The Shakespeare Festival

It was a great success. Above, you can see the group that came all the way from the Kossuth Lajos Gimnázium in Tiszafüred. There were groups from Karcag and Törökszentmiklós as well, and several groups from Varga, as well as the wonderful Híd Színház in Szolnok and students of József Rigó (who was there as well). The day was filled with performances (of scenes, sonnets, songs), lectures, a workshop, a few introductory remarks, remarks from the jury, and gift bags for the participants.

I was so eager to get to school early (I wanted to be there by 7:00, but arrived at 7:15) that I rushed out the door and forgot my glasses. Once I realized this, there was no time to go back for them, since I had gone to school on foot, with cello. I printed out my introductory remarks (that I had written in Hungarian) in very large font, but even so, I stumbled over a few words. However, that didn’t affect things; once the performances began, everything flew.

The Hamlet scene (which I had helped my students prepare, along with sonnets and songs—but which they prepared entirely by themselves in the end) was intense and beautiful from start to finish.

The pieces were traditional, experimental, or both, in Hungarian or English; they contrasted enough with each other to keep the whole day interesting. The feeling in the room (both rooms, both parts of the day) was warm and lively; we had a substantial audience, including former Varga students (Zalán and Petra, thank you for coming!), and the performers and their teachers seemed to enjoy the whole event.

There will be more pictures, videos, interviews, and thoughts—so I will leave off here with just a few more photos. Thanks to everyone who helped bring this into being and who helped out in any way. Thanks especially to the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár and to my colleagues at Varga, who carried this from an idea into an actual occasion.

Update: Here is the SzolnokTV report on the festival!

“O my prophetic soul!”

Here in Hungary I have taught Hamlet three times, to three different classes. My students will be performing a scene from Hamlet in the Shakespeare festival. But what is it about Hamlet that pulls me back again and again? Hamlet’s dark wit, his encounters with the beyond, the complexity of the characters, the beloved memorized passages, is that it? All of that, but there’s something more too. Hamlet is burdened by his own intuition; he knows things he is not supposed to know. When the ghost of his father reveals how he died, Hamlet exclaims, “O my prophetic soul!” This prophetic tendency is his gift and his weight to bear.

I do not believe in ESP or fortune-telling; as far as I know, divination goes wrong at least as often as it goes right. But I do believe in intuition; I have a modest amount of it. A person can sense things without being informed of them directly. This brings up a quandary. What do you do with knowledge that you are not really supposed to have? Most of the time, it’s possible just to set it aside; it is not our business to do anything with it at all, and it might not even be correct.

Hamlet does not have the luxury of setting it aside. Because of who he is, he knows he must act on it, but he hesitates, fearing that the ghost was just a hallucination and that its message was false. It is fascinating that he hits upon the idea of testing it through a play: “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” So-called reality will not bring the truth out, but art will.

But he still hesitates; he sees the king praying and says to himself, “Now might I do it pat”—but realizes that if he killed him now, Claudius would be sent to heaven. Ironically he is fooled by the image, the outward form, of prayer; Claudius knows too well that his prayer is insincere.

It takes the rest of the play for Hamlet to become ready (not just for action, but for whatever might come with it); his words “the readiness is all” are in a sense the story of his life.

In some sense or other, does it not take each of us our whole life to be ready for the completion, whatever it might be? Some are not ready when they die; their lives are ripped away from them too soon. Others are ready long beforehand. Some have much to go through, many peaks and valleys, openings and closings, before they can be ready. The readiness of this kind cannot be rushed. It has to take its own time. In Hamlet’s case, maybe months; in the case of others, maybe decades.

The readiness cannot be known except through intuition. It is not detectable through medical devices. It might not be expressed in words. It is not necessarily readiness for death. It is, rather, a readiness to be mortal, like everyone else, and through being mortal, maybe, just maybe, step over into a different level of life. Maybe not. But the willingness, the opennness, is there. The prophetic soul opens up.

Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special providence in the fall of a 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 has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii

I think I have many years before that readiness. I feel nowhere near ready now. But I see it in Hamlet, and it glows so brightly that through the play it becomes part of me too.

Engraving: Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus and the Ghost, by Robert Thew, after Henry Fuseli. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum.

