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.

Forthcoming Books of Interest

There is nothing like refitting a library to make one appreciate how extensive a reading-backlog has somehow established itself as an almost living being. It makes me think fondly of the Joanna Walsh short story. Her story rests on the irresistible premise that all your unread books might step from your shelves in the shape of a polyphonous reader to share with you some conversation and a glass of wine. (I recently contributed a personal selection of short stories, which included Walsh’s story, to Jonathan Gibbs’ terrific A Personal Anthology.)

I am trying to buy fewer books, but these are forthcoming over the next twelve months and will escape any such caution:

T. J. Clark, Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come
Christophe Bident, Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography
Michelle Bailat-Jones, Unfurled
Maria Gabriela Llansol, Geography Rebels trilogy
Karl Ole Knausgaard, Inadvertent (Why I Write)
Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
Dan Gretton, I You We Them
Joshua Sperling, A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Writings of John Berger
Simon Critchley, Tragedy, the Greeks and Us
Rachel Cusk, Coventry: Essays
Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End
Kate Zambreno, Appendix Project: Talks and Essays
Marguerite Duras, The Garden Square
Annie Ernaux, Happening
Mathias Enard, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants
Clarice Lispector, The Besieged City
Daša Drndic, E. E. G. and Doppelgänger
Agustín Fernández Mallo, Nocilla Lab

Knausgaard’s Summer

I found my way back to Knausgaard. Summer is the fourth volume of his Seasons quartet. Perhaps I should have begun with the first but as it is summer it seemed churlish not to begin with this aesthetically pleasing edition with its Anselm Kiefer watercolours.

At first I dipped as into a stream of solipsistic consciousness, unsure whether I wanted to read Knausgaard, but I was drawn into this highly self-conscious work. It is labelled as memoir/essays and I assume it exists in the same world as his autobiographical novels. In his terrific essay on Handke, Knausgaard reveals, I think, a little of his own project: “[Handke’s novels] seek out the gaps, the perimeters, there where something can be seen for the first time, and they insist on the details, on the small incidents, the seemingly insignificant, precisely because they change everything about that which is already seen, and reveal a world that is forever in the making.” In Summer, it is the digressions into the fear of authority, the nature of art, the existence of God, which erupt with apparent spontaneity, triggered by associative memories, that propel the force and charm of his narrative.

The more that Knausgaard interferes with what is apparently his primary narrative, a series of short essays about the small events of family life, the more this work suggests that the primary arc of significance comprises the digressions and their interactive effects. Woven into his narrative is another story that Knausgaard engages to write obliquely on the topic of shame. These are above all digressions on topics dear to Knausgaard.

“The shame I feel so strongly occurs only on the surface of the soul, it is a bit like the flame over charcoal, it is fuelled by lighter fluid and dances above the blackness, lightly and almost non-comittally, whereas the glow within the charcoal is something quite other and deeper.”

There is something more to Summer than A Death in the Family, but it might be I need to re-read that novel with more care. There seems to be less linguistic excess in Summer, less what felt like an absence of re-writing and editing in A Death in the Family. When I finished A Death in the Family I dismissed Knausgaard’s project as a provocative and cynical gesture, silly posturing. Summer restores my interest in what Knausgaard appears to be doing, raising questions about what we know and how we can know what we know. It brings to mind a line of Akhmatova writing of Lot’s wife: “A single glance: a sudden art of pain / stitching her eyes before she made a sound.” A sudden art of pain is the cumulative effect of Knausgaard’s rhetorical movements.

Tomas Espedal’s Against Nature, Against Art

Tomas Espedal’s Against Art and Against Nature are exquisite, as good as anything I’ve ever read. Our modern preoccupation with, and anxiety about, intimate interpersonal relationships comes through in the precarious and peevish relationships between the narrator and his wives, girlfriends and children.

I read them both this week, oases of erudition amid a chaotic, exhausting time at work; both invaded my sleeping dreams to the point of wakefulness. Both books continue my love affair with Seagull Books.

Espedal writes perceptively of modern affluent society, where one time concerns of hunger, disease, catastrophe and religion  are replaced with an almost obsessive concern for our personal relationships. His narrator is unable to truly grasp the blind spots or emotional roadblocks that stand in the way of achieving emotional fulfilment through his human relationships.

Art and literature, essentially solitary pursuits, offer Espedal’s narrator a way to, as David Winters writes in Infinite Fictions, “withdraw from the world, while bringing us back toward it.”

Sparing prose, translated by James Anderson, that drifts close to poetry in its condensed style makes me think that Espedal’s undertaking is similar to what Knausgaard attempted in his study of the impossibility of intimacy, but I only read the first edition of Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel so I may have missed something. It amused me to come across this piece in Against Nature:

We lay side by side and read. We read our separate copies of the Knausgaard books, began at the same time and read in tandem, suddenly she’d put down her book and look at me: Did you read that? she’d ask. How does he dare, it’s quite extraordinary, he must have a screw loose, she’d say.

Then we’d read on.

Until I put down my book and looked at her; Did you read that? I’d ask. How does he dare, it’s quite amazing, he’s destroying himself, I’d say.