The indestructible

End of the month. Jobs finished, invoices sent, dishes done and now a free, sunny afternoon stretches out before me. Bliss! I bring two translations of Kafka’s aphorisms and the laptop out to the garden, where I can barely get the wifi signal, and sit amid buzzing bees and floating hawthorn blossoms. After the workers’ lunch break the construction work on the old farm starts again. I go back in to find my earplugs, sit down, copy out and make notes on some of those glacial, enigmatic sayings that have been with me for so long, turning and returning in my head.

‘Grasp the good fortune that the ground on which you stand cannot be any larger than the two feet that cover it.’ An elementary lesson, perhaps, a starting point: learn to stand before you can walk, like a child.

‘The true way is along a rope that is not suspended high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked along.’ The way is very close to the ground, not high up. It’s not the ground, but neither is it unreachable, impossibly abstract. We may trip over it while we’re looking for it up high, stumble onto and off it. It can be an obstacle as well as a way.

‘You are the task. No student far and wide.’ You’re the problem to be solved, the experiment that must come into its own. No student in sight to work on you. No curriculum or method. If there’s a teacher or taskmaster he isn’t mentioned. You’re the task and the student, then. The material you’re given to work with is what’s closest to hand – so close it’s hard to see clearly, and impossible to see from a neutral vantage point.

‘There are only two things: the truth and the lie. The truth is indivisible, so cannot know itself. Anyone who seeks to know it must be a lie.’ You can’t know the truth because you’re in the way of it. Moreover: ‘Only evil has self-knowledge.’ You couldn’t know yourself even if you were in the truth. This would seem to make the task that you are impossible.

‘There is nothing but a spiritual world; what we call the sensory world is the evil in the spiritual, and what we call evil is only a requirement of a moment in our everlasting development.’ This is Kafka at his most Gnostic. The world and the body are transitory prisons which must be escaped if we’re to attain eternal life, but from which escape seems impossible since we’re enmeshed in them – in lies. Only through self-destruction can the lie of the world be escaped: ‘If, having gained knowledge, you want to attain eternal life – and you cannot do other than want to, for knowledge is this desire – then you must destroy yourself, the obstacle.’ Not unlike Beckett, this version of Kafka counsels absolute failure in the face of the world: ‘Fail to know yourself! Destroy yourself!’

‘In the struggle between you and the world, second the world.’ Sekundiere der Welt. One translator writes: ‘hold the world’s coat’. Assist the sensory world in its duel against you. Help it destroy you in order to spiritualize yourself.

‘How is it possible to rejoice in the world except by fleeing to it?’ You can’t rejoice in the world except by fleeing from your true responsibility, your spiritual fulfilment.

But as Ritchie Robertson suggests, ‘There is a counter-current in Kafka’s thought: the idea that possibly the world of the senses can after all be made acceptable.’ How? ‘Anyone who seeks to know the truth must be a lie.’ But is there a way to seek the truth and be in the world at once?

One of Kafka’s diary entries reads: ‘Contemplation and activity have their apparent truth; but only the activity radiated by contemplation, or rather, that which returns to it again, is truth.’ Thinking and being: looking on from the outside, acting in the world… Both have their place, their apparent truths, but only in their continual return to each other and their mutual illumination can truth itself happen, in an interweaving of the spiritual and the sensory. (And isn’t writing a space in which contemplation and activity can come together as an event or even weapon of truth?)

In a handful of aphorisms Kafka speaks of ‘the indestructible’. ‘Theoretically there is a perfect possibility of happiness: believing in the indestructible in oneself and not striving towards it.’ Not looking for it but trusting implicitly in your connection to it and going humbly about your life. (In a letter he rewrites this sentence, replacing ‘the indestructible’ with ‘the decisive divine’.) This Unzerstörbare is impersonal yet individual: ‘A person cannot live without a steady faith in something indestructible within him, though both the faith and the indestructible thing may remain permanently concealed from him. One of the forms of this concealment is the belief in a personal god.’ The indestructible, and the possibility of free and true being, is in each person, concealed but as real as our bodies, a force both individualizing and uniting. It’s not unlike the Hindu idea of atman, the spark of the divine hidden in each person: ‘The indestructible is one: it is each individual human being and, at the same time, it is common to all, hence the incomparably indivisible union that exists between human beings.’

