The Moment

My book, The Moment, published by Splice, can be ordered here.

This side of pessimism and optimism

The turning of the age does not take place by some new god, or the old one renewed, bursting into the world from ambush at some time or other. Where would he turn on his return if men had not first prepared an abode for him? How could there ever be for the god an abode fit for a god, if a divine radiance did not first begin to shine in everything that is?

The gods who “were once there,” “return” only at the “right time”—that is, when there has been a turn among men in the right place, in the right way. For this reason Holderlin writes:

. . . The heavenly powers

Cannot do all things. It is the mortals

Who reach sooner into the abyss. So the turn is

With these. Long is

The time, but the true comes into

Its own.

Long is the destitute time of the world’s night. To begin with, this requires a long time to reach to its middle. At this night’s midnight, the destitution of the time is greatest. Then the destitute time is no longer able even to experience its own destitution. That inability, by which even the destitution of the destitute state is obscured, is the time’s absolutely destitute character. The destitution is wholly obscured, in that it now appears as nothing more than the need that wants to be met. Yet we must think of the world’s night as a destiny that takes place this side of pessimism and optimism. Perhaps the world’s night is now approaching its midnight. Perhaps the world’s time is now becoming the completely destitute time. But also perhaps not, not yet, not even yet, despite the immeasurable need, despite all suffering, despite nameless sorrow, despite the growing and spreading peacelessness, despite the mounting confusion. Long is the time because even terror, taken by itself as a ground for turning, is powerless as long as there is no turn with mortal men. But there is a turn with mortals when these find the way to their own nature. That nature lies in this, that mortals reach into the abyss sooner than the heavenly powers. Mortals, when we think of their nature, remain closer to that absence because they are touched by presence, the ancient name of Being. But because presence conceals itself at the same time, it is itself already absence. Thus the abyss holds and remarks everything.

— Heidegger, ‘What are Poets For?’ (tr. Hofstadter)

How to name this land?

There are two paths, said early mystical writers, the via positiva and the via negativa, the way of light and the way of darkness. Affirmative theology, the way of light, is an understanding of the divine nature as it is exposed in the intelligible orders of being; one declares, tracking the divinity in ekstasis, that the source of being is good, intelligent, beautiful and so on. In negative theology, however, they said, a richer knowledge of the divine nature comes, the intimate knowledge of human ecstasy, a no-knowledge […] This theology is a path of disorientation, muting and appetite ending in conjunction with being’s apex. On it, all names for the divinity are rejected as inadequate: God is not good if by this one would constrain the divine in images of human beneficence, not just if one has in mind mere human justice. God is supra-goodness, beauty beyond beauty, No-thing. Some of the same cancellations occur as one edges toward the brome grass head, the porcupine faced at the foot of the drive in grey false dawn, in their unknowable otherness […]

I walk in the hills in winter. A sharptail grouse explodes from drift-fold where she’s hidden from the cold, her faeces bunched around her. I am going into the hills where the deer in February browse juniper. Lost place, the original grass cover has never been broken. The snow would come to mid-thigh if I stepped from my snowshoes. The ground is blank except for some fox or coyote tracks; once, last winter, I saw an ermine out this way. I walk through heavy poplar, each grove rhizoming from the first tree of the bush, ghost wood, smelling like stale bread when you cut through it. I come over the rise and there are the deer, standing in the pits they’ve hoofed into the snow to get at juniper tips. They do not see me. I look beyond them, further south, more poplar bush, hills, an old fence line, willow in the hollows, still: nothing. How to name this land? It’s a skellig, black rock in the Atlantic. It’s a half-scraped hide. What does it speak in memory? What titles to give it in praise-singing? Language again and again springs at the essence, reaching for clarity, the exact fit between the look of the slow hills, occultly breathing and their feel, then denies each time what it comes up with.

[…]

The thisness of the nearest doe bent over the juniper, her transfixing oddness, is the littling of language, mortification of the desire for clarity, yet an occasion of the love which is one shape of contemplative attention.

