Monthly Archives: February 2019

Unlikely characters

GP — With computers and synthesizers available to help you create music without an instrument and its technique, what attracts you to the guitar?

RF – It depends on what one’s work is. I was tone deaf and had no sense of rhythm when I began playing the guitar, and I’ve pondered that for many years. The answer I finally came up with was that music so wishes to be heard that it sometimes calls on unlikely characters to give it voice. That’s one answer. Another is that working with the guitar is part of work. And I recognize that I simply continue to work with it.

GP – Do you view it primarily as a tool?

RF – Yes, a tool for living. Some people make music their god. I don’t. But music is a very remarkable opportunity. It’s a tangible way of dealing with the intangible. It’s a practical, down to earth way of developing a relationship with the ineffable. Now, most people involved in music have experienced at least once what happens music comes alive. It’s as if one is living for the first time. And it’s almost money for jam, that by developing a relationship with music, it becomes available to the musician all the time. When I was staying with a friend in New York in July 1981, I leapt from the sofa. I understood how it was that music came into the life of a musician; like a friend. Always present and always available, but never pushy, in a sense. But always there and available. As a working musician, as a professional musician, the way in which I worked changed because of that insight. Instead of rushing around looking for other bright ideas – Robert is going to create some music – it would be truer to say that the music creates the musician than the musician creates the music. The quality of music is always present.

– Robert Fripp, interview

Generation X

On a walk we pass a group of young people dressed in the 90s style kids are into at the moment: puffy coats, baggy jumpers, jeans cut off above the ankles, white socks and copies of trainers I recognize from my youth. A couple of the boys even have floppy hair parted in the middle. One of them looks eerily like a friend I had in Canada. There’s a woman with them talking about wildlife management: must be a biology daytrip. It’s odd to see young people imitating the way we dressed while wearing Bluetooth headphones and taking videos on their smartphones.
It’s not a great style to copy is it really, I say to S. when we’re back home. But we Gen Xers didn’t have much to work with. The idealism of the 60s, the rock-star fantasies of the 70s and the balls-out tackiness of the 80s were being recycled in various ways, but many of us didn’t really believe in it – it didn’t feel true for us. We were starting to see through how the society of the baby boomers worked. We were a small generation up against a mass of self-centred people busy shoring up their social capital at the expense of the rest of the world. Many of us instinctively felt we were fucked, so we withdrew and became self-centred in our own ways while the boomer generation passed over or assimilated us. We became apathetic. For the committed slackers, even ‘Generation X’ itself was a lame corporate label. Yet it was fitting for a crossed-out generation. It meant: ignore us, we don’t care, at least until we’re absolutely forced to conform. We were hard to market to: what do you sell to people like that except Nirvana CDs?
And yet I watched former classmates become bankers, marketers, programmers, tech developers, compete for jobs, disappear into the vast corporate world and devote all their time to helping the boomers continue what they started. No wonder so many of our successors, the millennials and Gen Z, seem so flighty, so prone to fads, self-branding and burnout.

*

The apathy of those years never really left me. It mingled with the anxieties provoked by school, girls, the need to impress and succeed, but it never left. It grew into a general feeling of pointlessness. Even during fits of worry about an exam, a date or a wasted day, there was the sense of something neutral, indifferent, hovering over everything, levelling all the events of life. I looked for ways to give this feeling substance, to turn it into something you could live by. I read novels, went to plays, galleries, lectures, museums. I started reading about religion and going to church. When I finished school I went to London to do a degree in religious studies, but the feeling stayed with me and I dropped out after a year. After a year of manual work in Denmark, I went to Norwich to study art history and literature. I discovered more and more works of art, people like me, with similar interests. And when we were taught to view the works we studied with suspicion and take them apart, unpack their constitutive elements, it made sense to me. It was how I’d felt all along: so-called meaning happened along arbitrary horizontal lines; one element along the line, however important the artist or author thought it was, could in principle be replaced with any of the others; it was almost impossible to mean something. Meanwhile life still felt like a kind of photographic negative. But of what? What could the positive possibly mean now?

 

Every day I have to invoke the absent god again

Every day I have to invoke the absent god again. When I think of great men at the great moments of history, how they caught at the things around them like holy fire and transformed everything dead and wooden, the world’s straw, into flame which flew up with them to the heavens; and then of myself, how I often go about like a poor glimmering lamp that would dearly beg a drop of oil to shine into the night a bit longer – then, I tell you, a curious shudder runs through my whole body, and softly I call out to myself the terrible words: more dead than alive.

– Hölderlin, letter

The hole

L. and M. come from Cambridge to stay for a few days. Ping pong in the community centre. Much laughter as the resident cat lies against the net batting the ball away. The happiness of being with people.
When they’ve left life plods on as usual. S. does her remote work as a research assistant for a historical project involving different universities, and makes monthly trips to the libraries in Norwich or Cambridge. I translate to the tedious sound of pigeon coos from the eave that remind me of endless suburban afternoons in Denmark growing up, or waiting to grow up. The evenings stretch out like great clouds over the horizon. The last day, the day after the last day. Life isn’t short, it’s long, long…

