Writing in a destitute time

A review of The Moment by Alexander Carnera, published in the Norwegian version of Le Monde diplomatique, October 2021 (my translation from Danish).

What are poets for in a destitute time?

Heidegger poses this question at the start of a 1946 lecture held on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Rilke’s death, in the shadow of the Second World War. The back cover of the new Danish translation reads: ‘In the world’s night, some must dare look into the abyss and experience what we don’t yet have words for. This is what poets do. […] Poetry frees language from its everyday instrumental use, so it can speak of being itself, how beings are.’ Most will agree that times are hard. We’re up to our neck in problems: we’re destroying the natural world, undermining our own institutions, losing a sense of purpose in our working lives and politics. We consume as if there’s no tomorrow and our visions for the future are unconvincing. But for Heidegger, times are hard – destitute, even – first and foremost ‘because mortals are hardly aware and capable even of their own mortality.’

Our desire to turn everything around us into objects we can control stems from our inability to ‘venture Being’, as Heidegger says in his commentary on Hölderlin: our lack of courage ‘to venture to where all ground breaks off – into the abyss’. It’s when we dare step into the ‘ungrounded’ that our real venture begins, in a kind of opening that can bring us into a different and freer relationship with our surroundings, nature, animals, things themselves. It’s in this Abgrund – not on our own apparently solid ground – that our narrow worldviews can be overturned, our horizon can be opened up and something can begin again. Put another way, the challenge of thinking is to reflect on how real thinking happens in the first place. In destitute times, the poet must make ‘the whole being and vocation of the poet a poetic question’. For Heidegger, poets with this sense of purpose and practice are those who can reach out for and put into words what we haven’t yet fully thought, experienced or seen.

To see with new eyes

Martin Heidegger was once an important cultural and academic figure. But those days are gone. Writers, academics and artists rarely seem to read him nowadays. He barely features on curriculums. An altmodisch, nationalistic and backwards air still clings to this strange thinker, who’s been called one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, but whom few people actually read. His unapologetic attitude to his early Nazism has led to him being sidelined or erased from intellectual history altogether. It should go without saying that the aspects of his writing that place history and the fate of the German people on the same ontological axis are insupportable. But there are other ways to read Heidegger, as contemporary philosophers such as Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben have shown.

Heidegger’s late lecture What Are Poets For? and the Danish author Peter Holm Jensen’s new book The Moment (written in English) suggest that much of what Heidegger has to say about language, thinking and writing is undervalued and that he asks questions that remain relevant: What is thinking? What is the relationship between thought and experience? Can literary writing demonstrate a kind of thinking that can change our way of being in the world? True, there’s something anachronistic about Heidegger: an insistence on dwelling on things, taking nothing for granted, asking the same basic questions over and over. In our day, we chase answers rather than questions, information rather than meaning, communication rather than language. We have freer access to images, signs and facts than ever, yet reality seems increasingly remote. We’ve got so used to the idea that reality is something we construct that we’ve lost the ability to step back from our own constructions. It’s harder and harder to see things with different eyes, to see the other in the familiar.

A return to experience

As a result, our images and notions of reality harden before our eyes. Even this remains mostly concealed from us, since we’ve learned that it’s we who give things meaning through our observations, we who shed our light on things. We’ve lost the ability to see that the world thinks too, if not independently of us, then through and beyond the individual human mind – that there’s a kind of intimate thinking between all things, which, if we attend to it closely enough, can awaken our senses, connect us with our environment and grant us an experience of what it really means to be alive.

This is perhaps where Heidegger’s later writings have something to offer. Here it’s as if he gives more primacy to sensory experience, nature and place than in his famous early work Being and Time, where he analyses human temporality, historicity and anxiety. At the heart of this openness to the senses and the natural world is language. For Heidegger, language has less to do with linguistics and philosophy of language than the question of what actually speaks in language. For him it’s ‘being’, but what is being? A basic mood (Grundstimmung) that attunes us to reality? An experience of connectedness with things? A light in things that we can approach but never grasp? Maybe as thinking and speaking beings we’re always underway to reality. In any case, there’s something at work in language that we need more than we might think; something that can’t be captured in quick replies and easy solutions, but perhaps can only be engaged with deeply through experience, thinking, writing.

