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1. Being a damnable heathen and pagan sorceror, Christmas largely passes me by, though i enjoy all the Glühwein and gluttony and whores. Madeley wrote recently of his Christmas loathing. i suppose i enjoy it because i usually travel to see people, in England it was my mother, in Germany Juniper-in-Kassel; and i like the sense of exceptionality, of a certain ritual. For atheists, i suppose religion seems baffling and implausible, pure nonsense & fairy tales (as if the fairy tale of money by which most people live is more credible). i was a peculiar kind of agnostic for many years, because i lack faith; i am of the spiritual generation requiring signs & wonders before i believe anything, but then i had signs & wonders and that was that. i was always able to sympathise with the idea of Christianity – the dominant religion of the west, though looking to be soon superceded by Saudi-style militant Islam – but wondered, from the outside. Now i am in a sense within my own particular bubble – a bubble inhabited solely by me since i have no interest in joining frightfully earnest “pagan” societies and consorting with gabbling Wiccans – i see things differently.
As an outsider, i thought that being Christian must transform the believer, so one’s everyday life would be utterly altered. Perhaps people become Christians because they suppose this will initiate a wholly new life, and are then disappointed to find it’s more or less the same as the old life. They then get tattoos and denounce all religion as vile superstition, and fall into the mud and mire of apostacy, where passers-by piss upon them and throw semen-encrusted eggshells at their sorry faces, a fate they richly deserve, for their unbelief and, as it were, frowardness.
2. In my disgusting old age i see that human life requires a certain boring stability and predictability, and that the periods of exaltation are usually limited to youth, when everything is developing and all is new, and the small self provides little ballast to new experience. i don’t think it is possible to sustain this high course without insanity, and when i remember how difficult and kind of insane my 20s were, i’m glad to have settled into a pot-bellied, cardigan-wearing torpor and ease. My great period of spiritual unrest was in 2008/9, but this passed and now i just take these things for granted.
Perhaps spiritual enlightenment is akin to romantic love, that it is most clearly felt when it is a new and shocking transformation; thereafter, it is just how things are. i note that back in my tai chi days (i.e. before i grew fat and slothful), i felt little when i practiced every day, but if i did nothing for a few weeks a simple chi kung would affect me powerfully, with tingling hands, trembling eyelids, etc. And just yesterday i prayed for the first time in a week – normally, i do so every morning, as i walk to my local s-bahn station – and could feel an immediate rush of awareness, reminiscent of the 2008/9 days of glory. It could, then, be that we cannot sustain these grand impulses in their full vigour, and that while our life is subject to a general transfiguration, after the initial shock it will be so pervasive as to be subtle and even mostly imperceptible. So i would say that i don’t really feel different to my pre-2008 days, and yet from time to time i react as my old self would not have, and people occasionally regard me as they would not the consumptive atheist i then was. The sense of exciting transformation is felt mostly when entering a wholly new life, or when it has been interrupted – akin to the white of breaking surf, where the ocean collides with a different reality. There are surfers of the spirit, who will to remain always in this moment of exaltation, always on the wave as it breaks in brightness, but this is rarely to be sustained; i am more interested in living daily in a greater understanding, which will rarely be showy or even noticeably different; but the general concourse of things, that will be thoroughly and subtly transformed.
3. Protestant Christianity aims at a vision unencumbered by ritual, decoration, aesthetics, beauty, grace – so the Viking’s Evangelical Christian mother swears by one of these awful modern Bibles, with stick figure drawings, presumably seeing the King James Bible as damnable Popery (the Viking once uttered something on the lines of: “That stupid James Bible is like really stupid shit because you cannot understand it without thinking and it is like not written in modern English, so, like, all this stuff is like not clear and stuff. A Bible should be like a Chemistry textbook for children, so you can just read it and find the answers, and there should be stick figure drawings of God so like you can relate to God like he is Magneto and be a good Christian and go to Heaven and stuff”). These dreadful Christians have cartoon strips of their deity, nor do they shrink from Kumbaya with electric guitars, performed by earnestly-grinning mongoloids who will later embezzle the Church funds, molest deformed children, and run away to the Philippines to live with someone called Juan.
