Monthly Archives: February 2021

Indrawn and dormant

From The Moment:

Bleak fields. Branches glistening with hoar frost on the way down to the river. I think of Wallace Stevens’ mind of winter. Does that help? I can’t decide, it’s too cold to think. A boat chugs by, leaving a dense wobbling wake in the near-freezing water. The path is ridged with hard mud. On the surface of the willow pond, the freshwater forms shapes that look like oil slicks as the brackish water sinks and starts to freeze. I spot a snipe at the edge of the pond, blended into the reeds and puffed up against the cold, its long beak sticking out from under its wing. Everything here seems indrawn and dormant: waiting, conserving energy, secretly growing. On the way back, black ice slicks the road and frost feathers on car windshields spread out in unique, intricate patterns.


From The Moment:

S. and I go to Morston to see the grey seals, which have started breeding on the Point formed of sand and shingle drifting up from the eroding eastern shore. The sky opens up beautifully when we reach the coast on the bus. Most of the passengers are looking at their phones.

Morston and its neighbouring village, Blakeney, used to be big seaports, but the harbours and river valley have silted up, in part due to the reclamation of the salt marshes, leaving room only for small boats. The seal tours are the main business now.

Quay sounds. Ropes creaking against poles, halyards clinking against masts, sea-spray spattering the staithe—a local word from the Norse for wharf. Our boatman, a retired lobster fisher, tells me he’s seen the spit lengthen in his lifetime and the fishermen move to wider harbours to the west. The tides transform the coast here daily: the sea is drawn far out then surges back in, sometimes flooding the quay and the car park. At low tide you can walk all the way to the Point, where the seals feast on exposed sand eels.

Back on land, we walk to Stiffkey through green, brown, and grey saltmarshes broken up by pools and streams. The path is lined by tough, weather-beaten gorse with delicate yellow flowers. You can eat the flowers, says S., here, try. It tastes like coconut. Hundreds of stub-faced geese, newly arrived from the tundra, have gathered on the marshes to honk about who knows what.
We stop and look out over the spit through S.’s binoculars. Once you would have been able to walk here from Denmark. This coast was connected to the continent by a land mass, Doggerland, a rich habitat of wetland and wooded valleys navigated by nomadic hunter-gatherers who followed game and fish in seasonal patterns. If you’d stood on this spot with binoculars in that deep Mesolithic past, I imagine, you might have seen smoke from their fires here and there on the horizon. As temperatures rose and melted the northern glaciers, Doggerland flooded and Britain was cut off from mainland Europe. The people who were left on this island continued their nomadic way of life, burning scrubland and felling trees with flint tools to make temporary settlements, from which they tracked and hunted animals. In the Neolithic era they were displaced by migrants from the continent who brought wheat, barley, sheep, and goats, and who began to root themselves in the region, building enclosures and burial mounds. In the Bronze and Iron Ages, farming intensified. More forests were cleared by the Celts. Norfolk was settled by the Iceni, who surrendered to and then rebelled against the invading Romans. The collapse of the Roman Empire led to even more movement and migration: Germanic people from Anglia, on the shore of Jutland, arrived and built villages with open field systems, integrated with the Romanised Britons, and founded the kingdom of East Anglia. When the Danish Vikings invaded in the ninth century and themselves intermingled with the East Angles, they may have started digging for peat as they had done at home. Under Norman rule, Norfolk became the most populous and most farmed place in the country. It developed overseas trade links and later took in thousands of refugees from the Low Countries, the so-called Strangers, from whom many contemporary locals descend. By this time the rising sea had flooded the vast peat pits dug throughout the Middle Ages and was slowly shaping the landscape that became known as the Broads.

Years ago, when I first started exploring the Norfolk countryside, I recognised many of the village names. The county is dotted with Danish place names from the time of the Danelaw, many mixed with Old English words. They made me feel less of a stranger. But whose home is this in any case? Flora, fauna, history, and geology: all seem as provisional here as the shifting sands of the coast itself.


From The Moment:

In the evenings the rooks and crows congregate in the air, split apart and come together, then suddenly settle in the trees as night falls. Who knows what they’re saying to each other as they fill the sky with their raucous calls? Are they gossiping, fighting, finding mates? Yet they can also talk like us, mimic our speech. They can recognise our faces, bring us gifts or take revenge on us, even through generations. They’re social, cunning, adaptable.

Early humans, it’s said, learned about their surroundings from corvids. Interactions between hunter-gatherers and corvids may even have led to a kind of cultural coevolution: the birds may have changed their behaviour to lead people to large prey in hope of a meal of leftovers, and people in turn may have changed their behaviour to understand and follow the birds. Our close association with them, and the need to defend our food from them, may have refined our own co-operation and communication. Later cultures saw them as living symbols of natural and divine forces—sometimes light, sometimes primal darkness. Crows and ravens carried messages from the gods or had sacred ties to the sun. They were bearers of meaning in the world. The negative connotations of corvids largely came about with the rise of industrial agriculture and the sight of crows picking at corpses on battlefields. They became seen as threats to profit and birds of ill omen—to us. But these kinds of physical and symbolic links between people and animals have long since broken. Animals are now mostly products or sources of entertainment, to be used and segregated, or only let into our world as pets. Even so, they’re still essentially the same: both like and unlike man, as John Berger wrote. They still gaze at us from afar, from the silence of the day, and before their gazes we’re more alone than ever. We look to them to find the secret of our origins but they don’t answer us. Maybe their non-answer is the answer: find the secret for yourself.