Past the bourn, and a translation of “Tágul”

This morning I woke up with a different idea for my translation of Pilinszky’s “Egy szenvedély margójára” (which I wrote about earlier, and which will be part of the program at the Pilinszky event next Sunday). I had been bothered by the tenth and twelfth lines (“He turns to the waves and hurls it far and fast” and “And yet a breakless ocean booms it back”). “Far and fast” seemed padded; the “fast” seemed extraneous, even though I liked its subtler meanings. But the real problem lay in the last line: a “breakless” ocean seems like an ocean without waves, rather than a whole ocean. Also, the iambic pentameter was a little too regular and placid compared to the Hungarian (also regular iambic pentameter, but with a little bit of friction at “egy egész tenger”). Those problems, though, seemed worthwhile for the sake of the whole. Then I thought of a different way of doing it. Here’s the last stanza as it was before.

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it far and fast.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
and yet a breakless ocean booms it back.

Here’s the new version:

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it past the bourn.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
and yet a whole sea booms it in return.

The word “bourn” (“limit”) evokes Hamlet’s soliloquy (“The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns”) in an appropriate way, in that the action of throwing the stone is irrevocable. Neither the stone nor the throwing can return. That striking line “Nem szabadul már soha többé tőle” (“Never again will he get rid of it”) puzzles the mind at first; you might expect “Never will he get rid of it” or even “Never again will he find it.” But there’s a singularity to the very act of throwing the stone away. As for the last line, I like how “whole” and “sea” struggle against each other slightly, each one claiming rhythmic stress. And “booms it in return” brings out the paradox of noise in the voicelessness. Also, you can hear a parallel between “mute breach” and “whole sea.”

So the whole translation reads as follows:

A boy who likes to walk along the beach
always finds one among the many pebbles
that has been his for all eternity
and never could become anyone else’s.

He grips unlosability itself!
His whole heart is throbbing in his palm,
the stone’s so one-and-only in his hand,
and with it he has grown so alone.

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it past the bourn.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
and yet a whole sea booms it in return.

I started thinking about catharsis in this poem. There is a purification in the throwing of the stone. The verb “szabadul” (“to be freed of, get rid of”) is very close in meaning to “rid,” which derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *reudh-, “to clear land.” The stone becomes too much, I think; it has to be thrown. But this will come up at the event, so I won’t say more here.

What I will do now, though, on a somewhat different subject, is provide a loose translation of “Tágul” from Platon Karataev’s “Partért kiáltó.” The song is indirectly related to the poem; the two juxtaposed say something to each other. “Tágul” has so much of what I love about Platon Karataev: lyrics, sounds, the duet of Sebő and Gergő, atmosphere, eternity. I have heard this song played by the whole band and by Sebő and Gergő in acoustic concert. Each version brings out something different. I think a cello cover would be beautiful; I will keep that in mind for the future.

While my translation is mostly literal, more so than my translation of “Partért kiáltó,” I took some liberties to convey the rhythm and richness of the words. I translated “elmém egy hangyaboly” as “this my mind is an anthill” to keep the stress on the first syllable of the line, since this is so important to the music.

I initially translated “tágul az űr belül” as “spreading within, the void” to convey both the rhythm and the continual motion. I think there’s supposed to be some ambiguity about what is spreading: the void itself, the moment, the shadow, the self, the non-self? But then I changed my mind, and changed it to “the void expands within.” (“Spreading within, the void,” requires the commas, but those can’t be heard. So the meaning was too unclear.)

I translated “ez a pillanat most minden pillanat” as “this moment is now each moment of all time,” for the sake of emphasis (that is, both a strong final beat and a strong statement).