— Tim Lilburn,  Living in the World as if It Were Home

Writing in the inner marketplace

You can find a profound home and a profound exile in language.

*

He is often tormented to find that text is not the one, single flame in which all the underbrush of desire can be incinerated. He wants to be text and nothing else. He is ashamed of every other lust. And how he dangles over the abyss when he’s at his text, creeping along, exhausted and bitter! It’s not that what he’s writing is bad, it’s that he feels it’s bad to write.

*

We do not write about something, we write it; we do not love someone, we love it (love). Love, steel-crowned with the desire for return, with its myth of remelding into one mass of personality. Writing defines the condition of absence. Where there is a single letter, everything is absent. Desire for lost things, the lost body, is the elemental eroticism of a human language that brings about understanding only through sense and symbol, instead of direct stimulation (recognizing, of course, that our cries and our speaking are subject to a behavioral paradigm similar to the one that governs songbirds as they mark off their territory, and stay in continuous vocal contact with one another).

Signs also have a physical reality, writings are also drawings, are – in part shriveled – things, slender strokes, traces of matter, jewels and secrets.

*

Each of us carries the mark of all that has ever been written.

*

The crumpled in us,

at night it flattens out, the discarded page with a

bad first line.

*

Octavio Paz: “A writer does not speak to us from the national palace, or the supreme court, or from the offices of the central committee; he does not speak in the name of the nation, the working class, the parties. He does not even speak in his own name: the first thing a true writer does is to question his own existence. Literature begins when you ask: who is that speaking inside me when I speak?”

[…]

We write only in the service of literature. We write under the auspices of everything that has already been written. But we also write to construct, little by little, a spiritual home for ourselves, where we no longer possess a natural one.

*

How are we to understand the fundamental triviality of writer and written words? Who are we compared to the mass media and the forces of irrelevance? Nothing now, and never have been. Only when I come to the point of saying, I do not exist and you, written word, only at the edges of a wavelike movement that causes me to dive, do I allot us our appropriate places. The bobbing head of a drunk in an unrushing current, gurgling at the threshold of a scream and sinking back into the waters – this is the fading of a work of art, and, what we seize as it escapes forms the core of its realism. Unimportant: in the meantime all books have lost mass. The realized, complex, enigmatic, insofar as the “inner marketplace” even allows it to emerge, has as little chance of finding fertile soil in which to take root as does the gentle and popular hit of the season. And opposing forces can hardly be maintained where nothing has been developed in the first place. Together, all of these works fall victim to the supreme rule of speed, increasing acceleration, and total passage. If Paul Virilio is right, in the dromocracy (a system based on forces of acceleration) in which we now live, or simply pass the time, it is against the laws of nature to endure.

Here, even the most fundamental truth is condemned to being nothing more than a passing “wave”. For example, even serious works on ecology (right along with the friendly, gushing alternative press) will soon be exiled from bookstore shelves to the special-interest corners, as were the tomes of scholarly leftist schools. Within the most minimal amount of time, the media get tired of all the croaking, the movement gets tired of itself before even the tiniest steps are taken toward improving the common weal. Weariness is the absolute sovereign of our culture. If there should ever be a so-called catastrophe, it will probably take place at a time when we just aren’t interested anymore, and we will allow ourselves the luxury of a yawning shock.

Paradoxically, just this moment would be the poet’s hour, at the high point of irrelevance in his existence. At this point, nothing could be more exemplary and useful than a talent for breaking with his time, bursting apart the chains of the present.

