Category Archives: Writing

Like a python swallowing a pig

For skandinaviske laesere: Essays af Alexander Carnera

A text from a friend

‘Well, I don’t have that temperament either. Nevertheless I can see what’s needed, and the thinking we have to get away from. I think poetry, literature and thought can show a kind of ‘world birth’ in the midst of this apocalypse. They can reveal our connectedness – and that’s also a kind of ‘community’, isn’t it? I see our time as the age of the apocalypse, not in a Christian sense, but apocalypse understood as revelation: everything is being revealed in these times, stripped naked so the ugly sides are really allowed to shine. I see this as an absolute necessity – The Great Undressing – for us to progress at all in our development as humanity. That’s why I’m not depressed about the ‘current situation’. Actually, it’s a positive thing, since all births are hard, I suppose not least ‘world births’. This age of the apocalypse is the time when things are revealed anew. The earth trembles, we tremble, especially the sensitive, seismographically oriented thinking person, but unfortunately not most people. They behave as usual, as if nothing’s happened. As if they’ve come to terms with their comforts and technological devices, as if things can’t be different, as if they live in the last times. But unlike the early Christians, for whom time itself was about to end, and who felt doubt and worry and sadness about their time – but also hope for something other, some new coming – the neo-liberalist approach is to put plasters on everything: it’s all patchwork, not an actual world birth or world event or transformation, just more of the same. Artists and thinkers nowadays work under the sign of Crisis. The awareness of crisis calls for new images, other narratives, other forms; other signposts and torchbearers in the dark. The overhanging prospect of collapse is a crisis that exposes the hegemony and limitations of the whole matrix of Western, Christian, capitalist-industrial civilization. We’re facing a spiritual crisis that requires a different description of reality. And in an apocalyptic time, it’s art that can help give birth to new worlds.’

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My little room used to be my father’s study, where he kept all his documents and bills, most of which are now meaningless. There was a generic royal acknowledgement for something or other. We spent an hour sorting it all and putting it in the recycling bin. The next day we saw one of his old colleagues from the Foreign Ministry, who lives downstairs, cutting up his own documents with scissors in the courtyard.

   My room has a pull-out sofa, where I sleep, and a TV, which I hate. I turn it on the minute I get out of bed, so I don’t have to read. For whatever reason it’s a chore to read and think here, let alone write. I don’t like to sink into myself, to concentrate, at least not sober. I know what’s waiting for me there. I do my translations with the TV on, so I don’t have to think too much.

   This flat was transferred to my mother’s name after I moved in and my father fell in the kitchen and broke his hip. He was walking gingerly with his walking frame, to smoke on the balcony, when he went to grab the sink and fell. I was opening the fridge. I brought a chair over to him, tried to lift him up on it, and heard a sickening crack. It’s surprisingly difficult to lift the body of a big man who’s dead weight.

   The ambulance people came, he was operated on and was eventually moved from the hospital to the care home, where he lies in bed belittling the staff, as he used to belittle the rest of us.

   My mother, who is by turns tyrannical and in tears – they’re turning into children, my parents – has me help her with the insurance claim for his fall. She thinks they’re cheating her. And that’s the worst thing in the world, she says, being cheated. She seems pleased, as if she’s said something profound.

   After visiting my father I remember some of his stories from his time in the diplomatic service, before I was born, especially the one about the Russians. Soon after he was hired, while he was still in Copenhagen, he was invited to dinner at the Russian embassy, and was green enough to go. Caviar and all that, he said, and a young woman sat beside him who didn’t seem to have anything to do with the embassy. The day after he bethought himself and reported it to the security service. We know, they said.

   Who knows what they’re up to, S. and V. Not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought about them.

   This is my life now. My pitiful, wondrous life. The clearing means: we live with the most wondrous possibility of life in every moment. A pitiful life can be as wondrous as the most apparently successful one. The clearing is indifferent.

I wake up with a bad conscience, with bad faith, as usual. There’s something far too obscure about me, which I don’t like. It’s not supposed to be the Danish way, that’s for sure, for most of yourself to be hidden like this.

  But the clearing remains, somehow, and doesn’t feel guilty. It doesn’t feel anything, isn’t really anything. It says, You are the clearing, the fact of your being here, in this little room.  

