Politics Are Not All of Life

There are people who, upon learning that I live in Hungary, immediately ask, “What do you think about its turn toward the right?” I then have to explain that the country is not monolithic, that there is much more to it than Orbán, and that people like Gergely Karácsony, mayor of Budapest and one of the opposition’s potential candidates for the next national election, stands for something markedly different from him. But I would go even farther and say that politics are not all of life, that you don’t have to get riled up over politics to live thoughtfully and conscientiously, and that you can find meaning and relative freedom (whatever freedom is—Gyula Jenei has a remarkable new poem on this topic) in other things, without being any more escapist or selfish than most humans out there. Granted, politics cover many areas of life and involve most of us at some point, whether we like it or not. But even so, we don’t have to get caught up in them beyond what is necessary or in our nature. Nor do they make us virtuous.

“But look at what’s happening around you!” people will yell. Yes, but there are many things happening around me. Only some of them could be called political. The over-politicization of life is a prison in itself. Many writers and others have resisted the pressure to turn everything into a political statement, to go around with banners and slogans.

In the thirty or so years since I first read Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I have often returned in my mind to this passage (in Part 2, Chapter 2, about Karel’s mother, here in the translation of Michael Henry Heim):

But the defect in her sight seemed to explain something much more basic: what was large for them was small for her, what were stones for them were houses for her.

To tell the truth, this characteristic of hers was not entirely new, but at one time it had bothered them greatly. One night, for example, the tanks of a huge neighboring country came and occupied their country. The shock was so great, so terrible, that for a long time no one could think about anything else. It was August, and the pears in the garden were nearly ripe. The week before, Mother had invited the local pharmacist to come and pick them. He never came, never even apologized. The fact that Mother refused to forgive him drove Karel and Marketa crazy. Everybody’s thinking about tanks, and all you can think about is pears, they yelled. And when shortly thereafter they moved away, they took the memory of her pettiness with them.

But are tanks really more important than pears? As time passed, Karel realized that the answer was not so obvious as he had once thought, and he began sympathizing secretly with Mother’s perspective—a big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight. So mother was right after all: tanks are mortal, pears eternal.

Kundera does not make this the last word; this is still close to the beginning, with much to follow. Nor is Karel sure that his mother is right; he just realizes that the answer is not as simple as he had supposed.

That is what I have learned over time, too. This does not mean that politics should be ignored, or that it’s entirely possible to do so. There are some issues, such as Covid, hunger, and global warming, that can only be addressed by countries and individuals together, through concerted work and lucid language. In that sense they are political. There are also times in our daily lives when we have to take action on behalf of a person or principle. That, too, could be considered political. And we all have political duties of one kind or another, at one level or another, from voting to taking part in work meetings. (Workplaces have their own political systems.)

Nor do we have to be uniformly political or apolitical throughout our lives; we go through changes in this regard. I cared intensely about politics, as usually understood, in my late teens and early twenties. After that, less so. I came to distrust and resist the pressure to be political on other people’s terms. Even more than that, I came to dislike the judgments that went along with such pressure. But I have been outspoken on education and other issues, over many years, and have received both praise and flack for this.

What do people know about each other, really? Someone who seems apolitical may actually be doing more for others, and more to improve the surroundings, than someone who jumps into every political argument. Or ther reverse could be true. It is not always obvious, and our judgments are often based on meager information.

There’s a need for people who take up political causes, make political arguments, run for office. But if everyone were doing that, or if those doing it all did it in the same way, we’d end up with a dreary and dangerous world. People have different inclinations, different things that delight and intrigue and trouble them; all these things have a place, as long as they do not harm others. So let there be room in life for the ferns at the top of this post, for the poems being read at festivals this summer, for the things that are hard to say, for the struggle, late at night, with a math problem, or for the rush of a musical idea.

What’s Happening on the Ground in Hungary?

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People sometimes ask me what’s happening on the ground in Hungary–that is, what people think of Orbán and Fidesz. I get puzzled by the question; why assume that political opinions tell us much at all? Political slogans and stances involve so much reduction that they don’t come close to representing life. That said, a rally took me by surprise today.

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I was having a restful afternoon when all of a sudden I heard a sound that I have never heard in Hungary before (except in performances): the sound of slogan-chanting. I looked out the window and saw people marching over the bridge. I ran out the door and across the river to see what was going on. Mind you, there have been many rallies since I arrived here over a year ago, especially in Budapest, but I have not seen or heard them. I usually learned about them after the fact.

I caught up with the crowd and looked around. There were people and flags from at least five political parties ranging ideologically from right to left: Jobbik, Demokratikus Koalíció, Lehet Más a Politika (Politics Can Be Different), Momentum, and MSZP (Magyar Szocialista Párt). I am not sure what exactly they were protesting (beyond Fidesz and Orbán), but my guess is that it had to do with the new “slave labor law.” As I stood on the outskirts and listened, a woman complained to me that they were doing the wrong thing, that this would only lead to confrontation. Then they marched onward, chanting “Orbán takarodj!” (“Orbán, get out!”). 

“Orbán, get out,” but then what? I don’t deplore this kind of action, but I see it as a rough draft of something to come. Many young people are astute observers of the situation; they analyze the problems, arguments, and flaws on all sides and deliberate over solutions. I often get keen news analyses from students: commentary on current events in Hungary, the future of the EU, Brexit developments, the situation in Venezuela, and more. In ten years or so, a new generation of adults will point out new possibilities, if they have not left the country and if Europe has not fallen apart.

But back to my original point: as understood currently, politics only grazes the surface, if even that. Because of its pressure toward certainty and allegiance, political speech often disregards human complexity. Point the finger at others, and you get all sorts of approval; question yourself, and you fall into obscurity or even ridicule.

This does not have to be so; politics can involve discernment and probing. To reach this level, it must be informed by literature, history, philosophy, and arts, by mathematics and science, by practical experience and wisdom, and by difficult introspection. This kind of politics is even more daring than slogans and platforms, but it takes courage and knowledge.

So, although the rally represented more than I know, it did not encompass life on the ground this week, which was full of literature (in particular, two readings by the poet Béla Markó, on one of his rare visits to Szolnok), music, language, work, bike rides, dilemma, speech, translation, silence, theatre, sleep, waking, and thought. 

 

The two pictures of the end are of my bike ride to school on Friday morning and the opening moments of the Varga Katalin Gimnázium drama club’s performance in the annual Ádámok és Évák theatre celebration at the Szolnoki Szigligeti Színház on Thursday night.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it, and then a few more later.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • 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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