Knausgaard Immersion: Week 4

It is nearing a month of my immersion into Karl One Knausgaard’s My Struggle. His voice is woven throughout my day. I began reading the final volume this weekend. It will I think take much longer to reflect on the fullest possible understanding of what this project means or does to the body of literature.

It raises that old adversary: the will of a text, its puppetry and attempt to dominate a reader through its explicit demand for a suspension of disbelief. It is of course a fiction in the same way as any journal or autobiographical work, but if feels less (beneficently) aggressive than those occasions when a writer tries to charm readers with a set of characters and situations conjured out of the ether and directed in some way towards spiritual or moral salvation (or damnation). It is a resistance to this sort of textual contrivance. Its effect, for me at least, is a reduction in distance, a micro-engagement with the very substance of life, not in any speculative or existential sense, though that is also present, but with the day to day struggle to understand another consciousness.

It is also, at least in Don Bartlett’s translation (shared with Martin Aitken in The End), a challenge to the Flaubertian obsession with the sentence. There is plenty of exquisite writing in My Struggle, particularly with Knausgaard’s painstaking observation of nature and place, but it doesn’t induce the queasy unease of overworked prose.

This work is closer to Balzac’s aspiration to incisively trace the modulations and inconsistencies of social and class structure, but through the lens of a microscope incisively directed inward. Whatever disinclinations readers have for Knausgaard’s style and form, for those who engage fully with the work, it is difficult not to admire its scrupulous essence.

How does he see?

“He wanted to write like Cezanne painted. / Cézanne started with all the tricks. Then he broke the whole thing down and built the real thing. It was hell to do. … He, Nick, wanted to write about country so it would be there like Cézanne had done it in painting. You had to do it from inside yourself. There wasn’t any trick. Nobody had written about country like that. … You could do it if you would fight it out, if you’d lived right with your eyes. / It was a thing you couldn’t talk about.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Nick Adams Stories

Gertrude Stein did this more than a decade earlier, learning from Cézanne how to see. I think of Hemingway often as I read Knausgaard, now reading his fourth book and wondering how his vision is formed. It is writing that gets close to another consciousness, perhaps more than any other writer, yet there is still that distance that comes from the unanswerable question: how does he see? A question that goes back to Altamira and Lascaux.

“Language is aired, we grow into it, and the forms we use it in are also shared, so irrespective of how idiosyncratic you and your notions are, in literature you can never free yourself from others. It is the other way around, it is literature which draws us closer together. Through its language, which none of us owns and which indeed we can hardly have any influence on, and through its form, which no one can break free of alone, and if anyone should do so, it is only meaningful if it is immediately followed by others. Form draws you out of yourself, distances you from yourself, and it is this distance which is the prerequisite for closeness with others.”

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Man in Love: My Struggle, Book 2 (trans. Don Bartlett)

Martin Hägglund’s This Life

“The brevity of my life is made salient by the forms of time to which I am recalled.”

“What I do and what I love can matter to me only because I understand myself as mortal.”

“The sense of finitude—the sense of the ultimate fragility of everything we care about—is at heart of what I call secular faith.”

“I call it secular faith because it is devoted to a form of life that is bounded by time.”

“I seek to show that any life worth living must be finite and requires secular faith.”

The “idea of secular life as empty or meaningless is itself a religious notion.”

The central thesis of Martin Hägglund’s This Life is summarised in his introduction. His book then labours to go beyond critical philosophy, developing his arguments through readings of the Bible, Buddhist philosophy, Greek and Roman Stoics, and writers like Augustine, Kierkegaard, Spinoza, Augustine, C. S. Lewis and Charles Taylor. In the most rewarding chapter, he reads a secular confession in Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Finally, he turns to Marx’s argument that renders spiritual freedom the essential attribute of human labour.

The book seems unnecessarily verbose, not to disguise weak reasoning, but an excessive use of circumlocution. I was also surprised that Feuerbach is missing from Hägglund’s pantheon of writers, as from what little I understand of this undervalued thinker, his is a highly elegant argument that dissolves religious essence into human existence, without finding, it necessary (a strength of Hägglund’s) for an aggressive tearing-down.

