The Moment

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

Is it possible to make a Narrative (a Novel) out of the Present? How to reconcile – dialecticize – the distance implied by the enunciation of writing and the proximity, the transportation of the present experienced as it happens? (The present is what adheres, as if your eyes were glued to a mirror.) Present: to have your eyes glued to the page; how to write at length, fluently (in a fluent, flowing, fluid manner) with one eye on the page and the other on “what’s happening to me”?

This is actually to go back to that simple and ultimately uncompromising idea that “literature” (because, when it comes down to it, my project is “literary”) is always made out of “life”. My problem is that I don’t think I can access my past life; it’s in the mist, meaning that its intensity (without which there is no writing) is weak. What is intense is the life of the present, structurally mixed (there’s my basic idea) with the desire to write it. The “Preparation” of the Novel therefore refers to the capturing of this parallel text, the text of “contemporary”, concomitant life.

— Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel (tr. Briggs)

At home he’s a tourist

Steve Mitchelmore of This Space weighs in on The Moment:

At home he’s a tourist: The Moment by Peter Holm Jensen

Such a modest, self-effacing title, barely relieved by the blanched map on the cover. In everyday speech, a word or two is usually added to supplement the weedy noun: people say “At this moment in time”, which is when I ask: can a moment be in anything else; a moment in lampposts perhaps? Their absence here suggests a wish to let the word’s delicacy remain unsupported, even at the risk of becoming its own camouflage in the literary landscape, a suggestion reaffirmed by its form as a journal of life in the marshy flatlands of rural Norfolk, with names reduced to initials. The form draws back from headlong narrative to pay attention to what passes without pause. Such a concern is not without precedent. 

 
For Peter Holm Jensen’s fellow Dane, Søren Kierkegaard, what comes into existence comes from the eternal, from outside of time and so, we can say, apart from narrative, concurring with Plato’s Parmenides which calls the moment “this strange entity” between one state and another that is “in no time at all”. St Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians says the state of being dead will become one of eternal life “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” with the second coming of Christ, while Meister Eckhart in his turn counselled “the traditional schools of knowledge” to remain silent and recognise themselves as unknowing before God’s light, which would arrive like “a powerful flash”. Again for Kierkegaard, whose journal was also written for publication and whose Works of Love is alluded to in this one, it is His incarnation that gives the moment access to eternity, but the eternal is not present in the moment because that remains in the future. Christ Himself is the moment of transition from past to future, from actuality to possibility, but Kierkegaard qualifies possibility as a duality offering “the possibility of advance or of retrogression, of rising or falling, of good or of evil”. So which will it be for our writer?

The answer is important for P. (there is good reason for following the book’s propriety and using the initial) as he admits to having spent years sunk in the sense of life’s pointlessness, aware without knowledge of “something neutral and indifferent that hovered over things and levelled all the events of life”. He wondered how those around him continued to endure tedious days in the office without ending it all in the evening. He would lie in bed thinking of ways to die, which may be read as a wish to submit to the neutral and indifferent, to what is outside of time. P. says he mistrusts writing because as he writes, he becomes his own double, watching on as the words remove themselves from the undifferentiated connection he desires. In seeking a way back, he finds “a strange hope” outside of writing when, sitting in a church as light streams through a stained-glass window, he senses “an overfacing power…something wholly other”. A strange hope manifest in the hesitant, open form of The Moment.

It is appropriate then that the novel begins in Spring, when flowers are blooming and animals give birth to new life. P.’s girlfriend S. asks the neighbouring farmer T. to wait while she picks the wildflowers before he can mow them down, and then to hand over the feral kittens he intends to drown. It’s even more appropriate because Spring is also the time of Easter, when what dies is resurrected: flowers in a vase, kittens from a bucket, and P. himself, resurrected in writing. His mistrust of writing then becomes entirely in keeping with exposure to the overfacing presence. How, he asks, can we live in the face of the impersonal? The strange hope takes form with that strange word, overfacing, uncommon in everyday English, which is ideal in suggesting the incommensurability of P.’s experience.

The same applies to his observations of the bucolic landscape and the people and wildlife in it. This should not appeal to the audience for nature writing, which tends towards coffee-table kitsch. Standing before the “dark cold coast” at Southwold – notable of course for featuring in WG Sebald’s generically compromised novel The Rings of Saturn – P. resists any antropomorphic projection and regards it as “neither hostile nor benign”.

If writing takes one closer only to one’s impersonal doppelgänger and nature places the observer at an irreducible distance, it explains the publisher’s definition of The Moment as a novel when otherwise it is P.’s straightforward private journal and commonplace book. If he’s not at home in writing, as a Dane raised in Canada, he’s also not at home in his England, in Norfolk, in his cottage, or even, because he works as a translator, in language, and so too not at home in this book. This reminds me of how Gabriel Josipovici responded when someone expressed surprise at how much he reveals about himself in writing: “I can ‘reveal’ precisely because it does not seem to be part of me, it seems to belong to someone else.” 