My own sort of conversion

The act of believing is a selfish one, I muttered, as I would like to have muttered to Sarah, no matter that it was far too late to talk to her. I wanted to be a writer and in order to do this I’d had to renounce everything else; I’d made a deal with God – a deal that I had worked so it was entirely beneficial to my interests; it was weighted towards me (I have to face this, I told myself – just keep remembering your self-justifications, and you might have a chance of facing this) – because I’d said to this God: I will believe in You so long as You make me a great, a famous writer, which surely only You have in Your power to confer – and so, of course, it suited me to keep to this deal, to hold up, to hold on to the conversion that everybody, to their greatest joy, as they had told me, witnessed that evening at the house party – the news of my religious conversion rippling outwards in the fellowship as glad and joyous tidings (oh Lord we really give you thanks that you have really shown Jenny who You are and that she has opened up her heart to You in Jesus’ name Amen). This was all that this grand belief was to me, Sarah, I muttered now, as I would like to have said to my one-time friend – this ridiculous situation of my brain, this scrambling of thoughts into the word belief, into this clichéd approximation of a conversion that was, in fact, my own sort of conversion, both the cliché and my selfish misreading becoming one large dreadful occasion – the celebrated conversion of Jenny at the house party – even as the offering of these thoughts to the impossible figment of a resurrected Sarah is just an excuse, I told myself as I walked away from the brewery site, this Park that wasn’t yet a park: this imagining that I might even be able to excuse myself from all those years that I had ignored (and in fact avoided) Sarah, even though I also remember the relief that I’d felt, after the house party – the relief of being shielded from the intensity of tedious Sarah, as I had once put it to a schoolfriend – shielded from Sarah, I was thinking as I continued walking away from the Park and towards the icing-covered building, by the luxury of this grand and noble conversion that gave me a reason for a time, so long as I held on to the terms of the conversion, to keep away from unbelievers for the sake of fellowship with God, my renunciation being little more than what I might have done, I thought as I ran across Regent Street while a single small blue car seemed to burn up the lane towards me, if I had emptied all my worldly possessions onto the Black Jack table at the casino that was yet to be built in Sydney, hoping to win not only the triple of my bet that evening but also the sure demeanour of the glamorous men and women who would be dealing out the cards – their collective glamorous demeanour. Believing in this kind of belief, I could have said to my old friend Sarah – believing in this kind of belief is also an indulgence in vertigo: the belief as a sugary giving-in to the melodrama of a fall, a jump into the idea of jumping into nothing (but only the nothing that someone else has already described). All right, I could well have said to her, I then mumbled as I passed the small shop that sold bus tickets and articulated umbrella guards, I had been lured into the thrall of a grand belief – and it was a mind-spinning headiness, a wide, smug feeling of falling into a fragrant void – a breathlessness, a readiness for something great that I’d always wanted and always hoped could be mine – and this is the ambience that you have evoked for me in that manuscript you wrote and left behind you, Panthers and the Museum of Fire, because there is something in it, something, which must have reminded me on Saturday, if not of the grand belief itself, which was remote then, unbelievable even – and confined to a time that has long ago passed – but of the moments that immediately followed it: that sweet, sweet falling into something large.

— Jen Craig, Panthers & the Museum of Fire

The point of marriage

The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvellous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.
― Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

A new ear for things

All of a sudden, then, this self-­evident truth presents itself: on the one hand, I have no time left to try out several different lives: I have to choose my last life, my new life, Vita Nova (Dante) or Vita Nuova (Michelet). And, on the other, I have to get out of this gloomy state of mind that the wearing effects of repetitive work and mourning have disposed me to → This running aground, this slow entrenchment in the quicksand (= which isn’t quick!), this drawn-­out death of staying in the same place, this fate that makes it impossible to “enter death alive” can be diagnosed in the following way: a generalized and overwhelming accumulation of “disinvestments,” the inability to invest anew → In the Middle Ages, a word: acedy. It can immediately be clarified that, if said and conceived of in a certain way, and despite the overuse of the word, acedy (a theme we’ll encounter again) is irreplaceable: the inability to love (someone, other people, the world) → Unhappiness often translates as the impossibility of giving to others.


