Monday, March 17, 2014

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

It was the social situation that bound me, the people within it did not. Between these two perspectives there was no halfway point. There was just the small, self-effacing one and the large, distance-creating one. And in between them was where my daily life lay. Perhaps that was why I had such a hard time living it. Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something that I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, not something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental; the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.
What was the problem?

Was it the shrill, sickly tone I heard everywhere that I couldn’t stand, the one that arose from all the pseudo people and pseudo places, pseudo events and pseudo conflicts our lives passed through, that which we saw but did not participate in, the distance that modern life in this way had opened up to our own, actually inalienable here and now? If so, if it was more reality, more involvement I longed for, surely it should be that which I was surrounded by that I should be embracing? And not, as was the case, longing to get away from it? Or perhaps it was the prefabricated nature of the days in this world I was reacting to, the rails of routine we followed, which made everything so predictable that we had to invest in entertainment to feel any hint of intensity? Every time I went out the door I knew what was going to happen, what I was going to do. This was how it was on the micro level, I go to the supermarket and do the shopping, I go and sit down at a cafĂ© with a newspaper, I fetch my children from the nursery, and this is how it was on the macro level, from the initial entry into society, the nursery, to the final exit, the old folks’ home. Or was the revulsion I felt based on the sameness that was spreading through the world and making everything smaller?

If you traveled through Norway now you saw the same everywhere. The same roads, the same houses, the same gas stations, the same shops. As late as the sixties you could see how local culture changed as you drove through Gudbrandsdalen, for example, the strange black timber buildings, so pure and somber, which were now encapsulated as small museums in a culture that was no different from the one you had left or the one you were going to. And Europe, which was merging more and more into one large, homogeneous country. The same, the same, everywhere the same. Or was it perhaps that the light that illuminated the world and made everything comprehensible also drained it of meaning? Was it perhaps the forests that had vanished, the animal species that had become extinct, the ways of life that would never return?

Yes, all this I thought about, all of this filled me with sorrow and a sense of helplessness, and if there was a world I turned to in my mind, it was that of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with its enormous forests, its sailing ships and horse-drawn carts, its windmills and castles, its monasteries and small towns, its painters and thinkers, explorers and inventors, priests and drugstores. What would it have been like to live in a world where everything was made from the power of your hands, the wind or water? What would it have been like to live in a world where the American Indians still lived their lives in peace? Where that life was an actual possibility? Where Africa was unconquered? Where darkness came with the sunset and light with the sunrise? Where there were too few humans and their tools were too rudimentary to have any effect on animal stocks, let alone wipe them out? Where you could not travel from one place to another without exerting yourself, and and a comfortable life was something only the rich could enjoy, where the sea was full of whales, the forests full of bears and wolves, and there were still countries that were so alien no adventure story could do them justice, such as China, to which a voyage not only took several months and was the prerogative of only a tiny minority of sailors and traders, but was also fraught with danger.

 Admittedly, that world was rough and wretched, filthy and ravaged with sickness, drunken and ignorant, full of pain, low life expectancy and rampant superstition, but it produced the greatest writer, Shakespeare, the greatest painter, Rembrandt, the greatest scientist, Newton, all still unsurpassed in their fields, and how can it be that this period achieved this wealth? Was it because death was closer and life was starker as a result?
Who knows?

Be that as it may, we can’t go back in time, everything we undertake us irrevocable, and if we look back what we see is not life but death. And whoever believes that the conditions and  character of the times was responsible for our maladjustment is either suffering from delusions of grandeur or is simply stupid, and lacks self-knowledge on both accounts. I loathed so much about the age I lived in, but it was not that that was the cause of the loss of meaning, because it was not something that had been constant  .  .  . The spring I moved to Stockholm and met Linda, for example, the world had suddenly opened, the intensity in it increased at breakneck speed. I was head over heels in love and everything was possible, my happiness was at a bursting point all the time and embraced everything. .  .

This state lasted for six months, for six months I was truly happy, truly at home in this world and in myself before slowly it began to lose its luster, and once more the world moved out of my reach. One year later it happened again, if in a quite different way. That was when Vanja was born. Then it was not the world that opened, we had shut it out, in a kind of total concentration on the miracle taking place in our midst, no, something opened in me. While falling in love had been wild and abandoned, brimming with life and exuberance, this was cautious and muted, filled with endless attention to what was happening. Four weeks, maybe five, it lasted.. everything was possible, everything made sense At two places in the novel I soared higher than I had thought possible, and in those places alone, which I could not believe I had written, and no one else has noticed or said anything about, made the preceding five years of unsuccessful, failed writing worth all the effort. They are the two best moments in my life. By which I mean my whole life. The happiness that filled me and the feeling of invincibility they gave me I have searched for ever since, in vain.