The word

In his post-war ‘Letter on Humanism’, Heidegger says that ‘there is a thinking that is more rigorous than conceptual thinking’. By this he means in part that there’s a thinking that’s more closely related to the words we use every day than to abstract concepts. In contrast to concepts, insights arising from ordinary speech are linked to the senses and a bodily way of being in the world. In our shared words we tell our stories and try to decipher our immediate sensory experiences. Words move us, describe our moods, challenge us, shed light on things, set things in motion.

But in a destitute time everyday words can seem used up. In fact, says Heidegger in On the Way to Language, ‘ordinary speech is a forgotten, worn-out, overworked poem’. This is why we must return to language in a new way. It’s when we do this that we begin to think. We think in and through words. Thinking is an attempt, and this attempt always happens in language. Thinking is therefore always a work in progress. Truth reveals itself not through concepts but as something prior to naming. It is what’s there before it’s grasped, collected, interpreted. To think what’s already given to us, to unveil it in our words, we must continually rephrase it. He who thinks goes back in order to move forwards.

Unlearning

The task is to trace the movement that’s led to the concept. When Heidegger in one of his other late lectures, What Is Called Thinking?, provocatively says ‘we do not yet think’, he’s thinking not only of the dominant positivism of his time but also of the specialised sciences, and even philosophy itself. In Heidegger’s view, they’ve all been captured by conceptual representations and have turned everything in their realm into facts, objects and evidence. Thinking, on the other hand, involves questioning the ground of scientific and philosophical enquiry itself. As he writes: ‘We moderns can learn only if we always unlearn at the same time.’ This may be one of Heidegger’s most incisive thoughts. When our existing language is in constant danger of calcifying into clichés, it’s hard to learn in a new way and see things afresh. Because then we don’t recognise the extent to which we treat language as a mirror and words as labels and representations; we take them for granted. Language ends up as pure communication, a means of conveying information, no longer a place of thought. Thinking begins with unlearning, and to unlearn we have to return to language – to the words themselves. But not just words: unlearning also brings us into contact with the doubts and contradictions that give birth to thought in the first place. 

Thinking must be brought to a point where it rediscovers its own experience as it happens – an experience that’s hidden within much methodical, objective enquiry. Academics and intellectuals too must learn to recognise their own kneejerk ideas and vulnerabilities again. The most dangerous and difficult thing is to give up one’s prior assumptions and secure positions. This is where poetry can come into its own as a venture in thought’s beginning, since it doesn’t stand still on its own ground but reaches back across the abyss. The poet/writer is concerned with how experience shapes our thoughts and practices, and with our limitations and possibilities in the face of an endlessly mystifying world.

Writing as a spiritual exercise

The Danish author Peter Holm Jensen has lived and worked as a translator in Norfolk in Eastern England for twenty years. His book The Moment (out in Danish next year) is a fictional journal in which he combines descriptions of a couple’s everyday life in the country, walks in the Norfolk Broads and a precarious working life with reflections on how to reconcile writing and life. In a subdued way, the book enters into a dialogue with the late Heidegger, Kirkegaard, Rilke and Kafka on writing as a work of healing. But it’s also a quiet critique of a world that’s falling apart, moving over an abyss. In carefully crafted language that ‘ventures being’, the book brings the reader before a world that seems to be awakening in an uncertain light. The journal entries reach into the ‘ungrounded’ for the enigmatic light and darkness of plants, animals, things.

