Havoc

‘He no longer wanted a steady job as a producer of opinions. Infinity—was that not what he was seeking?’ The English translation of Havoc by Tom Kristensen, a truly great Danish novel, has been reissued after fifty years. Quote from a review:

Doubts, but still wants to believe—how else to explain the generations of people, from twentysomething anarchists to aged professors, whose lives have been altered by Havoc? As different as these readers have been, they’ve all been drawn to the possibility that enlightenment can be achieved by abandoning the “normal” life whose ingredients include marriage, money, job security, friends, education. This possibility might seem naïve, self-indulgent, or just absurd: Havoc has borne all these insults, and others, and survived unscathed. Kristensen not only accepted but welcomed his detractors’ mockery, and in an era when a lot of fiction aspires to avoid criticism at all costs, that might be his novel’s timeliest virtue.

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A strange peace

Winter is a season of routines. The days pass in almost the same way, especially out here: all we do is work, eat, walk, exercise, go to the pub, sleep. But this winter neither of us has been desperate for a holiday. I feel more and more – and I think S. does too – that whether you do the same or new things every day, see the same people or different people, stay put or move about nonstop, it doesn’t matter. Life is near and fresh. There are no ruts in nature, even in the barest places.

*

The days are getting longer. A strange peace has come over me lately – the kind of composure I used to imagine I’d grow into when I was younger and had no control over my life. I used to picture my future self looking back at his agitated past and cringing. What was being young but an interminable wait to get older and wiser? I was callow and knew it, because I was often reminded of it by my elders. I wanted to get older so I too could benefit from hard-won experience. I suspected that these feelings were themselves experiences I might benefit from, but resented the humiliation of youth, of having to live through a series of frightening tests that only the older self can resolve. And now that I’m growing into my future self, I do indeed look back and thank God I’ve grown older, but with mixed feelings… Composure, yes, but also things I never imagined, slightly frightening in themselves – awareness of the ageing body, the prospect of mental decline, the dawning realization that your time on Earth will come to an end, and that you may even come to feel it was too short.

Old notebooks

Leafing through another notebook the other day – rarely a good idea – I found this, written a decade ago:

‘Endless work. What’s your real work? You ask the question so often the question itself becomes a form of work. You tunnel through a mountain of other people’s words and smuggle out your own dubious hoard with no destination in sight. Always halfway between your origin and your end.’

And today this, from W.S. Graham:

‘With words my material and immediate environment I am at once halfway the victim and halfway the successful traveller. There is the involuntary war between me and that environment flowing in on me from all sides and there is the poetic outcome. I am not the victim of my environment. History does not repeat itself. I am the bearer of that poetic outcome. History continually arrives as differently as our most recent minute on earth.’

*

From the same old notebook:

‘I wake up tired of waking up. Lured into another endless day, the last day begun again. There’s something I’ve missed, some fatal flaw in my reasoning that prevents me moving from here to the real vantage point, to real life. I see no path to take. What would it look like? Where would it go? It would end up back here, in dead time.

‘Nothing to say and the guilt of not filling time, that makes you speak to yourself in their words. “Stop inventing little hardships to make yourself look interesting. Get a proper job. Get a life. Get laid.”

‘I could take up a hobby to at least look active, like sailing, master wind and tide and all that, grow a big beard. But I’d have to learn and I’m not the learning kind. And imagine all the fuss, all the tarring and rigging and straining. Or maybe I should get a pet, that’s what people do isn’t it? Something to care for, a loyal dog you have to walk. But then I’d have to get up early, hoover more, go to the vet, pick up poo. And I wouldn’t be able to travel – not that I do.’

… So easy to drag yourself down like this, so hard to get back up!

It

If the painter or poet, the actor or archer, were asked how to express in a word what it is that gives life and breath to all living things, what sustains them in the “undancing dance” of coming-to-be and passing away, he would probably answer: “It.” In all action and non-action, “It” is there by not being there. This is a clumsy but perhaps the closest description of what it is whose form is not this and not that, but whose hidden essence is active in all forms that are.

