Category Archives: Writing

It is too hideous and nauseating

We have lived a few days on the seashore, with the wave banging up at us. Also over the river, beyond the ferry, there is the flat silvery world, as in the beginning, untouched: with pale sand, and very much white foam, row after row, coming from under the sky, in the silver evening: and no people, no people at all, no houses, no buildings, only a haystack on the edge unfinished of the shingle, and an old black mill. For the rest, the flat world running with foam and noise and silvery light, and a few gulls swinging like a half-born thought. It is a great thing to realize that the original world is still there – perfectly clean and pure, many white advancing foams, and only the gulls swinging between the sky and the shore; and in the wind the yellow sea poppies fluttering very hard, like yellow gleams in the wind, and the windy flourish of the seed-horns.

It is this mass of unclean world that we have superimposed on the clean world that we cannot bear. When I looked back, out of the clearness of the open evening, at this Littlehampton dark and amorphous like a bad eruption on the edge of the land, I was so sick I felt I could not come back: all these little amorphous houses like an eruption, a disease on the clean earth; and all of them full of such a diseased spirit, every landlady harping on her money, her furniture, every visitor harping on his latitude of escape from money and furniture. The whole thing like an active disease, fighting out the health. One watches them on the sea-shore, all the people, and there is something pathetic, almost wistful in them, as if they wished that their lives did not add up to this scaly nullity of possession, but as if they could not escape. It is a dragon that has devoured us all: these obscene, scaly houses, this insatiable struggle and desire to possess, to possess always and in spite of everything, this need to be an owner, lest one be owned. It is too horrible. One can no longer live with people: it is too hideous and nauseating. Owners and owned, they are like the two sides of a ghastly disease. One feels a sort of madness come over one, as if the world had become hell. But it is only superimposed: it is only a temporary disease. It can be cleaned away…

– D.H. Lawrence, letter, 1915

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Emotional outbursts

The individual in his rationality is determined by the rationality of capital which he encounters as a force of nature, which he experiences daily and which therefore must appear to him as rational through and through. His protest against this life-destroying force can therefore only be a protest of feeling or emotion. But since ‘reason’ rules, these emotional outbursts of the individual are rationalised and ‘disappear’ into stomach pains, gall stones, circulatory problems, kidney stones, cramps of all kinds, into impotence, head colds, toothaches, skin diseases, back aches, migraines, asthma, car and workplace accidents, depression, and so forth – or feelings mushroom in interpersonal relationships (emotional plague), in flat affects (‘serious’ people), in psychosis etc.

Turn Illness into a Weapon, manifesto of the Heidelberg Socialist Patients’ Collective, 1972

(Quoted here.)

When we decline

Only a god can still save us. I think the only possibility of salvation left to us is to prepare readiness, through thinking and poetry, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god during the decline; so that we do not, simply put, die meaningless deaths, but that when we decline, we decline in the face of the absent god.

– Heidegger, 1966

Generation X

On a walk we pass a group of young people dressed in the 90s style kids are into at the moment: puffy coats, baggy jumpers, jeans cut off above the ankles, white socks and copies of trainers I recognize from my youth. A couple of the boys even have floppy hair parted in the middle. One of them looks eerily like a friend I had in Canada. There’s a woman with them talking about wildlife management: must be a biology daytrip. It’s odd to see young people imitating the way we dressed while wearing Bluetooth headphones and taking videos on their smartphones.
It’s not a great style to copy is it really, I say to S. when we’re back home. But we Gen Xers didn’t have much to work with. The idealism of the 60s, the rock-star fantasies of the 70s and the balls-out tackiness of the 80s were being recycled in various ways, but many of us didn’t really believe in it – it didn’t feel true for us. We were starting to see through how the society of the baby boomers worked. We were a small generation up against a mass of self-centred people busy shoring up their social capital at the expense of the rest of the world. Many of us instinctively felt we were fucked, so we withdrew and became self-centred in our own ways while the boomer generation passed over or assimilated us. We became apathetic. For the committed slackers, even ‘Generation X’ itself was a lame corporate label. Yet it was fitting for a crossed-out generation. It meant: ignore us, we don’t care, at least until we’re absolutely forced to conform. We were hard to market to: what do you sell to people like that except Nirvana CDs?
And yet I watched former classmates become bankers, marketers, programmers, tech developers, compete for jobs, disappear into the vast corporate world and devote all their time to helping the boomers continue what they started. No wonder so many of our successors, the millennials and Gen Z, seem so flighty, so prone to fads, self-branding and burnout.

*

The apathy of those years never really left me. It mingled with the anxieties provoked by school, girls, the need to impress and succeed, but it never left. It grew into a general feeling of pointlessness. Even during fits of worry about an exam, a date or a wasted day, there was the sense of something neutral, indifferent, hovering over everything, levelling all the events of life. I looked for ways to give this feeling substance, to turn it into something you could live by. I read novels, went to plays, galleries, lectures, museums. I started reading about religion and going to church. When I finished school I went to London to do a degree in religious studies, but the feeling stayed with me and I dropped out after a year. After a year of manual work in Denmark, I went to Norwich to study art history and literature. I discovered more and more works of art, people like me, with similar interests. And when we were taught to view the works we studied with suspicion and take them apart, unpack their constitutive elements, it made sense to me. It was how I’d felt all along: so-called meaning happened along arbitrary horizontal lines; one element along the line, however important the artist or author thought it was, could in principle be replaced with any of the others; it was almost impossible to mean something. Meanwhile life still felt like a kind of photographic negative. But of what? What could the positive possibly mean now?

