Monthly Archives: April 2018

The event of being

Extensive as the ‘external’ world is, with all its sidereal distances it hardly bears comparison with the dimensions, the depth dimensions, of our inner being, which does not even need the spaciousness of the universe to be, in itself, almost unlimited… It seems to me more and more as though our ordinary consciousness inhabits the apex of a pyramid whose base in us (and, as it were, beneath us) broadens out to such an extent that the further we are able to let ourselves down into it, the more completely do we appear to be included in the realities of earthly and, in the widest sense, worldy, existence, which are not dependent on time and space. From my earliest youth I have felt the intuition that at some deeper cross-section of this pyramid of consciousness, mere being could become an event, the inviolable presence and simultaneity of everything that we, on the upper, ‘normal’, apex of self-consciousness, are permitted to experience only as entropy.

– Rilke, letter (tr. Mitchell)

Call me to the one among your moments
that stands against you, ineluctably:
intimate as a dog’s imploring glance
but, again, forever, turned away

when you think you’ve captured it at last.
What seems so far from you is most your own.

– Rilke, from The Sonnets to Orpheus (tr. Mitchell)

I have things to say

I have things to say – or think I do – but as I sit down on the bench in the garden with my notebook or take my seat at the computer I split in two, watch myself as I start writing, formalize the act, and the moment of inspiration recedes until I’m left with – what? Writing about my failure to write.

I sit on the sofa beside Rookie with a book, read a line that makes me stare into space, return to it and stare into space again. My thoughts roam around some just-out-of-reach thought or feeling (or memory of a thought or feeling) and peter out until I realize I’m gazing at nothing, thinking about nothing. I get annoyed at myself, return to the line, force myself to read a few more but can’t take them in. I reach out to pet Rookie. He stands, stretches and hops off the sofa.

But the restful thought remains that there’s no real progress to be made, or that progress is a continual return from distraction to attention.

The familiar and the exceptional

For my father, everything was familiar. He had the vantage point from which he could grasp everything. If new information appeared that contradicted what he said, or someone got emotional and acted out (he called it being ‘primitive’ or ‘hysterical’), it was all part of the same vista. Nothing seemed to surprise him; everything had happened before and if it hadn’t it didn’t matter since it wouldn’t make a dent in the general order of things anyway – plus ça change, the poor will always be with us, etc. He admired easygoing landowners in English costume dramas who knew everyone’s place. His favourite saying was ‘that’s the exception that proves the rule’, and the rule could be as general as he liked, could absorb any event or emotion, could be made to span life itself. Thus he swept his arm across the horizon, familiarized himself with the world and spared himself the need for thought.

By contrast, when I went to university, everything seemed to be about the exception rather than the rule. We were to learn critical thinking, which seemed mainly to involve focusing on marginal subjects: the margins of traditional academic disciplines and canons, of history and language, even of thought itself. It was the focus on the marginal that was thought to give critical thinking its subversive force.

We learned, first, that meaning was constructed and deferred along contingent and fluid chains of signs, and that any statement about general rules had to be put in quotation marks and examined for its underlying preconceptions. We learned that there was no ‘closure’. We learned to be suspicious of the ‘metaphysics of presence’ and focus on what was excluded in its hierarchies of concepts. We read dense texts we barely understood. We searched for, wrote and talked about neglected artists and writers and thinkers, about othering and aporias, about the abject and the liminal, and so on in an endless critical mill. It felt transgressive to use this new language of critique. We were deconstructing all oppressive essentialisms, even the notion of the stable ‘subject’ itself, the ability to say ‘I’!

I absorbed the unwritten rules of critical thinking very easily since there was nothing very solid in me to resist them. I made sure to use the latest buzzwords and subject my own arguments to the same suspicion I directed at my subject matter, to the point where I wasn’t saying much at all. In the end, I remember, I saw writing essays as more of an aesthetic exercise than an intellectual one. I did what I needed to get good grades.

By constantly re-examining the conditions and limits of thought, critical thinking seemed to lose its critical force. In the end it didn’t have much more to offer than revisions of the jargon of the marginal and sceptical interrogations of texts that dared to express real views and emotions.
By substituting the forms of thought for any sustaining content of thought (and what could that possibly mean for us?), our studies were preparing us perfectly for what was already happening in the ‘real’ world, where capital was at work erasing the borders between the centre and the margins without our help, bringing the outside in and the inside out. Our minds were being prepared for what we’d soon be fully thrown into. For in the ‘real’ world the exceptional could no longer be used effectively to break down anything, since everything was already breaking down. In this new world capital was putting its best people on co-opting the exceptional in every possible way, from using avantgarde art in ads to tapping into minority markets. The exceptional was becoming absorbed into the norm and the norm was to become absorbed, not into my father’s rule, but into dispersal and precarity.

So in a sense my father’s laissez-faire attitude had now become appropriate to these new times in a way he hadn’t imagined: nothing means much, nothing makes a difference, it’s all the same anyway…

Matches struck unexpectedly in the dark

We cycle up the coast towards Holme, chain our bikes to a tree and walk on a sandy path through the wood. S. stops here and there to open her wildlife book and identify some plant or insect. We chat without paying attention to our surroundings, emerge from the wood and find ourselves before a wide-open view: on one side the sea and sky a vast sheet of whites and blues, on the other scrapes and grassy dunes stretching inland.

It’s moments like that I want to write about. Not the kind of story that creates and fills in its own gaps and runs over silence towards a satisfying ending, but a story of continual returns to the open instant.

Like those moments of undoing and uncovering when you’re stopped on your well-worn path and made to see things with new eyes, as when you work on a problem until it seems insoluble and the answer comes to you all of a sudden: it was there all along, why couldn’t I see it.

Or those thoughts that lie in wait to show you how you’ve been shielding yourself from them, as in a psychoanalytic breakthrough: so that’s why I’ve always acted like that, why didn’t I see it.

Or, in novels, those passages in which moments of clarity cut through the plot and make it almost redundant. I daydream of a book containing only such passages, something like Stephen Hero’s book of epiphanies, or a collection of Woolf’s ‘little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark’.

The familiar

Cocker also writes that ‘a preoccupation with the exceptional is almost hardwired into the human imagination’. It’s become almost impossible to escape the lure of the exceptional. But perhaps the exceptional (the marketable) is becoming the least worthy of thought. Perhaps the mystery in the familiar is becoming the hardest thing to understand.

I grow too used to the world again. I make it commonplace, veil the day behind the everyday. I become a burden to myself, moving from bedroom to bathroom, from the bathroom to the kitchen, from the kitchen back to bed and my laptop. It’s raining.

Sometimes the nearest things, what we’re most used to, are the hardest to see: we see them too often to see them fresh. Too much home and home becomes oddly alien. I’m a body moving through the same rooms, the same fields, the same shops. No dramatic mountain peaks in this flatland. No vantage point from which to sweep your arm across the horizon and grasp it all.

What did I mean by the mystery in the familiar? (Already the phrase grows stale, kitschy.) Giacometti said, ‘The closer I come, the grander it is, the more remote it is.’ Rilke wrote of ‘what is simple in nature, the small things that hardly anyone sees and that can suddenly become huge, immeasurable’. Doesn’t being lurk most intimately in the things we move among every day – in the fact of their being here at all?

A new score

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. The labourer going home in the dusk shouts his goodnight across the road and History has a new score on its track. The shape is changed a little.

– W.S. Graham, ‘Notes on a Poetry of Release’