Monthly Archives: March 2018

Something takes hold

Today it seems almost impossible to write. The words are traitorous. They turn against me, make me cringe. They become the words of others, of strange judges. They use me even as I think I use them.

*

Kafka’s final diary entry: ‘More and more fearful as I write. It is understandable. Every word, twisted in the hands of the spirits – this twist is their characteristic gesture – becomes a spear turned against the speaker. Most especially a remark like this. And so ad infinitum. The only consolation would be: it happens whether you like or no. And what you like is of infinitesimally little help. More than consolation is: you too have weapons.’

What weapons did he mean?

*

In Beckett, too, words turn against the narrator:

‘How they must hate me! Ah a nice state they have me in – but still I’m not their creature (not quite, not yet). It’s a poor trick that consists in ramming a set of words down your gullet on the principle that you can’t bring them up without being branded as belonging to their breed. But I’ll fix their gibberish for them. I never understood a word of it in any case – not a word of the stories it spews, like gobbets in a vomit. My inability to absorb, my genius for forgetting, are more than they reckoned with. Dear incomprehension, it’s thanks to you I’ll be myself in the end.’

What was Beckett’s weapon against the traitorous menace of words, what was his defence against unfreedom? Fail better. Not in order to succeed but to make your failure absolute. Is this really what I want? Haven’t I tried? Where did it lead?

*

Blanchot, like the early Beckett, saw writing as a giving in to an obscure, incessant murmur outside meaning, there being no alternative. The writer for him was ‘always astray’, always in errancy: ‘The writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no centre, and which reveals nothing. He may believe that he affirms himself in this language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self.’

*

The words pour through you whether you like it or not. A ceaseless stream. So try to find yourself in them, stem the flow for a moment, just as you’d try to find yourself in a crowd of people all going different ways and saying different things. Let that be a start.

*

Small acts of kindness that make the day real. ‘I love you’, says S. seriously as she chops vegetables. For a second I’m not sure who she means.

Early morning after another bad night’s sleep. A grey screen of condensation on the window. A few drops separate themselves out and leave clear wet lines as they drop. Outside the fog from the sea moves in over the fields, folding over itself. I sip my tea, empty-headed, until the fog thins into a wispy mist and evaporates into the day. S. comes out from the bedroom, stretches, yawns, smiles and touches my arm.

*

The faith involved even in typing a sentence, this sentence. Something takes hold whether you like it or not. Something happens in spite of everything, something you’re responsible for, hold on to that. Though you may never arrive you’re approaching and some truth may be given to you in your approach. Perhaps that’s the ‘weapon’ that’s given to you in writing, the hidden strength you need.

In the turning and returning of words the moment calls me into service to name it. Joy.

 

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Conservation

Tree surgeons and reedcutters are at work making room for new spring growth, opening up the landscape. The birds, flushed out of their hiding places, are everywhere. Pheasants squall and flap about in the remaining brush at the end of the field. In the garden a pair of magpies are madly nest-building and in the woods green shoots are growing through blankets of dead leaves and brittle bracken. Along the road the blackthorns and cherry trees are blooming. S. says she saw her first bumblebee yesterday. By the river we see a blue tit hacking open a bulrush and spitting white downy wisps to all sides. What’s it after we wonder: nest bedding? seeds? insects? We move quite close but it doesn’t care about us. This is an urgent season. Spring is here, in the nearest, commonest things – the budding trees, the smell of grass, the very air – as the earth lavishly renews itself.

In everything well-known, something worthy of thought still lurks, wrote Heidegger… Perhaps the exceptional (the entertaining, the marketable, that which is used to claim our attention most easily) is becoming the least worthy of thought. Writing of conservation, the Norfolk-based naturalist Mark Cocker says it’s the commonplace that needs to be protected not the rare:

‘Our inherent orientation towards the rare has often distorted the way in which we look at the environment. How often one finds conservation policies built around a few charismatic species, such as the tiger, polar bear or, more parochially, the Eurasian bittern or corncrake. Singling out the flagship animal is often a way of simplifying a project for public consumption… Yet the downside is that it continues to reinforce the idea of a charismatic few. When what truly makes an ecosystem flourish is the very opposite of its flagship representative: the sheer bio-luxuriance of its commonest constituents – usually the plants and myriad invertebrates. A reedbed doesn’t amount to very much without its multiple millions of phragmites’ stems.’