 

The hole

L. and M. come from Cambridge to stay for a few days. Ping pong in the community centre. Much laughter as the resident cat lies against the net batting the ball away. The happiness of being with people.
When they’ve left life plods on as usual. S. does her remote work as a research assistant for a historical project involving different universities, and makes monthly trips to the libraries in Norwich or Cambridge. I translate to the tedious sound of pigeon coos from the eave that remind me of endless suburban afternoons in Denmark growing up, or waiting to grow up. The evenings stretch out like great clouds over the horizon. The last day, the day after the last day. Life isn’t short, it’s long, long…

*

Memories of last summer in Norwich, when it got bad, when I’d go weeks without talking to anyone except the Asian man in the off-licence. Before S. At first I tried to walk myself out of it. In the beginning I’d walk for an hour or two, around the outskirts of the city. I stopped in pubs: a pint here, a pint there. I sat half listening to tradesmen in paint-splattered trousers. Warm drafts, sun through the windows in the afternoon. Watch the drops running down the side of the glass into little puddles on the table. Make traces in it with your finger… Later, when I no longer had energy to walk, I’d lie in bed thinking of death. So this is what it comes to, I thought, you must be ill. Ill. I’d repeat the word in my head. This is what it comes to, I thought, something in me is ill and look, now I’m ill in a dark room. It was almost a relief, to have only one thought, one sincere wish. Almost easier to be cornered, really cornered and taken out of all fakery. The monologues I’d have in my sick mind! It’s an illness, you see, I’m ill. There’s the death drive and there’s the life force and the life force is dying, it’s turned into the death drive. This is what it comes down to, it’s logical. The illness has grown inside me, fed on me and now it’s ready. It’s grown in the dark and now it’s ready. It was almost a relief that it had taken me. Finally. Ill. Here’s something indisputable for once, I thought, just look at me, lying in bed thinking of ways to die. A hole was how I thought of it, like being in a hole and not being able to look up. It felt like a basic struggle between life and death. Something in me was trying to kill me, something else was trying to live. I couldn’t read, couldn’t sleep without pills. I’d lie in bed in the afternoon daydreaming of a fatal accident, a crash, a meteor. It was the first thought I woke up to at night, pulled out of deep sleep as if by the thought itself. Almost comforting. I narrowed it down to a train, though I hated the idea of implicating others. I’d sort out the practical things first: bank, bills, belongings, if I could muster the energy. I’d get off at one of the small request stops in the country, walk along the tracks with an eye on my watch, find a suitable place by some trees and wait. I’d bring what they’d need in my bag, which I’d leave by the tracks.
Underneath it all a voice said:
You’ve run out of options, so what’s holding you back? Just do it, do something real for the first time in your life. But you can’t, can you? You couldn’t make your life work and now you can’t even make this work.
In the days that followed the worst of it I felt as if I were floating above the hole but that I could drop back into it at the least disturbance, a hard word from a stranger (and yet words seemed to mean nothing).
But just as one has hidden weaknesses one has hidden strengths. One day I drew a line that meant this stops here and stepped across it. I moved the line every day. It was a simple question of life or death, a simple question for once. Going forward meant life, going back meant death. Sometimes a small shift of attention seemed to change everything, or rather illuminate what was already there, like a light turned on in a room. I started walking again, and now I could walk farther, out of the city, through woods, down lanes, out into the country. I found a church next to the ruin of an older church. On the gate a faded sign said Church Always Open. A chicken walked through the tall grass on the graveyard, which overlooked a rapeseed field. I walked down the path, opened the bird grill and the heavy wooden door and stepped into the cool musty church. It was empty. I sat for a long time on a pew where the light came in through the stained-glass window. I felt like a vanishing speck inside… what? I felt an overfacing power and felt it withdraw, and it gave me a strange hope.

The pier

K., who works with S., comes up from Norwich and drives us to Southwold on the Suffolk coast. We eat dinner in a pub and walk down the damp pier. The yellow beam from the lighthouse sweeps through the fog, over the black water, the houses along the road, the mural of George Orwell (who lived and wrote here), giving things an eerie greenish hue. It’s like the last scene of a film, says K., where a spy gets picked up, a couple have to part or someone drowns tragically. We amuse ourselves by making up increasingly absurd scenarios for movie endings, probably to relieve the oppressive atmosphere of the place. Except it’s not oppressive is it, I think to myself as we walk back to the car, or a set for anything – tragic or comic. It’s nothing but itself: a cold dark coast, neither benign nor hostile.

   Only one real thought, however kitschy it sounds: how to live in the face of the impersonal. Not to cover it over with your own stories but to accept it and yourself with it. Consider the nightmare of a world covered up by a single story: where every thing, act and thought must conform to a certain end; where no chink is left open in the armour of the everyday for the impersonal to show us, if only for a moment, the smallness of our stories and the horizon of our true possibilities.

A strange peace

Winter is a season of routines. The days pass in almost the same way, especially out here: all we do is work, eat, walk, exercise, go to the pub, sleep. But this winter neither of us has been desperate for a holiday. I feel more and more – and I think S. does too – that whether you do the same or new things every day, see the same people or different people, stay put or move about nonstop, it doesn’t matter. Life is near and fresh. There are no ruts in nature, even in the barest places.

*

The days are getting longer. A sense of peace has come over me lately – the kind of composure I used to imagine I’d grow into when I was younger and had no control over my life. I used to picture my future self looking back at his agitated past and cringing. What was being young but an endless wait to get older and wiser? I was naive and knew it, because I was so often reminded of it by my elders. I wanted to get older so I too could benefit from hard-won experience. I suspected that these feelings were themselves experiences I might benefit from, but resented the humiliations of youth, of having to live through a series of scary tests that only the older self can resolve. And now that I’ve grown into my future self, I do look back in relief at having grown older, but with mixed feelings… Relief, but also things I never imagined, slightly frightening in themselves: awareness of the ageing body, that your time on earth will come to an end, and that you may even come to feel it was too short.