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 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 which remind me of endless suburban afternoons growing up, or waiting to grow up. The evenings stretch out like great clouds over the horizon… The last days, the days after the last day. Life isn’t short, it’s long, long…

*

Memories of the summer when it got bad, when I’d go weeks without talking to anyone except the girl 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 a day, then whole afternoons, sweat soaking my back. I’d walk through the city, through parks, along the river, down A-roads, past industrial estates, into the countryside. I stopped in pubs: a pint here, a pint there. I sat barely thinking, half-listening to tradesmen chat. Warm drafts, sun through the windows in the afternoon. Watch the drops running down the side of the glass into small puddles on the table. Make traces in the water 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, but now you can see it. You thought I was lying, now you see I wasn’t, surely you see. It grows in the dark until it comes to this and look at me now. It’s an illness, there’s a name for it. Soon you’ll see.
Almost a relief that it had taken me, that they were wrong and I was right. Finally. See for yourself, I thought. Ill. Can you see it? You can almost see it, but not like I can. Here’s something indisputable for once, 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 or a truck, though I disliked the idea of implicating others. In any case I was a coward. I often pictured myself holding back at the last moment. I decided on a train, if I were to do it. I’d sort the practical things out first: bank, bills, belongings, if I could summon the strength. I’d get off at one of the small request stops, walk across the fields with an eye on my watch, find a suitable place by a stand of 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, what’s holding you back? You coward. You couldn’t make your life work and now you can’t even make this work. You’d panic and go home with your tail between your legs like you always do. You’ve got nothing left but me but you can’t even listen to me, you can’t even do that right. Your whole life has come down to nothing and will keep coming down to nothing and you know it. You’ve wasted all your options, you don’t need me to tell you that, so just do it, do something real for the first time in your life.
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 often ended up at the parish church. It was always empty. I sat on a pew where the light came in through the stained-glass window. A vanishing speck inside – what? I felt an overfacing power and I felt it withdraw, and that gave me a strange hope.

Advertisements

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 dark damp pier, chilled to the bones. 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 say goodbye or someone drowns tragically. We amuse ourselves by making up increasingly absurd scenarios for movie endings, probably to relieve the hostile atmosphere of the place.

Except it’s not a setting for anything, is it, I think as we walk back to the car – 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 and emotions but to accept it and yourself with it. To keep the world’s indifference to you open in your life, like Kierkegaard’s wound: ‘Keeping a wound open can also be very beneficial: a healthy and open wound; sometimes it is worst when it skins over.’

Freeing! Consider the nightmare of living in a world covered up entirely by stories – or worse, one story – that all are required to accept: 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 our true powerlessness and power.

Living with indifference

This book is not primarily about the attitudes of people, about whether they care passionately about values and lives. But it is nonetheless about attitudes, attitudes that form when people have a disturbing sense that something important is hidden from them. In such instances we might try to reproduce the hidden “reality”; but rather than finding the secret, we find the stock-in-trade images of our ordinary lives, shadowed still by something hidden, perhaps mysterious and seemingly important, and especially important if the hidden doesn’t seem to be like a real thing with determined identity. Dimensions of indifference in many instances, given certain expectations about reality and mores based on those expectations, figure “something” hidden and important. The very happening of these dimensions threatens some large views of the world and often disturbs the hopes and comforts we take in situations of stress and pain. Patterns of denial can develop; for example, insistence on personalized and intentional universals that are free of indifference, teleological speculations about the world’s continuity, and ethics of attachment. In such instances, indifference in the occurring of lives can become a negative preoccupation in the positive meanings of people’s lives—like a dark specter of meaninglessness that requires well-tended vigilance at the deepest levels of affirmation and hope. Often in those situations one finds insistence on systematic tightness, emphasis on definitive closure, passions focused primarily by shared identity, and a dominance of values of conformity in conceptions of community and commonality.

