Readings — From the September 2018 issue

Worlds Apart

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By Inger Christensen, from The Condition of Secrecy. Christensen (1935–2009) was a Danish poet and writer. The book, a collection of essays, will be published in November by New Directions. Translated from the Danish by Susanne Nied.

When I was nine years old, the world, too, was nine years old. At least, there was no difference between us, no opposition, no distance. We just tumbled around from sunrise to sunset, earth and body as alike as two pennies. And there was never a harsh word between us, for the simple reason that there were no words at all between us; we never uttered a word to each other, the world and I. Our relationship was beyond language—and thus also beyond time. We were one big space (which was, of course, a very small space).

And right at that point in time (where there were no points in time), our school began teaching us about all the world’s points in time. We started studying world history. We’d looked forward to this step up, and especially to getting away from our dull, slow-paced Danish history class; it had been trying our patience for quite a while, and besides, Denmark was no longer big enough for us; in fact, nothing was big enough for us. We, meaning thirty more or less advanced schoolgirls, always wore dresses made of plaid rayon, which always had to be lengthened with rayon in a single color—and anyone could see that the dresses had never been intended to look like that—and thus that we ourselves had never been intended to look like that, either. We were growing at an absolutely wild pace—not only in height but in the most obvious other dimensions as well, and there just seemed not to be enough room for us, because we had only that one space to move around in.

Yet even a world history class couldn’t change anything about our intimate relationship with that space. We were still one, and the breasts beginning to bud were just a kind of outcropping in the vast whole, a kind of upthrust in the earth’s crust, which activated our sensors but never became a major catastrophe. It wasn’t time yet. For it turned out that our world history class had nothing at all to do with time. The only thing that happened was that we all got crushes on our world history teacher, and that the Sparta he evoked became part of our crushes. We did our very best to have our passion reciprocated; we went as far as identifying completely with that ironhard Spartan boy. Even if we couldn’t transform him into a man, at least we could make him into a god. We worshipped proudly and obediently, dutifully doing the Spartan exercises he laid out and following the precepts he set forth in our autograph books:

Be brief, clear, and firm
And let your thoughts be known
Stand by what you say
And keep your mind your own.

If our space, our world, hadn’t acquired time, it had certainly acquired depth. And it had definitely been stirred up. Even though the world was still only nine years old, it was full of giddiness, asceticism, and incomprehensible dreams.

When I turned ten years old, the world suddenly turned ten million billion years old. How it happened, or when it happened, I don’t know. Maybe it was the night when I first looked through a telescope. Though that would be almost too easy, and most of all it would be almost too perfect, to be able to say that time entered into one’s life in that way. But who knows. And what does “time entered into” mean? How does a person experience that? In any event, it wasn’t anything about suddenly noticing that I was ten years old.

When I was ten, I didn’t notice being ten. Just as now, at thirty-five, I barely notice that I’m thirty-five, though occasionally I do suddenly notice that I’m acting as if I were only ten, actually am ten and childish curious naïve awkward and full of laughter. But back then, at the time, I didn’t notice that. What I noticed wasn’t about being ten years old or being young at all; it was about being older: it was as if my body suddenly, on its own, from one day to the next, had started practicing for something I hadn’t the faintest inkling about, as if there were some twenty-year-old, twenty-five-year-old, or thirty-year-old body practicing something inside me, making me move in new and strange ways, even making some of my cells notice themselves: grown-up determined all-knowing confident and tragic.

It was, to put it briefly, as if my cells had been divided into two types, as if a membrane had been lowered between me and my space, and the cells on one side could see the cells on the other side. Could press up against them, so that pressure and counterpressure arose. Osmosis was needed, and so it began.

Like a battle between an anonymous body and an official person (between a body in space, in nature, and a person in time, in the culture).

Like an exchange between a space that had gradually become captivity and a time that could gradually become freedom.

What had previously been a neutral relationship was suddenly transformed into a weighted interplay.