The translation as a whole is imperfect (what translation isn’t?), and I might see reason to revise it later, but I think it conveys the essence and could work with the rhythm of the music.

az égbolt köldöke a Hold
elvágom a köldökzsinórt

az éjjel szitálja az énem
nem-énem kitárja, elérem

elmém egy hangyaboly
kisgyermek vizet önt belé

elmém egy hangyaboly
kisgyermek vizet önt belé

látok már a víz alatt
ez a pillanat most minden pillanat

tágul az űr belül
árnyékom talpam alá feszül

tágul az űr belül
árnyékom talpam alá feszül

talpam alatt már szűkül az árnyék
lépek, mintha vízen járnék

tágul az űr belül
árnyékom talpam alá feszül

látok már a víz alatt
ez a pillanat most minden pillanat
the heavens’ navel is the Moon
I sever the umbilical cord

the night dissipates my self
pours forth my non-self, I touch it

this my mind is an anthill
a child pours water into it

this my mind is an anthill
a child pours water into it

now I see below the water
this moment is now each moment of all time

the void expands within,
my shadow tightens beneath my soles

the void expands within,
my shadow tightens beneath my soles

beneath my soles the shadow thins
I step as though walking on water

the void expands within,
my shadow tightens beneath my soles

now I see below the water
this moment is now each moment of all time

I made a few changes to the translation of “Tágul” after posting this piece (most recently on March 23).

Art credit: Cloudy Day (1871) by Alfred Thompson Bricher.

From Shakespeare to Babits to Kisköre and Back

Over the past months I have been working with the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár, students, and colleagues to put out a video that shows what we have in mind for next year’s Shakespeare festival. Hours of gathering, editing, subtitling, testing, rebuilding, consulting…. and the video came out yesterday! Eight students contributed home-recorded Shakespeare performances (of two sonnets, the song “Sigh No More” from Much Ado About Nothing, and monologues or scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, and Othello). There are also a few words from László Molnár, the principal of Varga and from Zsuzsanna Kovácsné Boross, the drama teacher (and teacher of history and Hungarian language and literature). After that, there’s a special contribution by the library: an introduction by Katalin Cserfalvi, a short Shakespeare lecture by ELTE student Györgyi Kovács, and a tour of the library by the library’s director, Katalin Czakóné Gacov. Here it is. Just one important correction: the performer of Bottom’s and Hamlet’s monologues should appear as László Korpás, not Kovács or Korpács. The unfortunate mistake was mine—a result of spending too many hours on the video and not seeing it with fresh eyes. László Kovács is another of my students, and Korpács, though not the same as Korpás, is an actual last name. Well, maybe this is in the spirit of Shakespeare; Györgyi Kovács (yes, Kovács) says of him in her lecture, “His name was spelled in more than eighty ways; even in his own signature, he spelled it differently.”

I was actually pretty tired by the weekend, because in addition to the video, so much has been going on. But I managed to get a new bike on Friday, and made plans to go on a long ride on the birthday itself. On Saturday, after the Shacharit service that I led, Szim Salom honored my birthday in a sweet and heartfelt way; later I also received messages from individuals and from the Szim Salom community as a whole. One person had picked out a Mihály Babits quote for me (from his poem “A második ének“):

Mindenik embernek a lelkében dal van
és a saját lelkét hallja minden dalban.

Everyone has a song in his soul
and hears his own soul in every song.

The verse continues:

És akinek szép a lelkében az ének,
az hallja a mások énekét is szépnek.

And whoever’s soul has beautiful singing,
that one will hear others’ singing as beautiful.

And it actually begins with this:

Megmondom a titkát, édesem a dalnak:
Önmagát hallgatja, aki dalra hallgat.

Sweetheart, I will tell you the secret of song.
Whoever listens to a song hears himself.

So, to put it all together:

Sweetheart, I will tell you the secret of song.
To listen to a song is to hear yourself.
Everyone has a song in his soul
and hears his own soul in every song.
And if your soul has beautiful singing,
you will hear others’ singing as beautiful.

A great birthday gift, if you ask me.

So I took off for Kisköre a little after 10 a.m. on Sunday. I had hoped to go all the way to Tiszafüred but knew it would be tight, since the last train that would get me home before curfew left at 4:15. The day was clear and breezy, perfect for a ride, except that it got quite windy in the middle, and I was slowed down.

Anyway, I saw the Racka sheep near Nagykörű—they’re always there grazing by the side of the bike path. There were some little ones, as I expected there would be.

Nagykörű was in bloom. In a month or so, the cherry trees will be filled with fruit.

I passed by this beautiful little church in Tiszasüly, which I have passed by several times before:

and went on and on. Now it started getting windy, with storm clouds in the distance. But over the whole ride, I only felt a few drops of rain.

