A sleepless night

From The Moment:

A sleepless night. The huge night and the slow dawn. The sound of the binmen tipping our tins and bottles into their lorry, interrupting the birdcalls. The same old sense of final emptiness, which makes the thoughts I formulate in the day in front of my computer, with my grownup books around me, seem contrived and forced onto something almost helpless—onto what Gombrowicz called a furtive childhood, a concealed degradation. Completely unacceptable, I think, like the wronged consumer I am: why should anyone be made to deal with this, day after day?

There’s something to it, I tell myself, the old idea that despair is a seductive sin, a sickness unto death. That’s one thing the Christians always understood, that there are feelings we indulge at our own risk. But when the feeling is this long-lived, this unshakeable?

Just a little different

There is a well-known parable about the Kingdom of the Messiah that Walter Benjamin (who heard it from Gershom Scholem) recounted one evening to Ernst Bloch, who in turn transcribed it in Spuren: “A rabbi, a real cabalist, once said that in order to establish the reign of peace it is not necessary to destroy everything nor to begin a completely new world. It is sufficient to displace this cup or this bush or this stone just a little, and thus everything. But this small displacement is so difficult to achieve and its measure is so difficult to find that, with regard to the world, humans are incapable of it and it is necessary that the Messiah come.” Benjamin’s version of the story goes like this: “The Hassidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.”

— Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community (tr. Michael Hardt)

Self-indulgence

There was a time when people were in the habit of addressing themselves frequently and felt no shame at making a record of their inward transactions. But to keep a journal nowadays is considered a kind of self-indulgence, a weakness, and in poor taste. For this is an era of hardboiled-dom. Today, the code of the athlete, of the tough boy – an American inheritance, I believe, from the English gentleman – that curious mixture of striving, asceticism, and rigor, the origins of which some trace back to Alexander the Great – is stronger than ever. Do you have feelings? There are correct and incorrect ways of indicating them. Do you have an inner life? It is nobody’s business but your own. Do you have emotions? Strangle them. To a degree, everyone obeys this code. And it does admit of a limited kind of candour, a closemouthed straightforwardness. But on the truest candour, it has an inhibitory effect. Most serious matters are closed to the hard-boiled. They are unpractised in introspection, and therefore badly equipped to deal with opponents whom they cannot shoot like big game or outdo in daring.

— Saul Bellow, Dangling Man

There must be a difference

The sun had been covered up; snow was beginning to fall. It was sprinkled over the black pores of the gravel and was lying in thin slips on the slanting roofs. I could see a long way from the third floor height. Not far off there were chimneys, their smoke a lighter grey than the grey of the sky; and, straight before me, ranges of poor dwellings, warehouses, billboards, culverts, electric signs blankly burning, parked cars and moving cards, and the occasional bare plane of a tree. These I surveyed, pressing my forehead on the glass. It was my painful obligation to look and to submit myself to the invariable question: Where was there a particle of what, elsewhere, or in the past, had spoken in man’s favor? There could be no doubt that these billboards, streets, tracks, houses, ugly and blind, were related to interior life. And yet, I told myself, there had to be a doubt. There were human lives organized around these ways and houses, and that they, the houses, say, were the analogue, that what men created they also were, through some transcendent means, I could not bring myself to concede. There must be a difference, a quality that eluded me, somehow, a difference between things and persons and even between acts and persons. Otherwise the people who lived here were actually a reflection of the things they lived among. I had always striven to avoid blaming them. Was that not in effect behind my daily reading of the paper? In their businesses and politics, their taverns, movies, assaults, divorces, murders, I tried continually to find clear signs of their common humanity.

It was undeniably in my interest to do this. Because I was involved with them; because, whether I liked it or not, they were my generation, my society, my world. We were figures in the same plot, eternally fixed together. I was aware, also, that their existence, just as it was, made mine possible. And if, as was often said, this part of the century was approaching the nether curve in a cycle, then I, too, would remain on the bottom and there, extinct, merely add my body, my life, to the base of a coming time. This would probably be a condemned age.

— Saul Bellow, Dangling Man

What glints on the other side of being?

From The Moment:

When I can’t write, when the building noise distracts me or when I have nothing to say, I so easily get outside myself. I’m not at home. Writing is a house of being under construction; sometimes you feel you’re living in rubble. But then the right sentence comes, the edifice rises up around you, and it is what was there all along. When this happens, the world lies open. You can get up from your desk and live in your home, kiss S., make plans with her.

Writing isn’t just a hall of mirrors, as I once thought. Nor is it a game. A sentence, even a banal one, when brought out of contemplation and written down, can be a practical act in its own way, like an act of faith. What happens when you write down a thought, when you start to blacken the screen? Often your subject eludes you. The words disperse. But doesn’t something happen nevertheless? No matter how unsure you are of what you’re saying, no matter how badly you fail to grasp it, doesn’t something take place in the saying itself that can give you strength to go on?

When we go through the woods, says Heidegger, we’re always already going through the word woods. Both the woods and the word were there before us, but it’s the going through them that brings them together. In a sense, the saying of the word summons the thing. Summons but doesn’t create. We can’t give being, but we can help unveil it.

But what is it that sometimes appears when word and thing come together? What glints on the other side of being? Celan once wrote that he saw God in a ray of light under his hotel door. Is it something like that: a ray of light under the door of a dark rented room?

Is it possible to make a Narrative (a Novel) out of the Present? How to reconcile – dialecticize – the distance implied by the enunciation of writing and the proximity, the transportation of the present experienced as it happens? (The present is what adheres, as if your eyes were glued to a mirror.) Present: to have your eyes glued to the page; how to write at length, fluently (in a fluent, flowing, fluid manner) with one eye on the page and the other on “what’s happening to me”?