That said, Hägglund’s thesis is substantive and thought provoking. It succeeds in moving Knausgaard forward in my reading plans, and reminds me to reread Feuerbach, a thinker I read with great enjoyment in my twenties.

Here is a proper review of Hägglund’s book.

Knausgaard / Hägglund (Secular Faith)

“Only what slips through one’s fingers, only what is never expressed in words, has no thoughts, exists completely. That is the price of proximity: you don’t see it. Don’t know that it’s there. Then it is over, then you see it.”

– Karl Ove Knausgaard, Autumn

“I read such a secular confession in Karl One Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which can be seen as a contemporary response to Augustine. Knausgaard’s painstaking attention to a secular life places us in the midst of everyday existence. Like Augustine, he explores the care that binds us to others and how the experience of time cuts through every moment. But while Augustine seeks to turn us toward eternity, Knausgaard turns us back toward finite lives as the heart of everything that matters. The animating principle of his writing is one of attachment to finite life, which is all the more profound because it remains faithful to the ambivalence of any attachment. Devoted to secular life, we can be moved both to bliss and devastation, hope and despair, success and failure. Knausgaard, then, makes vivid what it means to keep faith in a life that is bound to die. This secular faith, I argue, opens the possibility for all passion and meaningful engagement.”

Martin Hägglund, This Life

I’ve just started reading Hägglund’s book. It lacks the militant atheist pyrotechnics of Dawkins and Hitchens, arguing instead for a stable concept of secular faith. Fascinating so far, and also lucid in his insight into Marx, of of Knausgaard’s project, developed in greater length in this essay. It nudges me to get back to Knausgaard soon.

Why I Read Adorno …

The Adorno mystique. Geoff Dyer, whose work I no longer read, quotes Karl Ove Knausgaard, a writer I preferred not to read, but in whose work I’ve recently developed a grudging curiosity: “‘What enriched me while reading Adorno,’ writes Knausgaard in A Death in the Family, ‘lay not in what I read, but the perception of myself while I was reading. I was someone who read Adorno.'” It seems characteristic of Knausgaard to admit that Adorno is for him a badge writer and for Dyer to admire his declaration.

I question, during a long jet-lagged night in Tokyo, whether I read Adorno for the badge. The issue of mass culture is never far from mind in Tokyo, more so than in the southern California from which Adorno’s Minima Moralia was born. It wasn’t this loose collection of interconnected fragments that endeared Adorno to me, but a life-changing reading of Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (from the Dialectic of Enlightenment).

What they had to say about mass culture (I wrote about it once), turned me from a naive condescension towards its consumers, to a fascination for its pervasive effectiveness and systemic beauty. I may not like it, but like Adorno and his contemporaries, it is easier to subject it to critique than destroy or subvert it in any meaningful way.

I’ve come to dislike the term ‘mass culture’ for its intimation that such a culture arises instinctively from the masses, preferring Adorno’s ‘culture industry’. The Japanese have a term ‘taishū’, which, I believe, refers to an aggregate of consumers for which a commodified culture is produced, pre-targeted and administered. This seems more precise and deals with the difficulty of the concept of ‘masses’.

On Twitter, for a long, time my bio stated ‘Adorno to Zwicky.’ This blog post is the first in a series reflecting on why I read those writers I consider in some way tutelary spirits, or as Beckett would have it, ‘old chestnuts’. It isn’t a fixed canon and is subject to frequent revision.

I came to Adorno initially curious to read his thoughts on Beckett’s Endgame, having read somewhere else that Beckett considered them a perverse and deliberate over-reading. From there to his illuminating writing on music, particularly the Beethoven essays (another old, old friend). There still Adorno to read and reread and I’ve no intention of reading all he wrote.

Why do I read Adorno? Beckett was undoubtedly right about wilful over-reading. I often struggle with Adorno’s writing. I lack the philosophical-sociological grounding to understand much of it. It’s also said that much of Adorno’s complex, circumlocutory arguments are difficult to translate. But my reading of Adorno often follows a similar pattern: lack of understanding-persist-glimmer of understanding-persist-some understanding, but a sense that he must be over-reading-awakening at four in the morning with a flash of comprehension and recognition. I read Adorno for those flashes. Cognitive fireworks.