The ride was longer than I had remembered before, because of the wind. I thought I might have taken a detour, but then I saw the familiar landmark, which meant I was closer (though not close) to Kisköre.

Then, at long last, arrived in Kisköre! But here the indecision set in. I had hoped to make it at least to Abádszalók and take the train back from there. But there was no way I would make it in time for the last train to arrive back in Szolnok before curfew. In fact, I had missed the last Kisköre train that would get me back before curfew. At a bit of a loss, I biked around a little and came upon the park with a fountain:

I went to the train station, which was closed, and sat on the steps in the back, by the tracks. The next train would get me back to Szolnok, but only at 11:30 p.m., with two transfers along the way (and not really along the way—way out of the way, first in Kál-Kápolna, then in Hatvan). Curfew (part of the Covid regulations) is at 10 p.m., so I wasn’t even sure there would be a train. I thought of ordering a cab, which would be expensive, but maybe worth it. I called one cab company; they said they couldn’t transport a bike. I called another; he thought I wanted him to take me home from the Szolnok train station. When I explained the situation more clearly, he seemed confident that the trains would be running, but welcomed me to call him if I ran into any trouble.

Then it started occurring to me that everything would be fine. I sat and waited for the train. That was actually one of the best parts of the day; the train station was lovely and quiet, except for the breeze in the trees and one worker mulling around. I just listened to the breeze and watched the changing colors. Two dogs came by. The first one tried to pretend to bark at me, but wasn’t convincing; it was more of a half-hearted “grumph” that he kept letting out. The other one, a puppy, came over to say hello.

At last the train came, and the three segments of the ride back home went without a hitch. I might have been the only passenger on two of the three trains, but no one asked me why I was riding so late; the conductors accepted my ticket, and the trains themselves were running just fine, drifting dreamily through towns. Even when I got back to Szolnok, there were no police waiting at the station. I biked home on deserted streets, fed the leaping cats, sat down at the computer for a few minutes to view the streams of birthday wishes, and went to sleep.

And so, to come back to Shakespeare, I end with Sonnet 27:

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts–from far where I abide–
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.
Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.

The photo at the top is from my students’ June 2019 performance of scenes from Hamlet at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár.

Masks, Music, Acting

For International Music Day, the music teacher planned, along with her students, to play music through the loudspeakers in the breaks between lessons. Here are two students dancing to the music in the hallway.

Yes, we are trying our best to celebrate things, to keep the arts going in some way, to listen when we can’t sing. (Singing is not allowed in school at this point, since it is hard to do so safely.) At this point, the rules are: wear masks in the hallways and in common areas; in classrooms, wear masks when it is impossible to keep the required social distance. As of October 1, we must also have our temperature taken as we enter the school; those with a temperature above a certain level will not be allowed in.

Three students have tested positive for the coronavirus; they are all at home right now. In one case, the whole class stayed home for ten days, then returned (except for the one who tested positive). I imagine that there will be more known cases, especially now that the thermometer requirement is in place. Those setting local policy respond to each case individually, taking into consideration when the student was last in school and other factors.

With all of that, the year is still proceeding somewhat normally, with joys along the way. One of my favorite parts of the week is when I go with the tenth-graders into the spacious drama room (shown above and below) to read and act out A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At the beginning of the year, the drama teacher told me she wanted to share the room with me and asked me to choose the times I would like.

The school has also found ways to celebrate its 90th anniversary. The director, László Molnár, organized the publishing of commemorative book, edited by Dr. Ilona Mrenáné Szakálos, with interviews and biographies of selected teachers from 1930 to the present. I was surprised and honored to be included in the book, with Zsolt Bajnai’s interview of me, from exactly one year ago today, reprinted in the pages. But beyond that, the book says a lot about the school. I know of no other school that would release a commemorative book that focused entirely on the teachers from the beginning to the present. At Varga, the school’s history is cherished, and the teachers are its stronghold. The teacher biographies–written by colleagues, students, and others–are full of respect, affection, and humor. Putting out this book during the pandemic was no easy feat, but it was worth it, and no matter what happens this year, the book will stay.

