Too Much Activity

Yesterday morning I listened to a wonderful long Petőfi Rádio interview with Gergely Balla and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly of Platon Karataev. It went in many different directions, but one favorite part when they talked about the importance of solitude and about how fruitful the Covid lockdown had been for them (even with many setbacks and challenges, such as Gergő’s fever and hospital stay), and how now, with everything open and available, they have had to set some limits for themselves, not accepting every invitation, not attending (or playing) every possible event, but instead protecting their quiet.

I have definitely been too busy this fall and have had to pull back too. The thing about pulling back is that most people will not understand or accept it. At least they won’t understand your specific choices. In their minds, what they want from you should come first; they don’t realize that you see it differently. None of us has complete control over our lives, but our choices, to the extent that they exist, will never be accepted by everyone.

Yet the vast majority of the world’s population doesn’t care what we do; that’s a bit of a relief. Even those we imagine we’re disppointing terribly have other things on their minds. Moreover, pleasing others (completely, all the time) has no point to it; it brings no satisfaction, because it dries up the soul. To exist in a true sense, you need some resistance. Not random resistance, not automatic resistance, but your own particular friction with the world, which you come to know over time, and which can change a little but won’t go away.

Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Soul selects her own Society” is so well known that it can slip past the mind. But pay attention to the middle stanza:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

The repetition of “Unmoved,” the images of Chariots and Emperor, the sense that both of these are stooping low for her, paying her homage (because they want something), and instead of falling for it, the soul stays upright—that’s something to think on. And then, in the final stanza, Dickinson transforms the initial metaphor of the “door,” turning it into the “Valves” of the Soul’s “attention,” now compared to “stone.” I wonder—this occurred to me just now—whether Wisława Szymborska was thinking of this in her “Conversation with a Stone.”

But sometimes “pulling back” doesn’t require a clap of stone, just a sense of the spaces between the moments or days. That’s part of the meaning of Shabbat (which I haven’t been too good at keeping, but which is on my mind). You just set aside the time for rest, period. Treat it as an obligation, not something you do if you find yourself with time. Also, it’s possible to simplify things on the run, not only in your schedule, but in your mind. Not getting bogged down in thoughts about all the things that have to get done. Just doing them one by one and taking rests in between. My fall break has been quite intense (I attended three wonderful concerts, translated a long story, gave an online poetry reading and talk in the middle of the night, worked on Folyosó, had minor surgery that went well, and lots more), but the last day is rather restful, unrolling quietly before me. And I am not changing that, not rushing anywhere, not trying to squeeze anything in.

The other side to this all is that it’s good, when possible and appropriate, to say yes to things, participate in projects, venture onto new terrain, and so forth. If we could all figure out what to accept and what to decline, life would be simpler, wouldn’t it? But we will never figure it out for good; there is no formula for it. We adjust, readjust, take on, give up, and start over.

Art credit: L.S. Lowry, Going to the Match.

Language and Hyperbole

Last night I had a dream in which a Hungarian person spoke to me in English and I gave a passionate litany, in Hungarian, about why I wanted to speak Hungarian instead. I remember the ending words: “és nagyon fontos számomra, hogy beszéljek magyarul amennyire csak lehetséges!” (“And it is very important to me to speak Hungarian as much as possible!”) My Hungarian has come a long way; I sense it when reading news, reading complex emails with no trouble, participating in conversations on an array of topics, handling a doctor’s appointment, being interviewed for my residence permit, and much more. Yet there is still a long way to go. For instance, the litany could have been a bit punchier, with more colloquialisms.

This is true for everyone. Even at advanced levels, people make mistakes or ignore nuances in foreign languages—that is, languages they didn’t grow up with. English is fairly forgiving of inaccuracy, since so many people from around the world speak English at different levels and in different ways. The language itself stretches to accommodate these levels. Hungarian is like the stone in the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s “Rozmowa z kamieniem.” To get in–to persuade people to speak Hungarian with you at all–you have to be inside the language already, to some degree. Mistakes tend to jar a Hungarian’s ear; Hungarian spoken by a foreigner is a rarity in the first place, except for a tourist’s köszönöm and jó napot. But I love this about Hungarian perfectionism; once you start taking part in it yourself, it’s like playing music; you want to hit the right note even more than others want to hear it.

With a language, you have to get used to going on and on, learning endlessly more and endlessly less, becoming more accurate and flexible in your expression yet still making mistakes, even basic ones, no matter how far you advance. Oh, this makes me think of Nabokov’s Pnin, which I long to reread.

“Information, please,” said Pnin. “Where stops four-o’clock bus to Cremona?”

“Right across the street,” briskly answered the employee without looking up.

“And where possible to leave baggage?”

“That bag? I’ll take care of it.”

And with the national informality that always nonplused Pnin, the young man shoved the bag into a corner of his nook.

“Quittance?” queried Pnin, Englishing the Russian for “receipt” (kvitantsiya).

“What’s that?”

“Number?” tried Pnin.

“You don’t need a number,” said the fellow, and resumed his writing.

Fluency does not come quickly; it goes beyond the highest levels at school. You can be advanced according to the tests but still far from fluent. People used to exaggerate my language knowledge, calling me fluent in Russian when I really was not. I never mastered the Russian verbs with their many prefixes, my vocabulary had gaps, and there were many colloquial expressions I never heard. But because few in the U.S. spoke Russian at all, even conversational proficiency came across as fluency. In graduate school, most of our courses were in English. Only one or two professors taught in Russian. We were allowed to write our essays in English (though I wrote some in Russian); our oral exams and dissertations were in English too, except for quotations.

In college, graduate school, and afterward, I had some opportunities to travel to Russia; I just didn’t take them. I had a strong desire to stay put for a while. For years, going abroad for a long time didn’t hold much appeal, since it had already been a big part of my childhood (we lived in the Netherlands for a year when I was ten, and in Moscow for a year when I was fourteen). It was only later that I wanted to live abroad again—here, where I am now.

Three years in, I am happily in the thick of it all, with heapingly much to do, projects galloping through the mind, kind people in my life, and all of this persisting and growing even during Covid. It’s amazing to me that there’s the book of poetry translations, the Orwell project, Folyosó, regular teaching, my synagogue role, and so much more, and the language all around me, taking form in my ears, in silence, in my dreams.

I took these pictures within the past week. The second one, as you may have guessed, is the view from my windows. I love that view and its many changes.

  • “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)

  • 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.

  • Recent Posts

  • ARCHIVES

  • Categories