Monthly Archives: June 2018

Through the woods

I’ve found the patch in the woods where the muntjacs live; I guess they don’t move around much. I can usually find them if I’m careful, but I try to stem my desire to stalk them so they won’t get spooked and go away. I love to know they’re there, living their secret lives, and I think of them often. Their eyes when they see you are the opposite of a spaniel’s pleading eyes in a pub. There’s no bridge between us. Perhaps there never was. Find your own silence, they seem to say.

The silence of writing. What is it a sentence can do, even a banal one, when it’s brought back from contemplation and coupled to the world through the act of writing it? The reflexivity of writing isn’t a dead end as I once thought. Nor is it a game. It can be an event that moves you on, or back to where things silently happen with you. It can be a practical act in its own way – an act of faith that brings the chaotic, detached everyday self into a clearer awareness: not of a spiritual world lifted out of the material but of the two interwoven in every moment.

*

The trees are letting their seeds fly in the wind. White catkin fluff catches to things like sheep’s wool on brambles. I picked some from my beard this morning. The scatter-approach to pollination: something’s bound to take in the earth and grow lasting and solid, as if it was always there.

*

When I can’t write, when the building noise distracts me, or when I have nothing to say, I don’t recognize myself. I’m not at home. Writing is a house of being under construction. Sometimes you feel you’re living in rubble. But then the right sentence comes, the edifice rises up around you and the edifice is what was there all along. At the same time the sentence you’ve written stands as a witness to what it’s revealed, even made richer than it was, at least for you. When this happens the world lies open. You can get up from your desk and live in your home, kiss S., make plans with her.

I say these things again and again because every day they escape my grasp, or rather I escape theirs.

*

When you think, you’re both thinking and describing your thoughts. Isn’t the act of writing – the blackening of the screen – just a way of shaping thought? And when you think, aren’t you already in writing, committed to building a house of being around you whether you like it or not? You move from thought to act and back again, trying to find your way through the words of others. What happens when you write a thought down? Often the subject eludes you. The words disperse. But doesn’t something happen nevertheless? No matter how unsure you are of what you’re saying, no matter how badly you fail to grasp it, doesn’t something take place in the saying itself?

*

When we go through the woods, says Heidegger, we’re always already going through the word ‘woods’. Both the woods and the word were there before us. But it’s the going through them that brings them together. In a sense the saying of the word summons the thing. The word summons but doesn’t create. We don’t give being, but call and respond to it, help unveil it, enter it. And as we do, being at the same time withdraws from us.

*

What is it that sometimes happens to you in the moment when word and thing come together? What light comes slanting in on your words? What glints on the other side of being? Celan once wrote that he saw God in a ray of light under his hotel door. Is it something like that – a ray of light under the door of a dark rented room?

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Life and work

Part of the reason why Kafka struggled against the world of the senses – the world of family, sex, marriage and community – is that he saw writing as his supreme spiritual vocation, for which all else had to be sacrificed:

‘It is easy to recognize a concentration in me of all my forces on writing. When it became clear in my organism that writing was the most productive direction for my being to take, everything rushed in that direction and left empty all those abilities which were directed towards the joy of sex, eating, drinking, philosophical reflection and above all music. I atrophied in all these directions.’

In a letter to Felice’s father explaining why he couldn’t marry her, he wrote:

‘My whole being is directed towards literature; I have followed this direction unswervingly until my thirtieth year, and the moment I abandon it I cease to live. Everything I am, and am not, is a result of this. I am taciturn, unsociable, morose, selfish, a hypochondriac, and actually in poor health. Fundamentally I deplore none of this: it is the earthly reflection of a higher necessity … I live within my family, among the kindest, most affectionate people – and am more strange than a stranger … I lack all sense of family life.’

Like Kafka, Rilke often felt caught between writing and life, but moved more naturally towards unifying them. He saw his writing as springing from daily life, inseparable from it. In a letter, he wrote that:

‘Ultimately, each of us experiences only one conflict in life which constantly reappears under a different guise – mine is to reconcile life with work, in the purest sense; and where it is a question of the infinitely incommensurable work of the artist, the two directions stand opposed. Many people have helped themselves by taking life easily, by snatching what they needed from it apart from the conflict, or by turning life’s values into an intoxication whose wretched enthusiasms they hurriedly flung into art; others have no alternative but to withdraw from life – asceticism – and this way is of course much cleaner and truer than that rapacious cheating of life for the sake of art. But for me even asceticism cannot be considered. Since in the last analysis my productivity proceeds from the plainest adoration of life, from the daily, inexhaustible wonder of it (how could I have been productive otherwise?), I would see it as a lie to reject any one of the currents that flow towards me; in the end every such rejection must express itself in your art – however much art may gain potentially from it – as a certain hardness, and there take its revenge: for who can be open and affirmative on such sensitive ground if he has a mistrustful, restrictive and anxious attitude towards life!’

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.’