To ask again, how can we live in the face of the impersonal?This book is its own answer. If there is no advance or retrogression, no rise or fall, no good or evil here, by paying attention to the silence of its obscure presence, The Moment seeks a modest, self-effacing place within the intersection of time and eternity, between the low-rise marshy landscape overfaced by a giant, apparently empty sky. 

A residuum unknown

There are no fixtures to men, if we appeal to consciousness. Every man supposes himself not to be fully understood; and if there is any truth in him, if he rests at last on the divine soul, I see not how it can be otherwise. The last chamber, the last closet, he must feel, was never opened; there is always a residuum unknown, unanalyzable. That is, every man believes that he has a greater possibility.

— Emerson, ‘Circles’

Midwife

[Socrates] was and remained a midwife; not because he ‘lacked the positive’, but because he understood that this was the highest relationship one person could have to another. And in this he is eternally correct. Because even if there is ever given a divine point of departure, between one person and another this remains the true relationship, provided one reflects on the absolute and does not fool around with the contingent, but from the bottom of his heart renounces any understanding of the half-truth that seems to be man’s desire and the system’s secret.

— Kierkegaard, Philosophical Crumbs (tr. Piety)

Totally chaotic

For what was perhaps the first time, the journalist caught a clear glimpse of his inner self, pale and dazed, before it disappeared again, like a dream in the light of morning… It was not so much Cenabre’s words, with their vague suggestion of anger and scorn, as the complete change in the subtle priest and the way in which he communicated a compelling inner vision shown by an attitude and voice that dragged Pernichon’s inner core into the open like a muscle suddenly jumping out of its covering in a surgeon’s hands. Being seen as a skillful and ambitious man who weighed his chances, a doubtful friend and a watchful enemy, would not have offended him. The attacks he had just suffered, however, hit a deeper, more secret and sensitive spot, the point of balance, as it were, of his humble existence: the idea, which was now a habitual and integral part of his thinking, of an inner struggle, the need to be able to classify himself, a certain stability. His self-concept had been brutally uprooted, and the suddenly persuasive hypothesis of a life with no spiritual reality breaking into his normally very carefully managed conscience had been enough to shock him into seeing how totally chaotic that conscience really was. There are very many other people who watch more or less strictly over their actions and yet, like sailors observing the stars without looking at their compasses, are unaware of where their will or their perverted instincts are taking them. The horror lies not in the strangers whose paths cross ours but in the features our devastated soul will suddenly meet and not recognize as its own.

— Georges Bernanos, The Impostor (tr. Whitehouse)

Unearthly

Illness is the dark side of our transactions with nature. It’s a reminder of the routineness of death, of the disposability of individuals, of the fact that living systems can be ruthless and unpredictable in their constant manoevring. But, at first sight, depression doesn’t fit into even this austere picture. There’s no random physical ‘accident’ behind it and nothing which benefits, no opportunist virus or evolutionary climber. It seems to have no connection with the biological business of living at all. And what it did to me was unearthly, in that it negated, cut dead, all the things in which I most believed: the importance of sensual engagement with the world, the link between feeling and intelligence, the inseparability of nature and culture. And it began to grow at the most unexpected time, when by all conventional psychological theories, I should have been awash with the sense of well-being that comes from high status and achievement.

— Richard Mabey, Nature Cure

Here is something to do

But as soon as a man comes along who brings a primitivity with him, so that he does not say that one takes the world as it is (the sign of passing through freely like a stickleback) but says: Whatever the world may be, I relate to an original principle which I do not intend to change at the world’s discretion — the moment this word is heard, a transformation takes place in the whole of life. Just as in the fairy tale when the word is spoken and the castle which has been under a spell for a hundred years opens up and everything comes alive, just so life becomes sheer awareness. Angels get busy, watch curiously to see what will come of it, for this interests them. On the other hand, the sombre, grumbling demons, proper limbs of the devil, who for a long time have been sitting inactive and chewing their fingernails, leap to their feet for here is something to do, they say, and they have waited a long time for that.

— Kierkegaard, diary entry, tr. Hong and Hong, via here

For Knausgaard, it is […] between the proximity and fullness of our “presence in the moment” and the remoteness of the feeling of “being outside something and considering it while being removed from it” that we find the place of art.

— Daniel Fraser, via here

I am unable to think, in my thinking I constantly come up against borders; certain isolated matters I can grasp in a flash, but I am quite incapable of coherent, consecutive thinking.

— Kafka, from a letter to Brod