The there

Spring Landscape, Fairfield Porter

Spring Landscape, Fairfield Porter

“On the school playground that lay squashed between two blocks of flats twenty meters up from my office the shouts of children suddenly fell quiet, it was only now that I noticed. The bell had rung. The sounds here were new and unfamiliar to me, the same was true of the rhythm in which they surfaced, but I would soon get used to them, to such an extent that they would fade into the background again. You know too little, and it doesn’t exist. You know too much, and it doesn’t exist. Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing’s location and aim. But how to get there?”

–Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book 1

Though I take exception to that word “know,” this is a brilliant little passage, in the way his perspective snaps outward to encompass everything. Knausgaard begins with what we’ve all experienced: you are either too far from the sound of children playing to hear them or you are so close, in a sustained way, hour after hour and day after day, that you cease to hear them because they have become mere white noise. They have become the backdrop you forget as you watch and listen to what’s going on in the little spotlight of attention your mind sheds on whatever place you’re in. Knausgaard moves immediately, with a little metaphoric step, to a slightly different point about conscious awareness in general: the “there” of the world is so unceasing that we become oblivious to everything in our environment, and in ourselves, other than the little novelties of our daily experience. Too little or too much of the children laughing, and you cease to hear them. The world as a whole is far too much with us. It just is, and you are the world you’re in–you can’t step away from it and get a comprehensive look at it, as you could some space you occupy. You are it. You would have to be able to step out of yourself. Constantly, the “there” of your world disappears, and remains out of reach, unrecognized, if not for art, or meditation, or the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea, or a song that became your daily world twenty or thirty years ago and was forgotten until you heard it again just now. And suddenly you behold the “there” of that world, from back then, for the first time.

In a dozen posts, so far, and in dozens more, no doubt, this is something I’ve been getting at, though in the context of painting, rather than fiction. A painting can convey that “there” instantaneously by making you freshly aware of everything that has become sensory wallpaper: it enables you to see the light itself in a room, rather than simply the objects it illuminates, though you might see only the things depicted in a painting rather than the light that gives them to you. For some painters, that’s the point–to show you the fascination of something in and of itself, a remarkable thing. Yet a painting can also show you more than just things, more than just the light that reveals them. Vermeer makes you see time itself, somehow, or its absence. How?

A story takes time to unfold a sense of a world, but a painting can convey timelessness immediately in a glance. You can read this passage and nod easily, as if you already know the truth of what’s being said, because you do “know” it in a way, as an idea, especially if someone translates it as: “That is what great writing is about. Not what happens, not what actions are played out, but the entire there itself that contains and permeates the one-two-three progression of a story. That’s what Proust, for one, was after. A poem is even better at it.” And yet, with an act of will, you can’t picture this “there” that emerges in these instances of reading or looking or listening. It’s inaccessible, until it shows itself. The entirety of your experience at any moment of life is as far from your grasp as the furthest galaxy. Who you are at any moment is just as much a mystery to you, though you carry around an idea of who you are, propped up mostly by ignoring a good part of what you do from hour to hour.

As a devotee of Proust, Knausgaard knows the French novelist was trying to convey this intangible “there,” not simply the story that takes place in the foreground of the world as a whole, even less any sort of plot. A painting may have an ostensible subject, but that’s simply something for your eye and your conscious awareness to fix itself on; meanwhile, an entire world is flowing toward you around that little window of attention, in a more inclusive way, whether you are conscious of it or not. You see a milkmaid decanting a pitcher in a Dutch light, but a world is what’s slipping into your larger awareness in a way that can’t be located in any part of the painting, or in any idea you can attach to it. That “there” doesn’t make itself available to be conceptualized or used. If you’re lucky you behold it, briefly, before it recedes. As a writer, Knausgaard, for me, achieves this kind of disclosure in a passage a little earlier, where he brings spring to life:

In the midst of this spiritual storm spring arrived. Few things are harder to visualize than that a cold, snow-bound landscape, so marrow-chillingly quiet and lifeless, will, within mere months, be green and lush and warm, quivering with all manner of life, from birds warbling and flying through the trees to swarms of insects hanging in scattered clusters in the air. Nothing in the winter landscape presages the scent of sun-warmed heather and moss, trees bursting with sap and thawed lakes ready for spring and summer, nothing presages the feeling of freedom that can come over you when the only white that can be seen is the clouds gliding across the blue sky above the blue water of the rivers gently flowing down to the sea, the perfect, smooth, cool surface, broken now and then by rocks, rapids, and bathing bodies. It is not there, it does not exist, everything is white and still, and if the silence is broken it is by a cold wind or a lone crow caw-cawing. But it is coming … it is coming … One evening in March the snow turns to rain, and the piles of snow collapse. One morning in April there are buds on the trees, and there is a trace of green in the yellow grass. Daffodils appear, white and blue anemones too. Then the warm air stands like a pillar among the trees on the slopes. On sunny inclines buds have burst, here and there cherry trees are in blossom. If you are sixteen years old all of this makes an impression, all of this leaves its mark, for this is the first spring you know is spring, with all your senses you know this is spring, and it is the last, for all coming springs pale in comparison with your first. If, moreover, you are in love, well, then … then it is merely a question of holding on. Holding on to all the happiness, all the beauty, all the future that resides in everything.

He’s trying to do what Chaucer did in the opening of Canterbury Tales: not describe April, but transport you directly into spring itself. Knausgaard’s prose is close to classic Chinese poetry, the bare conversational simplicity of it, infused with such restrained but intense feeling. “It is not there. It does not exist.” He means spring, in wintertime. But the winter doesn’t exist anywhere either at that moment. It’s a word for everything you see and hear and feel, and also more than everything you can take in, all at once. It’s nowhere to be found, because it’s everywhere.

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