So I look forward to each day of bicycling along the Tisza to school, having lively classes, working with my colleagues, preparing the fall issue of Folyosó (which will appear in the beginning of November), and being part of Varga, where I have taught for three years now. What’s coming this year in terms of coronavirus developments, no one knows. But I am glad for these days we have had.

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.

From Hamlet to Csík: Bring the Bringa!

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My laptop is still in repairs (I should get it back tomorrow), so I am writing on the phone. To make this easier, I wrote a draft on paper first, a good idea in general. The pen is a kind of mediator, the typewriter too. The electronic keyboard somehow shirks this role. Moreover, the pen and typewriter are messy in an enjoyable way. You get to cross things out, squeeze things in.

First of all, congratulations to everyone who took part in the Hamlet performance—three scenes and discussion—at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár on Friday! I was sitting next to Katalin Cserfalvi, who works at the library and made this event possible. At moments we gaped at each other in awe. These scenes came alive, not only in the actors’ expressions and gestures, but in their rendition of the language. Last year’s performance was full of spirit and enjoyment, but this year’s reached a new level.

 

 

This took long and intense work. We have been rehearsing for about two months (mostly in class, and not in every class session), but before that, we read the entire play and then reread a few scenes multiple times. The students who weren’t in the performance—who served as audience members during our classtime rehearsals—deserve commendation too, because without their attention, listening, and comments, not only would we have been unable to rehearse, but we would have missed some of their insights. Also, the two students who introduced each scene at the performance, Luca Regina Gazdag and Dorina Kata Nagy, helped out in numerous ways behind the scenes, as did Petra Rónafalvi, who provided some of the costumes. When putting on a play, even a few scenes, one becomes aware of the different kinds of work that go into it and the importance of each.

After Hamlet, I went upstairs to hear a performance by Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai (father and son): stories and songs alternating in a kind of dialogue. There seemed to be connections between Zsolt Bajnai’s stories and Marcell Bajnai’s songs; while not explicit or obvious (to me), they brought the separate works togethet into something new. I didn’t understand everything—some songs were familiar, some not, and I had read just one of the stories, the wonderfully satirical “Korrupcióterápia,” but I loved the different tones and the atmosphere of enjoyment in the room. Next time, whenever that may be, I will understand much more. (I didn’t take pictures, but there should be some coming from the library soon; when they appear, I will add the link.)

One exciting thing: the last song that Marcell played was one I hadn’t heard before. I was so taken by it that I tried to find it online later (by looking up the few words and phrases that I remembered). I had no luck, so I wrote to him to ask about it. He replied that he had written the song a week before and that this was the first time he played it in public! I now realize that he said this when introducing the song, but I didn’t catch it at the time. I hope to listen to the song many times.

All of this would have been enough for me for a weekend, but the festivities continued at full tilt. Yesterday, late in the afternoon, after a quiet day at home, I took the teain to the nearby village of Zagyvarékas for the Margaréta folkdance festival, followed by a concert by the band Csík. One of my students, an accomplished folk dancer and a member of the Rákóczi dance group, was in three of the dance performances—and I was eager to see them all and hear the band. It was my first real folkdance event in Hungary. I have seen a few short performances here and there, but nothing like this. I eas moved not only by the dancets’ skill (in singing as well as dancing), not only by the colorful costumes, not only by the gorgeous rhythms and melodies, but by the vitality and “nowness” of it all. Folkdance in Hungary is not some relic of a dying tradition; people of many ages put their hearts and lives into it.

 

 

What to say about the Csík concert? It was fantastic; they played so many instruments, and combined musical styles with such ease and in such interesting ways, that I wanted to rush home and start playing too. Their music opens up possibilities. The audience adored them (except for one disgruntled drunk man on the sidelines who ranted in a few brief sputters about how he wanted pure Hungarian music, not music from all over the place). Many songs were the band’s own, others by others; many had folk motifs, while others had a jazz, blues, rock, or other feel, or a mixture. One song (by Gábor Presser) I had heard before; Marcell Bajnai had played it in his recent solo concert, at the very end. It was exciting to recognize it and hear it in these two different ways.

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Mosquitoes were swarming all around—it has been a bad few weeks, mosquito-wise—and audience and musicians alike were getting bitten every split second, from every angle. But we stayed until the end and beyond, cheered for an encore (which they played), and kept on applauding after that.

