Category Archives: The Moment

The huge night and the slow dawn

A sleepless night. The huge night and the slow dawn. The sound of the binmen tipping our tins and bottles into their lorry, interrupting the birdcalls. The same old sense of final emptiness, which makes the thoughts I formulate in the day in front of my computer, with my grownup books around me, seem contrived and forced onto something almost helpless—onto what Gombrowicz called a furtive childhood, a concealed degradation. Completely unacceptable, I think, like the wronged consumer I am: why should anyone be made to deal with this, day after day?

There’s something to it, I tell myself, the old idea that despair is a seductive sin, a sickness unto death. That’s one thing the Christians always understood, that there are feelings we indulge at our own risk. But when the feeling is this long-lived, this unshakeable?

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Doesn’t the commonplace hold its own secrets?

Tree surgeons and reed-cutters are making room for new growth, opening up the landscape. The birds, flushed out of their hiding places, are everywhere. Pheasants flap and squall in the brush at the end of the field. In the garden a pair of magpies are madly nest-building. In the woods, green shoots are growing through blankets of dead leaves and brittle bracken. The hedges along the road are flowering and S. says she spotted her first bumblebee yesterday. By the river we see a blue tit hacking open a bulrush and spitting downy wisps to all sides. What’s it after, we wonder: nest bedding? seeds? insects? We move close but it’s too busy to care about us. Today I feel no need to leave this place. Spring is here in the nearest things, in the smell of the grass and weeds and air, as the Earth lavishly renews itself.

In everything well-known something worthy of thought still lurks, wrote Heidegger. Something can take hold. There are crocuses among the empty lager cans and crisp packets on the patch of grass beside the Co-op. There are primroses under the bare fig tree in the cemetery.

Writing about conservation, the Norfolk-based naturalist Mark Cocker says it’s the commonplace that should be protected, not the rare:

Our inherent orientation towards the rare has often distorted the way in which we look at the environment. How often one finds conservation policies built around a few charismatic species, such as the tiger, polar bear or, more parochially, the Eurasian bittern or corncrake. Singling out the flagship animal is often a way of simplifying a project for public consumption… when what truly makes an ecosystem flourish is the very opposite of its flagship representative: the sheer bio-luxuriance of its commonest constituents.

Moreover, he says, a preoccupation with the exceptional is almost hardwired into the human imagination. As with flagship nature programmes, it’s increasingly difficult to escape the lure of the exceptional and marketable over what’s right in front of us. The familiar is harder to appreciate.

I move between the bedroom and bathroom, the study and living room, the cottage and the Co-op, day in, day out. I grow too used to the world again. I make it too familiar, let the moment veil itself in the everyday. I become a burden to myself.

Sometimes the nearest things are the hardest to see. We see them too often to see them fresh, and understandably seek to escape them when they seem to have lost all mystery, all presence. Too much home and home becomes opaque, flat. I’m a body walking through the same rooms and fields and shops. No mountain peaks on this plain, no vantage point. The same, the same. The impulse is to look for a quick escape into the new and exciting, or a slow escape into resignation and resentment.

But 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.

Doesn’t being lurk most mysteriously—nearest and furthest—among the things we move around every day, in the fact of their being here at all? Now on my walks I sometimes stop and look at one thing for as long as I can, a squirrel, say, or a flowering bush, until I see its strangeness again, the essential strangeness of its being, to which I’m somehow linked.

The Moment

A review of The Moment from Sean of Travel Through Stories:

Some kind words from Steve Mitchelmore:

If such things matter, and they don’t, my book of the year is Peter Holm Jensen’s The MomentAs I wrote in April, it’s one in which the writer seeks “a modest, self-effacing place within the intersection of time and eternity” and can be read again and again for this reason, as one’s deepest concerns, otherwise diluted by public pantomimes, take form in the patience of attention. To recognise this again is always a surprise.

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

A review of The Moment by Sean at Lost Gander:

‘caught between writing and life’: peter holm jensen’s the moment

The first psithuristic wisp of autumn arrived this week. Early August and the heat retreated with a whimper in the presence of the death season’s harbinger. Odd to experience this with all the news of raging fires out west. It has been dry here, though, it has been that. Will we too one day be engulfed in flames? More likely floods.

I have been occupied with and preoccupied by disruptions and transitions in my quotidian existence. This has led to feeling disconnected from the written word, excepting my dealings with it for which I receive monetary compensation. However, I did finish reading a book—The Moment by Peter Holm Jensen. A subdued but riveting read, it was calling to me from a special box I’d packed of most-likely-to-be-read-next books. So I answered its call.

Per its publisher Splice, The Moment is a novel but it reads like a journal of its author. Is this an important consideration? Probably not, at least not to me. Frankly I long ago grew tired of the inevitable questions around the mingling of autobiography and fiction. I like works that resist being genrefied. Even the term autofiction seems absurd to me—as if any fiction exists that does not contain parts of its author. What exactly those parts are and what percentage of a book they represent should not matter when it comes to evaluating and appreciating the finished work.

These days I find it far easier to filter my reflections through others’ written words (or music) rather than document them using my own words. It actually feels like it has been this way for far too long. And this is a significant part of what resonated so deeply with me in Holm Jensen’s book: the struggle of living with the paradox of a simultaneous passion for and distrust of language, and in particular the written word.

As the narrator grapples with this paradox, he is also documenting a blurring of the intentional and unintentional experience of living in ‘the moment’—of finding over time that opening into greater awareness, from which more insight may flow. And because the transition to moment living is continuing to happen as the narrator is writing about it, there is a sense of gradual unfolding, with attendant periods of uncertainty and confusion. But what accumulates through the narrator’s journal is evidence that each moment is indeed unique, provided one is open to noticing it.

I was reminded of how all the books I’ve read by Buddhist teachers seem to repeat the same simple ideas over and over until it eventually becomes clear that what at first appear to be the simplest concepts are actually the most complex when it comes to putting them into practice. While Holm Jensen’s book is not overtly Buddhist in nature, it does touch on ideas and questions common to Buddhist practice. But it also entwines these with questions around the act of writing and its significance, leaving those questions—as they can only ever remain—unanswered.

The Moment is a book I think best read without much foreknowledge of its contents, which is why I’ve not delved into any of its narrative specifics here. However, I did write a brief review on Goodreads that offers just a skeletal overview. I hope you consider seeking out the book.

The moment lurks inside everyday time; always new, always the same. It waits to give you back your life, like an event long prepared without your knowledge, like an act of fate. It needs you: your ragged past, your timid present, your whirl of thoughts, your hoard of words. It waits for you to step into the light of day, where it can find you and let you come into your own.

—Peter Holm Jensen

A review of The Moment from Good Reads:

This novel in journal form follows a narrator eking out a living as a translator in rural Norfolk county, England. Over time he tunes in to country life as he grows discontent with the technological trappings of contemporary life, seemingly at perpetual war with his mobile phone. He is sort of drifting in place, having more or less recovered from a prior depressed state not so long ago. Still tentatively sorting out a way forward, he shares a rental cottage with his partner S., and later Rookie, an adopted semi-feral cat. The journal is meant to root him with words, even when no words come or the ones that do seem futile and/or insignificant. At times it is reminiscent of my favorite parts of Kafka’s diaries. I found it to be the right book at the right time for me—easy and pleasurable to pick up for a few pages at the end of a long day. Always I found it engaging in a subtle way, with its documentation of life’s quotidian rhythms cut in with literary and philosophical quotations and narratorial ruminations. The narrator grapples with both the state of the world and his own place in it. He writes about being a Gen Xer and, while I don’t often dwell on the significance of my generation, I do always find myself nodding along when my fellow Gen Xers expound upon their collective generational experiences. Beyond that, though, there are even more specific personal lifelong feelings the narrator shares that resonated deeply with me. I felt slightly less alone in my own experience as I read them and for that I am grateful. Like all good journals, the book continues to amble here and there—never completely cohering but also never losing its footing—before finally closing with abrupt grace, on a note which seemed entirely appropriate.

A sleepless night

From The Moment:

A sleepless night. The huge night and the slow dawn. The sound of the binmen tipping our tins and bottles into their lorry, interrupting the birdcalls. The same old sense of final emptiness, which makes the thoughts I formulate in the day in front of my computer, with my grownup books around me, seem contrived and forced onto something almost helpless—onto what Gombrowicz called a furtive childhood, a concealed degradation. Completely unacceptable, I think, like the wronged consumer I am: why should anyone be made to deal with this, day after day?

There’s something to it, I tell myself, the old idea that despair is a seductive sin, a sickness unto death. That’s one thing the Christians always understood, that there are feelings we indulge at our own risk. But when the feeling is this long-lived, this unshakeable?

What glints on the other side of being?

From The Moment:

When I can’t write, when the building noise distracts me or when I have nothing to say, I so easily get outside myself. I’m not at home. Writing is a house of being under construction; sometimes you feel you’re living in rubble. But then the right sentence comes, the edifice rises up around you, and it is what was there all along. When this happens, the world lies open. You can get up from your desk and live in your home, kiss S., make plans with her.

Writing isn’t just a hall of mirrors, as I once thought. Nor is it a game. A sentence, even a banal one, when brought out of contemplation and written down, can be a practical act in its own way, like an act of faith. What happens when you write down a thought, when you start to blacken the screen? Often your subject eludes you. The words disperse. But doesn’t something happen nevertheless? No matter how unsure you are of what you’re saying, no matter how badly you fail to grasp it, doesn’t something take place in the saying itself that can give you strength to go on?