But what if for whatever reason this trust, this connection to the indestructible in oneself has been severed, as it had for Kafka? (‘The way to my neighbour is very long’, he writes elsewhere.) How to recover it? There’s no technique for attaining true being in Kafka’s idiosyncratic theology. Despite its affinity with Gnosticism, it’s not a hermetic teaching or a path for the elect. There are no secret Kabbalistic rites whereby the initiated can access the indestructible (he never defines the word). Nor can it be commanded by reason, though sometimes the ‘right word, the right name’ may summon it: ‘This is the essence of magic, which does not create but calls.’

Kafka links the indestructible with ‘life’s splendour’, with paradise: ‘If what is supposed to have been destroyed in paradise was destructible, then it was not decisive; but if it was indestructible, then we are living in a false belief.’ This false belief, in Roberto Calasso’s words, has to do with a basic misunderstanding about why we were expelled from paradise: ‘Humans are convinced that they were kicked out of that place for eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. But this is an illusion. That wasn’t their sin. Their sin lay in not yet having eaten from the Tree of Life.’ Our trial is continual. It’s the conflict between our limited, deceptive knowledge and the veiled essence of being within us. But if being is indestructible, says Kafka, then it’s possible that our expulsion stems from our own illusions and that in fact we’re still in paradise ‘whether we know it or not’. And that the way to return to where and who we are, to bridge contemplation and activity, to find the way back to our neighbour, goes through the ‘mad strength’ of faith, which he does define: ‘Faith means: freeing the indestructible in yourself or better: freeing yourself or better: being indestructible or better: being.’

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Open ground

The gale blows me sideways along with the birds, branches and grasses. The sleet makes no distinctions either: it whips into us all. Odd decision to take a walk in this weather, yet I feel as much a part of the landscape as ever. No longer a thing among things, but placed under the same conditions as things, walking on the same open ground.

*

Kafka: A heavy downpour. Stand and face the rain, let its iron rays pierce you; drift with the water that wants to sweep you away but yet stand fast, and upright in this way abide the sudden and endless shining of the sun.

Figs

I thought autumn was coming but summer’s lingering, the sun still has life to give. The berries, apples and pears are ripening of course, and we found a fig tree in the cemetery with its secretive bulbous fruits growing softer to the touch, more and more like breasts, turning from green to mottled purple.

*

Uneven time between seasons, quietly dramatic, like the indifferent dramas in the sky between the days and nights.

Later… the sky all swollen greys. Cloudburst. Sodden earth. The water runs like cables along the side of the path and tumbles out of the spout into the rain barrel at the corner of the cottage, reminding me I need to borrow T.’s ladder and clean the gutters.

*

Bare branches against a sky the colour of cigarette smoke. Cold damp air. Leaves turning all kinds of colours from grey to auburn.

Autumn: the year’s dusk. The usual sense of slow decline and foreboding. Endless grey skies. How do I get through it this year?

*

‘All is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil’ wrote Hopkins from deep inside an industrial England spreading its greyness across the world. ‘And for all this, nature is never spent / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.’

*

We bring home our bounty from the fig tree literally grown out of graves. The fruits are the size of S.’s fist and heavy, their rubbery skin bulging with goodness. We devour two each on the way back, skin and all, ripping open the obscenely red flesh with our teeth and wiping our hands on the grass and our jeans. What was it D.H. Lawrence called them? I look it up: ‘womb-fibrilled.’

The way autumn fruits ripen, come into their own as the weather turns cold and grey and everything else wilts, remember that.

Daily bread

Looking back over the journal I barely recall the upbeat mood of some of the passages. But today the first scents of spring in the air brought a throb of liveliness. The spring work is starting and the trees are budding, even after all this!

*

Something takes hold, in spite of everything… In everything well-known something worthy of thought still lurks, said Heidegger. There are crocuses amid empty lager cans and crisp packets in the square beside the Coop, primroses in the under the bare fig tree in the cemetery.

*

A cold turn, the coldest this year, just as the leaves and flowers were coming out. The earth seems to shrink back from the cutting winds. There’s a shaft of ice under the drainpipe at one corner of the house. I hit it with a hammer while holding the pipe. Another one drops out; I keep hitting them until they’re gone.

In the still, snowy evening we walk to the pub for dinner. All sounds are muffled. In the British tradition the small roads haven’t been cleared and there are no cars so we walk where we want across the hard white sheet of compacted snow glinting under a full moon. After the meal I go outside to smoke. Under the pub lights the shadows of the snowflakes look like swarms of insects.

*

Blanketed earth. Lead sky. What lifts the heaviness? A beautiful line in a book, one of S.’s weird jokes, a flash of sunlight, Rookie waking up and bounding around the room for no reason…

Give us this day our daily bread, says the prayer, our mana from heaven – not just this day but every day, every moment!