– Eugen Herrigel, The Method of Zen (trans. Hull)

An hour, lapped up by wolves

121 An hour, lapped up by wolves — in these parts one knows all too well what that means. Grey, wolf-grey it creeps up, unnoticed it sneaks up on you, crouches behind a last, halting moment of daylight, and then — before you notice, it jumps you, grabs ahold of you. You try to resist, you tear and shake the claws that have grabbed you — in vain, it doesn’t let go. Or rather: it only lets you go when it wants to, not earlier. When? You cannot foresee the moment, no experience can give you a hint. Before long you give up resistance. That’s when it starts its real work, slowly, thoughtfully, with relish: its wolfishness recedes, and it, the hour, the time-splinter drills into you, deeper and always deeper — how far in?

In these parts this is well known. Some even claim to know that one has resigned oneself to this, that one knows how to experience this hour as if it were a change in the weather. One doesn’t think too much about it, one simply lives through the day, undisturbed, a little blind, a little deaf, a little mute. A quiet “Ah yes, of course, here it comes again,” is all one comes up with when it hits — barely more. I have often been astonished by how inconspicuous the trace it leaves in people’s memory is. 

At any rate, I have so far not succeeded in making this trace clearer. It turns out that questions are pointless: people act as if they didn’t understand you, or turn the conversation to another subject. No facial expression betrays them: your question seems to belong to those that one does not let the other repeat because they are irrelevant. 

This did not satisfy me, however, and I did not let go. Maybe, I told myself, this is because they do not yet see you as one of theirs. How long have you lived here already? Six years — a span barely worth mentioning in a country like this. A few moments, I decided. What weather! The friendliest one could imagine, true friends’ weather. I grabbed my cane on the table and started on my quest.

On the street below I ran into Karin.

That is: I didn’t really run into her, in fact I hadn’t noticed her at all and had walked past her. Suddenly I felt that something was pulling me backwards — my walking stick, which no longer obeyed me. I turned around and recognized Karin: she had grabbed the lower end of the cane and didn’t let go anymore; with bent back she now stood behind me, her little fists clenched around the end of the cane, not looking up.

A good sign, I thought; the first jest I was allowed to take part in.

I felt myself smiling. Slowly I began to rotate the cane — Karin’s small firsts accompanied this movement. How wonderful! I now grabbed the cane with my left hand too, roughly in the middle, and slowly twisted it upward with my right hand — in this too Karin obeyed. While pursuing this movement I turned toward her completely. 

Her gaze was still lowered. Soon I would meet it — my smile was growing larger and larger.

Celan (trans. Joris)

Gift and threat

A being happens as a given composition or arrangement, something simply there, but not inertly there. ‘There’ as a saying, as coming forth, as a claim, as an event with which I am immediately in the possibilities that it occasions. The immediate complement of ‘claim’ is ‘answer.’ Human existence says itself. That means that it is present always as someone. To be someone is to be a state of giving heed in the presence of beings. Even when I refuse a claim and turn away from it, I am attending to it, and I am in conformity with it in the sense that I respond with it, hear it, and answer.
[…]
The vulnerability of human existence is frequently remarked, and man’s fear of his own state of being is frequently discussed. We are remarkably undefended in the immediacy of our being. We are constituted by givennesses which have at once the character of gift and threat because immediacy is neither deserved nor avoidable. When we answer by backing away from our own state of givenness, from what is given, and from the inevitability of answering, we literally refuse our own being, a refusal that immediately countenances what we refuse. This deep contradiction is lived as injury and misery, self-encroachment in the most profound sense, because in this case we are open in the disclosure of what is present by denying both our responsiveness and the meaningful presences.

– Charles E. Scott, ‘Heidegger, Madness and Well-Being’

No longer natural

Flaubert was in a sense the forerunner of writing scruples. I do believe that in the eighteenth century, say, Voltaire or Rousseau wrote much more naturally than people did from the nineteenth century onwards. Flaubert sensed this more than any other writer. If you look at Rousseau’s letters, for instance, they’re beautifully written. He dashed off 23 in a day if necessary, and they’re all balanced, they’re all beautiful prose. Flaubert’s letters are already quite haphazard; they’re no longer literary in that sense. He swears, he makes exclamations, sometimes they’re very funny. But he was one of the first to realise that there was appearing in front of him some form of impasse. And I think nowadays it’s getting increasingly difficult because writing is no longer a natural thing for us.

