Monday, May 13, 2019

Karl Ove Knausgård on Literary Freedom

I've only read a few things by Karl Ove Knausgård, and it's been hit or miss on what I like and what hasn't connected. One thing I did enjoy is his recent conversation with Tyler Cowen, which I saw linked at Marginal Revolution. The wide-ranging interview
starts with a discussion of mimesis and ends with an explanation of why we live in the world of Munch’s The Scream. Along the way there is much more, including what he learned from reading Ingmar Bergman’s workbooks, the worst thing about living in London, how having children increased his productivity, whether he sees himself in a pietistic tradition, thoughts on Bible stories, angels, Knut Hamsun, Elena Ferrante, the best short story (“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”), the best poet (Paul Celan), the best movie (Scenes from a Marriage), and what his punctual arrival says about his attachment to bourgeois values.

The podcast and transcript can be found here. I recommend it, even if (like me) you're not sure how much you like Knausgård's work. An excerpt:

COWEN: Arnold Weinstein has a book on Nordic culture, and he argues that the sacrifice of the child is a recurring theme. It’s in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. It’s in a number of Ibsen plays, Bergman movies. Has that influenced you? Or are you a rejection of that? Are you like Edvard Munch, but with children, and that’s the big difference between you and Munch, the painter?

I told you we ask different questions.

KNAUSGÅRD: Yeah, yeah. You just said different. You didn’t say difficult.

Yeah, because there was a lot of grouping together. Here you had Kierkegaard and the sacrifice of Isaac and the biblical story, which basically is a story about faith, and what it is to believe in God, and what it demands to believe in God — the completely irrational level it takes to believe in God. The leap out in the unknown which you have to take.

It’s an interesting thing going on in that essay, which is a wonderful essay about Abraham sacrificing Isaac. It’s that it also has some small parts about breastfeeding in between, which is incredibly strange, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that. What is that?

But it’s moving away from something. It’s going from a mother into society, and the leap of religion is going from a society into the unknown, into the things we don’t really know about, the things we don’t have language for.

There is another very interesting Norwegian poet — no, not Norwegian, but Nordic poet — called Inger Christensen. She wrote a collection of essays which is really brilliant, and she talks about those kind of border areas. It’s a matter of language — what we can express and what we not can express. In science, those are the string theories. That’s the things we don’t know. That’s the unknown.

And the border is the language. We don’t have language for it. We can’t really. She also said that — like a letter in a book cannot read what’s around it, cannot read the book — we are the same in the world. We cannot read the world. We’re part of it.

But that was Kierkegaard. Yeah, I find it hard to connect Kierkegaard in regard of children, sacrifice of children. And Bergman? Bergman is completely different somehow.

If you're interested in Knausgård's writing, you'll probably enjoy this article at (a site I'm not familiar with) by Martin Hägglund from his forthcoming book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. An excerpt:

The appeal of Knausgaard’s writing, then, is not that it forces you to see his life with your eyes. Rather, his writing enables you to see your life with his eyes—with the level of attention he bestows on a life. Thereby, you can come to recognize the myriad ways in which you are indeed alive, even when you seem dead to yourself or lost in the mundane events of everyday existence. As you take care of the tasks at hand, what you see bears the weight of your love and your evasions, the history of who you have been and may turn out to be. Evenings that no one else can remember live in you, when the snow touched your face or the rain caught you unprepared, when you were all alone and yet marked by all the others that have made you who you are. There are things you cannot leave behind or wish you could retrieve. And there is hope you cannot extinguish—whether buried or insistent, broken or confident, the one never excluding the other.

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