But in this society, aren’t we merely one minority among others, one group of cripples among others, who long ago gave up our claims to the universal validity of our speech? Haven’t the forces of diversity, the grand scrolls of a thousand fads and correctnesses made us incapable of taking an eccentric or avant-garde stance, opposite that of an albeit imaginary whole, thus giving it shape? I am not talking about the journalists who call themselves writers, and always know how to address the issues of “our times”. I am only talking about the difficult players, the heirs to the modernists, the uneasy traditionalists, the pompous mannerists, and all the others who in the eyes of the majority are nothing but useless crackpots. And of those there are only a few, a dwindling few. And now, of all times, where consumption has become total (and here, what the fringe groups are reading is no different from what the book-of-the-month club serves up), there is no new literature which, in rejecting this consumerism, might gain considerable strength, and bring about a current that would not in itself turn into a celebration of being late, being based on nothing but French dregs and Artaud’s anemic whispers. But in a time when literature itself has become an outsider in our culture, the outside in literature has been forced out of his eccentric role. The official business of fashions and trends has taken the place of the new, in other words, the latest news is now the new. and in general, the critical mind seems to be having an allergic reaction to the new in its broadest sense; in keeping with the times, it is just now learning to make more intensive use of what we already have. But an avant-garde that is not convinced that the general public, the mediocre retinue, will one day take over their positions and elevate them to the status of common property lacks the fighting energy needed for this task. But who could now be so blind to his calling as to believe in the indisputable destiny of literature in the same way, say, a Mallarme did, being convinced that the work of the world would be fulfilled in The Book. Today, to elevate the book to the status of metaphor for the universal archive of our culture would be nothing but a private pleasure, as harmless as it was obsolete. Supposedly, the work of the mind will end in eighty-seven television channels, and Mallarme’s book will become the cult object of a tiny secret society in the University of Wisconsin, and only there and nowhere else in the world will its memory be honored. Where writing itself vanishes from the center of culture, the outside among writers, the eccentric, will become a foolish figure – a radical reaching for roots on a continent that is simply slipping away.

— Botho Strauss, ‘Scribbles’, from Couples, Passersby (tr. Theobald) (1996)

The deer’s stare into the world of things

Deer come out of the poplars just as day becomes night; they move in the blue air. Dropped grain near the house glistens in the hollow they’ve licked and stamped over the weeks into snow. Their bodies are dense with strangeness and are weightless, brief electric arcs on the eye, eloquent, two does faring well this winter, bow-sided, v-faced, coming down the slope through low willow and wild rose that holds the last of light. They stop repeatedly, their coloratura caution; their bodies seem the constant, quavering afterglow of this strained attention. Yet the gold of the grain pulls the goldenness of them. They come the last steps quickly along a path notched with their prints from nights before and bend to eat. Shadow soaks into them. One of them jerks up a look, then the other. They see me standing by the woodpile. They stare. I stare.

Consciousness walks across the land bridge of the deer’s stare into the world of things. This is knowing. It tastes of sorrow and towering appetite. Their look seems a bestowal; I feel more substantial, less apologetic as a physical thing from having been seen. The traded look goes on in the building dark. There is no intention here, noting of fairy tale or hagiography, animals lying down with the solitary, animals bearing messages, scrolls caught in the clefts of their hooves. There is only wild seeing, the feel of it unimaginable: I am seen straight through (of that, no doubt) but cannot say how I am seen. Travelling back through the conductor of this gaze, something of me, a slant I’d never guess, enters them. Their look has a particularity, an inexpressibility, so high-pitched it attracts myths. No wonder some say the darkness of the forest is a god.

— Tim Lilburn, Living in the World as if It Were Home

Everyday life

Image
— via here

Ludwig Hohl, ‘On the Accessible and the Inaccessible’

1

Where is the path? –

Give it your all! Then it will be easy.

2

Of the two great principles, some see only the one: that there must be change. They live solely in this impulse to change, as if it were the first and only and most perfecting principle, and they rise and fall with it: that is the simplicity of youth. 

Others, in contrast, see a chain of innumerable changes that have already occurred and through it all they see the immutable. They believe, in the end, that the will to change is vanity: that is the simplicity of age. 