I have seen the eyes of indifferent people, as I am sure you have. Their cold preoccupation, their blindness to compassion, their failure to notice or care. This book is not about them and is largely indifferent to them. It—the book—is rather about aspects of indifference in living events, not about a kind of character described as indifferent. It is about dimensions of occurrence that are utterly neutral and without intention. And it is also about some of the differences that paying attention to such dimensions makes. It is preoccupied by differences in sensibility that can arise when people are aware of dimensions of indifference throughout their lives, and, far from traumatized or obsessed by them, accept them and themselves with them, and develop, perhaps, values that take constructive account of those dimensions and the departures and beginnings that they occasion.

– Charles E. Scott, Living with Indifference

Havoc

‘He no longer wanted a steady job as a producer of opinions. Infinity—was that not what he was seeking?’ The English translation of Havoc by Tom Kristensen, a great Danish novel, has been reissued after fifty years. Quote from a review:

Doubts, but still wants to believe—how else to explain the generations of people, from twentysomething anarchists to aged professors, whose lives have been altered by Havoc? As different as these readers have been, they’ve all been drawn to the possibility that enlightenment can be achieved by abandoning the “normal” life whose ingredients include marriage, money, job security, friends, education. This possibility might seem naïve, self-indulgent, or just absurd: Havoc has borne all these insults, and others, and survived unscathed. Kristensen not only accepted but welcomed his detractors’ mockery, and in an era when a lot of fiction aspires to avoid criticism at all costs, that might be his novel’s timeliest virtue.

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 strange 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 interminable wait to get older and wiser? I was callow and knew it, because I was 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 humiliation of being young, of having to live through a series of scary tests that only the older self can resolve. And now that I’m growing into my future self, I do indeed look back and thank God I’ve grown older, but with mixed feelings… Composure, yes, but also things I never imagined, slightly frightening in themselves – awareness of the ageing body, the prospect of mental decline, the dawning realization that your time on Earth will come to an end, and that you may even come to feel it was too short.

Old notebooks

Leafing through another notebook the other day – rarely a good idea – I found this, written a decade ago:

‘Endless work. What’s your real work? You ask the question so often the question itself becomes a form of work. You tunnel through a mountain of other people’s words and smuggle out your own dubious hoard with no destination in sight. Always halfway between your origin and your end.’

And today this, from W.S. Graham:

‘With words my material and immediate environment I am at once halfway the victim and halfway the successful traveller. There is the involuntary war between me and that environment flowing in on me from all sides and there is the poetic outcome. I am not the victim of my environment. History does not repeat itself. I am the bearer of that poetic outcome. History continually arrives as differently as our most recent minute on earth.’

*

From the same old notebook:

‘I wake up tired of waking up. Lured into another endless day, the last day begun again. There’s something I’ve missed, some fatal flaw in my reasoning that prevents me moving from here to the real vantage point, to real life. I see no path to take. What would it look like? Where would it go? It would end up back here, in dead time.

‘Nothing to say and the guilt of not filling time, that makes you speak to yourself in their words. “Stop inventing little hardships to make yourself look interesting. Get a proper job. Get a life. Get laid.”

‘I could take up a hobby to at least look active, like sailing, master wind and tide and all that, grow a big beard. But I’d have to learn and I’m not the learning kind. And imagine all the fuss, all the tarring and rigging and straining. Or maybe I should get a pet, that’s what people do isn’t it? Something to care for, a loyal dog you have to walk. But then I’d have to get up early, hoover more, go to the vet, pick up poo. And I wouldn’t be able to travel – not that I do.’

… So easy to drag yourself down like this, so hard to get back up!

It

If the painter or poet, the actor or archer, were asked how to express in a word what it is that gives life and breath to all living things, what sustains them in the “undancing dance” of coming-to-be and passing away, he would probably answer: “It.” In all action and non-action, “It” is there by not being there. This is a clumsy but perhaps the closest description of what it is whose form is not this and not that, but whose hidden essence is active in all forms that are.

– Eugen Herrigel, The Method of Zen (trans. Hull)