Thus, what I’m waiting for (as I said) is a trigger, a chance event, a mutation: a new ear for things → I quote Nietz­sche (still without comparing myself to, but identifying myself with on a practical level); Nietz­sche conceived of Zarathustra in 1881 while strolling though the woods that border Lake Silvaplana; resting beside an enormous block of stone = the idea of the Eternal Return. But (and this is what interests us), premonitory sign: sudden and radical modification of his taste in music: “Rebirth of the art of hearing” → The New Work (new with respect to yourself: this is the postulation of the Work to be written) will probably only be possible, probably only get going in real terms when an old liking is transformed and a new one emerges → Perhaps what I’m waiting for, then, is for my Hearing to be transformed—­and perhaps that will happen to me, unmeta­phor­ical­ly, through music, which I’m so fond of → Then I might achieve the real dialectical becoming: “To become what I am”; Nietz­sche’s saying: “Become what you are,” and Kafka’s saying: “Destroy yourself . . . ​in order to make yourself into that which you are” → In this way, the distinction between the Old and the New would quite naturally be abolished, the path of the spiral marked out, and these words from Schönberg, who founded contemporary music and reinvigorated the music of the past, honored: it’s still possible to write music in C major. There, to bring things to a close, you have the object of my desire: to write a work in C Major.

–Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel (via here)

When I was asked to do this exhibition, they took me down to basement of the Munch museum, which has I think a thousand paintings, and they pulled out these huge plates with different paintings on them. And it was shocking to me, because everything was kept when he died, he donated these paintings, so it’s like a work in progress that’s kind of frozen. And the way you saw it was like masterpieces, terrible paintings, sketches, unfinished things. It was like everything was there, and the energy in that was great because you could almost see him working.

Knausgaard on Edvard Munch

The third act

A: Nothing’s over till it’s over, but I find myself in a graceful moment. More or less relaxed.

Q: So you can really experience a big difference in how you tackle things now compared to earlier?

A: I read somewhere that as you get older the brain cells associated with anxiety begin to die. I think if that’s true – in my case it seems to be true – you can take it all a little more lightly.

Q: So the depressions that you had in your earlier days?

A: They’ve lifted. They’ve lifted completely.

Q: So ageing is quite nice?

A: In my case it’s been a great blessing.

Q: But there must be some hard part of it?

A: I think the collapse of the body is an aspect of it. And I’m not in old age, you know. I think I’m in that good period before the onset of the diseases that eventually kill you. I think it was Tennessee Williams said, ‘Life is a fairly well written play, except for the third act’. It’s a very bad third act.

Q: But for you it’s the best so far?

A: Beginning the third act is fine. I don’t know how the third act will unfold, but it doesn’t unfold very well for anybody. So I’m probably in the most graceful period that I’ve ever experienced, before the onset of this unpleasant destruction of the body, which is inevitable.

— Leonard Cohen, interview


Q: When people speak about your poems and when you read them, it can seem like they contain a certain portion of depression, paranoia, pessimism. But you seem to have decided to be happy over the years. Is that true?

A: I don’t know what happened. I wish I could tell you. It just got to feel better after a while. But I think that what we call seriousness is sometimes confused with depression. So much of this popular culture is devoted to pretending that nobody has any deep feelings and nobody sweats and nobody is in trouble. And the truth is that we’re all in trouble. Every single person is in trouble, with themselves, with their loves, with their work. So I think it’s a great privilege to be serious. I think it’s a great gift to be serious sometimes, and to be deeply serious about ourselves, about our lives, about our friends. That seriousness is often confused with depression. But to tell you the truth I’ve often felt bad. I was depressed, I wasn’t just serious.

Q: When did you last have a breakdown?

A: I tend to break down when I make a record. And I think you have to. If you’re going to destroy the versions of yourself that provide too easy a solution. So you know, someone comes along in yourself and he has a slogan, he has a view on love, he has a position on the world. Those kinds of persons that arise make very boring songs, so you have to annihilate them. You have to murder them. And to murder all those false persons that arise and try to tell you what the song is, to get to that place where you can defend every word, that takes a slaughter. And you really gotta break down.

Q: You write to murder. Or you murder by writing?

A: I write to murder the selves that whisper untruths to me.

Interview with Leonard Cohen

Wars. So many wars.

What’s happening to me, you may wonder? Is this a case of midlife crisis? No, alas, I passed middle age quite a long time ago. Is this a patrician spite for the popularization of critique? As if critique should be reserved for the elite and remain difficult and strenuous, like mountain climbing or yachting, and is no longer worth the trouble if everyone can do it for a nickel? What would be so bad about critique for the people? We have been complaining so much about the gullible masses swallowing naturalized facts, would it be really unfair to now discredit the same masses for their, what should I call it, gullible criticism? Or could this be a case of radicalism gone mad, as when a revolution swallows its progeny? Or, rather, have we behaved like mad scientists who have let the virus of critique out of the confines of their laboratories and cannot do anything now to limit its deleterious effects; it mutates now, gnawing everything up, even the vessels in which it is contained? Or is it another case of the famed power of capitalism for recycling everything aimed at its destruction?

— Bruno Latour, Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?