Monthly Archives: January 2021

In the hall of our apartment I opened the door to the bedroom where Vanja and Heidi lay asleep. Their regular breathing, their limp arms and legs and their total insensibility to their surroundings, where almost anything could happen without them reacting, had fascinated me from my first moment with them. It was as though they lived a different life, were connected to another world – to the dark, vegetal realm of sleep. It was so obvious where they came from, the unseeing existence inside their mother’s body, and they clung to it long after their birth, when they just slept and slept. Their state wasn’t dissimilar to when they were awake because their hearts were beating, their blood was circulating, nutrients and oxygen were being supplied, blood corpuscles created and destroyed, in their insides fluids and organs gurgled and pulsated, and even their nerves, the lightning of the flesh, shot through their own dark pathways as they slept. The sole difference was consciousness, though even this was present in sleep, except that it was turned inwards rather than out. Baudelaire wrote about it once in his diaries, I recalled, what courage it took to cross the threshold into the unknown every night.

They lived as trees live, and, like trees, they didn’t know. Tousled and heavy with sleep they would open their eyes the following morning, ready for another day, without giving a second thought to the state they had been in for almost twelve hours. The world was wide open for them, all they had to do was run out into it and forget everything, as the premise for openness is forgetting. Memory leaves trails, patterns, edges, walls, bottoms and chasms, it fences us in, ties us up and weighs us down, turns our lives into destinies, and there are only two ways out: insanity or death.

But my children were still in the open, free stage. And then I went and obstructed them! I was strict, said no, told them off! Why was I so keen to destroy the best thing they possessed? Which they would lose anyway.

— Knausgaard, My Struggle, Vol. 6 (tr. Bartlett and Aitken)

If I had been responsible for only myself there would have been nothing to consider. I would manage whatever the circumstances. But I had three children with Linda and didn’t want them to grow up in a home that was hidden away, didn’t want them to believe that hiding was an acceptable way of engaging with the world. All I could give them was what I was giving them now, and this wasn’t given through what I said but what I did. I wanted them to be surrounded by people, I wanted them to become independent and fearless, able to develop their full potential, by which I mean to be as free as possible within the unfree limits of this society. And, most important of all, I wanted them to feel secure in themselves, to like themselves, to be themselves. At the same time they had the parents they had, I thought, and we couldn’t change our personalities in any fundamental way, which would have been both senseless and catastrophic: having two parents who pretended to be something they weren’t would obviously just bring more misery. This was about our living conditions. They were fixed, but not immutable. The way I had behaved during the first three or four years of having children, when, much too often, I took out my frustrations on them, must have affected their self-esteem, the one thing in them you, as a parent, mustn’t fuck up. I had got out of this, it hardly ever happened any more, we never argued in front of them now and I never lost my temper, but I said a silent prayer almost every day that this hadn’t left any marks, that what I had done wasn’t beyond redress. Oh, I imagined that their self-esteem was a beach, I had left my footprints there, but then the waves washed ashore, the sun shone, the sky was blue and the water, so fantastic at adapting to its environment, covered everything, erased everything, salty and cold and wonderful.

I thought about this, but I knew I should never intervene directly, I should never let these concerns, which all parents feel, take on a form that they would notice and react to.

— Knausgaard, My Struggle, Vol. 6 (tr. Bartlett and Aitken)

‘Writing did not bring him peace, because it did not obliterate life.’ Bob Blaisdell on Kafka’s reflections on writing.

Vistas

The student hall.

Outside.

Through the grounds.

The high spiked fence around the perimeter.

Holding the horror back, I say.

Only just, Gita says. It’s scary out here … There’s a bad moon rising, Donny.

It’s always bad, I say.

There it is, showing its face to us, Gita says.

That’s not a face, I say. That’s the opposite of a face. That’s just death, staring out.

Funny no one goes up there anymore, Gita says.

What – to the moon?, I say. Why would you bother? What’s up there?

I thought they wanted to build some giant telescope on the moon’s dark side, Gita says. To see further into space. And further back in time. All the way back to the Big Bang.

The Big Fucking Mistake, more like, I say.

Silence.

Looking back at the hall.

Imagine it without the student annex, I say. Without the refectory out back. Just the old mansion.

Sure it’s pretty, Gita says. It’s a real idyll.

They use it as a film set in the holidays, I say. They film exteriors here. Old cars crunching up on the gravel, and the like.