.  .  .  The sheer amount of time you spend with your children, which is immense. So many hours, so many days, such an infinite number of situations that crop up and are lived through.  From my childhood I remember only a handful of incidents, all of which I regarded as momentous, but which I now understand were a few events among many, which completely expunges their meaning, for how can I know that those particular episodes that lodged themselves in my mind were decisive, and not all the others of which I remember nothing?

When I discuss such topics with Geir, with whom I talk on the telephone for an hour every day, he is wont to quote Sven Stolpe, who has written somewhere about Bergman claiming that he would have been Bergman irrespective of where he had grown up, implying, in other words, that you are who you are whatever your surroundings. What shapes you is the way you are towards your family rather than the family itself. When I was growing up I was taught to look for the explanation of all human qualities, actions and phenomena in the environment in which they originated. Biological or genetic determinants, the givens, that is, barely existed as an option, and when they did they were viewed with suspicion. Such an attitude can at first sight appear humanistic, inasmuch as it is intimately bound up with the notion that all people are equal, but upon closer examination it could just as well be an expression of a mechanistic attitude to man, who, born empty, allows his life to be shaped by his surroundings.

 For a long time I took a purely theological standpoint on the issue, which is actually so fundamental that it can be used as a springboard for any debate – if environment is the operative factor, for example, if man at the outset is both equal and shapeable and the good man can be shaped by engineering his surroundings, hence my parents’ generation’s belief in the state, the education system and politics, hence their desire to reject everything that had been and hence their new truth, which is not found within man’s inner being, in his detached uniqueness, but on the contrary in areas external to his intrinsic self, in the universal and collective, perhaps expressed in its clearest form by Dag Solstad, who has always been the chronicler of his age, in a text from 1969 containing his famous statement “We  won’t give the coffee pot wings”: out with spirituality, out with feeling, in with the new materialism, but it never struck them that the same attitude could lie behind the demolition of old parts of town to make way for roads and parking lots, which naturally the intellectual Left opposed, and perhaps it has not been possible to be aware of this until now when the link between the idea of equality and capitalism, the welfare state and liberalism, Marxist materialism and the consumer society is obvious because the biggest equality creator of all is money, it levels all differences, and if your character and your fate are entities that can be shaped, money is the most natural shaper, and this gives rise to the fascinating phenomena whereby crowds of people assert their individuality and originality by shopping in an identical way while those who ushered all this in with their affirmation of equality, their emphasis on material values and belief in change, are now inveighing against their own handiwork, which they believed the enemy created, but like all simple reasoning this is not wholly true either, life is not a mathematical quantity, it has no theory, only practice, and though it is tempting to understand a generation’s radical rethink of society as being based on its view of the relationship between heredity and environment, this temptation is literary and consists more in the pleasure of speculating, that is, of weaving one’s thoughts through the most disparate areas of human activity, than in the pleasure of proclaiming the truth.

The sky is low in Solstad’s books, they show an incredible awareness of the currents in modern times, from the feeling of alienation in the sixties, the celebration of political initiatives at the beginning of the seventies, and then, just as the winds of change were starting to blow, to the distance-taking at the end. These weather vane-like conditions need to be neither a strength nor a weakness for a writer, but simply a part of his material, a part of his orientation, and in Solstad’s case the most significant feature has always been located elsewhere, namely in his language, which sparkles with its new old-fashioned elegance, and radiates a unique luster, inimitable and full of elan. This language cannot be learned, this language cannot be bought with money, and therein lies its value. It is not the case that we are born equal and that the conditions of life make our lives unequal, it is the opposite, we are born unequal, and the conditions of life make our lives more equal.

When I think of my three children it is not only their distinctive faces that appear before me, but also the quite distinct feeling they radiate. This feeling, which is constant, is what they ‘are’ for me. And what they ‘are’ has been present in them since the first day I saw them. At that time they could barely do anything, and the little bit they could do, like sucking on a breast, raising their arms as reflex actions, looking at their surroundings, imitating, they could all do that, thus what they ‘are’ has nothing to do with qualities, has nothing to do with what thy can or can’t do, but is more a kind of light that shines within them.

Their character traits, which slowly began to reveal themselves after only a few weeks, have never changed either, and so different are that inside each of them that it is difficult to imagine the conditions you provide for them, through our behavior and ways of being, have any decisive influence .  .  .

My Struggle, (book two) by Karl Ove Knausgaard. NORLA, 2013

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