This is actually to go back to that simple and ultimately uncompromising idea that “literature” (because, when it comes down to it, my project is “literary”) is always made out of “life”. My problem is that I don’t think I can access my past life; it’s in the mist, meaning that its intensity (without which there is no writing) is weak. What is intense is the life of the present, structurally mixed (there’s my basic idea) with the desire to write it. The “Preparation” of the Novel therefore refers to the capturing of this parallel text, the text of “contemporary”, concomitant life.

— Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel (tr. Briggs)

At home he’s a tourist

Steve Mitchelmore of This Space weighs in on The Moment:

At home he’s a tourist: The Moment by Peter Holm Jensen

Such a modest, self-effacing title, barely relieved by the blanched map on the cover. In everyday speech, a word or two is usually added to supplement the weedy noun: people say “At this moment in time”, which is when I ask: can a moment be in anything else; a moment in lampposts perhaps? Their absence here suggests a wish to let the word’s delicacy remain unsupported, even at the risk of becoming its own camouflage in the literary landscape, a suggestion reaffirmed by its form as a journal of life in the marshy flatlands of rural Norfolk, with names reduced to initials. The form draws back from headlong narrative to pay attention to what passes without pause. Such a concern is not without precedent. 

 
For Peter Holm Jensen’s fellow Dane, Søren Kierkegaard, what comes into existence comes from the eternal, from outside of time and so, we can say, apart from narrative, concurring with Plato’s Parmenides which calls the moment “this strange entity” between one state and another that is “in no time at all”. St Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians says the state of being dead will become one of eternal life “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” with the second coming of Christ, while Meister Eckhart in his turn counselled “the traditional schools of knowledge” to remain silent and recognise themselves as unknowing before God’s light, which would arrive like “a powerful flash”. Again for Kierkegaard, whose journal was also written for publication and whose Works of Love is alluded to in this one, it is His incarnation that gives the moment access to eternity, but the eternal is not present in the moment because that remains in the future. Christ Himself is the moment of transition from past to future, from actuality to possibility, but Kierkegaard qualifies possibility as a duality offering “the possibility of advance or of retrogression, of rising or falling, of good or of evil”. So which will it be for our writer?

The answer is important for P. (there is good reason for following the book’s propriety and using the initial) as he admits to having spent years sunk in the sense of life’s pointlessness, aware without knowledge of “something neutral and indifferent that hovered over things and levelled all the events of life”. He wondered how those around him continued to endure tedious days in the office without ending it all in the evening. He would lie in bed thinking of ways to die, which may be read as a wish to submit to the neutral and indifferent, to what is outside of time. P. says he mistrusts writing because as he writes, he becomes his own double, watching on as the words remove themselves from the undifferentiated connection he desires. In seeking a way back, he finds “a strange hope” outside of writing when, sitting in a church as light streams through a stained-glass window, he senses “an overfacing power…something wholly other”. A strange hope manifest in the hesitant, open form of The Moment.

It is appropriate then that the novel begins in Spring, when flowers are blooming and animals give birth to new life. P.’s girlfriend S. asks the neighbouring farmer T. to wait while she picks the wildflowers before he can mow them down, and then to hand over the feral kittens he intends to drown. It’s even more appropriate because Spring is also the time of Easter, when what dies is resurrected: flowers in a vase, kittens from a bucket, and P. himself, resurrected in writing. His mistrust of writing then becomes entirely in keeping with exposure to the overfacing presence. How, he asks, can we live in the face of the impersonal? The strange hope takes form with that strange word, overfacing, uncommon in everyday English, which is ideal in suggesting the incommensurability of P.’s experience.

The same applies to his observations of the bucolic landscape and the people and wildlife in it. This should not appeal to the audience for nature writing, which tends towards coffee-table kitsch. Standing before the “dark cold coast” at Southwold – notable of course for featuring in WG Sebald’s generically compromised novel The Rings of Saturn – P. resists any antropomorphic projection and regards it as “neither hostile nor benign”.

If writing takes one closer only to one’s impersonal doppelgänger and nature places the observer at an irreducible distance, it explains the publisher’s definition of The Moment as a novel when otherwise it is P.’s straightforward private journal and commonplace book. If he’s not at home in writing, as a Dane raised in Canada, he’s also not at home in his England, in Norfolk, in his cottage, or even, because he works as a translator, in language, and so too not at home in this book. This reminds me of how Gabriel Josipovici responded when someone expressed surprise at how much he reveals about himself in writing: “I can ‘reveal’ precisely because it does not seem to be part of me, it seems to belong to someone else.” 

To ask again, how can we live in the face of the impersonal?This book is its own answer. If there is no advance or retrogression, no rise or fall, no good or evil here, by paying attention to the silence of its obscure presence, The Moment seeks a modest, self-effacing place within the intersection of time and eternity, between the low-rise marshy landscape overfaced by a giant, apparently empty sky. 

A residuum unknown

There are no fixtures to men, if we appeal to consciousness. Every man supposes himself not to be fully understood; and if there is any truth in him, if he rests at last on the divine soul, I see not how it can be otherwise. The last chamber, the last closet, he must feel, was never opened; there is always a residuum unknown, unanalyzable. That is, every man believes that he has a greater possibility.

— Emerson, ‘Circles’

Midwife

[Socrates] was and remained a midwife; not because he ‘lacked the positive’, but because he understood that this was the highest relationship one person could have to another. And in this he is eternally correct. Because even if there is ever given a divine point of departure, between one person and another this remains the true relationship, provided one reflects on the absolute and does not fool around with the contingent, but from the bottom of his heart renounces any understanding of the half-truth that seems to be man’s desire and the system’s secret.

— Kierkegaard, Philosophical Crumbs (tr. Piety)