*

Memories of last summer in Norwich, when it got bad, when I’d go weeks without talking to anyone except the Asian man in the off-licence. Before S. At first I tried to walk myself out of it. In the beginning I’d walk for an hour or two, around the outskirts of the city. I stopped in pubs: a pint here, a pint there. I sat half listening to tradesmen in paint-splattered trousers. Warm drafts, sun through the windows in the afternoon. Watch the drops running down the side of the glass into little puddles on the table. Make traces in it with your finger… Later, when I no longer had energy to walk, I’d lie in bed thinking of death. So this is what it comes to, I thought, you must be ill. Ill. I’d repeat the word in my head. This is what it comes to, I thought, something in me is ill and look, now I’m ill in a dark room. It was almost a relief, to have only one thought, one sincere wish. Almost easier to be cornered, really cornered and taken out of all fakery. The monologues I’d have in my sick mind! It’s an illness, you see, I’m ill. There’s the death drive and there’s the life force and the life force is dying, it’s turned into the death drive. This is what it comes down to, it’s logical. The illness has grown inside me, fed on me and now it’s ready. It’s grown in the dark and now it’s ready. It was almost a relief that it had taken me. Finally. Ill. Here’s something indisputable for once, I thought, just look at me, lying in bed thinking of ways to die. A hole was how I thought of it, like being in a hole and not being able to look up. It felt like a basic struggle between life and death. Something in me was trying to kill me, something else was trying to live. I couldn’t read, couldn’t sleep without pills. I’d lie in bed in the afternoon daydreaming of a fatal accident, a crash, a meteor. It was the first thought I woke up to at night, pulled out of deep sleep as if by the thought itself. Almost comforting. I narrowed it down to a train, though I hated the idea of implicating others. I’d sort out the practical things first: bank, bills, belongings, if I could muster the energy. I’d get off at one of the small request stops in the country, walk along the tracks with an eye on my watch, find a suitable place by some trees and wait. I’d bring what they’d need in my bag, which I’d leave by the tracks.
Underneath it all a voice said:
You’ve run out of options, so what’s holding you back? Just do it, do something real for the first time in your life. But you can’t, can you? You couldn’t make your life work and now you can’t even make this work.
In the days that followed the worst of it I felt as if I were floating above the hole but that I could drop back into it at the least disturbance, a hard word from a stranger (and yet words seemed to mean nothing).
But just as one has hidden weaknesses one has hidden strengths. One day I drew a line that meant this stops here and stepped across it. I moved the line every day. It was a simple question of life or death, a simple question for once. Going forward meant life, going back meant death. Sometimes a small shift of attention seemed to change everything, or rather illuminate what was already there, like a light turned on in a room. I started walking again, and now I could walk farther, out of the city, through woods, down lanes, out into the country. I found a church next to the ruin of an older church. On the gate a faded sign said Church Always Open. A chicken walked through the tall grass on the graveyard, which overlooked a rapeseed field. I walked down the path, opened the bird grill and the heavy wooden door and stepped into the cool musty church. It was empty. I sat for a long time on a pew where the light came in through the stained-glass window. I felt like a vanishing speck inside… what? I felt an overfacing power and felt it withdraw, and it gave me a strange hope.

The pier

K., who works with S., comes up from Norwich and drives us to Southwold on the Suffolk coast. We eat dinner in a pub and walk down the damp pier. The yellow beam from the lighthouse sweeps through the fog, over the black water, the houses along the road, the mural of George Orwell (who lived and wrote here), giving things an eerie greenish hue. It’s like the last scene of a film, says K., where a spy gets picked up, a couple have to part or someone drowns tragically. We amuse ourselves by making up increasingly absurd scenarios for movie endings, probably to relieve the oppressive atmosphere of the place. Except it’s not oppressive is it, I think to myself as we walk back to the car, or a set for anything – tragic or comic. It’s nothing but itself: a cold dark coast, neither benign nor hostile.

   Only one real thought, however kitschy it sounds: how to live in the face of the impersonal. Not to cover it over with your own stories but to accept it and yourself with it. Consider the nightmare of a world covered up by a single story: where every thing, act and thought must conform to a certain end; where no chink is left open in the armour of the everyday for the impersonal to show us, if only for a moment, the smallness of our stories and the horizon of our true possibilities.

Living with indifference

This book is not primarily about the attitudes of people, about whether they care passionately about values and lives. But it is nonetheless about attitudes, attitudes that form when people have a disturbing sense that something important is hidden from them. In such instances we might try to reproduce the hidden “reality”; but rather than finding the secret, we find the stock-in-trade images of our ordinary lives, shadowed still by something hidden, perhaps mysterious and seemingly important, and especially important if the hidden doesn’t seem to be like a real thing with determined identity. Dimensions of indifference in many instances, given certain expectations about reality and mores based on those expectations, figure “something” hidden and important. The very happening of these dimensions threatens some large views of the world and often disturbs the hopes and comforts we take in situations of stress and pain. Patterns of denial can develop; for example, insistence on personalized and intentional universals that are free of indifference, teleological speculations about the world’s continuity, and ethics of attachment. In such instances, indifference in the occurring of lives can become a negative preoccupation in the positive meanings of people’s lives—like a dark specter of meaninglessness that requires well-tended vigilance at the deepest levels of affirmation and hope. Often in those situations one finds insistence on systematic tightness, emphasis on definitive closure, passions focused primarily by shared identity, and a dominance of values of conformity in conceptions of community and commonality.

I have seen the eyes of indifferent people, as I am sure you have. Their cold preoccupation, their blindness to compassion, their failure to notice or care. This book is not about them and is largely indifferent to them. It—the book—is rather about aspects of indifference in living events, not about a kind of character described as indifferent. It is about dimensions of occurrence that are utterly neutral and without intention. And it is also about some of the differences that paying attention to such dimensions makes. It is preoccupied by differences in sensibility that can arise when people are aware of dimensions of indifference throughout their lives, and, far from traumatized or obsessed by them, accept them and themselves with them, and develop, perhaps, values that take constructive account of those dimensions and the departures and beginnings that they occasion.

– Charles E. Scott, Living with Indifference

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 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.