But strength of spirit lies between these two and partakes of each. For human greatness – that is, spiritual greatness – is essentially founded on the number two. The wise man sees all that has not changed since the time of Heraclitus and will never change (this includes most of the world), but he also knows that strength of spirit is impossible without the will to change the world for the better. And he recognizes in the meeting of these two principles – of our mutability and the world’s immutability – something that is inexpressible but unites all great spirits across all borders.

[…]

36

This is perhaps the most decisive turn in life (some learn this too late, others never; Heinrich von Kleist died from having never achieved it); the turn from aiming at summits in one’s youth to the confident knowledge that no genuine effort remains fruitless.

For youth lives in the conviction that only conquering summits has value (and only the highest summits at that; as if there were a highest one!). As a result, when they do not conquer summits they lose faith in their steps.

On the mystical nature of every serious human effort: the path is not straight, as the young believe; the reward (the path’s goal) cannot be seen: we do not see the summit it is meant to lead to, but a banner lures us onto the path or, in the best case, a secondary summit of no significance. – Along the way we find precious stones – or we glimpse the summit that becomes more and more true: our actual summit is the path itself.

The greatest beings are simply those who know paths best.

– Ludwig Hohl, The Notes (tr. Lewis)

Ludwig Hohl, ‘On Work’

1

            Human life is short.

            It’s a fatal mistake to believe – or, more exactly, to preserve the childish belief – that life is long. if we were constantly aware of the brevity of our lives, everything would be very different.

            Life certainly appears long from the perspective of childhood considered from its end, it seems incredibly brief. Which is its actual duration? It depends how early and how often you’ve considered your life brief.

            (A life is not measured by the clock, but by what it contained.)

For our actions to be worthwhile, we must undertake them fully conscious of life’s brevity.

            If we lose this awareness, we may appear active but will live in a perpetual state of expectation (in most cases, external forces compel us to engage in apparent busyness and leave us no escape). However, if you maintain complete consciousness of life’s ephemerality, your primary desire will be to do something immediately ( – and with a very different kind of seriousness than the one with which you do things when governed by external forces). Yet it is only doing of this sort – activity you engage in out of inner compulsion and not because of external pressures – that gives life, that can save.

            Precisely this kind of action is what I call work.

            2

            This person refuses to work. We can offer him this or that object, use every means of influence in our power –: work is the only realm in which no one can help another.

            We can help each other with sowing and mowing, with copying, with moving one’s limbs or one’s tongue, with all such actions, but not with work.

            3

            What does human worth consist in then, in this world of perpetual flux?

            Still, this difficulty in determining human worth is only an apparent difficulty; this ostensibly serious question is an illusory one. It is a question asked by those who are not in place; of what interest is it to them? A swindle! Those who are in place see it more clearly. Human worth consists in the desire for worth.

            Yet we must immediately caution against two misconceptions – unclear thinking that leads to confusion:

            First, wanting worth is not the same as wanting to amass worth, to fatten up, to gain power.

            (In primitive times, these two may well have been the same, just as they still are among animals. The constant, fundamental underlying urge is surely to live more, to live a larger life. Nonetheless, human consciousness has been developing for thousands of years and man has been aware for millennia now that it is impossible to acquire a greater quantity of life by increasing his weight, mass, or physical strength. Those who want worth cannot desire it disingenuously, in other words, they can never act in disregard of levels of consciousness already achieved.)

            – Wanting worth is not the same as saying one wants worth: but it is the same as working.

            And yet, how would I be understood, today, in our era of dervishes, if I were to say: “Human worth consists in working”:

            Tourne, tourne, le derviche!

            Que la force centrifuge

            Cravache aux quatres

                        horizons

            Ses bras, ses yeaux, sa raison!

            Spin, spin, dervish!

            May centrifugal force

            Spur his arms, his eyes, his

                        reason

            To the four directions of the

                        wind!

            (Fernand Lot)

– in our era, when turning in a circle for ten hours at a stretch or treading the floor until it wears away is considered work?

            It’s important to emphasize the fact that most people don’t flee work into laziness – not into apparent laziness – but take refuge in completely moribund busyness rather than simple immobility. True laziness these days consists in dead movement.