*

There’s some truth to Pascal’s saying that all human miseries stem from the inability to sit alone in a room. ‘If man were happy’, he wrote, ‘the less he were diverted the happier he would be, like the saints and God.’ Kafka said evil is what distracts, and fantasized about living in a cell buried deep in the earth in which he could do nothing but write (he’d be passed food through a slot). Monks of certain orders are said to have slept in their coffins.

Give me a break. If I don’t get a good long dose of sunshine soon I’ll start dribbling. I bring up a holiday to S. again. She’s working on ancient Anatolia and says she’d like to see Istanbul. I say I’d prefer somewhere with nature and we leave it there.

While we think about it and work, move about the house, do the laundry, eat, the sun comes out, the snow melts, the eaves drip and branches gleam, spring seems like it might really happen and a holiday seems less urgent.

*

Two days later another cold front hits us and the weather’s practically Siberian again. S. goes out to the garden with scissors, cuts the daffodils that froze as they started to blossom and puts them in a vase in the kitchen. By late afternoon they’ve thawed and come back to life in the slanting sunlight and I can smell their scent from the living room.

As bleak as winter was

As bleak as winter was, as lush is this early summer. The contrast is staggering. We go off the woodland paths while we still can, before the vegetation grows too thick. The breeze is warm, the light plays softly on leaves, blades of grass, wings of insects. To vague layman’s eyes like mine it’s a nice tranquil scene at first sight, but I know from my old naturalist friends that these woods are full of millions of specific, urgent activities only a tiny fraction of which I see or understand. I know that the hawthorns, bluebells and cowslips are blooming, and hoverflies, bees and butterflies are out in abundance. Jays mob something in a tree, maybe a sparrow hawk or kestrel, says S. She spots finches, warblers, frontrunner swifts, some unusual bird whose name escapes me. She tells me the birds might be on their second or even third broods already. A muntjac stops and stares at us with wide eyes until a couple of playful squirrels scare it off. We walk back to the cottage full of sun and life.

Strange illusion

Strange illusion, the sense of splitting in two, into actor and watcher – the one who lives and the ghostly double watching as if from beyond the grave. Strange since there’s no separation in nature – no isolated organisms, no ghosts looking on at the living. In nature life and death are inseparable. Animals don’t put the dying in hospices, they die where they lived, open to death. Everywhere out here death mingles with life, as any farmer knows. On the beech tree in the garden, last year’s dead leaves mingle with the new, which push them out and renew the cycle: in the same budding tree, both winter and summer, life and death. The trees across the field communicate and send nutrients to each other through underground webs of fungi that feed on dead plants and animals. ‘Everywhere around us, death is at home’, wrote Rilke. ‘When a tree blossoms, death as well as life blossoms in it, and the field is full of death, which from its reclining face sends forth a rich expression of life.’ It’s only we who attempt the impossible movement of pushing death away from ourselves and so split ourselves in two.

For Rilke, death is inside us, inescapable, and therefore can’t be tricked. But it only haunts us when we guard the boundaries of ourselves against it, only seems hostile when we turn our faces away from it.

In the Open, there’s no separation. The Open says yes to both life and death, affirms both presence and absence. And it’s here, Rilke says, that we have the chance to draw death back into us; not in order to turn away from life and seek to die, but to live more truly, to be returned to the world as if in a second grace. We have the chance to draw the ghostly, hostile outside into what he calls the Weltinnenraum, the inner space of the world:

Through all beings stretches the one space:
the world’s inner space. The birds fly quietly
through us. Oh, I who wish to grow,
I look out, and inside me the tree grows.

I care, and the house stands inside me.
I take refuge, and refuge is inside me.

In the Weltinnenraum the outside is in and the inside out, but not as in Beckett’s and Blanchot’s dispersals, and not like the daily distractions that are forced on us and that we willingly subject ourselves to. Here, says Rilke,

it appears that everything

makes us at home. See, the trees are; the houses

that we dwell in are still here.

The fullness of time

The wisdom of certain everyday phrases (which writers sniff at). We speak of the fullness of time, of a time that’s ripe. We speak of being in the moment and of pregnant moments. Beautiful phrase: the fullness of time. What does it mean? In everyday language, when something happens in the fullness of time it happens at a time that has finally come, a time of fulfilment of some event. Something comes into its own, something time has ripened. For Paul it had to do with the first and second coming of Christ and the fulfilment of God’s plan at decisive moments in history. But what if it were taken to refer not to a past or future event, but to time itself? What if the fullness of time weren’t a time that’s ripe for something but time that’s ripe with itself, that gathers itself in and fulfils itself in every moment?