Category Archives: Writing

A few words come now and then as if from far away. What a relief it would be to speak in proper solitude rather than in this lame dispersal. Rilke said to write as the first man. What did he mean?

I take the laptop to the park and sit at a bench, open a bottle of beer with my lighter, and look at the artificial pond with its spurting fountain. Pink-footed geese graze on the lawn around me, which is covered in their droppings. There’s a palace on the hill on the other side of the pond. I write a few lines of a translation I’m working on, then click over to this journal. What to say?

This park was constructed in imitation of the French and British styles, with tree-lined avenues and little Romantic touches: pagodas, a waterfall, grottos. All carefully manicured. Danish poets walked around here waxing lyrical in the nineteenth century. Now it’s full of tourists and lycra-clad joggers.

*

Malinka Stalin, they called him, his Russian friends in Vienna: Little Stalin. He turned up at her dancing class. During lockdown he invited her to the park to dance. She’d be gone for hours. He gave her Russian delicacies. I cycled over and watched them dance. How naïve I was. She watched me let it happen. I thought about fighting it, but what was there to fight for, exactly? I was always elsewhere in my head. Can I blame her?

After I left and he’d moved into our flat, into our bedroom, I became convinced he was a Romeo spy. It gave it a sort of logic. Now I have no idea where they are. I’ve learned that these kinds of convictions tend to get blurred over time. I’ve missed her terribly, but I guess those feelings will get blurred too.

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Woke up at dawn as usual to pee and lay trying to sleep for two hours while the mind turned and played its usual sordid tricks. I must have had a hundred little thoughts, memories and fantasies.

As soon as I’m idle – which I am much of the time these days – the first thought is about S. and her Russian in Vienna. Amazing how the mind bites into things and just won’t let go.

*

On my daily walk in the park to give raisins to the hooded crows and jackdaws I went through the little wood instead of around it. Still the pair of big hooded crows that always find me first flew up to me. It was the highlight of my day. I know to turn away while they eat; they don’t like to be looked at. Some of them will hide their raisins in secret places.

Sometimes I go through the place at the other end of the park where people take their dogs, and watch the dogs jump at each other and their owners. They seem stupid compared to the birds, who can easily do without me. It’s the only place where I see Danes chatting freely to strangers, as if they can only do it through their dogs.

*

Every day these past two years the mind has liked to imagine their various scenes together: S. and her Russian. The mind loves imagining that. Lately it’s come up with encountering them in one of those pretentious Viennese cafés. What happens next in these scenarios is usually vague, as in a dream where whatever you do is ineffectual.

*

When I’m not at the mercy of the mind I try to think about fate and chance, but I’m never sure what I’m trying to get at. Why exactly did I end up here? It’s hard to see beyond chance. Fate always seems to trump it. You understand backwards and live forwards, they say. But my memory’s getting unreliable.

*

Took my bike on the train to try to get to Havreskoven forest. Cycled through a typical dead Danish suburb and got lost several times along a motorway, as usual. The strong headwind blew my cap off. It’s still cold here. Ended up on the outskirts of the forest. The ground was still covered by dead leaves and needles. Almost nothing had sprung out. Even the evergreens looked wan. A couple of stagnant ponds. No waterfowl, hardly any birds. I wondered if the ground had been polluted by the nearby factory I’d seen on the way. I did see some ravens by the side of the motorway picking at rubbish on a grassy verge on the way out. It’s the first time I’ve seen them in the wild. The way the sun brings out the purple in their feathers. I should have stopped there and gone back. But one never knows exactly what to do.