 

Home

S. is at a meeting to plan a research trip. I have one of my cleaning fits. I take everything out of the pantry and fridge and clean the shelves, soak the shower curtain in hot water and mould remover, vacuum and mop the floors, even wipe the kitchen walls and door with a wet rag. Rookie’s annoyed at being woken up in every room. He gives me sleepy little growls as he pads off.

I clean after I’ve finished a big job or when I’m feeling out of place, to feel at home again or at least to maintain the ecology of the household. To regain control. Like most young people I know, S. has wanderlust. They’re tired of home, or resent it, want more out of life. For people like me who grew up in different countries (my father was employed to set up branches of a multinational insurance company), it’s different. You make your home where you can or drift somewhere else. Growing up I almost felt envious of the rootedness their wanderlust grew out of. They took their homes with them, after all, when they left, even if they resented them. They had homes to go back to. I say this without bitterness since there’s freedom in rootlessness too. The British class system, for instance, doesn’t touch me: I can wonder at its idiocies from the outside, at the way everything and everyone here is marked by it, so that no British person can escape it as long as they stay…

I’ve travelled since I moved to Norfolk. It didn’t change me or broaden my horizons. There weren’t really any horizons to broaden: I’m a foreigner wherever I go. After ten years here I’m still an outsider. The locals tolerate but don’t welcome outsiders. They leave you alone. That suits me fine.

*

But doesn’t every home contain an element of foreignness? A home in the sense of a dwelling is defined by its difference from everything that isn’t home, from the outside from which it separates itself with walls, fences, driveways. The familiar takes its meaning from the unfamiliar, is tied to it. And a home itself can suddenly seem alien – after a row with a lover, for instance, a break-in, or missing a month’s rent… Or when you let things pile up, when it gets dirty and colonized by spiders, damp, mould, limescale. There’s a Danish word for what happens to a house that hasn’t been lived in for a while: it gets jordslået, literally ‘earth-hit’. It gets fusty, mildewy, loses its homely borders as the earth starts to reclaim it…

Home is more than a house. But we’re more homeless than ever. The corporate coup is almost complete, the virtual is absorbing the natural, all roots are being cut, all ground razed. We move about in an unshared state of homelessness in which even the foreign is ceasing to exist, since there’ll be no home from which to define it.

What’s homesickness but the pull of home? Boredom, fear of the blue hours, the countless clever distractions and entertainments with which you try to escape them… They fall on you like veils. What do they veil? What else but their opposite, the fullness of time?

Homeless at home. What choice then but to prepare a home in homelessness? To go through homelessness and return to where you are, again and again.

Home in the midst of homelessness. Closer than this cottage, closer even than yourself. More you than you, as when you watched the landscape wake at dawn and you woke with it, standing on the same ground.

Facebook

I itch to check my phone. I look for it on my bedside table when I wake up in the morning. I reach for it in my coat pocket when I’m walking to the supermarket. But it’s freeing not to be able to constantly check it and spend hours browsing garbage on the internet. S. tells me about an app that blocks internet browsers and the ability to unblock them. She says she’s installed it and shows me how it works, why didn’t you tell me about this before? I say. I did, she says, you must not have been listening. I was probably on my phone, I say.

*

I toy with the idea of deleting my Facebook account, which I haven’t logged into for months anyway. Then I would truly be cut off from all the contacts on my phone whose email addresses aren’t in my Outlook address book, and dozens more. Real people who’ve been part of my life for good and bad: friends, acquaintances, enemies, relatives. Getting rid of social media on your phone is one thing, but Facebook? Yet all these years it’s been tracking me across the net through its icon to sell ads through real-time auctions, and still is, even though I never log in. All these years, reducing my friends and me to saleable data points, filtering our feeds, guiding our eyes to what’s most valuable to its interests…

To wean yourself off your skewed allegiances. To work yourself out of your fear of missing out and need for acceptance, the empty pleasures of instant communicability, in whatever way works for you. These are practical things that can be done at least. Futile gestures maybe, but what if enough people did it to reach negative critical mass: simply refused?

*

I haven’t yet dared to delete my Facebook account, but at least I no longer have Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter or the ability to browse the internet on my phone, and it already feels like a relief. I don’t carry it around with me everywhere at home; sometimes I even forget about it. I bring it on my walks to the supermarket and around the fields, but I don’t pull it out of my coat pocket as often since it only beeps when I get an email or text, and I know I can’t browse the internet when I’m bored or standing in a queue.