Interplay: between being simultaneously captive and free. The first time I experienced that was May 4, 1945, when I was ten years old and heard on a loudspeaker that World War II had ended, or, more accurately, that Denmark had been liberated. My heart pounded, and at the same time I felt embarrassment. But “embarrassment” is too strong a word. Or too early a word. More accurately, what happened was that my heart pounded and the other parts of my body were immediately mobilized to bring my heart and body into equilibrium again. As if my heart, which had been attracted at once toward the world and toward freedom, had been quickly reminded of its place, certainly in that same world, but as a captive. So now it’s not too early to say that I felt embarrassment. It’s always embarrassing to be a captive. So embarrassing that one stealthily turns it around, so it almost looks as though one is embarrassed about being free. Motions that are too big and too pathetic are used to cover up the embarrassment. Later one is embarrassed about the pathetic motions. And so on. One remains captive exactly when one is most free.

That May 4 went on to include a rite that made my heart pound again, even more powerfully and for more diverse reasons. The church held a service of thanksgiving, where I stood among a thousand other children and belted out “O Great King of Kings, You Alone Can” so loudly that Jesus, floating there on the frescoed wall with his rainbow, had to be able to hear and ultimately free me to come up between the goats, which he gently pushed behind him and into the alcove’s arch with one hand, as if he were sending them to stand in a corner, a captivity, and the sheep, which with the other lightly outstretched hand he beckoned through space toward light and freedom. There I stood with my pounding heart, maintaining my righteousness. But at the same time I knew how shameful it was to put myself first like that, even if only in a flash of a thought, so I hurried, stealthy as I apparently was by nature, into a flash of a different thought to include simultaneously with the prayer I was singing to high heaven. In a very primitive way an individual experience had led to something not individual—in this interplay that’s built into human beings, an interplay that, when a person dares to sidestep it, forces that person to return to it, even if she doesn’t know that’s why she’s doing so and even if she can always come up with other, more primitive reasons for doing so. For instance, she can think she’s afraid of her own pridefulness. But why is she afraid? Why is it inappropriate to pray for one’s own sake alone, to pray not to land among the goats? It’s because by doing so one is betraying the substance one is made of. The substance one has in common with the world and thus with other people. But betraying is already saying too much. The word “betraying” implies that it’s possible to betray. As if there were a difference between what we’re made of and how we act. There is not. The physical world and the inner world are one, indivisible. Our physical interplay with one another is a reality. So our inner interplay is also a reality. The body and the inner self, the inner image, follow the same inexplicable principles. And our only consolation for the lack of explanation is that we share an inability to explain it. It’s our intersubjective will, our collective psyche or psychosis, our shared captivity. It’s within this captivity that our shared freedom must be sought.

So there’s also no reason to cultivate individual experience, individual psychology. It’s a fiction, because it suggests that there’s a kind of freedom beyond the purely physical freedom that we own only in our interplay with the world and with each other. For that reason I consider it more important to posit an incorrect explanation of the world than to present an explanation of one’s individual self that may well be correct. And more important to posit the reality of the image than to refer to the existence of the body. More important to further conscious control over that invisible interplay than to cultivate conscious control over a fictive entity, the individual.

The second time I experienced the interplay between freedom and captivity, it was on a more commonly discussed and definitely no less physical plane. It was the springtime, when I started to notice myself as I ran. When I realized that I was no longer running just to run; I was also running to be seen as someone who ran, who could run faster than anyone else on the block (because the boys were growing so slowly), and who would never, under any circumstances, start running like those young wives with their odd, coquettish gait, who zigzagged up the street at five minutes to noon because they’d forgotten to buy salt for the potatoes. The springtime when I suddenly discovered that my heart would pound, that I would get a stitch in my side and taste blood in my mouth, and that of course I was running to the finish, but not only to run, also to be caught. By a boy.

Here for the first time I experienced the triumph of freedom within captivity. As if the mortal humiliation of being caught had been transformed from the inside and became the highest honor. Captivity and freedom were part of each other. And they knew it. Because a perfect interplay existed between the two states of consciousness in that little scene. Posit: that this interplay exists among us all.

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