            In some cases, apparent utter immobility would surely be preferable, because legitimate movement can break out of it, can find a new beginning in it.

            ‘”Activity, movement”: is work, then, not the same as movement (and movement, therefore, also the same as work)?

            Work is movement…, but it is our movement. We have the fatal ability to mimic others, a water wheel, for example.

            A real water wheel works as it turns: because turning is its own particular motion, its complete possibility. Even a cat works as it moves, is completely present in its movements, progresses through its movements. As do children above all. He who does not completely grasp the elevated praise of children in the New Testament – one of the most peculiar and perhaps most modern passages in this fascinating scripture that has been more powerful than any other book for almost two thousand years –, he who fails to understand this immediate, unmediated, intensive praise of children but feels compelled to struggle for an explanation – such toilsome explication being roughly the opposite of complete comprehension –, he, too, has failed to understand what work is.

            4

            We build. And yet we have no idea where the general contractor is. Fulfill only your particular task, which you can surely find.

— Ludwig Hohl, The Notes (tr. Lewis)

A review of The Moment by Sean at Lost Gander:

‘caught between writing and life’: peter holm jensen’s the moment

The first psithuristic wisp of autumn arrived this week. Early August and the heat retreated with a whimper in the presence of the death season’s harbinger. Odd to experience this with all the news of raging fires out west. It has been dry here, though, it has been that. Will we too one day be engulfed in flames? More likely floods.

I have been occupied with and preoccupied by disruptions and transitions in my quotidian existence. This has led to feeling disconnected from the written word, excepting my dealings with it for which I receive monetary compensation. However, I did finish reading a book—The Moment by Peter Holm Jensen. A subdued but riveting read, it was calling to me from a special box I’d packed of most-likely-to-be-read-next books. So I answered its call.

Per its publisher Splice, The Moment is a novel but it reads like a journal of its author. Is this an important consideration? Probably not, at least not to me. Frankly I long ago grew tired of the inevitable questions around the mingling of autobiography and fiction. I like works that resist being genrefied. Even the term autofiction seems absurd to me—as if any fiction exists that does not contain parts of its author. What exactly those parts are and what percentage of a book they represent should not matter when it comes to evaluating and appreciating the finished work.

These days I find it far easier to filter my reflections through others’ written words (or music) rather than document them using my own words. It actually feels like it has been this way for far too long. And this is a significant part of what resonated so deeply with me in Holm Jensen’s book: the struggle of living with the paradox of a simultaneous passion for and distrust of language, and in particular the written word.

As the narrator grapples with this paradox, he is also documenting a blurring of the intentional and unintentional experience of living in ‘the moment’—of finding over time that opening into greater awareness, from which more insight may flow. And because the transition to moment living is continuing to happen as the narrator is writing about it, there is a sense of gradual unfolding, with attendant periods of uncertainty and confusion. But what accumulates through the narrator’s journal is evidence that each moment is indeed unique, provided one is open to noticing it.

I was reminded of how all the books I’ve read by Buddhist teachers seem to repeat the same simple ideas over and over until it eventually becomes clear that what at first appear to be the simplest concepts are actually the most complex when it comes to putting them into practice. While Holm Jensen’s book is not overtly Buddhist in nature, it does touch on ideas and questions common to Buddhist practice. But it also entwines these with questions around the act of writing and its significance, leaving those questions—as they can only ever remain—unanswered.

The Moment is a book I think best read without much foreknowledge of its contents, which is why I’ve not delved into any of its narrative specifics here. However, I did write a brief review on Goodreads that offers just a skeletal overview. I hope you consider seeking out the book.

The moment lurks inside everyday time; always new, always the same. It waits to give you back your life, like an event long prepared without your knowledge, like an act of fate. It needs you: your ragged past, your timid present, your whirl of thoughts, your hoard of words. It waits for you to step into the light of day, where it can find you and let you come into your own.