It was a long journey home (but a pleasant one, except for the mosquitoes). I had made the uncharacteristic mistake of leaving my bike at the Szolnok train station (or rather, train stop), thinking that the Zagyvarékas train station would be near the village center. Wrong! They are about four kilometers apart; in fact, you have to leave Zagyvarékas and then enter it again. The walk didn’t feel long, but on the way back I just barely missed the train I had hoped to take and had to wait an hour for the next one. Lesson learned: bring the bringa!*

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*”Bringa” is one of many Hungarian words for “bicycle.”

P.S. On top of it all, this evening I went to Pest for the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s annual Dancing on the Square event, which brings Roma and non-Roma, economically advantaged and disadvantaged children together from all over Hungary to dance to music played by the orchestra. This year, the BFO played Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7; in the final movement, the children performed a dance. This Beethoven symphony, and especially the outdoor performance, brought back strong memories of playing it in high school, at Tanglewood—the thick summer air, the feeling of being in the middle of the music, all of this came back—but the performance made me hear the work in a new way. It is hard to describe, but I have it in my ears. The dancing worked so well with the fourth movenent, the children danced with such glee, that it turned into something more than I can name, something that goes with the rest of the weekend. We do not have to hold back in music, stories, poems, dance, plays. So much is waiting to be created, performed, and heard. So much is already here, in the air, on stages, in books and notebooks, in the feet and hands, in the mind. The train back to Szolnok has stopped, the window is open, and I hear the loud wind in the leaves. They are there too, the  songs..

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Different Kinds of Rest

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Rest will be scarce over the coming months (or plentiful, from some perspectives), so I will be looking to make the most of it. I have three different translation projects ahead and am excited about them all. I am participating in two literary events in the U.S. in October: the ALSCW Conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, and a series of events at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture featuring two of my Hungarian colleagues (more about that soon!). In addition, I have a few writing deadlines, will continue my synagogue responsibilities as usual, and may hold another event at the Szolnok Gallery/Synagogue in September. The event on May 23 went beautifully. The audience was enthusiastic, everyone joined in the singing, and the acoustics lifted the voices.

Yes, and there’s the upcoming Hamlet performance and discussion–by some of my tenth-grade students–at the Ferenc Verseghy Public Library on June 14! They will perform three scenes from Hamlet, followed by discussions and interviews with the characters. We are now heading into our final rehearsals.

All of this is in addition to regular teaching, which is in an irregular state right now, since I am meeting frequently with seniors to help them prepare for their oral exams.

The next few weekends will be packed. Next Saturday I go to Esztergom to enjoy the Comedium Corso festival–where 1LIFE will be performing–and explore the surroundings, which look stunning in the photos I have seen. (I will take my bike on the train so that I can explore more easily.) From there I go to Budapest to lead Szim Salom’s Shavuot service on Sunday. The following weekend, we have the Hamlet performance on Friday; right after that, also in the library, there will be a performance by Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai (father and son)! On Saturday, June 15, I plan to attend a folk dance festival in Zagyvarékas; one of my students, Dániel Lipcsei, will be performing in three groups, and there will be many more groups from all over the country. Some of it might look and sound like this:

Then on Sunday, June 16, I go to Budapest for the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s annual Dancing on the Square event. Later in the week, Szolnok’s Tiszavirág Fesztivál begins; I look forward to its concerts–including an acoustic show by 1LIFE–and other festivities. The following Shabbat (on June 22) I lead a service–with a bat mitzvah ceremony–in Budapest; on June 30, I leave for the U.S.  I will be teaching, for the ninth consecutive summer, at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers; this year we focus on tragedy and comedy, as we always do in the odd-numbered years (the even-numbered summers are devoted to epic). Those will be an intense, focused three and a half weeks, with lectures, seminars, panel discussions, films, and more. A few days on either end for visiting people–and then back to Hungary on August 5!

