Daydreams, Lectures, and Helices

What do daydreams, lectures, and helices have to do with each other? Quite a bit.

One of my favorite parts of Dante’s Purgatorio is at the end of Canto XVIII, when Dante starts dozing off. Here is Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of those lines:

aaaThen, when those shades were so far off from us
that seeing them became impossible,
a new thought rose inside of me and, from
aaathat thought, still others–many and diverse–
were born: I was so drawn from random thought
to thought, that, wandering in mind, I shut
aaamy eyes, transforming thought on thought to dream.

I read this as a tribute to daydreaming (though Dante is on the verge of sleep and a nightmare). To be “so drawn from random thought / to thought” (in the original: “e tanto d’uno in altro vaneggiai”) is to have an expanse and few restrictions; I love this kind of expanse, though of course I can’t have it all the time.

As I have said elsewhere, that is one thing I enjoy about lectures: they not only take my mind to unexpected places, but they send it wandering off to the side and back, or backwards and forwards. While listening to a lecture, I may do with my mind what I please; if the lecture is good, then my mind dances with it, sometimes spinning away, sometimes drawing close. If the lecture is bad (or dreadfully dull, as lectures sometimes can be), then my mind can go off on its own. This, too, has its benefits.

Lecture or no lecture, I need time to let my mind go where it wishes. A few days ago I took out a textbook of three-dimensional calculus and started reading the chapter on vectors. The vector equation for a helix immediately made sense:

helixr(t) = cos t i + sin t j + t k

where i = , j = , and k = . (These are unit vectors along the x-, y-, and z-axes, respectively.)

If you omit the z-axis, you can see that you have the vector equation for circular counterclockwise motion:

r(t) = cos t i + sin t j

Adding the component t k turns the circle into an upward spiral.

I toyed with this in my mind for a while. The next day, I encountered a helix again, when reading Taking the Back off the Watch: A Personal Memoir by the astrophysicist Thomas Gold (1920–2004). Before the helix passage, there was a wonderful comment on the possibilities for thought during a dull lecture:

A dull lecture is like an experiment in sensory deprivation. You are sitting in your seat, you can’t leave the room because that would be too rude, you are carefully shutting out the incoming information because you have decided you don’t want to hear it, and your mind is now completely free from external disturbances. It was during this lecture that I suddenly saw how all the facts of the case would fall together.

Yes, during this dull lecture he figured out why a sound entering the cochlea produces a “microphonic potential”–an electric potential that both amplifies the sound and mimics its waveform. He took his theory to Richard Pumphrey, with whom he had been investigating this matter; they published their papers in 1948. But that’s an aside here (though interesting in itself). I bring this up because his words about the lecture rang true, so to speak, in my mind. Then, a few pages later, I came upon his description of an experiment with a helix and an eel.

The eel can move forward along a sinusoidal curve, both horizontally and vertically. Thomas Gold and the zoologist Sir James Gray found that it could move swiftly and easily through a sinusoidal tube. Sir James Gray posited that the eel could therefore move through a helical tube; a helix, after all, is the addition of the vertical sinusoid to the horizontal sinusoid in three-dimensional space. Thomas Gold disagreed; he was convinced that the eel could not move through the helical tube. He was right.

Very well. But I was momentarily intrigued with the problem that would be elementary to mathematicians: is the vector equation

r(t) = cos t i + sin t j + t k

equivalent to the addition of two traveling sinusoidal waves, one horizontal, one vertical, in three-dimensional space? I grasped that it was but spent a little time explaining it to myself. Yes, and the two sinusoids must be a quarter-cycle out of phase with each other.

The first traveling sinusoidal wave has the equation r(t) = cos t i + t/2 k.

The second traveling sinusoidal wave has the equation r(t) = sin t j + t/2 k.

So, unless I’m missing something, these sinusoids are twice as scrunched as the resultant helix, their sum.

These have been my daydreams, or a fraction of them, over the past week or so. There were no lectures involved, but there were memories of lectures and the liberty I found in them.

Note: I corrected one term and made a minor revision after the initial posting.

“Thank God There’s Still the Dictionary”

That is an untranslatable line from Tomas Venclova’s poem “Sutema pasitiko šalčiu.” In my translation (in Winter Dialogue and The Junction), the line reads, for the sake of rhythm, “Thank God for the dictionary,” which misses some of the wit. I was never satisfied with my translation of that line, but the alternatives were awkward. In Lithuanian, it’s brilliantly terse and ironic: “Ačiū Dievui, dar esti žodynas.” This poem comes to my mind almost every day, so it seems fitting to bring it up at Thanksgiving.

I enjoy giving thanks but keep them scant when saying them out loud. This entry is much shorter than my thoughts.

I had a beautiful few days at the annual meeting of the National Association of Schools of Music, where I gave a talk on Monday. I will be thinking about the event and the conversations for a long time.

A few books have taken up residence in my life: Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking by David Bromwich; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (thanks to Cynthia Haven and, indirectly, Tobias Wolff for bringing it to my attention); and Taking the Back off the Watch: A Personal Memoir by Thomas Gold.

In addition, I have returned to a few favorites, including The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy and Reflections on Espionage by John Hollander.

I generally avoid mentioning my students on this blog, as I respect their privacy and try to keep my teaching separate from my writing. But something happened today that clinched my gratitude.

My tenth-grade students are reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou. For today’s lesson, I planned to discuss a few passages involving “confrontation” with the You, such as the one on p. 59 (of Walter Kaufmann’s translation):

When I confront a human being as my You, and speak the basic word I-You to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things.

He is no longer He or She, limited by other Hes and Shes, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is You and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.

After we read this and another passage, I had my students listen to Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which has to do, in a way, with such a confrontation and is worth reading for itself.

My students (in one particular section) were full of ideas and eager to talk about the Buber. Then, when I introduced the Rilke poem to them, a few of them lost their certainty. They didn’t understand how a headless torso could see the person or what that might mean.

They grasped that this was an extraordinary encounter–that the statue’s radiance and life exceeded what the person (addressed as “you” in the poem) had known before, and that he had to confront his own partial life. Several students said this in different ways. They understood the meaning of Apollo; they could imagine how a headless statue might radiate from the inside. But how could it see anything?

I told them that one day they might come in contact with something–a piece of music, a book, a painting, or a poem–that seemed to see and know them. (That’s only an approximation of Rilke’s meaning, but I wanted to give them an entry.)

Then one student said solemnly, “I have a poem that does that. ‘Jabberwocky.'”

  • “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 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.


    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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