One can sympathise with plain-speaking, plain-minded, plain folk who like an undecorated so-called spiritual reality. One is then, i suppose, is no danger of mistaking the external trappings for the informing reality, since such folk have no trappings; but i think one requires a certain ritual to consciously step a little aside from the everyday, and without it one will either lose all faith – and then grow embittered & angry that it did not last – or just go a bit strange and be subject to oracular pronouncements, spastic fits, speaking in tongues, frothing at the mouth, rolling sexually about on the ground (covered in couscous), playing Kumbaya on the bongos, indulging in schismatic heresies, and foretelling the imminent Apocalypse, like the Viking’s mother, clad wholly in white robes and carrying gold nuggets about one’s person for a well-provided afterlife with stick figure Jesus and stick figure Jehovah.
4. It’s fashionable to suppose that rituals develop as an attempt – by stupid neanderthal pre-scientific folk – to understand reality, and if we just had enough Science we would dispense altogether with all ritual. This seems part of the general modern attempt at understanding, which looks at everything as a machine or practice, and asks, Why do people do this? – as if everything can be rationally disposed of in this manner. Not being Scientific, i prefer to think pragmatically, to wit, What effect does this have? – since i don’t see how a so-called explanation can be anything more than an (untestable) hypothesis. i wouldn’t ask, Why do people send Christmas cards? – since the original cause (assuming there is only one) will have long evanesced into the practice of yearly human motive. i would rather ask, What effect does it have?
There are people who are as it were spiritually Protestant, living an unadorned and apparently rational life. They tend to grunt suspiciously at those whose life flowers into meaningful ritual, seeing all that which gives human life value as somewhere between wasteful extravagance and damnable and despicable deceit. i had a student of this sort, a HR lawyer at a large engineering company; an intelligent woman but, by god, arid and charmless and awkward, and even the other students (all finance and IT experts) found her offputtingly so. i prefer to live otherwise, and if people say it is illusion, then by their standards (that i could not replicate and empirically test and statistically analyse the experiences i had in 2008/9) just about everything is illusion and we would all be better off living some kind of sanitised sci-fi life, drugged into happiness since all experience is apparently biochemical (and that only if these folk will admit that happiness if in any way desirable) and riding around a tedious sci-fi city in Sinclair C5s, grinning emptily at our ipads and playing Angry Birds like drooling retards from Beeston.
5. i think, had one gone back to the Middle Ages, stormed into a Cathedral like Russell Brand, and angrily demanded to know the origin and purpose of e.g. the Mass, nobody would have understood; it’s not so much that people (i dare say) supposed these rituals to come from God, as that they lacked the machine-age mind to expect everything has a rational cause and can be so analysed and then rejected or accepted by a committee. And i think it is our modern need for final explanations and step-by-step clarity which is awry – or rather, it is fine for designing a machine but not everything. Machines have become our new model of humanity, and as we once constructed idols of stone and wood, now we construct and worship machines, and suppose ourselves to fall short in having emotions, in requiring something beyond a machine’s mindless purpose. The more people devote themselves to servicing the machine, the more it is necessary to operate like a machine, the more we feel our own humanity is inadmissable and a kind of ghastly mistake.
Perhaps humanity alone does not suffice to counter the deadening impulse of the machine and its Nazgûl attendants; humanity alone does not, in a sense, even exist – humanity is rather the way we perceive ourselves in the varyingly warped mirror of our arts and creations and purposes. Humanity is not the apex of reality, but rather a capacious middle room, influenced by all about it, by the divine and demonic – and our greatly fallen world is such that one could discern both impulses in all religions, to varying degrees – suggested by the inclusion of figures such as Loki in the Norse pantheon, or the peculiar God of Job (Jung’s Answer to Job). i am not qualified to say whether, for example, Odin was originally a man, or if someone just made him up one day after eating the right mushrooms, but he exists now, as a god.
No one can, i think, understand the genesis and purpose of gods, but their effects can be perceived – dark or benign as they may be, they are the essence of extravagance, of that which one does not require for base biological survival, of that which flowers and is in the presence of vigorous human imagination, without which one is not fully human, though one may always become so. A one-sidedly and lunatically imaginative person, in thrall to a demonic impulse, is no advertisement for religion, but, for me, no more does the geek or boffin sell Science and so-called Progress.
Purely personal, my taste for extravagance and flourish, for the one-eyed god of the north, or this Christ in his fury, over a Sinclair C5 and ipad and grinning sci-fi drone pumped full of happy chemicals. But for god’s sake, if we have to use mobile phones and cars, let us also smoke and wear ridiculous clothes and be men.