Back to the topic of rest: there are different levels and kinds. One of the reasons that I find Shabbat challenging (and important) is that it takes me about a day to wind down from the week. Resting on Friday evening and Saturday takes planning, focus, and determination (and I don’t always succeed at it). On Sunday, a greater calm sets in, but by then it’s already time to gear up for Monday. I have found it difficult, even in “free” time, to read books unrelated to my teaching, projects, and other preparations; several books have been waiting for months, not because I lacked time for them, but because my mind would not fit them in. I have now returned to The Book of Why by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie; this time I hope to stay with it instead of letting more months go by. It gets more and more interesting as I get farther into it; I will have more to say about it later. I am also overdue with Cynthia Haven’s biography of René Girard, Evolution of Desire, not to mention books in Hungarian, which I read especially slowly.

Reading a long book (for pleasure and interest) takes a particular kind of  restfulness. It’s different from reading a poem or short story; while these require intense focus and attention (and time), they tend to take less time on the initial reading than a novel or nonfiction book; thus you can reread them many times. I enjoy rereading more than I enjoy first-time reading, because of the new understandings that come with the repetition. To come to know a long book, you have to be willing to dedicate many hours just to the first reading. This is especially true for slow readers like me. I know people who can read a 350-page book in an afternoon or two; I am not one of these.

So there’s the rest that involves unwinding and the rest that makes room for reading. What other kinds are there? Writing, playing music, and other creative activities require stretches of time for trying things out, going back and revising, etc. There’s also the rest that comes through exercise: biking, for instance, over long distances. There’s the rest that comes from spending time with others: laughing with them, playing music with them, sitting down for a meal with them. There’s the rest that comes from doing something different: going somewhere on vacation, for instance. There’s the rest that comes from attending a concert, reading, or other performance. There’s the rest that comes from sorting things out in the mind: reflecting on the week, remembering important things, and putting less important things in their place. Then there’s the rest that comes with pure laziness: puttering around, doing what you feel like doing, whether or not it’s productive. There’s the rest that comes from sitting quietly and doing nothing. There’s structured, time-bound, hallowed rest, such as the rest of Shabbat. Finally, or near-finally, there’s sleep, and, at the end of life, death.

These all overlap, yet they are distinct, taking different forms and playing different roles. Yet each one can be well or poorly carried out. It’s all too easy to compromise rest, to try to make it serve something else. To rest well, you have to rest with all your heart. Or maybe that’s what makes something restful in the first place: doing it with all your heart, instead of pulling it this way and that.

I end with Walt Whitman, “A Clear Midnight“:

THIS is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

A Way of Hearing the World

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Isn’t reading literature in the original one of the fundamental reasons for learning a language–and not just a side benefit or frill? Isn’t reading Shakespeare one of the great rewards of learning English? You can’t come close to Shakespeare in a translation, no matter how good, or in “Shakespeare made easy” editions (which are hopelessly watered down). You have to plunge into Shakespeare’s language, struggle with it a bit, and then start to see it make sparkling sense all around you.

Overall, I admire the gimnázium curriculum here in Hungary. What students learn will help them not only with their careers, but with independent thought and life. Literature is central to their learning; they read poems, novels, stories, and more (in Hungarian). They also learn math and sciences (to advanced levels), history (in depth and detail), grammar, technology, languages, arts, and physical education. My two criticisms are (a) that the curriculum is crammed, with little or no flexibility or choice, so that students have no time to absorb what they are learning; and (b) that in the language courses, literature is treated as an extra, something the teacher may add to the lessons if time and inclination permit. (My school has been very supportive of my Shakespeare projects–but still, in relation to the official curriculum, they are added on.) Language instruction–and all the textbooks I have seen–focus on grammar, vocabulary, and conversation on everyday topics (health, food, family, nature, school, the environment, technology, etc.), which repeat and repeat, at increasingly advanced levels. All of this is good and important–but language instruction without literature is like music lessons without music. I am not the only one who brings literature into class–many teachers do–but still, it may seem an appendage, not an internal organ.

I have sometimes been asked why I am having students read Shakespeare in the original, when they will not need to use Shakespeare’s language later in their lives. My response: they will use it! They will recognize words, phrases, quotes, allusions all around them; they will gain a way of hearing the world; and they can return to the plays and poems throughout their lives.

