We constantly refer back to the natural world to try and discover who we are. Nature is the most potent source of metaphors to describe and explain our behaviour and feelings. It is the root and branch of much of our language. We sing like birds, blossom like flowers, stand like oaks. Or then again we eat like gluttons, breed like rabbits and generally behave like animals. But then ‘animal’ itself springs from the ancient Sanskrit root anila, meaning ‘wind’, via the Latin animalis, ‘anything alive’, splitting off animus on the way as, first, ‘mind’ and then ‘mental impulse, disposition, passion’ – a reminder of the time that mind and nature were not thought of as contrary entities. It is as if in using the facility of language, the thing we believe most separates us from nature, we are constantly pulled back to its, and our, origins. In that sense all natural metaphors are miniature creation myths, allusions to how things came to be, and a confirmation of the unity of life.
– Richard Mabey, Nature Cure
Arising, as it does, from a resolute projection of oneself, repetition does not let itself be persuaded of something by what is ‘past’, just in order that this, as something which was formerly actual, may recur. Rather, the repetition makes a reciprocative rejoinder to the possibility of that existence which has-been-there. But when such a rejoinder is made to this possibility in a resolution, it is made in a moment of vision; and as such it is at the same time a disavowal of that which in the ‘today is working itself out as the ‘past’. Repetition does not abandon itself to that which is past, nor does it aim at progress. In the moment of vision authentic existence is indifferent to both these alternatives.
There are areas of the human psyche that remain little-known because they haven’t been much explored, because luckily few people have found themselves in a situation of needing to explore them, and those who have done so have, as a general rule, preserved too little of their reason to produce an acceptable description of them. Those areas can hardly be approached except by the use of paradoxical and even absurd formulas, of which the phrase hope beyond all hope is the only one that really comes to mind. It’s not like night, it’s worse than that; and without having personally known that experience I have a sense that even when you plunge into true night, polar night – the one that lasts for six months in a row – the concept or the memory of the sun remains. I had entered an endless night, and yet there remained, deep within me, there remained something less than a hope, let’s say an uncertainty. One might also say that even when one has personally lost the game, when one has played one’s last card, for some people – not all, not all – the idea remains that something in heaven will pick up the hand, will arbitrarily decide to deal again, to throw the dice again, even when one has never at any moment in one’s life sensed the intervention or even the presence of any kind of deity, even when one is aware of not especially deserving the intervention of a favourable deity, and even when one realises, bearing in mind the accumulation of mistakes and errors that constitute one’s life, that one deserves it less than anyone.
– Houellebecq, Serotonin (tr. Whiteside)
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
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
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
North, to the Lancashire uplands to spend Christmas with S.’s family. N. picks up Rookie in a carboard box, along with a box of cat food. The next morning we get a taxi before sunrise, then three trains. The passengers get chattier as the landscape gets hillier. I manage to sleep a little. It’s dark and rainy when we get to the final station, where S.’s father is waiting for us in the car.
It seems as though every available space has been paved over and built up except for the great dark moors that loom over the cities and villages – many of which are themselves manmade, the results of deforestation by ancient people… Nothing but motorways, roundabouts, malls, petrol stations, business parks, offices, terraced houses… all so grey hard and cramped. I can’t help but think of those lines by Hopkins. Is there anywhere that isn’t seared with trade, smeared with toil, degraded by capital? Is there any escape?
S.’s family is large and fun, and we eat, drink and laugh all night.
It’s the home of the industrial revolution after all, S. tells me when we’ve gone to bed and I’ve revealed my thoughts about the journey. You know how you get when you travel. Don’t judge it just yet, you’ll see.
The next morning is brighter and gives us a fine view of hills on both sides of the house dotted with spray-painted sheep and crowned with mist. I go outside to smoke, feeling pleasantly small. There’s a different quality to the silence here when there’s no traffic on the road. Something to do with the topography maybe. I can hear a stream now. A horse whinnies somewhere, calling for a response as horses do, and it’s as if being itself has briefly been given voice.
S. borrows the car and drives us to Pendle Hill. We walk along the ridge through ribbons of fog to an ancient burial site she wants to see. Not a soul about, at last. As we climb the rocky path, dodging sheep droppings and sodden moss, we relax, stop chatting and fall into a rhythm. Our minds relax and expand as the horizon widens. We stop to look out over a spread of fields, hills, reservoirs and houses all around. This is more like it, I tell S., you need a horizon to think. I love the dun colours, the reddish iron-rich streams, the sheep that bound away when we get too close, the total indifference of the place. It moves us both, and it’s worth a day of rumbling through damp, littered suburbs in crowded, dirty trains.
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.
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