song he wrote that morning, some songs that are changing over time, some songs still in the works, songs ceding to sound and sound to songs, songs leading into songs, all together forming something joyous, thoughtful, and melancholic that I could get swept into alertly.

At that concert, the (very large) audience was listening closely for the most part, but there were a few loud people as well. Two young women planted themselves in front of me—when they could have stood to the right of me, blocking no one’s view—and proceeded to talk and gesticulate. The woman sitting next to me (around my age or a little younger, and intensely listening too) motioned that I could sit closer to her and see. I was grateful for that. The Petőfi Terasz, being outdoors and free, draws a mixed crowd, some there for the concert, others for entertainment and drinks. The music and listening won out; it was a beautiful show. But I don’t understand people who talk loudly without even bothering to move to the side or the back. (Update: From the photos I later realized that one member of the noisy pair is the lead singer of a band whom I have never heard live but three of whose albums I have. That’s even more disappointing. In the future I’ll just ask noisy people to move or be quiet, whoever they may be.)

So this leaves me with the thought that attention—in the form of reading, listening, conversation, or something else—isn’t just one of the best things to give or receive; it’s also essential. Where would any of us be without it? Isn’t despair the sense that no one is paying (or receiving) attention? And if we can’t give attention to everything (at least I can’t), isn’t it good to have a few people, things, and occasions to devote it to?

I added a little to this piece after posting it. The last picture is by Dávid Bodnár, courtesy of the Akvárium Klub Official. You can see the whole album here.

Update: Here’s the video of my Chametzky Prize interview with Aviva Palencia, a summer intern at The Massachusetts Review.

Song Series #18: Hungarian Songs I Missed While Abroad

I have returned from the U.S. It is good to be back. Many thanks to everyone who was part of the trip in any way: the person who fed Sziszi (update: I found Dominó and brought him back inside today!), the friends and family I saw in the U.S., the events I attended (including a play, a Kandinsky exhibition, a musical, and a songwriter showcase), all the staff at the various places I visited, the wonderful morning minyan service at B’nai Jeshurun on Thursday morning (which feels like this morning, not yesterday).

I had Hungarian songs in my head throughout the trip, not always the ones I would expect, but no big surprises either. These are background favorites, I’d say. Songs that hold their own whether I am listening to them or not. In this piece, I will not be translating the songs, but I think they come across (in large part) through the music itself.

One that kept coming to my mind was Cappuccino Projekt’s (Dávid Korándi’s) “Vidáman se.” Too hard to explain in a short space, but sad and exhilarating at the same time. It captures life somehow. Here it is. (I later updated the link; this is the reording that appears on his debut LP, released in December 2022.)

Another was Noémi Barkóczi’s “Dolgom volt” (approximately “I had something to deal with,” narrated by someone who has been out of touch with others for a while). Barkóczi sometimes seems to me (slightly) like a Hungarian Joni Mitchell in the 2020s. I love the true-to-life lyrics, the chords, the rhythms, the swooping and diving of the vocals. Here’s the video.

Galaxisok was in my ears most of the time. Which song? Hard to choose, but let’s take “Focipályák éjszaka” (“Football Fields at Night”), since I listened to it in the rental car several times, and there’s this live video.

Felső Tízezer’s “Semmi pánik 2” (“No Panic 2”) figured in there somewhere. Here’s their delightful infomercial-style video of the song.

A song that I played for others (from my phone, not on an instrument, unfortunately) was Kaláka’s “Hajnali rigók” (Dawn Thrushes), a poem by Lőrinc Szabó, which they set to music. They have a whole album and songbook of bird songs (and many, many albums on other themes: bicycles, various poets, musical instruments, psalms, and much more). I can’t wait to hear them again in August. They are legendary; just as Russian literature, it has been said, came out from under Gogol’s “Overcoat,” so contemporary Hungarian song comes out from under Kaláka.

On a tangent: At Arlene’s Grocery on Tuesday, I heard Noah Chenfeld play his song “Orioles,” which was inspired by the rhythm of an oriole’s call. I like it. Although it isn’t Hungarian, I’ll include it, because it was part of the week, and because there’s something interesting going on here. I look forward to more of his music. (My favorite music of the evening was SugarSugar—especially their song “Cruel Things“—that’s another tangent, but you can listen to them and watch their wonderful “Unbreakable” video.)

Lots of Platon Karataev songs played in my head, some of which haven’t been released yet. From Partért kiáltó, “Csak befelé” (“Only inward”) came up again and again. Here’s a gorgeous performance of the song by the Platon Karataev duo, whom I will get to hear on Tuesday.

And to finish off, Cz.K. Sebő’s musical rendition of Pilinszky’s “Egy szép napon” (“On a Fine Day,” in the translation of Géza Simon) played itself persistently, as did other favorites from his work, including “Pure Sense.” I have brought up “On a Fine Day” many times here, but there’s always room for repetition. Who knows: maybe he will play it tomorrow night.

On A Fine Day
(Egy szép napon)

János Pilinszky, translated by Géza Simon

It’s the misplaced tin spoon,
the bric-a-brac of misery
I always looked for,
hoping that on a fine day
I will be overcome by crying,
and the old house, the rustle of ivy
will welcome me back.

Always, as always
I wished to be back.

Shabbat Shalom and a happy weekend!

For other posts in the Song Series, go here.

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

  • Always Different



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In 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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