   And beyond the clearing that you are, if you dare to face it? It doesn’t bear thinking about, the beyond. And I can’t be bothered to think about it.

  I was a clearing in my childhood, I was a clearing in my adolescence, I’m a clearing now. That was always what I was afraid of, the clearing that leaves you too open.

  You have one life, they say: use it. Obscure the clearing as much as you can. I see people doing it all the time, especially here, where people pretend not to do it. I do it myself, walking around the posh part of town, completely focused on my own needs.

  

   Eventually we transferred the flat into my name and I sold it. I can’t go to that part of the city anymore, even seeing the name in the Metro depresses me. My father, who was bedridden and seriously ill after a lifetime of carefree drinking, was moved to a care home, where I visit him once in a while.

   Since then, what have I done? What have I read? Not much. Would it matter if I had? Would it have made me any wiser? Not much to show for my time, as our family accountant said. I live with my mother, beside the biggest park in the city. My parents were shrewd boomers, they knew how to invest their money. Here the streets are wider, it’s quieter.

   Get over it, they say. Move on. To what, exactly? It’s a question of finding one’s way back. Not so you can work yourself into fulfilment and move on to bigger and better things, but so you can see who you were all along. Who were you? Not exactly yourself. But more than who you thought you were, and what others thought. You were a clearing.

   You were a clearing, in your immense stupidity, your cowardice and your work. You were the shape that being took in you. All you are is something that being took hold in.

   She broke up with me on the street outside the government office, after I’d got my residence permit. Even at that moment there was something indifferent in me. That was also being taking shape in me, which I couldn’t hide from. I called my mother, as one does when one is in trouble, and got lucky, in a sense. My parents had a flat in Copenhagen they were renting out, and they were about to renew the tenant’s contract. I had all my things shipped over from storage in England, went to the government office to register as a Dane again, sat in my new flat and drank.

   Drinking dulls the call of the clearing, its urgency. You can sink into your own private world.

   That year is hazy to me. It was almost funny: I ended up in a building full of students next to the North Harbour, a mini-Dubai that represents everything I hate. There was constant construction noise. My mother told me I should be grateful: those flats were sought after, people would kill to have one of those.

Cryptic lives we lead. We don’t even know ourselves. Paul says: ‘For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as I was fully known.’ V. found her in a dance club in a boat by the Danube. Did he seek her out? During lockdown he invited her to practise dancing with her in the Prater. I’d cycle over and watch them, then cycle home again. She’d come back with Russian tea and caviar. He was Russian, and her boss was the son of a Russian defector, funded by the American military. Who knows what they’re up to now.

   What was I doing? Why had I come to this deeply foreign city in the first place? I didn’t have it in me to act – to bike to the park and take a bat to him, for example. What would that have achieved? The whole thing was already wrong. I wasn’t present enough for her, I wasn’t there. And there’s nothing worse for a woman than indifference.

It was a mistake. But anyone can say that, looking back.

   I was sitting on a bench by a canal in Vienna, trying to read to read a novel. As usual I got stuck looking at the words and wondering how they might have been strung together differently, instead of following the plot. I read a couple of pages and looked up at the bats that flew out from under the bridge. When it got dark I finished my beer and went back to S.

   She’d got a job in Vienna and found a beautiful flat in the Orthodox Jewish quarter, near a big temple that had been bombed by the Nazis. She’d ordered IKEA furniture that I assembled while she was at work.

   The flat was owned by a world-weary painter around my age who told us, Do whatever you want, just don’t trash the place. There still seemed to be people like that around Vienna. Rent was cheap, I guess because there were so many big buildings left from the days of the empire. The big apartments had been split up. There were brass signs on the pavements listing the people who’d been brought to the camps. There were parks too, and the Danube, palaces on every corner of the Altstadt.

   On the façade of the building opposite, above a supermarket, workers on scaffolding were putting up a plaque that said Strauss lived there. Who cares, I said. That was when I felt something finally break between us. She wanted to see some enthusiasm in me that I could no longer give her. She’d already met V. in any case. It didn’t help that I’d quoted Kafka to her the day before: ‘Today I looked at a map of Vienna. For a moment it seemed incomprehensible to me that they would build such a huge city when you only need one room.’