*

I left my phone at home for the first time in years and didn’t check it until a couple of hours after we returned. There were no emails and notifications anyway. I realize I don’t miss social media at all, perhaps because hardly any of what happened on them was meaningful in the first place. (Many of the meaningful events of my life may have come about through social media, it’s true, but I struggle to think of any that happened on them.) They create a feedback loop of desire, insecurity and validation that you only crave while you’re inside it. Delete the loop and it vanishes like the mirage it was. We knew this instinctively in the early days of the internet – when it was embarrassing to admit to being on social media, to have found a partner on a dating site and so on – but we forgot it as the virtual became normalized and our lives diminished.

The social media designers and bosses – those hijackers of the mind – know this better than anyone. In fact many of them use their platforms less than you’d think, and many won’t let their own children use them.

I find the following quotes in a Guardian article about social media:

Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook: ‘I don’t have a kid, but I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on. There are some things that I won’t allow. I don’t want them on a social network.’

Facebook’s former vice-president for user growth Chamath Palihapitiya: ‘The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works… It is eroding the foundations of how people behave by and between each other. I can control my decision, which is that I don’t use that shit. I can control my kids’ decisions, which is that they’re not allowed to use that shit.’

Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker: ‘God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains… The thought process was, how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? It’s exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology…. The inventors, creators, understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.’

*

S. has left her iPad on the sofa and on a whim I pick it up and log into Facebook to check my messages. There’s only one, from a friend asking if I’m coming to the party she posted an invite for, am I still living ‘out in the middle of nowhere’. When I try to reply a window pops up asking me to install the Messenger app. I refresh the page, try again and the same thing happens. That’s enough. I refresh again, click Settings and look for a ‘Delete account’ button. There is none, of course. I close the window and my eyes are immediately drawn down the page of status updates, pictures and comments. I catch myself, scroll back up and find the Help search bar, type in ‘delete account’ and am taken to a window where I can submit my account for deletion within fourteen days. I click the button. Who knows whether they’ll delete all the data they’ve collected on me through my likes, messages, the posts and pictures that other people tagged me in and so on. Perhaps it’s already out there anyway, being used, and deleting the account just hinders further collection. Luckily I don’t think I ever signed up any other apps or services through Facebook. I google what happens to your data after you delete your account, click on a link to a forum where someone has asked the same question, but the page is blocked by a sign-in page that requires me to sign in through Google or… Facebook. I turn off the iPad and put it away.

The distant day now suddenly close

As provisional as these words, which slip and shift from under me.

The day remains what it is, stretching far out, silent: I’m a babble of voices, both inside and outside the day. Strange predicament.

Then prepare to let words take hold in you. Let them listen to the silence and speak in you. Speak for yourself and see the world as if for the first time, in time’s fullness.

Words are alive, they resist dead time. They’re not entirely drained of meaning, not entirely dedicated to capital – not yet. They can still respond to what the world silently says. They can still beckon us into the day and the day into us.

The word’s not the thing, the thing not the word, but when the right word for the thing is found, the thing emerges. All happen at once: word, world, speaker. The distant day now suddenly close.

The endurance of animals

The endurance of animals. Not just survival but the endurance in their eyes. Enduring the same, the same. They bear reality in ways we can’t.

Yet animals have their distractions too. Their ‘excessive’ curiosity for instance – in excess of instrumental behaviour. Or their pointless play. There’s a video on the internet of a crow bringing a lid onto a slanted snowy roof, sliding down on it, bringing it back up in its beak and sliding back down. How like us they can be in their play, which seems irreducible to purely evolutionary explanation, as ours is irreducible to statistics, forecasts, algorithms.

Like animals we’re thrown into attention, but it’s a heavier burden for us. We can’t sustain it for long. I work long hours for two weeks, make some money, think I’ve achieved something, think I can rest, but it never ends, the need to attend to things. What things? S. Hunger. Housework. The need to justify yourself, to mean something beyond your capacity to earn money. To write this journal, for instance. But I get bored and seek distraction. At times I think I’m nothing more than the play between attention and distraction. Only in writing do they come together, mysteriously, temporarily.

Apes, so close to us, get bored too, you can see it in their eyes. But perhaps it’s only boredom produced by captivity, or being watched by us.

No alternative

It still comes over me sometimes, of course, the thought: how do people do it? How do they get up, do their jobs, sit, sober, through the evenings without topping themselves? After tragedy, farce. After farce, what? Boredom. Deep, grieflike boredom under an empty sky. This is life, it seems to me in those moments, and nothing else: no possibility, no alternative. What’s surprising isn’t that people drink, take drugs, throw themselves off buildings, wander the streets muttering to themselves: it’s that more people don’t.