It’s been a strikingly crummy year, though i trust i am being forged to some dark purpose and all this grimmery and malhappence is but a necessary fire. Probably the only good thing about this year are the people i’ve met. Some of my fellow freaks (teachers), not all a joy to meet but there it is:
1. The Cop.
A short, muscular shaven-headed Canadian a bit older than me, did beat cop work back in the snowy New World, came to Germany after making a good marriage, and now lives in a penthouse, the building owned by his wife’s family. He is intense and aggressive and shares many of Henry Oak’s mannerisms (Narc), including the disturbing cold laugh and psychotic glare.
He had been repeatedly kicked out of the JobCentre McLingua centre (purely for classes of the unemployed) for refusing to let the students speak German, gossip with each other, or come in late, drunk, stoned, etc. Slavic students tend to respect him, as they are usually highly motivated and disciplined; the others are divided, but often complain until he is taken off the schedule; he always returns, as McLingua finds it hard to retain staff and he is reliable and competent.
He is almost British in his need to constantly perform, to be always telling a joke or otherwise demonstrating his wit. There is a contained, manic energy to him which can be bright and weird in its intensity, or dark and likely to bubble over into rage (as he said once, “I’m tetchy as hell this week”).
i’m one of the few McLingua staff who enjoy his company, i think in part because i am exceedingly tolerant; and we share a broadly conservative view of things. He alienates most people through his slight weirdness (he quit policing for almost exactly the reason Marty did in True Detective, and there is an echo of violence about him) and his know-it-allness, which comes across as laboured and tiresome; i get on with him – or have so far – because i don’t care if he knows more about cars or Tuscan wine cellars or poker or whisky.
i went for Glühwein with him and some other teachers in early December; our table was crashed by a spindly tall German who was drunk and slightly belligerent; the Cop bummed a cigarette from him:
German: So now we share a cigarette we are friends, or?
Cop: Sure we’re friends. We’re friends as long as this cigarette lasts. [throws it down and treads on it]. Friendship’s over, beat it, pal.
2. Susan the American.
A 24-year-old from Minnesota or Minneapolis or one of these other ghastly nowhere places. She allegedly came to Germany to learn German, her family being of good Kraut stock. She had studied English Lit, actually liked Shakespeare, prompting one of my older matchmaking colleagues to muse, Maybe she could be something for you, Elberry! i just snorted, Too young.
Susan came from moderate wealth, her parents having arranged and paid for a flat in the poshest part of Munich. She was one of these ultra-squeaky-clean girls who only talks about the weather, food, clothes. i joked that if my mother visited again, i would pay Susan to pretend to be my girlfriend, because she is exactly the kind of girl my mother would like me to settle down with. Susan tittered nervously, probably imagining this was a come-on, when it was a fuck-off.
Susan failed to learn German, because she couldn’t stand Germans and they couldn’t stand her. Actually, no one could stand her. She would whine that she only had 20 units of work, but went on lengthy holidays to e.g. Barcelona every other month; i found her complaints hard to take seriously given her parents were paying for everything and i’ve survived on the same amount of work for the last year. On her first day in the JobCentre building, she told the students she was 30, had a boyfriend, and had been teaching for 5 years (all lies). The students told me she was unusually nervous for a teaching veteran and i put them right without realising she had lied to them. i thought it curious that someone so ostentatiously pure, bearing a huge crucifix necklace, would reflexively lie but perhaps this is the way with these saccharine Christian go-getters, that reality is too abrasive and simply frightful, and lying is always preferable to the truth.
She only stayed in Germany for about 6 months, returning without regret to Minnesomewhere. i dare say she has effortlessly acquired a job in Publishing or Marketing, her natural habitat, i feel.
One of the few real teaching veterans, who somehow existed in the same building as Susan without ever exchanging more than a dour good morning, Molloy is my age, from a small village in the west of Ireland, Galway being the big city and Gaelic a secondary but real thread in the everyday weave of things. He’s been teaching all over the world for nearly 20 years, in Munich a few years longer than me, and has a very old-fashioned schoolmastery air, despite his time-torn longshoreman’s garb. He reminds me very much of my stepfather, now in his late 60s, one of the last real working class, a man with an ingrained aversion to bullshit, management speak, offices, bureaucracy, technology, the State (and socialists wonder, irritatedly, as they quaff their champagne, that their chosen cannon fodder either don’t vote or vote Tory).
