Monthly Archives: February 2019

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.

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The days are getting longer. A sense of 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 endless wait to get older and wiser? I was naive and knew it, because I was so 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 humiliations of youth, of having to live through a series of scary tests that only the older self can resolve. And now that I’ve grown into my future self, I do look back in relief at having grown older, but with mixed feelings… Relief, but also things I never imagined, slightly frightening in themselves: awareness of the ageing body, that your time on earth will come to an end, and that you may even come to feel it was too short.

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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.’

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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’