It’s a real let’s-pretend place, Gita says.

See the way the old mansion pulls the whole setting together?, I say. The way it gathers the grounds around it. The lawn? The trees? …

It’s like my old school, Gita says.

This whole place is like an island, I say. A little patch of green in the midst of all the horrors and the terrors. And do you see the way they laid this path – all winding? There are corners you can turn and suddenly everything opens up … They had a real sense of drama, back then.

I’ll bet you’re the only one who sees this place as what it is, Gita says.

As what it was, I say.

Maybe you’ll become warden one day, Gita says.

I can’t, I say. That’s for professors at the uni.

So maybe you’ll be a professor, Gita says.

The uni will probably sell it off, I say. It’s always being threatened. These places can’t survive.

You should just be Lord of Manor, Donny, Gita says. You could wander the grounds, hands behind your back.

I’d rather be a groundskeeper, I say. I should have been a landscape gardener instead of … whatever it is I do.

Do you know the names of the trees, Donny? Do you know their names?

That’s a horse chestnut, I think. And that’s an old English oak.

My favourite bench, by the flower beds.

Sitting, smoking.

Looking into the wardens’ conservatory.

Beautiful, Gita says. It’s like some National Trust property.

See, it isn’t horror everywhere, I say. There are exceptions. There’s a real expanse to this place. An ease. It suspends the law of the world. It’s like you’ve pressed a giant pause button on … everything else … There are views that matter – that’s what I think. That lift you out of everything. There are landscapes …

You’re a real nature-boy, Gita says. Someone’s going to love you for this kind of talk. You’re going to fascinate someone. Someone will rally to your cause. Someone’s going to love you, and someone’s going to love me. We’re both very loveable.

I’ll dream of this view in fifty years’ time, I say. It’ll be the last thing I see before I die.

Silence.

I’ve known things – terrible things, I say. In the home. I’ve seen real evil.

Silence.

People talk about the banality of evil, I say. The evil of pen-pushers, just following orders, just being good Nazis or whatever. But this wasn’t banal …

The horrors and the terrors. I’ve seen them. I’ve known them. They’re insatiable, I say. You can’t give them enough. It’s just … greed.  And we were like … trapped animals.

I’m sorry, Gita says.

It’s like Antichrist – did you ever see that?, I say. Chaos just fucking … reigns. One day I’ll go mad from … chaos.

But you have your vistas, Donny. You have your grass and your tennis court and your trees …

I see a darkness, I say. I see a fucking darkness, swallowing up the world. Putting out the stars. Swallowing up the sky. Swallowing up me and swallowing up you.

God, Donny …, Gita says.

I see a darkness – that’s all I see, I say. And sometimes I can forget it, and sometimes I can’t. Sometimes it feels too thick, and that it’s choking me. And sometimes … It lets me breathe.

Silence. Gita’s hand on mine.

I shouldn’t have said those things, I say. It’s too much, I know that.

Say anything you like, Donny, Gita says.

I’m about this far from insanity, I say. This far … Will I have to go mad? Is it inevitable? There are these distances … in my head …

You’re not going to go mad, Donny, Gita says. You’re never going to go mad. Look at the moon. Look at the night. It’s all dead, but you’re alive. And sane. And here. You survived everything … I love you Donny.

Don’t say what you don’t mean, I say. Don’t say it.

I love you, Gita says. Not in that way, but I do.  And one day, someone’s going to take you away from all this. Someone’s going to love you and save you. Someone good, who knows what beauty is. And truth. Who knows what truth is, too.

— Spurious, from a novel in progress

Harassed and tense

The act of drawing. Any fixed contour is in nature arbitrary and impermanent. What is on either side of it tries to shift it by pushing or pulling. What’s on one side of a contour has got its tongue in the mouth of what’s on the other side. And vice versa. The challenge of drawing is to show this, to make visible on the paper or drawing surface not only discrete, recognisable things, but also to show how the extensive is one substance. And, being one substance, it harasses the act of drawing. If the lines of a drawing don’t convey this harassment the drawing remains a mere sign.
The lines of a sign are uniform and regular: the lines of a drawing are harassed and tense. Somebody making a sign repeats a habitual gesture. Somebody making a drawing is alone in the infinitely extensive.

