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.
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
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
‘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.
The moment that holds time open for you: that gathers up your past and lets you face the future, lets your life take shape. Wouldn’t it be a kind of torment otherwise, the slow steady arc of your life? But you know what that’s like. Empty time. As if you’d lived the same life many times over and drained it of meaning. A ghostly life, as in Kafka’s story about Gracchus, the long-dead hunter whose barge was meant to take him to the beyond before it was blown off course, and who now floats aimlessly on the earth’s seas, unable to live or die.
A dull slow life, stretching time beyond all proportion. Flat horizon. Whatever you do, you’ll be just as bored as before. It reaches such a pitch that it seems like time itself is boring, life is nothing but boredom. It fills you so completely that now it’s only a small step to – what? You can almost see it, time itself, which you’ll only ever know as pure boredom… but you can almost see it, a time when boredom lifts like a fog, when it’s never existed, can’t exist, a time that knows nothing of boredom. You can almost see it: a kind of grace.
Heatwave. It’s all people are talking about. It’s as if a glass dome’s been lowered over the Broads. There’s no escape. It hasn’t rained for a month and Norfolk is already the second-driest county in the country. People seem weighed down. Water levels have dropped leaving ugly stains on banks and sluices, lawns and heaths are yellow and crunchy underfoot, birds mammals and insects are flocking to water. The blackberries are ripe a month early. We’ve bought fans from Amazon and lie sweltering on the bed and sofa with our hot computers on our laps. If this is what it’s like here imagine what it’s like in Delhi, says S., or Riyadh. What’s it going to be like in fifty years? A hundred?
The Anthropocene, environmental scientists call it: the age in which humans have become the main cause of planetary changes. The effects of the horrifying feedback loop we’ve created is now happening in real time they say. The papers report droughts, floods and wildfires all over the world. Polar ice is melting and reflecting less heat from the sun, oceans are expanding and absorbing more. Freshwater around the Earth is drying up, mountains are breaking apart as their glaciers melt. As the seas warm and rise, earthquakes, hurricanes and floods are becoming commonplace. Crops are baking in the sun. Overheated forests are starting to give off rather than absorb carbon dioxide, raising temperatures further.
We can still ignore it for now, still enjoy ourselves, worry about our careers and relationships, raise children. But unless we arrest the loop, extreme weather will dwarf our lives. People all over the world will die of thirst, heat stress and starvation. There’ll be wars for resources. Coastal cities will be wiped out. Millions will flee the uninhabitable lands around the equator. The global north will become more and more fortified against refugees.
Drinking cider in the afternoon with N. in the Swan, I overhear some visiting birders talking about nightjars: apparently they’re breeding on Buxton Heath and you can see them at dusk. N. offers to drive me and S. there straight away in his battered van. S. is keen, so we pick her up on the way. Wandering down the heath we see some people with binoculars who whisper to us that they’ve spotted some. We hear the distinctive, earthy croaking from branches where the birds sit in their perfect treebark disguises. Some of them will already be lying on their ground nests, almost invisible.
We stand still and silent for a few minutes in the blue light. I start to roll a cigarette but one of the birders waves his finger and says it’s too dry. Then someone points at the sky and we catch a couple displaying in surprisingly elegant flight, the male flashing the white stripes on his long wings. ‘I didn’t think they flew so well’, I tell S. ‘Well, they’ve come from Africa’, she says, ‘so they must fly pretty well’. I had no idea. The birder who spotted them is excited. ‘In twenty years of twitching I’ve never seen a display like that’, he says. His companion shushes him. We wait around for a while, then head back up the sandy path to the carpark. On the way a herd of black horses trot silently past us. It’s a strange dreamlike moment. Some of them stop and nudge us with their muzzles. We stand still with our hands behind our backs until they move on.
As we drive back to the Swan dark clouds move over us but it’s still hot. When we’ve sat down with our drinks there’s a sudden chill and a long roll of thunder. Rain! It falls violently. The pressure’s lifted from the air, people come alive and start chatting and laughing. A young couple go outside and stand with their eyes closed, getting drenched.
I wake up feeling cramped. The feeling stays with me all day while I work to meet a tight deadline. The project manager rushes me. When I hit send I’m at a loss. What’s been accomplished here? The work is anonymous and I don’t know who’s going to read it, if anyone. Too tired for my real work. And now the day is passing like so many others, like smoke in the wind.
I want a drink. Walking to the pub I think of those words by Burroughs that sometimes come back to me, from the book with the corny slang: ‘Kick is seeing things from a special angle. Kick is momentary freedom from the claims of the aging, cautious, nagging, frightened flesh.’ Seductive words. He was talking about drugs, about escaping the prison of the body, the sensory world – until you drop back down and want some more.
As seductive as a preacher, I think as I try to catch the bartender’s eye. Gnostic salvation from the flesh. Irreconcilable duality of elements. Spirit and matter. Soma-sema, body as tomb. Most clear perhaps in Jainism with its separation of body and soul. The body weighs the soul down, roots it in the cycle of birth and death. Most souls stay and are reborn over and over, but through severe ascetic practices some can shed the karmic matter that’s stuck to them from the beginning of time and at the moment of death fly to the top of the universe to live in eternal bliss.
Enough of that. Finish your pint, go home and say something nice to S., feed Rookie, make a good dinner. Don’t let the day pass without a trace.
The moment as a sudden gathering of dispersed time, happening for no good reason, part of no plot.
Bachelard described the poetic instant as a ‘simultaneity in which the most scattered and disunited being achieves unity’. He saw it as an ambivalent moment, both ‘astonishing and familiar’, that breaks up everyday time and gathers its contradictory events: an ecstatic ‘vertical time’ in which ‘being rises or descends without accepting world time, which would inevitably turn ambivalence back into antithesis, simultaneity into succession’. In the instant, he says, ‘flat horizontality suddenly vanishes. Time no longer flows. It spouts’. He also used the image of a sailboat held in balance by the opposing forces of the waves against its hull and the wind in its sail – when this happens, the hull is said to hum.
In amazement we beheld the great horse. It broke through the roof of our room. The cloudy sky was drifting faintly along its mighty outline, and its mane flew, rustling, in the wind.