For Jensen, literature is a kind of poetic thinking whose task is to reflect on (or unlearn) itself in order to really see the world it’s part of. What emerges is a kind of ethics, an (eco-)literature with this mode of life as its focal point, rather than nature as a romanticised model. In a time when many authors write autofiction, confessional literature or Facebook-style notes, Jensen deliberately uses the diary form as a ‘technology of the self’. In an approach that might be compared to that of the Greco-Roman Stoics, he shows that before I can relate to others, I must observe and relate to myself, take control of my own actions and my own life, if only to stay sane: ‘Words flow through you in a ceaseless stream whether you like it or not, it’s true. Then try to find yourself in them: stem the flow for a moment, just as you’d try to find yourself in a crowd of people going different ways and saying different things. Start like that.’ The diary becomes a tool the author uses to change himself, renew his relationship with the world and his past, and question states of being we’ve come to take for granted.

The journal’s entries fluctuate between an experience of capital’s pervasive de-subjectivisation – which makes our own lives foreign to us – and a faith in writing. It’s a demonstration in what was once called ‘spiritual exercises’, which the French historian of ideas Pierre Hadot described as a practice of self-exploration, attention, reading, writing and meditation on the brevity of life. In Hadot’s words, this is ‘a concrete attitude and determinate lifestyle, which engages the whole of existence. […] It is a conversion which turns our entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it’. (Appropriately, Jensen started the book in what he calls a place of ‘total obscurity’, where writing became an attempt to find faith in this world again.)

The familiar and the foreign

Most people wake up in the morning, go to work, get more or less productive and discuss more or less trivial problems. Jensen’s narrator has chosen to hit the brakes. It’s as if he wants to slow down a world that’s gone off the rails and practise seeing for once. The journal begins in the spring: the plants bloom and the animals give birth. The barn cats have kittens, the couple’s neighbouring farmer ends up on his deathbed, the light changes by the hour, the vast Norfolk sky is ‘ever-changing’. Life and death intermingle. Everything is in motion. The journal entries, too, are constantly marked by something that appears then withdraws. Jensen’s initial mistrust of writing makes him particularly aware of this overwhelming coming and going of things, but also of an abiding presence that seems to hide behind it.

At the same time, life in the country can be flat, monotonous: ‘The days blur into sameness.’ He finds a clue to the presence he’s looking for in Heidegger’s line: ‘In everything familiar, something worthy of thought still lurks’. A little later, he writes: ‘Doesn’t the commonplace hold its own secrets? Perhaps only our impatience obscures them. If we had the endurance of animals we might be better able to accept the familiar and simply wait, day after undistinguished day, until the day, unmasked, surrendered’. Elsewhere, too, he quotes Heidegger: ‘When we go through the woods, we are always already going through the word woods.’ He glosses this line as follows: ‘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. Summons but doesn’t create. We can’t give being, but we can help unveil it.’

When he describes animals, he’s looking for a secret link to them, but at the same time he’s concerned with the enormous gap that has arisen today between humans and animals. Today, animals are pets, sources of entertainment, resources. There’s no longer a hidden conversation between them and us, the kind of relationship that once was crucial to our way of life and our way of making sense of the world. (‘Crows and ravens carried messages from the gods or had sacred ties to the sun. They were bearers of meaning in the world.’)

When he describes the Norfolk marshland and coast (which he links in various ways to the west coast of Denmark), he’s also talking about how hard it is to really see the landscape and the secret lives of its plants and animals. Everywhere he describes the difficulty of experiencing concrete things: how they change, withdraw from sight, become something else, different from themselves. Even in the day-to-day entries about freelance work, evenings in the pub, the couple’s life with their pet cat, helping the neighbour with his rundown farm, one has the feeling that everything’s moving over unstable ground. Everything might just as well collapse as show a new side of itself.

Affirmation

But Jensen, who like many other GenXers grew up with a sense of increasing insecurity, a looming climate crisis, precarious work and complacent boomer parents – and by his own account has read too much Kafka and Beckett for his own good – now sees in the late Heidegger a way of writing that turns its back on the nihilism and resignation that prevails in many places, including artistic and intellectual environments. Many get their critiques and negating attitudes on the cheap. It dawns on him that the real difficulty is to affirm, clear the way for what might hold one open to a different light; to criticise and create in the same movement, reflect on one’s own language, received ideas and experiences, and dare to ask the basic questions once again.