– Sebald (via here)

Why did blogs die?

Why did blogs die? If, that is, it can even still be remembered that once they were alive […] Back when blogging still seemed comparatively healthy, I remember resenting terribly the little ‘Share This’ buttons that all my colleagues in blogging began to place at the end of each post. There was one little button for Facebook, then another for Twitter, then another for Stumble Upon, then one for Reddit, et cetera until every post in the blogosphere seemed to be staggering under a Lilliputian colony of parasitic buttons, like an immune-compromised deer studded with ticks. The blackmail was straightforward: If you didn’t add the little buttons to your posts, then fewer people would share your posts, and fewer people come to your blog. If you did add them, however, you were giving free advertising to the big social media sites, which some day, everyone knew, were going to ingest into themselves, macrophagically, the impulse for self-expression that had once gone into blogging, where at least it seemed to have some independence.

The poisoned bait of social-media traffic weakened the herd of bloggers, but it didn’t quite constitute a cull. The cull came as a reflected blow. Since the dawn of blogging, even Luddite bloggers like me had had little hit counters, where we could track how many visitors came to our site. One week […] I watched my hit counter as the daily population of visitors to this blog drained away, steadily. Google had adjusted its algorithm, I soon discovered. Previously, when you had searched Google for, say, “does television impair academic performance,” the results had been ranked according to how many times your website was linked to by other websites concerned with the same topic, and this ranking had been more or less independent of time. On social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, however, the newest information was always at the top, and people seemed to prefer seeing newer content first, even if older content was more pertinent to their interest, or more rich in information and context. Under the pressure of competition, Google rejiggered its ranking, and overnight, it, too, began to discount heavily for time. A blogger who only posted a few times a month was doomed.

The fullness of time

The wisdom of certain everyday phrases (which writers sniff at). We speak of being in the moment and of pregnant moments. We speak of the fullness of time, of a time that’s ripe.

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 referred not to a time that’s ripe for something but to a time that’s ripe with itself, that fulfils itself in the moment?

If the moment is the revelation of the fullness of time, it can’t be part of everyday clock time. It can’t simply be one of a series of separate nows, but rather the felt instant that opens your present out to the future and gives your past meaning; that shows you the breadth and depth and height of time, only to withdraw. How to hold this moment as it emerges, as it lets you emerge with it? It’s bigger than you, once reached can’t be commanded. How to find it? How to remain in it? Endure it?

The giant night

A sleepless night, rarer now. The giant night and the same slow dawn. The sound of the binmen tipping our recycling bin into their lorry, interrupting the birds’ chorus. This same sense of final emptiness. It makes the thoughts I formulate in the day – in front of my computer with my books at hand – seem forced, imposed onto something almost helpless: what Gombrowicz called a ‘furtive childhood, a concealed degradation’.

Completely unacceptable, I think, like the wronged consumer I am: why should anyone be made to deal with this day after day? There’s something to it, I tell myself, the old idea that despair is a seductive sin, a sickness unto death. That’s one thing the Christians always understood, that there are feelings we indulge at our own risk. But when the feeling is this long-lived, this unshakeable?

Later I get caught in a thunderstorm biking back from the shops and curse this backwoods shithole while getting splattered with mud. Of course it stops just after I get home and have peeled off all my clothes and put them in the washing machine. I rummage for washing powder under the sink and mutter fuck off as I realize we’re out. S. says something as I walk to the bathroom but I don’t answer. When I’ve showered and calmed down I ask her what she said. She says she asked me whether I wanted an omelette or porkchops for dinner. I tell her sorry, you chill and I’ll make the porkchops with potatoes and red cabbage, Danish style – comfort food, like my grandmother used to make.