Category Archives: Writing

Machinations

Heidegger: ‘The unfittingness of mere beings, of nonbeings as a whole, and the rarity of being, for which reason the gods are sought within beings. If someone seeks and does not find and therefore is compelled into forced machinations, then no freedom for the restrained waiting of an encounter and an intimation…’

Machinations… We see ourselves in animals, nature, other people, in God, cunningly remake them in our own images for our own ends. We diminish and master them, reduce them to almost nothing. Isn’t the path then cleared to replace the whole world with a mirror of ourselves, to a total communication network and a total, false immediacy? We’re forced into machinations that empty our lives of meaning. Many we enable because they feel good. This isn’t only an age of exploitation, but also of fun; the two have become linked. ‘Have fun!’ we shout to each other, ‘enjoy!’ When you’re not busy earning money – exploiting or being exploited – you’re supposed to have fun, do something exciting, be exciting: above all fill your time to the brink with activity. What they used to call idolatry is now almost life in its entirety. We reflect ourselves in the things we buy, eat and wear, our homes, jobs, interests, politics, friends, children and lovers. We stress over critical targets that mean little to anyone outside our workplaces. We claim more and more fraught identities, manage our social media profiles on platforms that manipulate us, and create personal brands (something that’s now being taught in British schools). We try to define ourselves using the tools that dispersed us in the first place.

No freedom for the restrained waiting… For meaningful idleness, a gathering up of your time on earth: what they used to call prayer. Everything seems to conspire against it. Yet everyone knows the unease that comes over you when you’ve spent long enough doing nothing meaningful, at work or in your ‘spare time’. What do we do to hold it at bay? Work harder, have more fun; devise clever therapies and health and fitness fads to administrate it out of our minds and bodies.

Of an encounter or intimation… An intimation of something more, something wholly Other that can take us out of our everyday machinations and show them for what they are. A hint of God in the moment, passing through the innermost heart of time.

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Chronos and kairos

Back in Kirkwood we wake up to a warm bright morning. In the afternoon it rains and in the evening you can see your breath. For the first time I can take pleasure in autumn, in the slow waning of the year.

*

The Greeks called the straight line of time from past to future chronos. But for them time was twofold: its other element was kairos, the opportune moment. Chronos was clock time that carries on regardless of us, kairos the personal experience of time. In classical rhetoric, kairos meant finding the right words at the right time.

For the early Christians, kairos had to do with the fullness of time realized in the Incarnation, the moment of conversion and the coming apocalypse. It was the intersection of history and eternity, the time when God acts in the world.

Now on my walks I always stop by the church. I like the routine. I like the heavy wooden door, the cold stone slabs on the floor. There are children’s drawings on the peeling walls, dull notices, faded black and white pictures of the parish. I sit on a pew for a few minutes to catch my breath, look at the altar, the wooden rafters like the ribs of an old ship, the stained-glass window showing Christ with two fingers raised to symbolize the hypostatic union. (How many people argued, fought, lived and died for that idea!) Sometimes I leaf through a hymnbook or bible… Relics, I sometimes think. Yet still here in the ruins, on the same ground as the rest of us.

Eternal God, which makes the moment seem like a grain of sand… Where’s the divine kairos now, when God no longer acts in the world, when the God of men has died? Where’s the intersection of time and eternity? When’s the right time, what’s the right word? I can’t call it him, I can’t call it you. But doesn’t the moment hint at it? Doesn’t it whisper to us of it? Sometimes I think it whispers something too terrible to hear, something I secretly want no part of, that might overturn my whole life.

But you’ve felt it, haven’t you? Its surpassing and sustaining power, which gave you room to breathe, as long as you were shielded by time, held in the moment. How carefully it has to be approached. But maybe approached is the wrong word. Questioned, perhaps, prepared for, undergone.

Denmark

My mother calls to talk about my father. He’s been having trouble walking for years and is now bedridden and losing weight. The doctors say the nerves in his legs are damaged from blood clots: a rare condition. She asks us to visit. I cup the phone with my hand, call S. over and ask her if she wants to go to Denmark. She says yes. After I hang up, we buy train and flight tickets for next week. I’ve been feeling a nostalgic urge to see my old places in Denmark for a few weeks anyway; it occurs to me now that it must be to do with all this talk about repetition and returning.

*

The week passes with work, housework (we clean the pantry and take the fruit and veg sign off the road), gardening, cooking, doing the dishes, making love, watching films and lazing about with Rookie. I’m comfortable, too comfortable maybe, but it’s a good change. I sense the power of the moment and the eternal God always in the backdrop of our everyday life.

*

Arriving at the airport in Copenhagen, it always strikes me how much cleaner and well-made everything is. We buy trays of sushi on the way to my parents. My father eats with shaking hands. In the morning we fix their bikes, which they no longer use. S. cycles to the library to work while I cycle to the central station and take the coastal train up to my old hometown. I’ve wanted to retrace the little groove of my life that I left there. I told S. it would bore her and that we can do something fun for her the other days, find some museums. Everything’s more or less the same, except that all the vegetation has grown and as a result the place seems to have matured, come into its own. It’s lovely. When I lived here as a child it was a rather sterile, newly built suburb. I go into the library where I used to sit and read, cycle down the old paths. The hills seem smaller, as I thought. I cycle through the old beech forest where we used to play as kids, and down to the harbour where I eat a crab sandwich, which tastes just like it used to. This kind of thing used to give me what Burroughs called the ‘fear of stasis’, of being ‘just where I am and nowhere else’ under the ‘dead weight of time’. Today it’s deeply satisfying.

It’s common to sniff at nostalgia. We’re taught – indoctrinated – to look forward, be proactive and innovative, shape our own futures, never stand still. But don’t nostalgia and the fear of stasis have their places as feelings to be undergone, as ways into the Open?

Heidegger says our origin always comes to meet us from the future. Strange saying. What does it mean? Perhaps that time, rather than moving in a straight line from past to future, or from here to the afterlife, describes a kind of circle that always completes itself in the moment and whispers to us of our silent origin.

The next day we go to Lejre, near Roskilde, where there’s a Viking museum. I’ve never been and know next to nothing about it. We take the bikes on the train and cycle through the countryside to the museum, stopping to pick apples from trees along the way. It’s the landscape that impresses most, with its glacier-formed hills and valleys, prehistoric passage graves and the stone remains of Viking longhouses and gravesites in the shape of large ships, designed to carry the dead to Hel. It doesn’t look very Danish but it turns out this is in a sense the mythical and historical centre of Denmark, the seat of the legendary Skjöldung dynasty mentioned in Beowulf, as well as real medieval kings and bishops who presided over busy settlements on the fertile land. I’ve never felt the presence of ancient history as strongly, even when seeing the bog bodies in the Aarhus and Copenhagen museums (carefully preserved and displayed in shiny cases): there’s something about it being left alone in the open, still-farmed landscape that’s surprisingly moving. The star exhibit of the museum itself is a tiny statuette of Odin – or perhaps a Viking goddess – seated on a throne flanked by raven messengers. As we set off on our bikes to go back to the station we pass an unusual number of rooks, jackdaws and hooded crows in the fields. It’s still sunny, they can’t be starting to roost. It occurs to me these may well be the descendants of birds that scavenged Iron Age and Viking fields and middens (møddinger in Danish). Is it possible that they have some ancient attachment to the place?

Gift

The slow arc of your life, sustained by a continual return to the lifegiving moment, which holds you in your course and shows you the breadth and depth and height of time. I call it a return, but isn’t it more like a repetition? A repetition of the same that makes the same new and lets you face the newness of the future – that lets you function in the world.

Kierkegaard wrote about repetition. The Danish word for it, gentagelse, literally means ‘taking back’, but for Kierkegaard it means more than wresting the past into the present. True repetition for Kierkegaard points both back and forth in time, it renews the past while opening it up to the unknown. It has a mysterious relation to the moment, and in a sense is the moment: a kind of suspension of time that gives you back the past as the new for no reason, just as Job was given back his life and more for no reason. Repetition happens: it’s experienced as a gift, not taken.

Planetary time

What was the ‘planetary’ time, the time of the day you tried to understand when you first came out to the countryside, when you started this journal? Didn’t you see it in the indifferent sea, the fields, the drifts of clouds, the way Rookie sat on the windowsill for hours with his eyes closed? Didn’t time seem monstrously long? A time of slowly changing seasons, the turning of the Earth in an eternal space that doesn’t bear thinking about… Nothing to do with you, yet hanging over you like a cloud at dusk. The dreaded boredom of the day. And alongside it the shallow dispersals of everyday life under the cloud of capital that you were happy to sign up to, as if you could escape so easily.

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always—
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

— T.S. Eliot

 

Unzerstörbar

‘A person cannot live without a steady faith in something indestructible within him.’ Kafka’s das Unzerstörbare… Isn’t that what you felt that day in the chapel, when you were in the hole, when you’d hit bottom? A power that made you both meaningless and meaningful, before which you were neither I nor he. The impersonal light through the stained-glass window. Your smallness and the greatness of God. Room to breathe. A sense of dignity.

Indestructible, that’s as good a word as any. You sense it sometimes, like today. You can come to it or not, fall away from it and return, it remains, at least as an inkling. Unzerstörbar: there’s hope in that word, which sounds so harsh in German.