In the supermarket

I’m in a hard-discount supermarket, belonging to one of the biggest chains of food retailers in Europe. They run over 8,000 stores. You can buy products here – cartons of apple juice, for example – at half the price you pay elsewhere in other supermarkets. It’s situated in a zone where the autoroutes begin, on the outskirts of this city.
About sixty people work here and there are at least as many surveillance cameras. None of the goods are on display. They are in cases with the sides ripped off. Most of the customers are regular and know their way about.
Among them are the elderly poor buying for themselves alone and many young women shopping for the children, the partner (if there is one), themselves, their dependants. Everyone, according to their means, buys to the maximum, because they don’t want to come here more than once – or at the most twice – a week. The trolleys, queuing up to check out, are stacked high, invariably with several packs of the same dish – macaroni, for instance, or Mexican tortillas or packets of Hachis Parmentier de Boeuf. A few of the elderly pay cash; everyone else uses credit cards. Anxiously, because it is near the end of the month.
Nobody – except the occasional kid – talks. We are all – customers and staff – suspect and our every move is being watched. We are all picking up, pushing trolleys, scanning, tapping in codes, controlling, weighing vegetables, keeping to schedules, calculating, in a vast hangar whose obsession is Theft.
It’s the opposite of a street market, where the key secret is that of a bargain. In a street market everyone encourages everyone to believe they’ve just made a smart deal; here, every one of us is being considered as a potential thief.
There’s little free space – the pallets of goods take up most of it – and the trolleys queuing before the pay counters form a tight line. Two trolleys ahead of me there’s a pregnant woman. Tall with loose fair hair. She might be Polish. I doubt whether the child she’s awaiting is her first-born. She’s frowning as she deposits her purchases on the conveyor belt.
What are the modes of theft which preoccupy – to the exclusion of nearly all other considerations – this hard-discount hangar we are in?
Theft by shoppers. From time to time the firm sends ‘mystery shoppers’ into the store. Their task is to lift and sneak out a number of items and thus to test the vigilance of the cashiers. Theft by their employees who, if they purchase for themselves anything from the shelves, are required to have a chit, signed by the manager, and are liable at any time to be body searched. Systematic theft by the firm of unpaid working hours from those it employs. Cashiers are forced to put in at least two hours’ unpaid work per week. Often more. During their time off, many employees – from the rank of manager downwards – are obliged to be on call night and day in case they are needed in an emergency. No sick leave allowed. No legally prescribed pauses between shifts or prescribed days of rest during a week. Theft of workers’ rights. Finally the theft by agro-business corporations, closely linked to global food retailers, of the initiatives once taken by those who worked the land: decisions about crops, varieties, seeds, fertilisers, the species of animals to breed, etc. Once these were local, pragmatic decisions; today the corporations supply the producers and dictate what is to be produced. Global agriculture is becoming prepackaged – with the aim of turning the whole of nature into a commodity.
The pregnant woman whom I think may be Polish is at the head of the queue. The prescribed target for cashiers is to scan thirty-five items per minute! None can achieve it. Consequently they all have minus marks on their performance records. The pregnant woman, ready to pay, scowls at her credit card.
Then she looks up and clearly sees somebody whom she recognises in the queue behind me. Maybe they came here together. Maybe they planned to come and shop here at the same time today.
Out of a strange discretion I don’t look round to observe whom she has seen. My guess is that he’s not a man. I think she’s a woman. The Pole lifts her head, shakes back her hair and smiles in such a way that I conclude this.
Then she goes on smiling and smiling.
Her smile is an expression of pure happiness. It radiates and absorbs at the same time. Like any sudden happiness it was unforeseeable.
Her smile contains forgotten promises which have for a moment returned to become real.
Am I exaggerating about the promise of her smile or about the thieving hangar? I am not. Both exist. Exist in the same place and at the same moment.

— John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook

A small victory

Every profound political protest is an appeal to a justice that is absent, and is accompanied by a hope that in the future this justice will be established; this hope, however, is not the first reason for the protest being made. One protests because not to protest would be too humiliating, too diminishing, too deadly. One protests (by building a barricade, taking up arms, going on a hunger strike, linking arms, shouting, writing) in order to save the present moment, whatever the future holds.

To protest is to refuse being reduced to a zero and to an enforced silence. Therefore, at the very moment a protest is made, if it is made, there is a small victory. The moment, although passing like every moment, acquires a certain indelibility. It passes, yet it has been printed out. A protest is not principally a sacrifice made for some alternative, more just future; it is an inconsequential redemption of the present. The problem is how to live time and again with the adjective inconsequential.

— John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook