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?
Posted onMay 26, 2021|Comments Off on 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?
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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.
you had been meaning to write about this book since you finished reading it and you didn’t know how. this is a book in which we accompany the author through a couple of years living in rural norfolk; his ideas on writing, reflections on kafka and rilke; his partner; his neighbour who is a farmer who later on dies, the farm being sold, what this means when old farms are being sold; then there are his friends, some struggling to make ends meet; there are trips to surrounding villages; trips to the pub; his life as freelance translator and how this is brutalized by nasty old capitalism. alienation. misfortunes. grace. life going on, seasons. animals. vegetables. it is a kind of journal although it doesn’t feel this way.
you thought about it all and you thought it is very much a book about after, say, after something happened and somehow this had led to life being reduced to the essentials. not as a form of impoverishment, but as in all pretentiousness is gone, things are as they are, life is as it is, what is the nature of writing and what can be said, about everything. after all has been said and done. perhaps, as in: what if there’s nothing between you and the world anymore.
it’s really the stage after irony, after deconstruction and so on.
A power that made everything you are both meaningless and meaningful. Room to breathe, a sense of dignity. As long as you were shielded by time, held in the perfect stillness of the moment. How carefully it has to be approached. But maybe that’s not the right word. Questioned, perhaps. Or undergone.
it’s a book one can’t argue with. not that you would want that.
it’s been one of the most beautiful things you’ve read in a long time.
and it seems to you that this non-shallow beauty of this book lies in the acceptance of existence, of its difficulties and trials and also of the complicated and not always forthcoming beauty (but nevertheless existing) of life. it’s about holding on to that thread of being, a book of maturity and the occasional overcoming of alienation.
What seems clear to me now is that something goes wrong for everyone. One way or another, suddenly or slowly, of our own will or by force, we go astray. We lose sight of some essential part of ourselves; hide from being. But we can never close ourselves off from it completely, never lose our link to the unity we spring from. How could we? Michael Haar writes: ‘We are held in being, and no matter how tenuous the thread attaching us to presence – for example in fainting or dreamless sleep – we are never, as long as we are, released into pure nothingness.’ Never released from the link to being that lets us become our more or less divided selves and live on the same ground as all other beings, no matter how different from us.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Everyone carries a room about inside him. This fact can even be proved by means of the sense of hearing. If someone walks fast and one pricks up one's ears and listens, say in the night, when everything round about is quiet, one hears, for instance, the rattling of a mirror not quite firmly fastened to the wall.