Molloy is Irishly cagey and secretive, answering almost all questions with a gruff mutter, shrug, or brusque joke. He is probably the only McLingua teacher i would absolutely trust with both information and money. His decency is of a Bartleby kind, formed from absention – from almost everything. He refuses to teach at companies because the students don’t learn anything (90 minutes once a week, with frequent cancellations), even where the JobCentre classes that comprise his workload are frequently hellish. He refuses to work weekends. He has a few private students but refuses to work at schools except McLingua, because it involves hustling and trouble; his lessons are mostly grammar.
Molloy reminds me of me, taken to an extreme in certain directions. i suspect his refusals come from years of hard experience, and he has learnt not to answer questions because people (women especially) love to give unwanted and wrong-headed “advice” to men, which rapidly escalates to nagging and hysterical rage and clawing. i’ve now adopted some Molloyery, so i didn’t tell my matchmaking colleague that Susan was clearly a bland rich kid with whom no meaningful friendship would be possible; i just said, Too young.
He forms friendships principally with Slavic women students but remains single. i even tried to push a buxom and ripe Russian girl in his direction, since she clearly lusted after his dashing Irish ways, but nothing came of it; i guess that he has had bad relationships and learnt, as have i, that after a full day of teaching the last thing you want is a woman who expects you to take her to restaurants and charm and entertain her.
Despite his total lack of charm he’s one of these people who most people like, the ideal confidant since nothing you tell him will ever be passed on, and he has a decency and warmth to which we respond in spite of his gruff Irish manner.
4. The Prima Donna
Another teaching veteran, i think the same length of service as myself, though she worked in South Korea till a couple of years ago, the Prima Donna is early 30s, an opera singer (there’s even footage of her in quite reputable productions online), Wagner fan, of truly Valkyrian aspect – about 6 foot tall and i would guess a good 1oo kilos or more of muscle and fat. Despite the bulk she is radiantly pretty, comes from a rich family, and will, i guess, make a good marriage as they say, or even control her heavy drinking and discipline herself to learn German and work on her voice. She is a curious person, one of the few i’ve met with “star” charisma, so it’s hard not to be impressed. Unfortunately, she’s also narcissistic and insists on being the centre of attention, so she will burst into the teacher room and interrupt every conversation with a bawled, God! I’m so hungry!!! and then launch into some diatribe or anecdote without caring that she immediately stills every other conversation.
She has a politician’s fluence and flexibility, which i have come to distrust (it is telling that she dislikes Molloy). Everyone instantly feels that she will be famous and rich and we will all be a very minor footnote to her life. She seems to dislike me a little, though i’ve been careful to shut up as soon as she interrupts me, and to either discreetly leave the room or just let her drown out everything i’m saying (she’s one of these people who will also interrupt quiet private conversations with a snide remark, so it’s impossible to say anything to anyone when she’s in the room). After 5 years of temping and the same teaching, i’ve learnt to shut up as soon as anyone else demands to speak, but all the same i think she senses that i am sitting there watching and listening, and forming dark judgements, and she cuts me down to size every time i say anything, and even when i say nothing she will often make some sarcastic remark about me. For example, a week ago she said we should let the students go home early (from the JobCentre building) because it was test day, they finish at 1400, and don’t need to stick around to the mandatory 1615; i said i did this once in Kassel but then the Centre Director unexpectedly showed up – whereupon the Prima Donna bawled: Oh God Elberry, not another of your Kassel stories! No one is interested, Elberry! God! Nobody CARES!!!
She’s a good example of how charisma is usually unconnected to goodness, for she is a self-seeking, mercenary go-getter and first rate apple polisher, who tends to talk about her friends & acquaintances purely in terms of their money and status; i think she despises Molloy mainly because he’s poor. Another time, when she and i were alone in the teacher room and she decided she had to cast her spell over me, she put down her iphone for a few seconds and bellowed that i should do a MBA and get a real job instead of wasting my education on teaching. And yet she has a curious magnetism, so it is hard to resist her spell when she elects to cast it – hard for lesser mortals, that is, i find it quite easy. Amusingly, Agata, a Polish student who liked Molloy (but it ended in recriminations and fury) hated the Prima Donna, and every time i mentioned her she would expostulate: Die Prima Donna ist furchtbar!
Teachers are a strange lot.