When we go through the woods, says Heidegger, we’re always already going through the word woods. 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.

But what is it that sometimes appears when word and thing come together? What glints on the other side of being? Celan once wrote that he saw God in a ray of light under his hotel door. Is it something like that: a ray of light under the door of a dark rented room?

At home he’s a tourist

Steve Mitchelmore of This Space weighs in on The Moment:

At home he’s a tourist: The Moment by Peter Holm Jensen

Such a modest, self-effacing title, barely relieved by the blanched map on the cover. In everyday speech, a word or two is usually added to supplement the weedy noun: people say “At this moment in time”, which is when I ask: can a moment be in anything else; a moment in lampposts perhaps? Their absence here suggests a wish to let the word’s delicacy remain unsupported, even at the risk of becoming its own camouflage in the literary landscape, a suggestion reaffirmed by its form as a journal of life in the marshy flatlands of rural Norfolk, with names reduced to initials. The form draws back from headlong narrative to pay attention to what passes without pause. Such a concern is not without precedent. 

 
For Peter Holm Jensen’s fellow Dane, Søren Kierkegaard, what comes into existence comes from the eternal, from outside of time and so, we can say, apart from narrative, concurring with Plato’s Parmenides which calls the moment “this strange entity” between one state and another that is “in no time at all”. St Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians says the state of being dead will become one of eternal life “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” with the second coming of Christ, while Meister Eckhart in his turn counselled “the traditional schools of knowledge” to remain silent and recognise themselves as unknowing before God’s light, which would arrive like “a powerful flash”. Again for Kierkegaard, whose journal was also written for publication and whose Works of Love is alluded to in this one, it is His incarnation that gives the moment access to eternity, but the eternal is not present in the moment because that remains in the future. Christ Himself is the moment of transition from past to future, from actuality to possibility, but Kierkegaard qualifies possibility as a duality offering “the possibility of advance or of retrogression, of rising or falling, of good or of evil”. So which will it be for our writer?

The answer is important for P. (there is good reason for following the book’s propriety and using the initial) as he admits to having spent years sunk in the sense of life’s pointlessness, aware without knowledge of “something neutral and indifferent that hovered over things and levelled all the events of life”. He wondered how those around him continued to endure tedious days in the office without ending it all in the evening. He would lie in bed thinking of ways to die, which may be read as a wish to submit to the neutral and indifferent, to what is outside of time. P. says he mistrusts writing because as he writes, he becomes his own double, watching on as the words remove themselves from the undifferentiated connection he desires. In seeking a way back, he finds “a strange hope” outside of writing when, sitting in a church as light streams through a stained-glass window, he senses “an overfacing power…something wholly other”. A strange hope manifest in the hesitant, open form of The Moment.

It is appropriate then that the novel begins in Spring, when flowers are blooming and animals give birth to new life. P.’s girlfriend S. asks the neighbouring farmer T. to wait while she picks the wildflowers before he can mow them down, and then to hand over the feral kittens he intends to drown. It’s even more appropriate because Spring is also the time of Easter, when what dies is resurrected: flowers in a vase, kittens from a bucket, and P. himself, resurrected in writing. His mistrust of writing then becomes entirely in keeping with exposure to the overfacing presence. How, he asks, can we live in the face of the impersonal? The strange hope takes form with that strange word, overfacing, uncommon in everyday English, which is ideal in suggesting the incommensurability of P.’s experience.

The same applies to his observations of the bucolic landscape and the people and wildlife in it. This should not appeal to the audience for nature writing, which tends towards coffee-table kitsch. Standing before the “dark cold coast” at Southwold – notable of course for featuring in WG Sebald’s generically compromised novel The Rings of Saturn – P. resists any antropomorphic projection and regards it as “neither hostile nor benign”.

If writing takes one closer only to one’s impersonal doppelgänger and nature places the observer at an irreducible distance, it explains the publisher’s definition of The Moment as a novel when otherwise it is P.’s straightforward private journal and commonplace book. If he’s not at home in writing, as a Dane raised in Canada, he’s also not at home in his England, in Norfolk, in his cottage, or even, because he works as a translator, in language, and so too not at home in this book. This reminds me of how Gabriel Josipovici responded when someone expressed surprise at how much he reveals about himself in writing: “I can ‘reveal’ precisely because it does not seem to be part of me, it seems to belong to someone else.” 

To ask again, how can we live in the face of the impersonal?This book is its own answer. If there is no advance or retrogression, no rise or fall, no good or evil here, by paying attention to the silence of its obscure presence, The Moment seeks a modest, self-effacing place within the intersection of time and eternity, between the low-rise marshy landscape overfaced by a giant, apparently empty sky.