Recovering lost time

Writing the journal and insisting on the everyday (the light at dawn and dusk, household chores, the things that slow time down and move it on) gives him the strength to continue without seeking a fixed goal or ideology. Yet he mistrusts the act of writing. ‘What do I want?’ he writes at the beginning of the book. ‘To find words that can bring life closer. But I start writing and watch lies roll across the screen.’ He makes approaches, has to stop. Tries again. For every day that passes, for every new sentence, one is brought closer to something. To what? A light, a dawning, things themselves? Later he writes:

The days are getting warmer. I’ve started exercising again. I work in the garden, ride to the farm shop. We cycle up to the north coast, chain our bikes to a tree and walk through the wood on a sandy path. S. stops here and there to open her wildlife book and identify some plant or insect. We chat without paying attention to our surroundings, emerge from the wood to find ourselves before a wide-open view: on one side the sea and the sky, a vast canvas of blues, whites, and greys; on the other, scrapes and grassy dunes spreading out inland. It’s moments like these I want to write about. Moments when you’re stopped on your way and made to see where you are with new eyes. As when you work on a problem that seems unsolvable and all of a sudden the answer comes: it was there all along, why couldn’t I see it? Or when a situation makes you act in a way that confronts you with yourself, and it’s as though the past opens up: so that’s why I’ve always behaved like that, now I see.

What keeps returning for Jensen isn’t just nature and daily life, but a way of being in the world in which describing remembered things serves as an exercise in recovering lost time and ‘owning’ the raw material of your life. By reformulating his own struggle and doubts, Jensen shows that the ownmost life is where thinking finds its home in the ungrounded and gathers up what’s been dispersed in place and time. You see what’s been lost, what’s gone wrong, and thereby what’s in common, the common abyss. You see that all beginning is a movement in time.

Writing approaches its own origins in the experiences of being it calls up. It circles around a centre that tends to withdraw, and finds its way back home in a forward movement. ‘Where are we going? Always home’, wrote Novalis. ‘Homecoming is a return to the vicinity of the origin’, wrote Heidegger about Hölderlin. But what is ‘origin’? What is ‘home’? Does it have to do with a certain place or time? Although Jensen’s narrator is preoccupied with ‘the moment’, presence, the fullness of time, it’s often place, or the movement into a place – the patient encounter with animals, the disturbing encounter with capital’s exhaustion of the landscape – that is the driving force of his journal. But ‘homecoming’ is also a movement in time. He quotes Heidegger’s saying that ‘origin always comes to meet us from the future’, and takes this to mean that:

time, rather than moving in a straight line from past to future […] describes a kind of circle between the future and the past that can bring us back to the moment of presence if we attend to it closely enough. I make plans, anticipate my future, and what comes back to me from the future is my entire past, demanding that I accept it as my own.

A strange hope

In his search for a lost past, a return to the vicinity of the origin, he finds a ‘strange hope’ in the form of something that comes to meet him outside of writing, outside of place and time. This happens when he walks through a cemetery and steps into an empty dilapidated church, where he sits still in the light that streams through the stained-glass window. It overwhelms him and withdraws. He can’t explain it. Maybe it has to do with what he later describes as an encounter with ‘an impersonal light’ – something that reveals itself to him but doesn’t belong to him.

But it also has something to do with the struggle of writing, this unreliable practice of continually reaching out and approaching the light. Jensen finds a possible explanation in some of Kafka’s aphorisms, which speak of ‘the indestructible in us’. One of these aphorisms reads: ‘Theoretically there is a perfect possibility of happiness: believing in the indestructible in oneself and not striving towards it.’ Not to go after it like a goal, in a calculated way, but to trust in it and go about your life in quiet contemplation. Kafka again: ‘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.’

Martin Heidegger, Hvorfor digtere?, trans. Kasper Nefer Olsen, Forlaget Mindspace, Copenhagen, 2021.

Peter Holm Jensen, The Moment, Splice, UK, 2021

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