My God, my God, if nights like this lie ahead of me grant me at least one of the thoughts I’ve now and then been able to think. What I’m asking for now is not so unreasonable; for I know that they come directly from my fear because my fear was so great. When I was a boy they hit me in the face and told me what a coward I was. That was because I was still bad at being afraid. But since then I’ve learnt to be afraid with the real fear that only increases when the power to produce it increases. We can have no idea of this power except in our fear. For it’s so wholly incomprehensible, so completely opposed to us that our brain disintegrates at the point where we struggle to think about it. And yet, for a while now I have believed that it is our power, the whole of our power, that is too strong for us. It’s true that we don’t know it, but don’t we know least what is rightly our own? Sometimes I think about how heaven came to be, and how death; because we’ve distanced ourselves from what is most valuable to us, because there were so many other things to do first and because we were too busy to safeguard it. The passage of time has now obscured this, and we have grown accustomed to lesser things. We no longer recognise what is ours, and we are appalled by its sheer magnitude. Can that not be so?

— Rilke, Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (tr. Needham)

Out of artifice

I felt it as artificial, that sitting down to write a book. And that is a feeling that is with me still, all these years later, at the start of a book—I am speaking of an imaginative work. There is no precise theme or story that is with me. Many things are with me; I write the artificial, self-conscious beginnings of many books; until finally some true impulse—the one I have been working toward—possesses me, and I sail away on my year’s labor. And that is mysterious still—that out of artifice one should touch and stir up what is deepest in one’s soul, one’s heart, one’s memory.

— V.S. Naipaul (via here)

I am unable to think, in my thinking I constantly come up against borders; certain isolated matters I can grasp in a flash, but I am quite incapable of coherent, consecutive thinking.

— Kafka, from a letter to Brod

Turning knowledge inside out

“The time has come for us to be able to write and send messages within our mind,” as a friend tells Renouard. But the future may be even more efficient than that. “We will do a Google search exactly as we go looking through our memories, by a simple act of the mind which, like memory, will require neither the hand nor the eye as intermediary,” he writes. “We will use this inner Google to look up words and phrases in a foreign language,” he writes. “The memory of which our brain is the organ will no longer be an individual memory.” Renouard’s vision of the internet is one that is capable of doing a lot of our feeling and knowledge-gathering for us, and it’s persuasive because we can all cite examples where we’ve felt that happen, from auto-completes to self-driving cars.

*

The internet is a canny repository of many false sensations. Friends aren’t friends, followers don’t follow, links are digressions not connections, truth is a partisan cudgel in the hands of countless memelords. […] The internet, he writes, has turned knowledge inside out: Books, once our chief repository of wisdom, are now walled-off and inaccessible, “a distant and secret refuge protected from the curiosity of readers.” Information gives us more things to contemplate but hardly lets us think about them: “The last fortress of our involuntary memory will have been conquered by the recollection machine.” The internet will wreck our privacy, but our morality will simply adapt to it. The internet never forgets, but we’re now free not to think.

*

At one point Renouard himself sounds a skeptical note about all this. He asks, “What is there of a person in his traces, even if we reach a totality, a saturation, in the Great Downloading?” The internet tempts us into thinking it’s everything because it gives so much. It confounds our senses because it mimics them so well; it conflates truth and fact by making both seem porous. And it demands we still live with it. We’ll need tools to better navigate this, and one more irony about the internet is that that the internet is unlikely to provide such tools. To that end, Renouard makes a statement that’s indisputably true: “We aren’t mature enough for this invention.”

Mark Athitakis

Attention is a bit like the air we breathe. It’s vital but largely invisible, and thus we don’t think about it very much unless, of course, it becomes scarce. If that’s the case — to extend a tortured metaphor — it feels as if our attention has become polluted. We subsist on it, but the quality has been diminished. This is certainly true in my life, where I’ve become so reliant on the constant stimuli of our connected world that I find myself frequently out of control of my attention. I give it to others too willingly — often to those who will abuse the privilege.

Charlie Warzel

Any idiot can face crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.

— Anton Chekhov

You have got to feel it so desperately that you will find some way to say it that nobody has ever found before, so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter—as indissolubly as if they were conceived together.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald (via here)

One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight, for a very long time, of the shore.

— Andre Gide (via here)