1. In Kassel to drink whisky and flaunt my expensive silk garments before the foul scum of North Hessen (actually, though i wouldn’t want to live here again, i enjoy the contrast to Munich with its Lederhosen-clad BMW-driving managers). i had almost no work in December so managed to finish 4.5, my temp memoir. It’s i think as good as it will get in this form, but still kind of shit and worthless drivel, with the same problems as The Better Maker – too closely-tethered to fact, too circumscribed by the dull protagonist (i.e. me). The prose is perfectly serviceable, it’s often funny, but it lacks a commanding sense of things, a purpose to draw all these episodes together into a single shape. As one of my test readers, Bonehead, wrote: “Is hard to view your life in terms of a singular or a few singular goals which is how fiction trends to be pinned. It’s easy if you’ve survived a war or been an addict or something but if your life has been the standard quest for enough money to survive that’s more difficult to dramatise.” (sic where necessary)
2. i’m half-way through Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, which i began with the idea of getting some insight, but inevitably there was none to be had, except that i’m no Nabokov. It is a beautiful read, and while i could do all kinds of fancy prose, i could not match his casual mastery of judgement and observation; and against this calm aristocratic distance, prose is of little value anyway (i wonder, could a memoir work without this Olympian distance?). A view of the world emerges from one’s character and background, so it isn’t too surprising that Nabokov often reminds me of Proust’s world of cold & energetically decadent aristocrats. Character & background can’t be faked or laboured at in writers’ workshops, and i think if you have the impetus to write, technique will take care of itself (typically, most writers forge a style in millions of words of juvenile letters and works they sensibly discard).
3. Bonehead also wrote: “I think your big challenge will be pinning yourself down and trying to understand the meaning of this period of your life in terms of some wider personal context, conflict or quest. That is the golden thread that could be drawn out of every page to give the reader a handrail through the oblivion. Without that, it’s a journey that starts and ends, circumstantially rather than emotionally.” Though i finished these jobs in March 2009, i still see them from within the matrix of this elberry life, and cannot get outside to view it sub specie aeternitatis, as part of a completed whole. And when i consider scenes from my last life, i see them in relation not only to that completed tale, but in relation to this and the others (where i can draw connections), and so i could probably write a purposeful memoir of that life, but not this.
For me, art is in part an attempt to attain the vision sub specie aeternitatis, to get at least momentarily outside of the maelstrom of daily becoming and chance. One cannot arrive at a still being, but at least many completed becomings may offer a wider perspective; so when i am frustrated that i haven’t had a good writing run since i wrote most of my short stories over about 6 months in early 2003, i then reflect that in at least one other life my 30s were a fallow period where i felt my fire had banked and nearly died, later to burst into open flame. And in another sense, i feel that the completed tales of Lear, Sir Gawain (of Green Knight fame), William Stoner, Almasy, John Grady, offer themselves to the reader as a vicarious life lived and understood, inasmuch as one may understand any life (perhaps, as TS Eliot said, great poetry communicates before it is understood).
4. One of my ex-students, Bettina, gave me a copy of John Williams’ Stoner for Christmas, saying she kept thinking i must read it. i had already read it and have a copy, so i will give my old one to an ex-teaching colleague when we meet tomorrow, keeping Bettina’s for myself. Juniper (with whom i am staying) asked what it’s about and i said vaguely, A guy who works at a university, has a horrible wife, dies. But it’s a great book because of the way it’s told.
The book itself tells you that this is an unremarkable life, offering nothing beyond an ordinary human life:
Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.
“or their careers” quietly tugs at the reader, and then one goes back to “associate themselves”, and perhaps one then sees it as a counter-work to the confessional literature of the era (the 1960s), and the burgeoning selfishness of our time. Stoner himself is a plainly decent man, who has no grand ideologies, does not advertise himself; he is just an ordinarly good human being – in a time where morality has been corraled and subjugated to political movements, where one is expected to have a creed, to be loudly & fashionably (meretriciously) moral. Williams’ novel is of a piece with its hero; it’s enough to present a life as a completed whole, and a pattern will emerge, the more powerful as it is unstated and perhaps even develops without the author’s volition or design.
In order to write fiction or even memoir, i think one needs a sense for this completed whole, not to get bogged down in the detail and uncertainty of mortal life. This is something one just has to have, and perhaps even too much conceptual intelligence will just get in the way (i think of George Steiner’s well-written, crafted short stories, which as he admits, read like a theorem). Doubly ludicrous, then, when novelists give their opinions about politics, as if they have anything worthwhile to say on the subject.