But to the point: this year, the tenth-grade students (who last year adored A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are getting a little restless with Hamlet, or many are. The reasons are understandable: we read only in class (since the books stay at school, and I am reluctant to add to their already hefty homework); we meet only twice a week, and have not always devoted both sessions to Hamlet; there have been various interruptions and absences, so many students have missed at least one key scene of the play; it’s longer and more difficult than Midsummer; and in my desire to continue onward through the play (so that we can later go back and focus on certain scenes), I have not explained certain passages as well as I could. But we are close to the end; and I am confident that when we go back, reread, and enact particular scenes, the experience will be different.

Also, they have fond memories of Midsummer–and this is a very different sort of work. Comparing the first to the second, they may well feel some disappointment at first (though some have said that they find Hamlet more interesting). Last year their readings and performances were joyous and funny, and here a different mood sets in, though there is plenty of humor in Hamlet too.

Why Hamlet, out of all of Shakespeare’s plays? Well, for one thing, Hamlet is a play of the mind; it takes us into thinking itself. It is also full of play and trickery; the play itself is full of plays, not only the play within the play, but other enactments too–so that we are not always sure whether Hamlet is speaking his thoughts or acting for a perceived audience. Also, there is the question of metamorphosis: what must happen to Hamlet, how must he change, to do what he has set out to do? And the question of “minor” and “major” characters: might Polonius and Laertes be more important than they seem? The whole play has to do with “seeming” and “being”–so that when Hamlet first replies to his mother (in Act 1, Scene 2), his words, in a sense, introduce the play:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

And there you have the beauty of Hamlet: despite all the changing appearances and illusions, despite all the plots and tricks, there is an integrity, something that cannot be reduced to “just” this or that. It can only be revealed, though, through the illusions. We see Hamlet playing with Polonius here (in Act 3, Scene 2):

LORD POLONIUS
My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.
HAMLET
Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
LORD POLONIUS
By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
HAMLET
Methinks it is like a weasel.
LORD POLONIUS
It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET
Or like a whale?
LORD POLONIUS
Very like a whale.
HAMLET
Then I will come to my mother by and by. [Aside.] They fool me to the top of my bent. I will come by and by.
I will say so.
HAMLET
By and by is easily said.

Here Hamlet tests Polonius (craftily) to see whether he will continue to agree with him. But Polonius’s continued agreement reveals to Hamlet that he himself is being played with, in a more serious manner–that is, that Polonius has made some plan with the king and queen (or a larger “they”). So the play reveals the play–and Hamlet speaks through it all: “They fool me to the top of my bent,” suggesting that even his outwitting of Polonius may be partly an illusion, as there may be something beyond Polonius that he cannot outwit.

In some ways Hamlet cannot be a group experience. Last year, a few students took strongly to the play, not together but alone, and their responses set the tone for classes. I see this happening this year as well, but it has yet to come through. I believe that this will be worthwhile for everyone, not only now, but later. But to make it worthwhile, I have to think more about the scenes that we will study closely: how to interpret them, stage them, “character” them. Then, I think, good memory will be built.

Image credit: M. C. Escher, Metamorphosis I (1937 woodcut printed on two sheets).

I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.

“Lights, lights, lights”

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The Shakespeare event took place yesterday: beautiful performances, a full house, a feeling of excitement and pride. I am still gathering my thoughts–and hope to gather some more photos and videos, since I was too focused on the performance to take very many, and most of the ones I did take were from the back of the room.

Just minutes before the performance, we faced a big technical problem: whoever had shut down the Technika Háza earlier in the day had also shut off all the lights. To turn the lights on, you need not only access to a special room but knowledge of its location. This, apparently, is a carefully guarded secret. At last one student–the one who had helped me ask the drama teacher for additional props–managed not only to get on the phone with someone who had the information, but to persuade this person to disclose the information to him. Ten minutes before our show, we had lights, and everything went gloriously from there. Fittingly, the last words of the performance were “Lights, lights, lights” (from Hamlet).

Congratulations and thanks to everyone–including the audience–who made this a gracious and moving occasion. I will say more later.

Speaking of events, this Sunday in New York City there will be a CONTRARIWISE celebration at Book Culture! If there were any way for me to attend, I would, but given that I teach on Monday, it’s too far away. It will be in my thoughts, and I will take part of that day to write and post a little review of the fifth issue.

Update: I added a video and two photos to this piece after posting it.

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

  • 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 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.

  • 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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