—Peter Holm Jensen

Unreality

When I stare at a fixed point on the wall for a long time, it sometimes happens that I no longer know who I am or where I am. Then I feel my absence of identity from a distance as if I had become, for a moment, a complete stranger. With equal force, this abstract character and my real self struggle to win my conviction.

In the next instant my identity finds itself again, as in those stereoscopic views where two images separate by mistake, and only when the operator lines them up, superposing them, do they suddenly give the illusion of relief. The room then seems to have a freshness that it didn’t have before. It returns to its former consistency and the objects within it are deposited the way a clod of rubbly earth in a glass of water settles in layers of different elements, well-defined and variously colored. The elements of the room stratify into their proper contours with the coloring of old as I remember it.

The sensation of distance and isolation, in the moments when my everyday self has dissolved into insubstantiality, is different from any other sensation. When it lasts a while, it becomes a fear, a terror of never being able to find myself again. In the distance, an uncertain silhouette of me remains, surrounded by a great luminosity in the way some objects appear in a fog.

The terrible question “who am I?” lives in me then like an entirely new body, sprung up with skin and organs that are completely unknown to me. Its resolution is demanded by a more profound and more essential lucidity than that of the brain. Everything that’s capable of being agitated in my body becomes agitated, struggles and revolts more powerfully and in a more elementary way than in everyday life. Everything implores a solution.

A few times, I find the room as I know it, as if I were closing and opening my eyes; each time the room is clearer—as a landscape appears in a telescope, better and better organized, as, regarding the distances, we go through all the intermediate veils of images.

At last I recognize myself and find the room again. There is a sensation of light drunkenness. The room is extraordinarily condensed in its substance, and I am implacably returned to the surface of things: the deeper the trough of uncertainty, the higher its crest; at no other time and under no other circumstances does it seem more evident to me than at those moments that each object must occupy the place that it occupies and that I must be who I am. Nor does my struggle in this state of uncertainty have a name; it’s a simple regret that I’ve found nothing in its depths. I am only surprised by the fact that a total lack of meaning could be bound so profoundly to my intimate substance. Now that I’ve found myself again and I look for a way to express the sensation, it appears completely impersonal to me: a simple exaggeration of my identity, self-generating like cancer from its own substance. A tentacle of a jellyfish that’s extended itself too far and that’s looked through the waves in exasperation until at last it has returned under the gelatinous bell. In this way, in the few moments of anxiety, I have gone through all the certainties and uncertainties of my existence to return definitively and painfully to my solitude.

— Max Blecher, Adventures in Immediate Unreality (tr. Han)

A review of The Moment from Good Reads:

This novel in journal form follows a narrator eking out a living as a translator in rural Norfolk county, England. Over time he tunes in to country life as he grows discontent with the technological trappings of contemporary life, seemingly at perpetual war with his mobile phone. He is sort of drifting in place, having more or less recovered from a prior depressed state not so long ago. Still tentatively sorting out a way forward, he shares a rental cottage with his partner S., and later Rookie, an adopted semi-feral cat. The journal is meant to root him with words, even when no words come or the ones that do seem futile and/or insignificant. At times it is reminiscent of my favorite parts of Kafka’s diaries. I found it to be the right book at the right time for me—easy and pleasurable to pick up for a few pages at the end of a long day. Always I found it engaging in a subtle way, with its documentation of life’s quotidian rhythms cut in with literary and philosophical quotations and narratorial ruminations. The narrator grapples with both the state of the world and his own place in it. He writes about being a Gen Xer and, while I don’t often dwell on the significance of my generation, I do always find myself nodding along when my fellow Gen Xers expound upon their collective generational experiences. Beyond that, though, there are even more specific personal lifelong feelings the narrator shares that resonated deeply with me. I felt slightly less alone in my own experience as I read them and for that I am grateful. Like all good journals, the book continues to amble here and there—never completely cohering but also never losing its footing—before finally closing with abrupt grace, on a note which seemed entirely appropriate.